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From his column Pressing On

pressing-on-09-13-1I am discovering that I have to learn lessons more than once. The most important lessons, for some reason, don’t sink into my bloodstream with just one dose. I need to learn them again and again. In fact, I’m coming to see my life as an extended educational exercise in which I keep learning the same few things. The lesson I need to learn most often has to do with to whom the church belongs.

Every vocation has its own set of blessings and challenges. Pastoral ministry, being the strange work that it is, comes with a unique set of hazards. While it is good and fulfilling, it is also distressing and unsettling. On more than a few occasions, I have encountered the effects of the “Atlas Complex.” Atlas was the character in Greek mythology who was punished by Zeus and made to carry the weight of the heavens on his back. In Homer’s Odyssey, Atlas is referred to as the "one who knows the depths of the whole sea, and keeps the tall pillars who hold heaven and earth asunder.” We pastors know something about burdensome weight. The workload is overwhelming. Needs are endless. Obstacles are enormous. Relationships are messy. And sharp criticisms are deflating. Thus, we bear the weight of the church. Not just when we are in work mode, but at all times. Even when we lay our heads on our pillows at night, we feel the load.

About two full years into ministry, the strain was great. I poured my heart out to God in prayer. When I finished telling God the things I wanted to say, I sat quietly and heard his voice: “Daron, whose church is this?” It took a few moments for the question to settle into me. Then he followed up with: “…because if this is your church, then you keep on carrying that weight… and good luck to you. But if this is my church, then stop behaving as if it is yours. Stop carrying the weight.” The load was lifted and my lesson was learned for the first time. There have been many times since (more than I would like to admit) that God has reminded me by re-asking that simple question.

Author Gordon MacDonald draws a distinction between the called and the driven in his book Ordering Your Private World. He notes, “Driven people often project a bravado of confidence as they forge ahead with their achievement-oriented life plan. But often, at the moment when it is least expected, adversities and obstructions conspire, and there can be personal collapse. Called people, on the other hand, possess strength from within, a quality of perseverance and power that are impervious to the blows from without. (1)” MacDonald reminds us that a driven life finds its source in human strength, whereas a called life is lived from the knowledge that God alone is the wellspring of our being and our work.

The practice that best forms us in this mindset is regular Sabbath-keeping. By ceasing work one day out of every seven, we are reminded that we are not God. By simply stepping away and stopping, we come to realize that our efforts do not keep the world hoisted. Contrary to what we think, the church survives for a whole day without our activity. And if the church can survive for one day without our activity, then maybe the weight of the church was never ours to carry in the first place.

Occasionally, the symptoms of my Atlas Complex resurface, and I hear God ask, “Daron, whose church is this?” I am then reminded of the Apostle Paul’s declaration: “(God) is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col.1:17, NIV). “All things” includes me and my ministry. “All things” includes the church and all its problems. “All things” means the weight of the world. God alone is the One who holds all things together. It’s a lesson worth learning… again.

Daron Brown lives and pastors in Waverly, Tennessee. He is the author of Shift: How Nine Churches Experienced Vibrant Renewal.

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