October 17, 2017

The Sanity Verses

bird.jpgSometimes, I don’t need inspiration. What I need is just my sanity. I don’t need verses that tell me I’m about to see a miracle. I need something that says God wants me to make it to tomorrow, and still be able to be useful. Sometimes I need to know that God doesn’t always want me to be a martyr, but that he wants me to stick around, survive and serve him again.

Sometimes, I don’t need to know how to succeed in ministry. I need to know that there is something on the other side of failure. I need to know that the cause of Christ matters, but that I matter, too.

I’ve collected some passages that fall into that category. I’m calling them “The Sanity Verses.” All of them contain something that we don’t hear enough about in descriptions of ministry: the comforting truth that, in the midst of all the important, spiritual stuff that matters and in the middle of rejection and failure in ministry…..I matter. I matter, too.

Matthew 7:6 I spend a lot of time preparing and delivering messages to people who not only have no interest in what they are hearing, many actively oppose and despise what they are hearing. (Oh, the glory of required chapel at a boarding school.) If the month is a full, typical month, I’ll preach 20 times, with 16 of those to our students. The experience painfully embodies this verse at times. (My wife even had a shirt made for me with this verse on it as a motto.)

It’s not unusual for the students to sleep. Yes, I get reponses and compliments, but I also get frequent requests to dump preaching for all praise music, all the time. Visiting preachers will deliver bad, weird, incomprehensible sermons that ignore Christ, but it’s not unusual for them to be praised by students and adults as “the best sermon I’ve ever heard,” because “they kept me awake.” When I preach the gospel plainly, and magnify the grace of God and the wonderful gift of salvation in Jesus alone, I will often be told by more than one adult that I didn’t tell the students enough things they had to do to be forgiven. Less grace, more repentance, more principles to be followed and values to be embraced so we can call ourselves Christians.

Sometimes….I want to quit. I am discouraged a lot. I wonder what I am doing with my gifts. I get to feeling sorry for myself. But I also remember the many faithful gospel preachers that have stood in our pulpit for over a century and preached the Gospel to our students and staff. I am glad to have that privilege. I’m also glad that, every so often, I can feel that I’m preaching to pigs and Jesus doesn’t want me to be naive or sentimental about that. I can take a break from the pigs every so often so that I don’t get too emotional and whiney. I can even let someone else preach, not try to do it all myself, and take care of my body and spirit for another round with a more receptive, congregation of pigs in a few days. I can remember that I was once a pig, that they aren’t all pigs, and some of those swine will be changed by the very Christ I am preaching.

But it’s good to know that Jesus knows how I feel. Maybe he felt this way, and I’m not a bad person for needing to know that.

Mark 6:7-11 I’m fascinated by the fact that both Jesus and Paul were itinerants. They preached and they moved on. They didn’t stop, but they kept moving. That requires a certain way of thinking. Jesus trained the disciples to be like that. Don’t take a lot of things to be comfortable, because you will always be moving. It will be the nature of the mission to keep going. Don’t make plans to be a permanent resident; be ready to go at the drop of a hat. A new village every few days. New people and new opportunities. Preach, heal, announce the Kingdom, show what it’s like.

That’s good mission thinking. It’s also good sane thinking. It gives the messenger some value along with the mission.

If they don’t receive you, and if they won’t listen to you…shake the dust off your feet and go on. Those who listened had the opportunity to hear and believe. You delivered the message (clearly and in the Spirit, as Jesus taught.) The rejections are not your fault. It wasn’t your failure to love or your failure to entertain them. It’s not because they were bored and you didn’t do enough comedy and stories. It’s because they didn’t want the Gospel. They don’t have time for it. God’s new Israel has no appeal to them. Maybe it will some other time, but that isn’t your business. You are my apostles, Jesus says. Move on, for the sake of those who need to hear, and for your own sake, too.

So hold on to your sanity. Don’t volunteer for martyrdom (though it may happen, so don’t be surprised.) Don’t choose the slow martyrdom of mind, family and health that comes from staying too long where all you have is on the table and consistent rejection is the only response. You are a preacher and witness, and it’s not your job to wear them down with persistence. God opens hearts. There is a time to enter that village; a time to minister and preach the Gospel; a time to rejoice with those who embrace Jesus’ Good News…and a time to say, “We’re done. I’ve done what God asked me to do. Tomorrow there is another village.”

Acts 13:45-50 Just about the time I feel like saying it’s all my fault, then I hear Paul saying, Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles. And guess what? The Gentiles were really happy to hear this. “And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed. And the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region.” It actually seems that if Paul and company hadn’t said, “We’ve done all we can do here. We aren’t going to burn out and blow up on people who don’t believe,” then a lot of people in the next town would never have received the Good News. In God’s providence, there were many waiting to make Jesus Lord, but Paul and Barnabas had to say “We’re done here,” and move on. And to do that, they had to accept that things hadn’t gone well, and the mission wasn’t a “success.” They weren’t going to get an article in the denominational paper. Instead, they needed to say, “Finished. Thank you. Good-bye.” When they did that, it opened the door to the Gospel, to joy for new believers, and, of course, to opposition.

