May 31, 2009
Ben, thank you for asking your mother and me to participate in your ordination. The joy of our family on this occasion is inexpressible. Today, you join your sister Brenna in the fifth generation of ordained gospel ministers on my side of the family, and the third generation on Bonnie's side. You have a good heritage.
Speaking of your mother, last Saturday after your seminary commencement I told her how proud she should be, and how profoundly her love and faithfulness shaped you… and, frankly, got you through middle school. She told me that I should feel proud too, that you never would have made it this far had it not been for all those homework sessions where I kept her from killing you. So don't think I didn't have a part in your growth.
I'm afraid this message turned out to be my sending words for you, Ben, more than a homily. I chose today's passage partly because it's Pentecost Sunday and a passage from Acts at the beginning of Paul's missionary life seems fitting. But mostly I chose it because it reminds me of why you are going to be such a great minister. Even the characters are perfect: Barnabas and Paul. Barnabas did the encouraging, Paul did the talking, and you do both. But this passage also provides a glimpse of where your greatest gifts could turn on you. Here's how the story from Acts 14 begins.
8In Lystra there sat a man crippled in his feet, who was lame from birth and had never walked. 9He listened to Paul as he was speaking. Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed 10and called out, "Stand up on your feet!" At that, the man jumped up and began to walk.
How can we not be impressed with this man's faith, a faith strong enough to give life to legs that had failed him since birth? But I am also impressed that the apostle had eyes to see that faith. He was not so busy proclaiming the gospel that he lost sight of the people. In a man heaped on the ground, Paul spotted faith.
Since you were a young child, Ben, you have seen people, and you have seen their goodness. In all of my books…okay, both of my books, you are my example of finding grace in people, even those who probably don't deserve it. The English language has plenty of synonyms for the word "cynic." But it doesn't really have too many antonyms. My antonym for cynic is "Ben." Those who know you, know that your spirit of grace will give you eyes to see the best in even the most crippled souls under your ministry. But don't stop there.
There is no doubt that you will love people in their brokenness. Just try not to leave them in their brokenness. For you, it will come more naturally to affirm crippled people than it will for you to tell them to stand up and walk. The ministry of word and sacrament is both. The power of Christ's resurrection means you get to say, in fact you're obligated to say, "Stand up and walk!" Your effectiveness in ministry will be measured not only by the way you help people accept who they are, but also by the way you help people change who they are. Anne Lamott reminds us that God loves us just the way we are, and God loves us too much to leave us the way we are. The passage continues:
11When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, "The gods have come down to us in human form!" 12Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker. 13The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them.
14But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: 15"Men, why are you doing this? We too are only men, human like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them. 16In the past, he let all nations go their own way. 17Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy." 18Even with these words, they had difficulty keeping the crowd from sacrificing to them.
The people's reaction was predictable. The Roman poet Ovid relates the myth of a visitation in human form by Zeus and Hermes to the Phrygian region. Nobody except a poor elderly couple showed hospitality. So only they were spared when the gods destroyed its inhabitants.
With or without the myth, this passage underscores the human need to worship. We see it writ large in a presidential election, and we see it subtly in the minutia of life. When we lived in Indiana, a woman approached me at a reception and I greeted her by name. She gasped. "It's true. You remembered my name. I heard that if you meet someone once you never forget her name." I said, "No, actually, I just read your nametag." She replied, "But still…." What do you mean, but still? I can read. People just like heroes, big and small.
So, Ben, you have to watch out for this whole worship thing. You are a really, really likeable guy. And you don't hate it when people admire you. So the question is, can you use your warmth to inspire trust and confidence without inspiring unhealthy admiration? To do that, I have three suggestions. First, when Paul and Barnabas tore up their clothes it was probably out of sheer horror at the blasphemy. But the act also symbolizes transparency. "Look at us, we're just human." I would encourage you to be straightforward about your frailties. You are the earthen vessel. You are not the treasure. Commit yourself to honesty. Avoid facades. Don't deny your own brokenness.
For my second and third suggestions, I turn to John Calvin and Origen of Alexandria. In Calvin's commentary on John, he argues that even Jesus was careful not to take credit for his supernatural acts. When the Jews accused him of breaking the Sabbath, he countered with the admission that he couldn't do anything without the authority of the father. If Jesus credited God for his gifts, you should too. Your social gifts are just that – gifts from God. It is blasphemous for you to allow yourself to be worshipped for your ministerial gifts. You think you would never do that, but in ministry, worshipping the messenger can happen insidiously. Without realizing it, people idealize their pastors in ways that leave them vulnerable to disillusionment when their ministers fall, as they always will.
