Revealing Weakness, Finding Strength

A woman came up to me recently and told me she really enjoyed my sermons but “I wish you weren’t so negative about yourself. You cut yourself down too much.” I’m not so sure she had a valid point (in churches, as in stores, the customer is not always right) but I knew to what she was referring. I use humor in every lesson but I also make it a point to assure the congregation that I am a fellow traveler on the same journey they are on. Whatever tempts them, tempts me. What struggles they face, I face. I do not live on a church stage behind a plastic podium; I have a real life with real issues and real struggles.

Why do I go to great pains to make sure they understand that I am a man of sin and struggles, just as they are? Two reasons come to mind. I can remember sitting in church pews when I was a boy, hearing the preacher thunder against our sins and questioning our very salvation or integrity…but I don’t remember him sharing his. Even as a boy of seven or eight, that bothered me. The second reason is this: I do not believe that a fake wall of separation between the preacher and the pew is safe or good for either party. I think it is healthy for the preacher to struggle openly so that no one is surprised when they see him struggle privately.

For those who think the ministry is not only a calling but a role to be played out for the benefit of the faith of others, I would remind you that that sounds perilously close to the definition of “hypocrite” – an actor on a stage. I would also direct them to read scripture more often, ignoring the chapter and verse designations that often break up the story and make the Bible look like a law book. Just read the stories as they come, one right after the other. Look at what God included in His book! There’s the Tamar story, the one about a prostitute in Jericho who lied and was blessed by God for it, a speech from Rabshakeh where he taunted the Israelites and told them they’d be drinking their own urine soon, and I certainly would not have put the Japheth story in there or a host of others…but God was not reticent in sharing the weaknesses of the people in His story.

The songbook of the Jews for hundreds of years was the Book of Psalms – and 61 are entirely songs of lament. Many others contain lament as well as affirmations of the writer’s weaknesses, lack of faith, and personal struggles. Look at the Book of Jeremiah, or Job, or the entire Book of Lamentations. Ecclesiastes has some less-than-peppy parts, too.

Scour the scripture and you will not find a health and wealth gospel or a shiny, happy gospel but a story of people who wrestle with God (which is, of course, what the word “Israel” means…and God named them that) and who very, very, very often get it wrong. Terribly wrong. Tragically wrong.

We see Peter go from champion to racist to preacher to an also ran whose story peters out (sorry) when Paul comes along. And we see Paul’s work crash near the end of his life when he laments that “all those in Asia have turned against me.” The second half of Hebrews 11 – the famous Faith Chapter – casually mentions the fact that a whole lot of folk who followed God ended up dying in quite nasty ways.

Even the heroes make us squirm. Abraham sells out his own wife a couple of times, mistreats his secondary wife, and causes problems we are still dealing with on our nightly news. When told he is going to have that son of promise after all, his wife laughs and they name the kid “laughter” or “Isaac.”

And my story is that of Isaac. There are many people of great faith in scripture but Isaac is not really one of them. It might have had something to do with that whole Mount Moriah thing. When your father’s religion almost guts you on top of a mountain it can sour you to that whole religion-thing. [Side note: a few rabbi friends of mine tell me that there is an ancient tradition that says Isaac was 37 years old at that time. That changes everything. If your son is 37 and still living at home…]

Most think Isaac was in his late teens at the time of that horrible trip up Mount Moriah. All I know is that for the rest of his life he never works great acts of faith like his father or his son and descendants. Instead, he sits on the other end of the pew from God. He got close to God up there and the whole experience might have just soured him enough to consider it not a great idea to wrap his arms around Yahweh.

I have often considered myself Isaac. My father was a champion in our corner of our religious tribe. We occupied a far right position that was quite noisy, very insistent, and completely assured of our correct posture before the Lord. Champions of that sub-set of our tribe often came to our home and they all treated my father with respect, talking late into the night concerning who was wrong and why. Even as a boy of 8 or 9 I knew that there was no place in the kingdom for me. I didn’t think like they did. They intimidated me with the fire in their eyes and their confidence in their correctness.

For I already knew me. I was not holy. I was a sinner. It was drilled into me that I wasn’t there for me, but for the Kingdom. We didn’t play games in our house except for a few times. We were there for the kingdom. I memorized the Jule Miller filmstrips and would stand and narrate them as my father flipped the lever for the next slide (we didn’t use the records – I did everything but the ding). Nights were filled with being quizzed on scripture, doing flashcards on Hebrew and doctrine and facts about the Bible (how many verses in the Bible? Which version? Yes – it differs), and accompanying my father on “cottage meetings” or going off to any gospel meeting within 40 miles of us — if it was being held at a faithful church and had invited a speaker we agreed with.

