I walked through the kitchen at work yesterday just as a new cookie recipe was coming out of the oven. We had been in town shopping and running errands for the deli, and after I unloaded the boxes and bags, I sampled a cookie to make sure it was good enough to sell (I jest). It was soft and warm, full of molasses and ginger-goodness, and amazing.
Someone jokingly said, “Ah the perks of being the boss! You get to tell people what to do and eat free food!”
I laughed at first because it was supposed to be funny, but everything in that sentence made my skin crawl—perks; boss; tell people what to do; free food. I chose to make only one correction out loud: I have paid for every item in this store, including all the ingredients in this cookie and the labor involved in making it. Nothing here is free to me except the pounds I gain from the sampling and the stress.
I said it nicer than that, though. I realized I had made a mistake—no one else at work can walk through the kitchen and grab a cookie off the sheet. I was either a thief or a tyrant or both, according to the comment. But what I said is true—every item in that store was bought with our life savings or scraped out of what’s leftover after payroll. I already bought that cookie. I tried to be nice but there are certain things that are hard to say nicely.
I’ve never formally listed my core values as an individual, but being nice is probably near the top, right after not making mistakes. It just doesn’t work all the time, though. Someone has to lead, to make decisions, to be the one at who’s feet the buck must stop, and in each of those responsibilities lies a wide margin of mistakes to make.
I’m in line at the bank on a busy Monday morning and the man behind me is speaking slowly and loudly. “We’re here to make a new account for you, ” he says to someone, “for when the State takes you over. That way they can get your money.”
I don’t want to turn around but I do wonder who he is talking to, and what in the world is the context for this conversation. His voice is water down a drain, raspy, sucking, and he chooses the worst possible words. The State is taking you over. They need to get your money. It’s for your own good. He is literally saying these things to the person in line with him, and I don’t know how anyone can shovel words out with so little care. I want to make some suggestions but I mind my business.
I notice he is patient, though. I notice he repeats the same answers to her same questions without getting irritated or changing his even tone, and then he calls her “mom.” We’re here to cash a check, mom. And then we’ll get someone to make a new account so the State can get your money. They’re taking you over, mom. We need to get you into the facility. No, I don’t like it either, mom, but we can’t do anything for you so they’re going to take you over.
I desperately wish he had better words. I cringe at each flattened statement as it sucks any tenderness down its drain, hoping he’ll soften the edges with words like care or help or blessing, but he keeps on with the monotone truth of the situation and paints no pretty pictures for this woman who, I assume, cared for and helped and blessed him in his youth. He’s not doing things perfectly, but he’s doing things, and I credit him that. On a busy Monday morning he is taking Mom around town to do necessary errands for necessary care, answering the same questions over and over, just as she surely did for him. How else do you get a son who sees to your care, albeit without careful words? You care for him, endure his phases, try to pour the best of yourself into him, and in turn the tables flip and he cares for you as you phase out.
I wish I had better words, too.
The Apostle Paul uses a phrase again and again in his writing: by the grace given to me. It’s usually the preface to a rebuke, an admonition, or a command. “For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think [of himself] more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith,” (Romans 12:3 NKJV). Each use of the phrase seems to imply an authority that’s been given, but Paul chooses to call it a grace.
The wording reminds me of the wedding officiant pronouncing husband and wife “by the authority vested in me.” Someone had to give him the authority to say the words that make the two, one—at least in a legal sense. Authority is a top-down structure that delegates and pronounces and allows. Authority takes you to the bank to set up an account so the State can take you over. It swipes cookies right out of the oven because it can.
Or—authority is a root of grace, springing upwards to a flourishing life for those grafted in to it.
The grace given to Paul blessed the Gentiles with the ever-spreading gospel. It reinforced the differing gifts each one of us has received. God-given authority produces something that increases life, something of care and help and blessing. It’s an authority that takes the bottom rung and does not think too highly of itself. “According to the grace given to me” is a reminder that we take authority in accordance with the heaps of grace God has given us. We are debtors, given too much credit.
According to author Andy Crouch, authority is the ability to take meaningful action, and he posits that communities flourish when we balance authority with vulnerability—exposure to meaningful risk . Risk, and action.
I think of that man at the bank and the action he had to step into, as caregiver and decision-maker. The risk is that not everyone will be happy with him and his decisions will be questioned, his motive scrutinized. He might make a mistake. He may not be nice. But the best authority always has some element of care with it, even if tenderness and carefully chosen words are missing. Authority is not given for the sake of the one in authority, but for the flourishing of the whole community; without care you have tyranny.
People in my town are complaining about having to lock their doors because of thieves, and how everyone used to wave on the road and now people don’t. There are message boards with snarky comments as well as neighborly alerts that there’s a black cow standing near the highway up on the wayside—anyone know who she belongs to? We have small town pride in our Berry-esque valley, but the people are right—things are changing. I have absolutely no idea where the key to our house is but I’m thinking we should probably find it.
There is no mayor to call and no police force nearby. All we have is a long wait for help and our own authority as citizens of this place, which takes years to build. So many old-timers have died these last few years and new folks are moving in, and I wonder if they know it will be decades before they are considered to be “from the valley”. But we are all neighbors and family in one way or another, so we watch out for each other.
I make it my goal to keep waving, to relentlessly take meaningful action by the grace given to me. I wave at the non-wavers, the newbies and the grumpies, the UPS guy, and sometimes I catch myself still waving to the people I pass on the highway.
It’s a small thing in a small world, but it’s an authority I feel compelled to take up, like being nice. I’m just waving, by the grace given to me.
To be truthful, I don’t want most of the authority I currently have. I feel pressure. I am the feet at which too many bucks are stopping, and I want to flee the responsibility. When a customer has a complaint, it’s on me to address it. A co-worker is sick or needs time off? My problem. When a player I coach, or the parent of a player I coach, has an issue—it’s on me. All the things neglected at home are my problem, either due to a lack of delegation, lack of planning, or lack of energy. This is not the mind-set of someone who is flourishing, but it is my truthful lament.
Lord, help me have better words.
I dissected some of the places where Paul references the grace given to him. The Greek word for given is didomi, and one of its definitions is to commission, which joins two latin words: com (with, together) + mittere (to send). To send with. In Acts 26:12, we read about the “authority and commission” Paul had from the chief priests on his way to Damascus to imprison followers of Jesus, and we know how that ended. But the authority given to him by God was a different kind of commissioning, and one that made Paul more than who he was without it.
He was sent with grace from God. The gift he received made him flourish, expand, become more fully human. More of what God intended. The authority Paul had after Damascus is still leading others to be commissioned with grace from God.
If there is a healthy way to view authority, this is it. The grace I have received allows me to find better words. By the grace given to me, I have authority in the places I’m invested in, the places I’m sent to, with Christ. I care enough to be the fool still waving, to believe place and a smile and a simple act of kindness still matter. And for all the mistakes I make in the positions of authority I have—grace.
 Crouch, Andy. Strong and Weak. InterVarstiy Press. 2016.
Tresta Payne learned to appreciate the beauty of God from the landscape of the Pacific Northwest, where she lives with her husband and four children. She builds her own MFA in creative writing through homeschooling her children and tutoring others, finding every excuse to learn and read and grow. After twenty years of homeschooling she is ready for someone to hand her that degree. She enjoys a good, deep discussion with a balance of differing opinions, and works out her own thoughts in writing. Tresta walks a lot on the wild country roads around her home, with her dog and her thoughts and the nearness of God to keep her company.
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