“We know that because Jesus is our Shepherd, we can find contentment, experience courage, enjoy communion, and live in confidence despite the valley of the shadow of death and the presence of enemies. (My exposition of Psalm 23) … But hearing, meditating, and considering this truth, why do we not regularly find contentment, experience courage, enjoy communion, and live in confidence?
Over the latter half of 2018 we looked at growing in our understanding of our weakness. Now, if you ask me now if I am physically, materially and emotionally weak, I will tell you I’m older, poorer and my disease can be very wearying. God has intentionally made me weak, through that weakness I have learned deeply at the foot of grace.
If you had asked me that question twenty years earlier, others would have told you of my feats of strength from lifting stone columns, three guys couldn’t lift, to bending rebar, to lifting the back end of full-size pickup trucks with my buddy. Materially, Becky did not work, she drove a new car every two years, we lived in a two-story home and spent more than some make in a week eating out. Nobody would have ever considered me emotionally weak, but all these things essentially made me extremely weak.
They made me; self-sufficient, fiercely independent, self-righteous, self-postulating, self-aggrandizing, intimating, emotionally out of touch (Didn’t care either as everyone I knew depended on me), self-enabled and self-satisfied or so I thought, Answering those three significant questions of what I did, owned, accomplished, who owed me, who I was connected to, who was helped by me, what I did for my church and who I helped. You name it, I could lay it right down with the best of them. Rated one of the top in my field of my peers, Who’s Who of American Business, the product of a multi-million-dollar company, performing at levels most could never conceive, but I was weak and didn’t even realize it.
The lack of realization made me even weaker because even though I was saved, knowledgeable in scripture and a leader in my church, I really couldn’t truly reach for the one thing I needed the most. Considered; extremely successful, giving, living a righteous life, dependable, of high moral character, sacrificial, I was still out of touch. For, this is what I thought Christianity was about, behavioral and performance Christianity was my calling card. I lived it and preached it.
Blue collar Christianity was my key to happiness. No, I didn’t believe that God was there to make me healthy, wealthy and wise. Yet, I surely believed he was there to make life work and I only reached out when it didn’t. Otherwise, I was too busy doing to be in order to be seen as a Christian worthy of being called one. No one would ever have said about me, “can you believe he calls himself a Christian,” In fact, it might have been said, “you know they should spend some time with Pat so they can see how a Christian ought to be.”
In fact, my pastor once preached a sermon on what it takes to be self-employed, the good, bad and ugly, and everyone thought he used me as a model for the sermon. Yep, that was me; the church’s largest employer, the leader among men of a 500-member church, the one ready to give, buy the equipment, teach the class, pay for the next men’s outing and yet I was weak.
I was so busy doing to be that my family was something I bought and earned, not loved and enjoyed. I was so weak but did not realize it because my aim was to low. I thought Christianity was about what I needed to do, who I needed to help, how I should live, being seen as a Christian worthy of the calling. I thought the message was about getting others to change, perform, do more, work harder, be smarter and increase in knowledge only (I missed that part about understanding and insight, growing in depth of knowledge of what is the height, depth, width and breadth of God’s love.). The reason I missed it was my aim was too low.
I thought Christianity was only about shining and pleasing God. I missed the fine print that God was already drooling over what is the praise of His glory, me, because it pleases him to do so. Had very little understanding of a law that was not easily satisfied and continued to bark harshly at me. As it that revealed that underneath that sense of self-propagated holiness my aim was too low.
If my aim had been higher God would have been more to me than just a concierge assisting me at my beckon prayer call by performing various tasks in order to make sure my life continued to work. The counselors I listened to both internally and externally made sure I knew that I was doing all that a Christian could do or be expected to do, I was at least head and shoulders above most in; my study time, my reading (A friend once remarked, “Pat is the only guy I knew that reads five books when he goes on vacation.”), my devotional life, my worship, my theology, my outer obedience but all of these things kept me from seeing how weak I was (These things are extremely important, when the heart is checked).
I was quite satisfied; with myself, my life, the answers the counselors were giving me, what I was contributing, the part I played in life, church, husband, father and friend. I had plenty of creed (Can you say Pharisee!?), was making a real difference and I knew grace was enabling me to do this (Though in truth, because I saw no weakness, refused to acknowledge weakness, I really had only needed a little grace to give me that extra push and had no clue how much grace I actually needed, because I had no understanding of my weakness)
To top it off, not only was I already pretty good at performing, I was surely improving so much in my performance that I had heard God was going to be starting a new act and was considering me for the starring role. I was God’s partner, he needed me, and I of course needed him. I had to believe God and I were partners because if I didn’t then why did I matter, why was I significant? Surely, I was not significant or matters simply because God said so! There had to be more to it, right (Yes, I know we are partners in kingdom building with God, but we are not partners with God in finishing what he has started.)?
