A new pastor just got hired. “How’s that going?” I asked Tonto. He shrugged, “It’ll be fine, but it’s hard for a guy to lead when he’s gone through so little suffering.” I was taken aback. “How do you know he’s gone through so little suffering?” I asked. Tonto: “I know the guy personally. He grew up in a stable, loving home, got good grades all the way through college. He’s happily married with a couple of kids, and now leads a church after a couple years on the job.” “Oh,” I say, “that does sound nice.”
Before I discovered Tom Waits, Titus Andronicus, and the Rolling Stones, I use to be a big Jars of Clay fan. They were a solid 90s Christian band and they’re still kicking out the albums although I haven’t kept up with them. In 2003 they released Who We Are Instead. As a thirteen year old kid, I listened to it often that year and still occasionally go back for another spin. The track “Faith Enough” especially haunted me at the time. The song embodied one of the elements I liked about the band: their ability to take a beating, feel the hurt, but not turn into pansies about it; or worse, slap the Jesus bandaid on the suffering and call it a day. I mean, sure, Jesus, but that’s a vague comfort when you’re in the shit.
“Faith Enough”: the lyrics were tough and sad, but I’m a visual learner so on second listen I flipped open the CD pamphlet to read them over. Under the song title was a quote from Hemingway: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.” The song lyrics flow from that thought:
The storm is wild enough for sailing
The bridge is weak enough to cross
This body frail enough for fighting
I’m home enough to know I’m lost
Home enough to know I’m lost
It’s just enough to be strong
In the broken places, in the broken places
Thing is, and this is what haunted 13 year old bellewether, I hadn’t been pushed to that hard place and I didn’t want to go there either. Granted, when my family departed sunny California for the wastelands of the Dakotas, I was not a happy camper. But I got over it and decided to go all in on Jesus: “Ok, dude, I don’t like this but I can either fight it or learn to submit.” Submission is liberation. I learned to love the wide expanses, revel in the breathtaking thunderstorms, and made great new friends. I even went back to California for a couple of visits.
But none of that counted as a breaking. Nothing had been fundamentally lost. Simply put, this was manageable toughening up. Like a brutal football practice. Yes, it hurts, but you’re stronger.
Since then my father (a senior pastor) and my family took a beating for years over the firing of a youth pastor and the subsequent fall out. I managed to dodge the last few years by escaping to college, but I knew plenty was getting broken and coming home was like walking into an infirmary. Body pieces, blood, and laudanum everywhere, but everyone still alive.
And then a couple of years later I got hitched, went to Korea, and then spent close to two years trying to hold together a marriage that she wasn’t even sure she wanted to be in.
I spent my twenty-fifth birthday with two friends barhopping and answering her texts about divorce paperwork. Two days later was our third anniversary. It was also the anniversary of my grandmother’s death some twenty years prior. So much for redeeming that day. A couple weeks later the aunt I was closest too passed but not before she found out what was happening with my marriage.
This sort of thing is not growth pain. It is bullet hole pain. And bullet holes stiffen. You’re never quite the same. A change in barometer and temperature and the gimp and ache comes back.
Even doctors avoid cutting into a body if possible.
Then again, scar tissue is tough stuff and I’ve gotten stronger in the broken places. That thirteen year old grew up and learned to appreciate suffering experientially. Now he is working to replace the bandages and not let the other wounds grow calloused. He’s getting pretty good at it.
What’s the Point?
Tonto’s comments about the pastor above were not meant pejoratively. They were meant clinically. The guy has had a great life comparatively (what isn’t comparative?) but a guy who hasn’t taken a beating is vulnerable to a beating and has a harder time carrying for the beaten. This is where I prefer to avoid searching out some rhyme or reason for the ways of God. His ways are not our ways but he weeps with those who weep and he rejoices with those who rejoice. This is comforting but it’s also humbling. Take no pride wherever you stand. Still, I wonder at times: “What was the point of all that carnage?” There is, though, no real answer to that query on this side of the veil.
What thirteen year old boy do you know, though, that wouldn’t love to show off a killer wound and have a good story to go along with it?
Might as well enjoy the scar tissue.