My gray haired friend and mentor, full of wisdom, shared with me what I perceived to be one of the most important lessons he had ever learned.
The gravity of his words weighed heavily on me from the moment he spoke them, and they still do. In fact I hope I always feel the weight of this lesson upon my shoulders.
For years I was privileged to meet with this dear man one on one. For hours at a time I endeavored to soak up his wisdom. Yet it was more than wisdom alone that I was drawn to. This friend bears a stunning Christ-likeness the likes of which I have not encountered elsewhere, ever.
For years my silent prayer request was that I would be able to grab ahold of and incorporate the lessons that this man had learned through a lifetime of ministry. For years I wanted ask him what is the most important thing you have ever learned, yet I didn’t, for every time I met with him I learned more than I could retain.
What a painful moment it was for me when he advised that he would soon be moving away, out of state, in order that his wife and he could be closer to their kids and grandchildren. I endeavored to meet with him more frequently until they moved.
During one of these meetings over a poor quality Chinese buffet lunch, I first felt the weight of the lesson. I was more nourished by the wisdom that he shared with me that day than I have been by a thousand meals. He spoke from deep and personal pain. Sometimes a tear would reveal itself and then slowly disappear down his face.
He said something like, “I think I’ve got it wrong for all of those years. In fact I wonder if I ever got it right.” Referring to his multiple decades in ministry, he explained what he meant. He had so combined the idea of ministry and his walk with God that the two had strangely morphed into one. Once he retired due to significant physical ailment, and his involvement in ministry stopped, he looked around to find his relationship with God was also strangely absent.
These words were particularly shocking coming from my mentor friend whom I held in such high esteem. How could he say this? Why would he say this? I had to know. I desperately wanted to stand in his shoes and know the reality of what he was saying yet it was slipping through my hands like oil.
We talked about it for weeks. I had to get to the bottom of this. What follows is a portion of my efforts to boil the lesson down to it’s essential components:
One can substitute ministry for a walk with God, even a vibrant ministry. Ministering to people is important, it is something that we are called to, yet it is not ultimate. Christ is ultimate. Therefore a genuine relationship with him is vital, and of dire importance.
A genuine relationship involves two way communication. Is he communicating, are you listening? Are you communicating? Is He leading and directing? Are you following?
We default to going our own way, doing things our own way, not listening, not communicating, and not following. I think this is precisely what my wise friend meant when he said he thinks he got it wrong and wonders if he ever got it right.
In John 16:7-15 Jesus comforts his disciples about his leaving, telling them it is good that he leaves in order that he would send the Holy Spirit. Then in verse 13 he says, “whatever he (the Holy Spirit) hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” Jesus clearly, explicitly tells his disciples that the Holy Spirit will communicate with them, with us. “He will speak… He will declare…” This is crystal clear teaching of a personal God who relates in a very personal way with his people.
Now your feathers may ruffle a bit at this, and you might be thinking, “But God speaks to us through his word, the inspired Scriptures.” With this point I would agree, yet I would ask you this; is it possible to have a relationship with the word of God, yet miss a genuine relationship with God himself? Here is where my old friend would say something like this, “Ah, but we prefer a comfortable distance from God.”
Scripture itself testifies that one can substitute a relationship with the Bible for a relationship with God. This is evident in Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.” (John 5:39 ESV) It is entirely possible to have deep knowledge of Scripture and yet completely miss the point. And what a tragic thing it is to miss the point, especially this one.
The professional religious people in Jesus’ day got it wrong. They dedicated their entire lives to the topic and missed the central subject. I suspect that today this is in large part also the case with many of our professionals. I’m certain that this has been the case for the overwhelming majority of my life as well. My heart breaks that it may not be this way any longer. Yet it is not as if I can pick myself up by the bootstraps and take the reigns to steer myself back onto proper course. This is in fact the most disconcerting issue about the whole matter. I am not the head in this relationship. And I am so used to being the head, the granite headed way maker. The reality however, is quite the opposite; Christ is the head. He is leading in this dance and I can only hope to be enabled to follow. Oh, but this is precisely what the Holy Spirit does. He both teaches and enables us to follow Jesus’ lead.
My gray headed friend, who only walks with the assistance of a cane or a walker, may have just taught me what it is to fly.