A woman came up to me recently and told me she really enjoyed my sermons but “I wish you weren’t so negative about yourself. You cut yourself down too much.” I’m not so sure she had a valid point (in churches, as in stores, the customer is not always right) but I knew to what she was referring. I use humor in every lesson but I also make it a point to assure the congregation that I am a fellow traveler on the same journey they are on. Whatever tempts them, tempts me. What struggles they face, I face. I do not live on a church stage behind a plastic podium; I have a real life with real issues and real struggles.
Why do I go to great pains to make sure they understand that I am a man of sin and struggles, just as they are? Two reasons come to mind. I can remember sitting in church pews when I was a boy, hearing the preacher thunder against our sins and questioning our very salvation or integrity…but I don’t remember him sharing his. Even as a boy of seven or eight, that bothered me. The second reason is this: I do not believe that a fake wall of separation between the preacher and the pew is safe or good for either party. I think it is healthy for the preacher to struggle openly so that no one is surprised when they see him struggle privately.
For those who think the ministry is not only a calling but a role to be played out for the benefit of the faith of others, I would remind you that that sounds perilously close to the definition of “hypocrite” – an actor on a stage. I would also direct them to read scripture more often, ignoring the chapter and verse designations that often break up the story and make the Bible look like a law book. Just read the stories as they come, one right after the other. Look at what God included in His book! There’s the Tamar story, the one about a prostitute in Jericho who lied and was blessed by God for it, a speech from Rabshakeh where he taunted the Israelites and told them they’d be drinking their own urine soon, and I certainly would not have put the Japheth story in there or a host of others…but God was not reticent in sharing the weaknesses of the people in His story.
The songbook of the Jews for hundreds of years was the Book of Psalms – and 61 are entirely songs of lament. Many others contain lament as well as affirmations of the writer’s weaknesses, lack of faith, and personal struggles. Look at the Book of Jeremiah, or Job, or the entire Book of Lamentations. Ecclesiastes has some less-than-peppy parts, too.
Scour the scripture and you will not find a health and wealth gospel or a shiny, happy gospel but a story of people who wrestle with God (which is, of course, what the word “Israel” means…and God named them that) and who very, very, very often get it wrong. Terribly wrong. Tragically wrong.
We see Peter go from champion to racist to preacher to an also ran whose story peters out (sorry) when Paul comes along. And we see Paul’s work crash near the end of his life when he laments that “all those in Asia have turned against me.” The second half of Hebrews 11 – the famous Faith Chapter – casually mentions the fact that a whole lot of folk who followed God ended up dying in quite nasty ways.
Even the heroes make us squirm. Abraham sells out his own wife a couple of times, mistreats his secondary wife, and causes problems we are still dealing with on our nightly news. When told he is going to have that son of promise after all, his wife laughs and they name the kid “laughter” or “Isaac.”
And my story is that of Isaac. There are many people of great faith in scripture but Isaac is not really one of them. It might have had something to do with that whole Mount Moriah thing. When your father’s religion almost guts you on top of a mountain it can sour you to that whole religion-thing. [Side note: a few rabbi friends of mine tell me that there is an ancient tradition that says Isaac was 37 years old at that time. That changes everything. If your son is 37 and still living at home…]
Most think Isaac was in his late teens at the time of that horrible trip up Mount Moriah. All I know is that for the rest of his life he never works great acts of faith like his father or his son and descendants. Instead, he sits on the other end of the pew from God. He got close to God up there and the whole experience might have just soured him enough to consider it not a great idea to wrap his arms around Yahweh.
I have often considered myself Isaac. My father was a champion in our corner of our religious tribe. We occupied a far right position that was quite noisy, very insistent, and completely assured of our correct posture before the Lord. Champions of that sub-set of our tribe often came to our home and they all treated my father with respect, talking late into the night concerning who was wrong and why. Even as a boy of 8 or 9 I knew that there was no place in the kingdom for me. I didn’t think like they did. They intimidated me with the fire in their eyes and their confidence in their correctness.
For I already knew me. I was not holy. I was a sinner. It was drilled into me that I wasn’t there for me, but for the Kingdom. We didn’t play games in our house except for a few times. We were there for the kingdom. I memorized the Jule Miller filmstrips and would stand and narrate them as my father flipped the lever for the next slide (we didn’t use the records – I did everything but the ding). Nights were filled with being quizzed on scripture, doing flashcards on Hebrew and doctrine and facts about the Bible (how many verses in the Bible? Which version? Yes – it differs), and accompanying my father on “cottage meetings” or going off to any gospel meeting within 40 miles of us — if it was being held at a faithful church and had invited a speaker we agreed with.
When I left home, I ran as hard as I could. Getting close to God burned me, shattered me, and left me afraid of my own sinfulness, full of shame, knowing that I would never be able to keep the law I had been taught was my only way out of the coming flames.
Every man (and woman, before I was baptized at the age of 11) who taught me was sincere. They believed what they said and they were passionate that others believe it as well. However, the effect of that legalism and certainty was not positive in my life except in one way: it taught me that I was a sinner. And that was something I needed to know.
I never intended to be a minister or even return to any church but God brought me back and that is a (long) story for another time. Seeing what God was doing, able to read the trajectory of my life and seeing it included church and pulpit, I told Him several things that I would and things I would not do. He has not chafed at such declarations from me in the least. I told Him that if I served Him I would have to be able to ask any question and question any answer. If He is God, I told Him, He’s big enough to handle it. And so He has proved, again and again.
I also told Him I would not play games with my life and that of others. I would not hide and act like I understood everything or that my life was in order. I would be open about my struggles with temptation, my brokenness (seriously, there are days someone should just shoot me with a dart gun, put a tag on my ear or a radio collar on my neck and release me into the wild, thereby saving polite, genteel society from the likes of me), my doubts, or the lack of love I find in my heart when others need it most. God took that bargain and has used my weakness to show the world that He is a good God.
He once used the jawbone of an ass to accomplish His will. Since I am alive, I must assume He is doing the same through me.
For He has saved me anyway. I am Isaac. I don’t understand those with the gift of faith, who listen 24/7 to sermons and Christian music, and who think the art in Christian bookstores is exactly what the world needs. I’m a mess. A saved mess. And the people who come to churches I serve are messes, too. Some of them are a lot better than I am at this whole Christian thing but all of them know I love them and that I will not hide what I am from them: a man who needs a Savior.
That troubles some and I get that. I might not be the minister they need. I think shiny, happy people (shout out to REM there) have the right to worship God and sing “girl with a guitar Jesus is my boyfriend” songs but I’m a man who even back in his teenaged days couldn’t sing “Blue skies and rainbows and sunbeams from heaven” without becoming nauseous. I’ll be the minister for people like me – the broken, the troubled, the inconsistent…God’s problem children.
Those who wrestle with God.
Sometimes, they call us Isaac.
But God calls us His children.