Standing, or Sitting, in the Gap (November 7, 2018)
Dear VICC family,
One of the unhealthy obsessions a pastor can get wrapped up in is numbers. “Butts in the seats.” Some of this is natural and perfectly human. If one of us planned a party and not very many people came, we would be disappointed. If we spent all day cooking a big meal and half our family decided to eat out, we would be frustrated. So, naturally, anyone who spends their time working on a church service (or any event) will find themselves wrestling with emotions they may or may not want when it comes to numbers. Numbers can reveal the fragility of the human ego. A lot of people come to a service and we suddenly feel just so good about ourselves. The next week, half the people aren’t there, we feel like we are blowing it. Never mind the fact that on the unusually large Sunday, it just so happened that nobody was travelling and two families had guests visiting, whom they brought along. Or that the next Sunday, three families were on vacation, two core members had to work over the weekend, and a cold was going around. The pastor’s big head about one Sunday was just as beside-the-point as the pastor’s “woe is me” self-pity about the small Sunday. But still, in days of dwindling church attendance even among megachurches, we little pastors march along with our fragile egos, all the while trying to keep a stiff upper lip.
You may or may not know this, but your pastor is kind of a bookworm. At any given moment I may have bookmarks floating around in half a dozen volumes strewn all over our house. One of the books I am reading is about monasticism, believe it or not. We evangelicals don’t do monasticism. We occasionally make jokes about nuns, but that’s about it. But your pastor has some kind-of romantic notions about the monastic life. A life of silence, contemplation, worship, prayer, and spiritual reading sounds pretty good to me. (Our four-year-old probably contributes to my romantic notions about silence…). One of the things I find fascinating about the idea of monasticism is that, in part, monks exist for the sake of the church at large and not for themselves. All Christians are called to pray, of course. But most of us have to work or take care of families, so our prayers are often short and distracted. But the monks are there to pray for their fellow Christians, many of whom they don’t even know, including us. Their lives of prayer, work, and worship are not just for themselves, but for the church as a whole. With monks and nuns all over the world praying, the church is always praying, even if the rest of us forget to. Now, my first reaction to all this is to say, “Well, that all sounds very Catholic to me. The church purveying salvation, clergy doing the believer’s job for them, good works, and so on.” And while this might apply to the worst examples of monasticism, or the worst stages of the practice (medieval monks doing penance on behalf of knights so the knights wouldn’t go to hell for all that killing they’re doing), there is something biblical about it.
A couple weeks ago in our sermon series through Colossians, we saw the apostle Paul describe his ministry as “filling up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ” (Col. 1:24). We know Paul was not implying that Jesus’ death on the cross is insufficient to save. Paul meant that one thing lacking in Christ’s suffering for the salvation of the world was the suffering of going into the world to bring this message to all people. Paul’s suffering was a participation in Christ’s suffering and an extension of it by bringing the saving work of Jesus to the lost. We considered that our own acts of self-denial and service can also be participations in the working of God’s grace in the world. When we deny ourselves to share the gospel with someone, we risk some level of suffering for Christ’s name. When we deny ourselves a little luxury in order to spend our money on the poor, we enter into and participate in Christ’s suffering as God extend his grace into the world through us.
As a pastor, I have begun to apply these ideas to how I think about our little church. Not everyone can always make it to Sunday worship, but some of us can. Every service opens with a prayer, after all, that includes a blessing on those who cannot make it that day. When a handful of us gather at prayer meeting, the point is not that more people aren’t “sacrificing their time for the Lord” (!), but that we few have been given the opportunity to pray for them on their behalf, confident that God is working all things for their good as well as ours, and rejoicing that we get to participate in the work of Christ for his church. When we worship every Sunday, and include a prayer for all those who do not know our Savior, we worship as a confident foretaste of the day when many of them will worship him, too. Indeed, we worship as a dress rehearsal for heaven, when all the redeemed will stand before the throne of God declaring his praise. In short, when I gather with you on Sunday, I picture you all as monks and nuns. Sorry, but I do. I picture you and me as people set apart to bless the Lord, to stand in the gap, and to be a living foretaste of what the Bible tells us God is going to do.
Your partner on the journey,