The new Disney movie Encanto is a lovely reflection on gifts, community, family, and miracles. I encourage you to see it, especially while we are reading 1 Corinthians in the lectionary about the same themes. But the song and character that most stood out to me in Encanto is the oldest sister, Luisa, whose gift is strength. Her big song (by Lin-Manuel Miranda) is “Surface Pressure.” It’s an ode to being the strong person everyone depends upon… while feeling fragile and terrified of your own collapse.
Pressure like a drip, drip, drip that’ll never stop, whoa
Pressure that’ll tip, tip, tip ’till you just go pop, whoa
Give it to your sister, your sister’s older
Give her all the heavy things we can’t shoulder
Who am I if I can’t run with the ball?
That song—and those feelings—haunt me as a clergy person, a mother, an only child… so many of my identities. And I know there are shared by many clergy as the third year of the pandemic begins, and the pressure of feeling like we are walking a tightrope becomes untenable. And I know the song is speaking to people all over our country because it just broke into the Billboard Top Ten.
I know in my heart that Jesus expects us all to fail sometimes. I know in my heart that to follow Jesus means to spend as much time in the garden of Gethsemane as it does to be in the garden at the resurrection. I know in my heart that Peter’s denial of Jesus co-exists with his faith and identity as the rock upon which Christ has founded the church.
And yet: I don’t want to be the one who fails, or who denies Jesus, or who drops the ball. Better to be strong, unphased, unscarred.
I remember one of the hardest days in my ministry when the adult child of someone dear to me and the congregation had died from an overdose. I was on the phone, planning her funeral; and also working on another memorial service the same week that had been on the calendar for over a month. In the midst of all of that grief work, the church phone rang: another death. This one was of a woman who had been ill for a long time, but I realized as I spoke to her husband I was in no condition to offer him consolation. I cracked. And in that moment, I did something that was both absolutely the right thing and the wrong thing at the same time: to the grieving husband I said, “I’m sorry, but I need to call you back in a few minutes.”
The crushing weight of grief, and of my need to be priest and pastor to so many in so many ways, just broke me at that moment. And for five or ten minutes I couldn’t do it. I cried, I fumed at God, I prayed. And then somehow I received the strength to call the grieving husband back, and say, “I’ll be there in 20 minutes.” I got on the subway and was present for him in prayer as they moved his wife’s body out of the apartment, and then I got back on the subway and planned how I was going to participate in 3 funerals within 36 hours of one another.
We live with so much pressure, and the consequences when we fall short can be enormous. In this instance, it wasn’t for me. The grieving husband was happy to have me there and didn’t seem to notice anything amiss, or if he did he was quick to forgive because he knew about the other deaths.
There are obvious things to say about how to relieve pressure: share the burden with others; all the self-care actions we can take in our lives, from exercising regularly to having a therapist to taking time on retreat. Those are all important and critical.
But maybe we are also called to remember, frequently, that if and when we fall or crack, Jesus still loves us. Neither success, nor self-care, nor failure can make us more beloved of God than we already are.