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Monday, July 21, 2014

A Minister's Glory and Joy

A Minister’s Glory and Joy
Since the day when I retired from the enlisted ranks of Air Force, I have been serving as a pastor (everything from being a licensed stated supply, to becoming fully ordained). I have ministered in three congregations that would claim to be strongly evangelical (in all the right senses of that word), biblical, and conservative. In those three congregations, to greater and lesser degrees, I have ridden an emotional rollercoaster. I have been plunged into the deepest depths of distress and lifted up to the heart-pounding heights of happiness. I have been cursed at, accused of heresy and hatred, sneered at, ridiculed and laughed at; and I have been thanked, hugged, loved, prayed for and prayed with. I have seen people walk away from the Faith under my preaching; and I have baptized, or been part of reclaiming, many who have since walked in increasing integrity in faith in Christ. It has been an experience where my heart has bled and my eyes flowed with tears of grief; and where I have walked on cloud nine while raising my voice and hands in profuse adoration. All of this is background to the following thoughts.

In reading Paul’s letters to churches 2,000 years ago, I find that many of my experiences are mirrored in his. If one will take the time to read, for example, 2 Corinthians, it quickly becomes clear that Paul is airing the musty dungeon cell of his heart (see particularly chapters 4, 6, and then 10-13). But there is one aspect of the Gospel Ministry Paul mentions which either cuts against the grain of what I’ve been taught or plows against the hardened furrows of my own stony heart. It’s the way Paul describes the connection between his joy and a congregation.
“Make room in your hearts for us. We have wronged no one, we have corrupted no one, we have taken advantage of no one. I do not say this to condemn you, for I said before that you are in our hearts, to die together and to live together. I am acting with great boldness toward you; I have great pride in you; I am filled with comfort. In all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy” (2 Corinthians 7.2-4).
This ornery congregation that he is in the process of taking to task nevertheless fills him with pride, comfort, and joy!

Or glancing over to the Philippian church, Paul challenges them to complete his joy (2.2). And states that these people are his joy and crown (4.1). Even though there are troubles in that congregation that worry him (4.2-3), yet he makes the audacious claim that they are his joy. He even goes so far as to assert that they will be his pride and the vindication of his ministry on the day of Christ (3.16).

Then turning to the young Thessalonian church, Paul crows over them that they are his glory and joy (1 Thessalonians 2.20). He further affirms that when the day comes and he stands before Christ, they will be his hope, joy and crown of boasting (2.19). He declares that he, and his companions, are really alive as they see these believers “stand fast in the Lord” (3.8), and the joy he feels for them is nearly inexpressible (3.9).

All of this joy-talk brings me to put my foot down on the ministry break-peddle, and slow the car down to sight-seeing speed. I find myself asking in prayer, “Lord, can I say that this church is my glory and my joy? Do I look forward with a deep anticipation of hope, joy or “crown of boasting” (1 Thessalonians 2.19) with regard to this congregation in the day when you will come to judge the living and the dead (2 Corinthians 5.10)?” This brings me, then, to the next part of my prayer; “If not, why not! What is it in me that is keeping me from this kind of joy over this congregation?”

In answer to my prayerful question, it may be that part of the problem is a professionization of the Gospel Ministry. If I’m a “professional” minister, then there must be a detachment from the church and its troubles. That’s what professional counselors and hospice caregivers must do to maintain their own emotional elasticity. But is it possible that this professional detachment might be one of the very things hindering and hampering a minister from finding real joy in a congregation – even a terribly messy one? Could it be that the emotional distancing of a pastor from the parishioners actually breeds cynicism and callousness instead of joy and hope? Is this one reason why so many ministers end up having short ministries in multiple churches?

How does this professional aloofness compare with the Jesus-shaped warmth of Paul, with all of his familial spirit and intimacy?
“For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness. Nor did we seek glory from people, whether from you or from others, though we could have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us. For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers. For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory” (1 Thessalonians 2.5-12).
And there is his birthing and siring metaphors used with regard to other churches, “my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (Galatians 4.19)!  And “I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (1 Corinthians 4.14-15).

It seems to me, therefore, that professional distancing or detachment has very little place in pastoral ministry. Maybe that is one reason why we – you and I – cannot resonate with Paul’s  “you are our glory and joy” (1 Thessalonians 2.20) with regard to a congregation.

What to do?
Pray that God would help you to find his glory and joy in the congregation where he has put you.
Invest your very self in the nurture and care of the congregation (1 Thessalonians 2.11).

Find reasons to boast in your church before the Lord now, practicing for that Day when he returns (1 Thessalonians 2.19).

Finally, when you are tempted to hunker back down into the safety of professional distance, look at Christ Jesus our Lord who sacrificed his personal safety and emotional comfort for you: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10.45). And hold on to him as he shepherds you in love and joy; “For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Peter 2.25); “The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing” (Zephaniah 3.17).
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“Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us” (Philippians 3.17).
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Mike
(Feel free to re-post or republish. But as always, please give credit where credit is due. Mike)

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