By Rev. Earl D. Lane | Pateros Community United Methodist Church
Question: What do Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, Russell Wilson (quarterback, Seattle Seahawks), Kerri Strug (Olympic gymnast and gold medalist), educators, medical professionals, pastors and Tom Wibbels have in common with Jesus Christ? (You’ll find the answer hidden somewhere in this column!)
I can’t think of anyone that has influenced my life more than Mr. Tom Wibbels. Mr. Wibbels, handicapped early in adulthood by the loss of half an arm and an entire leg, was my Little League baseball coach for three seasons. He coached our team to three consecutive pennants, as well as three consecutive wins over the league’s all-star team.
Mr. Wibbels was more than a coach. He was an educator, a mentor of young unruly boys, and an inspiration beyond explanation. He taught his players that there was no shame in losing as long as they played to win. Mr. Wibbels was able to instill in his players a level of confidence that exceeded our abilities, win or lose.
Case in point, it was the top of the sixth inning, I was on first base, and the game was tied. As I attempted to steal second base, sliding feet first, I banged my leg on the corner of the base. I got upset, and an assistant coach was sent out to deal with me. He told me to quit crying and reminded me that I was the winning run. I pulled myself together and prepared to save the day. Our team slugger stepped to the plate and hit a long ball deep to center. As I approached third base, I was motioned towards home. The throw from the center fielder met me at home plate, and again I slid feet first. I was safe, but as I slid, I reinjured my leg. This time Mr. Wibbels, sensing that I was really hurt, limped out of the dugout.
I’m sure that as he was making his way over to console me, he was assessing the situation. Mr. Wibbels knew his players. He leaned down and said, “Earl, I know you are hurt, but son, you must get up, shake it off and finish the game. I need you, the team needs you, and you’re the only catcher that I have. You can deal with the hurt later, but for now, we need you to finish the game. I know that you can do this!”
So back to the opening question: What does every practicing Christian, every social activist, and every professional servant of the Cross have in common with Jesus Christ? The answer is, we all play hurt.
Now, I’m not talking about playing sick or playing with physical pain. That’s just part of the job when you’re clergy. Urgent church matters won’t stop just because you have the flu or an aching back. Sunday worship isn’t going to be cancelled due to laryngitis or a splitting headache. Pastors rarely get to “call in sick” for whatever ails them. The kind of “playing hurt” that is more difficult to manage is the hurt that comes, not from physical illness or pain, but from the emotional and spiritual wounds that we sustain from life in the church.
Pastors play hurt when there is sickness, death, or conflict within the family. We play hurt when battling dissention, division, and discord within the Body of Christ. Pastors play hurt because of insensitive and mean-spirited verbal assaults hurled at themselves or their families, their churches, or their colleagues.
We play hurt and frustrated. If unattended, our frustrations can lead to anger, and unresolved anger and hurt can lead to depression. There are times when we are down that we wonder if the game is worth playing and if anyone cares enough to help us back up . . .
And then Mr. Wibbels, with one arm pulled me up and dusted me off. I got back in the game. We won, and the season ended.
Unlike baseball, in Christian ministry our season never ends. The church calendar rolls on whether we are hurt or not. There isn’t an “off-season” in which we can rest and recuperate or train for the upcoming season. Given the expectations of clergy by their congregations, it is too easy to just push on through, keep going, and ignore the hurts that are festering inside. However, it is well-known that unresolved hurt, no matter how many times you “get up and shake it off”, will not heal itself. Coach Wibbels said, “You can deal with the hurt later.” Our problem is that we don’t have a later. All that we have is a right now. And we don’t always have a wise coach like Mr. Wibbels who sees when it’s time to bench a hurt player.
But there are definitely times when we need to be benched for the sake of the church, as well as for our own sake. Even Jesus pulled himself from the game. “Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.”
Benching yourself can take on many forms, whether it is seeking therapy or spiritual direction, taking a sabbatical or a personal retreat, sharing your concerns with your district superintendent or a trusted friend or colleague. Seeking help is nothing to be ashamed of, and it may be absolutely necessary for your own well-being as well as the health of your congregation.
The Apostle Paul wrote, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” We play hurt… not helpless. Be the change… the team needs you!