Song for the Watchers

When I was young, Papa told me not to love the flocks. “They don’t belong to us,” he said. I remember we were in the field with the other men. Papa had an arm around the abdomen of a male. With his free hand he gave the animal’s head a calming pat while next to him another shepherd used a freshly sharpened blade to trim its wool. It was late spring, shearing season. My first season in the fields with Papa. I was still a boy, then, learning my father’s way. The task he gave me was gathering the clumps of wool and stuffing each into a sackcloth purse. These shorn winter coats would be turned over to the overseers; they would soon become blankets or cloaks to warm the wealthy.

“You give them names,” Papa went on. “You mustn’t do that. They are not yours to name. They are not for us. They are meant for others.”

“What am I to call them then?”

Papa squinted against the afternoon sun, beholding me. I imagine he was trying to picture me older, stronger, accomplished in this trade (if you can even call it a trade). What to say to me in that moment? These were formative years, and for Papa everything was a lesson. I was his only son, after all. Who else did he have to teach such things?

“If you must call them by name, this one is kaphar.” He gave the animal’s head another attentive pat. It snorted softly, bearing the shepherds’ grasp, uncomfortable but unafraid. The knife finished its work, and Papa released the male, giving it a gentle shove back toward the grazing flock.

Kaphar, covering. Reminding me the flock was meant for the Temple, for atonement. These were beasts of sacrifice, not domesticity. Papa pointed to several others around us. “That one is kaphar, that one is kaphar, that one is kaphar…”

“I get it,” I replied, gesturing to another. “That one’s kaphar, too.”

“No.” Papa shook his head. “That one is shalom. And so is that one, and, let’s see… that one.” He nodded in the direction of several other members of the flock.

“Why shalom?” 

“Because,” my father said. “They’re female.”

I should have known. A boy, yes, but I was old enough to have learned this distinction, that the males were for burnt offerings – kaphar, for sin – and the females were for peaceful offerings – shalom.

“These are no common beasts,” Papa continued. “They are the most precious animals in all the world. More valuable than all the animals in a king’s stables. Greater than the greatest ofs Roman war horses. These flocks belong to HaShem. It is our duty to care for them. Protect them. And never, ever leave them. Do you understand?”

Looking up from the animals, I met his eyes and nodded. He turned his attention back to the sheep, reached out and took reverent hold of another unshorn. I went back to gathering tufts of wool.  

We abide in the fields. It is far too much trouble to bring in the flocks every night, nor is any village pen trustworthy. The flocks we tend are substantial, and valuable. There are few pens anyway; most folks in Bethany, Ein Karem, Bethphage, and the other towns that lie in the shadow of the Holy City tether their family goat or ox inside their houses at night. Besides, the Law commands animals intended for sacrifice must dwell outside for a full year, even the rainy months. So, our time is spent in the fields around Migdal Eder, the ancient watchtower that marks the Temple pastures. To the south is Bethlehem. To the north, the Mount. We usually avoid both. We’re shepherds, after all.

Throughout my many years of tending, I’ve learned to accept our reputation as outcasts, even if I don’t necessarily understand it. The priests don’t care for us – to them we’re an unfortunate necessity. The rabbis and the lawyers overlook us, seeing in our tattered and smelly garments only a dishonorable, uneducated lot. And most commoners don’t trust us. They think us disreputable carousers, men who’ve chosen a life away from society, contributing not to the good of a local village but only to the industry of the Temple. While some in these villages may eventually purchase one of these animals when they go up for the festivals, most people in this land can’t afford the asking price for an unblemished lamb. Instead, they offer the family goat or a pair of pigeons. To the commoners, we shepherds are nothing more than rich men’s slaves, lurking far too close to their doors for comfort.

If our jobs contribute to big business, we see no returns. Those among us who make sacrifice, who choose to brave the stares and upturned noses and occasional, prejudicial threats of the Temple crowds, can afford nothing. All we have to give is the meagerest of possessions – grain meal, which our women harvest from the wild edges of others’ fields. I’ve often sat under the stars at night, watching as the lights of the nearest village extinguish one by one, and wondered to myself, Are we poor because we’re shepherds, or are we shepherds because we’re poor?

