“I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” –1 Corinthians 9:23
I have frequently and publically lamented the fact that I have no ministry, no particular service to the church in the sense of the paid clergy. I do not wear a collar or preside at the Eucharist…sometimes, I don’t even particular feel like partaking of the Eucharist. It’s not an easy way to feel or to live. I have spent a good part of the last year sobbing at the loss of my pulpit and my voice and my identity. Then I got to thinking—which is never a good thing—and I didn’t like the conclusions I came to.
Preaching is no easy task. Ask anyone who does it and they will tell you that it sucks the life out of your soul at times because, for one reason or another, the preacher typically really believes in what he is saying. I always, and I say this without equivocation, always preached to myself first. I went to the pulpit ready. I was so ready in fact that there was simply no challenge that could be mounted against my impeccable grammar, my on point theology, dead on conclusions, gripping introductions and weighty, challenging, and artful main body. I can say without blinking that I had mastered the art of preaching.
And it is for that reason, I suspect, that I was never able to conjure up a congregation. As a preacher, as a minister, I was an abysmal failure. I was better at shrinking churches than growing them. I did a lot of things and did them well, but there is a spot in my heart that knows I did these things for very wrong reasons. This is hard for me to admit because I loved preaching and I was good at it. I believed in preaching and the Word of God I preached. I believed it would do its work and not return to the Lord void. The problem is this: I wanted the Word to return to me. I say this too without equivocation: I wanted little more than to grow a church, be recognized by my peers as an outstanding preacher, and get an invitation to preach at some convention, or earn a chance to preach at a bigger church. This is not easy for me to admit, but it is true.
I loved preaching; I miss it terribly. But I know the truth is that I did not always preach only in service of the Gospel. Sometimes I preached the Word of God and it worked in spite of me…like those days when I was convinced the sermon stunk and someone would really be challenged by it. Those days the Spirit of God worked in spite of my best efforts, but I never really figured that out quickly enough. I confess here in public: I was a very self-centered preacher often more, and too, concerned with the form, the art, the process than I was with the Gospel I claimed to be preaching. There was more than once that while preaching I would come across a typo in the manuscript and instead of blowing past it I would note it to the congregation, take out my pen, and correct it then and there. We laughed, but inside I seethed with self-hatred that I had made such an error. Then I would regret sharing the news with the church. And so on and so forth. Like I said, I have been a terribly ugly person.
So now I work at a video store and if there is one thing I have learned it is this: I am not there for myself. I am there in service to the corporation that owns the store. I have individual sales goals but they gain me nothing when I meet them and earn me scorn when I do not. They gain the store only the slightest recognition. They earn me no spiffs or perks or bonuses. They simply keep my name on the schedule because, as you might have guessed, I am good at it. I am good at it for the sake of the corporation. Period. I have no choice but to do everything I do there for the sake of the corporation. Frankly, I am more selfless working at the store than I ever was preaching.
Sad, but true.
It may be that someday I end up preaching again; maybe not. I will take this knowledge with me wherever I end up though: I do not preach for the sake of grammar, church growth, or for personal opportunities and advancement. Whatever I do, I must do for the sake of the Gospel. It’s a hard lesson to learn that those who serve the Gospel serve the Gospel alone. I talk a lot about taking up the cross, denying the self, and following Jesus—a lesson I clearly did not learn until the very thing I did to accomplish such a trifecta was taken away from me.
It seems to me that when we serve the Gospel alone, we share its blessings. In the meantime, we are just serving the self, alone It’s a difficult lesson to learn. The Spirit of God is still working on me. He’s still working on me, to make me what I ought to be.