Ministry is a rich and rewarding vocation—until it’s not. For most of the ministry leaders I know, any idyllic notions they had of life as a pastor lasted about three weeks into their call. The honeymoon phase of ministry ends and real life sets in as the tide of warm smiles and kind compliments goes out, leaving behind rocks of criticism and complaint. If you’re lucky in ministry life you will be buoyed along with enough compliments and encouragement, only occasionally experiencing the pain that comes from stepping on a sharp rock of criticism. If you’re not so lucky, you’ll grimace with every step because overly critical people litter your way with painful remarks and sharp jabs.
On its surface, this passage looks like it means that one’s eternal salvation is determined by one’s acts of compassion. Whenever we help the disenfranchised and the downtrodden of society, our entrance into heaven is all the more assured. On the other hand, as I heard one famous teacher describe it, Jesus will turn away at the final judgment from self-identifying Christians who failed to help the poor during their lifetime, saying, “I don’t want to hear it!”
I never dreamed that I would find myself so familiar with death as a pastor. I studied theology in seminary, and learned about expositing a text and church leadership. However, I don’t remember reading a book about what to do when visiting someone on their deathbed. Looking back over the past seven years as a pastor, I’m astonished at how many times I’ve found myself in that exact position. Along the way, I’ve seen firsthand how uncomfortable with death we are as a society. Most people don’t know what to do or say in those moments, and so they call for a pastor.
I enjoy making New Year’s resolutions. It’s an opportunity to put aside past mistakes and failures and start over in the coming year. I can start anew with my devotional or exercise program that I abandoned last year. My gym sent me an e-mail which declared this to be the “year of . . . you”. The e-mail went on to say, “It’s 100% your choice. It’s your decision. It’s in your hands. YOU are in control. YOU.” That’s the kind of talk I like – talk that centers around me. Of course, as a Christian I immediately recognize this to be worldly thinking, but I need to be careful. My thinking about resolutions can easily end up as worldly thinking masked by a thin veneer of Christian language.
With a few words from a stranger, one story ended and another started—suddenly and unexpectedly. The mysterious visitor had not come to bless her plans, but to announce a reality. God was calling Mary out of her story and into His.