On Feeling Like a Failure and the Power of Affirming Words
Monday mornings at the church I serve, we begin our staff meetings by speaking life-giving words over each other. We call them benedictions. The purpose is to offer public encouragement, appreciation, and blessing. As expressions of God’s relentless pursuit in each other’s lives, we want to convey, “I see you, and I see God working in, around, through, and for you. I want you to know that you matter, that you are important here, that we are much better because you are part of us.”
We try to get very specific.
Angie and Suzanne, you are showing great leadership for all of us. Bob, you bring out the best in everyone else around you. Cameron, our guests are constantly telling us how hospitable and kind our church is—you are the inspiration behind this. Lynn, the music was brilliant…again. Cammy, you are connecting our community to the poor, the marginalized, and those who are easily forgotten. Jesus must be so pleased with you. Casey, God created you to love young people. Jesus must be so pleased with you, too. Scott, you kept your sermon under thirty minutes…we knew you could do it!
This benediction culture then works its way out to the congregation during our worship gatherings, especially as congregants surround the many tables throughout our sanctuary to receive the Lord’s Supper each Sunday. As people approach the tables to receive the bread and cup, pastors and other leaders look them in the eye and speak life to them, in hopes of turning the volume down on their shame and guilt and sorrows and turning the volume up on their identity as daughters and sons of the Most High God:
The body and blood of Christ, given for you. Take, eat and drink, and be satisfied! In Christ, God has moved your judgment day from the future to the past…you are forgiven, blameless in his sight, and dearly loved! The last words spoken by Christ before his death, “It is finished,” have now become the first words for you as his new creation. The pressure is off! Now live in light of how loved you are.
Then, after being refreshed by the bread and the cup, our people connect with others around the sanctuary as they “pass the peace” of Christ to one another—offering prayers, confessions, greetings, and words of encouragement between men, women, youth, and children alike—speaking words that make souls stronger.
These benedictions extend far beyond staff meetings and worship gatherings…
One time I was feeling like a failure because of a criticism I had received. The hardest thing about the criticism was that every bit of it was true. When I shared my discouragement with a friend, he responded by saying how proud he was of me, how he looked up to me as a leader, and how he sees God’s hand upon me. It’s wonderful to receive such encouragement, especially when you know deep down that you don’t deserve it.
Then, my friend reminded me that the gospel I preach week after week to others is also true for me. These kinds of interactions mean the world to me. They turn the volume down on shame and turn the volume up on grace. They put courage back into my soul.
A while ago, my wife, Patti, offered me life-giving words that I desperately needed. I was feeling ashamed and grieved about some unkind things I had said about another person. I flat out asked Patti if she thought that I was a fraud. Should a tongue that gossips and tears down another person presume to step into a pulpit and speak the words of God? Can a hypocrite preach the gospel, or should I start exploring other career paths? Patti reminded me that I should listen to my own preaching—that I, too, am worse than I ever dared to think and infinitely more loved than I ever dared to hope. Being tuned into these realities is essential as I teach and lead, because God tends to do more good through preachers who step into and out of their pulpits with a limp, not a swagger.
As my friends and wife have preached the gospel in these and other ways to me, it has increased my courage to come out of hiding and renounce my inner chameleon. Instead, I am free to lean toward the ways of Jonah, Paul, and David and to consider how I, too, might see my story of rupture and rapture, of sin and redemption, as a means to help others see that if God’s grace can reach me, it can reach anyone. As Jack Miller once said, God’s grace flows downhill to the low places, not uphill to the pompous and put-together places.
And along the way, as we increasingly come out of hiding, maybe we will all become a little less lonely, too.
Shall we go there? The health of our souls and the authenticity of our life together depends on it. And whatever may come, Jesus will surely be in it with us.
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