16 February 2017

soft hearts and thick skin

For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another.

1 John 3:11

I remember once being told that the work of pastoring is simple: preach the word and love the people. Some might say this is an oversimplification, but there is merit in understanding these two basic tenets of the vocation. Of course, as St Francis would like to remind us, preaching the word is much more than that which we do on Sunday mornings. In the role of church ministry the ways and means of gospel proclamation are everywhere and in everything. Still, I continue to be startled by the amount of pastors who shirk their responsibility to be proclaimers of the gospel, in both word and deed.

And then there is the other half of our simple statement: love the people. It should be no surprise that this contains numerous challenges as well. People can often present themselves as unloveable, and the irritations and frustrations that accompany close relationships – especially ones defined by spiritual endeavor – quickly disrupt our ability to act and respond in ways of love. This is the essence of people trying to work out their salvation, and the place of the pastor is heavily affected by such relationship dynamics.

Now, before I get too far on this, let me say that I have no interest in speaking of the pastoral vocation in grandiose terms, whereby you are supposed to think of the minister as a super saint who is able to do such an amazing work in spite of the overwhelming burdens of the task. There are plenty of sources that speak in this manner, and they are almost unequivocally wrong. The role of pastor is a unique endeavor that requires a certain temperament and skill set, but so is every other vocation in the world. The aim here is to present an observation of the relationship dynamics of the church from someone who spends their time in constant evaluation of the community of saints. For that matter, I might be wrong in how I understand the church. However, there might be merit from my reflected experiences.

Those who lead in the church, pastorally or otherwise, know well that that there is no shortage of hurt and/or angry people who make the work of ministry challenging and difficult. Speaking from the role of a pastor, these realities have a tendency to make one callous to the task – to treat this vocation with little sentiment or enthusiasm, moving from one appointment to the next and one Sunday to the next. But this is never in the work that Christ has given to the church, and it should not give shape to the way leadership works in a congregation. I think that the primary reason for this callousing is the amount of times that impassioned effort yields apathy in the pew. And there is no place where this has a more profound effect than in the realm of loving people.

There seems to be a difficult balance in the Christian life between having soft hearts and thick skin. If you hang around people for long enough, especially in the church community, you will discover that those to whom you have opened your heart will say or do something that makes you wish you had instead only shown them your thick skin. There are people who take advantage of you, either consciously or unconsciously, and the human tendency is to allow the hurting heart to become callous in order to avoid such pain in the future. But in this hardening of our hearts we lose the mandate to love our neighbor as ourselves, and thus we become our own hindrance to the gospel's work in and through us.

Yes, we want to be protected from pain, but this is simply impossible in genuine and meaningful relationships. Callous hearts close others out and prohibits love from having its effect. The only defense against this is having a heart that has been born of God. A heart such as this will continue to break – perhaps even more than before – but it will break in the same rhythm as the Creator, who alone can give healing comfort. It is from this assurance that we can have the kind of thick skin that enables us to experience incredibly hurtful things in this life and continue forward. For our worth is not found in what others think about us, or what value our world stamps upon us, but in the assurance of our heavenly Father, who fills us with an indescribable peace.

To be a part of this work, in official and unofficial roles alike, requires that we have soft hearts and thick skin. Otherwise we will be trampled and needled into a life that ceases to be connected to our Father's heart, and we will fail in our attempts to love, which is the very essence of who we are and what we have been created to be. For to love God and others is the highest calling and the greatest fulfillment we can find.

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