My Dear Shepherds,
When we entered the ministry, most of us were ill-prepared for just how dangerous the work could be. Part of our schooling should’ve been to crawl under barbed wire with live fire over our heads to give us a feel for what we’d face.
During one of my own seasons of pastoral duress, I came upon Acts 18 describing Paul’s church planting in Corinth. As he preached Jesus as Messiah in the synagogue the Jews “opposed Paul and became abusive.” What spoke to my anxious heart was this:
One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision: “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.” (Acts 18:9-10)
Let’s just take, “Do not be afraid.” No admonition in Scripture is repeated more often than that. It appears in one form or another more than 130 times. When we graduated someone should have stapled that list to our diploma.
One of the most frightening times I faced came when I arrived at our church in the Chicago suburbs. The previous pastor’s tenure had been traumatic. Bankruptcy loomed. Several elders had left and the new elders’ election was disputed. The flock that remained was demoralized.
Some years before a friend had given me a souvenir coffee mug from Gettysburg depicting Mort Künstler’s painting, “Steady, Boys, Steady.” It portrays one brigade of Pickett’s Charge, the ill-fated bloodbath that was part of the Battle of Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. A long line of ragtag Confederate soldiers, guns resting on their shoulders, march forward into the smoke and explosions of cannon fire. Out ahead of them is Brigade Commander Lewis Armistead. His hat is raised high on the tip of his sabre so his troops can see to follow.
In those first frightening months I looked at the picture on that coffee mug at least a hundred times. I’d think about Armistead, “He must have been frightened, too. But when you are a leader sometimes you just put your hat on your sword and march into the smoke.” Over and over I’d tell myself: Put your hat on your sword and march into the smoke. Which was one way Jesus had of telling me, “Do not be afraid.”
The way pastors deal with the turmoil around us depends on how we deal with the turmoil within us. I used to teach a seminary class where students would bring in real-life case studies and we would talk through how to handle them. The students were always so reasonable and analytical about these dilemmas so I started asking, “What would this problem likely do to you inwardly? How would you handle something like this emotionally?”
In harrowing times what happens to us within affects the outcome of the story. Surely Lewis Armistead marched into the smoke so bravely because of how he had been shaped inwardly. I read that Armistead, who died of his wounds two days after that battle, had written in the cover of his prayer book, “Trust God and fear nothing.”[i]
When the battlefield smoke is thick take great gulps of Scripture to clear your head. Scripture takes us aloft to see what is really going on from God’s perspective, and takes us within to see our own hearts. Pray. And don’t sin.
Ultimately, pastoral courage is a gift of God’s grace. Our duty is to take up the sword of the Spirit and to muster what boldness we can. But it is the companionship of Christ that will carry the day. So, dear shepherds …
Be ye brave!
[i] Adapted from Lee Eclov, Pastoral Graces: Reflections on the Care of Souls, (Moody Publishers, 2012), 119-120.