Superman, the Six Million Dollar Man and the pastor of my home church when I was a teenager these three characters have always had something in common for me.
Well when I was growing up they were the only people I knew who seemed to be impervious to weakness. Superman, apart from the very obvious fashion faux pas with the underpants, and the occasional encounter with some strange metal, was up to whatever Lex Luther could throw at him. The Six Million Dollar Man, with his robotic enhancements had none of the limitations of ordinary mortals and neither come to think of it did my pastor. Listening to his sermons you got the impressions that pastors never struggled with any of the problems us mortals in the pews did. Now I may have a bad memory but I never remember him admit to any weakness, any struggle, any doubt, he seemed to have no problems whether physical or spiritual. Later when I was at bible college I remember another older pastor giving me an insight into this style of leadership by warning us not to share our own “struggles” with the congregation as he said it would diminish our standing and authority.
A few years ago when I was in the States we spent few days in silent retreat at Trappist monastery (miracles still happen, I managed it.) During that period God spoke to me very specifically about the values that should characterise my leadership. I have discovered in subsequent years one of those values more difficult to adhere to than any of the others, being authentic. What I mean by being “authentic” is being open and honest with others in the Body of Christ, when appropriate. I must admit that there have been many times I have struggled to be authentic in that way. Its easy to be authentic when you are encouraged and things are going well but I have found it much more difficult to be open and honest with others when things in my life are hard. There is always the temptation to hide what is painful, difficult or embarrassing and live some sort of persona of omnicompetence and invincibility.
However I have tried to resist that temptation and in my struggle to be authentic I have been inspired by Paul’s example to the Corinthians , “therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me” 2 Cor 12 We don’t know what it was but if we put all the pieces of evidence together it becomes clear that Paul suffered from some condition, his thorn in the flesh, that he found personally painful and embarrassing. I identify with that. Some of you may know that following a “break down” a few years ago I suffer occasionally from anxiety attacks and let me tell you that is my “thorn in the flesh” and I find it personally painful and embarrassing too. I suffered another panic attack on Monday at a prayer conference, yes I see the irony in that. I can’t begin to tell you how painful and embarrassing it is for me to know that other leaders are watching while I become anxious and eventually have to leave in a hurry.
What I find fascinating in what Paul writes about his personal experience is that he eventually came to regard this painful and embarrassing condition as a blessing, as a means of grace, as a source of God’s power in his life. If I am going to be authentic I have to confess I am struggling to do the same but I have identified several things about my panic attacks I can thank God for. I thought I would share them with you as a “word of testimony” as we used to call it in church many years ago
IT KEEPS ME HUMBLE … Paul with amazing authenticity says that his “thorn in the flesh” had kept him from being conceited. I can see how my panic attacks fulfil the same role in my life, you can’t suffer from mental illness and be proud at the same time. Panic attacks rob of you of dignity and make it clear to everyone around that you don’t have it all together. There is no doubt about it, my panic attacks keep me humble. I can see no matter how painful and embarrassing they may be if I react in the right way to these panic attacks they can have a positive impact in my life, making me more like Christ, fostering humility instead of feeding pride.
IT KEEPS ME DEPENDENT ON OTHERS …. The Body of Christ is designed to be a community of interdependent people, well at least in theory. I say in theory because many of us have a deeply independent streak in us and that includes me. I prefer to rely on myself, to be strong and self reliant. There is probably a bit of me which would like to be the charismatic multi talented church leader who has personally led the church to effectiveness. However my mental illness means I will never be that kind of leaders, I can’t do it all myself because I can’t rely on myself, instead I have to rely on others. The irony is, if I understand the New Testament properly, relying on others instead of trying to be omnicompetent is exactly what God wants in the church. So again painful as it may be and frequently embarrassing as it is, my panic attacks prevent me from relying on myself and prod me to trust and rely on others in the Body of Christ. My mental illness have helped me be a better member of the Body of Christ as a result and for that I can give thanks.
IT KEEPS ME DEPENDENT ON GOD …. I watched someone with a broken leg walk down some stairs in Edinburgh recently holding on to a friend. His broken leg meant he had to rely on his friend. In a similar way Paul writes that he had discovered his broken body meant he had had to learn to rely on God’s power. His physical brokenness became a conduit for God’s power in his life and I can say that my mental brokenness has done the same for me. When I get panic attacks I can’t cope on my own, I can’t calm myself down by will power. I have discovered all I can do is pray and rely on God’s power and not my own strength. My panic attacks are an effective antidote to what the NT describes as the “flesh” the sinful, self reliance and independence which is the essence and root of sin.
So what am I saying? Well yesterday suffering from a panic attack in public was, as always painful and embarrassing, as people I don’t really know well get to see that my mind in some ways is broken. Yet I can honestly say while there is nothing good about my panic attacks, like Paul I believe they come from Satan not God, God has used them for good in my life. Once more I have been robbed of my pride and taught again to rely on God and His people and for that I really can give thanks.