I had a conversation with a couple of 80-something year old men today. They sat across the coffee clad, Bible strewn, lopsided, small town diner table as I spilled my self all over my chair. I picked up a freshly filled cup and sighed deeper than most would. They both raised their brows in the kind of inquiry only old men can do.
I ignored them at first. Across from me sat more than 100 years combined experience in loving God, loving the church, loving the lost and loving the world. These two men have weathered greater trials than I can fathom and they have done it standing resolutely next to their Lord. No matter how hard it got they did not abandon him. No matter how unfairly they were treated they hung tight to faith and accepted the pain as part of their maturing process. No matter how broke, lonely, disrupted, unsure, confused, crushed or confounded—they have remained faithful. They have had trials that have lasted decades longer than I have been in ministry.
They will both tell you they have failed. I am sure they have. No one gets through this life without failures that break pride and nurture the kind of humility that graced the chairs across from me. Even so, they both stayed with their calling and never abandoned God’s ways for the ways of the self or the world. They continued to love in the face of great difficulty and they did not excuse sin as a result of those difficulties. They are strong towers and are filled with the kind of wisdom that makes them worthy of full attention when they speak.
They are Sages.
I have been pastoring 18 months. I am an infant at this. I know so little. I wake every day in prayer for wisdom to do what I need to do that day and I end the day praying that I will do better tomorrow. However, one thing I have managed to grasp is that pastoring is a unique calling. In all of the ministries I have been privileged to guide, I have never felt such a deep sense of responsibility. All leaders are called to nurture those they lead, but in a pastorate it is deeper than leading. These people in this little mountain town are souls God adores. He wants them. He asks that pastors call them to come to know God, and then grow them into their uniqueness, and then send them out to love others as they have been loved by Him. This is no easy calling and it comes with a special kind of weight. The eternity of souls, the effectiveness of the church, the reputation of God are on the line. What a pastor does can build or destroy. It’s the nature of the work.
They were not so easily swayed away from the question behind their brows as I had hoped, but they were patient. We read our scripture for the day and then they started asking questions. We answered together, learning as we always do from each other. However, the questions pierced me and my sighs so finally I gave in.
I sat back in my chair, picked up my now half empty cup and sighed again. Then I told them I spend most of my time perplexed right now. I confessed I feel inadequate to do what God sent me to do. I admitted I spend more time in prayer than I do anything else because I just don’t know what is coming next, how to handle what is happening now, and where this whole ministry thing is going to end up. In my I-am-a-woman-pastor-way, I let my emotional and spiritual struggle fill my eyes and leak down my cheeks. I told them I was confounded; felt very alone; that most of what I do is under a constant judgment that I cannot answer; and that I sometimes wonder if I heard God incorrectly when he told me to come to this place and this ministry. I wondered what I was doing so wrongly that I felt that way and how to get my head and heart in the right place so that I could have a better, easier time of it. Then I wiped my eyes and sat back, thinking I was about to be schooled in how to be less troubled and somehow have more faith.
One of those old souls leaned forward and softly told me that I was not going through anything he had not gone through. He shared a bit of his troubles and then sat back and set me in my place by saying,
“It will never end, Penni. This is ministry. It’s hard; it’s confounding; it’s frustrating; it does sometimes leave you wondering about yourself; and it is full of things that make you doubt.”
I sat forward, shocked but relieved. I wanted to blurt out, ‘you mean I am normal? All the tears and the struggles are…normal?” I am a pastor and I am dignified most of the time, so I put a check on my mouth and a soft tone to my voice, and then simply asked the qusiton. He assured me I am quite normal.
All the pressure of figuring out how to fix me drained away. Struggling in this calling is indeed a natural part of the pressure. I breathed out all of my self-doubt and relaxed back in my chair. The weight of feeling like I was a spiritual loser lifted and I let go of my expectation of an easier life.
That’s what we want, isn’t it? Easier life. We want quick answers to quick prayers that give us the right actions to get a result we know God wants. Whether it is pastoring or any other ministry service, we do want it to be easy, don’t we?
But life is not like that. Life is tough and gruff and sometimes downright mean. It requires weathering confusing and confounded days while deep in prayer. It is relentless in its determination to be what it is so much so that it pounds on the faith with a sledge hammer. That faith must stand the pounding of all that comes in life if it is to be authentic. The pounding is inevitable. What it produces in me is uncertain and up to me. I can turn away in self-pity, whining about how unfair the difficulties are and using them as my excuse to indulge my own wants, or, I can stand on the same faith these giants of pastoral work stand on. I can remain in prayer and do as God asks of me no matter what doubt, confusion or judgment comes my way. I can determine that even though it is hard and will remain hard, I am going to let it grow my faith and I am going to continue to do what cares for the souls God has placed in my little town.
I finished my coffee and our discussion, and then, with the wisdom of the sages under my belt, I strapped up my boots, stepped up on faith and with prayers too numerous to count, I headed for my office at the church.