Tag Archives: Pastoral Ministry

Where have all the tears gone?

It’s been a long time, but a question I received yesterday in an email from a dear friend and saint in Surrey, B.C., has prompted me to return to this blog, at least for today.

It’s unlikely that many noticed my departure from the blogosphere.  It’s more likely that at least a few people noticed my decline in postings on Facebook and Twitter starting February 7.  I more or less disappeared.  Why?  That was the day that my wife received news that she had been diagnosed with melanoma.  Coupled to this news was the reality that she was three months pregnant with our third child and experiencing some complications.  Then only a couple of weeks later we began noticing that something was “off” with our eldest child — a journey that eventually led to him being diagnosed with a type of epilepsy.  There were also other things going on which only piled anxiety, worry, and pain on top of what were already two crumbling minds: financial issues and church issues among them.

We were shattered.

My wife and I completely shut down.  We spent days lying on our family room floor in front of the fireplace in tears and filled with crushing anxiety, doubt, and worry.  In what felt like an instant, we fell apart and could not see a way forward.  I had a few very bad weeks: one of them where I wrestled with quitting my job as a pastor, leaving my faith entirely, and suicide.  And another where I just literally shut down, not speaking, almost comatose.

For weeks on end we had doctor appointment after doctor appointment: some for me, some for our son, some for my wife, and some for the baby.  We began seeing a counselor every week as well as seeking the counsel of many friends.

Through all of this many of our church family, friends, and immediate family cared for us, tried to encourage us, prayed for us, brought us meals, watched our children, anointed us for healing, and checked in on us to make sure we hadn’t done anything stupid.  That in itself was a powerful experience of compassion, care, and love (though at the time it was hard to see).

There are so many more details about the ups and downs of the weeks and months that followed “the news” that I could share.   But I should summarize some of the points of the journey and offer a few updates lest you think all is still bad: my eldest son is in good shape and on medication that keeps his epilepsy in check, my wife and I (though not completely free of worry and anxiety) are doing much better, after surgery my wife’s cancer is no more (though we will live with constant check-ups for the rest of her days), and just four weeks ago we welcomed our third child into the world and he’s doing great.

But this is why I return to my blog:

I’m a cryer.  Always have been.  Even when I had the world convinced in my teen years that I was a bad-ass with an awful attitude, I still couldn’t get up at my younger sister’s baptism and say a few words without choking up.  When I got older and eventually became a “preacher,” more often than not my sermons would contain some tears.  It never embarrassed me.  I never felt like less of a man because I cried.  In fact, I had many men and women tell me that I, being the way that I was, gave them permission in their own life to express emotion.  Having said that, I’m sure it annoyed some people.  In my last church some of the youth would even take bets before I got up to preach, guessing when the tears would come.  I was happy to entertain.

But the fact that I cried always puzzled me.  I never knew why it came on.  And sometimes I’d began to tear up while talking about things that wouldn’t make most “normal” people cry.  I even prayed that God would take my tears away so it wouldn’t ever become a distraction and so that I wouldn’t have to always remember to take tissue on the platform with me.  But they never went away.

I continued to be the primary teacher in our little church plant while I went through my recent journey of worry, doubt, pain, and anxiety.  It was a crazy experience.  I’m not sure how many churches have had pastors who get up to preach and include lines like, “I’m not sure that I believe in any of this anymore”?  Well ours has.  And there was certainly a fair share of tears in those sermons.  But over the last few months my tears have gone away while preaching.

So when I received the email yesterday from my friend in B.C., and when in her email she asked, “Do you still get emotional when you preach?” it got me wondering: where have all the tears gone?  Why am I not crying like I used to?  And these questions began to put together some scrambled thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head for the past few weeks.

This is, I think, what’s happened.  I’ve been a hypocrite.  Sure, every preacher is.  Heck, every Christian is.  But for years now I’ve been preaching sermons while never dealing with some known issues in my life.  I always assumed that my hidden sin was just that: hidden and out of sight.  And here’s where I think some of the tears came from when I was preaching in the past: an overwhelming internal unrealized sense of God’s loving and gracious pursuit of me.  I think grace was wrecking me.  God’s love was chasing me and trying desperately to show me who I was and who I needed to become.  And that internal tension kept manifesting itself through the tears.  Preaching of a God of love and grace was like looking in a mirror and seeing all the things for which love and grace were needed…and I didn’t know how to change, handle it, or reconcile it.

Then came the last nine months.

