Wounded Wise

This week’s “Dear Abby” column in our local paper started out with a letter from a 25-year-old woman lamenting the absence of a healthy role model in her life. Her father had abandoned the family years earlier, and her mother couldn’t seem to think of anyone other than herself.

It’s easy to get the impression that young people long ago renounced all need for role models and certainly for advice from their elders. The “Father Knows Best” days gave way to the “Never trust anyone over 30” generation, and Hollywood has given us a steady stream of films in which adults in positions of authority are uniformly portrayed as a bunch of clueless losers.

But I have been very recently reminded of just how thirsty people of every generation are for the example and guidance of what I would call the “Wounded Wise.”

I made a quick trip back to the congregation I served 28 years ago. Grace Lutheran Church in Fremont, Ohio celebrated its 125th anniversary. They invited back the clergy who had served as pastors, and the many “sons and daughters” of the congregation who had gone on to become clergy themselves.

The church was packed for a hymn sing, Eucharist, and luncheon. I was particularly impressed with the way generations of members of this congregation had built and maintained a fabulously beautiful sanctuary and church building; and with the legacy of excellent lay leadership, which carries on multi-faceted ministry to this day.

But the overflow of conversations I had with the people who graciously greeted me during this event reminded me of a powerful lesson I learned while serving at Grace: It was my own painful experience of a divorce during my tenure there that opened the floodgates of people who looked to me for counsel.

I came to Grace in the early summer of 1977; but it was after my divorce in 1981 that many parishioners came to me in large numbers. I could understand that those struggling with marriage difficulties and divorce would see in me someone who knew their troubles, but I also was called on to minister to and give advice to parents with troubles with their children, couples just trying to get a good start in their relationships, and people simply troubled by religious doubts.

And 28 years later many of these people approached me at the anniversary event, thanking me for standing with them, understanding them, forgiving them, and just being the person that I am. It was all very humbling, not least because I could not clearly remember the kinds of encounters I had had with them. But the cumulative effect of these mini conversations was to remind me of how surprised I was, so long ago, deep in this age when seniority and faith were said to be in such low esteem, that there was truly such a hunger and thirst for good counsel.

And I think the counsel that was sought was indeed wounded wisdom. People saw my suffering. They saw and heard from me that I didn’t have all the answers, but I did, in truth, have a God walking with me.

The Old Testament was drawn together, shaped, and written down during a time of great suffering—during the collapse of Israel and Judah, the exile of the faithful in Babylonia, and the struggle to rebuild the nation. The most powerful idea of all that came out of that entire experience was that Israel was being shaped by Yahweh into a Suffering Servant. It may be that the prophetic mind and voice of one author saw this role developing for her- or him-self, but eventually thought that he shared this mission with the entire nation of Israel, or what was left of it. By their shared suffering they were taking on themselves the sins of the world. They were suffering in the world, for the world.

Centuries later Jesus Christ came on the scene. His preaching and healing ministry made a deep impression on his followers; but he was arrested and crucified for his trouble. Many thought, “Just more useless words. Just another wasted life.” But some of his followers saw in Christ a perfect expression of the power of suffering to atone and to reconcile–the perfect font of empathy and healing compassion.

The world needs role models. Young people are desperate for role models. They are hungry and thirsty for people of experience, and people who are honest with their sufferings and doubts. They are desperate for people who aren’t trying to sell them half-truths and calculated lies. Today they are desperate for people who can counsel consistently for reconciliation and peace.

I myself, as a certified old person, often think of the things I can no longer do. My knees, ankles and hands are failing me. But, as the Apostle Paul says, while my body may be gradually wasting away, my inner self is being renewed day by day when every intimation of compassion, born of sorrow, works its way through my veins to my words and actions. And it is so encouraging to remember why people sought out my example and advice years ago. It wasn’t because of my muscle or memory or elegant answers. It was because of common pain, and sorrow and the shared hope that a great good God was walking with us through it all.

About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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