We take turns in the fields. Each month, a few men are given leave to return to the encampment and see their women. The rest of us remain in the fields, awaiting our turn to do the same. At night, we sleep in shifts. To stay awake, those on watch walk amongst the flock. When the moon is but a sliver, we must be vigilant. Predators thrive in these hills. Lions, leopards, foxes, and bears all prowl at night. So do thieves who slink down from the rocky hilltops. An unblemished ram fetches quite a price on the black market. In my years, I’ve encountered them all, and I can’t say for certainty which is the most dangerous. On our shifts, we keep alert. A lost ram, a wounded sheep, even an abrasion caused if the flock scatters… every mistake means less pay, and that means less food to send back to camp.

When the lambs are born, we swaddle them. Like babies. When allowed to move about on their own, newborn lambs are maddeningly prone to accidents. One stumble or nick of the hide renders the animal blemished, unfit for the intended sacrifice. Even the birth canal can cause defects. So, our job is to inspect them and then wrap them. A tedious task, but it’s for the best. When the Temple authorities come out to inspect the flock, they’re nothing if not thorough. They expect every animal, from the lambs to the adults, to be perfect. We shepherds receive no praise for those that pass. Only condemnation when blemishes are found. Ours is a thankless job.

This is the season of long nights. Sometimes it feels like darkness is annexing the day, shaving it off at both ends. Papa is long since passed, but his many lessons haven’t faded from my mind. I have children of my own now, back in camp. A few more years and my eldest will join me in these fields, just as I did with my father. I’ll introduce him to these pastures, to the paths we weave among them. I’ll give him a purse and direct him to gather the shorn clumps of wool. I’ll teach him to use a staff, to read tracks, to discern scents on the wind. He’ll learn our way in full and inherit our place in this world. This will be his life, for better or for worse. I often hear Papa’s voice in my mind, those lessons of my youth. Time is a circle, my son. It always repeats, generation to generation, never changing. As reasonable a notion as that seems, when I was younger, I found such words dispiriting. To me, time was a grand story unfolding. And like any good story, at any moment something extraordinary might forever alter our circumstances. Now, after decades of shepherding these fields, rain, shine, and rain again, I see like most things Papa was right. And yet, under these stars tonight, there is the faintest whisper of longing inside me. Longing for something different. For the cycle to be broken. 

Other words fill my mind, too. Behold, speaks the Lord through his prophet, I am doing a new thing. Now it springs up – do you perceive it? I make a way in the wilderness. 

This was a targum – one of the bite-sized pieces of sacred Torah – I’ve held onto since I was small. A good word for any shepherd, I always believed. A call to expectation. To alertness. 

The flock seems restless tonight. Walking among them, I see many shifting about. They don’t doze, but instead pique their ears. They snort and sniff the air, expelling little clouds of frustration. They sense something. Can hear it, or perhaps smell it, drawing close. My hand tightens around my staff. I signal to the others on watch, meeting their eyes. Keep alert, my gaze tells them. Something is near. I can feel my heart quicken. It will be one of those nights.

When it is over, and the fields are quiet again, we stare at one another with stunned expressions. We on watch and the others around the fire, startled awake by the visitation. Some gaze up wonderingly into the starry night, which only moments earlier was filled with a light so bright it is difficult to believe the hills are not now on fire. Around us, the flock calms, chews grass, slips back into a doze. A gentle wind caresses the land. Kaphar and shalom

You must go! I turn as if spoken to, but the other men are still staring, mouths agape. The voice, I realize, is in my mind. Papa’s voice. Only now it is filled with an earnestness quite unlike the man I knew. You must go, my boy! You must see. Now it springs up – do you not perceive it? He makes a way in the wilderness.

When I speak, the sound of my voice in the quiet almost makes me jump. The men look at me questioningly, so I say it again. “We must go. We must see this thing HaShem has told to us.”

“It isn’t for us,” says one of the men by the fire. He’s still clutching the thin blanket that was draped over him before the heavens opened. His eyes are wide, unblinking. He looks to say more – to give reason for his hesitancy – but only repeats, “It isn’t for us. It must be for others.”

