suffering

A pastor’s wife’s story

The following story was posted on August 3, 2016, on the website ThomRainer.com.

Please allow me to share my feelings about the last many yearlovedepart_couplesad_sadlove_badrelations of being a pastor’s wife. I tried on many occasions to talk to my husband about it (loneliness, neglect, wanting at least one evening a week together, lack of dating, etc.). We’ve gone to
marriage seminars, talked to mentor ministry couples, and, still, things don’t change.

He never schedules time for investing in our marriage and works all week in the office and then up all night on Saturdays getting his sermon ready. He leaves early Sunday mornings for preparations for the service and, by the time he gets home in the afternoon, he’s exhausted and definitely doesn’t feel like doing anything active or fun with the kids and me. He just wants to veg out on the couch.

When I try to talk about my feelings, I’m “complaining” and not “following the call for my life.” I’m so tired of the cycle of neglect, loneliness, rejection, and hurt that I hate going to church, don’t read my Bible anymore, and have to fight thoughts of divorce every single day. The church definitely feels like his mistress. I’m so hopeless and feel that I’m trapped. The one place I should be able to turn to, the church, is what is killing me on the inside.

If anyone has a recommendation for a fair and reasonable counselor…who is used to working discreetly with people in my and my husband’s position, I would greatly appreciate it. I’m down to my last resort before bailing.

Speaking to the Senselessness

I woke up this morning to more horrible news of injustice in America. Five Dallas police officers were murdered and six more wounded by a sniper who reportedly was upset about recent killiDepressed womanngs of African Americans by white policemen. 

Sadness, anger, and worry for our nation are growing in my soul day by day. I got physically ill watching a video of one of the killings that have been posted online. I live in Orlando, Florida, where on June 12 of this year the deadliest mass shooting by a lone gunman in US history took place. Fifty people (including the murderer) died and 53 were injured in a shooting at the Pulse nightclub. That same weekend, a singer-songwriter was shot to death while signing autographs at an Orlando concert venue. A few days later a child was killed by an alligator at one of the Disney parks. Our city has been shaken to the core.

What’s a pastor supposed to do when overcome by the senseless violence of the world? He should speak to and for his congregation. But what should he say? Here is what I wrote in our weekly e-newsletter that went out today:

I am reading the book of Amos in my daily Bible time. The prophet Amos warned sinful Israel that because they “trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and turn aside the way of the afflicted”…because they “oppress the poor [and] crush the needy”…because they “trample on the needy and bring the poor of the land to an end”…in short, because they “have rejected the law of the Lord, and have not kept his statutes, but their lies have led them astray,”…therefore God would punish Israel with destruction by foreign enemies and exile. God cares too much for human beings—made just “a little lower than angels” (Psa 8:5)—to sit by and allow his image to be defaced and violence to prevail.

The hatred and oppression that characterized Israel in Amos’ day seemingly rule the streets of our cities today. From Orlando to Istanbul to Baghdad to Bangladesh to Baton Rouge to St. Paul and now to Dallas, the sin of Cain is uglier and more pervasive than ever. There are things we don’t know about the killings this week in Minnesota and Louisiana. Still, think of the families that will never be the same, the cities that will be inflamed with racial strife, and the attitudes that will harden into self-righteous hostility toward people who are “not like me.”

On top of these things is all the acrimony related to the upcoming election, the floods in West Virginia, the drama surrounding Brexit, the curse of human trafficking, and the continuing assault upon human rights in general.

I wanted to affirm how much all this hurts and sucks and infuriates and depresses us. We feel the prayer of the psalmist, “How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?” (Psalm 89:46).

Church, let us continue to pray and love and lament and forgive and heal and repent and listen and make disciples. Despite the growing secularism around us, people are open and searching. Let us love our neighbors, hear their pain, and fear the Lord. Let us pray for our law enforcement community. In our congregation are at least one police officer, a firefighter, and several nurses, physician assistants, counselors, and EMT personnel. Thank them for their service and hold them up before the Lord.

And let us hope! In the final chapter of Amos, God promises that a day of restoration is coming. Even Edom—the nation descended from Esau and the constant antagonist of Israel—would receive God’s mercy. God says through Amos, “In that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins and rebuild it as in the days of old” (Amos 9:11). The coming of Jesus Christ into this dark world was the initial fulfillment of that promise. Every day, as we get closer and closer to the end of time, God is at work repairing the breaches that sin has caused. The Bible promises that God will win the battle with evil. The reign of God is growing, despite appearances. So hang onto that hope and don’t let go.

