Monday, September 21, 2009

Ordination words of encouragement

Peace to all of you. I’m here on behalf of the Synod to give a word of encouragement to ST. Now this is not an easy task. If I lay on the word of encouragement too thickly, then ST, despite his years of pastoral experience, may wise up to the torturous, pain-stricken years of ordained ministry he has ahead of him. The reality is that being ordained would mean more sleepless nights, higher expectations from church members, greater responsibility and a higher demand for holiness and saintliness, and while that realization will come sooner or later, we don’t really want to let the cat out of the bag now with a strong word of encouragement. No, the word of encouragement must not be overwhelming so that ST still maintains a rosy picture of ministry, and by the time he feels like giving up from the stress and the burden and the excruciating load, he is too attached to the church already.

On the other hand, if I apply the encouragements too thinly, I fear ST, despite a loving supportive church, might not have enough to carry him through. Ordained ministry is sometimes like a lone wolf howling in the cold bitter night, a sailboat flung mercilessly in the storm, like the flame of a candle flickering in the wind, and God knows ST needs all the help he can get, even every ounce of encouraging words make a contribution. Some time in the future, in the crucial moment when there is suicidal person on the phone, and ST is about to speak for a service, and he is thinking about how his family wants him to spend more time with them, and he still has words of encouragement for another ordination service still unprepared, in that crucial moment the words of encouragement given insufficiently at the ordination may just be the weak and loose nail that collapses the entire edifice of faith.

Judging from the faces so far, I think I may have spoken too much and have left ST utterly demoralized. Now, I’m not sure if I should be sorry, or to be proud that that I’m the first person in Presbyterian history to have failed so miserably even before I begin my message. There’s a certain quirky allure of a disaster so complete, that perhaps years later many pastors will go, “my sermon really went badly this time, but at least it is not THAT” But since I’m already at the depth of the abyss, the underbelly of a hopeless cause, I may as well make the best of the situation. I want to talk about failures, something I’m very familiar with.

Unlike the many self-help books and motivational conferences that are popular in today’s culture, Christianity has always been entirely realistic about failures. In the Old Testament, the namesake of the longest book of the Bible, Prophet Jeremiah had a ministry in complete failure. None of the kings listened to him in his lifetime, and he was branded a traitor while the kingdom crumbled, he died exiled in a foreign land and his books were burnt. In the New Testament, Jesus fared no better. As a cell group leader, his treasurer betrayed him, his core members slept while he prayed, and his favorite member denied him 3 times. Most of them fled at his dying moments, and after his death all went back into fishing. The most impactful biblical event for me is in Isaiah 6, when God called Isaiah and he courageously volunteered “Here I am, send me.” It’s almost like an ordination.

God gave him a mission, “Go and tell this people, “Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.' Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” Sounds like God is asking Isaiah to always give boring sermons so that nobody will ever listen. But in actuality, God is telling Isaiah in an ironic way that his mission is going to be practically impossible, because the people will be totally unreceptive. Not surprisingly, Isaiah then asked, “For how long, O Lord?” And God replied that this will be the situation until everything is destroyed. Basically, the entire ministry of Isaiah will fall on deaf ears until nobody is left to hear it.

Now, ST is a well experienced pastor, educated and charming. Favored by God and blessed with his Spirit, I’m sure many good things will come along in his work. But if he eschews the prosperity message or simplistic religiosity and instead stays true to the hard teachings of Jesus, I’m sure there will also be oppositions and times of failure when people are reluctant to transform for the better. His ministry may not be as heartbreaking as Isaiah's, but leading similarly with a life of sacrifice and full obedience to God is never smooth-sailing. My answer to this is that the key lies at the beginning of Isaiah 6. At such times, I hope ST also sees that greater reality that Isaiah saw. The vision of the Lord seated on a throne high and exalted. Heavenly creatures calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” In our ministry, times of failure are inevitable. But we do what we do not for success, but because we know in our hearts that God is sovereign and in him is victory.

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