A Different Angle (Luke 7:36-50)

Yesterday I posted a fairly egg-heady look at Luke 7:36-50. That is pretty easy for me to do – I’m basically an egg-heady kind of guy. But, today I want to look at the same passage through a different lens, a different angle. Today I want to look at the story through the eyes of the woman.

Have you ever wept uncontrollably? I don’t mean just the run of the mill sniffles that you get at the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I don’t even mean the tears that flow at a funeral for someone you really love. I mean the uncontrollable, rib-wracking, heart crushing weeping that makes breathing difficult if not impossible.

I think I have had that experience just once, and I’ll not bore you with the details here. Suffice it to say that once in a lifetime is enough. I cannot describe the pain, the uncertainty of if, not just when, it was going to stop.

The backstory of the woman in Luke 7 intrigues me. For what, exactly, was she grieving? What drove her to Jesus’s feet? How did she manage to get through the phalanx of (primarily male, I would assume) dinner guests to get so close to Jesus? Luke simply identifies her situation as being a “sinner,” but what did that entail? Was she a prostitute? If so, had she been forced into selling her body because of a financial ruin? Was she a widow with no other means of support? Was there some other sin that she was sold to that made her a pariah?

Interestingly enough, Luke – ever the historian and careful observer of human emotions, fails to tell us anything more. Simply that the woman came to Jesus with what we would assume to be a very expensive flask of ointment (Luke does not comment that detail, either.) So, her visit to Jesus was not “spur of the moment.” It was planned. And, at the moment she arrives and is able to gain admittance to Jesus, she begins to weep, and by Luke’s description, I would add the word “uncontrollably.”

It is one thing to weep to the point tears run down our face. It is something else entirely when tears are so profuse that they could actually wet the feet of someone reclining in front of us. This is no ordinary grief. This is profound, all-encompassing grief. To use a word common in our culture today, this was epic grieving.

Once again I ask – for what? What was it in her life that drove her to such sorrow? For how many mistakes and how many failures and how many sins was she repenting? How many years of wasted life was she recounting? What losses were in her life’s ledger?

We can look at this story through many lenses, from many angles. The gospel in this story is that Jesus does not focus on her past, does not force her to recount her failures. He recognizes her love and forgives her sins. How many times do we stare at the sin, and refuse the love?

We can learn many things from this anonymous woman. We can see the change of heart her plan to go to Jesus indicated. We can see the cost of true repentance in the selfless manner in which she used her “alabaster flask of ointment” to rub on Jesus’s feet. We can see the emotional cost of serving Jesus in the description of her tears wetting the feet of Jesus. And, lest we overlook the words of Jesus, we can see her unbridled love for Jesus that all of these actions indicate.

This story grips me, intrigues me, challenges me. How often I want to think that Christianity is simply and solely a rational venture. How often I fall back on my reason and my intellect to convince me that I am right. This story in Luke 7 is not about reason or rationality or intellect. It is all about love, and sorrow, and repentance, and selfless worship. It is a picture of the Christian walk that confounds me in many ways, because all too often I brace myself against this kind of emotion.

Egg-heady guys like me need to read this story, hear this story, meditate on this story, immerse ourselves in this story. Otherwise, I fear we will end up far more like Simon the Pharisee than we want to be.

Let us ascend by climbing lower.

A Well Meaning Absurdity (Welcome to My World)

I have to get a few things out-front and up-top. I’m going to share a quote from a very well meaning gentleman. I have never met this individual, and I truly believe he intends only good, no harm. I have no animosity toward him, and absolutely no offense is intended toward his intentions. But the quote is so absurd, so ludicrous, so off-the-wall ridiculous that I almost lost my mouthful of coffee as I read it. It is just the final nail in the coffin of well-intentioned attitudes that are utterly bereft of any cognitive value. Okay, so I guess I’ve tipped my hand here, so here is the quote-

Being a preacher in a small church can be hard – very hard. Maybe 2-3 elders. Little if any staff – MAYBE a youth minister. So much of this preacher’s work is never seen by the majority of the church. Yet, so many of these people serve for years! May God bless them.

Did you catch it – “Small church” – yet there are two or three elders, a small staff and, catch this, possibly a youth minister on board! Yee haw – such a “small church” would be a huge growth spurt for me!

