But you, O Sovereign Lord, deal well with me for your name’s sake; out of the goodness of your love, deliver me. For I am poor and needy, and my heart is wounded within me. I fade away like an evening shadow; I am shaken off like a locust. My knees give way from fasting; my body is thin and gaunt. I am an object of scorn to my accusers; when they see me, they shake their heads. Help me, O Lord my God; save me in accordance with your love.
– Psalm 109:21-26
…[The Lord] said to me, “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.
– 2 Corinthians 12:9-10
“Every night I came home from the hospital, crawled into bed and cried. And I begged God to bring you back.” – My wife, Denell
“When my son heard about your heart attack and we weren’t sure what was going to happen, he cried and we prayed together for you.” – The mother of one of our Sunday School boys.
“Everyone was scared. So we prayed. We prayed a lot.” – A Covenant Elder
These expressions of faith, hope and love, along with so many others, are so beautiful to me. I simply do not deserve such love. I am humbled and blessed. People far and wide, family members and friends and distant acquaintances, like never before have communicated thoughts like these. The head of the choral department at UNR, Paul Torkelson, a man Denell worked with and whom I’d met once or twice, and his staff accompanist, Pat Gardner, came by last week with flowers and cards from folks at the university. Many names on the card I did not recognize, but their sentiments were wonderful: “I’m praying for you… Wishing you a full recovery… Sending up positive energy for your wellness…” From their unique and personal spiritual frames of reference, all were affirming their affection and some kind of meaningful connection to me—a fellow follower of Jesus, a musical colleague, a meaningful member of the human race. We were connected.
And what did I do to warrant such a flood of care and concern? Nothing. What happened was not anything I did. It was done to me: I fell over and nearly died. It was my moment of utter weakness that elicited the connecting flood of love.
Now all of this has me thinking about church.
It seems to me that to a large extent the way we do church these days is missing or obscuring something deep and foundational.
People can be brought together by mutual benefit or mutual strength. Business partnerships (When you profit, I profit), educational relationships (Student gains knowledge and skill, teacher gets paid), employment situations (Owner gets jobs done, worker gets salary and benefits) progressively-minded marriages (We’re together as long as we’re both getting what we want) and the like can hold people together and sometimes for quite a while. But what I have discovered is that while that glue can become brittle and prove ineffective against separating powers, there is a stronger bond: Weakness.
I have seen myself as a pastor and us as a church in a new light.
It seems to me, I have spent my ministry career trying, and perhaps we have been trying as a church body, to attract and unite people by our strength. I have wanted people to think and say things like these: “That pastor Jay is a compelling preacher. I’m staying at Covenant for the solid teaching… He’s a sensitive pastor. I’m glad to be part of the Covenant family… He’s an uncompromising Bible interpreter. It is good to be part of a church that is staying true to God’s Word… The staff at Covenant is outstanding… The programs are first-rate… The people are warm and wise… The facilities are excellent… We’re getting all we want and all we need at Covenant… The strengths of this church tell us we are connected to the right place…” It is good for us to give our best for God’s purposes and to His glory. It is foolish for us to think that such efforts will provide the glue that will ultimately hold us together. They won’t.
And of course as we try to show forth and attract and connect people by our superior strengths, other churches are trying to do the same. May the best church win. I’ve long suspected that we have been taught to confuse our Lord’s Holy Spirit with our own entrepreneurial spirit. My recent experience tells me it all goes much deeper. Trying to gain a greater market share of the small pool of Christians in town by our strength is not merely sinfully competitive and divisive to God’s one universal Church: It is based on an entirely wrong-headed assumption about what truly draws us and keeps us together. The glue of our strengths and successes is temporary and illusory. What truly holds us together is our weakness and failures.
When we gather as God’s Church, we gather in weakness. And so we need each other, and so we need Jesus Christ. We need shared wisdom. We need mutual support. We need wise counsel. We need prayer. We need forgiveness. We need salvation. We need love. We separate from one another to our own peril. By ourselves we are in greater trouble than we dare imagine. We can change jobs, change schools, change partners. We can walk away from perceived lesser to perceived greater strength, but we can never walk away from our weakness and need.
I have never experienced the connection of Christ’s people like I have in the last month, like I have in my time of utter weakness. Thank you for the love and the prayers and the support which I have not deserved. Of course I don’t deserve it: That’s why it is love! Thank you for the life lesson you have given me. What binds us and keeps us connected is not all the strengths we try to show, it is the weakness we want to hide.
And so the strength that matters is not anything we possess. It is what we are given. It is the ultimate strength of God— His unconquerable power, His unflagging goodness, His undiminished grace, His enduring love… Our need and God’s provision, our weakness and our Lord’s strength, our nagging misunderstanding and the Holy Spirit’s constant revelation, that’s the glue that keeps us connected. And our God’s strength comes to us in our weakness through no meritorious action on our part. We don’t deserve any of it. Of course we don’t. It’s love.
Blessed to be weak with all of you and so to know the strength of our Lord,