Pastors have hard lives.
Paul’s experience of pouring out his life into a congregation is shared, I think, by almost every pastor, no matter the size of the life or the size of the congregation.
The pastoral burden must be tremendous.
The author of Hebrews writes that pastors “keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account.” What a huge responsibility. The flip side of this responsibility is that layfolk are supposed to “obey your leaders and submit to them” so that our pastors may keep watch over our souls “with joy, and not with grief.”
And yet how often do we grieve our pastors?
Part of this seems to be built into the way pastors become pastors, at least these days. It is not a surprise that young men who show some enthusiasm for God and the gospel are encouraged to become pastors. This encouragement may come in the form of what these young men (and, one hopes, wise Christians around them) discern as an inner call from the Spirit. For others, the encouragement may come from those around them as they discern the man’s gifts.
Whatever the source of the encouragement, however, it is usually young men most zealous for God and the gospel, those who are most aware of the grace they received from God and who have responded most deeply to God because of that grace, who are encouraged to become pastors. Think of Paul’s Damascus Road experience (though calls of course do not need to be so dramatic).
This seems an obvious point: that men who become pastors usually have an exceptional relationship with God in one dimension or another.
What would be the alternative? Men becoming pastors who have little interest in God and the ministry?
But consider the implication: the same thing that draws men to the ministry also separates them from their congregations. They have experienced a richer relationship with God than those they lead; they have, as the Psalmist puts it, “tasted and seen that the Lord is good.”
The upside is that their only aspiration is for their congregations to taste of the life, blessing, and joy that God offers us through the gospel. But what frustration, also; it’s so often like pushing a rope. We congregants are hard of hearing, we stumble, we are distracted by the world. The pastor implores those in his charge merely to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” They know, they know, that if only we taste we will, like them, want more. It’s sitting there, right before us. They would love for us to share what they have. But we don’t even taste.
They teach, they preach, they baptize and feed us. They plead, they implore, they even cajole and admonish. But so little for so much. They are poured out as a drink offering on the service and sacrifice of their congregations. They empty themselves, yet, so often, no one seems to get filled.
To be sure, God sees and rewards. But it would be nice every now and then to receive some appreciation from those of us they serve.
But too frequently we call upon them only when we’re in desperation, and ignore them when we’re not. We don’t bring our children to catechism class, and then blame the pastor for our children’s ignorance. We treat gathering together with the church as a burden, and the Eucharist as something that only prolongs the service, and then blame the pastor when our children drop their faith in college.
Pastors see the wreck that sin makes of human lives in their congregations, and the hindrance it creates for receiving God’s love. Yet we accuse them of meddling should they attempt to minister to us—until we’ve made such a wreck of it that there’s no one left to turn to. Then we wonder that the pastor is of so little help and comfort.
There’s so much to do in the church and so few layfolk willing to help.
So the pastor steps in to do the needful things, and is soundly thanked with the accusation of power-grabbing.
As if filling a vacuum he’d be more than happy for someone else to fill is power-grabbing. But we’re all satisfied enough to criticize from the sideline.
And then there is just not enough time for all the demands. People do the right thing for the wrong reason, and the wrong thing for the right reason. It would be great for pastors to have time to disciple us properly.
But we are so hard of hearing that it takes so long just to get through to one of us, and then we’re just as apt to misunderstand as to understand. It seems as though pastors empty themselves into broken cups that cannot hold what they offer.
It is a struggle as the pastor only wants his congregation to share the passion prompted by the love that he’s received from God.
But all of this also comes along with the pastor’s struggle with his own sin. Little could be more isolating for a pastor than struggling with his own sin when knowing that his congregation, often unfairly, looks to him as model of right behavior. We sometimes, unfairly, expect them to exemplify fully the life of the age to come rather than recognizing that no man can do that on this side of the eschaton.
