Life is a vapor (Hebrew: hebel). As you have heard many times, this is the pain of Ecclesiastes. Life is a breath on a cold morning, it appears and then is gone (James 4:14). The prime of life, the best part of earthly life, is spent working. There can be a monotony about that. But it occurred to me as I was thinking about being a grandpa and Ashley being a parent, that the prime of life is also spent parenting. Granted, parenting seems much more meaningful than work. We are talking about children, image-bearers, immortal souls, moral beings with minds, hearts, and wills. The prime of life is spent training them in the things of God, teaching them God’s Word, taking them to church, having family worship. The prime of life is spent having talks with them about the important and the not so important things of life.
The hebel of parenting is experienced in two ways. The first is that they grow up so very fast. They are little then they are big. They make little messes and then make bigger messes. It all goes by so fast. It can be downright depressing if you don’t keep perspective. Their lives are a vapor too. What you are experiencing, they will experience too, just like your parents before you. The prime of their life will be spent working and parenting too, and it will be here before you know it. We want them to stay kids forever, but that isn’t how God designed it. Their lives are also a breath on a cold morning. The breath doesn’t last forever, indeed, it is gone before you know it.
The second part of the hebel of parenting relates to what I’ve compared to chapters in a book. The way to ruin the end of one chapter is to try to prolong it instead of preparing for the next. Life is a series of vapors; each vapor is a short chapter in a short book. Try to prevent or delay the end of one chapter and the next one will start without you. That next chapter may start off differently from what you imagined because you didn’t finish the last chapter well. Although you can’t write the script for the next chapter, you can close out the current chapter in a way that you are a welcome part of the story for the next one.
Because life is a vapor, there is another perspective in Ecclesiastes: you can’t get more out of life than it was intended to give. You can’t turn life into an achievement to give you significance, a project to inflate your image or increase your joy. Life under the sun is life, and life is meant to be enjoyed as it races along, trying to suck more out of it than it can give sours it. The same truth applies to parenting. Don’t try to get more out of parenting than was intended. Parenting, in terms of children under your roof and care, is a temporary job. Why did God give us children? Why did He make us parents? Simple, to raise our children to become adults. Adulthood is the goal. If you try to squeeze your child so tightly and live as if they will be at home forever, you will exasperate them and possibly sour your relationship. By the way, they are not ours, they belong to God. God has given them as a fleeting stewardship for you to shape them and prepare them for adult life. They are a gift, not an achievement.
About nine years ago I wrote a very brief blog, “Let Them Follow and Please the Lord for Themselves”. I had heard a sad story about parents who had two daughters, one desperately wanted to go to college and earn a degree. She still wanted to be a wife and a mother, but she wanted to go to school. She believed God was leading her that way, opening doors for her. The parents dug in, “girls shouldn’t go to college.” The tension increased. This wasn’t rebellion, the girl was a solid Christian. The parents would not entertain the idea that God could directly lead their adult daughter. I guess it never occurred to them that they raised her to think for herself, follow God for herself, and make decisions for herself. She went to college. Although I do not reference the story, I concluded that blog with this paragraph:
We raise our kids to follow Christ, to live a life that is pleasing to Him, and then we try to play the role of the Holy Spirit in guiding them. If we have raised them right, we should yield to the Lord’s leading in their lives and not try to control them under some misguided concept of parental authority. If we have raised them right, they will seek our counsel and even the counsel of other godly people. If they are seeking to please the Lord and serve Him, then by all means let them! Do more than that, rejoice! It is sheer grace, not the wisdom of your parenting that brought them to that point.
Parents, keep in mind, parenting is enshrouded in hebel. Our lives are a vapor. Our kids’ lives are a vapor. Our calling and our stewardship are short. Let’s keep the goal in the mind. I say this as one who painfully realizes that my grandkids will grow up faster than my kids did. I say this as one who wants to grandparent in a way that builds into the lives of my grandchildren. Don’t mar the chapters because you didn’t accept the hebel. Don’t sour the relationship because you took your eye off the goal. As they start to spread their wings, rejoice, these are the moments for which you raised them.
I was recently talking to a pastor, who has served his church since 1987 or so. His son was entering the ministry. I asked, “So what do you think about him entering ministry?” “Well, my heart goes out to him, knowing what he’s going to face, the heartaches and trials. But I know also that God will be sufficient.”
The joys of ministry are wonderful. Being with the saints at Grace Community Church, opening the Word to them and loving them and being loved by them, week after week, month after month, year after year, has been the greatest joy of my life, next to being loved by Jesus and my family. There is no place I would rather be on a Lord’s Day than with these people, who are my family. But you cannot travel 25 years together without heartache.
Yes, there is the heartache of watching God’s people die. We have lost many saints over the years. Sometimes it is hard, especially when they are young. Sometimes it is mixed joy; they fought the good fight and have finished their race. But if they are in Christ, it is never hopeless. The truth is that every funeral for a believer, whether there was a lingering death or a sudden one, is filled with mixed emotions. Death is an enemy and we don’t whitewash that. But there is nothing like death to magnify Christ and the reality, power, and beauty of His Gospel. As George Bethune wrote, “It is not death to die.” So, the heartache of the death of the saints is tempered by “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints,” and “To die is gain,” and “Whoever keeps My Words shall never see death,” and “Death where is your sting?”