I hear this kind of rhetoric from a lot of people – mostly those east of the Mississippi, but quite often even from the gilded masses in Arkansas, Texas, and Oklahoma. Maybe “small” churches in those states have elders, a secretary or two, and a youth minister. However, from where I sit, the secretary, the youth minister, the education minister, the evangelism minister, the elder/shepherd/pastor, and even the janitor are often the same guy that teaches class every Sunday morning, preaches once or twice on Sunday and teaches a class on Wednesday night. Oh, yeah, there is also planning the VBS every summer, scheduling a guest speaker or two each year, providing 24/7 on call benevolence assistance, preaching for the occasional funeral and wedding, and being available for the local prayer breakfast and sports teams blessing.

I get the sentiment – let’s be thoughtful for the “little guy” who has to muddle through with such a small entourage to carry the train of his robe. But, it is exactly this kind of absurdity that drives me crazy. I have been in full time ministry over 25 years – in five congregations as “the” located preacher, and I have never served in that capacity with an eldership. I have served with two elderships – blessings to be sure – but one was as a youth minister and the other as a campus minister. I really loved having a secretarial team – but I had become so used to doing everything myself I really did not know how to effective use their expertise (and they were GREAT ministers in their own right – ministers as servants of the congregation).

What the above statement reveals to me are two things. First, as mentioned above, I think the intent is genuine and positive – the one who wrote the thought wanted to convey a need to consider those who work in smaller congregations. But, honestly, the quote reveals such a profound ignorance of what “smaller congregations” really means. Ministers who serve small congregations outside of the “Bible Belt” rarely serve with elders, have NO staff, and the only “youth minister” is someone who is willing to take the kids to McDonalds after church services. Where I serve now the nearest fellow full time minster is a 45 minute drive away. I’m lucky. In my last position the nearest fellow minister was over an hour’s drive away – over some nasty mountain passes that become treacherous during the winter.

So, please, do not hurl any invective against me for hating on the person who wrote the above quote. I get, and I appreciate, his concern. But – please do not take the quote with any degree of literalness. I would LOVE to have two or three elders to share my burdens, a staff to help with some of the mundane paperwork, and a youth minister to plan the VBS and bring me my morning coffee.

But, I have the blessing of serving a small congregation, and to be perfectly honest, with the exception of the elders, (which I would genuinely love to have!) I wouldn’t want it any other way.

No Fudges Allowed

Schoolyard justice can be harsh. Take for example the game of marbles. When shooting your marble, the rule was you keep your hand on the ground, and you only use your thumb to launch your marble. If you lift your hand, or if even if you keep your hand on the ground but use your arm to push your hand as you flick your thumb, you are “fudging” and that simply was not allowed. Justice might not be corporal, but it was certainly swift. Your opponent would call you out, and as there were always at least some spectators standing nearby, your crime would not go unnoticed. Punishment might simply be losing your turn, but in cases of repeat offenders, the possibility of excommunication from future contests was  very real.

In my last couple of posts I have challenged what is generally referred to as the “egalitarian” position regarding expanding the role of females in leadership positions in the assembled worship of the church. Some may think that I whole heartedly and unreservedly defend the “complementarian” view. They would be wrong. I wholeheartedly defend what I believe is the scriptural concept of male spiritual leadership, but what I see in many examples of “complementarianism” are nothing more than pure theological fudging. So, at the great risk of offending whatever few friends I have left, let me explain.

Let me begin by saying that much of what we have created in the form of our 21st century worship is wholly non-scriptural – not unscriptural in the sense that it rejects scriptural teaching – but it is simply not considered by Scripture. For example, there is no scriptural mandate for a single “song leader.” Not that a single song leader countermands Scripture, but you can search “book, chapter, and verse” for a long, long, time before you find one that mandates a single song leader. The manner in which we serve the emblems of the Lord’s Supper fits this category exactly, and is among the chief examples of “fudging” that I see in congregations of the Churches of Christ.

Over the course of our history we have come to view serving the Lord’s Supper as a form of male spiritual leadership. I really don’t know where that started, unless it is a faint memory of the necessity of having a priest preside over the Catholic Mass. In fact, early in the Restoration Movement it was common to have only an elder preside over the table – a clear echo of the liturgical necessity of having an ordained clergyman to administer the emblems. Never-the-less, we have traditionally considered “serving at the table” to be a male-only privilege. And this is where we have evolved ourselves into a huge problem.

