It was the summer of 2013. I was living in Chicago as part of the Summer Communities of Service, a summer program for young adults organized by the United Church of Christ and the Alliance of Baptists. Over the course of ten weeks, participants worked on a variety of different service projects meant to bring us out of our comfort zones and benefit the communities in which we were living.
I was part of a tutoring program in Chicago, responsible for a room full of rambunctious third and fourth graders for several hours a day. As a twenty-one year old with no experience as a teacher, I, along with a similarly green co-teacher, was faced with the task of writing age-appropriate lesson plans, safe-guarding activities, and modeling positive habits. Considering the sweet, hand-written thank you note we received at the end of the program, my co-teacher and I did an acceptable job at this. But at the time, I felt woefully inadequate. Our carefully crafted plans were regularly met with rolled eyes and blank stares. The kids, unburdened by the filters we put on our speech as we grow up, were quick to tell me how boring, mean, and unfair I could be. There were innumerable messes to clean up, activities made up on the spot, and hurt feelings to soothe.
At the end of a particularly bad week, I ran into the pastor of my home church for the summer. He correctly interpreted my tired eyes, hunched posture, and wrinkled clothes. Smiling sympathetically, he simply said, "Give yourself grace, Annie."
At first, I thought that Pastor Jonathan was merely telling me to take it easy on myself. True, I probably wasn't the most effective teacher in the world. But there are many other things I'm good at, and I was at least doing my best. "Grace", I assumed, meant "forgiveness". Give myself grace. Forgive myself for being imperfect.
But I now realize that, while this was probably part of what Pastor Jonathan meant, the word "grace" had much larger implications than I originally understood. He wasn't just asking me to forgive myself for my perceived failures. He was encouraging me to trust. Trust that my kids appreciated me, even when their frustrations caused them to act out. Trust the leaders of the program, who wouldn't have hired me had they believed I was incapable of doing what they asked. But above all, trust that I was where God wanted me to be.
The scripture passage above is one of the lectionary texts for our upcoming senior high retreat. In it, Abraham follows Pastor Jonathan's advice much better than I did that summer. "Rest in grace" is the theme we selected for this retreat. And it means that we must allow our faith in God's goodness to increase, even as our confidence in our own abilities wavers. To give ourselves grace, to rest in grace, is to allow ourselves to hope, to thrive, to push onward. To relax, even as we struggle.
It seems like a contradiction. But, given the advice of Pastor Jonathan, and the example of Abraham, it is certainly possible.