I’ve been slowly reading through Dane Ortlund’s book, Gentle and Lowly. The book is subtitled The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers. Using Scripture and the writings of the Puritans, Ortlund very effectively shows how Jesus does not look at his people with a disappointed frown, but with gentle, pursuing love. You can find the book at Amazon or at Westminster Books, and here is a review by David McLemore over at For the Church. (You’ll get a better price at Westminster for the physical edition, but Amazon has the Kindle edition for $8.)
Summing up in his review, McLemore writes:
The everlasting, all-sufficient love of Jesus is where the power of this book lies. If you need a love you don’t warrant but can’t stop longing for. If you need a love bigger than your sin. If you need a love that sits with you in the ashes of your burned-out life. If you need a love too great to be limited to what you deserve, this book is for you. It’s for all who will come. It’s for all who sin and suffer and reach for a savior that understands their need. It’s for all who are weary and need rest. It’s for all who mourn and long for comfort. It’s for all who feel worthless—of which I never seem to stop feeling—and wonder if God cares. This book will help you see he does. Oh, he does!
Have you ever felt that you’ve let Jesus down? That you’ve failed him? And has that led you to think that – if you could be in his presence – he’d be looking at you with arms folded, a bit of a grimace on his face? Because of our experience with other people in our lives, this kind of response is probably default for many of us. It is a book that I would recommend to you and one that I’d suggest you recommend to your people.
However . . .
As I was reading and thinking through what Dane Ortland writes, I was struck with the implications it had for pastoral ministry. Consider these verses:
He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young. Isaiah 40:11 ESV)
“Hear the word of the LORD, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands far away; say, ‘He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd keeps his flock.’ (Jeremiah 31:10 ESV)
As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. (Ezekiel 34:12 ESV)
Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; (1 Peter 5:2 ESV)
So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; (Ezekiel 34:5 ESV)
I’ve quoted these passages to show three things: first, that God identifies himself as a tender shepherd; second, that pastors are called to be shepherds; third, that a failure to shepherd puts the flock at risk. There are many other places where these themes are found, but these will suffice.
If pastors are to shepherd God’s flock, then pastors are to emulate – and maybe more importantly – point to the tender nature of God.
I wonder how we are doing with that?
Over the last months of this pandemic I’ve read a good deal about pastors caring for their people. Numerous blog posts have shared ways in which this can be done and why it is so essential. But here’s my question – when we are able to gather again, will we gradually resume our programs and forget what we have learned about pastoral care?
Today I read this in an article by a Murray Campbell. I’d encourage you to read the whole article, not only because it’s really good, but to give the following quote some context:
By different, again I’m not arguing for anti-excellence, but rather I’m calling for simple faithfulness that is driven by core Gospel principles. These include making disciples, the centrality of reading and preaching the Word, preaching the whole counsel of God, permeating everything with prayer, and letting the congregation be heard when singing.
Shepherding needs to be personal, and while programs and events can be helpful, they cannot take the place of the pastor-to-individual-sheep connection. Shepherding also needs to be corporate, which means that sermons need to be more than religious Ted Talks. And when we preach, we must deal with sin but do so in a way that leads people to the Gentle Shepherd. He embraces his people. He does not hold them at arm’s length.
Maybe this pandemic will usher in a new season of pastoral care. Maybe when we are talking about what our congregations need, our thoughts and discussions will be more about people and less about programs. Maybe we will have learned to be better shepherds and put administration and programming back in their proper secondary place. Young pastor, if you are trying to find your way among the various “styles” of ministry out there, choose being a shepherd. Please, for the sake of the Gospel, and for the sake of your people. And older pastor – maybe it’s time to recalibrate.