Dying to Live

Maybe we have to die to live.

Jesus tells us that only those willing to lose their lives will save them.

But this has to mean more than believing in the fact of the atoning death and life-giving resurrection of Jesus.

Which I do.

It certainly has to mean more than putting to death sin in our lives, especially in our usually narrow way of constricting sin to obvious, individual, discrete acts of misbehaviour and disobedience.

What in me and in my life has to die so that I can live as Jesus calls me live?

I think it can be a whole bunch of things.

I need to die to fear. I need to die to my fear of other people and their expectations (perceived or actual), of not having enough, of failure, and even of pain, discomfort, and death.

I confess that my fear reveals my need for deeper trust in God.

Trusting in God—letting his perfect love revealed in Christ cast out my fear—is what it means to live.

I need to die to my need for control. I need to die to my need to have control over my life and my circumstances. I need to die to my desire to control those around me and closest to me.

I confess that my need for control reveals my need for vulnerability and dependence.

Acknowledging my weakness and limitations—that God’s power is made perfect in my weakness—is what it means to live.

I need to die to my self-centredness. I need to die to putting myself first, to seeking my desires ahead of others’ needs. I need to die to ignoring the consequences of my decisions on the world around me.

I confess that my self-centredness reveals my need to live more generously and to be more aware of the impact of my choices.

Learning to have a more open hand—because it is more blessed to give than receive—is what it means to live.

All of this means dying to myself.

My Story Part 15: What? Me, a Pastor?

I can’t recall a time when I wasn’t interested in truth or God or church or Jesus. So much so that I have long understood the arc of my life through the lens of what God is doing (or wants to be doing) in me. Even in those seasons when I drifted away, not only did God always pull me back but he actually never left me. Though I may have been paying significantly less attention to him, his eye was always on me. All I have to do is stop and consider all of the times I may have made an especially poor decision, or the times when a particular door just didn’t open like I wanted, and it’s clear that God was in some measure protecting me. When it comes to some of the potential decisions I could have made or paths I could have taken, I genuinely believe he was keeping me safe from the worst of myself.

True, I still made mistakes. Like I said, I have at times drifted. But never to the point of significant self-destruction. Never to the point where my life was irrevocably set in an unfortunate direction that I would regret but be unable to do anything about.

And I don’t really know why this is so. Why has God allowed my life to go as it has? What don’t I know about how my life may have gone that would explain the gracious providence of God’s hand? What dangerous turns might I have taken were it not for my Lord’s gentle prodding in one way or another?

Was all of it so that I could be where I am now? I mean, God has known all of my days from from the foundation of the world. Did he protect and steer my life so that I could later be a pastor, of all things?

There are things I will never know on this side of eternity.

What’s funny is that while I was studying for my MA, I remember thinking that being a pastor looked like an altogether undesirable calling. Having to wear a suit and tie all the time, dealing with church boards and committees, seeming to be always on guard around other people–none of this was attractive to me. I mostly saw older men who seemed dull and humourless. Give me instead some good theology books, evenings out with friends and good conversation, the chance to serve with a university campus ministry, and I’ll be happy.

God, being God, always has the last laugh, of course.

So how did it happen?

While I was at Acadia Divinity College, most of my classmates were, in fact, studying for their MDiv, the required degree for pastoral ministry. Over time I found myself feeling envious of some of their experience, how they were growing, and the way going through this together was creating a unique bond between them. I felt like an outsider. Not only because I was in a different academic program, but because I knew virtually nothing about this strange, Baptist world of local church ministry and what being a pastor was about.

At one point, I talked with the Dean of Students about what it would take to earn an MDiv alongside my MA. Wisely, she probed into my motivations. And at that stage they had nothing to do with discerning a calling from God into pastoral ministry or a calling that would require an MDiv. After graduating from ADC, I was off to McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. There I would earn my PhD in theology and from there go on to teach theology in a university, college, or Bible school somewhere. So that was that.

