From the Letter to the Colossians:
I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Colossians 1:24 (NRSV) – May 8, 2014.)
Today, the Feast of Dame Julian of Norwich, is the 24th anniversary of my ordination to the diaconate. I am spending it, at least the morning, in the company of several fellow presbyters and a few deacons at a clergy conference. I am also spending it in some discomfort because yesterday morning I slipped and fell in the hotel bath; I wrenched my back and it appears I did something (only soft-tissue-ish, I hope) to my right hip.
I am also discomfited by Paul who “rejoiced” in his suffering and claims in this verse to do something I really don’t think needed to be done nor was (nor is) possible to do: “complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” In fact, I’m not even sure I understand what he is trying to say by that phrase and I find it so annoying I’m not even sure I can! Just who does Paul think he is? Who is he to suggest that something is “lacking” in the afflictions of the Lord? Who is he to think he can “complete” them?
It has been argued that this verse is more rhetorical than substantive. Paul, it is suggested, is not implying that Christ’s suffering and death failed in some way or fell short. Rather, he is simply submitting that Christ left work for us (Paul and all subsequent disciples through the ages) to do, and that whatever suffering Paul has been put through is a part of that work. OK . . . maybe so. I don’t have as much confidence in Paul’s humility as the commentator who made that argument seems to have had, but I’ll be charitable and give Paul the benefit of the doubt.
Does that mean I can claim my hip and back pain, the result of taking part in a clergy conference, are also contributing in some manner to the work of the church, to the world’s salvation? I certainly hope so, although I would never really make that claim. But perhaps my brother and sister clergy and I can make that claim about the deep-seated pain we often feel as we go about our ministry, the misery and turmoil we feel as we empathize with and enter into the pains of our parishioners, the doubt and conflict we feel about whether what we do and how we are doing it make any difference at all, the soul sickness we feel when we know that we have failed in some way to address the needs of those among whom we minister, the anger (and then the remorse and spiritual malaise) we feel when the expectations of the church are unwarranted and unreasonable. Perhaps some of that pain is salvific.
I love being a priest. There is great joy in ordained ministry. That was what I expected when I was made a transitional deacon 24 years ago and a priest a year later. I thought I knew there would be discomfort; I had no idea it would be as frequent or as painful as it has been. I wish there were a way to convey to ordinands that that is going to be the way it is, but I don’t think that can be done. You have to live through standing at a bedside with a family “pulling the plug” on a beloved parent or child, leaving the hospital convinced that everything you did and said was hopelessly inadequate. You have to live through watching an active parishioner abandon your congregation because of some stupid, silly thing you did or said. You have to live through being treated badly by people you thought were friends and being excluded from the social events and parties of parishioners who didn’t think you were. You have to live through shrinking budgets, declining attendance, and cold shoulders. You have to live through the pains of ordained ministry. Being told about them just isn’t enough.
After I’d been in parish ministry as a priest for about seven years, I started working with a spiritual director who was also a parish rector and had been in ministry for many years. When I would bemoan the pains of ministry (like making that list in previous paragraph), he’d ask, “And how did they treat Jesus?” and give me a look that fairly shouted, “And you expect them to treat you any better?” It was therapeutic. With his guidance, I came to believe that that pain is actually hope. It’s hopeful caring. I once broke down in tears telling my late mother about the difficulties I had experienced as a priest. Her response was, “If you didn’t care so much, it wouldn’t hurt so much.”
So I know who Paul was to make the statement he made in this verse; he was a fellow worker in ordained ministry and I suspect his suffering and pain was not just hip pain from falling in the shower; I think it was the soul-deep pain of hoping beyond hope that something you are doing is “completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.”
At clergy conferences we tell each other our stories; we share the pains we have lived through and we share the joys we have known. The science fiction author Spider Robinson once wrote, “Shared pain is lessened. Shared joy is increased. Thus we refute entropy.” Or, as Dame Julian might have said, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
There are great benefits to clergy conferences. Shared joy is one of them. Shared pain is one of them. Hip pain from falling in the shower is not.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.