When I left home, I ran as hard as I could. Getting close to God burned me, shattered me, and left me afraid of my own sinfulness, full of shame, knowing that I would never be able to keep the law I had been taught was my only way out of the coming flames.

Every man (and woman, before I was baptized at the age of 11) who taught me was sincere. They believed what they said and they were passionate that others believe it as well. However, the effect of that legalism and certainty was not positive in my life except in one way: it taught me that I was a sinner. And that was something I needed to know.

I never intended to be a minister or even return to any church but God brought me back and that is a (long) story for another time. Seeing what God was doing, able to read the trajectory of my life and seeing it included church and pulpit, I told Him several things that I would and things I would not do. He has not chafed at such declarations from me in the least. I told Him that if I served Him I would have to be able to ask any question and question any answer. If He is God, I told Him, He’s big enough to handle it. And so He has proved, again and again.

I also told Him I would not play games with my life and that of others. I would not hide and act like I understood everything or that my life was in order. I would be open about my struggles with temptation, my brokenness (seriously, there are days someone should just shoot me with a dart gun, put a tag on my ear or a radio collar on my neck and release me into the wild, thereby saving polite, genteel society from the likes of me), my doubts, or the lack of love I find in my heart when others need it most. God took that bargain and has used my weakness to show the world that He is a good God.

He once used the jawbone of an ass to accomplish His will. Since I am alive, I must assume He is doing the same through me.

For He has saved me anyway. I am Isaac. I don’t understand those with the gift of faith, who listen 24/7 to sermons and Christian music, and who think the art in Christian bookstores is exactly what the world needs. I’m a mess. A saved mess. And the people who come to churches I serve are messes, too. Some of them are a lot better than I am at this whole Christian thing but all of them know I love them and that I will not hide what I am from them: a man who needs a Savior.

That troubles some and I get that. I might not be the minister they need. I think shiny, happy people (shout out to REM there) have the right to worship God and sing “girl with a guitar Jesus is my boyfriend” songs but I’m a man who even back in his teenaged days couldn’t sing “Blue skies and rainbows and sunbeams from heaven” without becoming nauseous. I’ll be the minister for people like me – the broken, the troubled, the inconsistent…God’s problem children.

Those who wrestle with God.

Sometimes, they call us Isaac.

But God calls us His children.

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13 Comments so far

  1.    David U on July 23rd, 2014

    Great post Patrick, and that is why you resonate with so many of us “messes”. Keep on bringing it !! DU

    Reply

  2. Profile photo of dannygill   Danny Gill on July 23rd, 2014

    I never thought of Isaac that way. I have always assumed he simply didn’t do anything of note besides giving his blessing to Jacob by mistake.

    Reply

  3.    Doug Clayton on July 23rd, 2014

    Right on brother! We share a very similar path. Great thoughts on Isaac! By the grace and mercy of God for a sinner like me I am redeemed and reconciled. (It is wierd that when I read you I hear the words in a Scottish accent.;-) Stay in the fight my friend.

    Reply

  4. Profile photo of barryb   Barry Bullington on July 23rd, 2014

    Article is a window on the heart of modern and not so modern man. Count me as a mess.

    Reply

  5.    Donna on July 23rd, 2014

    Thanks. I needed this. I KNOW I am far, far from what I want to be. or what others claim to be. I KNOW that God loves me anyway. I KNOW that the ministers who I relate to most let me know that they too struggle.

    But even as I KNOW this, I sometimes need to be reminded that God does love me…..anyway.

    Reply

  6. Profile photo of Greg England   Greg England on July 24th, 2014

    When I moved to Florida to preach, I would be a co-minister with the present preacher (a family friend since I was a kid) the first year then he was to retire.
    He didn’t retire until forced to do so 8 years later, after I resigned and a new man was hired.
    His wife told me the same thing … that people need to see me as strong and good, “…like they see (her husband”.) It went against everything within me.
    One of the characteristics of Patrick Mead that drew me to your friendship is your honesty and transparency. Don’t listen to those people! Love them but with a deaf ear!

