Several months ago, as I was approaching the end of fourteen years of full-time pastoring, a couple of friends asked me how I was doing. “Hard-pressed,” I said in the chat thread. “That’s the word that comes to mind. Hard-pressed.”
I was feeling hard pressure—pressure to connect with people and to say goodbye well through sermons and pastoral visits, pressure to handle the church-pastor separation with agility and grace at the classical level, pressure to navigate new possibilities for work and to tend to my family’s emotional experience of it all. The pressing was hard and felt like it was coming from all sides.
This metaphor of hard-pressing wasn’t without hope. I’ve preached from 2 Corinthians 4 perhaps more times than any other passage. Verse 8 tells us that we are hard pressed, but not crushed! The center holds, even when there is terror (or expectation) on every side (Psalm 31:13).
And hey, hard-pressing is how wine is made! When a vintner presses the grapes for wine, they must be careful not to apply too much pressing, for if they do, they will crush the grapes’ seeds and release bitter or leafy-tasting tannins into the wine. Hard pressed, but not crushed. And then the wine!
When I told my friends that I felt hard-pressed, one of them took the metaphor in a completely different direction and I’ve been pondering her words ever since. She said, “You know that thing that kids do where you press your arms against a door frame for a few minutes until they ache and then you step forward and as you do they just float up on their own accord like there’s a giant imaginary balloon under them?”
YES! I do know that thing! I hadn’t done that thing in ages, but I vividly remember trying it out in the doorway of my third grade classroom – next to the garbage can and the pencil sharpener. I remember how we all lined up to take a turn, not really believing the trick worked until we could feel it ourselves. I remember how I pressed the backs of my hands against the metal frame until my little arms shook. How I felt like Samson before the Holy Spirit’s power came back on him. Weak, but determined. And then I remember the step forward and the sheer joy of the lift. Just for that magical second! My arms went up as if someone else were lifting them. Some other force. I remember the onlookers watching my face to see the amazement – laughing with me as I experienced it.
Chances are, you’ve tried this before. Chances are, it’s been a few decades. Try it again. It just takes a minute!
So, “that thing kids do.” Yes, I know it. I know the pressing-hard feeling and the floating feeling of the imaginary balloon. My friend went on to say, “I feel like when you step forward out of your pressing time, there will be a rising and an expanding.”
I have loved this metaphor since she gave it to me. What I love about it is not only the truth of the step forward and all of the buoyancy of moving away from something. I also love the truth that the hard-pressing comes not just from the things on the outside, pressing in, but also from the things on the inside, pressing out.
A little later in 2 Corinthians, Paul uses the same Greek word that was translated as hard pressed in 4:8. In 2 Corinthians 7:5, the NIV translates it as harassed, “when we came into Macedonia, we had no rest, but we were harassed [hard pressed!] at every turn—conflicts on the outside, fears within” (2 Corinthians 7:5).
Sometimes the pressures come at us – pressing in from all sides. But sometimes, the things around us are just immovable doorframes. The fears within keep us pressing up against those frames until our little arms shake.
And sometimes it’s not fear that keeps us pressing; it’s strength and courage. The pressing can be important and strengthening work for us, even if we’re pressing up against things that may never, ever move. But what might remain for us is to step away from the frame and find on the other side an expansion and a rising.
When Paul and his companions felt the hard-pressing, God sent them comfort through Titus, who encouraged and lifted them up (2 Corinthians 7:6).
I am thankful for my friends who (literally!) reframed the pressures I was facing that day.
Perhaps you are hard-pressed today. Friend, press on for as long as is needful. And then step away. And experience the expansion, the rise, the lift.
“You, Lord, are a shield around me, my glory, the One who lifts my head high.” (Psalm 3:3)
Header Image by Rahel R of Pexels.