It’s been 88 days since I last preached...
As co-pastors, my husband and I share the task of preaching, often switching every other week, and occasionally preaching in three to four week blocks. The plan was for my husband to preach through October. Then I would bring us home to Advent by preaching through November. I was ready to roll with a Ruth series.
But plans change. The last few months at church have been challenging with both attendance and giving down, and not a little bit. It’s not uncommon, particularly in a military town, for the congregation to undergo frequent shifts, some positive some negative. This particular shift had been negative. And I internalized it all. For weeks, I would return home from church and sob over lunch, convinced we, but mostly I, was failing in every way as a pastor. I had once joyfully anticipated each Sunday; now I was filled with dread. A cloud of doom settled on me every Saturday night and I braced myself for the coming reminder the next day of my failure and inadequacy.
In the midst of this secret suffering and shame, a parishioner came to us with what he said was a “Word from the Lord.” Nothing strikes fear into the heart of a pastor than those few words, not because we fear a Word from the Lord but because that language is often used by immature Christians who have a specific agenda, usually about the worship songs or the sermon series, the version of the Bible you use or the carpet color.
I wish the Word had been about carpet color. That would have been easier. But no, It was a Word to me, and it was truer than true.
Stop preaching, the man said to me. You are so proud, so bold and strong, and yet so fragile, defensive and afraid. All this, the church, those pews, the offering plates, the pulpit, the whole thing, they ain’t yours. We don’t need you to impress us. We need you to love us. We love you, but we won’t be your trophy. So stop. Stop preaching. Tommy’s got this. You need to sit still and let yourself be loved. Loved for who you are, not for what you do, for your brilliance or wisdom.
I laughed. Then I cried. Then I yelled a bit. Right there in the office. I resisted. I fought back. And then I submitted. I had been brought low by some modern day Micah. I obeyed, in part out of fear of what new Word from the Lord might come if I didn’t, and in part because I knew every word he said was true. As much as I wanted to rebel and scream, “You don’t know! You don’t know me, or what I need! I will preach through Ruth if it kills me,” I realized I wanted to heal more.
88 days. It has been a lengthy wrestling match between God and myself, usually on Sunday mornings as I get ready to go not preach. I have begun to see myself clearly. Proud, yet so fragile. An image of success and wisdom and even insightful cleverness, but defensive, afraid, consumed with those external, measurable indicators of success preachers have to stare down week after week.
During a small group Advent lesson, as I led a group discussion on John the Baptist and his call to repentance, I shared the tiniest sliver of my journey, of God’s hand upon me and His refining work in my life. People were kind…and very quiet. Most folks are not accustomed to bearing witness to pastoral confession of weakness and submission to the Lord’s discipline in their lives. But they received it and me with love. They are just so good.
Sunday came as it had been coming, quietly and still slightly achy. While I still missed the pulpit, I was at peace with God’s stilling hand, but now slightly anxious about my return to the pulpit in a few weeks. I walked though the foyer, going about small pre-service tasks when a small senior lady from the Wednesday night class stopped me.
I have something I need to say to you.
Please God, not another Word from you. And not in the foyer. I didn’t handle the last Word with a great deal of grace and poise. With trepidation, I responded, “Oh? What is it?”
She began, "When you first came, I told myself, Okay fine. She can be a lady speaker. That will be just fine. But not my pastor. Not a lady. Three years ago in my garden, I remember it was three years ago because the beans were across from the berries that year, God spoke to me. He said, “Who are you to decide who I have anointed?” I said, You’re right Lord. She is my pastor. Now Pastor, you are anointed. Anointed to preach the Word. Don’t forget that. You are anointed. Do not fear. Do what you were made to do."
On a regular day, I would have been grateful and inspired by this elderly Jesus follower’s transformation from rejecting a female preacher to embracing one, and I was. But, more than that, I was stunned by God’s persistent kindness to me. That he would reach down through this woman, this woman who marks time by beans and berries, and call me back to the pulpit. What holy extravagance.
I had begun to doubt, to wonder if perhaps the pulpit was not the place for me, me with my wounds of pride and fear and anxiety. Perhaps, the Lord was leading me away from the task of proclamation. I had been so afraid, afraid to return to the pulpit and fall prey to the same patterns as before, to the same debilitating fears and worries, the same defensive mechanisms. My precious gardening parishioner could never have known all that. But the Spirit did.
I say it aloud to myself:
You are anointed. Do not fear.
You are anointed. Do not fear.
In two weeks, I will return to the pulpit. My wounds, my patterns, my hurts are not resolved, but I am on my way to wholeness, eyes fixed on Jesus. I will be on this way, this Highway to Holiness, for the rest of my life. But, I rest in the gift of the knowledge that I am anointed, called to this task. It has very little to do with me, and every bit to do with the Spirit, the Spirit of the Lord that falls upon God’s daughters and sons. On me. On you, to do whatever calling you have been given.
You too are anointed, perhaps to proclaim the word from a pulpit, or perhaps to another vocation…to lead with Christlike humility and wisdom, to serve with generosity of spirit, to give freely without limit, to teach with patience and kindness.
The Spirit of the Lord is still falling, falling, falling upon God’s daughters and sons, inviting us all to faithful participation in God’s redemptive work. It is an invitation that, when accepted, transforms, refines, and sanctifies. But above all, it is an invitation stitched together with the cords of divine kindness. Do not fear obedience, Beloved. Do not fear the discipline of the Lord. Do not fear submission and cleansing. God is kind, persistently, shockingly, doggedly so, for our good.
May our hearts be open to receive the Spirit that falls, and may our hands and feet ready to obey.