Six years in and sometimes I’m still no better. In fact, I’ve gotten worse. Much worse.
The reality before me as a church planter and pastor is an oddly exhilarating one – giving me the highest of highs and lowest of lows over the last half-decade. Actually that word “low” is incorrect. More like “empty.” The excitement is obviously quite easy to describe – and the most enjoyable. It’s in the sermons that resonated the most over time. It’s in the leaders that blossomed in only the way the Spirit can direct. It’s watching your failures and foibles turn into strategic masterstrokes – as if you always knew it would happen that way. It’s the feeling that you’re really being used for something eternal on this side of the cosmic canvas of time and space.
But those low, low points. Those empty places. They’re enough to sabotage the whole affair. One disheartening episode will dissuade you more powerfully than 50 joyous ones. They erase endless memories of the positive, replacing them with just one brush with the negative. It’s not the people who feel moved by your message that stay with you. It’s the people who left in the middle that you know aren’t coming back. It’s the back-handed compliments where you hear what people really think about you. It’s the weight of a dream of what the kingdom of God truly looks like and the sad state of affairs in the reality before you.
I’ve often said the wrong thing at the wrong time. I’ve left many leaders out in the lurch because I didn’t respond properly. I’ve watched my fair share of people never return to our place of worship, because it wasn’t their thing. Because *I* wasn’t their thing. And whether or not it was your fault, it doesn’t matter. The fact is: you can’t shake it. You can never shake it. Even those who say they can are lying. I’ve been in this long enough and met with enough people to learn this is true.
When I’m thinking clearly, when God is whispering gently in my ear my plan for the day, when the proper planets are aligned over my head, I realize this is essential. The humility slowly unfolding amidst my failures keeps me grounded for the long haul. But those days rarely come. Most days, I’m stressed by the endless to-do lists – the myriad of things I can do to sing and dance the right tune to people please my way to acceptance. And I have it easy. After all, I started this church and can’t imagine the pressure that comes with statements like “well, we’ve always done it this way.”
I need a King of Persia. I need something, anything really, in a moment like this. In one of my favorite songs, “Raining in Baltimore,” Adam Duritz sings, “I had no intention of living this way. I need a phone call. I need a plane ride.” In other words, I need some way out of here, some distraction, in a moment like this. Back to that Persian guy.
In the book of Ezra, God moves the heart of the King of Persia. Cyrus. Cyrus, this foreign king of a foreign land dedicated to any foreign gods not named capital-G God, finds his heart moved by God – not his god, but God. It’s amazing really. I often hear friends of mine in various places of ministry say that they can’t get people within their church to listen to God or to act on God’s behalf. Yet here, outside of the church if you will, God moves. And it’s with this key person that God declares he’s going to rebuild his tabernacle.
The King of Persia, in other words, will build God’s church.
There’s a beautiful refrain here. And it only gets better. Cyrus orders everyone in the entire land to get behind this project. Give them silver. Give them gold. Give them freewill offerings (which is quite humorous to say it’s freewill, when… you get the picture). But there it is. He frees God’s people from their captivity and exile and gives them the resources to build the tabernacle again. He’s not on the right side at all, for those keeping score, yet there it is in black and white (at least in my Bible which is rather unadorned).
The beauty of those first few chapters in Ezra reveal a God who moves the hearts of absolutely anyone he chooses – whether in or out by my standards – to accomplish his purposes. I’ve seen this in action with my own eyes – people who should be opposed to the gospel giving themselves to a cause greater than their own life. God alone is the builder of his church. God alone is the architect of his kingdom. My work on his behalf has nothing to do with my own ability to perform, but instead it’s about my ability to discern. It’s not my ability to teach, but about my ability to listen.
Where is God working? What is God doing? Because spiritual reality dictates that God’s always working and always moving. I don’t have to hope that God will do something in my community. It’s already happening. I’m the one who has to arrive, not God. And I don’t have to worry about getting others on board with this either. Somehow I already know that if I find myself in the middle of the work, I’ll look around find the very people within my community on either side.
Matt Conner is a freelance writer and music journalist. As the founding pastor of The Mercy House, he led a church community for more than six years in intense community development across racial and socio-economic lines. As a writer, he’s interviewed thousands of musicians for multiple print and web-based publications.