Grace, Gratitude, and Dr. Colin Brown
By Philip Carlson (ThM '93, MDiv '87)
When God's love demonstrated by Jesus becomes the deepest awareness of ourselves, then our identity is in Jesus and we are set free. The recognition of this truth has been tough for me, my capacity for trust badly frayed by my early experiences of life--a violent alcoholic father and years of physical and emotional abuse.
When I came to Fuller Seminary as a student in my early twenties I found, for the first time, a space in my life in which I felt perfectly safe. I found men and women who extended love, respect and grace--Colin and Olive Brown, Jim Bradley, Ruth Netting Vuong, and others.
The irony of my experience of safety was that there, in a sanctuary of rest and peace, the bottom fell out as I came to grips with my wretchedness and brokenness. I was able to speak of the guarded secrets of my past for the first time, secrets so dark and disturbing that I thought I might die of fear and pain if I were to speak of them. I tapped into an insatiable need and longing for grace infinitely deeper than what I had known before. And there tremendous healing began.
For a long time this made little sense to me. Why, in this safe place, were my eyes open to the truth about my condition? That's the paradox of grace. It is that crazy, intangible thing that we cannot earn, deserve, or buy. And when we really understand it, when it displaces fear and every other way of defining ourselves, it sets us free. And because it's not about us or our virtue, because it is about what Jesus has done, we no longer have anything to prove. William James described this liberating experience:
To give up one's pretensions is as blessed a relief as to get them gratified, and where disappointment is incessant and the struggle unending, that is what men will always do. The history of evangelical theology, with its conviction of sin, its self-despair, and its abandonment of salvation by works, is the deepest of possible examples.
The relief found in coming to terms with my sin and brokenness was overwhelming. The death of pretense was at once excruciating and relieving, the tearing from my heart of my most reliable and trusted defenses--exchanging self-deception for transparency, pride for peace and rest, the need to prove myself for the embrace of God.
Recently I shared some of my experience at a luncheon honoring Dr. Colin Brown, recipient of the Honorary Alumni Award for 2010. In the absence of my father, Dr. Brown has been especially present in my life through his role as professor and mentor--at dinners with the Browns in their home, at my graduations, at my wedding, and during medical school and residency. When my first book came out, he was the first to read it and the first to express his affirmation. At every significant turn in my life since my early twenties he has been there with love and affirmation, providing the fatherly love and kindness that had been missing.
As a young man I was terrified of men my father's age, but Dr. Brown spoke into my life with such gentleness and humility that I could hear and receive from him the correction and direction I so gladly needed. As I worked for several months recently on what seemed to me a very important sermon on humility, I could think of no one who more fully embodies this virtue than Dr. Brown. As I said at the luncheon, the incredible gratitude I now feel toward Colin and Olive Brown will be a joy I will carry with me throughout eternity. At the end of my remarks I shared a verse that powerfully expresses the impact of a life wisely lived, a life like Dr. Brown's:
"Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever." -Daniel 12:3