Pastor Mike

Choose the reproach of Christ

I find great comfort in Hebrews 11:26. Speaking of Moses the author says, “He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the rewardtreasure-chest.”

When you suffer for the sake of the body of Christ (and isn’t that what pastoral ministry often means?), you experience the same kind of reproach (i.e., scorn, contempt) experienced by Jesus. You are filling up in your flesh what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions (Col. 1:24). And this is of greater worth than all the treasures of Egypt. Why? Because “in Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3).

Suffering unites you to Jesus like nothing else, allowing you to experience his strength in your weakness, his grace in your weariness, his love in your rejection, his Spirit in your emptiness. His steadfast love is better than life (Psa 63:3). At his right hand are pleasures forevermore (Psa 16:11).

Charles Wesley beautifully described the treasures found in Christ in his hymn, Thou Hidden Source of Calm Repose:

Jesus, my all in all Thou art,
My rest in toil, my ease in pain,
The healing of my broken heart,
In war my peace, in loss my gain,
My smile beneath the tyrant’s frown,
In shame my glory and my crown.

In want my plentiful supply,
In weakness my almighty power,
In bonds my perfect liberty,
My light in Satan’s darkest hour,
In grief my joy unspeakable,
My life in death, my Heaven in hell.

Jesus is like the treasure hidden in a field that is worth more than a man might give up in order to possess (Matt. 13:44).

The thing is, to experience the reproach of Christ we have to make the same choice Moses made. He chose “rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin” (Heb. 11:25). He chose a superior pleasure over an inferior one. Isn’t that the fight of faith we are called on to wage every day as we lead God’s people?

The key of faith

I gave the following children’s sermon one Sunday during our church’s series on Hebrews 11.

Title: “Faith Is the Key”

Scripture text: Matthew 8:5-13

Materials you need: A lock (I used my bike lock) and a set of keys, one of which opens the lock

Opening question: Do you think I could make a sick person well just by saying a few words? Of course not!

Message: One day an important Roman soldier came up to Jesus i
n Capernaum. One of his servants was very sick. The soldier loved this servant and wanted him
to get well. So when he heard that Jesus was nearby, the soldier went to Jesus and told him about his sick servant. Jesus was about to go with the soldier to heal the servant when the soldier said, “No Lord, just say the word and my servant will be healed.” He had faith that Jesus could make someone well just by saying the
word.

What is faith? (Listen to the children’s answers.) That’s right, faith means putting your trust in God. Faith is the key that unlocks the power and love of God.

Look at what I have here. I brought along my bike lock. As hard as Ilock try, I cannot open this lock. Here is a set of keys. One of them opens the lock. (Demonstrate)
That key is like faith. You and I are weak. We face many situations in which we need God’s help. Maybe you’re sick like that soldier’s servant. Maybe you’re lonely, or afraid, or sad, or upset about something. Maybe you’re being bullied or lied about or rejected. You don’t know what to do. Just like this lock, you’re too weak to fix the situation on your own.

What do you need? You need the key of faith. You need faith in God’s power. The power of God that made the sick servant well can help you with your fear, your loneliness, your anger, or whatever you’re struggling with. Faith is the key that unlocks God’s power and love.

 

 

What to remember when you’re suffering

When we are hurting, it helps to pull out one of the preachers of old and hear him remind us that God ordains affliction for our good and his glory. Here’s what the “Prince of Preachers,” Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892), said about the benefits of suffering:

“God’s great design in all his works is the manifestation of his own glory. Any aim less than this were unworthy of himself. But how shall the glory of God be manifested to such fallen creatures as we are? Man’s eye is not single, he has ever a side glance towards his own honour, has too high an estimate of his own powers, and so is not qualified to behold the glory of the Lord. It is clear, then, that self must stand out of the way, that there may be room for God to be exalted; and this is the reason why he bringeth his people ofttimes into straits and difficulties, that, being made conscious of their own folly and weakness, they may be fitted to behold the majesty of God when he comes forth to work their deliverance. He whose life is one even and smooth path, will see but little of the glory of the Lord, for he has few occasions of self-emptying, and hence, but little fitness for being filled with the revelation of God. They who navigate little streams and shallow creeks, know but little of the God of tempests; but they who “do business in great waters,” these see his “wonders in the deep.” Among the huge Atlantic-waves of bereavement, poverty, temptation, and reproach, we learn the power of Jehovah, because we feel the littleness of man. Thank God, then, if you have been led by a rough road: it is this which has given you your experience of God’s greatness and lovingkindness. Your troubles have enriched you with a wealth of knowledge to be gained by no other means: your trials have been the cleft of the rock in which Jehovah has set you, as he did his servant Moses, that you might behold his glory as it passed by. Praise God that you have not been left to the darkness and ignorance which continued prosperity might have involved, but that in the great fight of affliction, you have been capacitated for the outshinings of his glory in his wonderful dealings with you.” (Morning and Evening, July 19)

Scott’s Story

(The following story comes from Scott Sauls, Senior Pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Nashville, Tennessee. Thank you, Scott. Read more by Scott on his blog.)

