Perhaps you’ve seen it before. A person in a military uniform at the airport. Wheelchair, maimed, missing a limb or an eye. Most people don’t know what to do or how to engage till some brave soul starts clapping. Others join in and, at least for a moment, magic happens. They are a symbol of a war and rightly to be applauded, simply because they fought for us. We have no idea how many battles were won or lost, what their comrades or commanders think of them, and, candidly, that might not matter much.
Read that again. ‘That might not matter much.’
After seeing a veteran at the airport a while back, I noticed the similarity with the man I was picking up for a church conference. An old pastor. But, candidly, not a gracious old wizened Yoda. Nope, pure sourpuss. Cynical, judgmental, bitter and broken. I will admit, I despised my hour of interaction with him until he was walking away and the Holy Spirit said to look again. His battered veteran years sprang to mind instantly. The secret meeting about him, the gossip and slander, the building project that blew up in his face, the staff member that betrayed him. He was a wounded warrior, and while I respect that fact, I fear most of his wounds were self-inflicted. I fear mine might be as well.
And the Spirit may have asked me if I wanted to end up like that, might be asking you as well.
I mean, didn’t we all start out as idealists and revolutionaries? The gospel was so rich, raw, and real. How could it not catch fire and sweep forward in wave upon wave of perpetual motion and momentum. Until it didn’t. Until the doldrums set in, where nothing works. Or until the unraveling, where everything seems to go wrong at once.
I’ve been in all three stages – wildfire, coma and death spiral. In 33 years of being a pastor, you see it all.
In the movie Fight Club, the character Tyler says “We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”
My adjustment would be: “We’ve all been raised in seminaries, conferences, podcasts, and books to believe that one day we’d all be mega churches, get book deals or fat conference speaking gigs, and be a part of some raging revival. But most of us won’t. And we’re learning that fact. And that fact is eating us alive from the inside out with agony, apathy, and anger.
Don’t worry, I’ll land the plane I just lit on fire.
In World War II there were two generals I want to focus on.
George Patton was the rock star. He got the press. He did amazing and innovative things and he took new ground. In the eyes of the culture he was the picture of success and victory.
George Marshall longed for a battle command. But Eisenhower saw his amazing skills at organization and hid him in strategies, supply lines, politics, and tactical resourcing. Every inch of ground that Patton took, Marshall secured. In the cult of leadership these days they’d call him a manager. Our culture can be pretty condescending about these things.
But here’s the deal. We absolutely do have a world war going on. And Jesus is absolutely doing things. But what He asks us to do is not always, or even often, full of the brash bravado that makes for nifty cults of personality. He asks us to be faithful. That’s the target. Taking new ground is sexy, but holding fast is what keeps the kingdom alive. It’s the relational move out of the exotic pheromones of romance and into the strong discipline of character that makes a marriage.
Us old folks know this. Whatever swag we ever had has long since left the building. It wasn’t enough to make a marriage anyways, it was attraction and little more. But marriage, that needs grace, laughter, patience, kindness, and discipline. Our Vogue magazine ministry conferences don’t offer much but lip service to those articles.
The lieutenant in a plane crash, just trying to keep the sharks from his men.
The POW’s trapped, just trying to survive.
The counselor keeping the woman with PTSD glued together for another week.
Triumphant, no. Heroic, yes. Deserving of honor, absolutely. Applauded here… probably not. Feeling like a failure… probably every day.
So what is your longing? What’s your target? What’s the gut-level emotive anthem that surges with volume in your heart? Getting the unchurched, transformed lives impacting the community, another campus, more baptisms, a vision of… Ok.
But if that doesn’t all happen, you’ll quit or become that bitter old man on the plane. Sure you measure what you treasure, but you also can’t control all outcomes. So when things don’t work out, what then? Pivot your strategy! Adapt, improvise, overcome! Uh huh, tell that to the Chinese church these days. Tell that to the persecuted church facing extermination almost everywhere these days. Nope, gonna need to do better than that. You better have a theology of suffering and self-sacrifice that’s up to the task. You better be a pastor that knows how to manage our unique pain. You’re already a martyr, you just don’t know it yet.
But if you long for a different singularity. A different metric. A different commendation. You might just make it. You might actually thrive, even in the ashes. Find the ember in the ashes and it will whisper to you: “Well done my good and faithful servant.”
Oh to see His eyes, and to hear His voice, speaking that into the marrow and sinew of my heart, mind, and spirit. That’s a goal for all of us. We can be Patton or Marshall. We can take new ground or be the last man standing. We can taste sweet impact or be the remnant watching it all burn to the ground. That is within reach of all of us. That’s the target. Stay on target.
We live in a time when the famous branded rock stars of Christianity are going down in flames all around us. Heroes are getting hard to emulate, and adulate. That’s ok. Let them go. All they really did was torture a lot of us by comparison anyway. Instead, step out on the waves of faithfulness, goodness, and servanthood with your eyes locked on Christ and He alone. Do the best you can, with what you got, where you are. Whatever accolades, crowns, treasures, applause we have coming won’t come from a crowd…but from a King. Quit the crowd, quit your self-condemnation, but don’t quit the King.
The mystery of his metrics in the end, I suspect, will be quite revealing.
Remember the widow’s mite. Nobody saw it, but He saw it. And He made sure it would echo in eternity. You can as well. Even if nobody sees it here.
And ya, sure, I wish I had turned out a rock star for Jesus. I could write you a book and deliver a snappy Ted talk so you could bask in my glory. But nope, if that had happened I’d never have written this. It’s my mite for you, may it be blessed within you. Mustard seeds have their secret strengths. So does faithfulness.