But I think the worship that would trouble you most, particularly with youth, is an admiration that results in dependence on you. As you saw in Central America, support that leads to dependence ends up being oppressive. Paradoxically, the emancipating love of Christ finds its fullest expression in dependence on Christ, and, ultimately, on Christ alone. So live in the humble awareness that it is only through God's grace and authority that you get to be a certified voice for Jesus. You are not Jesus. I know you know that. And if you forget that, Emily will help you remember. It would be better for you not to forget.
My last suggestion is from Origen, I know you like him, his heresies notwithstanding. I think Origen's safeguard will be easier for you to construct than Calvin's. We have spoken on a several occasions about Origen's uncommon humility in studying scripture. I found one of your papers that cited a quote you like:
Now we ourselves speak on these matters with great fear and caution, discussing and investigating rather than laying down fixed and certain conclusions…we are dealing with subjects that call for discussion rather than for definition.
Origen's willingness to live with mystery grew out of his ecclesiology. He believed deeply in the church. In Longing for God, Richard Foster and Gayle Beebe write, "Origen teaches that the mystical quest is always rooted in the life and teachings of the church. Origen asserts that …faith grows and develops through interaction with a broader community.... Whether we find it in a group of two or three or in a worldwide ministry of millions, we need a community to nurture and sustain us.
Bonnie and I have always been impressed with your awareness that you need community. Even in college, you made yourself accountable to a group of Christian friends on everything from your devotional life to your dating disciplines. As you move into ministry, I urge you not only to serve the church, but also to submit to the church. Find a group of believers who will hold you accountable, particularly to your humility standards.
In Romans 1, Paul uses a prosecutor's voice in charging the world with misplaced worship. Foolish hearts were darkened with the lie that anyone but God could withstand the weight of worship. Humanity couldn't take it. The birds couldn't take it. The beasts couldn't take it. The serpents couldn't take it. And you don't want to try it. Because when your feet of clay do crumble under the weight of worship, it is with unbounded enthusiasm that those who bought into the deception will turn on you, just as they did on Paul and Barnabas. Vilification is the most common response to worship gone bad. Only transparency, humility and accountability can protect you from hero worship and its consequences. You have to watch this, Ben. You've got a few genes that don't mind praise. You know how your mother is.
Our passage concludes with Jews from neighboring villages telling the people that Paul and Barnabas really weren't gods.
19Then some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium and won the crowd over. They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead. 20But after the disciples had gathered around him, he got up and went back into the city. The next day he and Barnabas left for Derbe.
My final suggestion for you is one I have "isogeted" from this text, but it works. Nobody gets back up better than you do. I'm sure you will be just like Paul and Barnabas in dusting yourself off and going back into the city. But I'm less sure you will leave the next day. Ministry is relentless, often thankless, and sometimes battering. You're going to have to steward your efforts. You're going to have to take care of yourself. There will be times where you feel it is just wrong to walk away from an angry person or a difficult situation. And sometimes it is. But there will also be times when the life you give to others becomes life-depleting for you...and you have to be willing to leave.
I'm sure you know that the happiest moment I have ever experienced in sports was 12 inches from what would have been the saddest moment. In Ben's senior year at Whitworth his goal was to be an all-conference runner in the fastest NCAA Division III conference in the nation. His competitors included the USA's only runner in the 2008 Olympic 800 meter finals. To reach his goal, Ben had to finish in the top group at the conference meet.
In the last 200 meters of a five-mile race, Ben summoned a furious kick, ran down the guy who occupied the last all-conference spot, and beat him by a foot. He achieved his goal. After the race, everybody talked about the guts required for such a huge kick. But Ben said his kick was more about pacing himself in the middle than guts at the end. Ministry is the same deal, Ben. I love that you won't quit. When you get knocked down, you'll get back up. And you'll march right back into Lystra. But Derbe needs you, too. And it needs you healthy. You know how to race. Minister the same way.
So, Ben, we have immense confidence in you. We know that you will love people in their brokenness; we pray you will bring healing to their brokenness. We know that you will endear yourself; we pray that you will humble yourself. And we know you can run fast; we pray that you will run long.
Therefore, since you are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and run with perseverance the race that is before you. Fix your eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of your faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Consider him who endured such opposition, so that you will not grow weary and will not lose heart.
As you run, Ben, know that you will never run alone. We will all be with you in spirit, praying faithfully for you. And who in all the world could be more faithful and loving than your precious wife, Emily? No one. No one except for Jesus, who sends you with these words: "Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in[a] the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, even to the end of the age." Amen.