I’m not the type to suggest that God “caused” the circumstances which lead to my being brought to the floor (quite literally).  Maybe.  Maybe not.  But I can certainly say with confidence that he was there in every moment, using the circumstances to teach, guide, transform, and redeem.  That’s just who he is.  It’s what he does.  And these last months have — I know this will sound over-the-top, but it’s true — completely changed me.  Both my wife and I have found an intimacy with the voice and person of Jesus Christ that we never knew before.  I have stories and a testimony of Jesus’ presence that before I would have thought impossible or even crazy.  And as a result of this transformational journey I have died to some destructive things in my life.  In my pain, grace and love met me in a way that I could no longer respond to them without allowing the Spirit to do some work in me.  In many ways it feels like God has given me the opportunity to be rebuilt.  I’ve been stripped bare and brought to nothing, and from there Jesus has put the pieces back together, forming a much better edition than the preceding one.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m still a hypocrite.  Jesus has much more to do with me.  But for now the tears which told of an internal battle have changed to a dry-eyed confidence, experience, and knowledge of the height, breadth, and depth of God’s love and presence in my life.  I can speak of his grace now without feeling like I’m knowingly and without desire to change taking advantage of it.  I have no doubt that I’ll still cry from time to time.  But I think that the tears will reflect something different now.

If you’ve stumbled across this post, my heart for you is that you’d dive headfirst into God’s love and grace.  Sit alone.  Open your ears.  And ask Jesus to meet with you and reveal to you the inside of your heart.  Then let him work.  Let the gentle, compassionate, and oh so patient teacher take you on a transformational journey into his heart.  And don’t be afraid to let the tears come.

Grace and peace to you.

P.S. If you cry when you preach, please don’t assume it’s for the same reasons. 🙂

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On having faith: Part 3 (Practical suggestions for use in pastoral care)

(This is part 3, which means that you should read parts 1 & 2 first if you haven’t yet.)

And so we come to the conclusion of this series.  I hope you had a great Christmas season (unless you’re Orthodox, in which case I hope your preparation is coming together nicely) and a fun New Year.

So far I’ve attempted to debunk three inappropriate views of Christian faith (part 1) and have presented an appropriate biblical theology of faith (part 2).  Now, let’s see if I can make the rubber hit the road.

No church escapes the devastating, painful, and heart-wrenching experience of watching a fellow brother or sister in Christ suffer, whether it be from disease, death, or any other sort of tragedy.  That the local church, being a faith-based community, chooses to engage suffering people in discussions concerning the idea of faith comes as no surprise.  The Church, as is typically understood, has a mission to help people know and experience God through faith.  Sadly, suffering individuals, and the family and friends that surround them, are often presented with misrepresentations of faith.  Conveyed in these misrepresentations are implicit beliefs and images concerning God that are terribly inconsistent with Scripture.  Misguided ideas of faith create a misrepresentation of God, and this equation rarely helps a suffering individual know God more.  This is a problem.

Considering the findings in part two of this series, the ultimate goal of pastoral ministry as it relates to helping people and their families in the midst of suffering is not to help people acquire more faith.  Rather, the role of a pastor must be to help people know God.  In the experience and journey of knowing God a person will find faith; they will find the trustworthiness, faithfulness, fidelity, commitment, steadfast love, compassion, grace, kindness, patience, and mercy of God.  It is in discovering and experiencing those characteristics of God that faith is born: the kind of faith that “gives a horizon in which problems are not ultimate and the response of hope, thanks and praise is most appropriate” (1).  The more a person knows God, the more he or she will realize how much God can be trusted to be who He will be and to adhere to His promises.

Here, then, are several suggestions for use in pastoral ministry to the suffering.

First, allow for people to question God.  These are questions directed at God, not the pastor.  Though some pastors incorrectly believe that they are capable of knowing all the reasons why a person might suffer, a pastor must not feel compelled to, or that they can, provide answers to a suffering person’s questions.  On the contrary, pastors should be “okay” with allowing a suffering person to yell and scream at God without feeling like they must provide the answers for God.  Psalm 89 clearly allows for this kind of response to suffering.  “The emphasis in Ps 89 had as a sole concern the Divine pledge of perpetuity to the Davidic dynasty as such and the glaring contrast between the promised ideal and the present reality” (2).  The “suppliant” [in Ps 89] wants YHWH to be mindful of the short span of human life as people often experience it,” (3) and so the writer asks: “How long?” and “Where is your hesed?” (4).  However, the Psalm ends with the scribe notably proclaiming: “Praise be to the LORD forever!  Amen and amen” (TNIV).  There can be little doubt that this ending was written in faith: a belief that even though it seemed as if God had forgotten His promise, God would, in the end, still keep His word.  This is authentic questioning rooted in faith and it must be allowed to happen in situations of suffering.  It is in these moments of questioning that God often reveals to the questioner the ways in which He has been gracious, merciful, compassionate, and loving.  Questioning can lead to knowing God and His ways.

