Thick Skin?

Someone once told me that being a pastor- or in the ministry in general- requires a thick skin. While they were probably intending this to mean a defense against criticism and conflict, it really got me thinking.

Galatians 6:2 says this:
Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.

This verse reminds me of a book I read in one of my ministry classes last year. Compassion by Henri Nouwen is one of the most powerful books I have ever read. In this book, Nouwen outlines the true meaning of compassion. The literal translation is to suffer with. This is the very life that God is calling us to– especially those in ministry. For us to develop a thick skin is to close ourselves off from the suffering of others.

Let me emphasize something: I understand self preservation for the sake of avoiding burnout. Unfortunately, burnout is something that can quite easily and rather quickly hinder or even destroy a ministry and a minister. But what happened to faith in God’s grace and empowerment? If God intends for us to suffer with those that are suffering, will He not give us the endurance and ability to do so?

In my own life, that endurance has come at a price. With all that I have struggled with and continue to struggle with, I have built a surprising amount of compassion and empathy. I have been the lowest of the low. I have felt pain so deep in my being that nothing could make it stop. I now see that in others. In a weird way, I’m thankful for the trials I have endured. They have prepared me for God’s purposes for my life.
So should we have a thick skin? Or should we let ourselves feel the pain of others? Show compassion? Suffer with them?

Oh, and by the way: if you thought this message was directed towards pastors and other members of the clergy, you are mistaken. We are all called to ministry- to compassion. So get ready to love people when they’re at their lowest- by getting down next to them.

Understanding Me

I wonder… Am I understood?

I mean, obviously my words are read, and my meanings are interpreted- at least by my English speaking friends.

But do they understand? I wonder this because- to be honest- I don’t even understand myself. I know what it means to be inside my own mind- something that nobody aside from God Himself could ever know- and yet I struggle to understand myself. I have thoughts that come and go, some good- some not.

Is this normal? This perpetual fight inside my mind to know what my mind is thinking? It’s like a battle between myself and… Well myself.

I can maintain composure. I can smile on the outside, act like I have it all together. But if I can’t even understand my own psyche, how am I supposed to understand anything or anyone else?

Am I the only one?

Most of the time I think I have it under control. I think I can maintain at least some semblance of understanding within myself. But then something- anything happens and I lose all confidence.

Does this happen to anyone else? Am I crazy?

Maybe I should just stop thinking. Turn off my brain- stop the over-analyzing in its tracks.

But I can’t. That’s the problem. I like to think. My thoughts are my only comfort sometimes- even though they are often the very knives that destroy me. It’s like a sweet torture. But I hate it.

Why must my thoughts go on like this?

It’s like Twenty One Pilots says:

 I have these thoughts, so often I ought to replace that slot with what I once bought. Cause somebody stole my car radio and now I just sit in silence. Sometimes, quiet is violent.

I try to escape my thoughts. Go for a walk. Listen to music. Watch unhealthy amounts of Netflix. But it’s those moments between the songs- the buffering of the next episode of Malcolm in the Middle– the quiet- that my thoughts like to overtake me.

Even as I type this, I wonder if anyone will know what I’m talking about. I wonder if I know what I’m talking about. I’m not crazy- I promise. Just a little frazzled.

Try to understand me. This is me being raw. Open. For the sake of helping others who struggle in similar ways. I’m still me. But maybe now you can understand who I am a little bit better. I have struggles- like everyone else. I have just come to realize that being open and vulnerable with mine- often helps someone be open and vulnerable with theirs. Let’s avoid the quiet that is so violent. And please- don’t create it.

God, I need you. Every minute. Send your wisdom and please- clear my thoughts. Focus them on you.

Amen.

Prayer

As I sit here working on my very first sermon coming up in the next month or so, I am beginning to realize how important of a theme prayer is in the Bible. I mean, everything good that happened to the followers of God in the Bible seemed to come after someone prayed.

Solomon prayed for wisdom. He got it.

Adam and God had a conversation, the very first prayer mentioned in the Bible, by the way, right after he sinned and the Fall of Man happened. God forgave him.

You know what prayer seems to stick out to me the most, though? Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Here he was, facing the most painful torture that was known to man, with death an unavoidable ending, begging God for another way. He knew there wasn’t another way, He went through with it. His prayer to God gave him strength. God heard his prayer. He knew that in order to save the rest of humanity from our stupidity and sinfulness that His only Son had to die in the most terrible way possible. Jesus prayed, and God said no.

That happens. God sometimes says no. But you know what?

He says no because, even though at the moment we are facing storms and drowning in life’s problems, He knows that our endurance will lead to a better and closer relationship with Him.

Jesus didn’t want to be crucified. But he trusted God and did it anyways.

And Easter came.

Pray. Just pray.