Scott-Sauls-Head-Shot-150x150I am one of those ministers who has endured a handful of seasons of anxiety and depression. Most of the time, thankfully, the affliction has been more low-grade than intense. On one occasion, though, it pretty much flattened me physically, emotionally, and even spiritually. I call this particular season my “living nightmare.”

That season, as well as others, occurred while serving in ministry.

How bad was the living nightmare? I could not fall asleep for two weeks straight. Even sleeping pills could not calm the adrenaline and knock me out, which only made things worse. At night I was terrified of the quiet, knowing I was in for another all-night battle with insomnia that I was likely to lose. The sunrise also terrified me, an unwelcome reminder that another day of impossible struggle was ahead of me. I lost nearly thirty-five pounds in two months. I could not concentrate in conversations with people. I found no comfort in God’s promises from Scripture. I was unable to pray anything but “Help” and “Please end this.”

Why would I tell you this part of my story? Because I believe—no, I am certain—that anxiety and depression hits ministers disproportionately. And a minister who suffers with this affliction, especially in isolation, is a person at risk. When I was in seminary, two pastors committed suicide because they could not imagine going on another day having to face their anxiety and depression. Both suffered with the affliction in silence. One wrote in his suicide note that if a minister tells anyone about his depression, he will lose his ministry, because nobody wants to be pastored by a damaged person.

Or do they?

For those of us in ministry who have suffered (or are suffering) from this affliction, I think we need to do everything we can to discover and embrace an applied theology of weakness. Even the Apostle Paul said that it is in weakness that we discover the glory, power, and grace of God. This is how God works. He is upside-down to our sensibilities. Better said, we are upside-down to his.

Anne Lamott recently said that it’s okay to realize that you are very crazy and very damaged because all of the best people are. Suffering has a way of shaping us as people and as ministers. It has a way of equipping us to lead in ways that are helpful and not harmful. A healer who himself has not been wounded is very limited in his ability to heal.

The “very crazy, very damaged” people in Scripture seem to be the ones through whom God did the greatest things. Hannah experienced bitterness of soul over infertility and a broken domestic situation. Elijah felt so beaten down by ministry that he asked God to take his life. David repeatedly asked his own soul why it was so downcast. Even Jesus, the perfectly divine human, expressed that his soul was overwhelmed with sorrow, even to the point of death. Each of these biblical saints, in her/his own way, was empowered by God to change the world—not in spite of the affliction but because of it and through it.

Charles Spurgeon, the prince of preachers, experienced depression for many years of his ministry. William Cowper, the great hymn writer, had debilitating, paralyzing anxiety for most of his adult life. C. S. Lewis lost his wife to a violent form of cancer. Joni Eareckson Tada became paralyzed from the neck down when she was a teenager. All of these and others were God’s chosen instruments for bringing truth, grace, and hope into the world. The best therapists and counselors have themselves been in therapy and counseling. It’s how God works.

So if anxiety and/or depression is your affliction, I am sharing this part of my story to remind you that there is no shame in having this or any other affliction. In fact, our afflictions may be the key to our fruitfulness as ministers. “Damaged” does not mean “ineffective.” It does not mean “done.”

Anxiety and depression can also, ironically, be a conduit of hope—an opportunity for the foolishness of God to be put on display in our lives. Recently a member in our church (where I have been senior pastor for two years now) told me that he thinks I am a great preacher…and he is entirely unimpressed by this. He told me that the moment he decided to trust me, the moment he decided that I was his pastor, was when I shared openly with the church that I have struggled with anxiety and depression and that I have seen counselors for many years.

As ministers, in the end we may discover that our afflictions had greater impact in people’s lives than our preaching or our vision.

Anxiety and depression are also invitations into Sabbath rest. When you are laid flat and there’s nothing you can do except beg for help, Jesus tends to meet you in that place. It is there that Jesus reminds us that Matthew 11 is for ministers too. He invites weary and heavy laden ministers to come to him and find rest, to learn from him, to experience his humility and gentleness of heart…that we, too, might find rest for our souls. For an anxious, depressed person, there is nothing quite like an easy yoke and a light burden under which to process our pain.

