I recently resigned from pastoral ministry. Lord willing, I will take it up again someday, but for the moment, I am on an indefinite sabbatical from the last ten years of vocational ministry. I took my first ministry position over twenty years ago, the summer I graduated high school, serving as youth minister for Zion Chinese Baptist Church in Houston, Texas. I have been in and out of ministry positions over the years, but after leaving our little church plant in Nashville, Tennessee in 2009 to move to Vermont, I believed we had finally come home. I was not looking beyond that place. In my heart and mind, I had come to live and die with Middletown Springs Church. I joked about them having to pry the pulpit from my cold, dead hands. I believed it! But the "joke," as they say, was on me.
This past Easter was the first Easter in nine years I hadn't preached a resurrection sermon. That didn't dawn on me until Passion week. I had mixed feelings about this. A big part of me missed it, of course. But a big part of me understands Christ's resurrection doesn't need me. I honestly do not want to be the kind of preacher who is like the rooster who thinks the sun is rising because he's crowing. I didn't have a sermon to prepare, didn't have several excellent points to proclaim, and what do you know? The sun came up Easter Sunday anyway. Christ was risen, indeed.
On my last Sunday in the Middletown pulpit — February 15, 2015 — I preached Genesis 22. Why? Because I had begun preaching through Genesis more than a year prior and I saw no reason why my leaving should disrupt the plan. I didn't know when I began this journey that Genesis 22 would be the end of the line for me, but the Lord did. And he has a wonderful sense of humor.
The narrative we find in Genesis 22, of Abraham taking his son Isaac up the mountain to sacrifice him at the Lord's command, is the earliest Bible story I remember wrestling with. When I think back to where I was struggling with this story, I realize I couldn't have been more than 7 years old. I distinctly recall looking at the classic illustration in my Bible storybook of Abraham's knife poised over Isaac, bound to a stone altar. And I remember thinking in a childlike way, "This is hard." Even then I realized that it would be an impossible thing if God asked me to kill someone I loved.
I didn't realize then, but I realize now, that the hardness is the point. This story is hard as the atonement. Most of us can see the direct correlation to our heavenly Father offering up his only begotten Son to death.
So I finished up my tenure at Middletown Church preaching the earliest text I remember battling mentally with. I confess that after thirty-some years, I have not found it any more comfortable. But in an odd way, I found it comforting. I found it comforting, even though preaching Genesis 22 on February 15 was my own journey up the mountain, knife in hand.
The Death of a Dream
Outside the Bible, Dietrich Bonhoeffer's little book Life Together is probably the most influential book on my life, or at least on my ecclesial life. Bonhoeffer's stuff in that book on "wish-dreams" is crucially helpful. We all have wish-dreams for our churches. Big ideas, big hopes. And they don't have to be about church. We all have wish-dreams about just about everything in our lives — we have dream jobs, dream spouses, dream families, dream lives. And we're constantly comparing the wish-dream versions of these things with the versions we actually have. Many a marriage struggles because spouses keep holding up to each other the impossible standard of the wish-dream. And many a pastor struggles because he keeps holding up the church he's been stewarded to his wish-dream of the church he wants.
If you find yourself constantly measuring, constantly frustrated, constantly seeing all you don’t have, Bonhoeffer actually says you should be glad that God has led you into this predicament, because it means you're realizing you have a wish-dream that needs to be "shattered by God" (his words).
Bound up in Isaac were all of Abraham’s hopes and dreams. Isaac was the child God promised. Isaac was the child Abraham and Sarah had schemed to conceive in ways other than by God's providence. Isaac was his parents' wish-dream. And I imagine Abraham had a vision for how God's promise to multiply his descendants and expand his legacy into eternity would play out, and I imagine this lonely scenario of taking the wish-dream up the mountain to slay it was not it.
Whatever it is, we all have a vision for how life is supposed to go, what life is supposed to be like, what we want and how we want it and the way we want to feel about it, but then actual life happens, and when our heart is tuned to only find joy in the dream, we will never find joy, because we’ve placed it in a mirage.
My vision for my ministry career was a mirage. I had a dream about the way I would wind up my ministry in Vermont, and it wasn't six years and an exit to the Midwest!
It’s great when pieces of our wish-dreams come true, and some of us might actually get the whole thing, but it’s also dangerous to dwell in that imaginative world, because when our joy is placed anywhere but in Christ, we are setting ourselves up for incredible, crushing disappointment and spiritual and emotional disaster. When I believed God was asking me to quit, I felt this internal crisis in an unbelievably strong way. He might as well have commanded me to put a knife in it.
God asked me to quit. And when he did, he killed my dream.
The Death of an Idol
I know full well that ministry can become an idol. I wrote a whole book with that premise. But if you had asked me at any point before I was contemplating God's call away from the ministry, I would have assured you that of all my idols, ministry was not on the list!
Isaac was, in one way, an idol for Abraham. Abraham's whole life had revolved so much around the hope of Isaac. He keeps whining to God about it.
