How do you tell a scribe from a prophet…? The prophets love the people they chastise….
—Marilynne Robinson, Gilead: A Novel, 162
How do you tell a scribe from a prophet…? The prophets love the people they chastise….
—Marilynne Robinson, Gilead: A Novel, 162
I’m reading Tribes by Seth Godin bit by bit. Even though not everything applies to my setting, it’s interesting to read his different perspective. I thought this was particularly provoking:
I define sheepwalking as the outcome of hiring people who have been raised to be obedient and giving them brain-dead jobs and enough fear to keep them in line. (96)
He’s talking about a business, but I believe he’d have no problem recognizing the same issue in a church. He might have said, “I define sheepwalking as the outcome of leading people who have been taught to be obedient and giving them brain-dead ministries and enough fear to keep them in line.”
On the next page, Godin considers it in light of the goal of education.
Training a student to be a sheep is a lot easier than the alternative. Teaching to the test, ensuring compliant behavior, and using fear as a motivator are the easiest and fastest ways to get a kid through school. So why does it surprise us that we graduate so many sheep? (97)
Back to a church, one reason why a pastor may prefer docile sheep is that the sheep will continue to need him. That’s not just wrong, it’s counterproductive. Part of the pastoral role includes equipping sheep not to need the shepherds, at least not to the same degree, and certainly not more as the sheep mature. A pastor can’t help people mature by teaching them that they always need to hold the pastor’s hand.
Pastors should want sheep to be obedient to God, not necessarily to get “in line” with all the church programs. Shepherds should want a flock that fears God, while being trained to bear God’s image without the shepherds always watching over their shoulder. Maybe the first problem is that too many pastors are sheepwalking themselves.
When I began pursuing a call to gospel ministry, and even as I started studying gospel theology and pastoral responsibility, I did not realize how much more was required than faithful proclamation of the gospel message on Sundays and at funerals. There are a thousand and one ways to get exegesis and theology wrong. The temptations for a preacher to compromise or remain silent are legion. But proclaiming the gospel with accuracy, boldness, and constancy is not as difficult as also ministering the gospel through dying, forgiving, and hoping.
Around and since my ordination, I’ve developed a few convictions about personal pastoral practice. A call to gospel ministry requires (at least) sacrificial service and suffering, reconciling and peace-making travail, and consuming, happy confidence in God’s promises.
A preacher’s work extends beyond the sacred desk (the pulpit) and beyond his study desk (in private). A preacher works with people, not merely at people or for people, and they often cause him pain. The preacher is called to model the gospel in a life of death.
Maybe some day I’ll write out posts for a few messages I taught from 2 Corinthians 4, but in summary, the privilege of gospel ministry includes slaving for others. Service is gospel work. Jesus didn’t come to be served but to serve. Those who would lead like Jesus must be servants. So Paul said, “what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.”
The privilege of gospel ministry also involves suffering. That, too, is gospel work. Jesus gave His life for us. Those who would lead like Jesus must also die. Paul said not only that he was brought to the breaking point over and over, but also that death was at work in him (which means that ministry is a dying life). He wrote:
[we are] always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.
In Colossians 1:24 he wrote that “in [his] flesh” he was “filling up what [was] lacking in the afflictions of Christ.” Like Paul, a pastor’s death isn’t redemptive, but it is illustrative of Christ and the gospel. We proclaim a message of death and resurrection from a platform of dying.
A preacher doing the work of an evangelist preaches forgiveness. First and foremost he implores men, “be reconciled to God.” The gospel, Jesus’ substitutionary punishment taking, enables God to be righteous and forgive our unrighteousness. Vertical forgiveness restores relationship between God and repentant rebels. That is the powerful work of the gospel.
Horizontal forgiveness is secondary but it is not less relevant. In fact, because restored relationships between men and other men are only possible due to Christ’s work on the cross, we devalue the gospel to the degree that we don’t insist and work for sinners to be reconciled to each other. Pastors are called to preach, counsel, and mediate reconciliation. They must also model forgiveness.
We prove nothing about the value or power of the gospel if we only love those who follow our lead, who compliment our sermons, and who rewrite their mental theology as soon as we speak. We’re not in the wrong place if there are others who hurt us. We’re in a better place to show how fantastic forgiveness looks.
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, all Christians are called to put on tender hearts like Christ, forgiving each other as Christ forgave us. Those called to gospel ministry work to equip others to practice forgiveness for the sake of Body unity. Practicing personal forgiveness builds the platform for preaching. Shepherds should be out on the Forgiveness Front as examples to the flock.
Preachers preach the “best” good news; none have a more hopeful message than those in the gospel ministry. And yet, it’s a short downhill slide into discouragement and pessimism. We see dead men everywhere. Many of the spiritually living men we’re around struggle with doubt and disobedience. We counsel broken people in broken relationships. We work against the flow in a fallen world and our efforts often appear futile. Plus, last week’s offering was low, again.
Thing is, the gospel doesn’t require good circumstances for its effect. In fact, the gospel presupposes problems, problems that are above every preacher’s pay grade. It is good news precisely because things are bad. The gospel makes alive! The gospel grows! The gospel sanctifies! The gospel heals! Because of the gospel promises, no ministry death is wasted. Fruit will be yielded in due season and our resurrection cannot be concealed. We can serve, suffer, die, and forgive with indulgence.