But at Mac I was in another university environment that included a local seminary. I quickly found myself surrounded by friends who were studying to be pastors, who were already pastors, and who didn’t want to be pastors but eventually became pastors. In fact, the friend with whom I shared an apartment in Hamilton, who went to McMaster to get his masters in Math, eventually experienced a call to ministry, went on to get his MDiv and become a pastor. They were dropping like flies all around me!

I wonder if God was putting me in proximity with certain people and leading me into some experiences in order to open me up to the possibility of pastoral ministry. During this time, I admit I occasionally wondered what preaching would be like. After all, I had lots of friends who were doing it. I knew I wanted to teach theology. Besides, isn’t that basically what a pastor does, preach and teach?

Without getting into the weeds of the story, I left McMaster after four years without a finished PhD. Honestly, my time in Hamilton counts as something of a lowpoint spiritually and personally. I was tired and didn’t know if I could finish what I’d started–or if I wanted to do so. On the one hand, it was only four years; on the other hand, I’d been in university in one way or another for more than a decade.

However, during my third year at Mac, I also met the woman who would later become my wife. We met online (a story all by itself!). We got engaged less than a year after we met. This is one of the reasons I moved back home to New Brunswick–to get married! And it was getting married, in part, that led to my entering pastoral ministry.

Note: The lesson here, of course, is if you want to avoid being called into pastoral ministry, don’t marry someone you meet online.

Or maybe not.

Looking back at that season of my life, it’s hard to believe how naive I was. We got married in the summer of 2002, were living with my in-laws at the time, and I had no job prospects at all.

After we were married, I began looking for work. I got a job working at a call center (attempting) to sell AT&T long distance phone services. My wife did too. Though she didn’t last as long as me. Neither of us were particularly suited to that work. Obviously, working at a call center couldn’t be the long term plan for our livelihood.

As it happens, there was a small Baptist church in the area whose pastor was retiring. It was the church my father-in-law grew up attending. His mother and a couple of his sisters still attended there. And the church was looking for supply preachers while they began searching for a new pastor.

Can you imagine what happened next? Did I excitedly compile my resume, hoping against hope that not only would I get the chance to do some supply preaching but maybe even be considered for the pastor’s position?

Well, not exactly. I got my resume ready, yes. But largely at the prompting of my wife and, I think, my mother-in-law. In submitting my resume, I really didn’t know if it was the right thing to do or not. Or if I wanted it to be. I was newly married, living with my in-laws, and my options were, shall we say, limited.

Both my wife and I were interviewed by one of their deacons, and were offered the opportunity to preach a number of times in the fall and winter of 2002–2003. Eventually, after we had preached there several times, they asked us to consider being their part-time pastoral team. A husband and wife ministry package! One of our church regulars later quipped that “the church got two pastors for the price of half-a-one.” After much prayer and conversation, we accepted the invitation.

Let me pause here. Some of you might think: That doesn’t sound very spiritual. Some of you might ask: But did you feel a call to pastoral ministry? That is, apart from the invitation to do some supply preaching, did I have a strong and certain inward sense that God was calling me to enter pastoral ministry?

Or did the clouds part and a clear voice (sounding suspiciously like Morgan Freeman) tell me to consider pastoral ministry?

Were there trumpets?

Songs of angels?

Put simply, no.

Here’s the thing: I almost never experience anything that way. I am almost never certain about big life decisions. It’s simply not who I am. But especially at that point in my life, I was still driven by a lot of fear and indecision.

But God knew me then like he knows me now, and if he wanted me in pastoral ministry he also knew, therefore, how it would have to happen. He would have to push through all of my emotional baggage and personality quirks in order for me to listen.

I’m guessing that had God tried the aggressive approach, I would have been like Moses at the burning bush. “Ummm, are you sure you want me to do this? You must have someone better you can call. I really don’t think I’m your best choice. That, and I really don’t want to do it.”

So what made it possible for me to consider such a calling at that time? It helped that this was a very small church, as well as one connected to my wife’s family. It was part time. We wouldn’t have to move a great distance (the parsonage was less than 10 minutes from my in-laws) and so we would still have a family support system in the area. While it was a serious commitment, it wasn’t an overwhelmingly frightening step to take. I didn’t know if this would end up as a life long calling, but it was the chance to explore the possibility and to see where God might lead us from there.

