I didn’t grow up in the church. Actually, I didn’t attend a church regularly until almost 7 years ago. As an adult, this was an intentional decision. I was cautious of organized religion and unnecessarily protective of my relationship with God. For years, I’d listen to sermons on the radio and spend my time reading Christian books as supplements to reading the Bible. It was all so comfortable, reasonably thought provoking, and safe until life’s path led me to a church where I was thrust into the realities of living life with the sheep and their shepherd.
Seeing a pastor preach, rather than only hearing, was engaging. The church I attended was small enough that laypersons could live alongside the pastor, which can, and should, be a blessing. But for me, that’s where I ran into trouble, twice. Both lead pastors that served that church during my time there inadvertently offered me some serious practice at living out what I take in, biblically speaking. Neither of them did so with their teaching of the Word from the pulpit (although they’re both talented in their preaching), but through the experiences that surfaced from living life with them.
Pastor #1 taught me to stand firm in my devotion to time in God’s Word, even in the midst of feeling defeated by temptations where my worlds collided. In the past, this is where my Bible began collecting dust, but Psalm 119:10, “I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands,” resonated for me this time. The challenges were familiar, but the setting had changed. Months were spent with attempts to reconcile the issues, my issues, when early one morning, as I looked out the window at the lights of Coupeville across Penn Cove with my Bible laying on my lap, I’d come to a decision. I wanted to be baptized (I had only been christened as a baby). Right there, in front of our home, in the waters of Penn Cove. It was partially in defiance to the schemes Satan employs when he knows our weaknesses, but primarily to just suck it up and obey God’s commands. Best…decision…ever. God worked out His wonders through it and I have seen countless blessings of that single obedient decision every day since. That pastor didn’t counsel me towards the decision to get baptized, but he played a major part in it. For that, I will always be thankful for having the opportunity to know him and witness the immense grace and nearly impeccable character he exhibited.
Pastor #2 brought new challenges for me. Vastly different, but still lessons I cherish. Again, without an intention to disciple me, he taught me how important searching Scripture for God’s answers to our questions is. Relationally, it was another struggle to live alongside this pastor. For many reasons, he had me questioning my instincts and ability to discern. All I had was God’s Word to guide me through as I tried desperately to make fair conclusions. “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). That verse helped me to decide to act, but I failed on the how to act. Thanks to this pastor, I’m more intimately familiar with what the Bible teaches about forgiveness, repentance, reconciliation, church community, and elder qualifications. Also, thanks to him for helping me to see how my delivery can ruin my message. The balance between grace and truth still escapes me.
It’s one thing to read and know your Bible, but applying it is the behemoth before you. It’s always been that commandment to love your neighbors as yourself that stifles me. So I take to heart where James says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance” (James 1:2-3). To welcome “trials of many kinds” into your life, without fighting to stay clear of them, is a perspective that takes effort. And these types of trials weren’t thrown at me as though I were a victim of circumstances, I was not just the passenger.
Today, our family doesn’t attend church. Nearly every day, I listen to sermons online and do my reading. Not knowing the pastors personally that I listen to and learn from is a cop out, I must admit. They’re teaching me from a distant pulpit, unable to shepherd me, and that feels safe. I’m back in that comfortable season of “church” life, but know that returning to a church building, full of church people, will eventually present more opportunities to struggle and grow. I may not have the best track record with pastors in person, but will continue to seek shepherding, counseling, spiritual guidance, and wisdom from The Word; if ever there is a pastor #3, Jesus will always be my number One Shepherd.