God has gifted pastors with a terrible privilege. We’re invited to go inside peoples’ pain. A stranger stands emotionally naked in front of us begging, “I can’t get what he did out of my head. Please, help me!” Pastors call pastors to express feelings of guilt and judgment. “I just need someone I can trust. Can you listen to me? I don’t know what to do with all this. Can you preach to me?” In church or at home, on the phone or by text, at a coffee shop or in a pew, pastors are invited inside peoples’ pain. We are the keepers of dark secrets. Catalogs of confessions. God’s mouth-piece who sits heart-broken in darkness with the heart-broken. Someone people hope will be the promiser of “everything will be alright.”
Most days a pastor’s weakness finally shows. At the day’s dawn or late afternoon, early evening or four in the morning, we are confronted by ourselves. Whispers in the dark. Tongue bitten. Satan says, “You’ve blown your only chance to save them.” Old Adam says, “You set out to serve the Lord, but you’ve let another one slide off your shoulders. You didn’t preach the right words. That wasn’t the best way to engage the problem. What do you know about rape?” I stand at the edge of the porch staring across the parking lot at church. Silent. Still. I wish my heart could feel the same. “Lord, if it be your will, take this pain from me. Take these people away from me.”
In the valley of their pain the Son rises slowly as sinners try to walk away from fears and faults they can't leave behind. Broken-hearted or choked hope, everything is upside down. She can’t stay in rehab. He can’t slip the noose that’s round his throat. A broken-hearted lover. A failed romance. False hope. Unkindness. Loneliness. Murder. Abuse. Addiction. Numb. Too young. Too long yearning for a quiet grave. Each of them a mirror God holds up to show his ministers themselves. And so we preach inside their pain. We preach to them. We preach at ourselves.
Pastors are sent to give Jesus crucified for you. Jesus beaten for you. Jesus bloody for you. Jesus screaming for you. Jesus abandoned for you. Jesus damned for you. Jesus buried for you. God’s forgotten all your sins. All your pain is Jesus’ pain. All the world’s pain expressed with one voice: “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing!” And he’s right. They don’t. We don’t know what we're doing either. All we've got is the foolish message we preach: "Everything is not alright, but in Christ that's... alright."
As a pastor, I want to preach the Gospel and love people. That’s it. Not complicated. Simple. Not easy, but simple. I pray that the Father would make that my ministry. And, even though I pray for it, I’m still surprised when they come. Each one shows up begging, “Can you lift this weight off me?” “Can God take away the nightmares?” “Who can I tell? I don’t trust anyone with this.” “What if he finds out?” “How can I love her when her foot’s still on my neck?” “I still feel his hand on my throat.” “Will you help me?” “Please, preach to me.” “I need Jesus. Can you give me Jesus?” In their sweat and blood and knees gone weak, they look at me. Expectant. Waiting. Bottomed-out. Empty.
God’s pastors are sent to confess this simple truth: “Jesus was made to be sin, so you can be the righteousness of God. When you talk about sin, you’re talking about Jesus. He’s Sin to your sin. Death to your death. Satan to your satan. Your pain’s his now. All your faults and fears are nailed to Calvary’s cross. You can’t have them back. God’s claimed them from you forever. No matter what happened then or what happens now, no matter what happens tomorrow and all the tomorrow’s after that, Grace always pursues you. He'll chase after you into the wreck of every mess and every hurt you’ll ever experience.
Jesus is with you in all of it. He always has been and always will be. Everything taken from you and everything piled on is Jesus’ now. Every bridge burned and every long walk home is a Prodigal’s return to the wedding feast of the Lamb without end. You’re not out, you’re in. You’ve always been inside. You’ve been in Christ since before the foundation of the world.” AMEN.
Donavon Riley is a Lutheran pastor, conference speaker, author, Online Content Director for Higher Things, a contributing writer at 1517 Legacy Project, Christ Hold Fast, and LOGIA. Pastor Riley co-hosts the podcast: 'The Higher Things Simul Cast'. He is pastor of Saint John Lutheran Church in Webster, MN. A graduate of Concordia Universities in St. Paul, Minnesota and Portland, Oregon, Pastor Riley received his seminary and post-graduate education at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. He colloquized into the LC-MS from the ELCA in 2008. He is married to Annie, and is the father of four children: Owen, Alma, Hoshea, and Hallel.