One step at a time, right?

Thinking about it now, just how gracious and patient is God?

It brings to mind some folks in Scripture. Abram was 75 before God called him. Moses, again, was 80 before God appeared in the burning bush, telling Moses to get his people off of Egyptian soil. Paul was a persecutor of the church with murderous intentions before Jesus knocked him to the ground with a blinding light.

Isn’t it possible that God, being the perfect shepherd that he is, knows not only precisely where to lead but how to get us there?

And doesn’t God make a habit of calling undeserving, unprepared, unexpected people to do his will?

Doesn’t God colour outside the lines?

In any case, my wife and I spent roughly three years pastoring at our first church. The people were kind, gracious, and encouraging. Especially given my nearly total lack of ministry experience. At the time, my wife had more experience in ministry. In some ways, the folks at this church were my seminary professors. And I really began to learn what pastoring was about.

I should say that this is why the Body of Christ is important with respect to someone hearing God’s call. Not every individual will see in themselves what God and even other people might see in them. At our first church, I also felt very affirmed and encouraged in what I was doing as a pastor.

When our first church was no longer able to support us financially, God graciously provided a call to another congregation. We were at our next church for nearly 9 years, had ups and downs, real struggles and joys. Most importantly, we grew to love the people there. Every time we have the chance to go back and visit, which isn’t often, I am glad to see old friends.

Our current church has been our spiritual home for nearly 7 years. Again, life being what it is, we’ve experienced much in this time. Some good, some not as good–and I’m not speaking only of church here but of family life and everything in between. Indeed, one of the lessons, I think, of pastoral life (and the Christian life) is learning to trust and walk with Jesus in the ordinary and the messy, in the uncertain and the imperfect. Don’t abandon the call or turn tail and run when things get hard or confusing. Resist the tendency to think that life and ministry shouldn’t be difficult because God has called us and promises to be with us. Understand that God seeks to extract all manner of wrong-headedness from our hearts and minds and to produce resilience and perseverance, to grow us into saints with roots planted deep in gospel soil.

All throughout these years, right up until the present, God has been (and continues to be) mysteriously and wonderfully at work. It’s not always easy to tell what God is doing. Sometimes I just don’t know. And I wonder and question. More often I question myself. But part of the Christian life is developing the eyes to see the hand of God in the very ordinariness of our lives. It also means trusting God’s heart when his hand is hidden. Our lives are hidden with God in Christ. We live between the now and not yet. We’re not always gifted with the privilege of knowing how God is using us in the immediate present. Perhaps this is for our good.

Over the years, I have wrestled with the notion of call, and what it has meant for me to experience a call. Because I didn’t grow up in the evangelical sub-culture or the Baptist family of churches. I wasn’t familiar with the language or the expectations. Both then and now, I have never felt like I quite fit in. Truthfully, I feel like an awkward fit most places I go. Even after all of these years in ministry, I still don’t feel like a “traditional” pastor.

What I do know–and what I feel deep down in my soul–is that I want to lead and help others to follow Jesus. I want them to know Jesus, and to understand that Jesus, in knowing us perfectly, loves us just as much. I want to proclaim the reality of the kingdom. I want to preach the resurrection and new life. I want to live intentionally in the presence of the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I want to help others do likewise.

Wherever God plunks me down so that I can be a part of that is up to him.

And if there’s one crucial thing I have learned is that life doesn’t proceed on a clear, linear path from A to B (much less from A to Z!). Or, I should say, God doesn’t often lead us on this sort of path. Sometimes what we want from God is exactly what he withholds in order to teach us to trust in him. And let’s be honest, that can be frustrating. You’re probably like me; you want the well-marked roadmap for your life, to know all the twists and turns in advance to be sure you’re making the right decisions. “Good luck with that,” God says, “That’s not how this is going to go.” Learning to be ok with that, and even to prefer it, is what it means to orient your life around the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ; and this is true whether God calls you, step by step, into pastoral ministry, or to another calling altogether.