Throughout my lifetime at least it has become a prima facie truth that no one is allowed to serve at the table unless that one is anatomically a male. But, not just any male, but a baptized male. That is where the requirements stopped. Be a male, be baptized, and you are good to go. The way this has played itself out in many situations is comical. I have seen 8 or 10 year olds “assume the mantle of leadership” as they struggle to carry a tray of little cups of grape juice without tripping over their oversized pants. It would be utterly facetious if we gave that same 8-10 year old any form of decision making power in the congregation, but as long as they are officially baptized, we can stick him up front to serve at the table, or say a prayer (memorized no doubt from all the stock prayers he has heard all his short life) or to “lead” singing (waiting to have someone from row 5 start the song while he stands there sweating profusely).

Same thing happens in regard to Bible classes. A woman is allowed to teach a mixed class of fourth graders, but let one little boy get baptized and “poof,” her ability to teach a “baptized male” evaporates and we have to call some hapless deacon in to finish teaching the class.

I call “fudging” in the most egregious sense!

Stated simply and without apology, those of us who proclaim to follow the text in regard to male spiritual leadership had better up our game, or else take our marbles and go home. This hypocritical practice of allowing some pre-teen child to exercise “male spiritual leadership” is just that – hypocrisy in the extreme. In this case I am in complete sympathy with young girls (and some women) who cry “fudgies” and wonder what in the world is so special about carrying a tray of grape juice.

Either participating in a visible form and function in a worship service is an aspect of male spiritual leadership, or it is not – there is no gray area or “sometimes it is, and sometimes it is not.” I happen to think it is, and I have my reasons, but my main issue here is where we would NEVER give any form of actual leadership roles to a pre-teen male, and yet loudly squeal that serving at the Lord’s Table or leading a prayer or reading a Scripture is a form of “male spiritual leadership.”

If such public forms of service also qualify as “leadership,” then let us reserve those roles for genuine, adult, male leaders!

I can hear the counter argument already – “but we are training these young men to be leaders when they grow up.” No, we are not. When we say that serving at the table, or leading a song, are actual forms of leadership, there is no “training” involved. They are in fact serving as leaders. The hypocrisy comes in when we acknowledge that they are not, in reality, in any way, shape, or form, a spiritual leader. They are (even teenagers) just little boys or young men who need spiritual leadership themselves, and sometimes in copious measure.

If, as you say, serving at the table or leading a song, or saying a prayer, is only “training,” then why not allow young girls to participate as soon as they are baptized? Do girls not need to learn to pray, to lead singing, to read Scripture, to serve? If the purpose is only to “train,” then the entire argument of “male spiritual leadership” goes out the window.

There is a passage of Scripture (remember Scripture?) that is profound to me in this regard. In Luke 2:41-52 we read the story of adolescent Jesus at the temple. We all know the story, Joseph and Mary head off back home thinking that Jesus is tucked in with the cousins somewhere, but at evening roll call he is nowhere to be found. So, they return to Jerusalem, and after what must have been an increasingly anxious and exhaustive search, they find Jesus holding court at the Temple. A brief (but, I am assuming an intense) conversation ensues, and once again the entourage heads back to Nazareth. This is all so familiar to those of us who read this story frequently. But it is v. 51 that stands out as singularly important to me in respect to my thoughts above. I quote from the ESV –

And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them.

Jesus, the Son of God, God incarnate, Emmanuel, “God with Us” as a 12 year old boy, capable of teaching the temple leaders, was submissive to both Joseph and Mary.

Is there a place for training young men to become leaders? Absolutely. And this holds true for older men who become disciples of Christ later in life. But we do not consider males (or females, for that matter) be be mature in any sense until they demonstrate some form of ability to handle responsibilities without significant assistance – such as serving in the military, getting married, or maybe stepping out of the house and starting their own business or providing for their own upkeep and schooling. I am in no way suggesting that we do not train, or properly equip, young men and women to serve Christ as responsible adults.

Lest I be completely misunderstood, I am not saying we throw out the idea of male spiritual leadership in such aspects as serving at the table, leading singing, wording public prayers and reading Scripture. As I said above, I do believe these to be leadership roles, and I believe there is ample scriptural and theological arguments to defend such a position. In regard to serving the emblems of the Lord’s supper, I also believe there is a completely better and more scriptural manner to do so that would remove this issue entirely, but that is the topic of another long and tedious post.