It seems they had listened closer to Jesus than a lot of us do: …they shook off the dust from their feet against them and went to Iconium. With their sanity, and with their ministry.

Acts 18:5-11 The same story. Paul listened to God, but he also knew how Jesus did ministry. He understood that the next breakthrough conversion might be right around the corner from a mob or a stone dead bunch of refusers.

My sanity gets all tangled up with holding myself responsible for being funny and relevant and hip. Paul saw things differently. “Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.” Not that I need to use those exact words. It’s just good to know they are there. Because…they’re true. If I preach the Gospel and love people, I am not perfect, but I am innocent of disobeying the Lord or being silent.

See, when I was a young preacher, I used to hear my pastor say that if all my friends didn’t accept Jesus, their blood would be on my hands. But he wasn’t handling the scriptures very well when he said that. It was scary and effective in making us feel guilty and urgent, but it didn’t make me love God or people. Paul knew those verses in Ezekiel, but he also knew what Jesus said and did. After you’ve been faithful, you can say, “It’s on you now. I am moving on.” You can say that with a clear conscience. Then you turn the corner, and a whole household comes to Christ. Imagine that. It’s not a guarantee. It’s just the way God shows His power and grace from time to time.

When Paul moved on through this experience, God could say something to him that every Christian needs to hear. “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.” Go on. Go on. I need to go on, and not blame myself. I need to go on and not talk myself out of preaching and teaching, because God is doing his work through my life. Whatever he has in store, I can always know that God delights in making use of me as his instrument. And he will preserve and protect me to that end. There will be those who may reject the message, and there may be dangerous hostility or a believing response awaiting me. I need to “Go on,” so God can show me the excitement of the rest of the journey.

Philippians 3:12-16 If any passage deserves the title of “The Sanity Verses,” Paul’s words of determination to be free from the past through Christ certainly fit the bill. What strikes me about these familiar encouragements is the relation to “maturity.” If we are mature, we will think this way. Refusing to give the failures of the past- the ministry failures, the personal failures- to Christ is immaturity. It is the junior high boy who says he can handle everything himself. It is the twenty-something college student who believes his anger and brandishing words make a difference. It is the emotional immature Christian who lives off his personal dramas, forever portraying himself as a victim to manipulate the sympathies of his friends because he is afraid they really don’t like him.

The “mature” Christian moves on. He gives it to Christ- the mess, the garbage, the failure, the refusals to believe, the rejections of the Gospel- and goes to the next chapter. There is no maturity in punishing yourself. There is no maturity in burnout, broken health and divorce. There is no maturity in choosing to refight meaningless battles that amount to the raging of an undisciplined ego or a wasted war with fools. Listen to Christ. Move on, even if it’s hard. Even if it’s a strain. Listen to the voice of the Spirit telling you that God doesn’t hate you. He loves you. You aren’t garbage and you aren’t here on earth to waste your life in meaningless suffering. If there is to be suffering, let it be for joy, not for madness or bitterness.

Move on. Give Christ the mess and take the gift of another day, another chance.

Romans 15:20-22 This one is a little different. It’s not quite so intense. It’s a simple reminder that it should be my ambition, not to argue and berate and beat down someone to believe, but to go where Christ isn’t known, and to announce his Kingship with joy. The Gospel is a movement, and it goes where it hasn’t taken root. Yes, that means it goes where it is unlikely to ever take root without miracles, and it may go where some suffer and die because of opposition. Still, the heart of the missionary impulse, the missional, incarnational energy of the Gospel, is to go where Christ isn’t named. Not just to new countries or people groups, but to new coffee shops and neighborhoods and subcultures. That kind of optimism in the mature Paul is what I need. God isn’t done with me as long as I can seize the day of his grace afresh and see another avenue of usefulness.

I like the fact that Paul would rather be explaining the Gospel to those who don’t know it more than anything else. He wants the freshness and the possibilities. There are great blessings working with those who are already converted, but there is a kind of stress and staleness that can take over as well. Paul knew, I believe, that it was unlikely he would die of old age. In the time he had, he would rather be in Spain with the Good News than in a church giving lectures on the fine points of doctrine. That’s healthy and good. There is a place for both. Paul chose to keep running in Jesus’ footsteps.