It is little wonder that pastors seek out each other for fellowship and consolation; few layfolk understand the fine line between honesty with God and with one’s congregants, and desire not to disappoint, and a hypocrisy that can threaten one’s soul.
All of this on top of the pastor being poured out as a drink offering while keeping watch over the souls of the flock that God has given him.
Thank you, pastor.
Archives For Philippians
It might surprise some of you to hear that, as gentle and considerate as I appear to be, I have a tendency to be contrary.
And while I wouldn’t say that I have a short fuse exactly, I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes I can be cranky, maybe even a little confrontational.
There was the recent ‘episode’ that has since come to be known in my house as ‘Daddy’s Grocery Store Freakout.’
And before I tell you about ‘Daddy’s Grocery Store Freakout’ I should say first that, as a responsible preacher, I try hard, whenever sharing personal stories, never to present myself in a heroic light.
I try hard to avoid stories in which I appear to be the wise or faithful one. I usually avoid any anecdotes where I’m the good example or where I do the right thing.
You can take that as my disclaimer that ‘Daddy’s Grocery Store Freakout’ is an exception to that rule. In this instance, it’s the other guy who’s the idiot.
A couple of Sundays ago I fell asleep on the sofa watching Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince with the boys. I woke up from my nap to Gabriel staring at me, nose-tip to nose-tip, and saying ‘Daddy, it’s almost time for dinner.’
With just a yawn and a stretch, I headed to the grocery store. As I pushed my shopping cart through the entrance I caught my reflection in the glass.
My bed-head hair was mussed every which way.
My undershirt was covered with tomato sauce stains from lunch that looked a little like blood. My eyes were heavy and bloodshot.
And I had what looked like a scar across my face from the zipper of the pillow I’d been sleeping against.
In sum: I looked like a crazy person.
After picking up a few odds and ends, I stood in the produce section staring aimlessly at the bare Sunday shelves and wondering what on earth I could make with just japanese eggplant, jalepenos, and Italian parsley.
And I swear- it’s because I was trying to think of a recipe NOT because I was eavesdropping that I overheard him.
One of the store employees was sitting against the refrigerator, where the cabbage normally goes. Three other, younger, employees were huddled around him.
To protect the identities of the innocent and the idiotic, I won’t go into names or descriptions. I’ll just tell you what I heard.
“My best advice is for you guys to stay completely away from her’ the one leaning against the cabbage section said to the three.
And he nodded with his chin in the direction of ‘her.’
And again, I wasn’t trying to eavesdrop but I couldn’t help it. When he nodded in ‘her’ direction, like gravity was pulling me, I looked over my shoulder to see who the ‘her’ was he had in mind.
‘She’ was near the other side of the store, working a cash register.
‘She’ was a teenager it looked like. She couldn’t have been more than 18.
And ‘she,’ I could tell from the scarf wrapped around her head, was a Muslim.
That’s when I decided to eavesdrop.
‘How do we stay away from her?‘ one of Produce Guy’s three disciples asked.
‘Don’t talk to her. Period.‘ He said without equivocation. ‘Pretend she’s not there. If she says something to you, act like you didn’t hear her. If she needs help with something, tell her you’re busy with something else. If a manager tells you to work with her, say you’re in the middle of something.‘
His three disciples all nodded like receivers watching a quarterback draw up a play.
What I heard shocked me, but I didn’t say anything.
I didn’t say anything until I heard him say: ‘Remember, she worships a false god. That’s a sin, and God doesn’t want you associating with sinners. God hates sinners.‘
Thus began what’s come to be known as ‘Daddy’s Grocery Store Freakout.‘
I left my cart and stepped over to their huddle and said, in love: ‘Excuse me, it sounds to me like you don’t know what the blank you’re talking about and maybe you should just shut your mouth.‘
It was his turn to be shocked.
He stood up from the cabbage section and held up his hands as if to say ‘no harm, no foul‘ and said: ‘There must be a misunderstanding; we were just having a religious conversation.‘
And that’s when I lost it:
‘Misunderstanding? I’ll say. You’re telling these poor idiots that God doesn’t want them helping someone else?