Second, a pastor must pray, and lead prayer, in the name of Jesus Christ.  When a person prays in Jesus’ name they are evoking the fidelity of Jesus’ name: “It is because of Jesus — his covenant with us — that I ask these things” (5).  The New Testament clearly speaks to Jesus revealing and fulfilling the divine characteristics of “steadfast love” and “faithfulness” (John 1:14-17; Rom 15:8-9).  “To be consecrated or to be sanctified through the truth…is to possess steadfast devotion by means of the steadfast love of God communicated through Jesus Christ” (6).  Therefore it is in Jesus’ name that a Christian prays, yielding his or her will to the will of Christ and “making room” for the infilling of the Spirit.  Praying in this way is how a person knows and experiences God and, therefore, rests in the presence of the God who is hesed, emet, and emunah.  Those who suffer must pray to know and experience God’s dependable character as it is described in Scripture.

Third, a pastor should allow for grief.  “A theology without the tears of grief and without a sigh of hope, a theology that has lost sight of man [sic] in his distress and in his expectations, has also lost its real theme: God” (7).  “Strength is not built on easy stories with happy endings” (8).  Christians believe that the Davidic promises have been fulfilled in Jesus Christ (Acts 2:30; Rev 5); however, there will be no final closure — suffering will remain — until the second coming.  Grief, during this period of “now and not yet,” is unavoidable.  However, the beautiful truth in the midst of a person’s suffering is that God weeps alongside those who weep (John 11:35).

Fourth, a pastor should remind the person who suffers that suffering itself — pain and death — does not have the final say (1 Cor 15:35-58).  The best way to do this is simply by reading aloud Scripture and stories from the Tradition.  God is faithful: this is the truth found in the Hebrew Bible.  Jesus wins: this is the fullness of truth expressed in the inauguration of the Kingdom at the resurrection.  The finite experience of a person’s reality must be weighed against God’s cosmic and infinite movement of love and redemption.  This is not done to make a suffering person’s circumstances feel insignificant.  Rather, it is done to remind the suffering person of the overarching story of God, and that it is the God of that story who they have the incredible privilege of submitting their life to and knowing.  “Those who counterintuitively look beyond themselves for such stability find themselves fastened firmly to the most unassailable refuge possible — Jesus Christ, risen and vindicated” (9).

So there you have it.  Faith is not a currency, faith is not to be confused with positive thinking, and faith is not a guarantor of happiness.  Faith is from God and based in who God is and how He demonstrates His character.  To have faith is to have faith in God’s faithfulness and trust in God’s trustworthiness.  To quote one of my past professors: “It’s about God, stupid” (10).  Therefore, the primary aim of pastoral ministry to the suffering must not be to help them acquire more faith.  Rather, the aim must be to help those who suffer know God.  Faith comes from knowing God and experiencing Him — from knowing His steadfast love, grace, faithfulness, mercy, patience, and kindness.  It is this understanding of faith that must permeate a pastor’s interactions, words, and prayers with those who are suffering.  In 1 Cor 2:1-5, Paul is not specifically referring to interactions with suffering people, but his aim remains a prescription for all pastoral ministry.

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I didn’t come preaching God’s secrets to you like I was an expert in speech or wisdom.  I had made up my mind not to think about anything while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and to preach him as crucified.  I stood in front of you with weakness, fear, and a lot of shaking.  My message and my preaching weren’t presented with convincing wise words but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power. I did this so that your faith might not depend on the wisdom of people but on the power of God.

And so concludes this series.  Thoughts?

Footnotes:
(1) Ford, “Faith,” 90.
(2) Tate, Psalms 51-100, 418.
(3) Goldingay, Psalms 42-89, 668.
(4) Schafer, Psalms, 219.
(5) Knowles’ aptly notes the following about the New Testament phrase, “The faithfulness of Christ:” “The precise nuance implied by the word pistis when it refers to Christ has sparked intense academic debate.  Specifically, does it indicate ‘faith in Christ,’ as exercised by the faithful (which is the traditional reading of the phrase), the ‘faithfulness of Christ,’ which gives rise to saving trust, or even Christ’s own faith in God (that is, in such passages as Rom 3:22; Gal 2:16; 3:22; Phil 3:9; Jas 2:1; and Rev 14:12)?  The Hebrew antecedents can accommodate the full range of possibilities” (Knowles, The Unfolding, 160).
(6) Kuyper, “Grace and truth,” 3-19.  See John 17:19.
(7) Immink, Faith, 62.
(8) Schaefer, Psalms, 430.
(9) Ortlund, “The Insanity of Faith,” 269-88.
(10) Love ya, Michael!