Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given to me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.
2 Corinthians 12:7-9
I noticed that last week I boasted of the joys of serving San Gabriel Presbytery. While I have been so grateful for the great things happening in many of our churches and in the life of the Presbytery, there was a little voice in the back of my mind worrying that I was starting to think we were causing the good things to happen—and what does that mean to those who are facing challenges?
As it happens, I had the opportunity to do some good soul work last week. In meeting with the leaders of one church, I became aware of how vulnerable I am to a particular sore spot for me, the pain of rejection. This awareness came around the same time that I was walking with another colleague dealing with their particular sore spot.
You know what I mean by sore spot—we all have particular places of woundedness, and many of us live our lives making sure to protect them. But since we like to be seen as strong and whole, we often hide our wounds, so others aren’t aware. I’ve seen that some of the biggest blow-ups in churches happen when those wounds are unwittingly opened, and rather than speak to our hurt, we react, often with a response that is less sacred but less real, which leads to further misunderstanding. Unlike just about any institution in our lives beyond our own family, church is a place where we are most vulnerable, where more of our personal lives and families are known, where we are encouraged to confess our sins and weaknesses, and where we seek the ultimate spiritual connection with our God and with each other. I believe this is the reason that abusive behavior in the church is so damaging—and I would suggest that not only pastors, but all church leaders should be aware of the great responsibility we have to treat each other with care.
Now my guess is that we all have at least one sore spot. We may have several places of woundedness, but some are worse than others, so much so that it impacts our life decisions. I have always believed that an essential part of my sense of ministry is the fact that I’ve always felt like an outsider, not being totally and exclusively committed to any one group. Honestly, my work in the church is the only time I have felt so committed, but even so I am—we are—in a church tradition that allows for openness of thought and connection with the world. But even more honestly, I might have chosen to put myself on the margin rather than risk having others push me out there.
Another tendency I have, which I think I share with many if not most Presbyterians, is the “fix it” attitude we take to any challenge we face. Because we Presbyterians like to proclaim the gospel in deed as well as word, and we have been and tend to be leaders by personality, we are prone to believe we can take on whatever comes up in our lives and our churches. In fact, we have to remind ourselves that the mission God calls us to is not what is feasible or reasonably doable by ourselves; we are called to let ourselves be used by God, who can do much more than we can imagine.
So why all the true confessions? I found myself in a situation where it seemed that some church leaders were finding much more excitement and support from outside the Presbytery, and I felt like I should be doing something to compete, but any attempts wouldn’t work. So my attempts to fix it fell short, and I anticipated a day when we—or I—would be rejected. How do I deal with this?
There will always be times when we feel helpless to make things work the way we want, and sometimes we can’t even understand why things are happening the way they do. As uncomfortable as it feels, the answer to these situations is not to simply turn away, or reduce the issue to something we can easily fix. Perhaps we need to live in the brokenness, and remember that we are not in fact in charge . . . and pray. Let us live in humility, and take those reminders that while God has given us much in resources and responsibility, we are but wounded servants. We are not able to do all by ourselves, yet under God we are able to do and experience great things
I think you can tell this is not an easy topic for me to discuss. My guess is I’m not the only one to struggle with confronting our limitations. We as Presbyterians live in the tension of having a strong sense of purpose in God’s world, while having to remind ourselves that we are helpless without God. So we live in total gratitude that God is with us, and goes to great lengths to show us grace every day.