This morning, I read and graded "integration" papers from a course for Doctor of Ministry students at the seminary. The course was titled: Thriving & Surviving Pastoral Ministry.
I just finished reading the paper of one of my pastor students who wrote (referring to me):
The class helped me think about surviving and thriving. I like Steve. I like his attitude about the ministry. He has survived well. And he has thrived, it would seem. He has served churches, written books, had a radio ministry. He is celebrated in some circles as an authority. He seems comfortable in his skin as a pastor. He is the right guy to teach the class on surviving and thriving in this complex field. However, at the end of the day (and at the end of the class) I'm not Steve Brown. I'm a guy who finds himself settling into a sad mediocrity. I actually do sometimes go to bed at night grateful for another day of survival.
My first thought was, What a wise and insightful student! He's going to get an "A" for this class.
Then I had an attack of sanity. My second thought was, He's insane. If he only knew...
One other student in the class asked his father-who was a successful pastor-about a particular issue in ministry and that led to a discussion about success and ministry. "The ministry is a very brutal profession in many ways," his father said. "I think just making it through with a bit of sanity means you have succeeded at it."
You've heard the old statement that any airplane flight from which you walk away is a successful flight. That's true of pastoral ministry, parenting, work, life...
...and the Christian faith.
My student's comment about settling into a sad state of mediocrity haunts me. It's a statement filled with pathos...but, if you think about it, it's maybe not a bad place to be. A friend told me once that, when he was young, he thought he would be great but, since then, he discovered he was a "plodder." I told him I had never heard anybody say that before. He laughed and said it used to bother him until God told him that "plodding" was a "gift of the Spirit."
He was, by the way, one of the most secure and joyful Christians I've ever met.
So I decided to do something that very few do, to wit, say a good word about mediocrity. Don't expect much! What I'm going to say will be...uh...well...mediocre.
Let me give you four biblical truths I find helpful, using the imagery of poker. I hope that doesn't offend you but, if it does, you should know that I don't play poker anymore. A friend told me that it hurt my witness, so I stopped. I do think, between you and me, that he wasn't as concerned with my witness as he was with the fact that I was winning all his money.
But with that being said, I really wasn't that great at poker. It was fun, I enjoyed playing with friends and, while it may have been sin...I still liked it. (That by the way is why we sin, to wit, we like to sin.) But, frankly, nobody would ever ask me to participate in the World Series of Poker. I was a mediocre poker player at best.
First, poker players don't deal the cards or decide on the cards; they just play poker with the cards they're dealt. My life's verse is, "Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might..." (Ecclesiastes 9:10). That verse is comforting to me in that I remember I'm not the dealer. Sometimes I play the game well, much of the time I don't, and most of the time the game ends in a draw. All I have to do is keep on playing as best I can.
I often tell seminary students that some of them will serve large and prestigious churches while others small churches, and that is rarely determined by their brilliance, gifts, skills or lack of same. That's true. It has to do with God who determines the boundaries of our lives and does it with great wisdom and understanding.
Second (and if you've been to a Born Free seminar, you already know this), when a dog plays poker (or checkers, if that makes you feel any better), one shouldn't criticize his game; one should just be pleased and surprised that he is playing at all. Besides that, "power is made perfect in weakness" and God sometimes gives a serious defect in poker playing to keep poker players "from being too elated by the surpassing greatness" of their game (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).
Yesterday, I had lunch with a group of college students who are serving as summer interns at a large Presbyterian church here in Orlando. They wanted to ask "Dr. Brown" some questions and I was flattered that they did. Frankly, I was really impressing them...
...until I spilled a full glass of Coke onto the lap of the woman who directs the intern program at the church. She, of course, was gracious. The college students were kind and thinking, He's an old guy doing the best he can. And the other people in the restaurant pretended that nothing happened.
God thought it was funny.
Evidently, he wasn't as impressed as the college students were and decided to let them see what a klutz I am.
Third, the game can be fun if you remember that it's just a game. If you take the game or yourself as a poker player too seriously, it will drive you nuts. You can't play poker and enjoy it if you're too serious about it. In fact, the only poker players who enjoy poker are those who can afford to lose. High expectations about the game, about winning, about the other poker players or about your own poker playing can kill you. Poker is fun if you can afford to lose...or in this case, afford to be mediocre.
Paul said, "For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's" (Romans 14:7-8). In Philippians 4:11-13, he writes, "I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me." In other words, I can win or lose through Christ who strengthens me.
And finally, the really incredible thing is that the dealer is your Father and he dotes on you. Not only did God say about Jesus, "This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased" (Matthew 3:17), the same God says to you because of Jesus, "This is my beloved son or daughter with whom I am well pleased."
During the summers when I was growing up, I was a "locker boy" and later, a lifeguard, at the city swimming pool. In the "off times," we often played poker and more often than not, I was the dealer.
No, no, not for my benefit. It was for theirs. Most people who work at city facilities don't make much money, are not very good poker players, and really can't afford to blow too much on a game. I fixed it so they wouldn't lose too much or win too much. I managed-with my not insignificant skills at dealing-to see that each of the poker players (my friends) came out about even.
To this day, those guys don't know that I was their benefactor.
You know your Benefactor.
Now go take a nap.
I just read over what I wrote. It sort of sounds like I think excellence is a bad thing that Christians should avoid at all costs. Please don't misread me. Excellence is a part of our witness and it matters...
...but not as much as you think.