Serving Christ can be agonizing. Jesus said it himself, "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake . . ." (Matt. 5:10).
Especially for those working in called ministry positions, there is a weight. A burden. A cloud of pressure derived from spiritual forces under responsibility which has eternal consequences.
You've asked, "How much difference am I making? Should I go on? Should I give up? "
Here is some help from 19th century English preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon. The following is from his Lectures to My Students.
"Practice what you preach." I have a hard time preaching things I don't practice. I've been devoting myself to a deepened prayer life in 2014. I preached on this in February, as I highlighted the priority of prayer in spiritual movements. Since then, I have devoted the first Thursday of the month to what we call "Frontline Prayer" - an intentional, corporate prayer gathering.
Help keep this pastor accountable to what he preaches. If you are local in St. Louis, MO, I challenge you to wake up early on Thursday morning, May 1st and join me in our church sanctuary from 7:00-7:30AM. If this is physically impossible for you, join me remotely from wherever you are (your bed, your kitchen, your cubicle at work, etc.). If you're praying with me on Thursday morning, let me know.
If remote, here are some things you can pray for:
"Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication."
It is easy for preachers to use an abundance of words. I contend that long, boring sermons are a result of inadequate preparation. If you would ask me to preach for two hours, it would require very little work. I can expound a topic very easily if given an unlimited word count. But tell me to preach in 5 minutes. Then I must prepare. What can be said in five minutes? How can I get to its bare core? Now I must really study the topic, meditate on its meaning, and come to terms with its implications.
Many Americans find Christianity to be either too complex to access (elitism) or too simple to believe in (fundamentalism). A large part of my job is to convey the gospel's simplicity. Not to water down, nor to over-complicate. But in illuminating the gospel's core, we actually get to its profound depth. It's a bit of a riddle. The more you seek simplicity, the more sophisticated it gets. The more you dwell on the cross event, the more you find God's compassion to be a well whose floor has never been discovered.
The following is from a sermon preached on Luke 22:24-27 on March 10th, 2013.
In Lent we are focusing on the word “turn.” It gives us a very concrete sense of what repentance is. Based on member feedback, we’re examining common things we face which we must turn from. We are asking the question, “What one thing is God calling me to turn from?” Today, we turn from comparison.
The Treadwall is a treadmill for rock climbing. For $7,000, you can buy one for your home and rock climb any time. All you need is a 10 foot ceiling. You grab hold of the wall, start climbing, and the panel in front of you will start rolling like a vertical treadmill, creating a never-ending rock face. There are no harnesses or safety gear required. And that’s not all. (Do I sound like a salesman?) Order the pro model and you can tilt the device to create a more challenging angle.
Comparison with others is like the Treadwall. It’s all about raising your status. We try to get ahead and above others by comparing ourselves with them. Each thing we do is another step up, another ledge reached, another foothold. And each failure of others is a step backwards for them, and upwards for me. I believe selfish comparison is a deeply-rooted sin that we all struggle with.
We compare grades. We compare salaries and jobs. We compare degrees and universities. We compare life-stage advancement – do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend, a fiancé, are you married? We compare the attention we get from the opposite sex – did he look at me instead of her? We compare our bodies. We compare clothes. We compare our families, our children. We compare our morality and behavior. We never say it, but we think to ourselves, “I’m better than her or him.” Or, “I’m not perfect, but at least I’m not like so and so.” We feel good when we’re above others, and we feel deflated when others are above us. And comparison is like the Treadwall, you’re always trying to move up. The problem is, like the Treadwall, comparison is never-ending.
First century dinner etiquette was comparison for status. There was importance in who you sat with, and where you sat – these were indicators of status, honor, and power. Jesus had just concluded the solemn, intimate Last Supper with his disciples when they start scrapping like 3rd graders at recess. “Who is the greatest?” was the question. Jesus inserts himself in the conversation, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors” (Luke 22:25).
In the first century, benefactors were wealthy individuals who would use their resources to fill gaps in local government. Being a benefactor was a way to help the local community. It was also a way to gain status. If your wealth helped with public funding, then the public owed you, honored you, and admired you. “I paid for the local school to be built. It has my name on it, and don’t you forget that.” Jesus said they “lord it over others.” This played out at the dinner table in that table etiquette recognized status by seating arrangement. Where you sat differentiated your status.
