Oscar Wilde famously said, the only thing to do with good advice is give it away.
Last week at a clergy gathering, someone mentioned the book “A Year Lost And Found” by Michael Mayne, one time Dean of Westminster Abbey. It chronicles a year of debilitating illness, which was eventually diagnosed as myalgic encephalomyelitis. His recovery was slow and painful and frustrating, and the experience of weakness and vulnerability in that illness affected him deeply.
He writes at one point of the challenge of priestly ministry in such circumstances (though it equally can be applied to other roles and lives), when the all the aspects of ministry and life which are taken for granted are stripped away, and we are in a position of being helped, rather than helping; being ministered to, instead of being the minister.
At one point he writes of how in the Christian life, and in ministry, there is a need for stillness and silence, being able to give thanks to God at all times and in all places. However the basic reality of the life of a parish priest – like almost every other job, vocation, or role – is that stillness and silence are becoming increasingly rare, to the point of extinction.We know what we should do to thrive, but it’s almost impossible to actually do it. So we give such excellent advice to others. Vide Oscar Wilde. In this context he mentions “Parson Williams, Rector of Llanbedr, of whom Kilvert wrote in his diaries that he would thump his pulpit and say to his people, ‘My brethren, don’t you do as I do, but you do as I say!’”
There is a humourous honesty in this, a recognition of our almost innate hypocrisy. Too often we do not take our own advice, whether as parents, friends, co-workers, whatever area of life we may be in. It’s not necessarily hypocrisy in the negative sense; often more an ability to see the situation of another more clearly than our own, because there is a slight distance, and we are not subsumed and overwhelmed by the emotional intensity of being “in it.”
The experience of vulnerability and weakness is rarely pleasant, and often brings a sense of helplessness and powerlessness. Too often the well-meaning acquaintance is full of advice and wisdom, but is frankly more of a Job’s Comforter, and despite their best intentions don’t seem to really understand. As with so many things in life, it is only once we’ve been through suffering and weakness and experienced it ourselves, that we can bring a new and greater depth to our care for others.
But what of God? And faith?
In suffering, we often ask, Where is God? What does God know of suffering? But the God we find in the Bible knows suffering intimately, and personally. Not simply because He is the Creator of all things and sustains all things each and every moment of existence. But because in Jesus He became one of us, lived a human life, loved, suffered, and died – for us. And so we know we are not alone, no matter where we find ourselves. “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for You are with me.” Our loving Father holds us in His arms.
We usually know what we should do. And we are easily able to tell that to others! But it takes suffering, weakness, vulnerability, and dogged endurance for us to embody that wisdom. Perhaps that’s why in Jesus we can understand God best, revealed to us in suffering and weakness – for that is the condition we like least, and it is where at some point in our lives we all must go.