Years ago, when I was pastoring, I asked one of the ladies at our church to create a banner around the Latin term “Sursum Corda.” She did a fabulous job, visually depicting the concept of what the term literally means: “Up with Your Heart!” Hanging for all to see at the front of the church, that banner was a weekly reminder to look up, to spiritually take our hearts by the chin and look into the face of a gracious loving God who has provided “everything we need for life and godliness” in Christ.
Living under that banner has been a big struggle for me, both in ministry and in life. I spent a lot of time laboring under the shadow of the emotional environment with which I grew up; expectations were never achievable and little time was devoted to truly being thankful. Family members’ constant reminders to send “thank you notes” made that gracious act into an obligation, and not a true expression of my heart.
Entering ministry, I found pastoral work to be a field of land mines that regularly blew any idea of thankfulness or gratitude to smithereens. People were always coming up short, things didn’t happen fast enough or the way I believed they should. It was far too easy to be affected by the spirit of our age, which – like it or not – sees people as products, with efficiency as the master of the system. Certainly, there are tasks that could use a good dose of efficiency. But people are not projects! They will never be subject to efficiency. The more we try to fit them into that mold, the more angry we become – and less thankful. Unfortunately, in this mode, even God can come up short in our eyes. We unconsciously believe He promised things He never did, or didn’t show up when we thought He should – as if somehow He owes us.
We have become production managers when we should be shepherds.
I am constantly being drawn back to this fundamental idea of pastoral work, that we are indeed shepherds. It flies in the face of our “chronos” (clock) driven culture, and functions in the world of “kairos” (event) time. Sheep, we realize, are not something that function any better or quicker if ‘managed.’ Sheep will indeed produce fleece, in time! If the sheep are healthy, they will naturally repopulate the flock. The shepherd’s job is to protect the sheep, to seek out green pastures for them to feed on and fresh water for them to quench their thirst. The shepherd is called to be faithful to the owner – since that’s whose sheep they are!
Similarly, pastors must also regularly take their places as one of the sheep, finding nourishment for their own souls and health for their own hearts. This is how we become the kind of shepherds that are gracious and wise; without that time for our own hearts to find their proper posture before God, we will be driven instead by anger, impatience, control, and a sense of entitlement. The inner voices that correspond to our own emotional neediness will demand the drug of approval from others – and that is dangerous.
With these images never far from my mind, I am learning to be grateful, to be a thankful person. The results are becoming apparent and the benefits obvious. I smile a lot now! I am finding that my schedule is more flexible around people and, most certainly, God. People even like to be around me – most times. There are still things to get done, and I have my strategy for ministry, but it is daily put on God’s desk for editing and amendment. And each day is a fresh page to be turned.
So, if I were going to try to describe the “thankful pastor,” I would offer a few things that might be helpful. The thankful pastor is:
First and foremost, daily rooted in the understanding and joy of his own redemption;
- Attentive to his own call to follow Jesus before he worries about others;
- Aware that life and ministry are gifts from God – undeserved, but lavishly given;
- Understanding that the people he leads and the church he serves are not his, nor is he serving at their call;
- A peacemaker in his own heart between the voices of efficiency and the voice of the Spirit of grace;
- On a daily adventure with God, having been invited into the wonder of spiritual work;
- Growing in flexibility, faith, and the ability to take joy in the moment.
Thankfulness and gratitude are the barometer of our heart, a choice regarding how we see the world we live in, the person we are and the calling we have received. If we can begin with the truth of the gospel every day – for our own lives – we will be the healthy pastor people hope for. Sursum Corda is an invitation to pick the eyes of our hearts up from the ground and look full in His wonderful face. And THAT is a privilege we cannot take for granted!
I recently heard a great piece of advice for pastors who are beginning ministry in a new church: when you begin your new role, find anything and everything you can commend and be genuinely thankful for among the people you have come to pastor. I think that is a great way to start! It helps us to recognize that God was there before us, and softens our hearts so that we are less prone to see only those things that are wrong or frustrating.
In his book, Pastors at Risk, Chuck Wickman makes this simple statement that is so true: “Count your blessings. Gratitude is a healer.”
Michael Spencer (The Internet Monk) expresses his own journey toward thankfulness:
“There is discouragement in my world, but if I am honest, most of it is smaller than I make it. I am the one who amplifies it most of the time. As I’ve learned to listen more and more to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, I’m learning that Jesus was very dependable when he taught us that the Kingdom of God is upon is. Right here, right now, close by. I choose to not see it because I am lobbying for that most destructive of emotions: self-pity. Jesus is reminding me that there is sufficiency in the love he extends, and the love he places around us. That love comes in thousands of different ways in a day. The problem is that I don’t expect it, don’t listen or look for it, don’t live in expectation that his gracious love will meet me throughout the day.”
Paul has a lot to say about thankfulness in the book of Colossians, but I have always been drawn particularly to Colossians 2:7. The progression in this passage is noteworthy: rooted in Christ, renewed in the truth of the gospel, which creates a geyser of thankfulness. It reminds us that there is too much wonder in the world to be grumpy. The Gospel is too strong to allow us to remain disappointed.
How have you grown in thankfulness?