But Jesus upends the social norms by challenging the thought that greatness is achieved by high status. He says in verse 26, “But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves.” The “youngest” or the “servant” are examples of low status. Children and slaves had few rights and no status. Being a benefactor is not inherently bad. Being wealthy, successful, or good at what you do is not evil. The problem is when you leverage it for status.
But Jesus radically upended the social norm by using status for service. Leverage all that you have, not to compare with others, but to serve others. As opposed to society’s typical status-honor system, Jesus claimed that the greatest should become the least. The wealthiest should be serving the poorest. The strongest should be using their strength for the weakest. The one at the top of the wall should descend and help those at the bottom.
Why do we compare? We tend to compare with those who are closest to us – classmates, co-workers, friends, and siblings. Why do we do this? I think we compare because we feel that we’re not good enough. We’re always looking at what others are doing because we wonder, “Am I smart enough? Beautiful enough? Skilled enough? Likeable enough?”
One of my first jobs was bussing tables and washing dishes at a restaurant. These are the bottom of the food service food chain. (I remember clearing a table and accidently dropping a butter knife down a woman’s back.) There were two types of servers that I worked with. Some looked at people and only saw customers or clientele. Customers were a means of advancement, a way to make money, a means of climbing the Treadwall of status. But another type of server saw them not only as customers, but as people. They treated each customer as a person, learning their name and story as they served them.
Jesus said, “I am among you as the one who serves” (Lk. 22:27). Jesus is not one who sits at the table. He is the one serving. He sees you not as a means to an end, but for the person that you are. He does not compare for status. He uses his status for service. He has cleared your dirty dishes. He has scraped your scraps and messy plate. He accepts no wages or tips. He keeps no tab of debt. He just gives and gives and gives.
You compare because you fear that you are not good enough. Sorry, but you’ll have to take that up with the Great Servant King. He has come to serve you, just as you are. As Luke illuminates the rest of the story, we learn the depths of his service. Betrayal, denial, humiliation, shame, and death. The King is stripped naked, mocked, unjustly tortured, and dehumanized. The Lord assumes the lowest status for your sake.
No more Treadwall for you. Comparison is a sick, never-ending cycle. There is no need to rival, and no need to tear others down to build yourself up. The world’s Great King has come to serve you. Turn from comparison that’s for status, and turn to status that’s for service.
Part of being a pastor is listening. The question of the month is a way for me to listen to you. Each month, a question will be asked from a broad range of topics. I invite you to respond freely and honestly. I may comment on responses, but I will never publish names or information.
Translated "And how are they to hear?"
I've heard it said that in our current context of media and technology, the only people who give monologues anymore are comedians, professors, and preachers. Who else do you listen to for an extended period of time? Who else do you allow to speak at you continuously for 15, 20, or 30 minutes? We have all experienced boring sermons and dull preachers. Is preaching dead?
The above picture was taken in the small prayer chapel at the base of the Luther Tower on the campus of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. It's a cool place, beyond the lore that it was the scene of one of the Lutheran exorcisms upon which the movie "The Exorcist" was based. In the center of the room there is a solid marble altar, a perfectly square block. Engraved around the altar are words in Greek, from Romans 10:14-15, "And how are they to hear without someone preaching?" At the base of this block altar is the design of a compass in the marble floor. The symbolism is that this place sends out preachers, east and west, north and south. Preachers sent with the gospel, so that many might hear the Word of God.
I spent part of the day on the seminary campus at their annual theological symposium, this year's being on preaching. (You may be tempted to stop reading after seeing the words "theological symposium." Please don't.) Pastor Dean Nadasdy of Woodbury Lutheran Church in Minnesota said:
"The word of the Lord came," write the prophets, and when it came, they hit their knees, they listened, they prayed, and they came out talking.
What this means is that your pastor (at least this one) approaches preaching with deep humility. We do our best not to "make stuff up." We speak on the authority of another. We speak what we've heard ourselves. As your pastor, know that I preach only what's first been preached to me. In other words, I wrestle with the text as it relates to my own life. Only then can the Word of God come from me authentically, honestly, and powerfully.
So I still have high regard for preaching, even if many dismiss it. I still believe that there are prophets, mouths of men that God chooses to fill with his words. And so I strive to grow as a preacher. But most of all, I open myself to God's word, "hit my knees, listen, pray, and come out talking."