So looking at Genesis 22 leading up to my last Sunday, the Sunday I officially quit, I dared to ask myself, "How would I know what my real idol is?"
Well, one of the litmus test questions I've been fond of giving out to others in diagnosing idolatry is this: "What, if taken away from you, would cause you a great crisis of identity?"
I didn’t know how much pastoral ministry was an idol for me until I believed God was asking me to set it aside. I can talk a great game about idolatry and I talk a great game about pastors finding their justification in Christ alone, but then God had the audacity to actually test me on this! He actually asked me to set it aside.
I wanted to know, "For how long, God? For what time?" He wouldn't say; he hasn't said. So I don’t know. And my worry kicked in. Because that’s one of the questions I worried about being asked: "How long are you going to be out of pastoral ministry?" And don't you know, in the months since my announcement, numerous people have asked me this, in a variety of levels of concern? I am flattered and encouraged by their sense of "missing" my ministry, but I'm also greatly cautioned by what I self-righteously perceive in it, as well—namely this: If I'm not in pastoral ministry, what am I?
I started thinking of all the things people would say:
"I thought you were the New England guy."
"I thought you were the small church guy."
"I thought you were the rural church guy."
"I thought you said not to confuse difficulty with lack of calling. Isn't that what you're doing?"
"I thought you were the Pastor's Justification guy. And now you're quitting?"
Like Abraham's wife Sarah, I worried about the laughter of others. I was worried about their criticism, their questions, their disapproval. That’s a big one for me: disapproval.
But it was ten years ago when God broke into that little guest bedroom where suicidal me was crying and praying my guts out, and he grabbed hold of me and proclaimed by his Spirit, "I love you and I approve of you." I lost my taste for lots of things in that moment, but one of those was trying to “get better” by the law. We ask for bread, and God doesn’t give us stones. I learned there in the rubble of my dreams for my life, my ministry, my everything—the rubble of myself—that Christ is all and that trying to measure up is garbage.
This is why for all my screw-ups as a pastor and all my sins and weaknesses, I can still boast in Christ. I can say that no one can say I didn’t faithfully beat the drum of Christ’s finished work. Because I know it is our only hope. The gospel of Jesus Christ is our only hope and security of enduring approval, of eternal validation, of spiritual fulfillment, of eternal joy.
So as hard as it was to take my Isaac up the mountain and lay the wood on his back and tie him to the altar and raise the knife, I can do so, because I know God will provide – and I know God has provided.
So when my wife and I heard him say, “Set this aside. Give this to me," I was thinking of all that people would say, I was thinking of all the dreams I had for dying in Vermont or raising up a successor and passing the baton, and how I didn’t want to see those dreams die, but in the end we gathered up our meager faith and said “Here we are, Lord. Whatever you want."
My availability to God’s call to sacrifice – Abraham’s availability to God’s call to sacrifice – your availability to God’s call to sacrifice is predicated on understanding that God doesn’t need any more messiahs. He sent one. The job is finished. I am not needed.
Ah, but I'm wanted.
That’s liberating: Isnt’ it? To not be needed but to be wanted?
Are you a ministry quitter? Are you afraid of setting aside whatever drives your identity that isn't Christ? You may not be called to actually quit ministry, but you are daily called to quit ministry wish-dreaming, ministry-idolizing. Do you see the love he has for you in the sacrifice he did not spare? The Lord took his only Son, his Son whom he loves, up the mountain and there was no ram in the thicket. Jesus even cried out for one, praying, “If there’s any other way, Father!"
But he was the way.
So I circle back around now to that most important death seen in Genesis 22. The sparing of Isaac gives way to the image of the unspared Jesus.
The Death of the Savior
The wood of the cross was laid on Jesus and there was no turning back. He went to the cross to bear the sins of those who trust in him and fulfill the demands of the law. The only obedience that will save you is the obedience of Jesus.
I don’t know what you do with this. But I can't yawn spiritually at this. It makes me stagger. That the holy God of the Universe, to whom I owe my very life, would punish his own Son so he wouldn’t have to punish me is staggering. Because he loves me.
And that Jesus, the only Son of God, would go up that mountain – Golgotha – not confused about where the sacrifice would come from, but knowing he was the sacrifice, and going willingly – he does this because he loves you.
He is all-surpassing, he is all-wonderful, he is all. Everything beautiful and glorious finds its union in him and emanates from him. He is so precious. Before time began, his designs were on you. In his prayer, you’re in his mind. In his death, you're on his heart. In his resurrection, your life is in his power. In his ascension, you are seated with him in glory.
This makes most of our dreams so pale and temporary. This makes all of our idols demonic.
This ought to make giving up whatever he calls us to give up easy. Like the man who sold all he had just to buy that one pearl of great price. Christ is worth all that God would have you give up, because if you have him, you already have everything.
So, godly quitters, let's say it together:
Wish-dream be shattered.
Idols be damned.
We're coming to Jesus, we're trusting Jesus.
In the pastoral ministry world, we sometimes get the impression from the Bright Minds Among Us that only losers quit. Well, maybe so. But — praise God — Jesus came for losers.