I approach the fire. My heart pounds. Those faint whispers of longing from my youth now cry out inside me. All that I ever wished for, which the years in these fields assured me could never be, has indeed broken through and brought an end to the endless cycle, just as I always hoped. How can we – even we – ignore what the Lord wishes us to see?

“It is for us!” I say, wanting it to be true. And then it occurs to me it is true. This message, and this sight, is actually for us!

This will be a sign to you, that extraordinary voice said. A baby, swaddled in cloths, placed in a manger. Like … a lamb. It’s true, HaShem’s face has shined upon us. I step closer to the others around the waning fire. This is no king born in a palace. He will not be found in some wealthy, privileged home. This will be a humble house – the humblest – for the only coverings available to this newborn are swaddling clothes and the only crib an ox’s feeding trough. For whatever reason, this family is hardly better off than we. To us is born an overlooked king, an unnoticed savior. We shepherds, I explain to the men, may be the only ones capable of recognizing him at all.

One of the men gestures to the flock. “Do we just… leave them? How can we?”

“How can we not?” another quickly replies. I see a wide grin spread beneath his scraggly beard. He meets my eyes.

I nod. I realize I’m smiling, too. For the first time, something more precious than these has come. Again, I hear Papa’s voice in my mind. This is kaphar. This is shalom.

Nothing more needs saying. We wrap our cloaks, grip our staves, and set off for the little town lying still and unaware in the distance.

Cool Enough for Ya?

I was cool for about a year.

Moderately speaking, of course. Nothing in the vein of a Clooney or a Gosling or even a Van Der Beek. But from summer of ‘96 to spring of ‘97, I was mildly cool. I was a rising senior. I’d had a girlfriend or two. I owned a letter jacket. (OK, fine, I’d lettered in Band, but that’s beside the point.) And my parents had just handed down to me their ‘86 Toyota Cressida. I called it “The Blue Hornet.” There was an antennae you could raise and lower electronically. I loved that car. 

Seriously, who could ask for anything more!

Whenever I look back on that year, an involuntary smile creeps onto my face. I still remember how things kicked off: summer youth camp at Glorieta (where every good Texas Baptist learned to operate paddle boats and walk worship aisles). I signed up for a group called “Creative Movement,” which ended up just being an amateur rendition of Stomp!, a pop-cultural touchstone at the time. There was a girl in the group named Esther. She was from Phoenix. I played it cool. On the last night of camp, our group performed a Stomp!-like piece interspersed with Bible verses about making music to the Lord. I thrashed a cluster of tall cardboard boxes with a pair of empty Mountain Dew bottles. The girls in my youth group had dressed me in a cool jacket and sunglasses. Kids cheered during my solo, and afterward some asked me if I played drums. Later that night, Esther and I went for a stroll to the prayer garden.

This set the tone for a generally good senior year. Varsity soccer player, section leader in marching band, senior editor of the literary magazine, film reviewer for the local paper, and state champion polka band co-creator. (One of those is not like the others.) On top of that, I wasn’t required to take a math class, which allowed me to take Creative Writing for a second time. (Nerd!) And a couple of girls liked me. I mean, I hardly knew them, but I found out they legitimately liked me. Me!

This guy!

Hindsight is eagle-eyed, as we all eventually learn. I now understand that the reason this felt like my year of “cool” was because of an intermingled sense of personal independence and social confidence. Prior to ‘96, I had been the target of bullies, couldn’t yet drive on my own, and had few accolades to claim. But during my senior year, it felt as if I’d busted out of those prisons. I was free to creatively write my own future, and free as well to turn a deaf ear to any criticism that narrative received.

In reality, I was just some punk kid emerging from his adolescent cocoon and marveling at his brand new pair of wings. I didn’t know then that I was bound to fly in the same general direction as every other young adult, dodging frog tongues as I sought flowers. I didn’t anticipate the long line of dilemmas lying in wait just over the horizon. Soon enough, the shiny, confident veneer in which I’d basked would grow scuffed and worn by numerous new concerns – college transfers, incompatible relationships, career disillusionment, lack of money, lack of opportunities, lack of motor oil in my car’s rapidly deteriorating engine…

R.I.P. Blue Hornet. Who knew you’re supposed to replace engine oil?

