October 3: Bruises blotch nearly every inch of her body. Her husband beat her with a rubber hose. The doctors fear kidney damage.
October 7: It appears he commit ted suicide. No one knows why, but there is some evidence he contracted a degenerative disease while doing medical experimentation with the government. She had been married to him little more than a year. I try to comfort her with the assurance that God is compassionate and will not judge him solely on the basis of his last act.
October 10: I study the twelfth chapter of John's Gospel in the morning to prepare my sermon. It is a profound experience.
October 11: Notes of appreciation and criticism are coming to me about my sermon last Sabbath on the role of women in the church.
October 12: Early reactions to a book manuscript I've written on the Ten Commandments are favorable. I pray that the importance of the law as a discipline for freedom and love comes through clearly.
October 13: "I haven't been to church for fifteen years. I guess my verbal requests to be dropped have not been honored."
"Write me a letter of withdrawal and we will honor it," I reply. He is so bitter he will not discuss the matter with me.
October 16: At the church picnic a father tells me he will never forget how promptly the church acted in behalf of his daughter, who had violated the law.
October 22: A recently married young woman greets me warmly after church, and she gushes about the joy her marriage gives her. I think I shall never regret having married this couple.
October 24: A middle-aged woman tells me she cannot live with the pain of her marriage any longer.
I am a pastor . . .
I share the darkest cruelties and the brightest gifts life bestows on people. I accept their trust in me as a sacred responsibility and I am hum bled. The most secluded, intimate rooms of their lives are opened to me because they want the grace of Jesus Christ to heal their pain and bless their delight.
I feel compelled to be what I am despite long hours, intense pressures, and low pay—compelled by a sense of chosenness that I cannot shake. While my calling is to minister the grace of Jesus Christ, I realize I minister that grace uniquely because I am who I am.
My vocation stretches me to the limit in opposing directions: a little girl dies of a brain tumor, and I am there sorrowing in Christ's name; a baby boy is born, and I am there rejoicing in Christ's name. Seldom do I touch lives in trivial ways. I know of no work that summons the best from a person as consistently and in so many areas as this work.
When a member suffers, I suffer, because I am a pastor and not a clinician. Clinical detachment from suffering does not reflect the suffering of God with men or the bond of brotherhood in Jesus Christ. My life is woven into my congregation's life in a seamless fabric. A tear in any part tears the whole.
However, because human needs exceed human resources, I am often torn between conflicting demands. While divine power is infinite, I am limited. I cannot be everywhere at once; I have only so much time; I have a family and a personal identity. Shall my congregation, or my family, or the needs of my own soul have first claim on my time today? Will the coming funeral cancel our vacation plans? Shall I skip the committee meeting and spend the morning in meditation and study?
There are times when I must choose who will be hurt because of my refusal; at such times I can only trust God to keep His kingdom in spite of my limitations.
Even as I cannot serve everyone at all times, I cannot do all that should be done. What I choose to do depends on the need and on my gifts. Administrative detail is not my gift, but it is the gift of my secretary. Preaching, counseling, writing, and a concern for the people of the city are my gifts.
And unless I am willing to be honest about my gifts I cannot en courage my members to be honest about theirs. No matter how wild their dreams may seem, I want my members to be willing to take risks with their spiritual gifts. One woman expresses interest in establishing a clinic to help rape victims cope with their trauma; I encourage her. An other wants to establish a full-time community services center to help the disadvantaged; she also is encouraged. That is part of my calling—to help my members exercise their gifts in the work of reconciliation and ministry. I am their servant to aid them in their ministries.
This is one reason the worship hour is so important, especially in a large church. Only during that time is the whole community of believers enjoying Christ's fellowship together. Only then does the Word of God address the corporate body. Conducted properly, worship makes vivid the power of the Holy Spirit to enable my members to be sprinkled into the world like grains of salt. It is not only they who help me accomplish my ministry, but I who help them.
Many pastors become cynical about worship, especially the preaching service, after being in a parish for some time. But the evidence suggests that most Christians receive their primary spiritual help from the morning service—especially the sermon—and not from personal Bible study or prayer. Is the quality of our preaching related to this phenomenon?
Some will say Yes because they feel that superior preaching spoon feeds people so much they depend on the sermon for everything. They fast during the week or settle for crackers and cheese because the banquet during worship ruins their appetite. I have a hunch that the converse is more true, that good preaching produces eager Bible students. When people listen week after week to uninspiring, trite sermons coming from someone with a graduate degree in religion, why should they bother investigating, especially since they lack the formal education and have little time to dig for themselves? If the experts can find only warmed-over food, why bother?
But let the people taste fresh food served from the pulpit and they will hunger for more of the bread of life. They will see the sermon as an appetizer only.
However, to bring things "new and old" out of the Scriptures, I must be a competent exegete and widely read. As Karl Barth once ob served, the preacher must read the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Specialized scholarship is not the trade-mark of the pastor (though many pastors are scholars); general competence is. When theology emerges largely out of the universities rather than out of congregational life, it is often divorced from the concreteness of daily existence—which does not specialize into schools of thought over the meaning of religious language, for example.
While most of the time my life is as one with my congregation, there are those rare moments when I must stand over against it to bear a prophetic message concerning a moral issue. Race relations is a case in point. No one wants to displease the crowd, but authentic ministry must transcend mere crowd-pleasing. Popularity polls are not the primary index to the quality of ministry rendered by a local pastor. In fact, there are few examples in Scripture of "popular" prophets.
Not only giving, but also accepting, criticism is essential to my ministry. There are times when I am wrong and need rebuke. To the ex tent I can accept loving criticism graciously, to that extent the members of my congregation are free to admit their mistakes. A spirit of tolerance and charity grows. People can make a mistake and feel safe, and can learn that forgiveness and healing are much more real than anger and resentment.
Above all, even before I am their pastor, I am a member of my congregation. My function is more visible within the body, but no more important. They accord me a recognition by ordination that makes it appear I am higher, but the Scripture teaches I am not. It does not matter. . . . Each of us has a unique ministry to render to accomplish His purposes. God has chosen to need us. Therefore, my message and my work is twofold: man the sinner needs God's redemption and God's redemption needs man to proclaim it.
God be praised,
Antonio Stradivari has an eye
That winces at false work and loves the true . . .
And for my fame—when any master holds
'Twixt chin and hand a violin of mine,
He will be glad that Stradivari lived,
Made violins, and made them of the best . . .
I say not God Himself can make man's best
Without best men to help Him . . .
'Tis God gives skill,
But not without men's hands:
He could not make Antonio Stradivari's violins
—From "Stradivarius," by George Eliot
I am a pastor. I have found the place God has given me. And I am content.