I’ve Got My Hands Full
I’m not sure what this post is. Is it an insightful piece to help people, or a cop out for not doing more, or just a verbal selfie to let people know where I’m at right now?
My back story is fairly straightforward. I’m 62. Been married for 42 years. Have six grown children and 13 grandchildren. Been a pastor for 39 years. Currently shepherd a smallish church of around 150-175 very diverse men, women, and children. I minister in one form or another around 50-55 hours per week (down from the 56-65 that I managed for about 36 years). And I’m here to tell you that I’ve got my hands full, and don’t know that I can handle much more.
And yet that billboard I saw yesterday triggered misgivings. “Be that spark that changes the world!”—it proclaimed to the college-aged, with a mix of one-part encouragement and one-part moral imperative. But here I am, three times older than college students, and my world-changing spark hasn’t happened yet. I’ve had my hands full, and the world hasn’t been set ablaze.
Which is what locates my angst. Is there something more that I could or should be doing to make this a better world? Nothing in my resume says that I’ve rocked my world for Christ. But isn’t that what pastors and Christians are supposed to do? Don’t real leaders envision, team-build, implement, and bring about big-picture, systemic, generational change? Perhaps some do. But I haven’t.
While some are supposedly changing the world, I’ve been fighting for the faith of the brother in pew six who’s battling porn, the sister across the aisle who is terrified of Covid, the widowed in row nine who faces bereavement with three young children in tow, the abandoned in row fifteen who’s processing personal rejection, and the teen in row twenty whose faith has hit the skids.
I’ve kept busy—with varying levels of success—with Mr. Johnson, Mrs. Smith, “Joe Teen”, and various people of all shades and shapes who need to listen, understand, empathize, and love. So where does that leave me—and millions of other Christians and pastors like me—on the ignite-the-world chart?
Defining Our Calling
I’ve always seen myself as a simple guy with an uncomplicated (but admittedly difficult) calling. Get saved. Stay saved. Love my triune God. Be sanctified. Love my wife, children, and neighbors. Treat people with respect and justice. Live a God and gospel saturated life. And then help others do each of these, themselves. Pretty simple to articulate. Really hard to do.
I am not implying anything like works-based salvation or perseverance—as if I’m the one who gets and keeps people saved. I’m way too Reformed for that. Ultimately, getting and staying saved is all of God. But I also know that I do need to work out my own salvation with fear and trembling, which is, as Paul forewarned, a pretty intensive fear and trembling commitment (Phil. 2:12-13).
And I also know that as a pastor, my diligent spiritual training, toil, and striving, together with a vigilant guarding of my life and teaching, can also help others get and stay saved (1 Tim. 4:6-16). There’s no hint of a messiah-complex here. I gave that up decades ago. I am not the Holy Spirit. I am not anyone’s savior. I am not called to micromanage people’s lives. But I am called to serve the salvation and sanctification of the people who fill my pews.
Texts like Matthew 28:19, 20; Acts 6:4; and 1 Timothy 4:11-16 are defining for me. Love people. Tell them about Jesus. Get them baptized and added to the church. Minister the Word, and pray. Love, preach, teach, write, counsel, comfort, encourage, affirm, correct, try to be an example. Saturate it all with prayer. Repeat all the above for 50+ hours per week for 39 straight years. Put your hand to the plow, and don’t look back (Luke 9:62). Run well, and finish strong (1 Cor. 9:24-27; 2 Tim. 4:7, 8). And do it all with a joyful heart (Heb. 13:17). That’s my calling as I have long seen it. And with a few tweaks, I’d say it is the calling virtually every believer has received, from the mega-church pastor to the man in the shop to the mom with her kids.
The Lesson of Biography
And I am finding that this is about all that I can handle. It’s a lot of work getting and keeping people saved, and then helping them put sin to death, and deepen their relationship with Jesus and others. While the world is out to create movements and mighty causes, I’m simply trying to help my little flock love Jesus, become holy, love people, forgive the offensive, show some hospitality, and be on simple gospel mission wherever they are.
As much as I care about the big picture, I’ve had to realize that the big picture is really a composite of billions of little pictures; pictures of precious individual souls who cannot be neglected for the sake of any cause. If I unwisely allow the world’s concept of leadership to become mine, I can head out to change my world, while leaving behind many souls—including my own—in the process.
Biographies have taught me well in this regard. The dozens of life stories that I have read have shown me that those who do allegedly great things very often are great failures on the home front, and in their personal character and conduct. They proclaim virtue and justice while not being virtuous or just in their relationships, homes, and secret lives. They change the world while losing souls. This is not as it should be. I believe that it is more important for me to be a good man who helps others be good, than for me to change the world. And the same goes for you.
Sorry to Disappoint
This will disappoint those who hope for more from me. Neither those to my right who wish I would say and do more, allegedly in the cause of freedom or life, nor those to my left who wish I would say and do more, allegedly in the cause of justice and mercy, will be happy with such modest ambition. But while I care about these causes, it’s all I can do to get people from where they are to where they need to be—and to keep them there until they get to heaven. I am spent just trying to help people to run, walk, stumble, or crawl across the finish line.
I am not advocating for mediocrity, but for faithful biblically guided goals in life. My Lord knows that I care about this very broken world, and wish I could do more about it. But God also knows that I’ve got my hands full in helping people get saved and sanctified; not to mention in working out my own salvation. These leave me neither with the vision nor the vigor, to change the world. Others might do that, but it won’t be me. And I have a feeling that a lot of believers are where I’m at.
The truth is that I think “change the world” vocabulary, while momentarily inspiring, is ultimately disheartening. It inspires energy on a billboard, but when world-change doesn’t happen, it leads to discouragement and departure. It is better to know that at the end of the day, I will answer most for me, my family, my flock, and my neighbor. If I can be a spark to help these get and stay saved, I will have answered my calling. That spark won’t change the world, but it will change them.
So whether an insightful piece, or merely a verbal selfie, this might help all of you ordinary people (like me) who are out there day after day. If you are laboring hard, and loving even harder—stay faithful even unto death. My guess is that that will be all the spark that God intended you to provide. And rest assured: the flame it ignites will never go out.