Teaching the concept of grace to students is easy. The stories of forgiveness in the face of wrongdoing are the kind of stories that have kids riveted and hanging on your every word.
Practicing grace is too often another story all together. I remember the time my wallet was stolen at youth group and $40 went missing along with my credit card; grace was not easily given in this instance. Or every summer at middle school camp when you yell at the 7th graders to be quiet and go to sleep because it is 1:30am; grace runs pretty thin. One time during a 10th grade small group, the guys wouldn’t stop wrestling and ended up shattering an expensive glass coffee table belonging to our host; grace was in short supply then, too. More often than I’d like, the grace I teach about doesn’t match up with the grace I give.
Sometimes though, the Holy Spirit moves and prompts me to practice grace in ways that defy my human inclinations and common sense.
Josh was one of those kids who would either implode or, if he let Jesus get a hold of his life, he would do something really cool for the Kingdom of God. The community I lived in at the time was a smaller town in a part of the country where the oil and gas industry made a lot of people very wealthy. But our town was also surrounded by deeply impoverished minority communities. Drug and meth-use was rampant. Teen suicide was higher than the national rate. The educational system in our state was ranked #47 out of 50. His parents were much older than he was and out of touch. His friends were a mix of skater kids and stoners. His parents sent him to a small church school in hopes that he’d stay out of trouble.
Josh loved Jesus, but he also loved his friends fiercely. They never gave up on him and he wouldn’t give up on them either. Josh frequently talked to me about wanting to share the gospel with his friends. I encouraged him not to push it, to take his time to try and be a faithful presence.
One Wednesday night Josh showed up at church and I knew something wasn’t right. Josh was out of it, acting weird. He finally admitted to me that he was high…on something much stronger than pot. The common sense in me said, “Send him home…he can’t stay here.” But that didn’t seem like the right thing.
In an attempt to maintain a relationship with his friends, one that might eventually lead to sharing his faith, Josh often (rightly or wrongly) put himself in compromising positions. This time he dropped the ball…big time. But rather than hide it from me, he went to the one place where he knew he’d be safe, a place where people loved him. He went to church…to his youth group.
The Holy Spirit prompted me to show Josh grace. Under different circumstances I might have disciplined Josh in hopes of helping him to learn to steer clear of the bad choices he had made. If it were a different student, I might have called his parents to have them come pick him up. But in this case, the Holy Spirit urged me in a different way, to see the long view with Josh. To show patience. To help him stay safe from harm in the midst of being high, knowing that it would allow me to have a hard conversation with him later. So I let Josh stay at youth group even though everyone knew something was wrong with him. He sat quietly in the back and afterwards I took him home and made sure he was safe. I wish I could say it was the only time it happened. It wasn’t. But each time, Josh returned to the place and people he could trust.
I believe it was that trust combined with the grace he was shown that led him to make a significant decision when he graduated from high school. He was still deeply committed to his friends (a couple have since died from drug overdoses), but he was even more deeply committed to Jesus and the church. He realized he needed better training, more education if he was going be the faithful presence required to minister to his friends and other kids like them. He left our community and enrolled in a Christian college in Minnesota to pursue a degree in Bible and Ministry. Since his graduation, he’s returned to his hometown where he’s involved in the leadership of a college and young adult ministry.
Grace is God’s gift to me, that through faith I might be saved (Eph 2:8-9). Grace was my free gift, utterly prompted by the holy spirit, given to Josh. God proved his love to me in that while I was still a sinner, Christ died for me (Rom 5:8). God didn’t wait for me to show that I might deserve his love; therefore grace must also be freely given. I’d like to think that I would have extended grace to Josh even if he hadn’t had a desire to make Jesus known to his friends. I wish I could say that extending grace to Josh was easy and I had total peace about it. I didn’t. I didn’t know what the outcome would be. I had other students and families under my responsibility at the time. Was I taking a big and unnecessary risk? Maybe. Grace isn’t easy to give. It doesn’t always work out. But that’s not the point of grace. Grace relies on a trust in the power of the Holy Spirit. While showing grace to Josh felt like a big scary risk, I am confident that it is in part because we showed grace to him in his time of need that Josh is still striving to make Christ known to those who desperately need him.