You could never know what it’s like
Your blood, like winter, freezes just like ice
And there’s a cold, lonely light that shines from you
You’ll wind up like the wreck you hide behind that mask you use
And did you think this fool could never win?
Well look at me, I’m a-coming back again
I got a taste of love in a simple way.

Elton John and Bernie Taupin, I’m still standing”

Over the past month I caught up with peers with whom I studied and who started vocational ministry the same time as I did. Some aspired to be pastors, others cross-cultural missionaries, others were youth pastors or church planters. We dreamt together; argued and ate together for three years. They are friends who have a heart to see the gospel go out to the ends of the earth and who are now scattered around Australia and beyond—yet brought close by the harsh blessing of COVID and the surge of online video calling. 

There was flourishing, joy and delight, but there was also jadedness, burn-out and hurt. 

I was surprised and unsurprised to hear about the weariness and bruising that many of my friends have experienced in their first half-decade in ministry. Unsurprised because, over the last year, our ears have been haunted by ministry failures and disappointments (e.g. Rise and Fall of Mars Hill). Surprised because I thought I was alone and didn’t think it would happen to them. Not the strong, courageous, humble father of two who lived two doors down at theological college and is spending his savings to go train as a pastor; not the kind, no-nonsense and loving single person who spoke with excitement about going to the mission field every week at morning tea. Some were broken, needing trauma counselling. Some had collapsed in panic attacks after meetings.

Some were broken, needing trauma counselling … Some have stepped away from ministry altogether, unsure of whether to return. 

Who is to Blame? 

 We all, naturally, pointed our fingers. Theological college didn’t prepare us for this. There wasn’t enough support. The leadership wasn’t transparent. Due processes were not accessible, or made known, or weren’t there at all. There was rhetoric and there was reality. We were not strong enough; didn’t have realistic expectations; did not communicate properly. The list goes on: the church, people, ourselves, the system, the training, the institution.

And realistically, all these things might be partly responsible. Theological colleges do not have the capacity to prepare for everything. There will always be cracks in the system. Leaderships and congregations are filled with people who are broken. Due processes, whether they are there or not, cannot guarantee the results we want. What is said might be one thing, but the culture behind what is said may overrule the letter. We are limited beings. We cannot anticipate the hazards of unknown waters. Our communications can always be misinterpreted. 

Figuring out what happened and who was at fault might give us a sense of clarity; it might begin to restore some peace to our lives. Yet, as we come out of moments of hurt, we often discover that perhaps  events were a lot messier—that there were many different factors. Even figuring out who was responsible can’t change the past. Our sense of justice may never be satisfied; the pain of loss and trauma might lessen but remain; memories might dim but continue to exist with us. 

Swimming in the Wreckage

So now what? Do we just look around at the wreckage of broken hulls and the snapped oars and sigh in defeat? Do we desperately clutch to a piece of debris (maybe a bit with room for two) and cling on for dear life? Do we use the left-over mooring ropes and try and rebuild something that will guide us through the mess? 

Sometimes there are no answers—at least no rational answers. Sometimes there are no answers that will satisfy our questions. In the interpretations, misinterpretations and re-interpretations, we might never be able to know what the right thing to do was; how things could have or ought to have turned out. The guessing game of trauma leaves us with greater trauma, a spiral of ‘never-weres’ and ‘could-have-beens’.  

To give, or receive, an answer can feel cheap—even if the answer is true. 

There is only faith in the wreckage:

  • Faith that, though there is silence, if we wait long enough, we may be like Elijah and hear a low soft whisper. (1 Kings 19:9-13)
  • Faith that (though we may be surrounded), if we stare long enough, we may be like Elisha’s servant and see God’s protective army. (2 Kings 6:15-17)
  • Faith that (though we may be walking among the tombs), if we walk long enough, we might (like Mary) bump into the resurrected Gardener who was there all along. (John 20:11-18)

And sometimes there is only a cry of “I believe, help my unbelief.” (Mk 9:24) 

And the paradox of “afflicted in every way, but not crushed.” (2 Cor 4:8)  

And the command (and promise) that we should “never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God.” (Rom 12:19) 

And the confidence that where there is repentance, there is forgiveness (Lk 17:3-4)—even though forgiveness may not change the past (or even its effects). Where there is forgiveness, there may be reconciliation in this life or the next. 

We’re Still Standing

My peers are in different stages of grief, hurt and pain. But all of us are, by the grace of God, still standing (or limping); not because we were strong, but because—as we stood close to breaking down in the middle of the department store because we didn’t have the right size sink strainer—Jesus was faithful. And because he has proven himself to be faithful again and again (2 Tim 2:13).

All of us are, by the grace of God, still standing (or limping) … Jesus was faithful.

We stood standing because when we walked through the shadow of the valley of broken unbelief, we, in the words of Elton John and BernieTaupin, “got a taste of love in a simple way”—the Jesus way. 

Someone said to me yesterday, “with so much pain, life feels like just a husk and shell.” 

I paused and thought for a moment; knowing the truth but unsure about how to answer.

“Perhaps,” I replied (channelling Bette Midler and the Apostle Paul), “Husks and shells are life because husks and shells only appear when a seed is about to sprout new life.” 

Stay standing, friends, brothers, sisters, whether you are burnt or bruised—Christ is in the midst of both the furnace and the lions’ den.