That God wants them to deliberately ignore someone else?
That God wants them to treat someone like they’re not even a person?
You’re telling them that God hates sinners?
And you call yourself a Christian?
You’ve completely lost the plot.
If you really believed in Jesus Christ none of those words would ever come out of your mouth.‘
And that’s when I realized I’d been poking him in the chest with my Japanese eggplant.
He gave me a patronizing smile, like I was the one who didn’t get it.
‘Do you go to church?‘ he asked. ‘Maybe if you went to church you’d understand…‘
‘Yeah, I go to church‘ I said. ‘In fact, I go every Sunday. I’m there all the time. Aldersgate United Methodist Church. We’d love to have you visit us sometime.‘
And that’s when I realized that all the other customers in the produce section were motionless, as though suspended in time, staring in shock at me.
And for a brief, sobering moment I was able to see myself as they must’ve seen me: a man with red, bloodshot eyes, wild hair, and what looked like a scar across his face and blood splatter on his shirt, screaming about God near the cabbages, with an eggplant in his hand.
Don’t let the pretty poetry and lofty language fool you.
This song, which Paul cuts and pastes into his letter here in Philippians chapter 2, it’s meant to shock you.
Because those last few lines of the song:
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend…
11 and every tongue confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Those last few lines aren’t original- not to Paul, not to any other Christian, not to anyone in Philippi.
They’re lifted straight from the Old Testament, from Isaiah 45- which, in case you don’t know it, is one of the Bible’s fiercest statements against idolatry, against worshipping any other god but the one with a capital G.
And what does Paul do with this song from Isaiah?
Paul, a lifelong Jew, who for his entire life at least twice a day would’ve recited in prayer: ‘The Lord our God the Lord is One.’
Paul, a Pharisee, an expert in the Law who you can bet knew that the very first law, the law of all laws, was ‘You shall have no other gods besides me.’
What does Paul do with Isaiah’s song?
He sticks Jesus in the middle of it.
He says that:
Because Jesus knew power and might aren’t things to be grasped at but given up.
Because Jesus emptied himself of heaven.
Because Jesus made himself poor even though he was rich.
Because he exchanged his royal robes for a servant’s towel.
Because Jesus stooped down from eternity and humbled himself.
Because he forgave 70 times 7.
Because he blessed those who cursed him.
Because he went the extra mile for those who cared not for him.
Because he put away the sword and turned the other cheek and loved his enemies.
Because Jesus remained faithful no matter it cost him, no matter where it led him, no matter how it ended.
Because he did that,
God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name.
And that’s the shock.
Because the name that is above every name…is Yahweh.
The name that is above every name is ‘I am who I am.’
The name that is above every name is the name that was revealed to Moses at the Burning Bush, the name that was too holy to be spoken aloud or written down.
That’s why, in its place, the ancient manuscripts always used the word ‘Kyrios’ instead: ‘Lord.’
The same word Paul attaches to Jesus here in the middle of Isaiah’s song.
It’s meant to shock you- that this God who appeared in a burning bush and spoke in a still, small voice, this God- the one and only God- comes to us fully and in the flesh as Jesus Christ.
It’s intended to shock you- that Mary’s son is as much of God the Father as we could ever hope to see.
I was in the middle of ‘Daddy’s Grocery Store Freakout’ when I realized all the eyes of the produce section were on me, looking like they were waiting for someone- anyone- to taser me and put me back in my straight jacket.
So I looked up and smiled and it must’ve seemed more creepy than conciliatory because just like that all the shoppers scurried away to safety. So did Produce Guy’s three disciples, who went back to work.
But Produce Guy wasn’t ready to let me leave without proving how I was wrong and he wasn’t.
‘You must be one of those Christians who think we all just worship the same god’ he said dismissively.
‘No’ I said, and just like that I was shouting again.
