A Lens of Grace

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Brian Wallace
Associate Minister for Emerging Ministries &
Acting Head of Staff
Thursday, March 14, 2024

A Lens of Grace

When I joined the Presbytery, Carla joked that there were Pastors in our Presbytery who had shoes older than I was.  She wasn’t wrong.  I was 35 when I joined the Presbytery staff, and given the propensity of some to hold on to shoes long after their useful life has ended, I suspect Carla was right.

In my first year, one of our seasoned and veteran pastors asked me to lead a retreat for their Session. I was flattered by the invitation but chalked it up to being the new guy on the staff more than anything else.  As I was preparing for the retreat, I talked with the Pastor, and he said, “I’m really looking forward to what you have to say – I feel like I can learn a few things from you.”

Seriously, I thought.

This pastor was ordained before I was born.  He had forgotten more about being a Pastor than I’ve ever known.  And he thought he could learn a few things from me?  Who was he kidding?  As I was sharing this story with one of my mentors, he stopped me and said the following: “Brian, there’s a difference between wisdom and knowledge.  He’s got plenty of wisdom, but he’s looking for knowledge from you.  It’s a sign of his wisdom that he’s eager to learn more.”


Around the time I turned 25, I realized something: my parents were really smart.  Like most teenagers, by the time I went to college, I had concluded that the times were so different now that my parents were out of touch.  But, after navigating the myriad of decisions that came with four years of college, three years of seminary, getting married, and buying a house, my perspective changed considerably.  While times were different, the wisdom they shared with me (when I was willing to listen) was invaluable in navigating those years.

To be clear, beginning to question authority and come to one’s own conclusions is a developmentally appropriate, necessary, and healthy step for teenagers and emerging adults (even as aggravating as it can be for those who love them).  In fact, it is a hallmark of the emerging generation to challenge the older generation.  After all, there are truly no “good ole days.”  It’s just a different time with different challenges.  The difference is that we figured out (or are figuring out) those challenges, which makes them seem less significant than those facing emerging generations today.  As I say in parenting seminars I lead, “Things today aren’t better or worse; they’re different.”

What does all this have to do with my mentor’s comment about wisdom and knowledge?  One of my primary takeaways from the last year in this Acting Head of Staff role is that I have benefitted tremendously from the wisdom shared by and gleaned from the generations ahead of me.  While I may know more about a given subject, say live-streaming, those ahead of me often have the wisdom that only comes with experience.

Biblically speaking, knowledge and wisdom are related but not identical.  Knowing is having an understanding of concepts, but wisdom is having knowledge and knowing how to use it.  In particular, the New Testament word for wisdom, sophia, is often used in connection with the arts.  To that point, there is a reason why the seminary class was called “Pastoral Arts” rather than “Pastoral Science” and why the book is called “The Art of Pastoring,” not “The Science of Pastoring.”  To further illustrate my point, gravity cares little about you as a person – it affects everyone the same.  On the other hand, a pastoral visit in the hospital is entirely an art.  Some people prefer short visits, while others prefer long visits.  Some want to talk about themselves and their current situations; others want to talk about anything but that.  Some want you to lead them through Sunday’s worship bulletin; others prefer a brief prayer at the end of the visit and nothing else.  The art of being a pastor is learning how to understand these nuances and fulfill your role so that your people know that you care for and love them.  It’s these nuances, the finer details, that I’ve learned from those a lap or two (or even three) ahead of me in life and ministry.

In seminary, I had the privilege of leading a small group bible study during my final year at the church where I was serving as an intern.  One of our retired pastors and his wife were in that group, and looking back on it, I gained so much insight just from having them present and the simple words of wisdom they would share.  For example, they always used the words “we” and “our” when they discussed the various pastoral roles that had served: “When we were in our first call…”  From that, I gleaned a new insight and appreciation for the shared nature of a pastoral call for some couples and was able to apply that insight to my search for a first call.

Sunday afternoon, as I was slowly waking up from my post-Sunday worship nap, I began to think of the list of people who have imparted wisdom to me and, in one sense or another, and to varying degrees, mentored me as a pastor and now as a leader in the life of the Presbytery.  The list got very long, very fast.  My list comprises older and wiser colleagues and friends from various backgrounds as well as theological traditions and perspectives.  The common trait, however, is clear: these aren’t just people with great knowledge but also people who demonstrate tremendous wisdom and sound judgment.

