Perhaps the Lenten season has fully worn into my bones, or it could be that I am wrapping up my first year as a lead pastor. Either way, I have been thinking a lot about how one understands and receives the Lord’s death. As in, how does one go about practicing the crucifixion?
I am reminded of the time I was standing in my mentor’s kitchen during my thirty-third birthday celebration. My mentor’s wife made her way over to me, clapping her hands and taking me by the shoulders. She was bubbling when she looked me square in the eyes with an overflowing heart and announced, “The year of our Lord’s death!” That was certainly one way to say “Happy Birthday!” but it was also a harrowing reminder that there is a lot more to learn. Not the type of learning that is intellectual, though that’s part of it, but more like the learning that forms deep within you a new way to be, reshaping your entire way of thinking and being.
You may find this funny, and I’m sure you’ll find it weird (honestly, I have given up hope that the peculiar people of God can be anything but weird), but it is our Lord’s death that got me into pastoring. Well, that and a District Superintendent’s email that completely interrupted a perfectly normal Tuesday morning staff meeting. Two sentences are all it took to unravel any type of usefulness I was bringing to the table.
I sensed Jesus inviting me to take my place with him. To climb onto that brutal device and kind of sink into his chest and just rest with him on the cross.
My vocational life was in flux as I was trying to make sense of where I was serving and what God was calling me toward. During this period, all of my prayers came back to the arresting image of Christ on the cross. From this vantage point—crushed, bruised, and broken—I sensed Jesus inviting me to take my place with him. To climb onto that brutal device and kind of sink into his chest and just rest with him on the cross. Jake, the Overland Park Suburbanite, and Jesus, the tattered and slain Lamb of God.
How does one from the suburbs learn to die like one from Galilee?
Don’t get me wrong, it was a peaceful vision. A joyful vision, really. I was never harassed. The pain of crucifixion was never emphasized. Instead, it was just a simple and persistent call to come to him, rest, and to see what it means to shepherd as one nailed to a tree. This was my call to pastor the people of God. Truthfully, I had no idea the invitation I was accepting, just that it was a peaceful call to take my place upon the criminal’s tree and be bound to the grace of a loving savior, to be poured out for the life of the world.
I am discovering that this vantage point is a lot like marriage. When I recited the pastoral vows over my congregation, I felt married to these people, like my life was being bound to theirs in a way that I no longer lived on my own. I knew in that moment, as we walked through the covenant of installation, that this would be a mutual doing—that we would be in this together.
I’ll give all of me, open my life, my family, and my home and pour out every bit of passion, love, and hope I can muster right into this congregation.
I’ll show up at your ball games, and meet you for coffee, and take out the trash at the end of potlucks.
I’ll be at the hospital, regardless of the time of night, and if we need to drive around town until the world’s problems are solved, I’ll be your person.
I will pray for you.
I will stand before the table of our Lord and proclaim the Lord’s death and resurrection to you.
I’ll wade in the baptismal font with you as the water reminds us of new creation.
I will hold your babies and extend my hands at the end of each service and offer you a blessing.
I will gently lead you with all that I am, and with every available hour, I will give my life—all of my life—to you.
I am not strong enough for this; however, there is a strength that comes in the power of whatever holds Jesus to the cross. There is a redeeming power at work restoring and accomplishing all of God’s purposes for the world. From this vantage point, it is not my life being poured out for the congregation at New Beginnings Church, but the Son of God’s. As I am bound to the cross of Christ so that I no longer live, it is the life of Christ being poured out upon these people.
All of God for all of them.
I suppose this is the reason God used the cross to call me to ministry. In this way, I am practicing the crucifixion.
There is a strength that comes in the power of whatever holds Jesus to the cross.
Pastoral ministry, like marriage, takes a very distinct shape—the shape of a cross. It is a peaceful shape, a graceful shape, a shape full of light and life. But it will cost you all that you have so that all that you are is bound up in all of God for the life of the world.
This is what I am learning in my first year as a lead pastor. Each day, I am given an opportunity to die a thousand deaths. Sometimes, I choose my own life over Christ’s, and those are the worst days (they usually have something to do with power and people who don’t listen). But from time to time, I climb onto that dying tree and rest in the peaceful embrace of Jesus, letting him form me into a pastor. These are the best days—the days when I can see seedlings take root and new creation burst forth.