What from time to time I find myself missing the most about my younger self and my year of “cool” was not individual moments – stage performances, prayer garden strolls, playoff games – but rather that uninhibited intermingling of independence and confidence. Like a man gradually losing his eyesight or his hearing, I often feel as if these senses have consistently faded the longer I’ve dwelled in adulthood. Oh, there’s been the occasional burst of inspiration or creative fervor over the years, but these always felt subordinate to the permissions and acknowledgments of other people. They were delivered into the world under the conditions of need and appreciation. And when it came to being a pastor, no matter the positive and self-possessed persona I labored to inhabit, I certainly never felt truly independent or confident as a pastor. It’s the same way that a paramecium cannot feel independent or confident when it’s pressed beneath the lens of a microscope. Your purpose is to provide insight, yes, but it’s also to be shrewdly evaluated.

“I liked the old sample’s preaching better.”

Here, then, is what I’ve come to wonder about the gospel. For all our pious talk of denying ourselves and taking up our crosses, of decreasing that He may increase, of humbling ourselves and embracing meekness and becoming a servant to all, of glorying in a magnificent defeat … where is there room for the independence and confidence I knew, if only briefly, as a younger man? 

Was it merely youthful arrogance to live that memorable year untroubled by limitations and heedless of criticism? Or might it have actually been closer to the childlike faith of which Jesus speaks than the faith by which I currently live, where the chronic trials of adulthood cause me to tremble and the perceived indifference of colleagues leaves me ashamed?

How I long for a return to days unstained by weakness, for a season unmarred by habitual fault-finders! And I continue to wonder: is this God’s will for my life, or is it only my will for my life?

Such a desire seems suitable, doesn’t it? Even noble? What’s so wrong with confidence? And yet, there is something to be said for limitations and reproof, is there not? We have no shortage of specimens in our world today choosing to ignore the pangs of conscience, living without scruples or shame. There but for the grace of my Lord and Savior go I.

What a time to be alive, amiright?

Last week, I was speaking with a group of students about fear and anxiety, and 2 Timothy 1:7 came up: “For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” Wise words from the Apostle Paul to his wet-behind-the-ears protégé, and as good a reminder as any that anxiety and worry are not meant to control us. Yet I cannot help but question the intended meaning of these terms, “power” and “love” and “self-control.” The latter, sophronismós, refers to “a soundness of mind.” 

I was moderately cool for a year. Or, at least, I felt moderately cool. And what is coolness after all but a feeling? It’s that feeling I’d like to recover, but I also worry that feeling is not only irrecoverable but possibly also irresponsible. Was I of a sound mind back then, or can soundness of mind – specifically the kind Paul refers to – come only after a season of wide-eyed naïveté and low-stakes recklessness?

I wonder more and more these days, whenever I come face to face with my own doubts and vacillations and indecisiveness, was I better off back then? Was I closer in the early days of manhood to the kind of man God desires to use? Could it be that emerging adult who lacked forethought and pragmatism was actually of more sound mind than the seasoned adult who now lacks all nerve and aplomb? Perhaps the once immaturely confident seventeen-year-old was in better touch with the triad of power, love, and self-control than the now soberly circumspect forty-two-year-old. Or perhaps not.

Perhaps all these thoughts are simply what comes when you cross the threshold that separates growing up from growing old.

Only God knows. But, even if I can’t do anything about it sans a time machine, I’d like at least an inkling of an idea, too.

“Build Your Library…”

For Ralph

A little over a year ago, I took a job teaching literature at a private school just outside Atlanta. I moved my family into a wise old house in a half-horse town about twenty minutes from the school, and we have spent the past year slowly settling in. Last fall, I hired a guy to drywall and circuit part of the house’s ample, unfinished basement, a space I had determined would make a decent office. From a stack of 10′ x 10″ lumber I’ve fastidiously sanded, stained, and sealed, I’m currently outfitting the walls with book ledges. On these, I’ll be able to store the contents of about thirty banker’s boxes full of books, commentary sets, and teaching files from my years of pastoral ministry. It’s as amateurish a work in progress as ever there was, but it’s coming along.