Many times when I have encountered this affliction, it has been through or because of something related to ministry. Usually anxiety and depression have come upon me because I have lost my way temporarily—leaving the easy yoke of Jesus and looking to ministry for self-validation, to make a name for myself, to gain applause and acclaim and respect from the crowds. This is a dead end street, but in moments and seasons of weakness my heart has gone there.

Anxiety and depression have been God’s way of reminding me that I don’t have to be awesome. He has not called me to be awesome, or impressive, or a celebrity pastor, or anything of the sort. He has first and foremost called me to be loved, and to be receptive to that love. He has called me to remember that because of Jesus, I already have a name, I will be remembered even after I am long gone, because he is my God and I am his person. He is my Father and I am his son.

Kierkegaard said that the thorn in his foot enabled him to spring higher than anyone with sound feet. The Apostle Paul said something very similar about the thorn in his flesh. The thorn kept him from becoming cocky. It kept him humble. It kept him fit for God and fit for the people whom God had called him to love and serve. There is glory in weakness. There is a power that is made perfect in that place.

Though I would not wish anxiety or depression on anyone, I am strangely thankful for the unique way that this affliction has led me, time and again, back into the rest of God.

“All the fitness he requireth is to feel your need of him…”

 

Robert’s story

“There is not a churimagesch in America that I would pastor for $5 million. I would manage a Wendy’s before I’d be the senior pastor of a church. I’m a recovering senior pastor, just like a recovering alcoholic. And I’m just not going to take the first drink again. I have zero ambition for the role.”

That is what Pastor Robert (not his real name) told me in a personal interview.

How did this happen?

In the mid-1990s, Pastor Robert was flourishing in his role as an associate pastor of administration. He taught a Sunday School class of 200 people. He was leading several strategic ministry teams and had lots of influence in the church. But, he says, “Something in me itched for the senior pastor role.” So Robert accepted a call to a large, 1200-member church in another state.

Unfortunately, the Pastor Search Committee of this congregation painted a too-rosy picture of the church. In fact they concealed from Robert the church’s firm belief in baptismal succession.

Robert describes his first two years at the church as a “honeymoon.” People were responding to the gospel. The church purchased land for expansion. But then Robert made his first mistake: he invited a guest speaker from a different denomination to preach one Sunday. “Never do that again,” he was told by the church officers. Robert agreed.

But soon Robert made another big mistake: he allowed a couple to join the church who had not, according to fellow leaders, been properly baptized.

Church leaders were incensed.

Robert felt the time had come for a showdown. For too long, unbiblical views of baptism and the Lord’s Supper had been held by power brokers in the church. So Robert called a congregational meeting. He wanted to put it to a vote: Was he correct about the sacraments, or were his fellow church leaders correct?

The day of the congregational meeting, people came out of the woodwork. “It was the blackest Sunday morning of my life,” Robert says. The news media set up cameras outside the church. People who hadn’t attended the church for years showed up to cast their vote. The meeting got out of control. People were shouting at each other. When the votes were counted, Robert’s view prevailed, but by just over 50%.

The church split down the middle. The “losers” left and started a new church. The “winners” stayed, but now the church was half as big as before. The congregation couldn’t sustain their budget. Staff members had to be let go. Robert’s standing in the community had taken a big hit. “Pastor Robert is mean and graceless,” people said.

Robert’s marriage suffered too. He and his wife were hardly speaking. Worse, Robert’s enemies spread rumors about his wife. In Robert’s words, “She was accused of horrible, personal things that couldn’t be true of her–vile things. They said she was visiting ‘unsavory places.'” Someone nailed a dead woodchuck to the front door of their house. “It was a nightmare.”

Fortunately, Robert found his way to another church many miles away where he is now serving as an assistant pastor. But, he says, he’ll never itch for the senior pastor role again. “I love my comparative anonymity. I can go to Wal-Mart in shorts and a T-shirt and nobody knows who I am.”

Pastor, do you need a place to heal?

I did.

And when I was at my lowest place in pastoral ministry, my church did a very good thing. They sent my wife and me to Marble Retreat.

Marble Retreat is an eight-day intensive program for hurting church leaders located 8,000 feet up in the Rocky Mountains of western Colorado. My wife and I went there in December, 2000. The program takes just four ministry couples at a time. Each couple gets a room in this amazing, beautiful lodge. Each day’s schedule includes free time, group therapy, and individual therapy led by professional Christian counselors. My wife and I were blessed to be there when Dr. and Mrs. Louis McBurney led the therapy sessions. Louis and Melissa founded Marble Retreat in 1974. Dr. McBurney is now at home with the Lord.

imagesThe three goals of Marble Retreat are:

  • To allow each participant to safely unburden the hurts and pressures of life and ministry.
  • To assist each person to understand him/herself more completely as their life patterns have developed.
  • To encourage and enable development of new levels of self-acceptance as well as more effective relational skills.

