Pastoral Backstory – June 2nd, 2016




June 2nd, 2016

Jane Manchester

Jane Manchester

We are beings who inhabit patterns. We literally live within a set of daily routines we’ve come to adopt over time–some we’re aware of and others we’re almost insensible to.

This doesn’t set us apart. My cat awakes with a utterance understood only by her, eats until she’s full, proceeds with the obligatory post-prandial washing up, powders her feline nose, and takes a stroll until she feels a nap coming on. That’s her thing, her routine.

Meanwhile the birds she takes note of, and who are fond of marauding her like a P-38, migrate this direction and that depending on the season.

The worms those birds sustain themselves with know when to burrow and when to surface (although not when it’s best to hide from their aviary predators.) They know no other way. It’s their habit.

Everything alive has its own set of patterns–deeply ingrained and to a large extent eminently useful.

rut-on-a-grassy-fieldBut patterns can also become ruts. A whole world of possibility may await us, and even be proximate to us. But for the force of the patterns we’ve become accustomed to, the alternative that may be only one decision away feels instead like a world away.

There in the rut we come to expect only what the rut allows. The furrow is our field.

For the last several weeks now, Kevin and I have been reading and discussing Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor. Arguably the 17th century Puritan’s most famous treatise, it stems from his meditations on Paul’s charge to the elders in Acts 20.

We took up his pithy and pointed guide for ministry to sharpen our own thinking on what it means to be your pastors. His reflections reveal a dramatically different moment in the life of the church, but he succeeds in gleaning wisdom applicable to any age.

We’ve come away from each week’s conversation both sobered by the severity with which he describes the pastoral office, but also strengthened by the reminder that as those entrusted to care for the “flock of God” we have likewise been entrusted to the care of God. On any given week we share what most moved us. Often we’ve underlined the same passage.  Baxter’s comment on the nature of expectation in ministry spoke to us both recently:


Richard Baxter (d. 1691)

If you would prosper in your work, be sure to keep up earnest desires and expectations of success. If your hearts be not set on the end of your labors, and you long not to see the conversion and edification of your hearers, and do not study to preach in hope, you are not likely to see much success. . . .God seldom blesseth any man’s work so much as his, whose heart is set upon the success of it.

In his typically trenchant style, Baxter warns of falling into patterns of thought and action that anticipate no work of God to accomplish His purposes. And while he speaks in a severe tone, implicit within his warning is an encouragement that God does indeed still move to “gather and perfect the saints.” Praying for, working for, and then expecting God to work–even on the cusp of imperceptibility–represents that heart that’s lifted its eyes from the rut and seen a world which our routines may have obscured.

I share all this because what can become true of any pastor can plague any believer. Our habits serve us, but they can also diminish our vision and our expectation such that we do not ask, we do not dream. And to be quite honest, it’s both easier and seems more realistic to let that pattern of the predictable prevail.

When’s the last time you prayed for what had all the appearances of impossibility? When have you ventured a conversation with someone that the voice of “conventional wisdom” in the back of your head whispered, “what’s the point?” If you knew there would be benefit from a new routine in your life, which would it be?

If the Gospel of a man raised from the dead is true; and there is a Spirit who goes where he will; and that there are “greater things” those who know Christ may do; then we have reason, responsibility, and privilege to ask and expect. To prevail upon until we are answered.

And when we feel powerless to conjure up that faith, that strength of will, to think–much less act–in anticipation of God working, then we may cry out as Baxter himself did when any zeal had drained from his soul: “O, send me not naked and unprovided to the work; but, as thou commandest me to do it, furnish me with a spirit suitable thereto.”

He addresses pastors in particular here; but his words have universal applicability.

To be faithfully present to our households, our workplaces, our schools, our friendships, our enemies, and those circumstances we’d neither imagined nor wanted, we will need to ask for what we do not have, including the wherewithal to ask.




Last Sunday we took Jesus’ beatitude as a description of what we might call a “family business.” Because we have been made part of the family of God through the peace God wrought through the Son, central to our life in the family is the interest and effort to bring peace wherever it’s missing.

not that family business

not that family business

Q&A served to bring some of the work (and anguish) of peacemaking into vivid relief–thanks in large part to the stories you told. But the business of peacemaking requires more than a conviction of its necessity. It needs clear and credible strategy. Fortunately Jesus doesn’t sing the praises of peacemaking without in time unpacking a more concrete form of it. Passages yet to come in the Sermon on the Mount will help us see a clearer way forward in the family business.

But we don’t have to wait until then to begin thinking about the shape of peacemaking. You’ve probably heard of Peacemakers Ministry. They’ve been around for quite a while and have helped the gamut of those at odds find a constructive way toward reconciliation. Here’s one of their introductions to peacemaking:




Finally, we’re in the last of Jesus’ beatitudes this Sunday. It’s the longest of His blessings and the one perhaps hardest to hear. It also speaks to what is the experience of more Christians today than has ever been true of the church in any time in its history–at least according to the 2013 UK Parliament Report on Religious persecution.

Chinese churches "decapitated" of their crosses (NY Times)

Chinese churches “decapitated” of their crosses (NY Times)

That we are at such a remove from the fiercest examples of persecution makes the whole subject feel abstract and distant. True, the incidence of public revulsion for those with faith has surely risen to a level we’ve perhaps not yet seen in this culture. But any reflexive move to categorize what we see on Facebook ought not be misconstrued as persecution, if only because it reflects some unfounded expectation that we ought not be in the crosshairs of those who would defame us, or worse. Jesus made it quite clear what we ought to expect.

So we hope to bridge the divide between our own experience and that of countless others in far-flung places not just by listening to a sermon, but by singing. Graham Kendrick has written a piece that speaks–laments–for those who can genuinely say they are in the crosshairs of some malicious constituency. You’ll hear that work Sunday, and be given the chance to sing along. The song and the lyrics below.


As we bring our songs of love today
Do you hear a sound more glorious?
Like the mighty roar of ocean waves
Many witnesses surround us
It’s a harmony of costly praise
From the lips of those who suffer
Of sighs and tears and martyrs’ prayers
Until this age is over.

How long, Lord, till you come?
How long till the earth
Is filled with your song?
How long until your justice
Shines like the sun?
How long, Lord, till you come?
How long till the earth
Is filled with your song?
How long, how long?

Lord, help us to live worthy of
Our sisters and our brothers
Who love you more than their own lives
Who worship as they suffer
To embrace the scandal of the cross
Not ashamed to tell your story
To count all earthly gain as loss
To know you and your glory

How long, Lord, till you come?
How long till the earth
Is filled with your song?
How long until your justice
Shines like the sun?
How long, Lord till you come?
How long till the whole world hears
And the work is done
Until at last we see you return?
How long, Lord till you come
How long till the earth 
Is filled with your song?
How long, how long?
How long, how long?
How long, how long?

Graham Kendrick
Copyright © 2002 Make Way Music

It’s a fitting convergence that on a Sunday we take up such a sobering topic we should also come to The Table. Our only hope to face what countless others do daily, and what we may in time, is to see Him with stark and beautiful clarity. So we’ll re-enact the moment of His fiercest encounter with persecution as we remember its meaning and seek its nourishment. May the means of grace it confers to we who come with even the frailest faith prepare us for when faithfulness may cost us.

scene from Martin Scorsese's forthcoming film, Silence

scene from Martin Scorsese’s forthcoming film, Silence (click for more background)


Author: Glenn Machlan

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