The Vulnerability of the Cross and the Life of a Preacher

I have a picture hanging in my office of a piece Matthias Grunewald painted in the early 16th century called “The Crucifixion.”  It is part of a larger altar project he created for a church that still stands today.  At the end of this post, I’ve included a copy of the painting.  Feel free to take a look at it now if you wish, and should you choose do so notice the vulnerability of it all.  There, on the cross, dangles Jesus’ agonizing body, stripped and beaten, hanging before the world.

It’s the words he says on the cross that make this image even more vulnerable: “Father, forgive them.”  Pastor-theologian Sam Wells describes this scene as one where the inner-life of God is on display for the world.  God the Son crying out to God the Father, and we get the privilege of being privy to one of their most intimate conversations.

The vulnerability of it all astounds me.  Jesus hanging naked on a cross, punctured and wounded, beaten and abused, conversing with his Father, mother, and friends.  His pronouncement of forgiveness, particularly in that moment, captures how daring love and forgiveness are for one who risks opening her or his soul to another.  Will they accept?  Will they reciprocate?  Or will they take advantage of my vulnerability?

This morning I’m thinking a lot about vulnerability and, particularly, the life of a preacher.  I have several friends who are artists.  I always enjoy listening to them explain their art.  There is so much of themselves in each piece they create.  Pains, burdens, joys, personality, individuality, worldview.  It’s all on display when they choose to share their creations with another.  Where their piece hangs, so too do their souls as persons walk up to interact with their art.  What will they see?  What will they think?  What will they say?  Will they get what I’m trying to say?

Sermons are the same for me.  Just as Jesus hung on the cross, just as artists display their craft, so too do I bear my vulnerable soul before a congregation of people who may or may not understand what I’m trying to say.  They may agree, disagree, or be apathetic.  It may offend them.  It may comfort them.  It may anger them, sadden them, or invite them in.  There is tremendous risk in preaching and horrible vulnerability in knowing what I say and who I am are going to be judged.  And there’s nothing I can do about it.

Often, after I preach, I spend the next twenty-four hours or so wading in and out of my insecurities.  I suck.  I shouldn’t have said that.  What was I thinking?  Remember what that person said?  They were right, you know.  You should just quit and go do something else with your life.  Why do they get to say their comments and walk on, but I have stand with a smile on my face and just take their unintended insults that cut into my soul like a serrated knife? (for some reasons, it’s only the negative comments and thoughts that disproportionally linger with me)

Sunday afternoons through Monday mid-mornings are usually pretty rough.  I’m thankful for a wife through whom God speaks and reassures me that I’m not a failure.  Who tells me, when I do “fail,” that I’m still growing and learning and becoming more and more into the person God wants me to be.  God, primarily through my wife, reminds me that “He who began a good work in you will carry it on unto completion.”  I am so thankful God speaks and comforts me in the most vulnerable seasons of my soul.

And these thoughts ultimately take me back to the cross and Grunewald’s depiction of the crucifixion.  Yes, Jesus hangs on the cross before the world.  But ’round him stand family and friends.  He isn’t foresaken.  He isn’t abandoned by all.  He isn’t alone.  There, on the cross and all around it, is Love.  Because that’s what Love does.  Love risks.  Love jumps.  Love is vulnerable, soulful, and communal.  Love leaves itself open to the judgments of others.  Love hangs there, dangling before a world who doesn’t usually understand, rarely accepts, and too frequently fails to reciprocate.

Nevertheless, there Love hangs.

And so too does the preacher, alongside Christ crucified with God the Holy Spirit, climb back up into that pulpit and dangles her soul before the world.  What will they say?  What will they think?  What will they do?

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Give Yourself Some Grace

We went on a family vacation a month and a half ago (though it feels much longer ago than that!) to Hilton Head Island in South Carolina.  Kate and her family have been going down there for nearly 20 years.  It’s a special place for them, so much so that her grandparents purchased a timeshare that we get to use as well.  We love HHI and the Low Country; it’s so restful and rejuvenating for us.