‘You don’t get it. You don’t get it at all. I
believe our God couldn’t be moredifferent.
I believe our God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
That means you can’t say anything about God that you can’t also say about Jesus Christ.
So unless it makes sense to you to say ‘Jesus hates sinners; Jesus doesn’t want you to serve that person; Jesus wants you to treat that person like they’re not a person; unless it makes sense to you to say that about Jesus, then you should just shut your mouth.’
I said, in love.
But he didn’t follow.
He just squinted at me and said: ‘Maybe you should talk this over with your pastor. Maybe he could help you understand.’
‘Yeah, maybe. I’ll ask him about it.’
I’ve been a pastor long enough to know that when it comes to the Trinity, our belief that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, most of you think it’s a hustle.
You think it’s some philosophical shell game that couldn’t have less to do with your everyday life.
But pay attention-
That’s not how Paul speaks of the Trinity here.
Paul’s not interested in philosophy or abstraction.
Paul’s concerned with your mindset. With your attitude. With your love.
The Philippians weren’t locked in any doctrinal disputes or theological debates.
They were just at every day odds with each other.
And so Paul sends them these words about the God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
For Paul, the Trinity isn’t about intellectual games.
For Paul, the Trinity’s more like grammar that governs our God-talk.
Trinity keeps us from saying whatever we like about God, doing whatever we want in the name of God, believing whatever we wish under the umbrella of a generic god.
Trinity is Paul’s way of making sure that we can’t say ‘God’ without also saying ‘Jesus’
I mean, think about it-
Think about how many people you’ve heard, after a natural disaster or a tragic death or the diagnosis of disease, say something like: ‘It’s God’s will.’
Trinity means that for that to be a true statement you have to be able to remove ‘God’ and replace it with ‘Jesus.’
Trinity means that it’s not a true statement unless you’re able to say:
‘My mom’s cancer was Jesus’ will.’
‘Hurricane Katrina was Jesus’ will.’
‘9/11 was Jesus’ will.’
For Paul, Trinity functions not as a philosophical concept but as a grammatical rule. Trinity binds us to the character and story of Jesus.
We can’t say or think or act like God hates ‘sinners’ because we know Jesus didn’t.
We can’t say or think or act like God doesn’t care about the poor because we know Jesus did.
We can’t say or think or act as if God is against our enemies because we know Jesus loved them.
We can’t scratch our heads and wonder if we need to forgive that person in our lives because know what Jesus said about it.
And the doctrine of the Trinity refuses to let you forget that his words aren’t the words of any ordinary human teacher.
Teachers can be dismissed.
But his words are 100%, 3-in-1, the Word of God.
When Jesus says to the woman about to be stoned for adultery ‘I don’t condemn you’ that’s God speaking.
And when Jesus offers living water to the woman at the well, who has about 5 too many men in her life, that’s God’s grace.
And when Jesus says to Zaccheus, a villain and a traitor and a sinner, ‘Tonight I’m eating at your house’ Trinity makes sure we remember that that’s an invitation stamped with the seal of heaven.
For Paul, the fact that this God couldn’t be more different- it couldn’t be more practical.
I don’t freak out on people all that often.
But that’s not to say that I don’t run into people every day whose behavior doesn’t square with their beliefs, whose opinions are dearer to them than the mind of Christ, who are so set in their ways they refuse to conform to the Way.
And so if you want to make me less cranky.
If you want to make your pastor happy.
If you want to make my joy complete.
Give don’t grasp.
Serve don’t single out.
Don’t puff yourselves up with conceit.
Don’t fill yourselves up with ambition.
Don’t act out of selfishness.
Empty yourselves of the need to be right.
Regard anyone as better than yourself.
Pour yourselves out overtime for others.
Stay faithful to the Son’s words because that Son’s the fullness of the Father, and his name is inseparable from the name that is above every name.
And if that’s true then the way up in this world is by stooping down.