When Donnette was thirteen, her family took a trip to the Florida Keys for a week of boating and camping by the water. This was a trip they had taken many times; Donnette’s entire family loves the water and none of them consider it a vacation unless the sun is shining and blue water is somewhere nearby.* They would spend their days out on their boat, skiing and lobstering and doing all of the other fun activities that come with clear water and your own aquatic transportation. This trip would not turn out to be like all the others though, for one very memorable reason.
Even though Donnette’s told me the story many, many times, I am a little fuzzy on some of the details.** However, the basic story goes like this…the whole family, and maybe a family friend, was out on the boat, about a mile from shore, when suddenly they began to notice that the boat was taking on water. When you’re out on the ocean, this is not uncommon, but they quickly figured out that it wasn’t just splash-over, but rather, the boat had sprung a leak. It was going down. Now, my father-in-law is a competant boater, and his boat was in good shape, but the boat was going down nonetheless and so the parents suited the kids up in swimfins and life-jackets, all the while doing what they could to get the boat back to shore. However, as her dad went to turn the boat in toward shore, the weight of the water capsized the boat and everyone spilled into the warm Florida ocean. Within a couple of minutes, the boat had sunk completely, though the water being both shallow and clear the wreckage was easily examinable. Everyone made it to shore safely – boatless but otherwise okay. They would later find out that the thing that caused the boat to sink was a malfunction of a small rubber ring around a small hole in the back of the boat. The ring, though relatively new, had a crack in it, and its failure caused the whole boat to eventually go under.
I remember reading awhile back that it was a relatively small misfuntion that caused the Titanic to go down too. Something like the prop not being big enough, and the device that would have sealed off the lower decks of the ship not working properly, or something like that. Of course, if you study the story of the Titanic in any detail, you are bound to come to the conclusion that this wasn’t quite the case. The captain of the ship was sailing way too fast through waters he knew to be icy, the lookout on post was busy sending what amounted to 1920’s text messages, there weren’t enough lifeboats, etc. etc. You add all of that together, and it almost seems inevitable that a shipwreck would be the outcome. Comparing these two events hardly seems fair, Donnette and her family swam safely to shore in the warmth of tropical waters while
hundreds thousands of people either drowned or froze to death in the aftermath of the Titanic.*** Still, at the end of the day, either because of one small failure or a combination of several failures and a good dose of hubris, both boats ended up at the bottom of the sea.
I’ve been thinking about this because I’ve been spending a good portion of my time studying for my ordination exams. If you’re unfamiliar with the process, all I can say is that it is very similar to everything else Presbyterian: slow, multi-stepped and harder than it probably needs to be, but usually yielding the best results. The exams are not easy – it’s like seminary times ten. The exams range from Bible knowledge to theology to church polity and history, and they’re all quite thorough, again, because we are Presbyterians and because that is our way. While the exams, particularly the Bible and Theology exams, are daunting, the most daunting part of the process has been the self-examination that should accompany anyone seeking to be a Christian minister.
My devotional reading has recently walked me through two different sections of scripture – the Kings of Israel and the letters of Paul. If you read these two sections back to back, you come to realize that there are, really, only two types of leaders of God’s people: 1. the good kind, and 2. the bad kind. That’s it! Read through Kings or Chronicles and you read the same thing, time and time again…”so and so became king of Israel, and he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and he caused the people to do what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” Over and over again. **** Judah had a few good kings, but even they struggled to undo all the wickedness their predecessors had done. The New Testament is no better, while Paul doesn’t write of kings misleading the people, he often describes men who enter the ministry for their own gain, making a shipwreck of their faith in the process.***** James warns believers that not many should aspire to become leaders, because leaders will be judged more harshly. One of the criteria Paul gives for those who aspire to become elders in the church is that their conduct be blameless. There is no middle ground.
I can’t tell you how long I’ve looked at that word, “blameless.” The ESV gives you a little out, translating the Greek adjective there as “above reproach,” ****** but the idea remains the same. Blameless. I mean, on a day to day basis, how many commandments do you think you break? I mean, if it’s not Sunday you can probably read #4 without a tinge of guilt, and I probably don’t break #6 until I get behind the wheel of a car. I was joking with Donnette the other day that the only sermon in which I wouldn’t feel at least some conviction would be a sermon on gambling. I can honestly say I do not now, nor have I ever, had a problem with gambling. Other than that…
To make matters worse, I’m not just fighting my own introspection. We in the western church don’t like to talk about him very much, especially not in the reformed circles I run in, but there is a very real, very personal Devil, who loves to remind Christians, at times, just how bad they are.******* My friend Gavin, who graduated from seminary a year ahead of me, told me to be aware of just how much Satan would try to attack me while I was preparing for these examinations. He was speaking out of his own personal experience, and he was dead on the money in his advice. Now, I don’t think that Satan himself is out to get me, I doubt I merit that sort of attention, but that doesn’t mean that he’s ignoring me completely. All of this to say that it is easy to get discouraged when you read the word “blameless.”
It’s funny though, what grace does. Grace forgives us, sure, yes, always, we are saved by grace, but we are also made better by grace as well. In salvation, God declares us to be holy, and then works to actually MAKE us holy. Paul tells Titus that the grace of God has appeared…teaching us to say no to worldly passions and to live self-controlled and upright lives. In other words, the grace of God enables us to actually be blameless before men. Not so we can pat our own backs at the good job we’ve done, but to acknowledge more and more that is was grace that brought us safe thus far, and that grace will bring us home.
Back to the shipwreck metaphor, this has been a time of serious introspection, but a fruitful time as well. It doesn’t feel like enough to make sure your ministry won’t end up like the Titanic; I don’t want to end up ten feet deep in the Gulf of Mexico either. It’s a time of rooting out sin, confessing it, and then moving on from it. It’s a time to thank God that while I’ve still got many miles to go, he really has changed my heart, in so many ways. I feel ready to be a pastor, ready to go to France, in a way that I wouldn’t have a few years ago.
As always, I want to thank you all for your prayers. I know that our readiness to go and do this work is in no small part due to the consistent and persistent prayers of so many who love us, and more than that, love the Lord. Keep praying for us during this time, and please pray for France, and those who are already toiling for the gospel there.
*I’ve tried to convince Donnette that if we took a cruise to Alaska in the summer that both of these criteria would be met, but to this point, she is a no-go on the great white north.
**If you’re a member of the Bernard family and wish to “fact-check” me, please feel free to do so in the comments section.
***A Google search reveals that 1,517 passengers died from that wreck. So, really it’s not the same thing.
****A quick trick to remembering the good kings from the bad kinds without looking ahead. If he was a king of Israel – he was a bad king. If he was a king of Judah, and you’ve never heard of anyone with his name – he was probably a bad king.
*****1 Tim. 1:19 – Paul actually uses the term “shipwreck,” and in context, he is most certainly talking about men who were at one time leaders of God’s people.
******If you’re reading this Dr. Cara, know I’m doing my best to put your Greek classes to good use.
*******Of course, Satan’s far more popular tactic is to convince people how good they are, and how little they need to repent of their sins and ask for forgiveness. But, to put it in football terms, Satan is more than capable of playing both sides of the ball equally well.