When one is a pastor, people look to you for answers. Those answers often have as much to do with how we act as they have to do with what we say. Thankfully, clergy (and their families) do not live in the same “fishbowl” which just a few decades ago dictated much of what pastors were to do and how they were to behave.
We can look at a generation of pastors that “broke the mold,” so to speak, particularly when it came to church planting pastors. For good or for ill, we have seen pioneers, a raising of a new generation of hip pastors. Forget just wearing jeans and frosting your hair, we added cussing and craft-beer drinking to the list of things which were “acceptable,” well, at least for some. Technology gave us a whole new way to refine our “style.”
Many of us, myself included, took advantage where we could of some of these new freedoms and approaches. Sometimes we experienced the grace of more wise clergy and friends who cautioned us. Sometimes we did not. In many cases, we suffered, our churches suffered, and our witness suffered.
No matter how we might package ourselves, no matter how we might try to position ourselves to advance the Gospel or our “brand,” there is one thing we cannot escape. At some point we are going to come face to face with the reality of the integrity of our faith.
Integrity is important to me. Those who know me know this is a core value in my life, maybe THE core value. But even so, I come up short, “....for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God...(Romans 3:23).” I am not able to escape this reality anymore than I can escape my need for sleep or to eat.
So when I speak of an “integrity of my faith,” I am talking about the nuts and bolts, the nitty gritty, knee deep in the muck and mire reality of whether my faith counts for anything at all. We can talk about all the surveys and stats. We can talk about vital congregations, but from my experience and conversations, people looking for God, looking for faith, want to KNOW that you KNOW God and that you KNOW you are KNOWN by God.
The integrity of my faith has been tested in a number of personal challenges. It was tested when I went through testicular cancer, in two battles with clinical depression, and in loss of nearly 50% of my vision to name the more public challenges.
Now, the integrity of my faith is being tested by my wife’s cancer and my role as a husband and father. The integrity of my faith strains at cords of my covenant as a United Methodist pastor and as a caregiver. It is not straining because I lack help or support, heavens NO! I am surrounded by the love and care of my church family and friends and colleagues.
The integrity of my faith is being tested because this is life. What is being tested is the integrity of faith which has been nurtured and has grown since I first responded to God’s prevenient grace back in 1987. What is being tested is the integrity of marriage vows, of my wife’s faith in me (and my children’s faith). And this faith is not, no, cannot be measured by the state of my interior life. The state of my interior life will be measured and made evident by the integrity with which I live.
Father Simon Tugwell writes so appropriately in his book, Prayer in Practice, “...we read that ‘the Word was made flesh”, not that the Word was made mind. Of course his humanity includes a human mind and the Church fought long doctrinal battles over it. But even so the Bible says ‘The Word was made flesh”, and there is an appropriate exteriority about our religion which we should take seriously.” He goes on to state more pointedly, “...we are human beings, and it is our humanity that is redeemed in Jesus Christ. So let us not be afraid to use human language in human ways when we draw close to God.” The integrity of our faith is tested more than just in our declarations of morality. I think it is tested most clearly in the facing of mortality - the recognition of the frailty of ourselves and those around us and those most dear to us.
With each breathe and prayer I make throughout my day, this is the integrity of my faith which is being tested. The truth is, it always was being tested. James even makes clear (I'm still not sure that joy is how to describe what I’m experiencing right now), “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. (James1:2-3)” What I can say, is be attending to your faith now! Do you KNOW that you KNOW God? This is the assurance of salvation which we find promised to us (Romans 8:16-17) by St. Paul and passed on through the Methodist Revival. It is a true promise to us, do not wait for it, ask for it, seek it now when your faith is not in a time of testing.
I know whom I have believed in and HE is able to sustain the integrity of my faith. And that I say with all the scars upon my body and my heart.