peace

The place I find myself

“Who are you?”

It was 1973. I was a 19-year old student at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, eating lunch with friends. Stephanie—serious, inquisitive, known for deeply diving into matters of the heart—was sitting to my right in the dining hall. As I munched on my dry hamburger I could tell she was staring at me. I glanced over at the eyes that were looking into me. She asked again, “Who are you?”

I thought: What do I say? Friends are around, waiting to hear. Do I say something funny or wax profound? What’s she expecting me to say? Is she in love with me, or getting ready to attack?

I didn’t know. So I looked at her, smiled, swallowed my bite of burger, said my full name, and hoped she’d either go away or give me a hug. Stephanie did neither. She kept staring, and asked again. “Who are you?”

It was the era of Watergate, Vietnam, hippies, psychedelia, and campus unrest. Self-discovery was all the rage. We were the “Me generation.” So no wonder she asked. It was a good question. Who am I?

I think Stephanie knew that I didn’t know.

Do I know now?

~~~~~

Stephanie’s question has haunted me since that day in the Furman dining hall.

For the last thirty-three years, I’ve been a pastor. I’ve had a challenging and happy career as a preacher, leader, and shepherd of four different congregations. I’ve baptized, married, nurtured, and buried hundreds of God’s people. Had you asked me a few months ago who I am, I would have told you about the children I’ve raised, the friends I’ve loved, the places I’ve traveled, the sermons I’ve preached, and the people who say I did them some good. All good things.

But do those good things answer the question, Who am I? Isn’t it possible to have done all those things and still not known my true self? Yes indeed.

And what do I say now? I am no longer “Pastor Mike.” In February, 2019, I stepped down from church leadership. I decided I’d had enough. I wanted to do something different.

So I semi-retired. I took a job at a theological seminary as the Dean of Students. It’s part-time. I’ll do some teaching, mentoring, and a bit of preaching here and there. I’ll be free on weekends to travel with my wife and visit our kids and grandkids. But I won’t be wearing my pastor hat anymore. People won’t thank me for a good sermon or a helpful counseling session. I will no longer tell folks that I pastor a healthy, healing church. My email inbox will no longer be filled with questions, meeting requests, and forwards from well-meaning church members.

So if Stephanie were to ask me today, “Who are you?” how would I answer? How would you?

~~~~~

In his book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, pastor and author Peter Scazzero writes, “The vast majority of us go to our graves without knowing who we are. We unconsciously live someone else’s life, or at least someone else’s expectations for us.”

I agree with that. Most of us get our identity from what we do. And that’s not entirely bad. But when you no longer do what you’ve done for most of your life, you need to know that you are more than the sum of your contributions to society. The world around us measures us by what we achieve, own, or look like. But all those things are fleeting and unsatisfying. The truth is that identity and value are intrinsic to our being as the people of God. This is why the invalid in the nursing home is just as valuable, just as glorious, as the cancer researcher or the best-selling author or the homeschool mom.

When someone asked Thomas Merton who he was, he said simply, “I am the loved one.”

