The writer of Ecclesiastes said, “The end of a matter is better than its beginning” (7:8). He might have also added something about how of the making of blogs there is no end :). (I actually toyed with the idea of continuing this series… there really is a lot to say… but alas, I think it’s time to move on).
I want to end by talking yet one more time about the heart of the preacher as it pertains to his (or her!) task. Ecclesiastes says it as well as anyone:
Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil. (12:13-14)
One of the things I frequently tell people is that I can think of no task on planet earth as taxing on every conceivable level as preaching is. Even when it’s working well, and you find yourself in that beautiful zone of grace where sense that you are laboring with Jesus in the light yoke, it still takes a toll. To preach well, you cannot be on autopilot. Ever. Preaching well requires that you live at the “cutting edge”, as it were, of your abilities: your ability to reason theologically, to think biblically, to understand congregational process and tailor your sermons to aid it in the right directions… not to mention your own walk with God. Much is asked of you, and if you add into all of this the criticism you are likely to receive, it can leave you feeling vulnerable and exposed, which can take a powerful toll on you over time.
I have great compassion on preachers that feel run down from the task. It is not easy. In the early years of Bloom, I used to come home from our gatherings (we met and still meet in the evenings on Sundays), eat some dinner, and then fall asleep early watching TV (I would be SO exhausted)… only to be startled awake by a welter of confusing thoughts and emotions in the middle of the night–thoughts and emotions that usually kept me up most of the rest of the night. I would analyze and fret about literally everything there was to analyze and fret about:
Why did that story not work the way I wanted it to?
Is that real resistance I feel whenever I talk about that particular subject, or only imaginary?
Why were there fewer people at church this week than last?
Could other people tell that I was having a socially awkward night, or did I hide it pretty well?
How in the world did I forget that guy’s name when he shook my hand again!
And on and on and on.
I’ve often told people that I’m still charismatic enough to believe in “spiritual warfare”, and I personally NEVER experience that warfare as strongly as I do leading up to and coming out of messages. It’s like the Enemy is intent upon spoiling my life at exactly the place where my agency is designed to most specifically and powerfully touch the world (imagine that). Mostly he does this by trying to make me feel like I’m a miserable failure, or a fake.
I’ve gotten good over the years at identifying the voice of the Accuser in my head. My goodness, though, he is subtle. More often than not he will use my self-reflecting ways against me to make me feel like my efforts are futile and that I’m letting the world down. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve even gotten sincere (and often long-winded) compliments from people in gratitude for my ministry and had the voice of the Accuser immediately chime in, “Yes, yes… but they’re probably hiding some criticism and disappointment with you somewhere in their hearts.” It can be debilitating.
Here’s the deal (last lesson): You will not survive this unless you learn to put yourself completely and totally in the hands of God.
You need to run, literally RUN, for the Strong Tower. When you get there, stay. Don’t let anything move you.
Back to Ecclesiastes. After waxing eloquent for twelve chapters on the futility of life under the sun, the writer boils the “whole duty of mankind” into this summary statement: “fear God and keep his commandments.” And why? Because “God will bring every deed into judgment.”
GOD is the center and the summary for the writer of Ecclesiastes. GOD will bring every deed into judgment. GOD will weigh out the motives of our heart. GOD will disclose the full meaning of our lives. GOD. GOD. GOD. He is the “hard core” of the universe. Everything else is vapor. Fluff. Chaff.
I personally find that very comforting. When I let my heart sink deep into the universe of meaning created by the writer of Ecclesiastes on that point, I am lead inexorably to these words by the Apostle Paul. Listen to what he says of his own ministry in 1 Corinthians 4:
“Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive commendation from God.” (vv1-4)
“I do not even judge myself.” When you believe, at bottom, that the most truthful account of your life can only be made by God, it is liberating. People’s judgments of you do not, cannot, matter. And neither do your own judgments of yourself matter. For you cannot see what your life and your preaching are doing. You cannot fully weigh out your motives. You cannot know all that is happening. And your attempts to assess it all… to suss it out… as good-hearted as they are, they are futile. When you learn to cast yourself at the Mercy, you find freedom. Freedom to live and love and preach with joy. For the one who knows your motives most fully (the good and the bad) and therefore is best positioned to judge you is also the one who loves you most deeply, and has called you to keep discharging the trust committed to you.
Over the years, that insight has had a way of lightening the load powerfully for me. Andrew is not on trial in his own preaching. Knowing that, I can stand up, give what I have been given, and walk away. Where I fail, I fail. (Good thing it didn’t all depend on me.) Where I succeed, I succeed. (But I know that any success is owed to the grace at work in me.) It is not about me. I am loved and called to the task and loved and invited to rest and loved and provoked to take the easy yoke and loved and loved and loved and loved… right in the middle of it all.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing from his Tegel prison cell, perhaps captured it best:
Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell’s confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a Squire from his country house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
Freely and friendly and clearly,
As thought it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
Equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.
Am I then really that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
Tossing in expectations of great events,
Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.
Who am I? This or the Other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!
That is really the heart of it. We preachers, as disciples before all things, belong to God. So in the midst of our task, we entrust ourselves to God’s knowledge, his judgment, his mercy. We are freed from the excessive scrutiny that threatens to undermine the joy we take in our calling. Judged and forgiven at the cross of Christ, we are liberated to serve without fear.
I hope that you know this, preacher. I hope that you know that the Lord loves you and has called you. I hope you know that his love is more fundamental than what people say about you. I hope you know that his love and calling of you are more fundamental than your judgments against yourself. I hope you know that you are welcome, each and every time you preach, to abandon yourself to the Mercy, knowing that you are not on trial, knowing that the only trial that ever mattered was the one in which the Son of God, in whom your life is caught up, was judged by men and vindicated with a triumphal shout by God. Forever you stand in light of the Father’s acclamation, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.” In us, as we are in Him, the Father is well-pleased.
This understanding should give you the ability to be patient with yourself. You’re going to succeed some. You’re also going to fail some. In it all, you are going to grow in grace. And as you do, the light of eternity will shine brighter and brighter through your words. The kingdom will shimmer through not just your speech, but your life, for this knowledge of the Father’s being well-pleased with you will move from being some pseudo-juridical bit of theological content to the very tenor of your being. You will learn to live out of this knowledge. You will walk on the water of the Father’s impossible love for you.
And you will inspire others to do the same.
Grace to you, preachers. Keep living in the Mercy. Hope you’ve enjoyed these posts.