"Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation,"
Sometimes I like to play around with word order, since the way Greek is constructed is very different from English. The word order in the original is "Boast the brother (the depressed one) in the raising of himeself." Of course, we wouldn't say it that way. But as a preacher, if I were looking to exhort a group of humiliated and/or dejected people with this thought I'd begin my sentence with "Boast!", just like Jesus does in Matthew 5 in the Sermon on the Mount when he says "Blessed! are you..." The first word becomes a little sfortzando -- a musical term for a sudden and surprisingly loud moment. And surely the greek of this word "boast" is even more so: "Kawchomai!" Just say it out loud -- the hard "k" is amazing when preached. If there's any sense in which James means to use the word that way, it is not lost on me.
2007 was a very hard year for me personally. For the first time in my adult life I found myself unsure about what I was supposed to be doing for work. And since a man's self-esteem is very tied to his job, I would have to say a "slide" had been going on for about three years as I saw the natural end of my work with teens on a state-wide basis and yet still couldn't see the next step. In December of 2006 I injured my back and was told I'd be facing surgery soon enough. For three months in the late winter about all I could do was sit in a chair in my den and focus on my unemployment, the loss of my ministry, the loss of connection to friends, the loss of vitality, youth, mobility. And the word "mortality" began to be very present to me. Like most men of my age I suffered in silence. Was I being chastened? Had I sinned in some way and now God was punishing me? On top of everything, my children both moved to Boston in 2007. What was happening to me?
This all betrays a serious theological and personal error. We all (especially pastors) are trained to think that when things are tough for us we're supposed to keep it to ourselves. After all, people WILL talk. Some would undoubtedly judge me for being in this situation. And no matter what anyone says, misery most decidedly does not love company. What I really needed was someone to come along side of me, put their arm around MY shoulder for once and just be with me. Not many did... but then I didn't let too many people really see how depressed I was, how really down I was. The word to describe where I was at is what James uses here when he says "lowly".
If we can take it as axiomatic that the gospel always works backward from how we expect, boasting in my abjection certainly sounds like that kind of advice. Yay. I'm in God's waiting room! Hoorah! God put me on hold and the muzak is all depressing easy listening stuff from the 70s, and I've been waiting here a stinkin' long time. But the abjected brother is to boast in his abjection when he realizes that no matter how bad "this" is, God is with him. And therein has been my boast. If I have "blown it" in anything it is that I have not testified to the wonderous grace of Him who caused my humiliation and who has seen me through it all. And what was it for? What was the purpose of this long lowering? At least in part I can say it has given me an intense desire to "be there" for pastors and ministry workers who find themselves alone and hurting and isolated even in the midst of what others look at as successful ministries.
Maybe Ray Stedman's story that I think I've shared before is a good cap to this discussion. It is called "Don't take me to the hospital, please!"
"This scene didn't make sense, There he lay in the street, bleeding -- the hit-and-run driver gone. He needed medical help immediately! Yet he kept pleading, "Don't take me to the hospital, please!" Surprised, everyone asked why. Pleadingly, he answered, "Because I'm on the staff at the hospital. It would be embarrassing for them to see me like this. They've never seen me bleeding and dirty. They always see me clean and healthy; now I'm a mess."
"But the hospital is for people like you! Can't we call an ambulance?" "No, please don't. I took a Pedestrian Safety Course, and the instructor would criticize me for getting hit."
"But who cares what the instructor thinks? You need attention." "But there are other reasons, too. The Admissions Clerk would be upset." "Well, why?" "Because she always gets upset if anyone for admittance doesn't have all the details she needs to fill out her records. I didn't see who hit me, and I don't even know the make of the car or the license number. She wouldn't understand. She's a real stickler for records. Worse than that, I haven't got my Blue Cross Card."
"What real difference would that make?" "Well, if they didn't recognize me in this mess, they wouldn't let me in. They won't admit anyone in my shape without a Blue Cross card. They must be sure it isn't going to cost the institution. They protect the institution. Just pull me over to the curb. I'll make it some way. It's my fault that I got hit."
With this, he tried to crawl to the gutter while everyone left, leaving him alone. Maybe he made it, maybe he didn't. Maybe he's still trying to stop his own bleeding.
Does that strike you as a strange, ridiculous story? It could happen any Sunday in a typical church membership. I know it could happen, because last night I asked some active Christians what they would do if on Saturday night they got hit and run over by some unacceptable sin. Without exception they said, "I sure wouldn't want to go to church the next morning, where everybody would see me."
Now, be honest -- would you? Or would you reason, "The members would ostracize me. They would look at me like I was strange, and didn't belong there any more. Some of the self-righteous would accuse me of being a hypocrite. The Sunday school teacher would be mad at me for not learning what had been taught. Those sitting next to me would be embarrassed, not knowing how to react because they didn't know how everybody else felt. They really wouldn't know how to react to a known dirty saint."
In the good-natured spirit of the conversation we decided, if caught -- hit and run over -- by some unacceptable sin, we would be better off to go to the pool hall instead of to the church. At the pool hall we would find sympathy, real understanding. Immediately, someone would say, "This isn't the end of the world. It happened to me, and I lived through it." Another would say, 'I see you slipped and got caught. Well, don't let it get you down. I know a good lawyer who will help you." Another would add, "You really seem more like one of us than you did before. Now we know you're just like us."
Now, the question that bothered us is: Where should real love and understanding live -- in the pool hall or in the church of Jesus Christ, who died for sinners? Is the church really going to be the church until every Christian, hit and run over by some sin, starts pleading, "Take me to the church. My brothers and sisters are there. They care for me. I can get well there. I'm a weak member of the Body, but when I hurt, the strong members favor me. And I don't need a paid-up Blue Cross card. And I know they won't talk about me when it's over." Yet, to the last single person at the party, there was not one who said he would feel welcome in his church if the night before he had been caught in some sin which had become known."
And I'd just add that if this is how we treat known or discovered sin, how much more reluctant are we to share when we are baffled by humblings beyond our knowing and which seem to us unconnected to any behavior on our part? If this is the response of the average staff member in a large church, how much more isolated is the senior pastor or the solo pastor of a small church?
BOAST in your humiliation! As my choral teacher once told the OSU Concert Choir, "Make LOUD mistakes, please. It is the only way I can help you."
Pastoral Relief and Retreat
- Wethersfield, CT, United States
- I am Pastor at Poquonock Community Church, Congregational (CCCC) in Windsor, CT. My wife Jama and I live in Wetherfield, CT. We'd like to invite you to Terre Haute -- High Ground -- That's what Jama and I call the retreat space on our property. We offer free intentional get-away retreats. We'll feed you and house you and give you space to be with the Lord. All are welcome; no questions asked. This blog is my daily devotional journal. I write it because it is so easy to go for weeks without ever taking the time to be alone with God. Writing helps me develop a discipline I need.