Don’t Go to Egypt!

There was a famine in the land, so Abram went down to Egypt to stay there for a while because the famine in the land was severe. When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife, Sarai, “Look, I know what a beautiful woman you are. When the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ They will kill me but let you live. Please say you’re my sister so it will go well for me because of you, and my life will be spared on your account.”

Genesis 12:10-13

So God had called Abram and told him he would make of him a great nation, that he would bless all other nations through him. He promised Abram and his wife Sarai offspring and land.

Then famine hit the land where Abram and his family were–the land to which God had led him.

Now everything was in jeopardy. After all, the famine was severe. If Abram didn’t do something, if he didn’t act, so much for God’s plans.

Right?

One of the interesting features of biblical narrative is that it doesn’t always go out of its way to point out when someone is doing something wrong. Instead, we’re allowed to see the consequences of someone’s actions. That’s true of Abram here in Genesis 12.

Notice what happens. Abram decides to go to Egypt to wait out the famine. But as they approach the border, Abram tells Sarai that they’ll have to lie and say she is his sister. “Don’t let the Egyptians know you’re my wife,” he says, “Or they’ll kill me to have you.”

Abram’s decision to go to Egypt leads him to deceive.

Once in Egypt, Pharaoh adds Sarai to his harem.

Abram’s decision to go to Egypt results in his wife committing adultery with the Egyptian Pharaoh.

Then God visits plagues upon Pharaoh and his household because of Sarai. Incensed, Pharaoh confronts Abram and expels him and his family from the country.

Abram’s decision to go to Egypt leads to suffering in Pharaoh’s household.

Lest we think those are the only consequences of Abram’s actions, the fallout continues in later chapters.

For instance, when Abram and Sarai first arrive in Egypt and deceive Pharaoh and his officials about his relationship with her, we’re told that Pharaoh treated Abram well because of her, and Abram acquired flocks and herds, male and female donkeys, male and female slaves, and camels.

So Abram profited as a result of his deception. How is that a consequence? Let’s fast forward to Genesis 13 where we see this:

Now Lot, who was traveling with Abram, also had flocks, herds, and tents. But the land was unable to support them as long as they stayed together, for they had so many possessions that they could not stay together, and there was quarreling between the herdsmen of Abram’s livestock and the herdsmen of Lot’s livestock. So Abram said to Lot, “Please, let’s not have quarreling between you and me, or between your herdsmen and my herdsmen, since we are relatives. Isn’t the whole land before you? Separate from me: if you go to the left, I will go to the right; if you go to the right, I will go to the left.” . . . So Lot chose the entire plain of the Jordan for himself. Then Lot journeyed eastward, and they separated from each other. Abram lived in the land of Canaan, but Lot lived in the cities on the plain and set up his tent near Sodom. (Now the men of Sodom were evil, sinning immensely against the Lord.)

Genesis 13:5-9, 11-13

So what’s happening? Because Abram had become so much wealthier thanks to Pharaoh (because he had traveled to Egypt in the first place), he and his nephew Lot’s herdsmen ended up fighting because the land could not support both of them. Lot and Abram separated. And where did Lot end up settling? We’re told he set up his tent near Sodom. And then we’re told parenthetically: Now the men of Sodom were evil, sinning immensely against the Lord. This is called foreshadowing. There’s trouble ahead for Lot and his family.

Abram’s decision to go to Egypt leads Lot to pitch his tent near Sodom, a city rife with immorality and wickedness.

Sadly, it doesn’t end there. Let’s skip a few chapters ahead.