Yes, we’ll be burdened when we see sin in ourselves and in our flocks. Suffering is called suffering for a reason. But we have been born again to a living hope! Of all the things people observe of gospel ministers, humble and explosive hope should be obvious. It’s an area in which I’m working to make progress.
Throwing around the word “gospel” is ironically faddish. It has emerged as a cover for all kinds of “evangelical” activity. But we shouldn’t let those who don’t appreciate the call define the call. I’ll admit that my understanding was not then what it is now. The call to gospel ministry is much bigger and more comprehensive and costly and applicable than I realized. I anticipate it only intensifies from here, and I’m looking forward to it.
I grew up wanting to be a professional baseball player. I dreamed of standing on a well-manicured, thick, dark green grass infield, singing the National Anthem, and waiting for the umpire to yell, “Play ball!” Playing ball was virtually the only occupational desire I had, at least until the summer before my senior year of high school.
My summers were filled with baseball. The summer before my junior year I joined a traveling team and missed eight weeks in a row of Sunday services.1 Even in my state of spiritual immaturity I knew that if my soul was going to survive, I would have to do something I had never done before: read my Bible on my own. And I did. It wasn’t deep study. I used the Campus Journal booklet, a “student” (read: “dumbed down”) version of Our Daily Bread. But reading a verse, or part of a verse, and a couple paragraphs of thoughts, heated my cup of zeal hotter than ever. Sadly, when school started I lapsed back into spiritual slackerness.
The summer before my senior year brought more baseball, more missing church, and more personal Bible reading. I loved it. I don’t remember anything I actually learned, but I do remember craving the Word.
The season ended and I attended our high school church camp. I actually paid attention during the sessions though I was easily satisfied with (what I now know was rather) milky truth. I delighted to talk about the Bible in our cabin, with fellow students and with staff leaders, as well as with my youth pastor. I wanted to serve and I volunteered at almost every opportunity.
A week later I went to our church’s junior high camp as a counselor. Again, I loved every part. I had no idea what major changes (in me) God was working.
One of the messages that week, the only one I remember, was about how to know the will of God. I had been taught that the perfect will of God was a line of successive dots and that each dot represented a choice. Our responsibility was to identify the next dot on God’s “perfect” path for us. Of course, if a person failed to connect the dots of God’s will then they would fall away from the line and urgently needed to swing back to be in His perfect will again.
This preacher had a brand new (to me) paradigm. He explained that God’s will, as clearly revealed in Scripture, is that one be saved, being Spirit-filled, making progress in sanctification, and submitting to authorities. If those things are in order, then God’s will for us may be whatever we desire most.2
Psalm 37:4 provides the governing principle. If we delight ourselves in the LORD, then He will give us the desires of our hearts. That sort of freedom sounds scandalous to some. But the idea is that if He is our greatest want, then He is working in us accompanying wants that accord with Him.
I was obeying God with a clear conscience (while I acknowledge now that a better informed conscience would have challenged me regarding my church absenteeism). The possibility that God’s will was what I most wanted floored me but also filled me with fear, especially because my increasing and consuming desire was to serve Him in full-time ministry. Nothing gave me greater pleasure than feeding on the Bible, telling others about Christ, and serving His Body.
I didn’t tell anyone about my thinking for over a month. I had seen too many disavowed “camp decisions.” I was not the son of a pastor, nor was I aware of any vocational ministry types in our extended family. I finally communicated with my youth pastor who could hardly have been more excited. Soon after I told my parents and, though my dad was thoroughly against it for some time, the desire in my heart grew stronger.
Everything changed that August in 1991, though not overnight. I pursued baseball through my sophomore year of college and now I look at the fancy grass from the bleachers. Back then I had no idea how much I didn’t know about the call to gospel ministry. I never would have guessed the road would lead to where I am today. Almost nothing I expected has happened, and almost everything that has happened has been better than I could have imagined.
Monday Night Football is one of my favorite parts about the fall season. I watched the fourth quarter of the game yesterday between the New Orleans Saints and the Atlanta Falcons (only, of course, after game five of the World Series finished). The Saints remained undefeated largely due to their quarterback, Drew Brees, who threw two touchdowns and completed 25 of 33 attempts for 308 total passing yards. Regardless of what it may seem so far, this is not a post about football or Saints marching in or my becoming a bandwagon fan.
After the game, Steve Young talked about how Brees “threw open” his receivers. I had never heard this phrase before. Neither, apparently, had his MNF co-host Stuart Scott. So Scott asked Young to explain what it meant to “throw someone open.” Young defined two ideas behind the phrase. First, throwing someone open protects the receiver. The receiver can trust that when he runs toward the thrown ball, no defensive back is going to come out of a blind spot and thump him. Second, though not entirely distinct from the first idea, throwing someone open is a way to get the receiver into the clear. The receiver can trust that he will be more open running toward the thrown ball than if he stayed where he was.
