The other day a friend and I were talking about leaders in the church who have “fallen away”. They are absent from worship. They no longer attend meetings. They complain that they are tired, or that no one cares what they do, or that they can’t take the opposition from within the church any longer. In some cases that might be true, but in other cases these people have taken up crucial leadership roles in the Lion’s Club, the Rotary Club, the Bowling League etc. They never miss a meeting, they never miss an event, they organize and organize and they preach the benefits of said club/event to anyone who would care to listen. In more advanced cases people leave the church and vow that they can worship just as well in their garden, or at the beach or on the golf course.
This problem is pervasive in the church, and not limited to lay leaders alone. I know clergy who have lost their first love, and because of a variety of reasons struggle to bring a fresh message to worship, or even have absented themselves from meetings and other events at which their leadership and wisdom would have been appreciated.
I know, that there have been periods of time when I have felt that way. My lament has been, “why do I bother God? What difference am I making? I am so tired and I don’t want to do this any more! Those crosses on my lawn (metaphorical of course) have been put there by the people in the congregation or the people in the Presbytery and I don’t have the energy to fight any more.” Those were days of deep spiritual struggle and even drought, brought about because my response to struggle and difficulty was to retreat into myself and to keep God at arm’s distance.
What it is, is a sign that we, leaders in the church, have lost our first love. This is a serious problem and one that seriously tries the heart of God. Read what he says to John during the Revelation.
“Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” (Revelation 2:4-6 RSV)
The past month or so I have been reading a book called Rediscovering the Daily Graces, edited by Robert Elmer. What he has done is devoted time to searching for the words of the church fathers on a series of important topics for the life of the church. He has translated those writings in a very readable and surprisingly modern and idiomatic English, which I enjoy, and which makes me think about and ponder on the new depth of meaning that I am discovering.
Today I was reading in the section on Vocation and Christian Service and a couple of essays on the Parable of the Servants and the Talents struck a very responsive chord in me, and made me look at that parable in a whole new way. Rather than seeing it as a problem with the stewardship and devotion to the work of ministry, these authors have written about that parable as a problem with the use of the talents of devotion, worship, and attendance to the daily graces.
14 “Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. 15 To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag,[a] each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. 16 The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. 17 So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. 18 But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.
19 “After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20 The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.’
21 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’
22 “The man with two bags of gold also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.’
23 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’
24 “Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. 25 So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’
26 “His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? 27 Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.
28 “‘So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. 29 For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ Matthew 25: 14-30 NIV
This is what Dwight Moody writes:
Too many believers are weak and sickly, though, because they don’t have these words carved on their hearts. It’s bad news if your child stops growing for ten or fifteen years, right? Well,that’s exactly what’s happening with many of God’s children. I know some who are praying the same old prayers as they were twenty years ago. They haven’t grown a spiritual inch in all that time.
The reason? They haven’t done their work. It’s that simple. (D. L. Moody)
That I must confess that even as a minister I have had times when I have not been growing spiritually and that this had a detrimental effect on the work of ministry, makes me sad. What makes me even sadder is that when I teach on the importance of regular daily attendance upon the spiritual disciplines people tell me that they don’t think that prayer is important.
There are times when I want to get up on a big soap box and shout through a megaphone…
Those daily discipline are important.
They are crucial.
They are your source of life, love, hope, strength.
Stop, drop and pray.
Go to worship.
Read and meditate on Scripture.
Discuss Scripture with other believers.
Draw strength from God and one another.
I want to find the words to convey to people that when I am devoted to the practice of spiritual disciplines that my strength, joy and ability to cope are magnified. My life is still full of the same problems as the rest of you have. I struggle with the same distractions. I get angry and frustrated with the church. I get angry with God. But in study, prayer, meditation, silence and worship I find the source of strength, peace, and purpose to keep on keeping on with God. And when that happens I can use the one talent that has been entrusted to me and multiply it so that it goes forth and bears the fruit of God’s love in my life and the life of others. It doesn’t get much better than that.