A Ministry of Contrasts

mountainsI held the hands of a couple married for 60 years as the wife was dying and the “until death do us part” of their marriage vows were being fulfilled. Less than four hours later I held the hands of a young couple in a prayer of blessing as I concluded the ceremony that began their marriage.

I’ve traveled across town from visiting a family making plans at a funeral home to visiting a young couple and their new addition on the maternity ward of a hospital. I thought about it and decided to make the two visits in that order, so I could end my pastoral calls that day on a joyous note.

When I get to feeling sorry for myself because of some of the things I feel I get stuck having to deal with in pastoral ministry, I think about my ministry of contrasts. I join God’s people in their mountaintop experiences and I walk with them through the valley of the shadow of death.

What a ministry, this ministry of contrasts! The fried chicken may be the same, but it somehow tastes different at a funeral dinner than it does at a wedding reception.

Whether the climate of the circumstance calls for a sprinkling of water, rice, or dirt, we, as pastors of the people, are there. We hold the babies, hug the newlyweds, and let our shoulders get wet with the tears of the one who mourns. It’s all sacred ground, a holy calling to be with God’s people in the best of times, the worst of times and, thankfully, the many ordinary in-between times too!

The Right Preposition for Pastors, and Everyone Else Too

Christianity Today magazine recently listed the best books for the leader’s inner life. With, Reimaging the Way You Relate to God by Skye Jethani was on that short list. I read a majority of the book while on a three day study leave at a Trappist monastery in Iowa. What a great book with which to have retreated! It’s at the top of my list of books that have impacted my walk with Christ and my ministry. Jethani creatively uses five prepositions to explain the different ways we position ourselves with God, four that aren’t good as the ultimate positions from which to relate to God and one that is.

In one place Jethani summarizes by stating that “…when God desired to restore his broken relationship with people, he sent his Son to dwell with us. His plan to restore his creation was not to send a list of rules and rituals to follow (LIFE UNDER GOD), nor was it the implementation of useful principles (LIFE OVER GOD). He did not send a genie to grant us our desires (LIFE FROM GOD), nor did he give us a task to accomplish (LIFE FOR GOD). Instead God himself came to be with us – to walk with us once again as he had done in Eden in the beginning.” (1402, location in e-book)

As Jethani explains it LIFE UNDER GOD is when I fear I’ve not been good enough or done well enough to be the recipient of God’s blessings, either for myself or for my church. I’m always wondering if I’m measuring up, and I never do. If, for some strange reason, I think I’m doing quite well with God, then I begin to believe God owes me, and I’m disappointed or angry when God doesn’t bless as I think He should.

I see myself living LIFE OVER GOD when I believe that if I do things right that God will bless. If I lead my church toward being a church that exhibits the Biblical church growth principles of a what church should be then I can expect it to be a growing and thriving church, guaranteed! I use His Word as a manual on how to do things right.

When I’m living from the perspective of LIFE FROM GOD I’m operating under the assumption that if I just have enough faith then God will bless the way I imagine He should. If I believe that God is really a big God then I’m going to see really big results, every time.

LIFE FOR GOD is the perspective, I believe, that sincere disciples of Jesus focus on most, including sincere pastors. We want to serve God, to carry out His purposes for us. Obedience is good, but it easily becomes something of a duty, even a drudgery.

All of these four perspectives have some elements of truth to them, they just make for a lousy ultimate perspective. Our ultimate perspective is to be LIFE WITH GOD. The goals of the other perspectives are to, in some way, use God, that God is a means to an end. LIFE WITH GOD makes God Himself the goal!

It’s painful for me to reflect on how frequently I’ve focused on the four less-than-ideal positions in my own walk with Christ and how often I’ve sought to move my parishoners into one or more of these positions. I’ve renewed my commitment to have a LIFE WITH GOD. Everything else falls into its proper place when I live from this perspective.

If I could recommend one book I’ve read in the last couple of years this would be it. More than anything else, more than any other perspective from which I could live, I want to live a LIFE WITH GOD! Jethani’s book reminded me of that.

The Danger of Being in the Middle of Ministry

Beginning and ending are the easy parts. It’s slogging through the middle that gets us every time.

When I start a project, whether an up-and-coming event at the church, a writing project, or a home improvement project, it’s usually exciting. When you start something you have high hopes and big dreams.

The ending can be fairly easy as well. After all, you’re near the end! Like a person or a horse running the race you can pour it on. You’re just about done, what you’ve been planning for and working for is just about here. There’s the energy that comes from being almost done.

It’s that middle that gets us most of the time. We’ve lost the excitement of starting and we’re not close enough to the end to feed off the excitement of having it conclude. We’re in the no man’s land of the middle. The ancients called it the “noonday demon.” One of the seven deadly sins, sloth, often comes to visit us when we’re in the middle of things. We’re at dead center and we feel dead!

Those of us who are pastors find ourselves in the middle of ministry for a long time, for the middle is much bigger than either the beginning or ending. The middle of ministry is extra challenging when results aren’t forthcoming as we had expected in the beginning when optimism fueled our efforts. The hope to hear the Lord’s “well done” seems a long way off.

have been pastoring the same church for nearly 37 years and have said on several occasions that I pastor one of the slowest growing churches in the country!  I’ve often struggled with my feelings and attitude as I’ve experienced what I think are less than stellar results for my efforts.  “When are things going to really start happening?” I wonder.

Over the years I’ve not identified any quick fix for ministering well in the middle, just the faithful affirmation and application of some key principles I preach on regularly for the Lord’s people that I need to take seriously myself! First, I’m called to be faithful, not “successful” as the world defines success, or how even I or my peers are often tempted to define success. Second, I need to focus on that which I love about ministry and not fixate on that which isn’t the way I’d like it to be in ministry. Third, my identity is not in what I do but in who I am, who I am in Christ. Fourth, embrace the day by giving thanks for today’s manna of sustenance from the Lord and the other blessings I can identify while doing the tasks He’s assigned for me, just for today.

The Stewardship of Grace

Ever notice how you can be reading along in the Bible and come across a statement in a part of the Bible familiar to you but find it to be completely unfamiliar and new? Such an experience happened this morning in my devotional reading. The line is in Paul’s letter to the Ephesian church, the end of verse 2 in chapter 3. Paul writes of “the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you…”

I read it again… “the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you…” I realized that part of my stewardship as a pastor is the stewardship of God’s grace given to me which is to be spent on the people I serve. This giving of the grace given to me has as much to do with stewardship as does the three “t”s of time, talent, and treasure upon which I so often preach!

I rehearse how I don’t deserve God’s help in being a pastor because I’m so far from who I should be in Christ, but, by His grace, He uses this imperfect vessel called Dave Claassen anyway. I’ve been freshly reminded that part of my ministry is to pass on this grace I’ve received to those I serve. Because I’m being gifted every day with undeserved favor from God, I’m to be re-gifting this toward my people in thinking, feeling, and acting favorably toward them even when I think they don’t deserve it. Grace to me – grace to them!

I want to be able to picture my congregation, the people I’ve been called to serve, and pen these words in my heart to them that Paul penned to the Ephesian church. In my heart and mind I want to affirm “the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you…”

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