That’s who I am too. I am God’s beloved. I’m his child, the object of his affection. To me (and you!) God says, “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11).

~~~~~

So here’s the place I find myself: I’m discovering that my identity is not rooted in me and what I do, but in Christ. Pretty basic, right? I’ve stopped trying to be somebody. I don’t care that I don’t tweet. I’ve given up on trying to make a name for myself in my Presbyterian denomination. What would that have accomplished anyway? I’m trying to heed Jeremiah’s word of warning to his scribe Baruch: “Do you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not….” (Jeremiah 45:5).

After years of trying to be a good, successful pastor, I’m now trying to enjoy being God’s son.

I’m not there yet. Like unraveling a knot, it takes time to undo a lifetime of seeking reputation and honor. But “I press on,” as Paul says in Philippians 3, to “gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith–that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil 3:8-11).

How to Sabbath as a pastor

unnamedI recently retired from pastoral ministry and took on a new challenge as Dean of Students at a theological seminary. Now relieved of the responsibilities of church work, I’ve been reflecting on my thirty-two year pastoral career. One of the things I’ve been stunned to realize is just how much those years were filled with anxiety and frantic ambition instead of “the peace that passes understanding” that we Christians talk about.

Looking back, I wish I had “Sabbathed” better.

I’m using the word “Sabbath” here not in its narrow sense to refer to the Lord’s Day (Sunday), but in its broader connection to the Hebrew word meaning to stop, take a break, and rest. The fact that under the New Covenant we observe the Sabbath on the first day of the week means that all of life, including work and ministry, should flow out of rest. Rest from worry, nervous toil, guilt, shame, and fearful labor has been achieved for us by Jesus through his death, resurrection, and ascension. As God has rested from his labor, so should we (Hebrews 4:10). So being a pastor and living out of a continual sense of rest and peace should not be mutually exclusive concepts.

I’m not saying life as a pastor is easy. Ministry is hard work. It means shepherding stubborn sheep, loving unlovely people, laboring over the scriptures, and praying constantly. Every faithful pastor knows what Paul is talking about in 2 Corinthians 11 when he admits to “toil and hardship, …many a sleepless night,” and “the daily pressure [of] anxiety for all the churches” (vv. 27-28).

But something’s wrong when pastoral activity is driven (and I use that word driven deliberately) by fear of not meeting budget, worry about membership numbers, the expectations of powerful leaders, or anxiety about what folks thought of your last sermon, rather than by love for people and trust in the Holy Spirit. And I mention these examples because I caved to such pressures far too often. To “Sabbath” as a pastor means to shepherd and love and study and preach and counsel and pray as one who knows Jesus has won the battle and is building his church without a lot of help from us.

So back to the question at hand. How might I have Sabbathed better as a pastor? How can you minister out of rest instead of enslavement to your own and others’ expectations?

Here are ten practices that come to mind:

  1. Have a day off every week. Don’t skip it, open your laptop, answer the phone, or squeeze in a quick visit to the hospital. Surely someone in your church or on your staff can cover for you on your day off. If “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27), your day off is for you, not your congregation.
  2. Delegate. You’ve heard of a “to do” list”? Create a “not to do” list. Ask others to take those tasks off your plate.
  3. Read books for sheer pleasure. Keep a non-ministry-related book going at all times.
  4. Have a hobby. What is that “thing” you always wanted to do when you got older? For me, it’s learning to scuba dive–and I haven’t done it yet! What’s on your bucket list? Don’t keep putting it off.
  5. Don’t take yourself too seriously. You’re not as good as you think you are. And, praise God, you are better than you think you are. But you’re not indispensable.
  6. Say no at least once a day. Meeting every need, responding to every request, replying to every email, and accommodating every suggestion will exasperate and eventually exhaust you. You are not your church’s Savior–Jesus is. You don’t have all the answers–Jesus does. Help your church members turn to Jesus instead of you. You’ll be doing both them and yourself a big favor.
  7. Expect your elders and deacons (or whatever you call them in your church) to do what elders and deacons have been called by God to do. Don’t relieve them from ministry; empower and equip them for ministry.
  8. Take a sabbatical–an extended time of rest, reflection, and fun–at least every seven years. If your church does not have a sabbatical policy, talk to your fellow leaders about the need for one. And do not apologize or feel guilty. Taking a break of at least eight weeks every seven years will make you a better pastor and your church a better church.
  9. Minister out of who you are. Has God wired you to be a prophet, a priest, or a king? Few pastors can be more than one of those types. Determine which one you are, and be that. Be OK with that. God has gifted you and called you for such a time and place as this. Be that prophet, priest, or king with all your heart and soul.
  10. Preach the gospel to yourself every day–more often if possible. The gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (Romans 1:16).

Asleep at Sea

(The following post is by Scott Castleman, senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Ocean Springs. Scott is not only a pastor who loves the Lord and leads his congregation well; he is my son-in-law. Follow his blog, Soul Bacon.)

There is a picture of Rembrandt’s painting, “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” that I keep on my desk. The seas are chaotic and violent. The bow is thrust upward as the stern dips. The disciples in the bow are clinging to lines and mast and sails. There is a disciple straining in futility at the rudder. One disciple in red is leaning over the port stern gunnel in the throws of seasickness. Another disciple is simply holding on for dear life. And there is one shaking Jesus awake. Rembrandt has painted the moment before Jesus has said a word. He imagined Jesus in that odd instant when a person is no longer sleeping but they are not fully awake.

Christ in the Storm on the Sea of GalileeI love that moment in this painting. It looks like chaos. If a person did not know the biblical account but they looked at Rembrandt’s imagination of it they might wonder the end of it all. The painting itself begs the question, “Did they make it?” The only reason I can bear the unresolved tension in this painting is that I know the end of the story. I know the next frame. Jesus rebukes the storm, “Peace! Be still.” And he rebukes the storm in order that his disciples might hear his rebuke of them: “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they marvel and they wonder at what they just saw, asking among themselves, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

The wind and the waves knew better the voice of their Sovereign than did his disciples. Would that we, like wind and waves, quit our furies and tantrums at the simple word of “Peace! Be still.” But we do not respond as well as tempests and we are not as obedient as the sea. Rather, we rattle the Lord awake with our urgent prayers prayed not with faith but with desperate doubts and sincere uncertainty about whether everything will actually be okay.

That is why I keep this painting on my desk–because at some point between the storms in my life I forget what I learned the last time. I ask myself in the fresh peace of God’s provision, “Who then is this?” I keep this painting on my desk as reminder on nights like tonight that the sovereign God of all things is with me.

Christ the Lord is in the middle of every single circumstance in every single moment. If we could see him we would see that he does not share our anxiety. He doesn’t share our uncertainty about how things will turn out. He does not live in the tension of our worst-case scenario. Our raging sea doesn’t stir him. Who can sleep in the midst of a violent storm that boils a little boat on Galilee in the middle of the night as twelve grown men shout and pull and push and puke? The one who sleeps in that moment is one who knows that the storm is just a storm. He’s not worried about not getting to where he is leading them to go. The one asleep is the one who knows that the wind and the waves are subject to him and not the other way around. The one who sleeps is the one who would silence the storm not in order to save those who were in it, but rather so they could hear him better as he rebuked their fear and their lack of faith.

As your storm rages…

Consider how it is that He can rest

And gently lay your head upon His breast.

O to sleep when others toil and shout,

To find peace while those are tossed about.

Who then is this that wind and sea obey

And calls fearful night to faithful day?

Him whose voice made darkness bright

And brings men from shadows into light.