Friday, November 21, 2008

An attempt to commiserate (an open letter to a family in pain)

Dear Friends,

I am so sorry you have to go through yet another injury inflicted on your souls, again by those who are supposed to give aid and comfort.  No doubt it is emotionally painful.  All the more so since it comes at a time when you were seeking respite and help for the beatings and bruising you have had to endure for so long.

There really is no excuse for your pastor-in-law (as opposed to your pastor-in-grace) to have avoided you during your trials, neglected you during your absence, and betrayed you during your move.  What's more, there really is no excuse for the pastor of the church where you had a happy anticipation of joining, to so quickly reject you (assuming by his actions he really did) on the basis of your pastor-in-law's report.  I can only suspect that a negative report was given about you since the new minister went from a willing and ready spirit to receive you to advising you find another church, all within the space of a day or two.  

Certainly, you haven't been the simple or ideal Christian family who fits the box (whatever that is), who is without any hint of flaws, warts, trials or baggage. You have had far more than the average share.  Perhaps that is why some families don't have such problems - you apparently got theirs?

Now, lest I come across as yet another self-righteous, judgmental pastor, I can say that I relate to those two ministers.  Looking back in time, I too have avoided, neglected and evidently betrayed people.  The neglect came from trying many times to help, but without any ounce of "success" I gave up.  I admit ignoring a few people who so easily monopolized my life and tried so hard to manipulate me and my family.  Ignoring them was a simple, but sinful way of handling them. I have since learned my lesson.  The ones I have been accused of rejecting or betraying are those to whom I boldly spoke the truth (at least what I believed was truthful) and they took offense.  They've never tried to clarify what was said, never forgiven me, and have never been willing to reconcile.  Very sad.  

From a pastor's viewpoint, I understand how easy it is to avoid people who aren't free from trouble and trials.  I'd rather not deal with other people's baggage.  I mean, some of them have baggage over the 50-pound limit.  Some of them have lots of heavy bags. Lots and lots of bags. And I have enough of my own baggage.   So, I can relate to wanting a church filled with holy angels who will neatly fit into my image of a perfect, peaceful, problem-free church.

However, the fact of the matter is those of us who are called to minister in the name of Jesus Christ are called to roll up our sleeves and get dirty.  I can recall years ago a pastor, who was a brilliant, earthy, former blue collar worker, complaining that too many of his fellow pastors never got dirty. No rough hands, tough skin or dirt under their nails.  Of course, he was also speaking metaphorically.  He was right.  But that's the nature of our work.

We ministers are called to get 
into the trenches like soldiers (Phil 2:25; 2 Tim. 2:3-4),
down and dirty  like farmers (2 Tim. 2:6),
tough and smelly like fishermen,
sore and exhausted like athletes (1 Cor. 9:24-25; Phil 3:14; 2 Tim. 2:5; 4:7-8; Heb. 12:1), and
humiliated and abused like servants (Matt. 20:27; Jn 10:11, 15; Luke 10:34, 35).

Those are biblical descriptions, and they run contrary to contemporary descriptions and models of ministers (CEOs, coaches, university professors.  I'm afraid we have adopted worldly portraits and exchanged them for God's models all to the detriment and injury of God's people.

We are called to apply heavenly truth to life's dirty, earthy issues through the means of the good news of Christ.  As pastors we are called to be gentle (2 Tim. 2:24-26), patient (1 Tim. 3:3), and marked by the fruit of God's Spirit (Gal. 5:22-24; Eph. 5:9), just like Christ.  Think about him - no doubt he was patient with his stubborn, ignorant, at times belligerent, messed up disciples.  He was pure and yet patient and gentle with the lowly scum of the world (the prostitutes, beggars, infirm, and handicapped).  He was patient and kind with those who received so much from him but who were so ungrateful.  He was sympathetic and a great help to those in need.

Christ has redeemed, gifted and called us to be servants to God's people.  Servants filled with the kind of humility that is not always self-serving or rewarding (Luke 14:10; Rom. 12:1-3, 10, 16:  1 Cor. 10:31-33; Titus 1:7; Jas. 4:10; 1 Pet. 5:5), just like the Servant Jesus (Phil. 2:3).  And just like Jesus we are called, gifted and empowered to practice and model true hospitality (lover of strangers) which goes above and beyond loving our neighbors as ourselves (Rom. 12:13; 1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:8, 9; Heb. 13:2; 1 Pet. 4:9).  Our calling is to genuinely love others, especially those of the household of faith (1 Cor. 13; Gal. 5:25; 1 Thess. 2:7-8).  Like it or not we must be gracious, merciful (Matt. 25; 1 Cor. 12:28) and proactively, unquestionably kind (Matt. 11:29; Acts 24:4; 2 Cor. 10:1; 1 Thess. 2:7).  What's more, God does not give us a choice about who it is with whom we are to be loving, merciful and kind.

Jesus was lowly, meek and gentle.  All believers in Christ should also be lowly, meek and gentle, but particularly ministers.  As brought out in the book, The Perfect Pastor?,  "Gentleness, a very important feature in a godly leader, is the quality of being gracious, kind, mild, patient and reasonable.  A gentle person is caring, considerate and has an ability to sympathize (Rom. 15:1; 1 Pet. 4:8).  The gentle one shows carefulness in choosing words and expressions so as not to unnecessarily offend (Gal. 6:1)" (p. 352).

In the book's Appendix F, which is a self-examination of godly character, the potential deacon, elder, pastor, and other church leaders are encouraged to test themselves.  One of the questions probes whether, "I reflect care, affection and good-will toward others (2 Cor. 10:1; 1 Thess. 2; Eph. 4:2)"  (p. 352).  The implication from the Bible is that I do so, not only with those who have it all together, or who are apparently absent any challenges or "issues," or only when I feel like it (which admittedly is rare).  I or we are to reflect care, affection and good-will toward others as gentle leaders - always! Especially toward those who need it the most!

This is the very nature of the redemptive work of Christ.  He came to save sinners, not saints. He came for the infirm, not the healthy; the poor, not the self-sustaining rich; the prodigal, not the pious.  His grace is extended to the chief of sinners, for grace abounds more where sin seems to flourish.  As ministers we must never forget that.  But, dear friends, it appears that some ministers have indeed forgotten just that.

Certainly, when I reflect on what is required of me in character and action, I too fall far short.  Yet, these are the qualities of godliness and ministry this unique calling requires.  If I, or any other person who has taken on the yoke of shepherd ministry, refuses to press toward these high and heavenly goals and refuses to practice them, then we need to step down and step away from the office called the pastorate.  May God daily spare me of my pride and keep me from falling into such pious worldliness.  May the Lord grant to such men the grace of repentance to change and become more like our Master who faithfully served us.

I am so sorry that you have had to endure men in the name of Christ, but do not minister in the spirit of Christ.  Frankly, they have failed you.  Their actions, their sins, mostly of omission, say quite a bit about their character and philosophy of ministry.  But in this sense, be encouraged that God has used this "rejection" of you as a grace to spare you of their miserable orthopraxy, horrible hypocrisy and intolerable misdeeds.

With affection;