Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Cowardice or patience?

Sometimes I’m a coward but I’ll mistake it for patience.  Rather a flipside to my blog post from yesterday.  And still this, too, is a dilemma for me.

By nature I’m more contemplative than combative.  And while it is true that this orientation does give me certain benefits, it also means that after a confrontation very, very often I’m the one left thinking, “THAT’S what I should have said!  Why didn’t I think of that earlier?!?!”  Like the Apostle Paul, I tend towards a mild demeanor face-to-face and bold when I have some distance. 

Part of that is driven by my pastoral patience in wanting people to come to repentance.  But if I’m to be honest with you (and perhaps more importantly, honest with myself), some of that is driven by fear. 

There are times when a strong word is demanded.  A forceful word.  Often times the word that is needed is a word of rebuke.  That time could come in a very visible public setting, or it might come in a private session.  But inevitably when that time comes I feel fear.

I fear many things at that point.  What if I’m wrong, and this person isn’t in sin?  I’ll have rebuked them for no reason and caused them embarrassment.  What if the proper time for a rebuke is not right now?  How do I bring it up later without feeling awkward?  What if I just make things worse?  Do I have the authority to police everybody’s sins and monitor their every behavior?  And finally . . . what if the rebuke is driven by my own frustration and not by God’s standards?

Decades into my life and years into my ministry, and this is still something I am trying to learn.  I have learned, however, that when I am facing personal attack God has instructed me to turn the other cheek.  To suffer silently.  But when the conscience and spiritual well-being of my neighbor is being threatened by the sinful actions of another, there is no doubt whatsoever that decisive action is required.  When God says, “Speak now for the sake of the faith of others!” there should be no hesitation.  And yet I will often hold my tongue and try to convince myself later that I was being patient.

It’s a poor sort of consolation.  For when the faith and conscience of the sheep is being threatened, the good shepherd acts immediately to drive away the wolf.  That never feels like love to me.  I want to be patient with the wolf and wait for him to come to repentance.  In the meantime, however, the sheep are scattered and the wolf continues to confirm himself in his own sin, heaping condemnation upon his own head.

That’s not love.  It’s not love for the sheep.  And curiously, it’s not even true love for the wolf.  When the time for speaking boldly has come, the time for patience has past.  And in that fleeting moment if I can swallow my fear and open my mouth and trust that the Lord’s words will spill out the sheep will see a shepherd who defends them despite his fear and the wolf might just also be shocked into the realization of his own sin, leading him to repentance.  In the end, everybody wins because God’s Kingdom has advanced.  His perfect love for sheep, for wolf, and even for a timid-mouthed pastor has driven out all fear. 

Lord God, teach me to be patient when I cannot, and teach me to be courageous when I must not be patient.  

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Patience or cowardice?

Sometimes I’m patient with people, but I’ll mistake that for cowardice.  This is something of a dilemma for me.

See, I know something bad about nearly everyone I know.  I’ve witnessed their public sin.  I’ve heard their struggles with private sin.  And I desperately want for them to come to repentance, to leave that besetting sin behind them and live a more holy life.  A life that doesn’t threaten to tear them apart.

And I freely confess: I want to happen NOW.  There is nothing more agonizing than seeing a person struggle when you know they can be freed.  And I have this sneaking suspicion that if I were to just get into their faces for a moment and confront them with the reality of their sin, I could manipulate them enough to leave it behind.  At least on the surface.  In front of me.  As we gather in church.

If I was just bold enough, I really do believe that I could force a situation where they would at least learn to mask their sin in public, but that’s not really what I want, is it?  I don’t want to train people to hide sin’s decaying rot under a shiny veneer of righteousness.  I want them to bring sin into the light and let it be killed off.  For that to happen God has to work; for Him to work I must be patient.

So fully knowing people’s sin, I continue to minister to them.  Patiently preaching the full counsel of God’s Word.  Praying that they will be delivered from their struggles.  Waiting for the day when the Holy Spirit has prepared them for repentance, waiting for the season where the Lord has brought His fruit to full ripeness and He commands, “Now you, worker, go and harvest what I have prepared.”  I am patient for that day.

But sometimes I’ll mistake my own patience for cowardice.  I’ll convince myself that I’m not truly waiting on God but that in reality I’m just hiding from confrontation.  That somehow, if I’m not in full confrontational prophet mode all hours of the day I’m not living up to my calling.

That’s a lie.  It’s a lie that I’ve told myself.  It’s a lie others have told about me.  It’s a lie that’s been told about God.  Perhaps the most impatient man in the Bible—the Apostle Peter—says in 2 Peter 3:9, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”

Sometimes God’s patience is mistaken for weakness.  Sometimes I mistake my own patience for cowardice.  But in truth we both have the same ultimate goal: that souls be saved.  That lives be redeemed.  That persistent sinners be delivered from the shackles that so cruelly bind them and they walk upon the earth as precious saints. 