Fittingly enough, I’m doing this because of something a teacher said to me.

Back in seminary, some seventeen years ago, an intimidatingly bright man named Ralph Wood taught my capstone course, which was called Gospel & Imagination. This appropriately vague moniker allowed Dr. Wood, a Tolkien, Chesterton, and O’Connor scholar who primarily teaches literature courses, to compel us Master of Divinity students to read everyone from George Herbert, to Walker Percy, Graham Greene, and his dear Flannery, to Wendell Berry, Stanley Hauerwas, and Cardinal Ratzinger. Dr. Wood was, and I assume still is, a highly opinionated professor. I’ll never forget the way he structured his class: each session would begin with a student providing in-depth analysis of a pre-selected Herbert poem, followed by said student reading a prayer specifically composed for that class session. The prayer was supposed to ask the Lord to bless the group with a productive discussion while simultaneously reminding each of us of the ministerial applicability of Herbert’s theme. Dr. Wood was infamous in the seminary, not simply for having the gall to actually grade these prayers, but for grading them so meticulously that it sometimes seemed even St. Augustine or Thomas Cranmer would struggle to eke out a B-.

The prayer-leader would lose points if he or she paused too long, or didn’t pause enough. The professor lowered scores each time filler words such as “like” or “just” were used, if the prayer was not in third-person plural, or if it dared use the word “share” inaccurately. (Dr. Wood was adamant the actual meaning of “share” is fundamentally misunderstood by multitudes of Christians.) And if the prayer did not open with proper apostrophe to the Lord, he would stop it before it even got started. “God isn’t your buddy!” he lectured us on more than one occasion. “Our words should always ascribe to Him as much of the due power and glory one has the capacity to express.”

This persnickety approach to teaching put off many a student. In the years immediately prior to mine, the roster dwindled significantly. By the time I sat in Dr. Wood’s class, there were only five other students braving the course with me. As a result, this set-in-his-ways professor simply quadrupled the expectations: each student was now tasked with parsing a Herbert poem and leading the class invocation four separate times! Despite the extra work, though, the intimate size of the class allowed us to get to know Dr. Wood in a way I fear most of his students never did. As challenging as his course was, in time the half-dozen of us came to appreciate our eccentric professor’s startlingly profound wisdom. There were innumerable moments throughout the semester in which his unique viewpoint on the Church, academia, or the world at-large would cause our own mental lightbulbs to flicker on. I’m aggrieved that I did not write down more of these thoughts, as I’m certain I could revisit them with as much appreciation as when one picks up an old work of Frederick Buechner’s, or when you come across a lesser-known but no less profound quote by Thomas Merton.

There was one piece of advice, however, that I vividly remember to this day. On the afternoon it was offered, a few of us had walked across campus to hand-deliver a paper assignment. The office Dr. Wood kept was in the old Tidwell building of Baylor University (which I hear was only recently renovated). It’s a location that always reminded me of the clock tower courthouse from Back to the Future. Yet inside the bowels of the building, the place held an austere, almost crypt-like solemnity, and Dr. Wood’s top-floor office remains the largest professor’s office I’ve ever seen. It was like something out of Dead Poets Society, the kind of place from which one imagines an uppity, pipe-puffing, tweed-clad academician might compose bitchily erudite essays for prestigious literary journals no one’s ever heard of.

The space was quite narrow, but also quite long, like the nave of a church. The ceiling was almost as high as the room was long. Wooden catwalks lined both walls, their two-and-a-half-foot platforms accessible by ladders. The whole office bore the feel and scent of a dusty cathedral. You half expected to see ropes dangling from a lofty belfry and a pallet of straw and blankets where Quasimodo slept. And yet, the most extraordinary part was that, lining the walls all around from door to far window to soaring roof, were shelves upon more shelves upon even more shelves of books. Novels, poetry, plays, anthologies, biographies, essays, histories, criticisms, compendiums, commentaries… Books of every shape, size, and age lined every available space. They were stuffed, spines facing out, from one end of a shelf to the other, while smaller paperbacks were crammed in the remaining free spaces between the spines and the shelves above.

