The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart,
O God, you will not despise.
a broken and contrite heart,
O God, you will not despise.
I had a rather unexpected experience recently where God impressed upon me how --- shall we say --- "fierce" his goodness is in the midst of overwhelming difficulties. The occasion was a gathering of pastors and Christian leaders in the city I live in, and it seemed like it was going to be a better-than-average-but-not-necessarily-outstanding meeting. At least, it felt this way to me until the presiding speaker asked us all to form a circle of chairs and give thanks to God in prayer. This was all find and good, except he started the prayer time with a prayer about a friend of his who had just lost his 4 year old daughter in a car accident, yet was still declaring the goodness of God in his life. This triggered in me the deep pain I carry yet manage regarding the paralysis of my 12 year old son, Seth, from a "surgical accident" about a year and a half ago. I thought about how good God is, but at the same time how hard God is --- hard to understand, hard to follow at times, hard to deal with, hard to accept his ways. Yet, God's goodness has been incredible in these last few years, as the more broken I've become, the more I've been able to receive and appreciate God's goodness to my family and me.
Sitting in this circle of pastors and leaders, I thought about how many of them had been the instruments of God's goodness in my life, how incredibly supportive and encouraging they had been in the many trials I've faced. So, I started to pray a prayer of thanksgiving for their presence in my life and for how God has used them to help me. It was going to be a wonderfully articulate prayer, but three or four words into the prayer, both grief and gratefulness washed over me like a flood. I could barely speak, and through only great effort I blurted out some tearful exclamation of thanks to God for each of these people who have walked some very dark valleys with me. I was severely humbled --- and somewhat embarrassed --- but very, very humbled.
This got me to thinking how God has worked in the events of the past few years. God has brought me to a place where I am willing to acknowledge how weak I am, yet at the same time able to be more confident in God's goodness than ever before. Like Paul in Colossians, I can say from deep within my soul those paradoxical words, "For when I am weak, then I am strong." (II Corinthians 12:10)
In the past four years, I resigned from a very difficult head of staff position after trying to lead a church from a conventional member-centered minstry to a missional God-centered ministry. Then, after having been well esteemed and respected in my denomination and having had a reputation as an excellent minister and consultant who could "turn churches around," I entered a time of being ignored by my denominational peers as irrelevant and ineffective. I found myself unable to secure gainful employment, leading my family and I in mid-2008 to enter the foreboding world of being behind on our mortgage, garnished with all the humiliations of threatened foreclosure courtesy of our mortgage holder.
Along with this, the Great Flood of 2008 hit Cedar Rapids, and I saw people's lives and livelihoods literally washed away. Then my wife and I found work as menial laborers at a local cereal factory, doing the grunt work that the much higher paid employees didn't have to do. After getting decent but low paying jobs which enabled us to get back on our financial feet, our ten year old son was paralyzed in the aforementioned "surgical accident." With that devastation, my wife and I entered into a time of great stress on our relationship, and we very much felt the weight of financial, emotional, and spiritual oppression in our lives.
Yet, and this a really giant "yet," in this same time period we have seen the goodness of God in ways far beyond anything we could have ever imagined. Friends have step forward to encourage us, not only with words, but with deeds of help and kindness. Pastors have worked together not only to pray for my family and me, but have been present with us in the darkest hours of our trials. We've seen God work financial miracles to keep us from losing our home and enabling us to provide well for our children. And God has shown his goodness as both Christians and non-Christian friends have walked with us through our difficulties, and have expressed not just their care, but their love for us.
While severely humbling, as we have had to open our hearts to receiving people's love rather than just giving it to others, it has revealed to us a view of God that only the hurting and the despairing can see --- a vision of God who makes the words "saviour" and "deliverer" so much more than mere titles we glibly attribute to a God who is so beautifully powerful, yet so fierce in His goodness. The Psalmist well describes this view and experience in the opening words of Psalm 27.
The LORD is my light and my salvation—
whom shall I fear?
The LORD is the stronghold of my life—
of whom shall I be afraid?
This is why I choked up when trying to pray a simple prayer of thanksgiving at the meeting mentioned above. I was surrounded by persons who had helped me out financially, had given me a job when I had to have one or lose my home, had laid hands on and prayed for the healing of my son, had spent hours crying with my wife and me, had given me the Word of God that I needed most at just the right times, had helped raise funds so my paralyzed son could participate in a program to help him walk again, who had helped lead my older son to commit his life to Christ, had helped my wife and I overcome the stress of dealing with tragedy, who had turned our mourning into dancing so many times. In the face of so many good gifts from the Father of all good gifts, I can only barely speak in awe of the kindness of God and the sheer joy of being part of the loving family of God.
Ironically, these humbling experiences of the last four years which have made me into a person and minister who is better able to serve a congregation are the very same factors that make me less attractive to a congregation. In my denomination, pastor search committees look for the pastor who can boast of his or her accomplishments and successes in recent years, who can show the tangible results of a "growing" ministry, who can promise institutional advancement with self-confidence, and who can articulate their command of the latest church growth and management techniques. It is hard for a typical search committee to find someone attractive who has spent the last four years being humbled by God's goodness, who has suffered tragedy, and who has had to lower themselves to do work that is consider menial in order to survive financially. After all, not many congregations are going to be impressed with a new pastor being presented to them whose last "ministry" included cleaning toilets and mopping floors, yet is a humble servant of the Lord Jesus Christ, is focused on prayer and who is promising to lead not from strength, but from brokenness!
Still, as difficult and challenging the last four years have been, they have been the years in which I have began to follow Christ in Spirit and Truth. My ministries before, which appear "successful" and are the kind that search committees find attractive, were really just superficial efforts geared to assuaging my desire for esteem and credibility. Yes, God worked through me still, but not until my "heart" was made "contrite" and my "spirit broken" could I ever hope to do ministry that God "will not despise."
I remember one of my seminary professors, Will Willimon, telling me about an experience Thomas Aquinas had shortly before his death, in which he had some kind of vision of God's goodness. After this happened, he said, "Everything I have done before is just straw." I think I understand what he was talking about now, as that is how I feel about my "successful" ministries before. After having descended into the valleys of darkness, I now know in my experience the truth of not fearing harm because I know now (like I've never known before) the comfort of God walking with me --- a God who is fierce in protecting me and at the same time good in nurturing me. (Psalm 23:4)
So, after 29 years of being a minister of the Word and Sacrament, and well into my fifties, I am finally ready to live life and do ministry God's way. As Paul the Apostle says, "I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me." (II Corinthians 12:9b)