From Guest Writer:
Rev. Dr. Denise Thorpe
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. – Hebrews 12:1-2
This past weekend a few of us joined together to support a friend who was called to do an important thing at a difficult time. This friend had already endured months and months of awfulness and difficulty. He didn’t want to heed this call, but he knew he had to. As we were waiting for him to start, someone remarked, “You know the miracles of Jesus—the healing, the feeding, the gift of hope in all places—Jesus did all of those things while the powers around him were trying to kill him. That’s a miracle!”
Years of teaching law school have led my husband to one clear conclusion: the most vital characteristic for success in the law is a lead bum. The capacity to sit one’s bum in a chair and just do what needs to be done is what separates the good lawyer from the great lawyer. Eloquent speech, fine writing, powers of persuasion, keen analysis: they’re helpful, but they only take you so far. The bedrock of good lawyering is the capacity to show up and stick with it: combing through case after case to trace the courts’ interpretations of a statute; sifting through rooms and rooms of documents looking for tiny shards of information; pouring over hours of depositions to prepare for cross examination during trial. Persuasive legal briefs, masterful oral arguments, and savvy contracts may be the end product, but a lead bum and the power to persevere provide the foundation for them all.
This capacity for attentive perseverance is vital for good ministry as well. It’s easy to forget that the very foundation of pastoral ministry is showing up and sticking with it: driving to the hospital early in the morning to pray with a parishioner before she is whisked away for a biopsy; planning the agenda for the church council early in the week to make sure church leaders have all the information they need; attending the retreat when it is the very last place you want to be; moving toward conflict rather than away from it, dealing with it, then letting it go. Competency in preaching, teaching, pastoral care and administration are critical, as is imagination; fruitful ministry requires well-honed skills enlivened by active imagination for all the ways God invites us to join in God’s work of shalom in the world. At the end of the day though, competency and imagination make no difference if we don’t show up. Again, and again, and again.
Showing up is hard. Sticking with people is exhausting. Some days the church feels like a tank full of piranhas, with every fish angling for a bite. Congregations heavy with illness, pain, fractured relationships, and the valley of the shadow of death usher us into holiness. They also sear the soul.
Running a race is gritty. Perseverance requires showing up and sticking with it; making it to the starting line and then pushing through mile twenty-three of the marathon. Perseverance is made possible as we remember that we never run alone. This beautiful passage from Hebrews reminds us that we’re able to run this race because so many saints ventured before us and busted trail. They ran first, and they stuck with it: the guy who faithfully trimmed the church hedge each week while quietly nipping drinks from a small brown bag stashed in the bushes; the woman who steadfastly drove to Costco, returning with huge boxes of canned sardines and applesauce to place in bag lunches for people who slept in the park; the pastor with the funny voice whose sermons were agonizingly long but who prayed with us the night God seized us by the scruff of the neck like a mother eagle and carried us toward this crazy vocation of ministry.
It’s a wonderful example of the wildness of God’s humor: many of the same people who nibbled us in the fish tank now surround us in a great cloud of witnesses carrying us forward in faith. When we run, we breathe in the dust kicked up by their feet. Our technique and our expertise will never sustain us over the long haul of ministry. Neither will our imagination or our hope alone. When it seems we can’t go on, we are saved by simple habit: the habit of looking in the same direction as the saints who surround us. Looking with them toward Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.
In the face of weariness and exhaustion, my friend showed up this weekend. He showed up BIG TIME. He pointed all of us toward Jesus. The Spirit showed up too. It was a miracle.