Sometimes when I feel that I’m trying to be something I’m not, or pretending that I’m not something that I am, or when I’m losing a sense of clarity regarding what my identity and calling in Christ actually is, I will revisit questions like these. Not all of them will resonate with me at one time or another. But the ones that do provide a strong clue regarding what to pray about.
Immediacy offered William Jay a chance to do something large and notable as a gospel preacher. A great door for the gospel lay before him wide and open. A fan base for urban ministry waited eagerly for his sermons to take London by storm. Taking up this post, Jay would have served as a right hand man with one of the preeminent pastors of the moment. He also would have labored within proximity to other renowned pastors of reputation at the time. How could anyone say “no” to such a future? And yet, “no” is exactly what William Jay said. He turned the offer down and chose instead to start his pastoral ministry in a small, obscure and impoverished pastoral call in the country. Why did he do this? What was the result? What can we learn?
Why did he choose to start small?
First, because his older pastoral friend and mentor, Cornelius Winter advised him to. Jay listened to his mentor’s counsel, even though at the time, he did not foresee all of the reasons why.
Second, because Jay thought that his experience did not yet match his gifts. Because he was so young, it would prove wise for him to “secure more preparation for the office” of a pastor.
What was the result?
After three years of pastoral work, Jay received a call to a church in which he would serve for the next sixty-two years. “In terms of long-sustained usefulness” Jay’s ministry at Argyle Chapel, “can scarcely have a parallel in English Church history.” He likewise became anyway, “one of the best known preachers in England” for over half a century.
Looking back, William Jay said that if he had chosen to respond to the London call when he was nineteen, it would have been a “wrong step.” For truly his mentor (whom he deemed a “friend and father”) had foreseen things clearly.
What can we think about from this?
- Saying “yes” to a wonderful opportunity to do something large, notable and immediately, requires, not just one set of skills, but two. The “before you get there” skills and the “after you get there” skills. The “before you get there” skill set, allows one to imagine a future, dream, assess, and make a move. The “after you get there” skill set is what one requires in order to stay in the new place once you arrive. It is one thing to dream of a thriving urban ministry just down the street from the likes of John Newton as it would have been for Jay. It is another thing to actually do the work day after day for those people and also as a young man apprenticed to the authoritative direction, personality and fame of a Mr. Rowland Hill, whom Jay would have served under. Possessing the gifts to get us someplace does not mean that we have the experience, seasoning, temperament or savvy to keep us there. We need wise counsel to assess both.
- Saying “no” to a wonderful opportunity does not mean that our lives and ministries are over or that we missed out. A different kind of ministry, which Jay could not at the time imagine, was on God’s heart for him. We do not experience William Jay’s story today as one of the greatest preachers in church history (even though those who heard him then may have felt the worth of such a statement in their own way). To most of us his story remains unknown. What those who do know William Jay remember is this: a body of pastoral work–a long sustained usefulness of weekly preaching, occasional writing and daily pastoral care in a local place; A legacy that stands out in time even today.
Charles Spurgeon said: “O for more Jays. We would give some two or three dozen of the general run of doctors of divinity for one such a Master in Israel as William Jay of Bath.”
(See The Autobiography of William Jay, pages 52, 130, 348. See also, “William Jay the Preacher” in The Banner of Truth Magazine)
I recently gave the charge for a good friend as he was installed as a new pastor for a local congregation. Some have asked that I write it down. So, I’ve changed the name of my friend and of the congregation. But here is the gist of what I tried to say.
“As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man named Matthew.” (Matt. 9:9)
For the Pastor
When Luke recounted this meeting between Jesus and Matthew, Luke focused on Matthew’s title and position in the community. “Jesus saw a tax collector,” Luke says.
Similarly, when Mark described this event, he focused on Matthew’s family line and relational connections. “Jesus saw Levi, Son of Alpheus,” Mark says.
But when Matthew describes the time that he and Jesus met, Matthew says something honest, humbling and freeing as he looks back on that moment. “Jesus saw a man,” Matthew tells us. “A man named Matthew.”
Dr. Freeman, my first encouragement for you on this sacred occasion is this: Long before you had the vocational title of pastor, or Reverend, or Reverend Doctor; Long before you were “in the know,” with relational connections, you were simply a man named John. Our Lord heard your prayers not because you had a title or connections, but because you were a human being, an ordinary man, with a name that was known to Him and a life that mattered to Him. You were simply a man saved by grace whom Jesus loved. You still are. Jesus sees you as a human being.
For this reason, may I mention to you a second encouragement as a freeing reminder? Take heart dear friend that you needn’t repent when you cannot be everywhere at once. Find help in the reminder that you are not meant to feel shame and regret when you cannot fix everything. Feel encouraged to know that you needn’t smite yourself and cower without confidence on those occasions in which it is obvious that you do not know everything. After all, being omnipresent, omnipotent and omniscient belongs to God. These characteristics always describe Him but they were never meant to describe you or any of us. Even the Corinthians or the Philippians had on occasion to go without Paul’s actual presence. They had to make due with a letter while he had to be somewhere else. So it is with you and with those whom you love and serve in Jesus’ name.