What I am saying, and believe emphatically, is that male spiritual leadership should be exercised by males who are old enough, and mature enough, and who are recognized as exhibiting sound, mature, spiritual leadership. In my opinion this includes, but would not be limited to, serving at the table (which, if we limit to males we obviously view as a leadership role), leading in the song service, reading Scripture in a public assembly, or going to God in public prayer.

In the quest to ascend by climbing lower,  there is no fudging allowed.

Are You Hungry for Bible Study?

Yesterday I opined that far too often in Sunday school settings we settle for the simple, trivial answers to questions. Often that is exactly, and only, what the teacher is searching for. It is a process that has been ingrained in those of us who have been in church class settings for most of our lives. We learn it early in childhood, and the template never changes. Questions are meant to keep the class moving, and if anyone offers a deeper, or different, answer than that which is expected, the whole process bogs down and we actually have to think. I believe there are a number of reasons why we have fallen into this slovenly routine.

First, these surface level answers are a great equalizer. Everyone has heard that the Pharisees are the bad guys in the New Testament, and everyone (or most everyone) has access to Hebrews 11:1 as the answer to the definition of faith. If someone raises their hand and answers with the same answer that I was going to give, I can feel good about myself, and equally feel good about my neighbor.

These answers are also simple – in the sense that there is no complexity to them that requires further examination. Once we learn that the entire point to the parable of the “Good Samaritan” is that if we see someone beside the road that is beaten and half-dead we are supposed to put them on our donkey and carry them to the nearest inn, we have the text mastered and we can get ready for the worship service. The thing about the parables (or at least, many of them) is that they made the original audience furious with  Jesus. If we somehow do not get that edge as we read these stories, haven’t we totally missed the point? In other words, there is much about the Bible that is complex, and it is exactly in that complexity that we are to see ourselves and recognize our sinfulness. To turn every story into a third grade morality play is a horrible way to study the Bible!

I guess that gets me to my third point, and really my major point. We are just lazy students of the Bible. When, for example, was the last time you have really been challenged by a Bible class? If you are a teacher, when was the last time you really made your students uncomfortable? We want the easy, the simple, the milk. Teaching classes that challenge is hard work – it requires hours, not minutes, of preparation, and it requires a mind-set that not only allows for challenging discussion, but actually fosters it. It means actually having to tell a student that his or her response is wrong, or maybe not wrong but inadequate. That means risking upsetting a member, and we all know that is a sin that cannot be committed! Being a student in a class that provokes both thought and response is equally discomforting. It means my cherished answers might, in reality, be wrong. It means I might have to actually listen to my classmate as he or she shares a response that I have not considered before. It means that I might actually have to read ahead and come to class prepared to engage with the material (heaven forbid!!).

To push that point just a little further – when was the last time you assigned an outside book, or were requested to buy an outside book, as the basis for a Bible class? Once upon a time that was the norm – now it is almost unheard of. I think I have a pretty good idea why we have stopped doing that. One, making someone buy a book is just so gauche – it might be expensive (and we can’t make the church actually pay for educational material) or it means that a student is actually engaged with the class subject; two, it might be written by someone “outside the faith” and we cannot under any circumstances be challenged by someone else’s thinking; or three, materials written by our “sound brothers” are just so insipid that there really is no point in buying the book, because they only reinforce the trivial answers that we were going to give anyway. Whatever the reason, I just see fewer and fewer outside reading materials being mandated as supplemental texts.

So much has been said and written about why churches are losing members. Entire forests of trees have been cut down to make paper that has been compiled into books with answers to that question. Could it be, is it even possible, that one very real reason so many younger people are leaving the church is that they come hungry for Bible study and leave even hungrier?

How many times will you go to a restaurant and, instead of the sumptuous entree that you ordered, receive a bowl of cold cereal “because it was easier for the cook to prepare.”

Yea, I thought so.

Teachers, either challenge your students to deeper Bible study, or let someone else teach. Church, demand your teacher give you more than these trivial platitudes. Let us get back to serious Bible study!

