There are weeks in ministry when the truth and wisdom of Scripture comes alive in ways that you never anticipated, and they certainly never prepared you for in seminary. This week, and today, specifically, I have experienced this truth anew.
The first hardship of the week was sharing with my congregations that God has called me to serve in a new ministry, and that I must leave them. I give them a lot of credit: the elders and leaders took the news as well as could be expected. I shared with them all the circumstances surrounding the decision and why it was necessary, and most importantly that it has been my honor and privilege to serve them. They came back with responses of love and gratitude. While they were saddened by the news, I give them my sincere thanks for their support.
The natural question they had, of course, was what was going to come next. The churches have been through some hard times, and while we have come through them stronger than we were before, there was anxiety about what losing their lead pastor would mean at this time. I responded with what I feel our faith tells us: God will go before us, and that the same Lord who brought us this far will see us through until the end. (Philippians 1:6)
But it was here that I took it a step further. I pointed out to them that contrary to what others felt were the prospects for our churches several years ago, we have thrived because of our weaknesses — yes, our weaknesses! It is because we are small, flexible and dedicated that we have been able to make the necessary changes that have given us new seasons of success in our ministries. Most importantly, because we have felt, at times, that we don’t have much to lose, we were able to take greater risks in mission and ministry. We haven’t always succeeded, but where we have succeeded, we have flourished and grown.
It is here that the insights of the Apostle Paul have something to teach the church in our age. He writes:
8 Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, 9 but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power[c] 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. 10 Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. – 2 Corinthians 12:8-10
In the context of this letter, Paul is addressing his critics who claim to have greater spiritual insight and authority than him, and most importantly, are claiming that Paul’s Gospel is leading the church astray. Paul, of course, points out that he too has claims to authority (even referencing his visions earlier in chapter 12, presumably of the risen Christ). In short, he could, if he wanted, play the game of power, authority and competition.
But it is here that Paul takes a strange and inspiring turn: he claims his weaknesses. The “great” teachers who claim all authority, power and insight over Paul might be good at playing church politics, but in the end, Paul realizes that all he has in life and in ministry is his claim upon the lordship of Jesus. Paul has learned and continues to affirm the key lesson of humility, even to the point of pointing out that God’s will for him was to keep him in that position through his “thorn in the flesh.” No matter the circumstance, Paul must come time and again to the foot of the cross, to the place of putting to death his own pride and power so he might come to confess that God’s “grace is sufficient” for him. (v.9)
In fact, God’s grace is more than sufficient; it is exactly what we need because it floods the weak places of our hearts and minds with Christ’s life giving power. The Good News makes us more than we are and more than we could have ever imagined being. The Gospel takes us at exactly the point where we feel most broken, weakest and without hope, and upon that scorched earth builds the foundation of faith and hope in Christ Jesus that leaves us utterly dependent and in complete awe of God’s generosity and power.
God did this for Paul, and as history and the witness of Scripture shows us, he became the greatest of the apostles, though “late born.” (1 Corinthians 15:8) God did this for the churches I serve, and my faith and hope in Christ tell me that they will continue to be perfected no matter who is at the pastoral helm because God will use their weakness to perfect them for the work of the kingdom.
This was my feeling leaving the meeting and through the emotional turmoil of the week as I told individuals and others of my impending departure. I can’t quite relate to you the toll this has taken on me other than to say that with every conversation, you feel like you leave a piece of your heart with the person with which you share the news.
And so it went until this afternoon around three o’clock when I thought that I had reached a nice conclusion for the day. I had just begun preparing for a busy weekend and youth group in the evening when I got the call. As the picture headlining this article tells visually, a tree truck caused an accident on Route 17 in Lyndhurst, eventually skidding off the road and slamming into the front of the United Presbyterian Church of Lyndhurst.
I have to tell you, it felt like a punch in the gut. In fact, my first reaction was, “Oh God, is this some sort of omen?” It is one of those unfortunate elements of human nature that we tend to put our own concerns and perspectives at the center of what is going on around us. I am no different.
The elder who had contacted me was on site and a little anxious. I told them I would be there as soon as I could. A few minutes later, I was in the car and on my way. Traffic was bad, so I had lots of time for a conversation with God. Again, I asked God, “why?” Why now? Doesn’t the church have enough on its plate? Don’t I? Yes, you have been there for us, but how much more can we take? If Paul complained of a thorn in the flesh, this news felt like a spear in the side.
I arrived about half an hour later, and as I walked up, people were assembled. The police had the street shut down, and they were awaiting the tow truck and investigative team to arrive. Cameras had begun arriving as well.
I greeted the elders who had gathered. I hugged them, smiled and courageously told them all would be well. They reciprocated, and like me, they pointed out that first they heard the bad news of my departure at the beginning of the week, and now this! The emotional impact of the moment was palpable.
Yet, God works in both strange and wonderful ways. The first thing that I noticed after taking in the accident was that standing there, box of donuts in hand, was a brother from the church we hadn’t seen in months. We had called, tried to track him down, and were worried we had just lost all connection with him. Nevertheless, here he stood, and he came over and gave me a big hug and a smile. He told me he had recently changed jobs and phone numbers, and while he was sorry he had lost touch, he was happy to see us and wanted to connect. Not only this, he stayed with us for the next half hour, talking, laughing and fellowshipping with us amidst this disaster. I have a time next week to have lunch with him, and I look forward to catching up.
With all the chaos going on, we had largely forgotten about the fact that we had a big event scheduled for tomorrow. What we we going to do? By the way, is that our sign on the ground over there? The next thing we knew, the police had grabbed our banner and were hanging it back up over the damaged foyer… at the exact time that a newspaper reporter was taking photos. The image of the police hanging that banner over our damaged church, complete with event name, date and time is now on the front page of the local paper for tomorrow and is a headline story on the website. Believe me, we can’t buy advertisement like that!
To top all of this off, a local TV film crew was on site and they asked to talk with me. When they asked me what we thought of the accident and how it would impact us, I was able to respond something to the effect that our faith tells us all things happen in accordance with God’s good purposes. While we weren’t sure what those purposes were in this accident, we give thanks to God that there were no severe injuries given that the accident could have easily been much more tragic. And just like that, our church was giving public witness to the sovereignty of God…
Now, maybe you are quick to point out that maybe all this is just an exercise in making lemonade out of lemons. Maybe you are right. That said, I carry with me the memory of elders laughing, joking, talking with neighbors on the street, sharing hugs, and opportunities to tell folks in cars what was going on, and asking them to keep us in their prayers. One more than one occasion, the community surrounded us and gave us gestures of love and support. Out of a freak accident, more evangelism and outpouring of communal love and faithful affection came to the corner of Ridge Road and Page Avenue than had been seen in a long time.
The lesson here, I think, it that we all have weaknesses, and life is really good at highlighting them when everything seems to fall apart. Sometimes, life is freakishly hard, and it is in those moments of disaster that we will be sorely tested. Yet, it is faith, it is our sure hope and confidence in the purposes and love of God in Christ that directs us out of the darkness and uncertainty and towards the light. I saw that today, a day punctuating what had already been a challenging week. If this is the worst the enemy has to throw at us, I affirm what Paul tells us in Romans 8:31 : “What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?” Glory be to God! Amen.