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The wall


Athletes know about hitting the wall. It's the onset of sudden and extreme fatigue for participants in an endurance sport like running. In a broader sense to hit the wall can signal a loss of effectiveness that leads to an abrupt end. Or, the point where one is physically or mentally unable to make progress or continue in pursuit of a goal. We know it happens in almost every human venue---careers, marriages, personal relationships, goals and aspirations, and even in spiritual pursuits. Hardly a day passes when we don't read or hear about a pastor, minister, or spiritual leader hitting the wall of mission. Sadly, they are empty, reserves drained by the rigors of their assignment. They require times of healing and restoration---physical, emotional, and often spiritual renewal. And, it's why so many people quit today. They hit the wall and can't go on.

Of course, many people beyond the scope of ministry hit the wall. Author and pastor Richard Foster, writing in Celebration of Discipline (Harper Collins, 1978 and 2009) wrote, "Superficiality is the curse of our age...The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people". This isn't to say that the spiritual leaders who have hit the wall and step aside are in any way shallow or negligent in their devotional life. It is to conclude that life is hard and demanding, complicated by the time and distance required to fulfill purpose and calling and mission. The disciplines of grace that sustain us are often smothered under the press of commitments and obligations that steal our times of personal devotion and preparation.

On a personal note, Harriet and I both almost hit the wall in 2011 when I was serving as Lead Pastor of our growing suburban congregation, had been elected President of the South Carolina Baptist Convention, and we experienced the greatest personal tragedy of our lives. Our thirty-three year old son Brian Eliot Holmes was murdered in downtown Charleston. The weight of his sudden death, especially when we faced how and where he died, threw a wall in our path that seemed absolutely impassable. Our physical, emotional, and spiritual reserves seemed tapped to the bottom. We were surrounded by family, friends, and the community of faith who covered us in prayer, thoughtful gestures, kindness, and genuine compassion. But, for days we went through the motions and were subsumed in the mechanics of grief. For a spell I wasn't sure I could fulfill my duties. We had hit the wall.

One night I was on the porch and a Bible verse jumped off the page and assaulted me. It was from James and I knew it would be practical and that it was God's answer to the pleas from my empty heart. James wrote---

But, he gives more grace.

James 4:7, ESV

My first response was something like, "sure, tell me something new". Yet, it was a profound reminder that all this stuff we believe and teach and preach is real, not just lines in our systematic theology or warm greeting card sentiment. This moment of clarity also revealed something deeper and more fundamental that I and thousands of colleagues allow to add weight to the burdens and challenges of spiritual leadership: much of what we believe and teach has become academic and not authentic. This is a dangerous subset of a prideful spirit.

And, that's the thing about hitting the wall. Our personal resources, no matter how firmly rooted or finely tuned, are typically at an ebb when we arrive at the wall. When we're empty there's nothing left. We have to go outside of ourselves. Now, let me tiptoe here. It's not like we're going to be zapped by a cosmic laser to supercharge our system. There's no health/wealth name-it-and-claim-it sweepstakes to flood us with the glories of heaven in our moments of physical, emotional, and spiritual drain. But, there is more grace.

The context of the promise about more grace nails us with the pride thing. James' fourth chapter is a warning about worldliness driven by pride. Most of the discussion is about the inner turmoil of depending on our own passions and abilities. Living out of our own resources is likened to friendship with the world, which makes us an enemy of God. James summarizes with, "But he gives more grace. Therefore, it says, 'God opposes the proud, and gives grace to the humble." (all of James 4:6).

Here's the lesson he taught me in those hard days when I had hit the wall. Pride makes us humans more reliant on our own resources. God opposes the proud. But, when we're humble enough to know our human limits, and secure enough in faith to ask him for more grace, he gives it. I'm empty. He's not. My supply is scant, his infinite. It's something I had known since seminary, the sufficiency of his grace. That night on the porch, he taught me this truth in a more enduring way.

in a funk? Hit the wall? Ready to quit? Remember this. But. He. Gives. More. Grace.


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