Forty Years of Weakness
2 Corinthians 12:2-10, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, July 8, 2018
Tomorrow is the 40th anniversary of my ordination to the ministry. I have the certificate here, presented by my home church in Nashville on the evening that I was examined and then sat in front of a large crowd as ministers and deacons filed forward to place their hands on my head, whispering words of blessing. The main part of the certificate was written with a calligraphy pen in black ink, as clear as it was 40 years ago. The ten signatures of the men on my ordaining council were signed with a blue fountain pen in ink which has faded over the years to a very faint brown. I strain to read the names, but they have not faded from memory. I believe that all but one have gone to be with the Lord—one of them as recently as last week. They insisted my Dad sign the first line as “moderator” of the ordaining council, although he played no such role. There are several leaders from the Southern Baptist publishing house and campus ministry czars from Tennessee and Alabama, one minister married to my favorite high school teacher, one attorney on whose farmland I went camping, and last, my home pastor. Even though I left Southern Baptist life years ago, I don’t think there are any of them who would have been disappointed in me or the wandering path my ministry has taken to Alabama, New York, New Jersey, Kentucky, and Block Island.
On this day I encounter as a lectionary selection a passage from 2 Corinthians that has meant a lot to me over the years—the discovery Paul made that even though he did not get healed, the grace of Jesus was enough for him, and the power of Jesus was made perfect in his life through weakness. I don’t claim perfection, but I have known plenty of weakness. Cynics like Nietzsche have said that Christians try to make a virtue of weakness and humility because they don’t have the strength to be real men who can affect history. But I’m with Paul. If Jesus has been revealed in my life, it has been in times of weakness rather than in the times I have played the role of a strong man.
In Second Corinthians, Paul is involved in a conflict with people who are critiquing his ministry even though he founded the church. Paul nicknames them “super-apostles.” These are men who came into the church and claimed that they had it all together. They were superior to Paul, and they doubted whether he should be given any authority. The last three chapters of 2 Corinthians are so harsh that some scholars think they must be “the painful letter” Paul refers to earlier, for which he tries to make amends. It’s full of sarcasm about how wise these other teachers think they are. In chapter 10, Paul reports that these opponents say about him, “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible” (10:10).
It’s hard for me to imagine Paul being unimpressive, but it may be that the “thorn in the flesh” was a physical limitation or disfigurement; some speculate that his sight was bad or that he had a speech defect. No one knows. The thorn could just as well have been a recurring temptation or church members who drove him crazy. But in general, it seems that some in Corinth wanted Paul to be stronger. He wasn’t big enough, macho enough, forceful enough; he didn’t project success.
When I hear those people saying that Paul is a good writer, but he’s not physically impressive and his voice is weak, I totally identify. When I took a speech class in seminary, we had to do dramatic readings for the class. The speech teacher said to me—in front of everyone—“Mr. Hollaway, your interpretation is marvelous, but you are playing a Beethoven sonata on a dime store piano. You have no voice!”
Once I preached a trial sermon at a “neutral pulpit” as a candidate for a church in suburban Atlanta. The search committee chair loved my sermons on DVD but she had not shared them with the committee. We had already toured the parsonage, where they showed Nathan his future bedroom. But after the sermon, which the hosting pastor told me I had knocked out of the park, the search committee chair came to me to break the news that several members of her committee did not feel that my delivery was strong enough for their church. “In other words,” she said, “you didn’t holler, and they equate preaching with hollering.”
Along the same lines I had an experience in Kentucky when I invited a young evangelistic preacher from a thriving country church to fill in for me one Sunday. He was a preacher of the old hollering style, but I thought it might do my church some good. At the next deacons’ meeting, one of the deacons who never liked me much announced to the whole group—and to me—“That was the first preaching I’ve heard in this church in five years!”
There are people who want pastors to be bullies, the same way they want their politicians to be bullies. That, to them, is a sign of strength, and a sign that you are willing to fight for what’s right. I am yet to be persuaded that Jesus was a bully, even though he did get angry from time to time. Mostly, he said puzzling things and “told it slant,” to use Emily Dickinson’s phrase. Jesus represented in this world the God who, as C. S. Lewis reminded us, woos but does not force himself on us. Jesus does not commit spiritual assault, but invites us to follow him.
When I first became a minister, I loved the idea of campus ministry because I had been influenced by some fine people in that work, and also because I saw it as a ministry of building bridges and creating open spaces for questioners. Today I see the church the same way, but I didn’t at the time. I didn’t want to ever become a pastor because I didn’t want to be one of those guys full of hot air and full of himself. Of course, they are not all like that. Not the men on my ordaining council. But too many were like that—some mix of used car salesman and silver-tongued soul-bully.
I think Paul’s opponents in Corinth were like that, preachers who were full of themselves and boasting about their successes. Paul counters them in the letter by boasting about all the terrible things he has been through for the sake of the gospel. He says, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness” (11:30). The one preacher who really inspired me in my student days was John Claypool, a product of my home church who visited once a year and led a liberal church in Louisville—and eventually moved to the Episcopal Church. Claypool had lost a daughter to leukemia, so there was no bluster left in him. His book about that tragedy was called Tracks of a Fellow Struggler, and that was how he defined himself as a preacher.
