Some years ago – quite a lot of years ago – when I was a student dipping my toe into the water of vocational exploration for the first time (a full 15 years before I was ordained) a wise friend wrote these words of Theresa of Avila on a card for me:
“Let nothing trouble you Let nothing make you afraid All things pass away God never changes Patience obtains everything God alone is enough.”
They have been hard words to hold onto in the last couple of years. We have been troubled. We have been afraid. It has been very hard to be patient.
And I don’t know about you, but one of the things I have felt as a minister in this time – and in my case as someone stepping out into ministry as a newly ordained curate, in circumstances which are locally less than ideal as well as compounded by the bigger picture disruptions of the pandemic – is a deep awareness of my own inadequacy. I don’t know what I’m doing. I can’t do or be what people need me to do and be.
And that is a hard thing to admit, and a hard thing to hear one another admit. We want to rush to say “it’s ok, you’re doing fine, you’re doing your best, it’s enough.” We want to be able to reassure one another, and ourselves, and the people we serve. That’s a very human reaction. But is important not to gloss over that feeling of insufficiency, not to hurry past it to reach for reassurances which can ring hollow.
We’re not perfect, of course, but we want to be able to say we are enough, our best is good enough. Many of us may have come across the concept of “good enough ministry”, based on the concept of “good enough parenting”.
And yet often, I think, in the last couple of years, we have felt like what we are doing and being and offering has not been ‘good enough’. When we have received angry messages from parishioners about not being able to receive communion during lockdown. When we have stood at gravesides with too few people for too short a time. When we have tried to handle sensitive pastoral situations over the phone or a dodgy zoom connection. Often we have felt like we are failing, like what we are doing is nowhere near enough. Like we are not enough.
Let’s sit with that sense of failure for a moment. We have tried our best, we are trying our best, and often it is not enough.
So where do we go with that?
Back, I suggest, to Theresa of Avila: “God alone is enough”. Of course we are not enough. Only God is enough. We know this really.
“My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12.9)
God’s grace is sufficient. God is enough. God is enough, so I don’t have to be.
I hope that realisation can be – even as it is painful – also liberating. We do not have to be enough. We do not have to have it all sorted. We do not have to strive after being something we can’t be. That is not God’s calling or desire for us or for our churches.
God alone is enough. So I don’t have to be.
For me, that has been a liberating realisation. It has freed me – is freeing me, still very much a work in progress – from the tyranny of thinking that if I just worked a bit harder, did a bit more, was a bit of a different sort of minister, I somehow could be enough. It has freed me to accept my limitations and to be who I am, rather than striving to be something more or something different. And I hope – I think – that liberation has started to work its way into my preaching, into my interactions with other people, into the way we do things here.
We are, first and foremost, creatures, those who are created, and one of the hallmarks of creaturehood is that we are dependent: dependent on one another, and on God. We are not supposed to be self-sufficient. We are not supposed to be – on our own – enough.
Amy Plantinga Pauw in her wonderful book “Church In Ordinary Time” points to this – the acknowledgement of our own creaturely dependence – as the bedrock of healthy ecclesiology. We can only understand ourselves as church in right relationship from a starting point of acknowledging our own insufficiency. And embracing our own insufficiency, our own incompleteness, maybe even our own inadequacy, points us and those we encounter towards the perfect sufficiency of God.
Pauw identifies “provisionality” as one of the characteristics of a church which knows its own creatureliness. We are not complete. And she speaks – I think really helpfully – of the marks of the church as “one, holy, catholic and apostolic” as being “marks of longing”. Not descriptors of the church as it is, or as it could be if only we tried a bit harder and did things a bit differently. Not targets to be strived for. But “marks of longing” which orient our desires towards the desire of God for God’s church and point us beyond ourselves to our total reliance on God.
We are here today to talk about the gift of small churches. And one of the gifts I think small churches bring is that we have less to hide behind. We cannot so easily fall for the illusion that who we are or what we do is enough, or kid ourselves that we can be self-sufficient. Our vulnerability points us to the truth of our fragile creatureliness, and that truth will set us free.
We exist within a wider church culture beset with institutional anxiety. About numbers, about money, about the place of faith in public life, about all sorts of things but – in the end – anxiety about whether we are enough. It is easy to be drawn into that anxiety.
I want to suggest that the antidote to that anxiety is not proving our worth, but knowing that we do not need to; knowing that we are imperfect and beloved creatures of our creator, and trusting that our insufficiency points to the perfect sufficiency of God.
We are not enough, and that is good news. “God alone is enough”.