On a Sunday afternoon in June, I confronted one of my biggest idols. Image. How people see me. What they say about me after I leave the room. What people think of my ‘curated self’ that I’d like to think is witty, charming and fun (aren’t we all?). But then real life happens.
I had “this is real life” moment this past Easter, when I learned that my girlfriend and I were pregnant. WHAT? HOLD THE PHONE! DOES HIS CHURCH KNOW?!
Yes, everyone who needed to know, knows. Some knew before that afternoon in June, but my spiritual family was fully informed that day. If you weren’t filled in, my apologies. I’m not sure what I’m apologizing for actually. Apology retracted! But seriously, how would you publicize such an event in your life? When your social sphere has hard boundaries like “don’t have sex before marriage”—an injunction that seemed less relevant the older I got, but quite obviously still has its merits—then you fear for the worst. Add to this, oh yeah, I’m a pastor. This kind of scandal is on the short list of things for which pastors receive public shaming, tarring, feathering and eventual shooting out of a cannon into a neighborhood dump.
Meanwhile, back in reality: My girlfriend and I decided to get married. We loved each other and I definitely wanted to raise my child alongside my wife—but, there’s always a but— I also wanted to maintain my image. Maybe if we were married quickly enough, there would be ‘plausible deniability’ and all that’d be left would be rumors. Image would take a hit, but remain intact.
I had read about ousted pastors and their ‘fall from grace’ and thought, man, what makes me different than that guy? How do I know I’m not capable of [fill in the blank]? Surely this thought occurs to most pastors, and they do well to raise their awareness of potential pitfalls. It’s fear of this complete tearing down of self that will drive a man of some esteem to any number of greater sins (see 2 Samuel 11 & 12).
Being a pastor is a rich amalgam of father figure, friend, mentor, teacher and guide. All things I’ve failed at least once, and probably will a few more times. That’s not an excuse for incompetence, it’s a declaration of reality that I think most pastors wish to make, but then they would feel the emotional distance dwindle between themselves and the angriest congregant. How can you ‘stay above the fray’ when you yourself are struggling? No one trusts the life guard who admits he’s still learning to swim.
I still have a job and a pastoral role at my church, by the grace of God. In this case it was accompanied by the grace of His church. If you weren’t there, you weren’t there, you don’t know what that meeting was like, when I confessed to my congregation my sin. I don’t know what it was like after I said my piece, I left the room on the verge of tears, after my last word. I was told there were warm hearts and words of forgiveness.
Excuse me for getting all pastorly, but it is only a firm belief in God’s grace through Christ that can grow a soft forgiving heart. If you really believe you’ve been forgiven your debt, why would you place a chokehold on someone who still owes you a debt? (Mt. 18:21–35) Without the gospel, human forgiveness becomes something sinister. You cut someone slack, but remind them that they are on notice. As if forgiveness is only a probationary period where the forgiven must now earn the rest of their own forgiveness. Like being pulled out of icy water and left stranded on thin ice. I think we sometimes think of God’s forgiveness this way. I once had a student tell me Jesus gives us a ‘second chance’ to live a better life. I told him bluntly, “If that’s true, we’re all going to hell.” We need more than second chances; we need a savior.
If you believe in God’s grace, you can forgive. If you believe in God’s grace, you can be honest enough to be forgiven. You can sacrifice the idol of image, which always takes more than it gives, and embrace the One in whose image you were made (see what I did there?).
So I’m saying so long to my image—golden child, know-it-all, spiritual guru—whatever I happened to cultivate amongst my acquaintances and friends. It was nice knowing me, he’s so interesting.
But this isn’t about me any more.
It’s about her.
I want to introduce you to her. I don’t know her name yet, but I’m sure I’ll catch it by mid-December. She is my daughter.