My Beloved Students in Christ:
I greet you in the precious name of our blessed Savior, The Lord Jesus Christ. I want to thank you for your prayers for me and my family. I have received the most touching letters from our students that will always remind me of the “glory and joy” of my pastoral ministry among you.
As I prepare for a long sabbatical to seek to heal and prayerfully prepare for a return to full-time ministry next year, Lord willing, I wanted to leave you with some words of pastoral reflection. I want you to understand my heart for all of you and for this institution as you continue in the Gospel ministry of preparation.
Always remember that our heroes are not Calvin and Luther, or for that matter Frame and Kelly (although they are my heroes!). Our real heroes are the everyday anonymous saints we serve in the pews, in the parishes, in the mission fields, classrooms, counseling rooms, and in the communities where we are called. They live out the faith we proclaim and teach with such courage. There are no lights shining on their stories, no biographers picking up the trail of their lives, but there are great lights shining, and there are magnificent stories being written in heaven’s journals. Your job is to read those stories and to shine the light of Christ’s love on them so they know that God sees them. They are the ones, as you continue to minister (and perhaps one day even find yourself, “sidelined” from ministry because of some malady like mine), that you will always remember.
These are also the ones that you will long to return to. These are the ones who inspire you to bound into the pulpit and look into their familiar eyes and tell them the story they are already living better than you are, but who act like they have never heard it before. They are the ones we train and labor for: the little girl with her new braces and her insecurity, the little boy who gets shifted from one divorced parent to another, the college lad who wrestles with his faith for the first time and honestly asks God the hard questions he needs to ask, the young lady at the bridal rehearsal who is the last of her college class to get married, and the older gentleman whose bride of 60 years you buried last Tuesday. They live the faith with Gospel passion and Christ-like resiliency. They are why we pastor, counsel, witness, teach, and minister. They are our heroes. Remember that. Remember them. All of the theology and training you are receiving is to strengthen them. I think this was the spiritual truth that prompted Paul’s pastoral heart to burst forth:
“Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory” (2 Timothy 2:10 ESV).
The amazing thing is that they are also the ones who will be your greatest teachers and greatest sources of inspiration.
And remember that our calling is to shepherd. Though I carried a title of Chief Executive Officer and was humbled by that charge, and took great honor and somber dedication in that role in our system, I sought to express it as a pastor and evangelist, which is my one calling from God. My charge to you is to be careful — biblically shrewd — in this present evil age and to be faithful to your calling to minister the Word. There are those who would seek to replace shepherd with another metaphor. There are some who would want us to trade our birthright for a new metaphor. Sometimes there are expectations to become “religious store managers.” Others, well-meaning but misguided, would have us to become “cutting edge pop sensations” to reach the unreachable. Be careful. Remember that shepherd is the title given by Christ. It is a lowly title with a high calling. Be careful of the other false identities which will never fulfill God’s purposes and which will leave you vocationally unsatisfied. Your vocation is your sanctification. In whatever place of ministry you go, be a preacher of the Word. Be a shepherd of Christ’s flock. “Do the work of an evangelist.” And in all of your ministry, in whatever expression it takes, strive to nourish your public life with a deep, ever-growing, ever-green life of intimate prayer. I say again, let your vocation become your sanctification.
I only regret that I did not meet each and every one of you, have a cup of coffee with you, hear your hopes and dreams, and pray with you for a while. Let this letter be my way of not only saying goodbye, but saying a prayer that God will use all of your outstanding preparation to raise you to declare the unsearchable riches of Christ to those simple, anonymous heroes and be faithful to your calling.
My dearly beloved in Christ, I did not seek this call. I did not resign from it. And I will now wait on The Lord to see if He will restore my health to, perhaps, return to my “first love” of Word, Sacrament, and Prayer, though I will never give up the ministry of seeking to prepare other faithful ministers who will teach others too. But if I am allowed to put on my old black robe that my Aunt Eva bought me 25 years ago, when I “left a career to follow a call” and climb into a pulpit once again, or take the bread and cup, the emblems of our salvation in my hands, or pour the clear, covenantal waters over the head of a little child as I hold her in my arms, I will remember you. I will remember that you too formed the glorious company of heroes whose courageous stories of faith are known but to God and to blessed people like me who got to serve you. For you now are precious flowers—beautiful and unforgettable flowers—that Mae and I have held in our hands, and will place carefully beside the others we have been privileged to gather from His fields. You will now be part of the bouquet of saints in the vase of pastoral ministry entrusted to us. For you see, you are our “glory and our joy” (1 Thessalonians 2:19-20). And I long to see you and your families and those who come after you “safe in the arms of Jesus” when He comes again.