One of my least appealing personal characteristics is that I compare myself to others.
Still, at this age, you’d think that life would rub that out of you somehow. It’s not the crippling, moony despair of adolescence when I walked around in an existential fog, sporting a unibrow and a black beret. No, now I worry about things I never dreamt I might worry about at fourteen, like “What is success in ministry?” and “In the future, is there going to be a church and what will it look like?”
After talking with some colleagues I realize I am not alone. Even if we know better, even if we’re great at repeating Christ’s promises to others — be it in the pulpit or hospital room — we still have trouble taking to heart what we believe: the simple promise that we, too, are children of God.
In Lutheran theology we make a distinction between God’s two kingdoms: the kingdom of the left, which is the realm of the law, and the kingdom on the right, which is the realm of grace. Although God rules both kingdoms, and there is much overlap, most of the time we must function in the realm of the law. We have to. We need the law to keep us in line. But, the kingdom on the left — the kingdom of how we get paid, and who has power, how we structure committees, or how we measure success — can also dog us, eat away our hearts. Unfortunately, this is the realm where we spend most of our time cooling our heels and being pastors.
Every now and then we need to hear a word of grace as well. We need to hear that our small words or our carefully crafted sermons do, indeed, bear Christ’s gospel. Unfortunately, we don’t get a lot of helpful responses from our congregants. Sometimes we may get a “Nice sermon, Pastor,” but the gospel feedback loop is rarely fully operative in our parishes.
We preach forgiveness of sins and resurrection of the dead but unless we have the luxury of being able to worship with a capable preacher, we don’t get to hear that the “for you” is for us all that often. And, we all need to hear it. We all need to bathe a bit in grace. We all need to hear from another human being outside of us that we are forgiven and beloved children of God.
When we are able to hear that Word and the Word does what it loves doing — creating that glimmer of faith in us — we hear about what success looks like in the realm of the right. We get a glimpse of God’s kingdom, this kingdom of grace that Christ has brought us into and we stop, if only for a moment, worrying about our success and the Church and our church and numbers and a committee that is in tatters and if we got sold a bad bill of goods by our seminary professors.
We glimpse that in Christ’s kingdom there is no real difference between the small or large gestures if they’re given for the sake of the gospel. We realize that the pastor out in po-dunk Pennsylvania or super-hip Portland are all on the same page, pulling together at the same gospel plow. We realize that the grandmother who holds her grandchild on her lap and teaches her to pray is doing the exact same thing as our colleague who preaches to 5,000 people.
We realize that any of the bearings with which the world measures success don’t matter, at least not if Christ’s promise falls into the crevice of a bored confirmand’s heart on any given Wednesday night. We realize it’s all God’s work, and we are mere caretakers. We realize that despite the ongoing challenges of living with the law and spending most of our waking hours pifflering away our time in the kingdom of the left, that we too are children of God, forgiven, loved, saved by grace.
And, for a brief and fleeting moment, we realize that we are blessed and that Christ is working in us, through us, and even in spite of us, drawing all in its own measure into the kingdom of grace where success is redefined as simply being forgiven and loved. Where we, with the whole of heaven and earth, sing, for we are one — free, woven together in gospel and promise.