Abram’s wife, Sarai, had not borne any children for him, but she owned an Egyptian slave named Hagar. Sarai said to Abram, “Since the Lord has prevented me from bearing children, go to my slave; perhaps through her I can build a family.” And Abram agreed to what Sarai said.  So Abram’s wife, Sarai, took Hagar, her Egyptian slave, and gave her to her husband, Abram, as a wife for him. This happened after Abram had lived in the land of Canaan ten years. He slept with Hagar, and she became pregnant. When she saw that she was pregnant, her mistress became contemptible to her. Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for my suffering! I put my slave in your arms, and when she saw that she was pregnant, I became contemptible to her. May the Lord judge between me and you.” Abram replied to Sarai, “Here, your slave is in your power; do whatever you want with her.” Then Sarai mistreated her so much that she ran away from her.

Genesis 16:1-6

We’re given a hint of the problem in the very first verse of Genesis 16: Abram’s wife, Sarai, had not borne any children for him, but she owned an Egyptian slave named Hagar.

Aha! An Egyptian slave? Where did Abram happen to come by an Egyptian slave?

Exactly. He had Egyptian slaves because of his decision to go to Egypt and deceive Pharaoh about his wife Sarai.

This Egyptian slave-girl’s name is Hagar and her story is a sad one. Despite God’s promise of future offspring, Sarai tries to take matters into her own hands. She offers Hagar to Abram as a means of having children. Abram, maybe still feeling guilty about having prostituted Sarai to Pharaoh, shows no resistance to this suggestion at all.

Then, strife. Between Sarai and Hagar. Between Abram and Sarai.

Abram’s decision to go to Egypt actually leads Sarai into sin and Hagar’s mistreatment.

(Sidenote: To anyone who complains that the Bible condones polygamy, just look at how it usually turns out for those involved.)

Now the question: what’s at the root of all this? What led to this cycle of sin and brokenness?

Go back to Genesis 12:10: There was a famine in the land, so Abram went down to Egypt.

Famine or food, Abram thought. “Let’s go where there’s food!” Seems like a reasonable choice were it not for the fact that he was already exactly where God led him, the God who promised land and offspring.

Would not the God who made those promises provide during a famine? Could not God provide? Why didn’t Abram ask God to provide? Why didn’t he build an altar on this occasion and call on the name of the Lord?

He was afraid of the famine. He was afraid of the Egyptians. Fear, fear, fear. That’s what drove his decisions.

And it was contagious. Sarai also was fearful. Remember her words? Since the Lord has prevented me from bearing children, go to my slave; perhaps through her I can build a family. This, after God had explicitly promised Abram that he and Sarai would have a child. Only one chapter before, we have this encounter between Abram and the Lord.

After these events, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision:

Do not be afraid, Abram.
I am your shield;

your reward will be very great.

But Abram said, “Lord God, what can you give me, since I am childless and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”  Abram continued, “Look, you have given me no offspring, so a slave born in my house will be my heir.” Now the word of the Lord came to him: “This one will not be your heir; instead, one who comes from your own body will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look at the sky and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “Your offspring will be that numerous.” Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

Genesis 15:1-6

So they’d already been through this option. “No,” God says, “Your child will be your child through Sarai.”

Yet one chapter later, there’s Abram conceding to Sarai to have a child through an Egyptian slave-girl named Hagar.

So was Abram wrong to go to Egypt? Again, what consequences result from this one decision? The narrative is more show, less tell.

Indeed, Abram’s initial decision was rooted in fear, not faith. Fear for his life, for preserving what he had versus hoping for what God would provide. Rather than build an altar and pray out his fears in the presence of the God who called him, trusting that this God could manage the circumstances, Abram instead tried to take matters into his own hands.

He focused on the tangible situation he thought he could control rather than the intangible God who he was called to trust.

And notice how the one initial decision made out of fear instead of faith led to more and more sin and brokenness.

Imagine how different the narrative would have been if Abram had built an altar and prayed to God before deciding to go to Egypt.

Of course, it needs to be said that God kept on working in and through Abram’s life. Even with his failures, Abram eventually becomes an example of faith for us. But it takes a long time for Abram’s trust in God to grow and deepen. Yet God keeps his promises. Over and over again, God redeems Abram’s poor decisions.

Still, seems to me that if Abram had only asked he would have heard God say pretty clearly, “Don’t go to Egypt, Abram. I’ve got this.”