Some will want you to be God for them. You too might be tempted. They will applaud you when you try to be more than human and criticize you when you are nothing more. You might foolishly believe either and mistakenly pursue both. But this only reminds you why they and you both need a savior. Only Jesus can be everywhere at once for them and for you. Only Jesus can fix everything that any of us needs fixing. Only Jesus knows everything that our situations require. After all, beneath your titles and connections, you are really just a man named John. Trust that Jesus will apprentice others in how to handle their thoughts and emotions when they wish that you were more than human. Jesus will apprentice your thoughts and emotions too.
Here a third encouragement comes to mind. Consider the grace that a human being with an ordinary name can find in Jesus. Matthew, the man, the sinner, became a writer of the gospel. He became a preacher and a lover of people. Being ordinary and human never means that something good and precious cannot come from us. Quite the opposite, in Matthew’s story, we are reminded that you too, a man named John, needn’t labor in vain. What a marvelous purpose and dignity He has given you! You too by His grace can make a profound gospel difference for your ordinary neighbors in this local place.
For the Congregation
This leads us to consider those of us who are listening in. You each form the congregation of neighbors here at Grace Church that John will seek to love and do life with. May I suggest two things for you?
First, encourage John’s humanity. As a man, John is subject to the same temptations, joys and questions that any of us face in a life. He is a husband and a Dad. Each day is a mixture of storm and bloom. He will not always be at his best either through his own battles with sin or because of his having to feel and forgive those who have sinned against him. At other times, He will shine with the treasure within his clay jar, showing forth the evidences of grace and virtue that Jesus has purchased for him and worked in him. He will need the same prayers, encouragements, comforts, counsels and forgiveness that anyone else in your church family needs.
Remember, John has no superhero cape. He cannot be everywhere that you might want him to be, or to know everything when you might wish him to know it, or to fix everything the way you prefer in the timing you prioritize. Even a pastor is not Jesus and John is no exception. Like you, John is not the Christ. Like you he is a local human being. So, laugh together with him. Question with him. Cry with him. Eat with him. Pray with him. Celebrate with him. Look to Jesus with him. Seek Jesus to recover your humanity together.
Second, embrace and learn from John in his calling. As you remember John’s humanity do not forget His calling. Jesus has called John to pray with you, to look to Jesus with you, to open the Bible to you, and to walk through triumph and tragedy with you. He has gifts from God therefore that are uniquely suited to help you grow in your love for God and for your neighbors.
Moreover, John is a seasoned man and pastor. He has been a husband and a Dad and a pastor for quite a while now. He has God-learned wisdom from years of mistake-making, walking with others, traveling the country, working with churches, and taking stock of it all. When you remember that John is a human being do not forget that he nonetheless is a veteran pastor equipped by the Savior to strengthen you in your own calling and life.
With these two encouragements in mind, therefore, watch out for two temptations.
The first is that you so recognize John’s calling that you disregard his humanity and then painfully require of him those things that only Jesus can be and do. The second is to so recognize John’s humanity that you disrespect his calling and experience. When we do this, we prove ourselves arrogant or unteachable toward the place God is calling John to have in our lives.
So, now together, as a pastor and a congregation, you have the opportunity both in your humbled humanity and your purposeful callings to taste and see the goodness of the Lord as a family, a team. With each other, Jesus will show you a fruitful and meaningful life of love for His glory in this community. What a marvelous team the grace of Jesus will empower you to become! Human together, as a pastor and a people, the throne of the Savior’s grace and purpose awaits you.
If you notice that your mood rises or falls with how people respond to a particular sermon watch out. You are likely to make a mess of the day for those who love you. You will be tempted to place great weight on their words and treat them as if they are like God to you. If they speak praise but without the right glow or admit that they did not get it, you might find yourself creating an argument by blaming them in some way. Or you might use words to excuse weakness or manipulate praise. When this happens (and it does to most of us), take note. Jesus says that after the word is preached we face foul opinions. What do we do now? (Matt. 13:21-22)
What if God gives the after-sermon as a flashlight of His grace by which to see our true condition in Him? In this light, it seems to me that one aspect of the after-sermon attack concerns the condition of our “rootedness.” When Jesus uses this metaphor in the parable of the sower and the seed, he describes the nature of our identity in Him–are we His or not? And He describes the degree to which we find our identity in Him. We are his, but now what? Can we live as if His opinions, threats and promises are more authoritative and powerful than what others say about us? (Matthew 13:21-22)
The after-sermon is one of God’s gracious ways of healing us from our pre-occupation and dependence upon our words and the words of others. As we learn this from Him we will sometimes find ourselves on Sundays like a man in a desert with no water. We keep looking to the words and glances of others with our empty cup hoping for refreshing drink. While we shake hands, we are attuned to every glance, every tone of voice, every word left out or spoken. When we do this we rest our justification on the praises or criticisms of human beings. We start asking for people to come through for us in ways that only God can. We start looking to people’s words for what only God’s words can provide. We anxious ourselves and fret about while we smile and talk about God.
We need to remind each other of this helpful fact. Saturday nights, Sunday afternoons and Monday mornings are a desert-classroom for preachers in which God gradually teaches us that no sermon or word about it can save us. The best of sermons, the worst of criticism and the heights of praise fall as dust in a man’s cup. Only Christ is true drink! Sunday by Sunday we find Him more and more and our cups begin to overflow even when our sermons were less or more than we or others hoped.