Dennis C. Golden, president of Fontbonne University in St. Louis, once recalled a visit years ago with a friend who also was at the helm of a university. During their conversation, Golden’s friend described her role as college president in terms of three specific functions.
Basically, she said, I get up every morning and I do three things:
Give back calm.
Ministers everywhere will recognize something of our own calling in those words—especially the part about absorbing chaos. Serving Jesus in the church and in the world involves the inevitable sponging up of all kinds of ugliness and pain: Anger. Gossip. Secrets. Shame. Betrayal. Pettiness. Addiction. And, as most of us have discovered along the way, absorbing chaos takes a very personal toll.
One Thursday in the not-so-distant past I joined some pastor friends for lunch at an Atlanta bistro. We get together every month, ostensibly to discuss books but largely to prop each other up. I was feeling particularly raw that day about some conflict in my own congregation over changes and challenges we’d been facing for a while. My friends at the table were already familiar with the situation, but I shared some updates as we ate.
While scanning the dessert menu, I mentioned that I had a doctor’s appointment later that day. “I need something to help me sleep,” I told them. “My chest feels tight and my heart keeps racing.” Sympathetic nods all around.
From the far end of the table one of the pastors spoke up: “For what it’s worth, I swear by trazodone. My doctor prescribed it for my anxiety five years ago and it changed my life.”
“Have you tried amitriptyline?” another friend asked. “When my depression was at its worst last fall, my doctor put me on that.”
“Yeah, but it dries out your mouth,” announced a third. “I couldn’t preach while on amitriptyline—it gave me cotton mouth—so I’m giving St. John’s wort a try.”
There was a brief silence, then we all burst out laughing at what a beleaguered bunch we seemed to be. But here is a sad truth: of the ten pastors at the table that day, seven had required medication for anxiety and/or depression, and only two had not experienced some traumatic episode of conflict in his or her church.
Absorb chaos. A person can sop up only so much ugliness before his or her soul begins to turn rancid. Maybe that college president should consider adding a fourth bullet point to her job description: “Wring out sponge.” There are plenty of good sponge-wringing avenues: prayer, worship, meditation, exercise, therapy, good friends, etc. Why do this? For all kinds of reasons, but I’ll name two:
First: God has given you and me a name and it is beloved, not beleaguered. You and I were meant for more than a depleted, soggy half-life.
And second: God has given us a name and it is creature, not Creator. Christ already absorbed the sin and chaos of the world—received the poison and shuddered as it killed him. Why in the world would we feel the need to let it kill us, too?
So for God’s sake, and your own—lift up your sponges. (Say it with me: We lift them up to the Lord!) Lift them up and squeeze till your knuckles turn white. This is a faithful act.