Hard Knocks

“It’s a hard-knock life for us.” You may remember that line from Little Orphan Annie, then again you may resonate with it from your own experience. Most people I talk with these days have some sort of hard story to tell. In fact, while most of the leaders I know are very good with words, some struggle to find the best words to express why they’re feeling so tired right now. Think about it. They get to work from home, they’re surrounded by a loving family, and they even have ready access to a well-stocked refrigerator! What could be “hard” about that?

One of my exhausted pastor buddies just asked this question. “Are you coming across pastors who are struggling with  the ‘new normal?’ I know I sure am. How did you gut it out to the finish line?” I responded by saying that while I didn’t have the “new normal” to deal with… I did have the same as he did… a high calling!

A clear and compelling sense of calling is key for us all. Let’s face it, all the easy positions have been taken. The only ones left are assignments like yours. Yes, while leading a noble and hopeful life as a pastor is definitely a tough assignment, it’s not the only tough one. How about those seeking to serve and protect our communities through law enforcement these days, or our African American friends seeking to rear their kids to live with both self-respect and respect for authority? No one has a monopoly on hard.

Most everyone is living their own version of hard right now. Despite the beauty of June in Colorado, plans for churches to begin regathering, and a rebounding economy benefiting most everyone, there still seems to be an excess of misery. Our country is facing overlapping crises. We seem to be stuck in a state of perpetual trauma. While I’m rarely on social media and consume only small doses of the news, I’m in daily conversations with leaders feeling overwhelming stress. One just told me that he’s never had so much trouble sleeping. Another said he was exhausted by unrelenting challenges hitting his inbox and iPhone all day every day, even on weekends.

Everyone seems to be tired and longing for relief.  I think I know why - it’s the unrelenting uncertainty of our times. In ministry you’re either coming out of a crisis, in the middle of a crisis or heading into a crisis. In some ways that’s inevitable, and it’s what the apostle Paul predicted in Acts 14:22: “… we must suffer many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” It’s similar to what Jesus  told us, “In this world you will face tribulation…” (John 16:33).

Could it be that we are all a little naive, or entitled, or spoiled due to unrealistic expectations? Linda and I just watched the John Adams series again about the life and times of our second President. It’s humbling to see the suffering and sacrifice of those leading during the Revolutionary War and the early days of our nation. Normal life, even for most leaders was miserable by the standards of our time. I’m reading a book right now entitled, “The Boys In the Boat - The true story of an American Teams Epic Journey to Win Gold at the 1936 Olympics.” That success shocked the world and is set against the backdrop of The Great Depression and the looming threat of Nazi Germany. Most people were at best just eking out a living, and yet some still managed to lead others to high performance in the midst of high stress.

While there has never been a time like ours, there have definitely been harder times than ours. What we know is that high stress and hard knocks have been common since the Garden of Eden. While we are enduring the serious challenge of the COVID virus in 2020, during the 1918 Flu Epidemic at least 50 million people died worldwide and about 675,000 in the U.S. Guess what? Parents still had to support their families; medical people still had to serve the sick, and pastors still had to lead funerals during the week and share messages of hope on Sundays.

Hard knocks are inevitable … but then so are blessings. These days I prefer to encourage those that I serve to remember that we are either coming out of a season of unspeakable blessing, in the middle of a season of unspeakable blessing or heading into a season of unspeakable blessing. While hard is inevitable so is the presence of God.

During the hardest seasons of my life in leadership it always helped me to remember that I was on special assignment. I not only chose to be a pastor, I was called to be a pastor. Whatever your hard assignment happens to be, you are not alone. Others are with you, and some are setting an inspiring pace and example for you. One of the younger leaders of one of our largest churches just did that for me. Kyle Idleman recently talked about the over lapping challenges his congregation was facing in Louisville, Kentucky. Speaking to those in his church of 20,000 (a congregation composed of many in law enforcement and of various ethnicities) Kyle spoke warmly of his gratitude. He talked about how grateful he was to be a pastor during this hard time because of his privilege to share encouragement and hope.

This I know, those who have the most hope always lead best. That’s especially true during hard times! As one of my friends likes to say: “You are stronger than you think you are … you can do more than you think you can … and you are loved more than you could possibly know.” Never doubt that in Christ, you are!

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