The One and the Many

Take a close look at the photo to the right. Look long and hard. Do you see anything unusual? Does anything stand out as a mistake? Big Bird might ask, “Is one of these things not like the others?”

This is a photo of one of the window shades in our living room. If you examined the picture carefully, you saw the little bent piece in the slat down on the lower right. I’m not sure how it happened, but that slat is broken. Maybe our cat climbed on the shade in hot pursuit of a lizard on the other side of the glass – he does this often – and broke that slat. Whatever the case, the slat needs to be replaced.

That small defect in the window shade affects your assessment of the whole thing, doesn’t it? It’s the James 2:10 principle: “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.”

But actually I’m using this photo to illustrate something entirely different from James 2:10.

If you’re a pastor, don’t you often focus on the one slip-up and ignore the many good and impactful things you do for your people? Perhaps you mispronounced a proper name in your sermon; suddenly the whole sermon is a piece of trash. Perhaps you forgot to visit Miss Mary Lou in the hospital; suddenly you’re a loser when it comes to pastoral care. You focus on that one mistake and forget your many achievements and successes.

That window shade in my living room is really a very good window shade! It works fine! I can close the shade at night and open it in the morning. That’s really all I’m looking for in a window shade. It hardly matters at all that that little slat is broken. In fact, when I close the shade you can’t even see the defect.

We get that, don’t we? But when it comes to our ministry, we pastors tend to give no mercy to ourselves. A hundred people might tell us how powerfully the Sunday sermon hit the mark. It was convicting, say some; encouraging, say others. It was everything a sermon should be. It pointed people to Jesus. But if one person complains, suddenly we feel like jamming a stick in our eye.

I’ll wager that ninety percent or more of your church loves your church and thinks you’re a very good pastor. But what do you obsess about? The ten percent (or fewer) who complain! You stay awake at night wondering why the Smiths left your church for the church down the street while you fail to praise God for the overwhelming number of families who faithfully attend your church, give, and serve.

OK, maybe what I’m talking about is a by-product of genuine humility and compassion. You care deeply about your people’s spiritual formation. That’s why you labor over your sermons. You know what’s at stake. Mistakes bother you because you want to get it right. Truth matters. You dare not mislead your congregation. And the reason you obsess about the Smith family is that you love the Smith family. It breaks your heart to think they may join a church where the gospel is not proclaimed or love is not practiced.

Still, we in ministry need to learn to keep things in perspective. We are like that slat on my window shade: we are broken. As St. Paul puts it, we are jars of clay (2 Corinthians 4:7). This means we will make mistakes; we will forget to do things; we will lose our temper and oversleep and say the wrong thing and make bad decisions. We are not, and will never be, perfect. To think that we are capable of perfection is at best naïveté and at worst idolatry. Faithfulness must be our goal, not perfection.

So next time you forget to do something…

Next time you are criticized…

Next time you hear that someone is talking about leaving your church…

Next time you want to jam a stick in your eye…

Praise God that he has chosen YOU to be his person, in this place, for this congregation, at this time.

Do your best, and let God do the rest.

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