Dead End (Flash Fiction)

As I wondered down the damp, unlit street that led back to my apartment, I began to think. I know, thinking can be dangerous. Especially for someone with a brain like mine. Anyways, as I was walking, I began to let those ever dangerous thoughts into my head. What was I doing with my life? Here I am, 34 years old, with a gut that would make an overdue pregnant woman look thin, living by myself in a tiny apartment with the salary of an entry level McDonalds employee. Which would be okay, since I work at McDonalds, but I have worked here since I was 16 years old, and I have yet to be promoted.
“I am at a dead end.” I loudly pronounced to myself, though it was loud enough that the rats on the edges of the street scurried away.
This realization hit me really hard. I had no real future. I was useless. I walked over to my answering machine (yet another statement on how depressing my life is– I mean, who still has an answering machine?). I noticed there was 1 message. I felt a little glimmer of hope swell in my chest. Was I finally going to get a phone call?
“Congratulations! You have been selected to receive a cash prize! Visit www.cashprizesforyou.com to claim it now!”
A telemarketer. That’s what I had gotten so excited about. A good for nothing telemarketer that thinks I am so pitiful that I will fall for his stupid tricks. Well, I guess this was no different from any other night. No calls, no messages.
That brings me to now. Here I am, sitting in my dimly lit apartment, slowly picking at the remnants of a TV dinner. What a sight I must be. I almost giggle to myself as I think of what the caption would be if a picture of me at this exact moment were to ever appear in a newspaper.
“LONELY MAN MAKING THE REST OF US FEEL AWESOME BECAUSE HE IS SO PITIFUL.”
I know, it’s too long and most likely unrealistic, but I do feel like that lonely man. There is nothing here for me. I now realize how useless I am.
As I flip through the channels on TV, my eyes drift over to the coffee table. Many times I have looked at the drawer in the middle of the coffee table. I know what’s in it, but I haven’t been able to open it in months. I’m afraid of what I would do next. At least, I was. Tonight I begin to think about opening it again. This time, I know I have no other choice. I have to open it. I have to remove what was in it, and I have to use it. Its time.
I take one more bite of the crusty yet runny macaroni and cheese that was left in my TV dinner. I guess this is it. I slowly lumber off the couch and over to the coffee table.
“Dead end. Dead end. Dead. End.”
My words from earlier echoed in my ears like a sick, teasing child. I take out what was laying in the drawer. I feel the cold metal against my hand. After all this time, I finally built up the courage to open that drawer. A little bit of pride passes through me, but I don’t let it last. There is nothing about this that should make me proud.
“Dead end. Dead end.”
There is nothing else to do. It’s not like a band is going to come out of the hall and play a sweet song to serenade me into it. Now is the time. The voices are getting even louder now. I guess there is no escaping them now. Only one thing to do.
“Dead end. Dead…

Convictions

We all have convictions. Whether it’s an unwavering belief in a certain political issue, or an adamant belief in a Higher Being, we all have convictions. It’s what we do with them that matters.

I know in my own life, convictions are important. Or, at least, I like to think they’re important. I can walk around every day and say, “Oh yeah, God is real. I know He is. Every fiber of my being believes it to be true.” But what if that is as far as my convictions go?

Let’s say something difficult happens in my life. It’s not too hard to imagine. I mean, let’s be honest, I’m a 20 year old college student with Major Depressive Disorder- among other things. So in the wake of this hypothetical difficulty, I can do one of two things- I can stick to my convictions and rely on God, or I can run away and retreat into myself. More often than not, I’m afraid, I am prone to the latter. The thought of relying on anything- even the One who created all things and loves me with a love that I will never comprehend- seems too much to handle. In the midst of this hypothetical hard time, my mind goes straight to self preservation. That means that I close myself off and try to minimize the damage. Does that mean I abandoned my convictions? Or am I simply holding on to the only thing that I know to be true- myself?

What about when we have a certain conviction against something? Say, for example, that I have an issue with drugs (I do, as a matter of fact, have a problem with drugs. I think they’re dumb and illegal for a good reason). Now let’s say that someone we are close to not only doesn’t have the same conviction, but actually acts in a way that contradicts our conviction. In this case, we will say one of my close friends has a problem with drugs- and doesn’t see it as a problem (remember- this is hypothetical). Do I stick to my convictions and approach them about it? According to the very definition of a conviction, this is something that I believe very strongly against, and for me to attempt to ignore that would only create friction in the future. But at the same time, what if it didn’t? What if I was able to simply live and let live? Sure, the argument could be made that this was going against my convictions, but what effect does it have on me if someone I know is doing drugs? As long as they keep me out of it and do it to where I won’t notice, what does it matter?

But I will still know. This hypothetical situation can be put off for an indefinite amount of time, but at some point I am going to realize that it does in fact bother me. This person that I have a close relationship with is doing something that I feel very strongly against, and because of this I feel that they do not support my conviction. I’m not being close minded, I just know that at some point, the way that they are living is going to mess with my convictions. So once again, I must abandon my convictions or else communicate my discomfort with my friend.

I’m not saying that every conviction is going to set us apart from our friends. Religious beliefs (or lack thereof), while being some of the strongest convictions, can, for example, easily be diverse among a group of friends and not create an issue. It’s the other convictions- the ones based on habits or actions- that can create issues. These can set us apart. So do we let them? Do we let our convictions separate us from those around us?

It’s easy to say live and let live. But can we really do it without abandoning our convictions?