This is a tale of two men. Both remarkably similar. Each strikingly different. These men taught me everything I need to know about the importance of genuineness. Bet let me begin at the beginning.
When my husband and I were dating and while we were first married we served in the youth and children's ministries for a congregation in a tiny town in the Midwest. The people in the church were just as you would expect for a small town in rural Missouri: extremely hospitable, conservative and somewhat old-fashioned, valued hard work and proper dress attire, familiar with farming, close-knit families and lots of good home cookin' :) We found a home away from home thanks to so many of the kind souls who were eager to take care of us, habitually showing generosity and thoughtfulness to us. A couple of the families in particular really took us in and helped us to feel secure, giving us a place to stay, food to eat, and friendship. A few of the men who served as elders or deacons in that congregation remain men who I respect and adore more than words can express.
During our time there we also faced many trials and struggles in our ministry, rocky spots in our marriage, temptation and regret in our relationships, heartache, enormous amounts discouragement (to use a very kind and generous word) from a certain leader or two, and seasons of frustration, doubt, and hopelessness. This part of our lives was the best of times and the worst of times.
Our preaching minister was a wildly gifted man. He was highly educated, well-versed in Scripture, a talented speaker, a Bible college professor and a published author. He conducted our wedding ceremony and did so with eloquence and beauty. He mentored my husband and taught him about how to become a better minister. He counseled us before we were married and offered us insight and wisdom about marriage and partnership.
And this is where the story gets....hard.
Sometimes in life, you just can't quite point your finger on what's going wrong. You know something isn't right, something's off kilter, something is severely out of place. Most of us knew something was going haywire in the church. Numbers were dwindling, and fast. People within the body were growing increasingly apathetic, critical, and weary.
I eventually learned to hate Sundays. I'm talking despise with a deep and growing fervor. It was as if I woke up on the first day of every week only to be met by a dirty, heavy, dark cloud that loomed over my head until bedtime. Being with the church was no longer a time of rejoicing, of celebration, it was nowhere near a sanctuary in which to be fed, to be uplifted, to be encouraged. I didn't want to serve. I didn't want to lead. I didn't even want to go. And in all honesty, I probably wouldn't have gone if I wasn't married to the Youth Minister, if I wasn't committed to teach the children, if I didn't worry about what others would say about me if I slept in.
I would say this experience with this group of people with these leaders was the Valley. Most of the people were there to lead me hand-in-hand through the valley. A few, however, were trying to sell me real estate there.
Fast forward a couple years. We move move further east, closer to our families. My husband continues to search (unsuccessfully) for a ministry. Search for a congregation in which to get involved. Adopt a dog. Live with his parents. Live with my parents. Plan a year-long missions trip. Un-plan a year-long missions trip. Enroll in graduate school. Settle for jobs at the mall. Look for better jobs. Continue to look for a church family (desperately). We try Baptist churches, Methodist churches, Presbyterian churches, Christian churches, Scientology chur----okay not really. But I am sure you can start to sense our frustration. Our deep longing to be fed, to serve, to grow.
And then, after all these seasons in the Valley, at just the right time, God sent a messenger to invite us up to the mountain....literally.
And so we went. To a church building, sitting on top of the Appalachian Mountains. Into a family. A growing, vibrant, lively and excited family. Into a religious belief system quite different from our own. Into a congregation who offered hope. It was time to open our hearts and open our minds to what God had planned for us. It was time for the Mountaintop, and oh man, were we ready.
Just as in our congregation in Missouri, this preaching minister was extremely gifted. He too was well very well educated, a passionate preacher, an interesting teacher, incredibly funny, well trained in the Scriptures, and exemplified an enormous amount of leadership skills.
These men sound very similar. By all accounts both men were successful in their professions. Both were married to remarkable and Godly women. Both had beautiful children. Both could have made a lot more money had they not sacrificed so much to be in the ministry, teaching people and leading men and women to Christ.
But that is exactly where the similarity of these two men ends.
The first man. The one whose flock was straying, suffocating and dying. He abandoned his sheep. Left without warning, without notice, without regret. He chose instead to pursue selfish desires of the flesh. He chose instead to chase after the pleasures of the world. He had lived a double life. His lies and deceit, his sin and his hypocrisy has rubbed onto each of us. He chose instead to reside in the valley, a place in which we had unknowingly allowed him to lead our church in the first place. Oh, sure, he had been a shepherd to us. A terrible one in fact.
The second man. The one whose flock had faith that was growing, whose numbers were increasing, and whose souls were celebrating life. He denied himself, took up his cross and followed Christ. He led his people onto the mountain. He stayed with him. Encouraged them. Prayed for and with them. Wept over them. His honesty, his goodness, his transparency, in short, his genuineness is what made him a great shepherd. I heard his voice. I knew his voice. It sounded so similar to the voice of The Good Shepherd. A voice I trusted and loved.
The morale of the story.
Having..... Education. Success. Respect. Knowledge. Power. Talent. Giftedness. can all help you to lead, to influence, to shape, to change people. It helped the first man lead me into the Valley, into the Darkness. It helped the second man lead me onto the Mountaintop. And the only difference was: the second man was who he claimed he was. In essence, he is who he says he is. They both spoke similar words, held similar degrees, has similar gifts, similar opportunities, quoted similar verses. But the first man, he is a fraud. A liar. An actor who played a convincing part in a devastating tragedy. The second man, he is faithful. He is true. He has no lines to memorize or rehearse. No parts to play. He was himself. And because of that, I found freedom. So many of us found exactly God had waiting for us on the mountain. The love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control which we so desperately needed. What one man took away, the other gave back in abundance.
Now, of course, I would love to end this by admitting my similarity to the second man. And I can do that. I can admit that I am much more like the second man. The genuine man. The man who leads people onto the mountain. But I would be lying. Because the reason the story of these two men continues to influence and shape my life so much is that although I desire to live with the genuineness of the second man, who undoubtedly learned it from Christ, I fear more often than not I am still walking behind the first man. The man who turned his back on Christ.
God has blessed me with talents, gifts, abilities, time, opportunity, education, resources, family, knowledge, influence.
And lately I have found myself, sort of "doing my own thing." Not really caring about the people in my life. Not really tending to the flock. Not really excited to serve, to share, to grow. I refuse to be vulnerable because I don't want anyone to know I am weak. I refuse to be honest, because I don't want anyone to know I struggle. I refuse to invest myself, because I don't want anyone to know I can be hurt. So I have refused to be genuine. To be who I really am. I have thought about me and only me. And here I am. A fraud. A genuine fraud.
The reality is that it is much more stressful to be the fraud. It takes more work, more energy, more concentration. So I'm letting go. I'm embracing who I am. Who I am in Christ. I'm taking to heart the lesson I learned from these two men. These two brilliant and gifted men.
This is not the first time I have to admit all this to myself, to my God, to my brothers and sisters. And it won't be the last. But I hoped that in sharing with you in genuineness the struggle that I believe we all face, the struggle to be genuinely who we were created to be, that you would be encouraged and reminded that you are not alone. You don't have to keep playing a part. You can just....be who you are.