During seminary, no book affected me more than Henri Nouwen’s book, The Wounded Healer, which said that we gain the ability to heal not from our strength but from our own wounds. I think Paul understood that, even though you may have an opinion of him as argumentative. In 1 Corinthians, he makes the point that he did not come to Corinth the first time in a show of strength or brilliant argument. Instead, he says, “I came to you in weakness and fear and in much trembling” (2:3). He says in chapter 4 of 2 Corinthians that we have the treasure of the knowledge of God “in jars of clay, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us” (4:7). And here in chapter 12, he says, “Whenever I am weak, then I am strong (in Christ)” (12:10b). When he is weak, that is when the power of Christ working in his life is revealed.
So I am not ashamed to come to you after 40 years of weakness. What I think of—internally—as humility and awareness of limits, others view as a failure of faith or the absence of the Holy Spirit’s power. There are still many whose model is the show-off pastors you find on TV churches and in shouting Pentecostal churches. But I am content with weakness, because Jesus meets me in my weakness and he uses my equal standing with the suffering to bring sometimes comfort and sometimes relief. No one will ever call me a super-apostle. But I think I can be content to retire having been an apostle to the weak.
I am thinking back over those 40 years of ministry, especially those as a pastor of a congregation, remembering times when I felt a terrible weakness with a shadow of failure on it. Still the worst time was in New Jersey, where after a dozen years of success and happiness I decided I could not support the Southern Baptist’s new position of excluding women from being pastors. I sat in a deacons’ meeting and asked, blinking, “Are you telling me that you would rather I move on than even have a conversation in the church about Southern Baptists?” Five out of six deacons nodded yes, months after giving me an A+ performance review. There were a couple of business meetings from hell; in one of them Nathan, age 11, sat through a series of made-up allegations against me, until he turned so white that a lady took him outside to protect him from further damage. Actually, he’s never fully recovered from that experience. That afternoon I took him on a walk in the woods, and the first thing Nathan said to me was, “Dad, no one stood up for you.” I learned later that this is the almost universal experience of pastors; friends of the pastor do not want to take on the bullies in the congregation.
This conflict went on for several months, some of it carried on through the newly popular medium of email, which allows a viciousness not possible in personal conversation. Then I decided to take a buy-out, in effect, and spent six months between churches. But I can bear witness that God was with this wounded puppy. He provided for us even beyond the generous severance the church provided; once a couple of scientists from mainland China who had visited the church once dropped a check for $1000 in our mailbox, just when we needed it. We received ministry from an organization based in Virginia which holds free retreats for terminated pastors, which included advice from a lawyer and a psychiatrist. But friends also ministered to us, including many pastors of the Southern Baptist variety. And church members we had to leave behind were not angry, but told me that the way I behaved under attack was where they saw Jesus’ spirit most clearly. My children and my wife were proud of me, and that meant the world to me.
That experience made me a better pastor and a more trusting Christian, because the most terrible thing that could ever happen to me—in my own imagination—actually happened to me, and I survived, because the grace of Jesus was enough. Paul says that so that he wouldn’t become too elated over his spiritual experiences, he was given a thorn in the flesh—an ailment, a temptation, or maybe, as I later thought, a deacon. Three times Paul appealed to Jesus about this (note that almost always when Paul uses “the Lord” he means Christ), and Jesus said to him, “My grace is enough for you. My power is actualized in your weakness.” Paul says that he has learned to be content with being the weak guy, rather than the impressive strongman. He is more effective in ministry as the vulnerable man rather than the superhero someone wants.
There was a period a couple of years into my ministry on Block Island that it stopped being fun. I seemed to have a gift for making enemies, by trying to address the need for mental health care after Ross Campbell’s death, by standing with a mentally ill member of our church who was denied access to public accommodations, by gathering community leaders to talk about the problem of drug abuse and young-adult suicides, and finally by standing for the right of nonprofit boards to require reports and results from paid management. Some of it was as simple as being a new person with a big mouth. “Who is he to tell us what to do?” But man, it was painful knowing that people were crossing the street to avoid me, and saying they would never darken the doors of Harbor Church again, writing letters to demand my firing.
And who knows? Maybe I should have shown more humility and weakness on the front end. But I have been told that the fact that I didn’t give up in the midst of controversy meant a lot to some people. I’m still here. My instinct is always to do simple acts of service, serving food, welcoming people, organizing meetings whether progress is obvious or not. Just don’t act like you already have the answers. Don’t act like you’re the boss. God’s going to work through your weakness, not your strength. Paul says about Christ that “he was crucified in weakness, but he lives by the power of God.” That’s the pattern for our lives, too.
At the almost nine-year mark, it seems that most people see the spirit of Christ rather than the meddlesome mainlander, and that’s because they have seen weakness and patience rather than bullying and self-promotion. You have to be the judge of that, I guess, but from my angle it’s been amazing how many people I don’t even know the names of have come up to me to tell me how much my ministry has meant to the island. I don’t say that to brag, honest, but to say that Jesus’ way is the right way, and he really does work through our weakness. Amen.