Wise and Approachable

When I was a small child, I would look up from the hardwood pews at First Baptist Church in Birmingham, Mich., and be momentarily awestruck every time the pastors walked in at the beginning of each Sunday morning service in their long, flowing black robes and – in unison – sat down up front, facing the congregation from their seats on the elevated platform leading to the baptismal.

I suppose it was probably the combination of the loud, swelling organ music, the impressive-looking Bibles in their hands, the ornate carved-wood seating and the aforementioned black robes that all served to unsettle me greatly…almost as if here – at last! – were the three scary-looking guys who were going to render summary judgment on everyone in the sanctuary (or, quite possibly, the entire world).

In the end, I think the net effect of attending thousands of services just like that was to (quite unintentionally) put a fair amount of “spiritual distance” between me and the leaders of the church. While I may have known somehow that the pastors up front were all indeed mere mortals, it would never have occurred to me to think of them as “frail, fallen” human beings, each with their own unique demons to battle. Certainly I would have scoffed out loud if any of my classmates had said something to the effect that those guys up there in the dark robes were just like you and me. “Heck, no, they aren’t!” would have been my most-likely response; to my childish mind, these guys represented The Spiritual Elite in our midst, the mighty men of God who – for reasons I could not fathom – had deigned to spend some of their worship time amongst the rabble.

I have absolutely no idea if the pastors at First Baptist still wear long black robes. Different churches have their own unique ecclesiastical traditions, and that’s all just fine and dandy. My personal conviction is that anything (visual or otherwise) that tends to separate and/or set apart church leaders from the other desperate sinners in the congregation can rather easily turn into a temptation for those leaders to “forget” that they, too, need the daily grace of the Lord Jesus Christ just as much as anyone else. My own road back to faith was providentially blessed by Crossing pastors who solidly identified with the congregation in their daily need of Christ, and I was (and am) grateful for multiple opportunities to discuss the finer points of Christian theology with someone who is not wearing any formal church vestments.

I am convinced that a key issue to effective ministry within the church is a seamless identification amongst all of the sinners living in God’s Kingdom. Where the long, flowing black robes tended to put me off (or flat-out terrify me) and also served to make me think that there was no way I could ever attain the spiritual heights of a church pastor, the transparency of the pastors and educators I listen to nowadays is quite refreshing and serves, I think, to draw in a lot of people who might otherwise be too intimidated by a more formal setting. Those more-formal settings have their place, of course, within the Body of Christ, and now that I am no longer wearing short pants to Sunday School I can very easily appreciate soaring organ music, Christian hymns from the 15th century, and so forth.

This past weekend, I was in Virginia Beach attending a marriage conference put on by the Christian Counselors and Educators Foundation and, once again, I was struck at how all of the speakers and trainers were so gracious in their manner of readily identifying with sinners. I can’t recall even one session in which the speaker failed to apply the book of Ephesians to issues that they themselves were struggling with in the present day or had struggled with in the recent past. Sitting in the audience, aware of their impressive credentials, it’s still somewhat tempting to look up at the speakers and think of them as “spiritual giants,” examples for all of us to emulate somehow. And while that is certainly true on several levels, the semi-regular reminders that we were being addressed by broken sinners who are still waging their own battles against the flesh helped to meld their obvious wisdom with an encouraging inside look at their own struggles.

During the conference, we watched a video that discussed the CCEF mission, that mission being to better equip church pastors and lay people to minister to folks wherever they may be in their own spiritual journey. The video made this point quite well as it talked about the often-dueling perceptions of “church as country club” or “church as hospital,” and how the church very much needs to be a welcoming place for all who are broken, who desperately need repair…the last thing that broken people need is to feel judged, or worse, made to feel irreparable. Odd. Unacceptable. Whenever our own besetting sin is tempting us to despair, it seems like we all tend to want to “draw back” from those in the church who seem to have their act together. I know I do. “I’ll come back to church – and the people in it – once I’ve patched myself back together a bit.” (Ever tell yourself something like that?)

It’s easy to forget – and very comforting to remember – that the ministry of Jesus Himself was built entirely within the midst of broken, desperate sinners. Jesus’ public ministry was replete with young children running right up to Him and sitting in His lap. The blind would cry out to Him shamelessly; the unclean and the leprous all did the same. An old woman reached right out and touched the hem of His garment, desperate for healing. Tax collectors, prostitutes, Roman soldiers, you name it…Jesus was clearly very approachable by anyone and everyone. Although He knew no sin, He clearly sympathized with sinners in their plight and put up very few boundaries on His personal space.

Looking back now, I can see clearly that my childish perception of the daunting figures in the long, flowing robes was just that…the foolish perspective of a child. I don’t recall ever telling my parents that I was in fact somewhat frightened by these guys, and that their Sunday morning wardrobe was getting in the way of my seeing them as real people. My Mom was even best friends with one of the pastor’s wives, and so I had multiple opportunities to see “Pastor Bill” outside of his Sunday morning context, yet I also remember that every time I saw him “in his street clothes” the magisterial images cemented in my head by countless Sunday Morning Sanctuary Entrances came immediately to mind. “Yeah, no use trying to be a regular person like the rest of us, Pastor Bill; to me, you will always be the scary black robe guy.”

One of the lasting benefits of this childhood recollection is a constant reminder to myself to never, ever drift into the practice of becoming Scary Black Robe Guy. The Bible tells us in no uncertain terms that knowledge puffs up (1 Corinthians 8:1) and that we need to watch our hearts very carefully so as not to (even unintentionally) put psychic and/or spiritual distance between those of us who may know a few things and those who know fewer. There really is no “pecking order” allowed in the Kingdom of God based on our knowledge or our performance; those who disagree with that statement may have lost sight of the fact that it does not matter if you miss the target by 18 inches or 18 miles…God’s standard is perfection (Romans 10:14-17) and we all miss it. Whenever we are tempted to “put on black robes” with those who know less about Jesus than we do, it seems clear that we may have misplaced the truth that those of us who have been given the Truth of Christ have received this immeasurable gift for the express purpose of sharing it with those who have not heard (Matthew 5:17-20; Matthew 5:48). How will we fulfill this purpose if people are reluctant to speak around us for fear of “looking stupid?”

Yes, we should be excited to talk with others about Jesus, and we should be eager to learn more and acquire knowledge about the Bible and Christian theology. These are all very good things. But the adversary of our soul is (and always will be) smarter than any of us. He knows how to turn a good thing (knowledge about Jesus) into something that separates and divides. All he needs to do is whisper in our ear, informing us that we clearly know far more about Christianity than the other person. An awareness of surpassing knowledge is usually all it takes to make the conversation quickly become lopsided, the “scary guy in a black robe” kindly sharing his vast knowledge with “the seven-year-old in the wooden pew.” For what it’s worth, I’m thankful that I now find myself surrounded by other believers who, along with their own sins and failures, have the heart of Jesus for sinners like me.

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