A view from the middle

I hate to be a cliche, but sometimes you just can’t help it.  The cookie bounces, the ball crumbles (or something like that) and this is where you end up, right smack dab in the middle of a cliche.  In my case, I turned 40ish and suddenly there it was staring me right in the face, a mid-life crisis.  That doesn’t seem fair to have to be in mid-life and mid-cliche crises at the same time!

My kids are starting to grow up and enter college, I achieved some limited success as a counselor and pastor and began a new church plant, my wife and I have been at this marriage thing for 20 wonderful years, and suddenly I’m asking myself..what have I really accomplished?  From one persepctive I can see that it hasn’t been a failure.  My kids are good kids, my marriage is a joy, but has anyone’s faith been strengthened by my presence?  Have they grown closer to God?  Have they learned to trust in Him with more joy?  Are they fruitful?  Am I?

I started pastoring at 21 and for the next 20 years, I was the guy with “such potential.”  I had a flair for teaching, a passion for God and the empathy and chutzpah for counseling.  I created a counseling ministry and a conference (called Faith lift) which those relatively few who attended said “everyone should attend.”  I planted a church and was told by one mega church planter based on his knowledge of me and my vision that “you are gonna grow…there is no question about it.”  Apparently God didn’t agree…not yet anyway.

Suddenly the time I have to meet that potential is running short.  Being the guy with potential is no longer enough.  I’m dangerously close, perhaps past, the moment when that phrase changes from “He’s got so much talent, ” to “He never lived up to his full potential.”  Not the epitaph I want.

Many of my friends are at the pinnacles of their careers, making lots of money, saving, taking vacations, buying nice gifts, houses…I am still living pay check to pay check, struggling to provide a semblance of financial security for my family.  Don’t get me wrong, I have a house.  My kids are fed, clothed, educated and entertained.  But that’s how the view from the middle works, when finances are a struggle to maintain.  It makes one look like a failure, and perspective is hard to come by.

Yesterday I went out to my pond in the back yard and fished 5 dead fish out of the pond.  We’ve got like 20 more, and fish die, but the view from the middle has me saying…’What happened here?  This was a beautiful pond.  I can’t even take care of my own family…what a failure.”  That’s how the view from the middle works sometimes.  Suddenly your fish are a metaphor for your whole family.  Then, if you’ve still got your sense of humor for the day you chuckle, take a breath and gain perspective, grateful for the pond you have, and the house in front of it.  If it’s a bad day, you take yourself too seriously and perspective eludes you.

I suppose if I were truly a walking cliche I’d buy a fancy sports car, run off with a younger woman and wear a toupee.  Fortunately, I’m desperately hopelessly in love with my wife and can’t imagine facing this without her.  A fancy sports car offers me no solace, and for what it’s worth my hair is gray but not thinning.

It’s almost impossible to make accurate judgments about your own effectiveness from the middle.  When you’re a pastor and your job is not measured in sales numbers or production values, but in lives changed forever and souls “saved” it’s even harder.  And there’s no one to ask either. People you minister to are either nice or mean.  They like you or they don’t and their answer has more to do with that, than with any real judgment of your impact on their life.  Fortunately mine are nice, but that only means their judgment errs in my favor, but not that it’s necessarily more accurate.

And, since I believe that God ultimately redeems anything and to say that I’ve had no impact, or that my congregants have not grown would be faithless and uncharitable to them as well, where does that leave the whole question?  Have I been faithful to God’s call?  Is that all that matters?  Can we really divorce fruit from the answer to that question?  and how do we measure fruit?  My head spins and sometimes my soul approaches despair if I dwell too much on these questions, and yet they seem important.

However, one thing I know.  God is good and He is in control.  He loves me more than I tend to believe at a given moment and He has demonstrated this at the cross as well as in numerous small (and large) gifts.  I have great friends, a wonderful church community, and a family that is everything I could have ever dreamed for.   I’m learning to value the right things in my church plant, to listen to the right voices (both in and outside of my head) and to make plans and take action for the things I really want to change.

That’s the other thing about the view from the middle.  There’s as much road stretching ahead as there is behind, and while I struggle with regret and disappointment about some of the road behind, I don’t truly know what’s to come ahead.  The road is still open and God is still there.

Why do I share all this?  Well, because, for one it’s my blog and one of the changes I’m making in my life is to write more and this blog is one of the ways I do that.  And for two I never promised that all these ponderings would tie up with a nice bow (in fact, I think once or twice I’ve promised the opposite).

But there is a three.  There is a point and it’s this.

If you’re reading this and you think pastors have it all together, that we’ve been blessed with some magic assurance about our future, or some amazing confidence and strength that comes from our yoga like meditation upon the God of the universe; if you think pastors are never confused, or sad or disappointed, well I wanted you to know differently.  I wanted you to know differently because I press on from the middle because of faith, not because of personality, or intelligence or sheer stubborn will.  I press on because I trust God will be there at the end whatever that end looks like.  I want you to know because if you think pastors a rare breed of person, then you will not learn the lesson of faith from the faithful.  It is our God that enables any of us, anywhere to press on from the middle, not our personality, or our skill set or our “inclination.”  You have the same God, the same faith and the same spirit.  Peter says we all have “everything we need for life and Godliness.”  Your pastor doesn’t have your share or what you need.  He has what he needs.

Oh, and it definitely helps to have people that love me no matter what.  In my case, it’s first my wife, then my kids and one or two very unique and special members of my church, who give me reason to actually believe them when they say they’re with me in this endeavor till God pulls the plug (if He does)and not just till they’ve had enough.

Whoever you are, if you have found a pastor you trust, whether a big or small church leader…consider being that person, that Jonathan to David, that armor bearer to Jonathan.  I could be wrong and I can’t prove it but I believe God reserves special blessings for those people that prove such loyal, faithful and Christ-like loving companions to the beleagured pastor whose view may be from the middle.

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