Except when we went to a local United Methodist Church to worship.  This has absolutely nothing to do with the church we attended, and everything to do with being the parents of a toddler.

On this particular Sunday morning, I gained an entirely new appreciation for parents whose children stay with them during an entire service.  

Our daughter just turned two years old, and – because I’m a pastor – I don’t usually sit with her on Sunday mornings.  My wife does that, or at least she used to.  I have been adamant with our church to make sure we have a thriving Nursery ministry, because being a parent is hard.

When we got to sit together as a family (a rare luxury for us), I quickly found myself getting very frustrated.  I wanted to enjoy my family and enjoy not leading anything on a Sunday morning for a change.  I wanted to enjoy personally worshipping God.  But that didn’t happen.  Between water bottles, snack packages, banana peals, toys, crayons, crying, fidgeting, and shushing, I didn’t get anything out of the service.  I still don’t know what the pastor preached on, or what he talked about that morning.

Sometimes life is just hard.  And we need to give ourselves some grace during those seasons.

At our weekly bible study yesterday, a retired man shared that his job had him regularly working six days a week.  Sometimes seasons last for decades.

It would do us all well to remember how challenging life can be.  Families, careers, taking care of our homes, purchasing groceries – there are a lot of demands on our lives.  That’s not even including pressures put on to us by well-intentioned churches who tell us that “Good Christians” take “quiet times” for prayer, bible reading, and are regular participation in church ministries.

Books and magazine articles – both religious and secular – tell us how to live simpler lives and how to say no to good things and yes to great ones.  While those books are quite good, I’m finding myself drifting more toward ones like Brene Brown’s I Thought It was Just Me (but it isn’t): Making the Journey from “What will People Think?” to “I am Enough” and her book The Gifts of Imperfect Parenting.  I haven’t read them yet (they’re in my Amazon Wish List), but I am quite fond of their titles 🙂  They seem to give a little grace, and remind me that it’s ok to not always have everything together.  Sometimes we get behind.  Sometimes we “just wing it.”  Sometimes we fail.  It’s not good, it’s not bad, maybe it’s both, it’s just how it is.

I was twice reminded of this recently (I can be real thick-headed.  Sometimes God needs to tell me two, three, seven times before I’ll understand “oh!  that one’s for me?!).

One of those reminders came from Jay Bilas’s book Toughness.  I’m only a few chapters in, but I’m loving it.  Bilas played basketball for Coach K at Duke University and has since gone on to live a very successful life as an attorney and ESPN commentator.  In his book, he writes, “Failing does not make someone a failure.  It makes them a competitor.”  I love that.  Life is hard.  Life is challenging.  Life is full of failures.  But that doesn’t mean we quit or give up or call ourselves failures.  It is what it is.  And so we keep competing, we keep working, we keep reading the bible and participating in the life of our local congregation, we keep loving our spouses, and we keep parenting our children the best we can.  When life gets hard, give yourself some grace and keep on going.  Every season has it’s joys and challenges, beginnings and endings.  If this is a challenging season for you, it won’t last forever.  Keep going.  Keep doing the best you can, even when your best isn’t very good.  And be sure to give yourself some grace even when no one else seems to be doing so.

The second reminder came when I was reading my daughter what has become one of my favorite books of all time: Dr. Seuss’s Oh the Places You Will Go! I love this book, its encouragement and – especially – its honesty.  Right toward the very beginning Seuss writes: “Wherever you fly, you’ll be best of the best.  Wherever you go, you will top all the rest…Except when you don’t.  Because, sometimes, you won’t.  I’m sorry to say so but, sadly, it’s true that Bang-ups and Hang-ups can happen to you.”  How true.  Life happens, and when it does be sure to give yourself some grace.  You’re a person too.  It’s ok to be human.  Even Jesus was.  

Grace and peace my friends.  Carve out some time to care for yourself today.