    Reply

  7.    Ryan on July 25th, 2014

    My family is very Christian and quite conservative. I was raised as both, but am now neither. The break from Christianity has been recent and painful. I share the above to say that
    regardless, I like your words and your sincerity. I don’t agree with many Christians or God as he has seen presented, but I want to thank you for loving people the way you do and for sharing the story of Isaac in such a way. For some reason, this has struck me.

    Reply

  8.    Matt on July 25th, 2014

    The book(s) of Samuel (and accompanying Psalms) are a great and disturbing read. David was a mess. He knew it, though. He also knew his only hope was the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesse. Just about everybody in his life misjudged him and his mess, but David knew 1) the truth about himself was worse than their assumptions, and 2) the truth is what God thinks, not people. “Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” Romans 14:4

    Reply

  9.    Larry Provence on July 25th, 2014

    Patrick, In some ways (more than you may think)my journey has been simular to yours- perhaps less public, but as personal. Jesus loves me this I know..He uses earthen vessels (crackpots)especially when we are not watching. Thanks Brother. Healing.Keep Celebrating Mystery and Paradox AKA the Cross.

    Reply

  10.    Karen on July 25th, 2014

    Really, Patrick… now that you are a mere 2 hours away, we must get together some time. (Hey, if you get asked to come speak to us at Twickenham in Huntsville while we’re in between preaching ministers, I’m calling dibs on lunch with you and Kami.)

    I so appreciate your honesty and transparency. I can relate too well to growing up in the bonds of legalism. As free as I know I am, I still fight it in my head some days.

    Thanks for your willingness to let God have his way with you… even when it means spending time with the other “messes” of the world.

    Reply

  11.    Suzi Stephens on July 27th, 2014

    Laying here 1night post cervical laminectomy with pain meds on board I decided to write my very first tweet. You deserve it because I find I can actually speak my truth and you just smile and nod your head. I am a mess. I always have been and always will be, just ask my children, but don’t ask my Father!! He thinks I am good just the way I am , warts and all. Sometimes with stubborn people like me , you have to find yourself in a Deep pit that you can not dig out of, and God shows up and hands you a shovel anyway. ” go for the top and fill in the bottom and I will be with you all the way as you move up. He loves me and I am learning to love myself, clearly seeing my faults and sins and honestly repenting, knowing darn well I will sin again over and over because that is who I am. Thank you for being you and being honest with who you are. You lift me up with your words and your heart for messes like me. I love you Patrick Love. Suzi Stephens

    Reply

  12.    Dee Ann Andrews on July 30th, 2014

    Patrick –

    As always, I offer you a deep thank you full of gratitude and love. I can identify with you in so many ways, although my childhood was not quite so brutal, and in the end, God lifted me out of the depths of conservative legalism, and my parents and entire family, as well, for which I shall be eternally thankful to our Abba.

    That happened over a number of years, involved several different locations for all of us, and in the end, was magnified into a true and real life for all of us through my beloved husband, Tom, who came along when I was terribly broken in my mid-thirties. He has more struggles with God than anyone I’ve known, yet he persists in living toward others, beginning with me, with the purest of loves I’ve ever experienced, as well.

    I consider myself to be blessed with the gift of faith, yet unlike those you mentioned in your post here, and yourself, am NOT moved by all of those, what I consider, rather superficial affects displayed by some who consider themselves to be of great faith. I know some intimately, and do not buy it. Sorry.

    I have faith, but I still wrestle with a multitude of problems and questions and seemingly unanswered prayers (ref. your other blog and my comments). I am NOT sure of myself in many ways and pray my heart out “without ceasing” and long into the night on many nights.

    Your view on Isaac has really struck a note with me, as I’ve never considered him that way before. Plus, my dad was a giant in the faith, being one of about six or eight young men in west Texas who created and founded what is now the worldwide “Sunset International Bible Institute” in Lubbock, Texas. Compared to his accomplishments for the Lord, I feel completely inadequate, you know? But, I try my best to do MY part for the Lord in every way I can. That is all I can do . . . as is each of us.

    Faithfully yours,

    Dee

    P. S. For Greg England & you from our blogging days together: CHEERS!!

    Reply

  13. Profile photo of Deryk Pritchard   Deryk Pritchard on August 11th, 2014

    Patrick, thanks so much for this reflection. It is beautiful, and I am inspired to be as open about my own struggles. Thank you!

    Reply

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