There are other heartaches. One heartache for me, is to see people in the same body have a breach in their relationship and then watch them refuse to approach the conflict biblically. I think this was a heartache for Paul (Phil. 4:2-3). Over the years I have seen with increasing clarity in Scripture that Christian ethics revolves primarily around how we treat each other. The “one anothers” of Scripture can only be lived out in the community of faith (Heb. 10:23-25). The church is a platform for applying the Gospel. Therefore, when there is conflict, the pastors labor to apply God’s Word to the lives of those involved. When those involved follow their own wisdom, rather than God’s Word, it is heartbreaking. It is a denial of the unity of the body. It is a denial of self-denial. It is a denial of the power of Gospel and Jesus’ work to make us one in His Spirit (Eph. 4:1-3). It is pure joy when God’s people submit to the Word, bury their pride, own their sin, and reconcile. It is agony when they fracture the body.
But there is another heartache. It is a heartache worse than death. It is the heartache of watching people shipwreck their faith. The reality is apostasy from the Gospel leads to destruction (e.g. Rom. 11:22; Heb. 6:4-6; 10:26-31; 12:14-17). The weight of pastoral ministry is put into perspective with the perseverance of the saints. The pain of pastoral ministry is put into perspective with apostasy. Paul knew this pain (2 Tim. 4:10).
The pain with people who shipwreck their faith is that you know them. They are people you have helped through crises. People you have counseled. People who have served with you. They are people you have prayed with, prayed for, and been in their homes, and they in yours. They are people you’ve invested time in for the sake of their souls. They are people who have loved and encouraged you. Then the drifting begins (Heb. 2:1). The red flags start to go up. You want to give them the benefit of the doubt. You tell them your concern. Their response reveals how far they have drifted by the excuses they give. The concern grows deeper, their heart grows harder. The sense of urgency and danger increases. The fog of sin rolls in with demonic density. They don’t want to hear your warnings. They know better. There may be some rational acknowledgement of their sin, but their conscience has been calcified, they are held firm by the evil one, and Christ is no longer precious. They have bartered for another god and have given away far more than they realize (Psa. 16:4).
I remember with great vividness, after a man had gone back to a life of drugs, that I laid my hands on the shoulder of another brother with a similar background, and said with great earnestness, “Do not ever go down that path! Do not fall away! Christ has done too much for you! We love you too much!” Tears welled up in my eyes and in his. He said, “I will never fall away.” Here we are today, that man fell away. It would have been better if he had died then to watch him deceive himself, be hardened by sin, and abandon Christ. There is no heartache like the heartache of one who falls away.
This is why I preach like I do. This is why the elders get involved like they do. We have to give an account for how we shepherded the flock of God. Having a que sera sera attitude scares me to death.
But oh, what joy when one who wanders off comes back. Those stories can melt this broken heart!
Yes, there are heartaches and heartbreaks in ministry. But when I consider the compassion and mercy of our Great High Priest, and His great love for His people, His atoning work, His effective intercession, then I press on. He holds me fast, He sustains my joy, He dries my tears.
Pray for your pastors! Pray for our joy, our holiness, our perseverance, and our labors. Pray for our hearts.
“When you put your hand on a child’s head, you touch a mother’s heart.” I heard these words from Pastor Albert Martin in a pastoral theology lecture during seminary. It got me thinking about children in the church. So often children grow up in the church and then they leave the church when they become adults. So often children are relegated to some form of ministry which disrupts the family and promotes the idea that kids don’t belong in church with the big people. So early on I developed a commitment to the kids in the church. The kids in the church are the future of the church. They need pastoral care like everybody else. They need attention like everybody else. They need the Word of God like everybody else. My “children’s ministry” approach was shaped on the following principles:
- Have fun with the kids. Wrestle with them. Joke with them. Laugh with them. Now the wrestling with them is tricky, because it can be embarrassing if they beat you.
- Share stuff with the kids. Give them Latvian chickenpox, they will remember it for the rest of their lives. Give them books too.
- Preach to the kids and pray for the kids. Address them in the sermon. Occasionally preach special sermons for them. Let the adults listen in, they can get something out of it. And pray for them. Pray for their salvation.
- Treat the kids as image-bearers. How dare the church send kids out right before the sermon. Maybe we need a strong dose of “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God.” “But they won’t understand.” My experience is that they understand more than we give them credit for. Also, it’s OK not to understand everything. It means there is learning and growing that still needs to take place. Train up young sermon listeners.
- Minister to the kids as individuals and part of a family unit. Learn their names, give them a hug or a high five, a Dutch rub or an Indian burn. Ask them about their soul, about school, be a resource for research papers. Ask them if they are reading their Bibles. This is all part of ministering to them as individuals. But they are also part of a family, so that needs to be respected. Sometimes parents ask for advice and counsel, and it is an honor to help contribute to their upbringing. Other times parents need help, but you don’t want to infringe, so you pray for the parents and the kids!
- Count it a privilege to watch them grow up. The long pastorate gives opportunity to see the kids grow. In my office is a collage of the kids in the church from many years ago. I look at it often. Watching the kids grow up is a continual reminder to me of God’s gift to me of wonderful families who believe in commitment and longevity too.
- Always reflect when you have the privilege to baptize one of them. There is such joy when one raised in the church professes faith in baptism. They are special times that are monuments to me.
- Always reflect when you get to perform their weddings. The weddings are special. Sometimes it feels like I am performing the wedding of one of my own kids.
- Rejoice exceedingly when they have been baptized, married, start having kids, and stay in the church. What joy to see the grown children walking in the truth, in the same church they were raised in.
- Try to pastor them in such a way that when they are old and I am gone, they will think back with fondness on their old pastor who loved them, prayed for them, baptized them, married them, counseled them, taught them, and most of all, pointed them to Christ.
Ministering to the kids and loving them is not work. It is joy. It is one of my greatest joys. And 25 years have given me many memories and many friendships with these precious ones. It is my prayer that I will get many more years, and I will be able to pastor and love the children’s children.