Thursday, July 11, 2013

Glimpses of grace

I used to occasionally be allowed to preach. It was one of the greatest joys of my ministry life.

I think I was fairly good at it. I felt God gave me things to say that challenged and helped people. But I could have been a lot better if I had been allowed to do it on a regular enough basis that I could have practiced and developed my craft.

I'm still coming to terms with why that did not happen for me. Sadly, even after graduating from seminary and being ordained, the churches where I served were not in healthy enough places themselves to mentor me and my gifts. The pastors did not do it for me, and I in turn did not do it for other current church leaders like myself or for people who were taking discipleship seriously in the congregation. We were all just struggling to hold these places together.

We were dealing with the crises of the moment, always, always. We were not imagining or building for a better future. Yes, we should have been. But we were doing the best we could with what we had, and taking away another night of the week when one was already spending three or more nights at the church, and putting in 20-30 hours on top of full-time jobs to keep the place going...  Maybe in hindsight we should have been more forward-looking. But that's always easy to say. What I remember is just being continually exhausted and frustrated. Not in any kind of place to innovate or mentor or look to the future.

Actually, I think that's how a lot of ministry goes in the local church. You know what you want to accomplish, how you want to serve Christ. You have a heart for it. You feel a calling towards it. The Holy Spirit urges you on. But there's your people, with their dysfunctions and issues and problems. And survival is always a concern. And so, what you can manage at best is small victories related to the vision God's given you. The rest of it remains elusive and out of reach.

And yet.

I actually think God's OK with that. With the effort, I mean. With the intentions and the small results that come from trying to stay on message even though so much remains unrealized. And every so often he gives us glimpses of his grace to help us keep going.

I didn't get to preach much, but God-things have resulted anyway. A few weeks after I preached on John's prologue at a Christmas Eve service, a shy woman in her 20s in our congregation presented me with a painting she had made, showing the light shining in the darkness, which the darkness could not overcome. What I had said that night had resonated with her and inspired her. Her painting is one of my most treasured possessions.

The other day I received an email from a former congregant who had taken notes in her Bible on a Sunday I had preached, more than a year ago. She was in a time when she needed encouragement, and going through her Bible, she came across her notes, and what I had said, and God spoke to her again. She then emailed me to let me know what had happened, and she in turn encouraged me on a day when I was having a difficult time.

These glimpses of grace keep you going in ministry, even when the overwhelming preponderance of what we do seems to not bear fruit. You have to be attentive and recognize them when they come along, because like the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit they are easily missed.

I wish I had been able to preach more. I wish I still had opportunities to preach now. But I am gratefult that the times I did, God took what I said and did something with it. That's about as good as it gets.

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