If you guessed that Ralph Wood had every one of these books scrupulously organized, categorized, and alphabetized, you are, of course, spot on. You could tell he liked it when students had to visit his office. It was not the intimidation in their expressions that he looked for. No, it was the dumbstruck wonder that spread over the entirety of our bodies as we slowly turned circles in that narrow space, necks craned to sky, pondering in astonishment if such a place could really exist outside of a Victorian-era novel. We knew the guy was a literature professor, but we never expected… this.

PICTURED: Not Dr. Wood’s library, but not far off. Just imagine this multiplied by, oh, let’s say, a factor of 20.

We students took all this in, the light of an autumn afternoon spilling through the tall window behind the professor’s desk. Our pathetic, six-page papers were clutched in our sweaty palms, completely forgotten. Dr. Wood stood up from his desk. Behind his thick glasses his eyes were bright, and he was wearing a toothy, self-satisfied grin. He swept an arm in the direction of one wall, and then he spoke three words that we had heard him speak multiple times in class but never really heeded. Usually he said it when we were finishing one novel and preparing to start the next. He would urge us not to be so hasty to sell off our textbooks at the end of the semester, no matter how much they might’ve cost us. And there, in his office, he repeated the phrase we had heard before, only this time it landed with greater weight, as our extraordinary surroundings seemed to amplify his words like a symphony hall.

“Build your library,” he told us. “Build your library.”

Now, as I sweep my stud-finder over the drywall of my new basement room, marking the spot where I will drill pilot holes and affix sturdy brackets to hold my homemade book ledges, Dr. Wood’s encouragement comes to mind. As I lug banker’s box after banker’s box into the room, I consider the wisdom of those words. Certainly, with the endless digital conveniences of our technologically-dependent age, owning a roomful of physical books can seem these days like an unnecessary chore – a waste of space and, with each new purchase, a waste of funds. The device on which I write this post could, in seconds, provide me with probably 90% of the words that I find in these works, which now litter the cement floor of this office-to-be, awaiting their assigned ledge. Why would I spend so much time, energy, and money constructing shelves for thousands (I haven’t counted, but I would estimate in the thousands, or close to it) of volumes, most of which will simply sit there catching dust for months, even years, before I ever consider pulling them down and flipping through their pages again?

These thoughts notwithstanding, I am struck by a deeper quandary as well, because the vast majority of these books concern subjects I am no longer tasked with explaining. Because I am no longer a pastor. I teach literature and composition to high-school students. Today, the commentary sets, Bible dictionaries, and tomes of Church history stare back at me blankly, as if wondering, “Why are we still here? Do you even need us anymore?”

When I was forced to resign from my pastorate two years ago, I had boxed these books up in the belief that somewhere soon, in another office on another generous set of bookshelves, I would unbox them. Somewhere in this post-Christian nation of ours was a community of faith who would trust me to lead them. And this library I had carefully curated, in obedience to my wise professor’s advice, would indeed come in handy in that work. Now, here they sit, these wonderful, wonderful books, full of insights and truth that just can’t be included in the brief, rudimentary lectures I now deliver to classrooms of half-asleep fifteen-year-olds, some of whom can’t be bothered even to bring their copy of Much Ado About Nothing to class (let alone preserve it for their own fledgling library).

“Build your library,” Ralph Wood told me, and I have done just that. And where has it gotten me?

Then again…

What my professor did not tell me, but what hundreds and even thousands of those books thronging the shelves in his medieval castle of an office might say if they could speak, is, Build your library not for what it will do for you, Bo, but for what it has already done. In your moments of triumph as well as tragedy, let this room remind you that no good story, no meaningful history, is without its own highs and lows, its own mountains and valleys. As you live your story, heed that which you’ve learned from all these others, the fiction and the non, the beautiful and the heart-wrenching. Here, Bo, here is the cloud of witnesses – the factual and the fantastical – surrounding you, teaching you, comforting you, correcting you, and drawing you deeper into mysteries that have no bottom. Pray with them. Alongside them. Pray with that depth of reverence your professor modeled for you. Build your library, Bo, not that it may prove you worthy of some measure of honor or respect, but rather that you may honor all those who poured pieces of themselves out for your edification.

