We don’t tell the truth enough. We don’t explain to young, idealistic called persons how hard it will be to follow God. We don’t make it plain to them that they will struggle and fall and inevitably lose their way, or at least become unsure of it. We tell them they’re special, fill them with sermons on purpose and providence but we forget to say, life will take you places you don’t want to go; your heart will shatter into a million pieces more than once and you will look up and wonder where it’s all coming from and where your provision has gone, how it was that your favor wore off and you will realize that you are flesh and blood, you will hurt and you will bleed and you will know for certain that you are real.
It is the gift of Paul’s life really, the testament of a broken body and spirit, staring back at us from the pages of scripture that we’ve picked clean for rules and regulations. This holy writ that we have too long understood as a book of answers rather than an extension of divine love, the presence of God scribbled down in ink, preserved across the ages, a song that dances in the wind to remind us we are not alone. This Paul who never had a success in the span of his life, this one who was made blind so he could see, was beaten and bruised and scarred and poured out every drop of life left in him for the good of the church and never, not once, was able to look back over his shoulder and say, “there” that’s all good now.
Though we speak of the New Testament church as the model of goodness and grace, let’s be clear, that’s not what the letters convey. Everything Paul planted, all he put in place, everyone he ever trained got confused, felt wrung out, came to themselves and realized they were unsure and Paul, their mother would get word and he’d have to scratch out a letter laced with love and venom to call them to themselves, to help them recall the good news they had known.
According to Jerome Murphy O’Connor, the “thorn” in Paul’s flesh was his people, the ones he loved, poured himself into, gave his life for; the people that he saw birthed into the kingdom who would question his truth as soon as he left town.
I guess what I’m saying is, we are not the first people to have obstacles in ministry. We are not the first ones to find ourselves shipwrecked at sea on the way to some critical encounter, we are not the only people who have ever left a meeting that didn’t go our way, we are not the first souls bitten by betrayal and we will not be the last.
So let’s be honest. Let’s tell the truth as Qoheleth did (the female gatherer that we have falsely identified as King Solomon), life is hard and most of the time it doesn’t make much sense, but God is near. “Write the hard stuff” they say, this is what the people need. And tell them, don’t forget to tell them about this ineffable grace, sing the song of this love that will not let us go even unto our own selves.