Ministry on the Sidelines

When Grief Shows Up

A friend I hadn’t connected with in a couple months checked in with me for a state of the union.

How am I?

Great!  Rolled off my tongue, slippery and easy.  And it’s true, in some senses.  Things are good.

Mostly.

Well, totally, actually, just some of that “good” is still hard.

In my determination to be present and pursue authenticity, I found myself scrawling in the margins of a new book recently, and some of author Shannan Martin‘s words hit me where it hurt:

What our faith inspires is the sort of foolish generosity that lives as though we believe we cannot outspend God.

Only I can, and I did.

The trick-math of this upside-down Jesus economy promises that we can never outspend our reserves.  There is no limit, only capacity. 

I found limits.  I reached the end of capacity.

Uh-oh.

Temper Tantrums with God

I know this feeling, this angst.  It’s a well-worn path between God and I, this trail that has me cross-armed and pouting, accusing him of being false, or breaking his promises, or not being real, or whatever shake-my-fist at him crisis is at the moment.

They used to terrify me.  I used to want to wash my mouth out with soap after a rant, and feel this horrible sense of shame that I could be such a hateful person.

Now?  In a strange way, they kind of comfort me.

I’ve got a bit of a Pollyanna type of personality – I like to find the silver linings and live in the clouds.  I (usually) bounce back quickly from hard times and am unbearably optimistic.

I think honesty – hard honesty – is difficult for me.  Admitting pain or disappointment or failure – especially to myself – doesn’t come naturally to me.  I’d rather skip ahead and call it a blip in the road than admit it took me out.

So for me, something powerful happens when I sit down in the mud and declare you let me down or this stinks or I don’t think I like you very much or any other childish but absolutely honest sentiment to God.

I feel like those are the times He bends down, smiles a little, and tells me “NOW we can get somewhere.”  And then, over the course of days, months, weeks and years, He points out truth and opens the door for understanding and healing.

You can’t deal with issues when a person denies they have any.  And if I’m pretending life is all roses, there’s nothing to deal with.

Only… God sees so much more.

I don’t want to give up my optimism – it’s a much needed gift in today’s world.

But I do want to surrender my capacity for self-deceit.  

I do want to live without blinders.

I do want wholeness, which is unachievable as long as I live in perpetual denial.

So my disappointment with God?  Is a good sign.  It’s a step towards healing.  (See?  There’s that optimism popping it’s head up again.  As long as it’s grounded in truth, BRING IT ON!)

Leaning into Grief

I’m grieving.

And that’s pretty important.

I can’t go back to “normal” without just pretending to trust God.

Truth is, I feel like He let me down.

Truth is, I feel like He wasn’t where He promised to be.

Truth is, I feel like I was doing all His work while He declined to pitch in.

You can’t outspend God?  Then why does our church’s debt keep growing?  Because we ran out of money.  We ran out of God’s money. 

God has no limit?  Only capacity?  Then why do we keep hearing of pastors burning out, struggling with depression, turning to addictions and affairs to fill them? 

I’m hurt.

I’m angry.

There’s no grand purpose, no aha moment.

I want to believe that God is good when it seems like He was apathetic.

I want to believe God is in control when it seems like He was negligent.

I want the why.

Truth Speaks

And then, God steps in.

I came across a mention of Paul in prison in the Bible.  I’ve read those words hundreds of times, but this time it brought me to a full stop.

Why did God let him get arrested?  Paul was in the midst of a thriving ministry.  He was doing hard things.  He was bringing people to Jesus.  He was uniting the church.  He was mentoring young leaders.  He was pastoring dozens of churches.  He was finally beginning to bridge gaps between Jewish and Gentile believers.  This is not the person you want sidelined!

But there it is: God allows him to be imprisoned.  Isolated.  Removed from the people he’d been called to minister to.

At no point did Paul give up his fight for freedom – he pursued his freedom with passion, creativity, intelligence and with the long game in mind.

Yet Paul-in-prison had more long-term impact than the rest of his life put together.

In prison, Paul wrote letters.  A lot of letters.  And those letters today make up a huge portion of today’s New Testament.

He felt sidelined.  He felt taken out of the game.  He was itching to get back to “real” ministry.

Yet benching Paul was the greatest gift God could have given to His Church.  Without an audience to preach to, he wrote.  To us.

I found my soul opening up just a little at that reminder.

Paul probably asked why.

Paul likely felt benched.

Paul actively sought restoration to what he felt was “real” ministry.

Yet in that time, he also claimed contentment.  He also did whatever he could from where he was.  He took the next right step.  He wrote.  And his writings changed the world.

Paul and Me

Okay, I’m no Paul and I promise you nobody’s going to canonize my words.

But isn’t there something… relieving?… about the reminder?

I don’t know what has you feeling “benched” – maybe you lost your job.  Maybe you had a baby and find yourself lonely and at home, wondering what you possibly have to offer anymore (besides the ability to change a diaper and warm a bottle!).  Maybe you went through a divorce and feel the sting of rejection.  Maybe a death of a loved one has you feeling like you’ve lost part of yourself, or a recent diagnosis has you reeling.

For me, it was burnout and the sudden and shocking realization that I could not go on anymore.

It felt like God was discarding me.

I wonder if it felt like that for Paul, too?

Did he feel discarded when thrown into prison with common thieves and murderers?

But what if what I see as pulling me out of the game is actually God setting me up for a different success?

What if Paul had never gone to prison?  Romans, Corinthians or any other of his “prison epistles” would never have been written!

I know, I’m looking for a silver lining again.  Mostly I’m trying to get my head around a God who is GOOD and SOVEREIGN and lets his servants get beat up and bruised, wondering how that spreads his gospel or glorifies him.

And I may have found an answer in Paul.

6 comments

  1. Wow! Thank you for sharing… for a long time I had felt sidelined by my mistakes, disqualified from ministry, from relationships, from a future life. Burdened by a past, not recognizing the gift of the present.

    The opportunity to start over was a gift from Jesus, to press into a relationship with him, to be pruned and trimmed and trained and built up so to be fully surrendered.

    God allowed me to tear down my life so I could find life and purpose in him.

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