I went to Marble wondering how in the world I would survive in ministry. I was confused, angry, and humiliated. I felt like a failure. But Marble Retreat gave me renewed hope that my life of ministry was not over. I returned to my church with a much better grip on my identity in Christ, my giftedness for ministry, and my next steps. It was due to my experience at Marble Retreat that I took a new direction as a pastor. Here I am fourteen years later, still reaping the benefits of the decisions my wife and I made at Marble. Oh, and our marriage was restored as well.

Another benefit of Marble Retreat is the friendships you make. I still keep in touch with two of the three couples we met at Marble. One couple had just lost their son in a tragic car accident. One of the other pastors had just been booted out of his church because of pornography addiction. The other couple was in a similar crisis. As for me, I was just ready to quit.

All eight of us were broken when we arrived. We were still broken at the end of the program, but the pieces were beginning to be put back together again.

Please. If you’re a hurting church leader, check out Marble Retreat. Scholarship aid is available. Go.

 

 

What did Jesus look like?

One of the things I do at my church is give a children’s message in the Sunday morning worship service. In all the churches I’ve pastored, I have given children’s sermons. I do it because I believe children ought to love worshiping God with their church family. If Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them,” then we ought to make the worship service meaningful to kids. A short five-minute message geared to kids not only communicates that we value them as Jesus did, but it turns out to be a great way to get the gospel into the hearts of adults as well.

If you look online you’ll find lots of children’s sermon resources (here’s one that I’ve found helpful). But many of them are no different from what you might read in Berenstain Bears books–moralistic lessons about being obedient, polite, environmentally sensitive, forgiving, healthy, and safe. What would the apostle Paul call that kind of preaching to kids? “Another gospel, which is really no gospel at all” (Galatians 1:6-7). A children’s sermon should do the same thing a regular sermon should do, namely, point people to Christ. So if you’re giving a children’s sermon, be sure to talk about things that help children see Jesus and their need of him. Ground it in a short text of Scripture. Bring along an object in a sack (I call mine my “Bag of Wonders”). Call the children up to the front of the church. Get on their level and look them in the eye. Talk in a normal adult voice. From time to time, give them something to take back to their seats: a piece of candy, a cheap gift, etc. Whatever it is, they’ll love it.

After the service yesterday a friend suggested that I record my children’s sermons in my blog. I thought, “Why didn’t I think of that years ago?” I’ve been blogging for a long time, but lately I’ve let it slide. So I took her suggestion as a kick in the butt to start a new blog dedicated to “what I’ve learned and what I want to be sure I’ve said.” Besides children’s sermons I’ll include thoughts on church and pastoral ministry, theological reflections, lessons learned, and the like. Hopefully they’ll help someone somewhere.

So here’s a description of this week’s children’s message:

Title: “What Did Jesus Look Like?”

Main point: Jesus suffered. So when we suffer we know our Savior understands and gives us strength to endure.

Preparation: In your “Bag of Wonders” hide a picture frame containing not a photo but the words of Isaiah 53:2b-3a.

Opening question: “What do you think Jesus looked like?” (interact with the children’s answers)

Message: Well, I know what Jesus looked like, and I have his picture in my Bag of Wonders. (Pull out picture frame and show the verse to the kids.) No one really knows what Jesus looked like. Probably he looked like all the other Jewish men his age. But in Isaiah 53, God gives us a really good “picture” of Jesus. It says, “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” How about that! Jesus did not really look all that great. He was not handsome. He didn’t look like all those paintings you’ve seen of a long-haired, blue-eyed, tanned Jesus. He looked very…ordinary. In fact, he was despised. What does that mean? (let children define “despised”) He was “rejected.” What does that mean? (let children define “rejected”) Lots of people didn’t want Jesus around. Jesus suffered–that’s what “acquainted with grief” means. How did Jesus suffer? (Jesus suffered throughout his life, but especially on the cross) So you know what that means, boys and girls? When you’re going through a hard time, Jesus knows all about it. You’ve suffered too, haven’t you? You’ve fallen down, you’ve broken a bone or skinned a knee. Maybe your family has been through a hard time. Maybe your mom or dad didn’t have a job. Maybe you feel like nobody likes you. That’s suffering. And Jesus understands. He loves you very much. So next time you’re lonely, or scared, or hurt, remember this: Jesus is with you. You can cry out to him and he will help you get through it.