The Demolition of Self-Confidence

Humble“How to Build Self-Confidence” is a good title for a self-help book, article, or talk. Think about it, who would buy a book, read an article, or pay to attend a talk titled, “How to Demolish Self-Confidence?”

I like feeling self-confident. Through my years in pastoral ministry it felt good to step to the center of the platform to begin my sermon with the feeling I was going to knock their socks off and leave them standing barefoot on holy ground during the singing of the closing song. I liked going into a congregational meeting with the self-confidence that I was going to boldly lead the congregation where they had never gone before (for the record, this rarely, if ever happened).

There are plenty of times I’ve lacked self-confidence. Preaching in general is a daunting task, but Christmas and Easter seemed to be especially so for me. How can you encapsulate in the length of a message the incomprehensible action of God’s incarnation in the Christmas story or the resurrection of God from the dead in the Easter story? Then there were the calls that someone had suddenly and tragically lost a loved one, and I wondered how I could possibly bring something from God into the situation as I drove to their house or the hospital. Why did I always feel like an amateur pastor as I approached such situations?

Yes, having self-confidence seems like a good place to be. I have come to discover, however, that God doesn’t want me to be self-confident. You’re probably way ahead of me here, saying to yourself, “We’re not to be self-confident but God-confident!” As pastors our Biblically centered and theologically focused brains know this truth, but to get that truth to the heart, well, it’s a long journey from head to heart!

It’s not easy feeling inadequate and feeling good about that, but I’m thinking this is the place where God is leading me to meet Him. In my more sane and more spiritual moments I have to admit that I can’t really experience God’s adequacy unless I experience inadequacy in myself. This means I must go against the hype of the self-help movement and go with the hope of finding my adequacy in God.

I know this stuff, I’ve preached it for years. However, I’m still working on the personal application part, you too? Take a deep breath with me, now exhale slowly, and whisper with me, “It’s OK to feel inadequate.”

“For the Lord takes delight in his people; he crowns the humble with victory.” (Psalm 149:4)

A Heart of Humility

We’re living part of the time at Refuge Ranch in Mexico, the home of our daughter and her family. Recently a pastor’s conference was being held near Refuge Ranch so we were hosts for about a dozen pastors and their families for an afternoon and evening.

I’ve been reflecting recently on what role(s) the Lord would have for me in my new stage of life commonly called retirement. I’ve thought that, perhaps, one such role is as a mentor to other pastors. Perhaps this gathering of pastors would offer such an opportunity, I thought. True, most of them only spoke Spanish and I only speak English, but I knew one of the key pastors, an American, was fluent in both languages. I envisioned him saying something like this to the other pastors: “Dave has just finished spending nearly forty years of pastoral ministry in one church. I’ve invited him to share some of his thoughts with us and then he can answer any questions you have.” It didn’t turn out that way.

The pastors and their families enjoyed a meal of grilled beef, prepared by our son-in-law Victor. After the meal they all gathered in the house to hear our grandchildren share a worship song, with some of our grandchildren providing musical accompaniment with guitar, violin and tambourine and our daughter, their mother, accompanying on the piano.

The Zaragoza children singing with their mom, Julie

The Zaragoza children singing with their mom, Julie (our daughter)

Dirty plates and silverware had piled up. My wife Diann and I knew that our daughter, who was enjoying conversation and fellowship with the pastors’ wives, would, after the guest had left, end up doing dishes late into the evening. We did what any self-respecting set of parents would do; we started doing the dishes.

With the house filled with the pastors and their families, their attention focused on the Zaragoza children sharing their song, I found myself, with my back to the scene, washing dishes at the kitchen sink. It occurred to me that my role that evening had turned out quite different than I had envisioned. Instead of serving the Lord by sharing the wealth of my wisdom with the pastors I was washing their dirty dishes! Though I resisted the thought at first, I came to realize that this was the Lord’s calling for me that evening.

