Slumping on the hidden stairs last weekend I asked God to prepare my heart for our public worship. Little did I realize the sludge from which that request came. Exposed before me was the disparity between my private and public life. This affliction is not exclusive to pastors; although, pastors do engage in a unique public ministry that exacerbates the tension.
It was obvious to me that I was asking God to do something in my public ministry what was not regular in my private ministry. In public ministry the words are careful, the prayers well-crafted, the singing robust, the affections displayed. I wanted it to look like I’d communed in Zion all week and had descended to excite the masses with God’s word. In other words, I prayed that God not expose me in the pulpit who he knows me to be in the closet.
I want to know better (at least I want to want to). Would that I rejoiced to see God’s public blessing according to his private ministry with me. At this point I would be embarassed should that be the case. Would that I could honestly ask God to continue publicly what he has already been doing in me privately. But, it seems my neverending prayer is precisely the opposite. I want the passion and energy reflected in the public arena to spill over into the private closet. God is infinitely gracious to sanctify His people despite me. But, I’ve gotten things reversed and the church is none the healthier for it.
Perhaps an illustration is in order. There is a healthy debate raging in Texas concerning the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) test. It is like the old achievement tests we took to gauge the effectiveness of public education. However, the TAKS test is the main indicator of whether or not a child advances to the next grade. Do well on the test you advance. Do not-so-well and you’re held back. Given the human tendency to cut corners and shirk responsibility, many teachers simply “teach to the test.” That is, they teach only what is necessary to pass the TAKS test. And a child’s TAKS test score is taken as a reflection of his knowledge and competence.
I’m afraid I am often guilty of “studying to the sermon.” I translate, exegete, consult and configure just so I can crank out a Sunday homily, not to commune with the Living God. It may look like I’m competent, but am I? I may have prepared a meal, but do I “smell of its spices” (Spurgeon)? It may appear that I’ve come down from Zion, but am I really trying to find the stairs?
As egotistical and selfish as I am, I’m confident this is a pastoral pandemic. There are too many pastoral theologies addressing this tension to assume otherwise. I am particularly drawn to Thomas Murphy’s Pastoral Theology, from which I draw a few quotes from the chapter entitled “In The Closet”:
“. . . the measure of devotedness in any particular church may be gauged by that of the pastor’s heart” (p48).
“Blessings for thousands are impending when the minister is on his knees pleading for more and more grace” (p49).