That’s not something that occurs in a day, and it’s not something that I can force to happen.  It is a goal that often takes a literal lifetime to achieve.  And it is a day for which God is willing to be patient.

And if He is willing to be patient . . . then I am willing also.  

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Return to blogging: Of shoes and ships and sealing wax

House of Heroes "God Save The Foolish Kings" lyrics video from Gotee Records on Vimeo.

The rather ludicrous title of this my first blog post in a month alludes to the disjointed, disconnected nature of what I’m about to write.  I freely confess that this post is far less for your benefit than it is mine.  But at the same time I hope that my insights may prove beneficial to you at some time in your life, as well.

About a month ago, I realized that for a long, long time—far too long, really—I had been carrying a weight that I was never given to carry.  When the Lord calls a pastor, He calls him to carry a number of burdens: the burden of proper distinction of Law and Gospel, the burden of publicly walking in righteousness and even more publicly clinging to the cross in the midst of personal unrighteousness.  The Lord calls the pastor to carry the burden of the people; both their cares and concerns as well as the burden of the people themselves as they act sometimes as saint, sometimes as sinner.  God calls pastors to the burdensome ministry of calling people to repentance, of comforting them with Gospel, and exhorting them to have Christ at the very center of their being and doing.

But not once, ever, does God call a pastor to carry the burden of the work only He can do.  God entrusts work to pastors, but leaves the matter of results to Himself.

And yet . . . that’s the very load I was carrying.  My own weak, frail, narrow shoulders tried to heft a yoke that only fits His strong, broad ones.  I was trying to recreate the feat of Atlas, hefting the world upon my shoulders. 

I held myself responsible for achieving results in an arena that God alone dwells: the transformation of hearts and the reigniting of a church.

It’s a long, lonely, fruitless, endless road to walk down.  I got to the end of my rope and fell off, only to be caught by God Himself.  In classic God fashion, He was apparently waiting for that moment to rescue me from my own foolishness.  Waiting for me to wear myself out bashing my head against a wall so that I’d finally fall on my back; strength exhausted but with my eyes finally upward.

I’m not sure what happens next; my field of vision is extremely limited.  I know what I can see: that my church is in a financial crunch the likes of which it has never seen before.  That for all intents and purposes it is humanly impossible for them to continue forward with a full-time minister.  And yet I also see that despite all odds God has indeed brought us forward step by halting step.

I also know what I believe: that God is always faithful, always true, always merciful, and always victorious.  I have read and believe His promises that His church will endure, that His Gospel will go forth, that hearts and lives and people will be forever transformed from the inside-out as His redeeming work goes resolutely forth through His Word and through His Sacraments.

What I don’t know are those things beyond my ability to see.  Those are the things that worry at me.  Will God call me to another church?  Has He prepared another man to take my mantle of ministry here?  Will the people I love have a shepherd?  Or has He been working to keep us here?  Will we endure this as a light and momentary trouble?  Will we have a story of an unforeseen, God-sized victory?

Where does my next paycheck come from?  What happens on the day when it doesn’t?  How can I find work in Michigan’s economy, and how can I create work if I can’t find it?  What shall we eat?  What shall we wear?

Let me say it again:  I.  Do.  Not.  Know.  And it scares the death out of me. 

But stronger in me than death is the One who has gone through death into life.  Greater is the One who is in me than the one who is in the world.  My fears must content themselves with cowering in the corner as fears do.  I have no choice but to fling myself headlong into the maelstrom armed only with the knowledge that no matter what may come, it has already been prepared to bring good and not harm into my life. 

My fears can take a flying leap.  As a matter of fact, they have to, because I’m jumping off the mist-shrouded cliff hoping there’s water below that I can’t see.  I’m leaping from a perfectly good airplane trusting that the chute will open at the proper time.  I’m BASE jumping off the tower I’ve built to the Heavens in an attempt to see from the vantage point of God. 

So for the time being, I’m doing what today demands.  A little freelance writing to earn some money on the side and provide a wee bit of relief to the church’s financial burdens.  Grocery shopping to feed the family.  Prayer for the flock.  Sermon preparation for Sunday.  Catechism for new adult disciples as well as teenagers just beginning to make their parent’s faith their own.  Listening for God’s voice.  Trusting in His promises.  Doing the things that I can, trusting Him for those things that I cannot.

God will have to work out the future alone.  I'm pretty sure He can handle it far better than I.