It had been one of “those” Sundays: the sermon misfired, the choir was off-key, the chair of deacons mentioned a member who complained she didn’t get a visit when she was in the hospital, someone slipped a critical anonymous note under the office door, and the roof over the sanctuary sprang a leak. At the weary end of that day, the pastor slumped in her chair and said to her husband: “You know, I’m just going through the motions. My heart isn’t in it anymore.”
Nearly all of us have, at one time or another, lost heart or have come close to losing it. In 2 Corinthians 4, Paul offered an extended and image-rich description of how he viewed his ministry. Twice, early and late in his reflections (4:1, 16), like bookends that prop up everything else he had to say, he claimed: “We do not lose heart.” Clearly, the losing heart was on his mind. Maybe he could feel his resilience waning, his energy ebbing, and his trust weakening. Later in the letter, he wrote: “Besides other things”—and the other things included vexing problems and serious hardships—I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches” (11:28).
We can identify with Paul. Many of us have dealt with too much for too long: fears about illness and death, feelings of loss and grief, lament over pervasive racism and systemic injustice, anger over the politicization of public health and the rise of Christian nationalism, and myriad other troubles, some deeply personal, that are wearying and worrying. Like Paul, we also have anxiety about the churches we love and serve: questions about their survival; the need to recalibrate mission and ministry, the pressure to “return to normal,” when normal isn’t available and returning isn’t possible, and the realization that we don’t have answers, partly because we aren’t yet clear about the real questions. Sometimes, leaders carry these anxieties with a sense of isolation and loneliness. After all, what would it mean to admit how uncertain we feel, how much help we need, and how tired we are?
Like Paul, we’re close to losing heart. What kept him from doing so? What prevented his caving in to discouragement? It was, in large part, his faithful realism about Jesus, the church, and its leaders. Among us and within us, on the one hand, there is this bright reality: “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (4:6). On the other hand, “we have this treasure in clay jars” (4:7).
Both statements are true. It’s true that, in whatever darkness we find ourselves, however chaotic it may be, God is at work bringing light and birthing new life; and God is becoming radiantly and wondrously known to us in the face of Jesus, in his character, life, teachings, deeds, death, and resurrection. It’s also true that all of us who comprise the church, including those who exercise leadership within it, are clay jars, earthen vessels, and breakable containers.
The presence of treasure in a clay jar does not make it any more or less a clay jar. If we identify the gospel too closely with the vessel, we come to expect the vessel to be the gospel. We come to believe that the community of clay will never disappoint us and its leaders will never let us down. We need to keep reminding ourselves that the church is a paradoxical community: a fellowship of clay jars filled with Jesus. Jesus is the treasure; we are its containers. He is the glory, and we are its vessels. He is the light; we are its bearers. This paradox nourished Paul’s faithful realism about both the surpassingly gracious power of God and the susceptibility to the weakness of the church and its leaders. He had learned that his life depended on the mercy of God, not on his own might. He was convinced that God’s grace was effective even when he wasn’t. This faithful realism helped to keep him from losing heart.
These days, a lot of us are giving a great deal of focus, time, and energy to clay jar issues: reengineering institutional realities like budgets, staffing, and facilities in the aftermath of the disruptions of the last few years; leaving room in our schedules and programs for surprises of grace and experiments with newness; distinguishing between occasional activities of enrichment and intentional practices of transformation; discerning what it means to be effective rather than merely busy; encouraging one another to rest, to play, and to pray; and recognizing that love’s gifts are real and restorative, even when they aren’t quantifiable or measurable. These things are right and good; the condition of the vessels matters.
It matters even more that we give our attention to the treasure—to Jesus. Ultimately, it is his heart of self-giving which will keep us from losing heart. He gives us a secure and joyful sense of identity. We are always who baptism says we are: in, with, and through Jesus, we are beloved children of God in whom God takes great delight. Nothing we do or fail to do can change that glad and gracious fact. This identity is prior to, the basis for, and more enduring than ordination or vocation, by the way. Who we are is not the same as what we do.
Jesus gives us freedom from the disloyalties of idolatry. His calling for us to “seek first the Kingdom of God”—to give overarching loyalty to the will and way of God on earth as it is in heaven—sets us free from the blinding and binding errors of making politics or politicians, the nation or nationalism, race and ethnicity, status and class, gender and orientation, power and privilege in any way ultimate. The teachings and deeds of Jesus relativize and clarify all our loyalties, and they judge any commitments of ours that move us in the direction of fear rather than love, condemnation rather than compassion, coercion rather than freedom, and despair rather than hope.
Jesus gives us the invitation to rest, and it doesn’t need any elaboration or explanation. It’s a heartening treasure: “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly” (Matthew 11:28-30, Message).
That’s such good news for us earthen vessels.