How to Kill a Church

Working on my sermon for this week and it occurred to me how many ways there are to kill a church. Here are just a few that I have identified:

  • Attack the leadership – the congregation’s problems are all their fault.
  • Make every issue about you and them, not us.
  • Never, ever, under any circumstance, volunteer to help.
  • Criticize everyone who does volunteer to help.
  • Compare your congregation to one that is bigger, wealthier, in a larger community that has far more resources.
  • Be sure to be offended by every effort to grow – both spiritually and numerically, and be sure to let everyone else know just how offended you are.

Any others?

Book Review – The Recovery of Mission (Vinoth Ramachandra)

Vinoth Ramachandra, The Recovery of Mission: Beyond the Pluralist Paradigm, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 284 pages, with extensive endnotes and comprehensive bibliography.

I get my book suggestions/recommendations mostly from my social media feeds, primarily Twitter (I follow a couple of major book publishers) and through blogs and other odds and ends kinds of sources. This book was recommended personally by a “digital” friend – someone I’ve never met in “3-D” but someone who corresponds with me via this blog. I was extremely hesitant at first because (hangs head in shame) I just was not convinced anyone with the last name of “Ramachandra” could write anything of substance regarding Christianity and the plague of pluralism. To my friend’s great credit he kept asking if I had read the book, and so I finally put it on my “wish list.” I eventually had the time slot and the money to buy the book, and I am very, very, grateful to my friend for consistently pushing me to consider it. It is worth every penny, and a significant addition to the conversation regarding where Christianity is headed. I have to note here that the publication date is 1996 – what would the author’s opinion be today?!

Ramachandra begins with a critique of three authors who, independently and with different emphases, seek to blend Christianity into what they would consider a healthy pluralistic religious amalgamation. They each object to any claim of exclusivism by Christians, and in varying ways attempt to prove that every religion has a common core that should be accepted and valued by everyone, and that no one single religion has a monopoly of what is true, or right, or normal. I have to say that this first part was extremely difficult for me to follow, as I am not at all familiar with Hinduism or Buddhism, and the writers the author critiques are related primarily to those East Indian religions. The main culprit of religious intolerance, according to each of the authors Ramachandra critiques, is clearly Christianity, and each of them suggests that it is Christianity that has the most to repent of in terms of humanity reaching a consensus of religious truth and tolerance.

In part II, Ramachandra draws parallels between the three authors and addresses those parallels more generically. It is in this part that he introduces Lesslie Newbigin, which was enlightening to me. Having just recently started reading Newbigin, it was interesting to me to read a critique of Newbigin, although it is a favorable (and constructive) critique.

It was in the third part that I feel the value of this book lies (although, to grasp what Ramachandra says in part III you have to work through the first two parts!) In part III discusses “The Scandal of Jesus,” “A Gospel for the World,” and “Gospel Praxis” (a fancy word for ‘work’ or ‘practice.’) Here Ramachandra specifically points out that in order to be genuine, the Christian message must be scandalous. It is exclusive. It is not authoritarian (as in the mistaken form of Constantinian “Christendom,” but it is most certainly exclusive). The more acceptable a person tries to make Christianity in relation to the major world religions, the less Christian it becomes. In other words, you cannot make Christianity merely a sub-specie of the generic word “religion.” The belief in Jesus of Nazareth is unique, exclusive, and therefore exclusionary of the major tenets of these world religions.

I should add here that Ramachandra does a good job of pointing out a necessary corollary – people who insist that Christianity can be made compatible with other world religions (especially the religions of Hinduism and Buddhism) do not fully understand those religions, or intentionally misrepresent them. The deeper one understands those religions it becomes apparent that they are just as exclusive, and that they are completely incompatible, with Christianity. Stated another way, you really have to  change those religions as much as you would have to change Christianity in order to make each of them compatible with each other.

This point to a huge issue I have with so many proclaimers of Christian pluralists today. One, they utterly misunderstand Christianity. Two, they utterly misunderstand the world view that they claim is superior to Christianity, and that they try to make Christianity conform to. I believe most Christian pluralists today loathe Christianity, and their complete unwillingness to view the Christian faith from the pages of the New Testament, choosing rather to cherry-pick obvious failings of the Christian centuries (the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Wars of Religion, etc.) makes it obvious their critiques are not genuine. Their blindness to the moral failings of the major world religions is equally disastrous for their agenda. You simply cannot overlook the atrocities committed by Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and others against persons of differing faiths.