Build your library, yes. Build it, that you may be reminded it is not about you at all.

All right, then. Build it, I shall. May each screw find purchase. May each bracket sit true. May each ledge bear the weight not merely of all the pages set atop it, but of all the life that surges and swells within those pages. For all the hardships and disappointments I have known in this life, including the ones that has led me to this wise old house and this still-unfinished basement, may these freshly painted walls, makeshift ledges, and wonderful library remind me I am not alone in this long, strange sojourn. I am surrounded by a multitude of voices, many of whom proclaim from their pages the greatest truth of all – that the Father of our faith, and the Author of all my prayers, surrounds me as well, each and every day.

Playing the Fool

Is there a way to love always?
Living in enemy hallways
Don’t know my foes from my friends and
Don’t know my friends anymore

Power has several prizes
Handcuffs can come in all sizes
Love has a million disguises
But winning is simply not one

Jon Guerra, “Citizens”

On this day three years ago, I began my first and only position as the senior pastor of a church. That it was April Fool’s Day bore no meaningful significance in my mind. It was merely a coincidence, a mildly funny fact to chuckle at and quickly dismiss. The pastoral call is a powerful and weighty experience – a life-altering confrontation with the prophetic and mysterious will of God. I had directly wrestled with this call for the better part of a year. Certainly, the day I became a senior pastor was far more noteworthy than just the place it happened to fall on a secular calendar. There was no time for frivolous teasing, half-baked pranks, or dumb jokes. This was serious business, wasn’t it?

Less than eighteen months later, I resigned my post. And, in my grief, I could think only one thing: Who was the fool now?

The circumstances of my resignation are a story for another day. Suffice it to say, over the course of those tumultuous eighteen months, I was ridden hard and put away wet, wounded by the slings and arrows of outrageous congregants unable to reconcile their specific, personal preferences for the church with my particular styles of teaching and leadership. Rather than seek common ground, they chose instead to embellish our differences. Rather than meet with me face-to-face, most preferred to whisper behind my back.

The thing I found most tragic, though, was that these stubborn and uncooperative congregants believed – and likely still believe – that they did the right thing, the smart thing. That it was up to their unhappy few to protect the church. As they saw it, the wise thing to do was drive out the one threatening to disrupt their status quo. To simply stand by and allow me to continue in leadership would be the height of foolishness. This was serious business.

The Butt of the Joke

After I capitulated and submitted my resignation, I felt very much the fool. Despite fifteen previous years of work as an associate pastor, I nonetheless stepped into the new position naive, unguarded, and over-trusting. It was foolish to believe the God who had guided me to this post would automatically spare me from any snares or pits that lay ahead, that he would perfectly shield me from the enemies that lay in wait just around the bend. It was foolish to believe my giftedness as a teacher of Scripture was enough to endear me to all, to evoke appreciation and loyalty. And it was foolish not to recognize that congregational unity was something for which we must fight daily, something that is constantly under assault from without and within.

April Fool’s Day, it turns out, was the perfect day for me to begin a work that would ultimately drive me from ministry altogether. I was a fool not to perceive its significance.

For a long time, this sense of foolishness was my shame. I blamed myself for every impasse, every bit of tension, every misunderstanding. I theorized that a more faithful and capable minister would have ascended and soared where I crashed and burned. I considered every cruel and tactless insult that had been hurled at me, trying each one on like a man trying on sport coats in a department store. I considered myself in the mirror and thought, Perhaps my critics are right. Perhaps I am every bit the failure and false teacher they believe me to be. Eventually, I reached the point in which I was questioning my own effectiveness as a minister, concluding to friends and family that God no longer had any use for my limited and flawed pastoral abilities.

