“Wrap your arms around yourself or someone you love today,” Pastor Les Avery used to say at the end of every St. James Presbyterian worship service, “because you never know what kind of pain lies just beneath the surface in each of us.”
This last week that phrase came to mind over and again as I (along with a dozen others) delved deep into the lives of 13 couples who were considering becoming church planters. This assessment went beyond determining preaching skill and church leadership. These couples tentatively allowed us to explore their lives, see their weaknesses.
What I saw humbled and hurt. Each had a story of crushing pain. As I read their dossiers and listened to their stories, I ached. They told of serious struggles,doubts, and pain. On the surface each looked shiny as a new penny. Called by God and gifted. But pain simmered underneath.
During this time, I read from Eugene H. Peterson’s challenging book, “Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places.” “Wonder is natural and spontaneous to us all,” he writes. “When we were children we were in a constant state of wonder–the world was new, tumbling in on us in profusion. We staggered through each day fondling, looking, tasting.”
I gasped. I wanted, needed that kind of wonder. How was I going to find wonder locked inside a commercial grade hotel listening to the tarnished hopes and dreams of extremely ordinary people? Doesn’t wonder only come in burning sunsets, roaring tides, priceless artwork, and tender newborns?
Then I saw it. The wonder of it all. Wonder comes in people too, especially broken people.
First of all, here were these people, like me, with every reason to give it up and become grave-diggers. Dealing in death not life. But they had walked out of the cemetery and were still dreaming, still asking God for something more. It was incredible, their hope. It was wonderful.
Second, I saw myself in them. I realized my tarnished dossier looks very much like theirs. And worse. Loss, fear, failure, trauma, health problems. If their pain made them unfit, mine did too. Yet, I’ve logged 30 plus years in this stuff called ministry. And 56 in life. And I’m even a church planter.
The wonder of it all is that I should not be who I am, have done what I have done, be in the wonderful place I’m in.
Yet, I am. How? Through my pain and weakness. That’s what I saw in those couples. I was once there with too much against me, with too many flaws, too many weaknesses and failures to add up to any good. Still am. Yet God continues to use me. How was it that I was assessing and assuring them? By God’s grace.
The wonder in weakness is this: “But he [Jesus] said to me [Paul], ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
And with that reminder, Christ himself wrapped his arms around me because he knows my pain and flaws and his grace is enough.