The experience brings to mind something Brother Lawrence (1611-1691) wrote, a monk who washed dishes in a monastery. “In my kitchen’s noise and clatter, while several people are all calling for different things, I possess God just as peacefully as if I were on my knees at the altar, ready to take communion.” Yes, I was serving God as much by washing dishes as I would have if sharing profound insights with those pastors. In fact, I was serving the Lord more effectively at the sink, because this was obviously His calling for me for the moment. I’m not saying I fully embraced the concept, for it was a humbling experience and being humbled is hardly ever a fun experience.

The pastors and their families

The pastors and their families

My dish washing ministry that night prompted my recollection of another experience I had in Florida a few months earlier. We had just retired from pastoral ministry and moved to Florida to live part-time near our son and his family, who had moved their from Indianapolis to help plant a church. My wife and I decided it was the Lord’s call for us to lend our support to the church plant. What role would I play in helping to plant a church after having spent a lifetime pastoring an established church?

After we had been part of this new church plant for about two months there came a Sunday when a number of ministry people were gone. I ended up filling one of the vacant ministry positions, being the parking lot greeter! Wearing an orange vest I waved at the folks as they drove in and gave them a hearty “Good morning!” as they walked from their cars to the school where the church was holding services. As I stood on the parking lot, wearing my orange vest and waiting for the next car to arrive, I thought to myself, “This is what it has come to.” A few weeks earlier I had enjoyed the attention, affection, and love of several hundred people as they struggled with saying good-by to their pastor of nearly forty years. They listened carefully to my every word, some of my last words for them, sometimes with tears in their eyes. What an experience! Now, here I was, just a few weeks later, a parking lot greeter!

Of all the new adventures the Lord could send me on as a newly retired pastor He has plotted out for me an inward journey, a journey into being humbled. I’ve titled this blog A PASTOR’S HEART and what I’m learning is that having a humble heart is a big part of having a true pastor’s heart. It’s easy, as a pastor, to take the position, the attention of the people, the responsibility, and (at least occasionally) the praise too seriously. Pride can keep us from being truly productive for Him. We can be so full of our self that we have little of Christ to share; I’m convinced it’s an occupational hazard of pastoral ministry. The truth is the Lord seems to be able to work best through those who have been humbled.

The problem is that any effort to be humble is a journey with a slippery slope, for the moment we think we’ve acquired a bit of humility, we’ve just slipped and lost it! My goal, I’ve determined, should not be humility but an acceptance of the humbling situations the Lord brings my way, including washing the dirty dishes of pastors and being a church parking lot greeter!

christmasballQuotable Quote:

“No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor…
Without poverty of spirit there can be no abundance of God.”
Oscar Romero
Archbishop to El Salvador

I remember my parents sharing how little they got for Christmas as a child. My Dad talked of getting an orange, and maybe something else. I don’t remember what the “something else” might have been; all I remember is the orange. It struck me as a child, an orange? Really, an orange? I did better as a child, receiving two gifts for Christmas, one from my parents and one from my surviving grandparents (on my mother’s side). Nowadays most kids get more than two gifts. I can hear kids today exclaim, “Two gifts? Only two gifts?”

There are many who don’t seem to have much to celebrate at Christmas, and it has little to do with the shortage of gifts. People face this Christmas with the fresh loss of a loved one, having just lost a job, or having just gotten a bad report from the doctor. In fact, almost all of us can think of one or more reasons why it’s not easy for us to get in the holiday mood this year.

The quote above from the late archbishop of El Salvador, a crusader for the poor, reminds us that the celebration of Christmas does not depend on abundance or on life going well. In fact, the core message of Christmas is God giving something we all desperately need. The message of Christmas is God sending a savior into our world, implying we need saving, that things are far from being right and good as they now stand for us. The angel announced to the shepherds outside Bethlehem, “A savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:11)

Amazingly, it’s the admission that things are not as they should be, that I’m not even as I should be, which makes Christmas resonate in a real way. I need what God wants to give me and what He wants to give me is Himself! We can wish to pack our Christmas, our lives, with lots of things, money, accomplishments, good health, experiences, or even of being a help to others. Then Christmas, then life, would be good, right? But as long as we seek to fill ourselves with anything and everything else and not with God we will be leaving no room to be filled with God! Oscar Romero’s words ring true like the best of Christmas bells!

“No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor…
Without poverty of spirit there can be no abundance of God.”