Smoking Flax

Every so often, our church takes a few moments for a short ceremony centered around one young man or another who is entering into pastoral ministry. So far this year, I think we’ve had three: an ordination of a current pastor, a pastor returning from our Pastor’s College in Maryland, and a pastor being sent to the Pastor’s College with the intent of training to lead a church plant. I think I can say with confidence now that no event convicts me more of my selfish ambition and pride than to witness the presentation of these men.

Among all the Sovereign Grace churches, the emphasis is on character when they are looking for pastoral candidates, and so when these men are presented, the emphasis is also always on character. I see these men presented as an example, knowing that there has been a thorough investigation into their character, and I know that it is not likely that the investigators have been deceived. They really are that humble; they really are that attentive to the spiritual condition of their families; and they really have kept a close account of their finances, so that when the time comes, they are prepared for a significant drop in income as they transition to pastoral ministry. These are men who are not much older than me, and I can tell myself that I am a better speaker than this one, a better theologian than that one, perhaps more gifted in some way than a third, but when I hear a patently investigated description of their character, it’s obvious to me and probably everybody else that I fall short. I may some day be qualified for pastoral ministry according to a truly Biblical standard, but currently, not.

Dave Puncochar, who was presented today, told a story of when he first went to our senior pastor with his desire to be a pastor. Bill Kittrell didn’t give him any particular encouragement in that direction at all, but focused on his heart. “It sounds like you need to learn contentment” is what he said, with regard to his current situation. I’m guessing, but it was probably another five years before they invited him on staff to be a “pastoral intern” for a year, with the clear understanding that, at the end of that time, he might have to seek employment elsewhere. The other intern did. It struck me heavily that I’m most definitely not content.

And for the most part, I’m proud that I’m not content. Recently that discontentment has taken the form of career hunting. I go through career scenarios in my mind right now about as fast as your average seven year old, which is peculiar when you consider that I wasn’t interested in career scenarios at all when I was seven. There are some legitimate reasons for this, but a good deal of it is that I’m embarrassed by my current situation and want very badly to be known for having “done it right.”

The thought doesn’t escape me that I could probably leave my church and join some other where the standards aren’t as high, and based on the power of slick and self-deception, get myself a job as a pastor in less than two years. Work on character later. Or maybe I might muddle through for ten or twenty years before I slipped and made of myself an embarrassment to my God and his church. I could change my name to Haggard. The scenario is a caricature, but the temptation is real.

Or perhaps not so real, because every time I notice how many men there are in my church who put me to shame, my first thought isn’t to run away to some other church where I look better by comparison. At least a part of me wants not only to seem to have the Biblical character requirements of a pastor, but actually to have them. At least a part of me feels the pull, like Paul, to “work harder than any of them.” The character qualifications for a pastor are nothing other than the proper character aspirations of any Christian man. There, perhaps, I might slide into promotion, but here I hope, with the right paraklesion, I might actually qualify.

There’s my smoking flax. You can see the stench that’s put up by a sputtering flame that seems to wish to burn but hasn’t got the spark. It stings the eyes and interferes in exactly the way it’s supposed to bless. But I have this hope: it’s this very offense of doing more harm than good, but wishing, really wishing to do good that Jesus promises not to put out. I may be bruised and reek a little bit of bitterness, but Christ has promised to strengthen, not to break me. So I have this consolation: The desire for the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit is itself proof of his continued intervention. If God had not determined to see me through, it would be evident in the fact that I didn’t care.

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