A love that turned an ugly thing
It’s not that I didn’t respect the calling to pastoral ministry. It’s that I had already seen its ugly side.
I grew up in a church revitaliser’s home. In laymen’s terms, that means that I grew up in unhealthy churches scattered throughout the United States. Oh, the stories I could tell you! Some of them would make you laugh. Many of them would find you involuntarily resting your face in the palms of your hands. A few might even make you cry. It had that effect on us, anyway.
One church after another, I watched my parents deal with mountainous problems and excavate them to their roots skilfully, almost intuitively. Then I would watch them take parting blows as people left the church, unwilling to submit themselves to the change humility and repentance would require. When Trouble and his company had finally left , dad would privately joke how they had “grown the church down” to a certain number. That’s when the long process of building on the newly excavated ground would begin.
I always respected my parents’ work. Even more, I worked alongside them, especially in my later teenage and young adult years. But I experienced much of what I called “the ugly side” of pastoral ministry without possessing, or being possessed by, something intrinsic to the calling itself, something…
Though I came to understand that the Lord was calling me to pastoral ministry, I’ve spent the majority of my adult life doing my utmost to avoid that calling.
Recounting the details of that avoidance would take up too much of this present space. It is sufficient to say that I finally settled upon a compromise of sorts. I determined to work instead for the expansion of the Church in my context (the Netherlands), taking on whatever role was necessary. But never would I identify myself with, or be identified by, the title of “pastor”. That title came with too many associations too ugly for me to ignore. That was my negotiated settlement with God, you might say. You can imagine, then, the inner conflict that ensued last year when my wife and I sensed the Lord leading us to plant a church.
“You are all my reasons.”
It was arrogant, really. I wanted to be “more” than a pastor but I felt as if the whole universe was conspiring to push me into that box. God felt so very far away during that time. I felt uncertain, painfully aware of my shortcomings, sorrowful over the personal ambition that had driven me. The reality of those things crowded in around me and seemed to leave me aching for relief… and aching for His presence, desperate to find whatever sure ground there was to be found in Him. I felt caught, exposed. I questioned everything I had ever believed about myself and my motivations, my reasons. During that time, a line from the movie “A Beautiful Mind” rose like soft defiance in my heart as if to decry my sorrow by giving worship to my heavenly Father: “You are all my reasons.”
Coming out of that time was a process. There were moments of breakdown and moments of breakthrough. Though a remnant of my resistance still lingered, we moved forward with the church plant. I had lost so many of my certainties in that process yet one remained: He is all my reasons. Whether I sink or swim doesn’t matter. He is mine and I am His.
We moved forward and saw Him move in ways that brought us joy. People started calling me “pastor” but I brushed it aside or played it down. I wanted more of God and I wanted to see Him at work through His people. In my heart, however, I could not give in to that tainted name because I did not yet understand that something. As I said, a remnant of my resistance still lingered and I did not dare to look for that something long enough to find it. I did not want the “ugly side” of whatever that something was.
Then two books happened.
The first was “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” by Eugene Peterson. Though his prose is inspiring and thought-provoking, it was his heart conveyed through those words that caught fire in my own. His twenty-nine-year pastorate at the church he planted in Maryland was “a long obedience in the same direction” and that pastoral heart awakened a desire in me. The second was the audio version of “The Blessed Church” read by the author, Robert Morris. In the third section, “Blessed Shepherds,” Morris articulates a pastoral/shepherding passion that took out what was remaining of my resistance.
A love specifically
This morning, before the world began its buzzing, I sat alone on the couch with a cup of coffee in hand. Those two books, the last year and all the facets of my resistance came into sharp focus as the Spirit began speaking. At once I saw that something and I spoke out its name: love.
Love had been that intrinsic aspect of the pastoral call that I had not understood. Not a love generally for Christ or for people. Rather a love specifically for these people in this place and the work of Christ in their lives. All those mountainous problems my parents faced, those face-palm moments, those tears; they were all of them seen through love’s eyes. In the stillness before dawn, Paul’s words in Galatians rang with new significance : “…my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is fully formed in you,” (Galatians 4:19, ESV).
Calling the difficult parts of pastoral ministry “the ugly side” was childish; a juvenile attempt to ridicule and explain away something I did not like or understand. I handled that calling as if it were a temperamental beast, prone at any moment to turn around and bite. But I could not see love. Love makes all the difference. Love dares to face the difficulties because love believes in the end it will always be worth it. Love always sees an ugly thing and sees through it. Given enough time and enough trust, love will even turn an ugly thing into something precious.
And I didn’t truly understand any of that; not until the dark hours of this morning when I looked inside my own heart and found that Love had turned an ugly thing in me.
Originally published at Chris Green.