Wednesday, April 9, 2014

You are Working Too Hard

It's never happened in my 14 years of serving as a pastor.

It broke the mold, and I am very thankful for it.

After worship this past Sunday, a congregation member caught me as I was tuning my guitar in preparation for Sunday School opening.  The following conversation is not verbatim, but I think it is a very close reconstruction:

"Pastor," the member said, "I am doing all of the things you said in your sermon.  Why don't I have it (peace and fulfillment)?  What is wrong with me?"

I stopped to ponder that question for a moment.  This was shaky ground.  Too far to one side, and you've crossed into that territory where you blame someone and their lack of faith in that they haven't found peace.  Too far to the other side, and you come across as self-righteous--with an "I've got something you don't have" attitude.  Too often, because of our weakness, this happens--even to the best of those who seek to help others grow spiritually.

"I don't know," I replied.  "Let's think about it for a minute."

"I've quit my job.  I spend a lot of time sitting and reflecting, and I still don't have peace.  I still am hurting.  I still am empty."

I paused once again.  Everyone's spiritual path is a little different, but there are still some similarities.  If there were none, the saints' experiences of old would have no meaning for us today.  As someone who has recently been converted by the gospel and been given a sense of that peace, I began working with this congregation member with mine.

Me: I know you read my blog.  I know you know all about my ordeal with burn out.  I know you heard the story of my grandfather's words to me.  "I haven't accomplished much in the eyes of the world, but the Lord and I are on very good terms."  That statement hit me down deep and helped bring about transformation because it set things in perspective.

Congregation Member (CM): I understand that, and I understand that quote.  But it's still not there.

Me: And, something happened to me when I went away to my property out in Rocksprings.  I don't know exactly what it was.  I was away from everything; from television, internet, cell phones and technology.  I was completely reliant upon others when my truck broke down.  I came back different.

CM: I see that, and I'm doing a lot of the same things.

(light bulb!)

Me: Wait a minute.  You are doing?

CM: Yes.

Me: Think about that a moment.  You are doing all this stuff to achieve peace and healing.  You know, I once thought I had to do an awful lot to make this congregation grow. I thought it was my job to motivate people, to save the church, to get people to come here.  I thought it was all up to me.  Don't get me wrong.  I mean, I said all along that God's Spirit had to bring people to faith and bring them to worship and change their hearts and motivate them.  I said all the right things about grace and salvation and growing into discipleship, but down deep in my heart, it wasn't there.  I had it in my head, but it wasn't down in my heart.  I had to let all that stuff go.  Last Sunday, when I quoted the words of Amazing Grace, I almost didn't make it through the song.  I have always believed the words of that song, but it became really real, if you know what I mean.

CM: Trust me, as I left last week, I was bawling my eyes out.

Me: Maybe, the problem is that you are trying to get this peace and healing on your own efforts.  You are trying to do all the right things, but it isn't about that.  It's about God's grace healing you.

CM: Maybe that's the case.

This member began shedding tears once again.  My own lips trembled.  (Hey, I had to hold it together.  Sunday School was about to start!)  We embraced.

Later in the afternoon, I checked Facebook.  One of the status updates was a group I had liked--a group following C.S. Lewis quotes.  The quote read, "Your real, new self will not come as long as you are looking for it.  It will come when you are looking for Him."

I quickly texted this quote to my congregation member.

I thought about what C.S. Lewis said.
I thought about my conversation with my congregant.
I thought about my own journey and sense of peace within.

And I said, "Amen."

Whenever a sense of self-peace, self-fulfillment, self-contentment, and self-joy is our goal, we are still being self-centered.  We are still at the center of our own universe and pursuing a false god.  It is not pursuit of God.  It is not pursuit of Christ.

Pause: Before anyone jumps me for not being theologically correct from a Lutheran standpoint, I understand deeply and appreciatively that I cannot "find Jesus" or "find God" through my own efforts and strength.  Christ coming to us is a tremendous gift which comes sometimes despite our best efforts often to avoid it and rely upon ourselves.  Yet, if our goal is seeking self-satisfaction, it clouds our relationship with Christ and ultimately does not allow Him to do His work.

When Christ becomes the center; when the understanding of grace takes root--that salvation comes from the Lord; when my own ego is shattered and self-righteousness is beaten back (but not fully conquered); when I realize Christ loves me despite my flaws and does not forcibly try to change those flaws and that I am called to extend that same courtesy to others; then the by-product is peace, joy, fulfillment and understanding.  I do not get those things without Christ being center.

Are you working too hard to find peace, fulfillment and contentment?  Are these things the end goals in and of themselves?

I think that if they are, you will not find them.  They must be cast off as false pursuits.

Pursue Christ; seek first His kingdom, then all these things will be added as well.

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