“Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall make a name for the Lord, and everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.” Isaiah 55:13
I’m finally doing it. I’ve thought about it, talked about it, put it off, reconsidered it, examined my options, and finally took the plunge. I’m talking about seminary, the first step towards full-time ministry. And it wasn’t the books or the papers that made me hesitate. To me those have the comfort value of apple pie and ice cream. But before my metaphors have me drooling all over my keyboard, I’ll get to the point. What makes seminary seem so strange– so scary is that it takes me closer to “the real thing:” doing ministry with real people in the real world.
Why is that so scary? Well, because life is much messier than it appears in the textbooks, especially when that awful “S-word” comes into play. Yep, I’m talking about sin. And I’m even more acquainted with that than I am with books and papers. When I think about the damage some pastors have caused through hidden sin, I cringe at the thought that I will one day by judged by the same standard as they. Is that why James warns that “not many of you should presume to be teachers”? Why would I put that burden on myself when I know that I am just as capable of sin as anyone else? Why would I risk such failure?
The short answer: Because God told me to. The only difference between me and a Christian hairdresser, or social worker, or accountant is a difference in calling. We can’t say how God chooses who will serve him as shepherds of his flock, but he does seem to have a predisposition for people the world views as less than qualified. Gideon was the lowest man from the weakest clan, David was the youngest of his brothers, and Paul called himself the worst of sinners. They were sinners when God called them, and they continued to sin after he called them. They all experienced sanctification as a process, but none of them were sinless when they died.
Does that excuse the sin in my life? Of course not! But it does force me to acknowledge that I am undergoing the same process as the people I will one day shepher. Those books I mentioned earlier– they talk about this too. Zack Eswine says in The Imperfect Pastor, “there is little wonder that the Serpent’s pledge would glitter and shine into preference. ‘You will be like God,’ the Serpent promised (Gen. 3:5). ‘You will not surely die,’ the Serpent hissed (v. 4). As a pastor, I want this kind of promise.” It’s easy to think that as a pastor, I should rise above the masses. That obtaining some fancy degree or title confers a godlike status. Or worse than that, to think that the work itself somehow “saves” me. David Paul Tripp says in Dangerous Calling, “If you are not requiring yourself to get your deepest sense of well-being vertically, you will shop for it horizontally, and you will always come up empty. If you are not resting in the one true gospel, preaching to yourself over and over again, you will look into another gospel to meet the needs of your unsettled heart.” Of all the sins I struggle with, the one that’s the biggest danger to me is pride. Pride is the party-crasher who turns up when you least expect and least want to see him. And I’m just as susceptible to his tricks as anyone else.
I’m neither a saint nor a super-hero. I’m a sinner, saved by grace, in the process of sanctification, by the Holy Spirit. Along the way, I might help some others in their own process. Much of the time, this seems to happen by accident. But I don’t really believe in accidents. I do believe in grace. Tripp points to the thorn bush in Isaiah 55 as a metaphor for the transforming work of God’s grace.
“If the rain and snow water that brier in your yard, you know the result will be a bigger brier. But not so with the Word of God; when this rain falls on the thornbush it actually becomes something organically different! . . . Lusting people become pure, fearful people become courageous, thieves become givers, demanding people become servants, angry people become peacemakers, complainers become thankful, and idolaters come to joyfully worship the one true God.”
Hallelujah! God is making me into something new, just as he is doing for you! My seminary education can’t do that. My best attempts at righteousness can’t do that. And no, my books can’t do it either. The page meets the path when I understand that it’s not about me at all. It’s about Christ! I can’t lead anyone else to Him if I don’t come to Him daily, saying, “Have mercy on me, a sinner!” Apart from Him, I am nothing. He is my saving grace, my living hope, and my greatest joy, and it’s because of Him that I’m here in the first place.