There is another common trait among the various names on my list: they’re imperfect people, befallen by the common trait of humanity’s sinfulness.  They have their blindspots and growing edges.  They are, after all, people: created in the image of God people, with all their complexity and brokenness, just like all the rest of us.  But, along the way, I’ve learned that I can pretty much learn something from anybody, even if I don’t agree with them about much.  I wasn’t always this way, trust me.

In my early seminary years, I would argue endlessly, needlessly, and pointlessly with professors whom I didn’t agree with.  If I’m honest, all that did was waste their time, annoy my classmates, and rob myself of learning what I could from them.  During my second year of seminary, after a particularly argumentative term, I decided I was done with that.  I decided I was simply going to go into each class and learn what I could and have an open mind, an open heart, and even an open will to the idea that I might learn something from someone, even if I disagreed with them on important matters.

What was the difference maker for me?  I finally embraced the “Wear Sunscreen” philosophy on taking advice.  The year I graduated from high school, Baz Luhrmann put to music a hypothetical commencement speech written by March Schmich and published in the Chicago Tribune in 1997.  Entitled “Wear Sunscreen,” the column contains various advice and words of warning based on wisdom gleaned from years of lived experience and closes with the following words:

“Be careful whose advice you buy but be patient with those who supply it
Advice is a form of nostalgia, dispensing it is a way of fishing the past
From the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts
And recycling it for more than it’s worth” (1)

 When I think of my list of wise souls, I am mindful of this philosophy: the past isn’t perfection, and the goal should never be to emulate the past. Instead, our challenge is to glean the wisdom and insights, good and bad, from the past, from those who have gone before us, in order that we might faithfully walk where Jesus is calling us.  This isn’t a new idea either.  The first disciples had their moments for sure.  Peter’s notorious mouth and impulsivity getting him in trouble, Paul’s record of persecution, Mark running away from the garden, and Martha’s complaining about her sister all stand as reminders that even those who physically walked with Jesus had their blindspots and challenges to overcome. Still, we would be far worse off if we didn’t use a lens of grace as we reviewed their life and witness.

I think this idea, a lens of grace, is most helpful for Christians when it comes to receiving advice from those who go before us. Grace allows us to see others as God sees them: imperfect yet beloved, flawed yet capable. With that lens, we can do with the past as Schmich says: wipe it off, paint over the ugly parts, and recycle it for more than it’s worth.

I’m at a point in my career where there are now individuals coming behind me for whom I have played a role in their faith and ministry formation, including my own teenage children.  This is equal parts fulfilling and horrifying because some of these individuals have also witnessed my greatest lapses in judgments and well-intentioned but nonetheless utter and complete failures.  With that in mind, I find myself drawn to the words of George Washington’s farewell address to the American people, who in his own words entreats us to view him and his work through a lens of grace:

Though in reviewing the incidents of my administration I am unconscious of intentional error, I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors. Whatever they may be, I fervently beseech the Almighty to avert or mitigate the evils to which they may tend. I shall also carry with me the hope that my country will never cease to view them with indulgence and that, after forty-five years of my life dedicated to its service with an upright zeal, the faults of incompetent abilities will be consigned to oblivion, as myself must soon be to the mansions of rest. (2)

There’s one more thing you need to know about my list: Many of the people on that my list of wise souls are members of our Presbytery.  One of the true gifts that we have, as a community called to be covenant relationship, is an opportunity to learn from one another as we seek to support one another in the work that God has called us to do.  It is my hope, and my prayer, that as we do we would, young and old, employ a lens of grace.  Remembering that “kids these days” aren’t better or worse and that writing people off as old and out of touch is equally uncharitable.  Rather, I hope and pray that we will strive to see the best in one another despite each of our shortcomings.  That we would see one another as members bound together not by our own choosing but by a common calling that we share to bear witness to what Jesus is doing in the world.

In Christ,

(1) Wear Sunscreen (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wear_Sunscreen)

(2) Washington’s Farewell Address (https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/resources/pdf/Washingtons_Farewell_Address.pdf)

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