Okay, I apologize for getting a little preachy here, so I have to get back to Ramachandra’s book. He does raise some questions (and points to answers I am not sure I can accept), but in general he remains faithful to what most would consider “creedal” Christianity – the Christianity of the first two or three centuries. Perhaps his most critical question is this – what is the eternal destiny of those who have never had a chance to hear of the saving work of Jesus? The pluralist wants to say that all roads (and religions) lead to God and heaven. Ramachandra will not go there – but he does suggest that the blood of Christ is effectual even for those who have not specifically heard of Jesus. This is a question that is just above my pay grade for me to answer, but as most pluralists will begin with this question in order to push their agenda, it is one that must be addressed by every disciple of Christ.

At over twenty years, this book is just beginning to get a little “long of tooth,” but it is contemporary enough to be valuable for Christians, and especially Christian teachers (preachers, elders, Bible school teachers) to read. Whether you agree with his answers or not, you need to hear and to consider the questions he raises. His deft, and in my opinion, powerful, responses to three different, but common, objections to the exclusiveness of Christ are important to consider.

This book is a valuable addition to the section of my library that includes Os Guinness and Lesslie Newbigin. They write from entirely different points of view, but each in his own way points in the same direction. The faith of Jesus Christ is exclusive, and to be faithful to Jesus his disciples must honestly and fearlessly present that exclusiveness. Any attempt to marginalize or minimize the message of the cross is simply heretical.

Why is that such a hard message for ministers of the church to understand?

The Commencement Speech No One Will Ever Hear

Ah, the end of May and the beginning of June. Time for graduations far and near. And so, completely unrequested and with the full knowledge that it will never be given verbatim, here is the commencement speech I believe is truly the only one that is worth hearing. The intended audience is, obviously, a group of men just commencing their journey as ministers of the gospel.

Friends, graduates, fellow academicians, lend me your ears. I come not to praise you, but to bury you. For only if you have been buried can you send forth new life – and it is to a new life that we send you today. Prepare, then, to have a little dirt thrown your way.

First, I congratulate you. This is indeed a momentous occasion for you. You have, to use Paul’s epic words, “fought with the beasts” and you have emerged victorious. Not everyone can do what you have just done. Not many would want to, mind you, but whether they did or not, they could not finish what you have finished. By your presence here you have demonstrated that you have mastered the art of translating Greek and Hebrew sentences, that you can differentiate between exegesis and hermeneutics, and that you can hold your own in written debate with the likes of N.T. Wright. Your guides, your shepherds, your academic guardians have all attested to your intellectual fitness to hold the degrees which will be conferred to you. Your parents, your siblings, and perhaps your spouses all hold you in the highest esteem. Today is truly a great day.

Get over it.

I’m serious. Enjoy the day to its fullest. Bask in the limelight while it is still shining brightly. Dine sumptuously. Drink deeply of all the huzzahs and congratulations. But, this is just the beginning. If you stopped growing following the great celebration of the day of your birth, you would not be here today. Today is the beginning, not the end. That’s why we call it a “commencement.” But there is another, darker reason why I counsel you to “get over it.” You will learn of this reality all too soon.

I know each of you is committed to a life of ministry – whether in a congregational ministry or perhaps in an academic post or a missionary field. You have no thoughts of failure, or of abandoning your quest. Sadly, the statistics of life-long ministry do not support your optimism. Amid the unbridled euphoria and the sweet fragrance of success that floods the room today, let me caution you about what your future holds. It will not be pretty.

Let me use, as a parable, my life first as a flight student and then as a flight instructor to illustrate my words of warning. As a flight student the second greatest day that you experience is the day you solo – the day that you control the airplane as sole occupant. The feeling is simply beyond description. You know you are up to the task, and your flight instructor has endorsed you to do just that – fly the plane by yourself. But you know, in the back of your mind, that you are still flying on the legal basis of your flight instructor. You can take off and land by yourself, but you are not a pilot. You still have much to learn, much to observe. The talent is there, but it is raw, unrefined. For better or worse, and mostly for the better, your instructor is there to teach, to discipline, to correct, and to protect you throughout the various phases of instruction you have yet to complete.

