The Cure for Imposter Syndrome

The Cure for Imposter Syndrome

Isaiah 6:1-8

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

Our lives are marked, maybe not by a hot coal pressed to our lips like what Isaiah faced,
but by sudden change that feels inescapable and searing. Change comes at us, often uninvited, and we are thrust into new territory, like Isaiah. The way ahead is not clear, and we are immediately aware of our inadequacy. If we are fortunate, we quickly become aware of God’s nearness in times like these. And if we are paying attention, anytime we are aware of God’s nearness, there is a call upon us.
It really struck me reading this story this year that the prophet Isaiah’s call story began In
the year Uzziah died…This timestamp is about a specific time on the calendar of course, 740 BC, just a few years after the founding of Rome, if you’re curious. But in the year Uzziah died probably said more about the way the time felt to people… Time felt shaky with upheaval, and there were probably many scared voices flying around wondering, well, who comes next? What comes next?
Maybe you have known years in your own life that forced you to ask not just “when was
that? 2017 or 2018?” but years that forced you to ask how do I understand God now that that happened and who am I becoming now that that happened? These are the times when – like Isaiah – we face our fear and we often face our fire.
It would be like saying, In the year the towers fell…
In the year we moved away from California….
In the year my mother died…
In the year the pandemic began…
In the year George Floyd died…
In the year I was diagnosed…
In the year I quit drinking…
In this election year…
God’s call to Isaiah came in the middle of ambient fear, fear outside of him, all those
factors he couldn’t control, all those world events that stirred his gut, and all those
rationalizations he might have had for why now was not the time to respond to the call of God.

And God’s call to Isaiah also came with intimate fear, the fear deep inside him. The part
of him that knew the weight of the moment and balked, Who am I to do this? I am a lost and broken fool. As soon as I open my lips, people will know I am a fraud. I have nothing of use to say, and these days people aren’t listening anyway. He said, “I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips.”
Sometimes people call this imposter syndrome. We probably don’t know the feeling of a
burning coal coming toward us in the tongs of angels like Isaiah did, but we probably know the fear that comes with leadership, or parenting, or a new relationship. We probably know the self- doubt that comes with any act of creativity like a special paint thinner that dilutes your nerve. We probably know the insecurity that seems to come with a new job or new school right along with the name badge.
But here is the amazing gift of Isaiah’s call story. Isaiah learned that natural fear of holy
fire is not a disqualifier. Fear, insecurity, self-doubt, and guilt are not disqualifiers for the
courageous and beautiful things God calls us to do. If anything, those feelings remind us that we are not God. Our limitations propel us to step outside of our tangled selves and into the terrain of awe and grace and even trust in God.
One of my favorite quotes comes from Viktor Frankl in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. He said, “what is to give light must endure the burning.”
Brené Brown is bestselling author and researcher on shame. Her breakdown/spiritual
awakening came one Sunday in church when she read the prayer of confession. “I have not loved with my whole heart!” Those words flew out of her mouth like six-winged seraphs. She noticed how much time she had spent pleasing, performing and perfecting and she began her quest to be a whole-hearted person. Her research says that wholeheartedness does not come by keeping our hands safely by our sides so that we are never critiqued. It comes through raising our hands in vulnerability, like that fool Isaiah, who was for a glorious moment, not hyper aware of the critics in his future or in his own mind. He was in the presence of the glory of God. He had been touched and even cleansed by that fire. Isaiah was called even though he was afraid.
Reminds me of Moses, who had been content doing maintenance ministry over in Midian
for a long time, even though inside he felt washed up and broken down, stammering with guilt and excuses. Until the burning bush stopped him in his tracks and called him to set people free even though he was afraid.
Reminds me of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. … in the week Jesus died…. There
were blinded by fear and grief such that they didn’t recognize the risen Jesus until they literally shared communion with him. Later they said each other, “Were our hearts not burning inside our chests while he talked with us on the road?”
Reminds me of the other disciples at Pentecost… who thought they would be preaching
to a small and shrinking demographic until they were nearly singed by the translating fire power of the Holy Spirit.
And then there is Jesus himself. I can only imagine what it meant for him to say, “Here I
am Lord, send me.” Taking all the fear and fire of this world upon himself so that we could
discover a new way of life forever more, on the other side of complete vulnerability and trust in God, our sin blotted out and our hearts finally made whole.
“What is to give light must endure the burning.”
The fear and fire we face do not disqualify us from serving God. If anything, it is often
those hard times that refine us, burning off the dross of our ego and making it possible for our true calling to be born.

One of my first ministry experiences was as a summer chaplain at Georgetown Medical
Center. It was the summer of 2004 and the cicadas were grinding loudly against the sound of medivac helicopters. The fear in my mind was loud too. What qualified me to do this work?
What if I was particularly annoying to people who were already sick? The Jesuits who ran the chaplaincy program laughed and said with that kind of guilt I sounded more Catholic than Presbyterian. We were each assigned a unit, and I was placed in the NICU and Labor and Delivery. I pushed back on that too. “But I have never had kids!” The head chaplain said, “That’s probably good. That will make you less likely to dole out parenting advice.”
Soon, I met Edwige, a Cameroonian woman and also a Presbyterian on bedrest who was
very happy to talk with me. I visited her several times a week, always sharing a prayer before departing. On one visit, she was feeling very nervous for her baby. She asked me to pray and make it a good one. So, I commenced a very enthusiastic prayer for her baby, for her body, for her family, and she prayed along, “Yes, Jesus. Yes, Lord.” But then midway through my prayer, a loud sound began to emanate from the machines around her, worrisome scratching, whooshing, and a strange low thumping. I looked at my feet, worried I was stepping on some essential lifeblood cord. I said amen quicker than I might have otherwise, and the noise stopped. I sheepishly asked her, “Edwige, what was that noise?” She said, “Oh, the baby was moving. The baby was praying with you!” And she laughed and raised her hands in the air and pointed at the
fetal monitor.
The next week I visited again, but this time, Edwige was in pain. She squeezed the life
out of my hand every three to five minutes, exhaling hard and shouting, “Oh Lord!” I had seen enough television shows to know that was she was in labor. I walked resolutely to get the doctor. The doctor assured me, no, this wasn’t labor, pointing at the computer. She would send some medication to ease the soreness. But I felt courage rising in me, a fire on my lips. I would not let it go. “I am the chaplain. I have prayed with many people. Never once has someone squeezed my hand nearly off my body and shouted O Lord in three-minute intervals.” The doctor checked on Edwige, and in an instant, her eyes flashed wild with alarm and the mood changed. Edwige was surrounded by a medical team and rushed to the O.R. And I was left alone in the room and scared for her.
The next day, I found Edwige in a different room, this one crowded with rejoicing
Cameroonian friends who whooped and clapped at meeting the chaplain whom they had already heard had been so scared during regular prayers but was brave enough to say, “Here I am. I will go get the doctor for you.” I got to meet her baby. His name was Isaiah. A perfect name that reminded me of the prophet but also how it felt to push past the fear and let my own call be born.
I don’t know what God is calling you to say or do at this time in your life. But I do know
that the fear and the fire are not a disqualifier. I do know that scared and sacred are nearly the same word. And I do know that God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, gives the light you need to see the next step. Usually the bravest thing we can say is here I am, Lord. Send me.