My Dear Shepherds,
“Every morning I try to cut the heads off my highness—like Medusa.” Irma said that to me one morning. She is a Catholic believer, an immigrant, and a cancer survivor, among other important things. She often served me my coffee and a bagel. Medusa was the evil Gorgon in Greek mythology whose hair had been turned to writhing, venomous snakes. I’d never heard our daily struggle for humility put so vividly.
A lot of pastors I know seem to have gotten unwelcomed help chopping the heads off their highness. Churches have a dubious reputation for buzz-cutting pastoral pride. But even when our flock is wonderful, shepherding is mostly humbling. I sat in a circle of about 20 solo pastors recently as they talked about the trials of recent months. Many had seen God working but they were also a pretty beleaguered bunch. I didn’t hear any bragging.
Pastoral ministry subjects our egos to crazy highs and lows. For example, folks occasionally call me a man of God which, frankly, gives me the heebie-jeebies. I want to be, don’t get me wrong, but hearing it out loud seems like asking for trouble. People defer to us for all kinds of things. We speak for God, for goodness sake! It can all go to our heads. On the other hand, I so often felt my ministry was choking in the weeds of my weaknesses.
Eugene Peterson wrote, “The strongest sign of authenticity in what you and I are doing is the inadequacy we feel most of the time.” Inadequacy is a necessary qualification for ministry because it keeps the heads of our highness cut short.
Think of Jesus’ Beatitudes. God’s blessing in each of those is not attached to a virtue but a weakness—poor in spirit, mourning, meekness, famished for righteousness. From those emerge humble virtues: mercy, pure in heart, peacemakers, and the persecuted. These Godward weaknesses render us child-sized in the kingdom. The picture of Jesus inviting children to come and be blessed is for us. It is no small thing to become child-sized.
Lowness, once you crawl there, is a safe place, a Sabbath for our souls where strivings cease. There is relief and blessing in being small.
I’m all for “he must increase,” but the “I must decrease” part doesn’t come so easily. High heads are not so easily shorn. That’s why James tells us how to cut the heads off our highness:
Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up. (James 4:7-11)
The uplifting of God is nothing like the pedestal of man. Like Jesus’ yoke, God’s uplifting is easy to bear, deeply fulfilling, and never precarious. He bestows Christlike credibility upon us. We become better shepherds, safer for the sheep we lead. The hard part is waiting for his lift.
Be ye glad!