The grace of God first kills before it makes alive.
How many times I have wanted to write that in five years. To agree with those words attributed to Tom Torrance by one of his doctoral students, Ray Anderson.
And yet I have not. Because of originality. Because of other more pressing writing. Because I had not finished with the dying.
Or perhaps it had not finished with me.
The grace of God first kills before it makes alive. A word I have prayed. Over and over. That I would permit this death by grace in order that I might not birth the Ishmael who cannot be comforted nor the Esau who weeps to no avail.
Wild grace. That is what I came to call it. A grace so violent that you wonder how it can be grace. A grace like a raging sea, downdrafts so strong that you think you will never break the surface again.
A wild grace, yes, but a grace which is the only way to receive the Isaac, to take hold of the promise as the actuality of God.
Five years ago I began in faith. Convicted that he had spoken about a PhD. That I must obey. Within six months of my obedience I found myself in a place of darkness. A heaviness so great that I hated to open my eyes even when sun shone bright. A pain so wearying that I would sit in my car for half an hour before ever managing to open the door and step out into unending grey.
It was not that I was without a word. He himself had spoken. Said that when I came to a place of stillness, when I stopped striving, then he would give me the commission for this piece of writing work.
But that word never told me about the pain of the dying. The grace which first kills all human possibility until I am left in the tohuw over which the Spirit broods. The weightiness of this. Its apparent unending grief.
No, I never knew. For though the theologian whose work I engaged in this doctoral study told it to me, I could not comprehend the wildness of this grace. And as I came to experience it, my prayer was sometimes through gritted teeth. That the grace of God would first kill in me all human possibility that I might have nothing but the ministry of God. That he would keep me from conceiving an Ishmael, a future of my own making rather than of promise. As I prayed, I wondered how much more dying I could take.
But I found out that there was more. In all significant areas of my life there was cost to this PhD beyond what I could have conceived. Having survived the emotional ravages of Spring 2012, having found a rhythm of being, then November 2014 happened and it continued for perhaps eighteen months of an intensity of tohuw which ended all my capacity. By November 2015, I found myself voiceless for the weight of it all.
In January 2016, I heard his whisper. A whisper that I needed to up the pace. Get this thing done. The disparate pieces were to become first draft by the end of the first week of May. That was all I knew. And so I worked like a madwoman. Cramming edits into the spaces between classes. Praying that I might have just enough mental capacity left over that I could appear vaguely competent in my job.
And 7 May 2016 dawned. A finished first draft. And the breathtaking realisation of his hand. For it had been 7 May 2012 that he had finally given writing commission. Dropped thesis and outline into my head from nowhere, gifts which proved substance of what was eventually finalised four years to the day. Four years to the day and, until ten days before, I had not even realised the pattern of it all.
The grace which had so thoroughly killed was beginning to make alive.
Then, as if the beauty of this were not enough, a viva on 7 November. Six months to the day from that wonderful date in May.
The resurrection complete now as the examiners accepted the thesis. My testimony ready to overflow. That he who promised is faithful. That it happened exactly as he said.
That the grace of God first kills.
But then it makes alive.
My thesis is entitled ‘Imagining Incarnational Ecclesial Leadership’ and it engaged Ray S. Anderson’s theology of incarnation and ecclesiology to construct a relational and kenotic praxis of leadership which I then imagined in terms of Christian friendship. I received this thesis in a way that I can only describe as gift from the Lord. I believe it is for the church, both theologians and non-theologians alike. Thus, when I finally recover from the intensity of these days, I shall be looking to publish it as an academic monograph and, later, to think how it can be made accessible for the church. If you pray, I’d value your prayers to that end!
As for the peacock picture, well, that’s another story of God speaking to me in this journey. Maybe I’ll tell that too sometime…