When the world sees a church from which selfishness is banished, then it will acknowledge the divine mission of Christ because he has wrought such a wonder, a community of men who truly and heartily love one another. Andrew Murray
This has been a lousy week! Two couples I know are separating. Two young girls are battling for their lives with cancer. (I really hate that word.) An elderly man with much to live for lies in a nursing-home bed, giving up on life. I’ve received e-mails from friends about parents dying and jobs being lost. In the language of the day—life sucks! That sounds crude, but it describes how many feel. Solomon used nicer words, still with equal force:
“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”1
Everything from wisdom and study to seeking pleasure and pursuing work; from advancing in power and prestige to achieving wealth—it’s all meaningless! It isn’t easy to make sense of life.
Like I said, it’s been a lousy week.
If this week’s events were isolated occurrences, I could philosophize and believe hope is just around the corner. There’s just one problem: They are not isolated. Weeks like this are repeated over and over again in my own life and in the life of our congregation. Similar stories are found in communities all around this country. They’re found in your community.
As I sat by myself the other week at a bagel shop, I found myself staring out the window at a young man mowing the grass. All of a sudden I felt a strong urge to run out, grab the mower, and take over his job. My mind raced: I don’t want to be a pastor anymore. I want to cut grass for a living.
What produced that kind of thinking? Was it a random thought, or was it a lasting change of heart?
As I sat and reflected, I began to understand the appeal of cutting grass.
When you’re finished, the job is complete. The end result is a beautiful, neat lawn and a sense of order. A freshly cut lawn stands in sharp contrast to the uncertainty and chaos in people’s lives—and in my own.
Down through the years, the idealism with which I began ministry has been chipped away by the harsh realities of ministry life. In 1981 I was ordained. I wrote my thesis, studied what I believe, and was ready to be examined. I survived several hours of being grilled by men whose sole job was to examine my beliefs and make me feel very uncomfortable. They did their job with flying colors; somehow I passed.
My ordination service was a joyous occasion of confirmation, followed by a celebration. I stood in line receiving congratulations while holding our three-year-old daughter, Kelly, in my arms. One gentleman who spoke to me turned next to Kelly and asked, “Do you know what today is?” She nodded, looked him in the eyes, and said, “Today is the day they make my daddy king!” Oh, from the mouths of babes.
The years since haven’t left me feeling very kingly. The journey has produced a variety of emotions and countless questions. Questions of what God was doing. Questions of whether what I was doing mattered. Questions that, at times, even called my faith into doubt.
All these years later, however, I’m still a pastor. I believe that twenty years from now I’ll still be a pastor. Why?
In some ways the answer is simple; in other ways, complicated. The simple answer: God has called me to serve Him in this way. The more complicated answer is found in the many defining moments that have shaped my call, some of which I’ll reveal in the coming pages. I’m certain more defining times will mark the journey ahead. There are, however, two fundamental truths that frame the answer to my many questions.
The first truth declares the location of my confidence in life.
Such confidence as this is ours through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.2
My confidence is in Christ, not in any performance or answers I may offer. I’m a recipient of a new covenant relationship with God. Jesus died for me and for you. In doing so He accomplished something we could never earn—forgiveness of our sin. When I put my faith in this truth, His Spirit began living in me. Because of this new covenant and the Spirit’s presence, we “find ourselves qualified by God to live as God intends us to live today.”3
This confidence affects the way I live. It’s seen in everyday choices. It surfaces in major decisions and in the countless uncertainties I face. And it shapes my understanding of what I have to offer others. Christ living in me gives me the capability to impact others.
The second truth is that the church is vital in my growth and journey with Christ. What is vital about the church isn’t found in any programs or services. It’s found only when the church is released to become a community, when we uncover the awesome reality that we have something to offer one another, so much more than a smile and a quick “Hello, how are you?”
Let me illustrate the meaning of the word release, which is crucial to our understanding of what makes community effective. In the springtime I think of horse racing. If you follow the sport at all, you know there are three important races: the Preakness, the Belmont, and the big daddy of them all, the Kentucky Derby. These events are all about the horses: powerful, beautiful, and (hopefully) fast. These three-year-olds are ready to do one thing—run. They are built for speed. But all that power is held back by the starting gate, a simple piece of metal. Until the gate is opened, the purpose of these animals won’t be realized. In fact, if the gate were never opened, you could put a mule beside a thoroughbred, and it would be equally as effective. However, when the starting gate opens, all of that power, grace, and speed explode, leaving no doubt as to the purpose of these spectacular animals.
Just so, as the life of Christ is released in each of us, and we pour His energy into one another’s lives, something amazing happens. The fragrance of Jesus is experienced in our lives and in the life of our community. Problems and struggles don’t vanish, but hope lights the way.
Several years ago, a certain woman and her children began attending our church. The pain she felt over her husband’s absence was deep. He wasn’t simply staying home; he had left her—a sad story repeated too many times in too many communities.
Folks from our church family showed love to her and the kids. She began to experience Christ being poured into her life. The fragrance of Christ was released like a sweet-smelling perfume.
Meanwhile, two men in our church began to reach out and care for the husband. After some time, he began to attend the second of our two worship services by himself. Eventually he came back home. Their marriage is restored, and their relationship with Christ is growing.
Recently the husband shared with me that if it hadn’t been for the love he felt from this community, and in particular from those two men, he doubted if he would ever have come back. It wasn’t what he’d expected from a church. “I thought I would be judged and pushed aside, but people really loved me. Sam and Eric in particular offered me hope. Despite all I’d done and all my failures, they demonstrated that my life wasn’t beyond hope. God could rebuild my marriage and my life.”
Why am I still a pastor? What keeps me going in the mess that we call life? Two things: First, I believe in what Christ has done and made possible. Second, I believe in the church. Communities of people who walk together and believe that God can use them to stir one another to long even more deeply for Christ—that’s the church.