Chances are you all have experienced something similar to “going solo” while in school. Perhaps you have worked as an intern with a congregation. Perhaps you have even initiated a new ministry, or have taken an existing ministry to a higher level of effectiveness. The euphoria of such endeavors is intoxicating, indeed. But you know, just as the fledgling flight student, that you are still operating on the license of an instructor. You still have the grace, and the forgiveness, of being “just a student.” Those words can be grating, but they are also powerful deterrents against unfair and undeserved attacks. So you serve, as we have all served, under the protecting label of “capable, but not yet quite mature.” The label is at the same time irritating and assuring. You’re getting there, but if the air gets a little turbulent, there is always a more seasoned hand to take the controls.

Some time later comes the one single greatest day in the process of your flight instruction – the day you take your final flight examination. After you land and shut the airplane down, the FAA flight examiner leans over, shakes your hand, and says, “Congratulations, you are a private pilot.” Now you no longer have to ask permission to fly. Now you are truly the master of your own ship. Now you can utter those immortal words, “the sky is the limit.” Oh, the joy!

Except, now the responsibility is ALL YOURS. Now you no longer have the comfort of blaming your instructor. Now when the FAA comes calling, you can not look over your shoulder for your big brother. The world gets a lot smaller, even when it just seemed to open up beyond every horizon. When you fly on your own certificate, you suddenly seem to take all the little decisions a whole lot more seriously. What about the weather? How much weight do I have on the plane? How much fuel do I really need? Have I really gone over my flight plan as seriously as I need to? One bad decision and the FAA can take that little piece of paper away and you have to start all over. Or, worse, lives and property can be at stake.

Today, you have earned your wings. Today we shake your hand and say, “Congratulations, you are now a fully capable, qualified, and endorsed proclaimer of theology and comforter of souls.” Today is what you have been looking forward to for years. It’s done. You’ve finished the race that you started some time ago – and all the plaudits are deeply deserved.

But, little birdie, today we also kick you out of the nest. You’ve got your feathers and your certificates, now get out and fly. And, just to be sure, the air is not going to always be smooth, nor the landings soft. It’s called life. Get over it.

The reality is that many of you – perhaps as many as half or more of you – will not complete a career in ministry, either congregational or academic. You will venture out into congregations comprised of members who think it great sport to destroy the lives of ministers. They have no self-respect of their own, and they gladly share that lack of respect with anyone who dares to claim any authority. Because we send you out to speak with the authority of the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit, that means they will have no respect for you. Because you will be called upon to challenge their mistaken beliefs and discipline them for their ungodly behavior, they will despise and abhor your work. All the while they will play the martyr and manipulate the situations to make it appear that you are the bully, you are the heavy. They will spare no effort to gather followers to their cause, and your job and your ministry mean nothing to them so long as they win the day and the argument.

You think I am kidding – but this is no laughing matter. Many churches (and university administrations) exist for no other purpose than to destroy the lives and futures of those who dare to challenge their power structures. For some of you the destruction will be complete. I say it now without any hesitation, there are some of you here listening to my words today that will not only leave the ministry, but you will leave the faith. Paul essentially said the same thing to the Ephesian elders, so I am sharing this will pretty good company. Ministry is not for everyone, and for some the pain of rejection is so intense, and so debilitating, that there simply is no rehabilitation. My heart breaks for you.

There are a number of you, who, after being so treated, will decide to leave the ministry for a season – but time and circumstances will so converge as to provide you with a second chance at ministry. So, you will discover that after a decade or so, that the fire is still burning, the hope has not been extinguished. You will return, your feathers clipped, your wings a little ruffled, but never-the-less, alive and kicking. Jeremiah preached for years with no tangible results. We can expect no better – unless you believe you can preach more faithfully and more effectively than Jeremiah. But, Jeremiah kept preaching. I pray for those of you who fit this pattern. Life will not be easy, but I pray that at the end it will be fruitful.

And, to be honest, some of you will skip through life unmolested by the demons your classmates will face. You will be given cars and golf club memberships and have your vacations to the Caribbean fully funded by a rich member of the congregation. Just when that happens, please do not come back to the next reunion and brag about it to the other poor schmucks who go from month to month, and sometimes from Sunday to Sunday, wondering if they will have a job on Monday.

Congratulations, graduates. Today is your day. Enjoy it, because tomorrow belongs to the evil one, and he will not rest until he has tested all of you, and has devoured as many as he can. You wanted this, you’ve worked tirelessly for it – now the challenge is yours. You didn’t study all those hours and spend all that money to earn a certificate so you could sit on a bench and look to the clouds.

It’s time to fly.