Shame is a hell of a thing. Not only do you learn to see yourself as, simultaneously, the sitting duck, the class weakling, the whipping boy, the scapegoat, and the butt of every vindictive joke, but you also come to believe those classifications are fully deserved.

The Foolishness of God

“Consider your own call, brothers and sisters,” writes St. Paul to the Corinthian church. “Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor. 1:26-29).

After everything fell apart, I felt incredibly foolish. And yet, the more time I spent lamenting my lack of success in ministry, the more I came to see how often God’s Word equates faithfulness not with success, but with failure. From the world’s perspective, to trust in the will of God is to play the fool. When we walk with the Savior through the dumpster fires of our earthbound, devotional pursuits, we begin to grasp the truth that, indeed, the only one’s capable of inheriting this love-starved world are the meek. It is not greater fortune that awaits those who are truly about the Lord’s business, but greater struggle. More often than not, you find yourself alone, bereft of friends and confidants, enveloped by conflict rather than validation. Those who earnestly follow the Spirit’s leading eventually find themselves in the shadows of Gethsemane.

“Do not be astonished, brothers and sisters, that the world hates you,” writes St. John (1 Jn. 3:13), no doubt recalling the Savior’s own prophetic assurance made to him: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Mt. 5:11-12).

Any careful students of Scripture know this to be true. We like to think more visitors and new buildings and growing programs are proof of the Lord’s blessing. But his Word makes no such assurances. On the contrary, Jesus insists that to follow him is to carry a cross. It is to lay down your life, to relinquish your reputation, to subject yourself to even the most outlandish of accusations, the most grievous of insinuations. Read on and you find that the careers of those who pledged their allegiance to him were marked as much by contention, toil, and peril as by anything our modern world would recognize as “success.”

No Time for Preference

Sadly, you and I live in a time and place in which pastors can become bestselling authors, TV personalities, Instagram influencers, CEOs of globally relevant organizations, or, at the very least, distinguished personages within whatever amount of turf they’ve claimed for themselves. What an exceedingly strange and off-putting view this must be to the saints of old. Looking down on us from on high must be akin to watching a Real Housewives marathon. Again and again, they behold cultural compromise going before us like a banner. Too often, we are Pig Pen reeking of filth, drifting day to day in a cloud of materialistic decadence, shameful perversion, and idolatrous politics.

The lives of the apostles were consumed by trials we can hardly fathom; these blue-collar commoners scraped and scrounged and labored to fan the flame of a fledgling faith. They gave everything to love and to teach love, to endure and call others to endure. What is more, they were always quick to tear out the fast-sprouting weeds of complacency and luxury, admonishing the corrupting influences of wealth, class, and status, and rebuking those who salivated over idols of pleasure, comfort, and convenience.

Look at us now. Today, our houses of worship are themselves worshipped for their opulence and state-of-the-art amenities. Our sermons are vengeful tantrums about groups we hate and self-righteous bellyachings about unfair assaults on our “God-given” rights!

“What rights?” St. Paul asks from between the lines of his letters. “Who has deceived you to believe you deserve anything? What lies have been fed you to think the Church is owed anything but the daily sacrifice of your own life?”

To be a follower of Christ is to waive every claim you have to individual liberty. Sure, Paul leaned on his Roman citizenship, but only so that he might bear witness to the unbridled gospel of Christ from the highest platform possible. The truth is that the gospel – the real gospel – has no time for your preferences. It has no place for your comfort. And despite what some Fox News fabulists may insist, it bears no partiality to your politics. Instead, it calls all of us to join hands beneath one banner and one banner only: the once and future reign of King Jesus.

If you lean on your own understanding and claim your way of seeing or doing things is the only way to serve the King, you’re not a good soldier for Christ. You’re a deserter. You’ve traded a cheap facsimile of church for the true Church.

“Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom,” writes Paul, “but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Cor. 1:22-25).

Amen. May we cease wanting the new life we’ve been given to be normal. May we stop expecting that the work to which we’ve been called can be comfortable. We are not normal, and this was never meant to be easy. May we accept this, and may we gladly play the fool. I’ve decided that’s OK with me. After all, it is to foolishness that we have been called, and from it we find true significance.