The Sanity Verses aren’t often used as I’ve mined them in this essay, but that is because we are afraid of our weaknesses and easily duped by the enemy into blaming ourselves or elevating our self-abuse into piety. Take these passages and see that God loves the world, but he also loves his servants. He takes no pleasure in the pain of waste and endless frustration. He is the God of the “move on,” the “go on,” and the next, unwritten but hope-filled chapter of our journey. The accuser wants us to hate ourselves, sometimes by convincing us to believe that God has designed our torture solely to prove his sovereignty. We serve a God who says don’t cast pearls before swine, and don’t give what is holy to the dogs. In those words is part of God’s love for you as his servants. Take and enjoy that love, and be around to minister again.

Comments

  1. joel hunter says:

    Good grief this is awesome, Michael. Thank you.

  2. Good stuff. Really good stuff.
    This refrigerator-door stuff, but I can’t figure out how to make it fit. I did steal parts of it for a short post of my own.
    Many thanks.

  3. maryellen says:

    Definately one to print up and study…
    real good stuff.
    Should keep me busy for a week or so at least,
    blessings

  4. Wow, so true, why does this seem so hard to grasp???

  5. Wonderful article. I’ll have to admit I first thought you were one of those guys who just shouted criticisms at various people, but this reminds me that isn’t true. This is truly beautiful. The problem lies in its application. You know probably better than I how hard it is to “shake the dust off your feet” in a place where those who rejected the gospel were those you loved. Or, when you did leave one group to reach another, that second group did not “begin rejoicing and glorifying the Lord”, but were just as the first were. And about reaching those who’ve never heard – amen. But then I remember all those here in the US, people I know and love, who are also lost, and my heart breaks for them, too. The verses you show here are verses that keep one’s sanity, but also one’s that bring a striking reality to ministry when one thinks about their implications.

  6. Thanks for your heartwarming honesty.

  7. runnerdude says:

    This is exactly what I needed to read and hear. This really has given me a new perspective on sharing Christ. Thanks for such awesome stuff.

  8. Michael,

    Thank you, this is truly brilliant stuff the Lord has laid upon your heart. Thank you for sharing it.

    Brad

  9. tanegeel says:

    michael:
    you know, I read your page all the time, and often when I read your thoughts about the banality of most of evangelicalism, I agree and share your frustration. But mostly, that’s a visceral response, and I don’t think it helps a smart aleck like me to confirm my own personal views. But this essay really teaches me something about who God is and who I am in His world. Thanks a lot.

  10. Thanks for being real, but thanks also for striving to not lose sight of the goal. I share your struggles as well. Really. Like, when I read your essays I think, “Ummm…those are the thoughts I have.” I can’t imagine coming to the end of my days, only to discover that I’ve “entertained” a couple of generations.

    Last night, Mrs Sled Dog and I watched the movie “Ordinary People”. I hadn’t seen it since it came out in 1980. Whoa. Once again I was motivated by Judd Hirsch’s character to be a REAL source of help and healing in ministry. And to understand how lost and struggling the sheep are, even if they try to appear as having it all together…

  11. Your article brings in a powerpunch to the normal ministry mindset – either CEO of the bigger churches or do-it-all in the small churches. I find myself so frustrated at times – not with people usually, but mostly with myself. When I fall into this frustration, my motivation lags, sermon quality drops, and it seems to be an endless cycle. It seems like I am waiting for some big break, some big manifestation of the Spirit or some big revival – and well, week after week, the same 25 show up and say, “Good sermon.” Visitors come a few weeks and leave without a trace or a good-bye.

    Let me be clear, I am against the “victimized-pastor-syndrome” that says this is a horrible job. Oh, I love the job and feel called to it. The gospel is precious and glorious and nothing is better than knowing and sharing Christ. We have no room to complain. But there are legit concerns that you bring out – ways to beat the burn-out and ways to stay sane. Thanks for showing us in the Bible that God wants us to be at peace with our work for His glory.

  12. Your comments on “the sanity verses” were like “a word of the Lord” to me–just what I needed to hear. Thanks.

    And let’s all pray for the family of “the Old Left-hander,” Joe Nuxhall, who has “rounded third and headed home.”

  13. “The mature Christian moves on” – yes, even if others don’t view him as mature when he leaves. You could be called a quitter. You could be called defeated. Or you could someday be called “faithful”- and the One who says that to us always has the last and final word on who we are and how we lived.

    “Don’t choose the slow martyrdom of mind, family and health that comes from staying too long where all you have is on the table and consistent rejection is the only response.”

    The only problem is there are many slow dying martyrs out there, needlessly laboring under a false hope of looking good. They don’t want you to close up shop…and walk onward.

  14. Thank you for sharing. The Sanity Verses also help us stay on the path and not get drowned in the waters of the WORLD. I have been studying the origin of Hanukkah, in a book by Rabbi Irving Greenberg. What struck me is how easily the elite Jews in Jerusalem gave up their heritage, their inheritance to the Roman Oppressors, just for success. We need to remember to keep our eyes posted on the prize, which is our divine inheritance.