“Empires of Grace”


Some Things Can’t Be Explained, Only Witnessed.

Originally published in The Anchorage Magazine Fall 2015


This week the 8th grade gathered at Camp Wabanna in Edgewater for a retreat on leadership, to discover what it means to lead and how to influence the world for Jesus Christ. The students studied world leaders, from Mao Zedong to Ghandi, Adolf Hitler and Martin Luther King Jr, and biblical ones like David, flawed, but after God’s own heart. Guest speakers Eric Hansen and Doug Scheidt rallied them to think about big things like identity and legacy; Daniel Giddings asked them to look at the small, themselves, because leadership is about who we are more than what we do. It was heady, sometimes droll, and by nightfall it was dulled by antsy middle schoolers who shifted in chairs, looking not at us but outside, anxious for things that are real, like Capture the Flag, s’mores, and dorm room pranks.

We’d been together for the whole day in one room, but we weren’t one. The students were annoyed with one another today and over the past several years, irritated by differences, irked over being forced to play nice and be nice to people they didn’t like, and didn’t want to. They were distracted, disinterested and divided. In time, we were distressed: we learned that while adults spent the day intent on teaching students how to lead, a group of students spent the day intent on schemes to bully another student. They had succeeded once, and planned more for later. Now, with the day coming to a close, we knew we had a decision to make: Do we continue to teach them what it means to be a leader, or do we show them? With our minds spinning like the fan blades over our tired heads, our most pressing question became this one: If we choose to show them, what do we do?

We decided to answer our question not with an answer, but with this realization: We are all the same before God, whether we are the teacher or the student. Every day, we are annoyed with one another, irritated by differences, irked over being forced to play nice and be nice to people we don’t like and don’t want to like. We are distracted, disinterested, and divided. We are no different than our students. We’re just older. We know how to hide it.

With this realization, we dropped our fig leaves and threw off our conceit. What happened next is one of those things in life that can’t be explained, only witnessed. For reasons we may never know, the people in that room were there to witness the bending of skies. Four teachers, five parents and 70 plus students became still as the Holy Spirit swept in and defined leadership for all of us. Eighth grade boys sobbed like babies and the girls wept and held each other, as one by one students stood and praised the very student they once bullied; the human target not just at this Retreat, but all last year. The adults said nothing and watched as students took over, and for over one hour admitted failures and weaknesses, poor decisions, bad judgments, wrong thoughts, mistakes. One student said he was ashamed to think of what God thought of him. Another, with tears streaming down his face, his chest swelled and his hand placed on the back of the bullied student now bent over and sobbing, looked out at his class and barely uttered, “How do you call yourselves Christian?,” before He cut himself off to cover his face to tell His Lord, “We all are sorry.” By night’s end, everyone wanted to be the one to close in prayer and thank God for the weakest among them, whom God chose to humble every single one of us.

There is a song by Hillsong called “Empires” that says “We are worlds, we are bodies, empires of dirt and grace.” At the end of the Retreat, a few boys walked over to a father at pick­up. They knew him from last year. One by one they shook his hand and told him from now on they’d protect his son, that they’d “have his back.” The rest of that song goes like this: “The night is done, our chains are broken. The time has come. The wait is over. The King is here and his name is Jesus. Singing Hallelujah. Breathing in a brand new world.” If that night we all were empires of dirt, the next day the 8th graders were empires of grace, new creations, 8th graders “called to lead” helping to breath in a brand new world into a broken one for Jesus Christ.

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