There was something missing, something lie beneath the surface that would eventually erupt, I was incredibly weak in my understanding of the depth of gospel truth, and consequently my aim remained perpetually low. I was missing the flashing red district that lie beneath that fueled the belly of the beast’s desire for more creed, more acknowledgement, more accomplishment and pushed me harder and harder.
My aim remained on morality improvements, performance or behavior modifications (Better devotionals, prayer life, more involvement, bigger doings, greater acknowledgment) or establishing soundly the answers to those three questions. In actuality, this was the only reason I needed Jesus. It wasn’t till it all broke, when the; modifications, answers, improvements, better performance, life, and relationships fell apart on me. When that law that demanded high octane performance became impossible to; quench, to drown out, satisfy and meet that I discovered what I thought was Christianity was inept at best, at worst had made me a pawn of the little guy, and imprisoned. .
When it all went quiet, and my world never stopped spinning that I started losing grasp on how I had always answered those questions. Suddenly not only did I struggle to do what I felt pleased God, to live a righteous live, to meet my own expectations of performance, meet my own code of conduct, my own standards I also began to struggle to know why I mattered, who I was and where I belonged. Everyone still wanted something from me, my family, my friends, and my church. All I wanted was the pain to end.
One night after the physical and emotional pain had become so intense (Imagine your body hurting every day for a year and a half, as though you had the flu.) I stood on a very high bridge one leg draped over, ready to jump when I was hit right in the face with the bright lights of an emergency road truck. Those bright lights kept me from jumping to my death, yet I would spend a night in county lockdown in a room with padded walls having to be forced and held down by a group of men to give me a sedative to put me to sleep. Suddenly the man who everyone admired, was the epitome of optimum performance could no longer perform. He was literally broken.
The one who everyone turned to for the answers could no longer provide them, I didn’t even have them for myself. Even more embarrassing was when my personal assistant had to pick me up after being released the next morning. Yet, here is where the journey of weakness began, a call was made, a ministry was born, and a grace odyssey began. A journey so radical in the change it produced that my late friend Dr. Howard Brown used to say, “There is a Miami Pat and a South Carolina Pat, may the two never meet.”
For the first time since I was 10, I had to reach outside myself, when I did, I saw that my aim had indeed been way too low. I was awoken to a great inability to meet as a Christian that which God demands, requires and performs perfectly. I was awoken to a law that even required more of me than I or anyone else had ever required of me. A law that brought to a light a weakness that went way beyond my physical weakness.
One that left me crippled, gasping, searching, reaching to something outside myself, and beyond me. The more I looked into this high, demanding, crippling, emotional crushing law (A law that told me I must perfectly give God all my heart, soul and mind all the time and must share His glory with no one.) it sent me running. Running to that Shepherd who lays green pastures for me and prepares a table for me to worship as a loved, treasured, glimmer of joy in the eyes of my Father. A Shepherd who turned in the ultimate performance so that I could stop performing and rest.
In learning to rest I discovered not how to perform but how to be in a relationship with the perfect lover. I learned; to enjoy Him, worship Him, love Him and others, exemplify Him and share, out of and because of love, not to be loved, to be significant or to matter. I could stop striving and pushing to work to answer those questions, because the answer lie now with the Shepard. The more I experience this refreshing, invigorating and transforming love the higher my aim remains, the higher my aim remains the freer I become, seeking to give him what his love empowers.
If you ask me what 2018 was about, it was a reminder of these truths. Doesn’t mean I work less, do less, am less busy but it does mean the reason why I am now needing to be different. My beloved friend of twenty years committed suicide for less of a reason than what drove me to that bridge that night. I have suffered with the same condition he put in his suicide note as to why he committed it for 30 years, but because of grace, God’s sovereign purpose he jumped off the bridge so to speak, when I did not.
There lies the difference, it does not lie in that I am stronger, tougher or able to handle pain better. If those bright lights had not hit me in the face at the right time I would have jumped. It was no accident that the lights appeared right at that time, nor coincidence. It was the decreed sovereign plan of God for me to be grabbed by those headlights.
However, his death has served as a reminder. Someone remarked last week, that I used words they were not used to hearing from me. Words that did not involve drive, purpose, intentionality or anything of this nature. Words that sounded like comfort, relaxed and no pressure. This was not a change, but it was part of the reminder of the lessons learned during the fourteen years, since that night. God used the roller coaster of 2018 to make those lessons fresh, again.
Yes, the answer to the question asked is ultimately our aim is too low. C.S. Lewis was right we are quite content to make mud pies while a playground filled with unimaginable riches waits for us. Yet, to discover the riches in that playground it requires us to forsake all that we have grown quite comfortable with, including how we have always answered those questions as it did me. If we are unwilling to forsake then we stand in danger of remaining like the eternal shopper who has never had a budget to shop outside of the dime store, who suddenly has been given an American Express black card but never uses it, even though someone else is paying the bill for life. Simply because they have grown quite comfortable with what they have always known.