I was still marinating in this phrase today and thought perhaps there is a bit of pastoral application. Sheep should be able to trust that when their shepherd leads in a particular direction, they will become more Christlike than if they stayed put. A pastor should protect his sheep, leading in a way that, even if they can’t see a certain temptation or difficulty coming, they are kept away from threats as much as possible. He should always lead his sheep to a more holy place on the field. In other words, pastors should throw their sheep obedient.
Some interesting discussion going on at TeamPyro over the video below. I’m guessing most people younger than me probably don’t know that the original song was, “Momas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow up to be Cowboys” made popular by by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson.
Is the video funny or sad? My response is a pastor answer, “Yes.”
Also, thanks to a friend of mine, I found out Phil was on the Way of the Master Radio show last Thursday. You can listen to Hour one and Hour two. Of special interest to some of my readers will be Phil’s explanation of the correct pronunciation of Augustine.
While pounding out seven miles on my treadmill yesterday I listened to C.J. Mahaney’s message from the recent T4G conference, Sustaining a Pastor’s Soul. It was the least dramatic message I’ve listened to by Mahaney (albeit out of only a dozen or so from Resolved, Shepherds’ Conference, and various mp3 downloads) but it had/is having appreciable effect on me.
The central point of his message was that God is best served by glad pastors. He asserted that it is simply not sufficient for a pastor to serve faithfully, he must also serve joyfully. I’ve heard that before, but God graciously opened the eyes of my heart anew. The entire sermon challenged the soul by considering the apostle Paul’s joyful ministry in the midst of demanding responsibilities, hard sufferings, and even imprisonment for sake of the gospel as seen in Philippians 1:3-8.
As I’ve heard him do previously, Mahaney urged each pastor to ask those closest to him–wife, ministry team, personal assistant–a series of simple questions about whether he lives and serves joyfully or irritably, with happiness or moodiness, gladness or discouragement. This time I took his advice.
I didn’t have to ask Mo for her answers. I just went ahead and asked her forgiveness immediately after I finished my run yesterday. But earlier today I arranged for some of the guys who work with me on a daily basis to listen to Mahaney’s message with me and then invited them share their observations about my life and ministry. I warned them in advance that a quiz would follow and when it was over I printed the questions and even initialed the disclaimer at the bottom so they could hold me to it.
Here’s the quiz. Click on it to see it full size.
I won’t go into specific successes or failures, but suffice it to say the process was less painful than it would have been three or four years ago. One thing they all agreed on is that my attitude is “ridiculously influential” for better or worse and that I should wield that influence with great care.
Since the door’s already open I suppose you are welcome to participate as well. The condition, however, is that you’ll need to email me so that the comments don’t get carried away in either direction. I’m not looking for praise or pettifogging criticism, but for signs of grace and areas needing growth. Of course God is the ultimate and only inerrant judge as well as the only One who can see my heart. Even so, my progress is supposed to be evident to all. Some very important things depend on my paying close attention and maybe you can help.
I finished reading Lectures to My Students yesterday. The journey took almost two years and included some breathtaking sights. The Void previously published highlights related to the preacher and praying, preaching with clarity, and holding on to the truth. While creating my index inside the back cover I retread precious, providential, faith-focusing ground concerning how God makes His ministers through difficulties.
It is of need that we are sometimes in heaviness. Good men are promised tribulation in this world, and ministers may expect a larger share than others, that they may learn sympathy with the Lord’s suffering people, and so may be fitting shepherds of an ailing flock. (155)
These infirmities may be no detriment to a man’s career of special usefulness; they may even have been imposed upon him by divine wisdom as necessary qualifications for his peculiar course of service. (155)
The scouring of the vessel has fitted it for the Master’s use. (160)
Those who are honoured of the Lord in public have usually to endure a secret chastening, or to carry a peculiar cross, lest by any means they exalt themselves, and fall into the snare of the devil. (164)
Serve God with all your might while the candle is burning, and then when it goes out for a season, you will have the less to regret. Be content to be nothing, for that is what you are. When your own emptiness is painfully forced upon your consciousness, chide yourself that you ever dreamed of being full, except in the Lord. (164)
Instruments shall be used, but their intrinsic weakness shall be clearly manifested; there shall be no division of the glory, no diminishing of the honor due to the Great Worker. (163)
Put no trust in frames or feelings. Care more for a grain of faith than a ton of excitement. (164)
Continue with double earnestness to serve your Lord when no visible result is before you. Any simpleton can follow the narrow path in the light; faith’s rare wisdom enables a man to march on in the dark with infallible accuracy. (165)
I thought this was interesting…and tiring.
The Rev. Warren Carr of Durham, North Carolina, prepared a questionnaire asking his congregation to tell him how much time that they thought he should give to a list of specified tasks. The members of his congregation were shocked to discover that the average work week indicated by their answers was 82 hours. One answer proposed a schedule of 200 hours–32 more than there are in a week. —Life Magazine, August 20, 1956, p.102 (quoted in Shepherding God’s Flock, Jay Adams, 39)
I wonder if some of the sheep have lowered their expectations 51 years later. Based on some recent conversations I’ve had and blog posts I’ve read, I don’t think so.