My Dear Shepherds,
You’re probably too young to remember Gunsmoke¸ the old TV western about Marshal Matt Dillon keeping the peace in Dodge City. One time he described his job in a way that resonates with pastors. “I’m the marshal,” he said, “the first man they look for and the last man they want to meet. It’s a chancy job, and it makes a man watchful … and a little bit lonely.”
Although we’re often surrounded by people, we all know what it is to be inwardly isolated, ready to sing a bluesy rendition of, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.” Good thing the next line is, “Nobody knows but Jesus.”
When Paul was hard pressed in Corinth:
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)
Paul knew Jesus’ Great Commission promise as well as we do: “And surely I am with you always, to the end of the age.” But sometimes it’s easier to take that as a collective with you all instead of with you personally. Also, it’s so much easier to serve when we feel the Lord’s presence but sometimes faith requires us to serve when the room feels empty and silent.
When Jesus seems absent, he may simply be in his Emmaus disguise, urging us to hear and see him in the scriptures. Whether we sense him or not, he always—always—speaks from the pages of our Bibles.
Occasionally I imagine Jesus taking the empty chair during a counseling session or a testy board meeting. I’m not conjuring up the imaginary but spiritually envisioning his unseen company. It’s a way of telling myself the truth.
Jesus’ promise to Paul, “no one is going to attack and harm you,” didn’t mean the virulent opposition stopped. The next verses tell of “a united attack” which God thwarted. But Jesus was just as truly with him all those other times when Paul was beaten, stoned, or shipwrecked. The fact is, God doesn’t always stop us from getting hurt but he does keep our souls from being harmed. He “is able to keep us from falling.”
One night long ago I got a call from a husband whose wife had kicked him out of the house in a blind and unwarranted rage. When I went with him back to their house, she screamed at both of us. I’d never been attacked like that. I started talking her down. Three hours later I left them together and at peace. A good night’s work for a pastor.
But something went wrong in me. Some vital emotional organ had been bruised. Within a day or two I fell off a cliff into a dark depression. I had no sense whatsoever of God’s presence.
Two weeks later I read some wise counsel about healing memories. So I prayed, simply asking Jesus to come into my traumatic recollection of that encounter. As I prayed I was surprised by my anger. “Where were you?!” I cried. “I just stood there and took all that venom, and where were you, Jesus?”
I was not expecting his quiet reply, as clear as Paul’s vision. “I was right there beside you,” he said. I still feel the balm every time I remember it. Of course he was. How did I forget that? Do you know what else he said? He said, “You did well.” Jesus really said that to me.[i] The poison was gone and the healing began.
So, dear shepherd, Jesus says to you personally, “I am with you.”
Be ye glad!
[i] Adapted from Lee Eclov, Pastoral Graces: Reflections on the Care of Souls, (Moody Publishers, 2012), 126-128.