In The Lord of the Rings, Galadriel talks about fighting the long defeat. As I see my friends come to the end of their careers, scarred and burdened after a lifetime of service to God and Church, I can't help but hear her words. We were going to whip the world for Jesus, but the world is pretty much as it was, if not worse than when we started. We were going to build up The United Methodist Church, keep it faithful, make it effective in ministry, and have instead seen our Church slip a little more with each passing quadrennium. We went into every appointment with the words, "offer your bodies as a living sacrifice" written on our hearts, only to find (in some appointments) little godlings who thought it their due to receive our offering and then discard it when our bodies and souls were used up.
A career in the clergy is not for sissies, but, as Super Chicken used to say to his gentle but frequently blown-up assistant, "You knew the job was dangerous when you took it." It is also true that none of us -- in any walk of life -- is guaranteed success, or recognition, or a certain level of remuneration. Many people reach their "golden years" with lots of regrets about how they spent their time and energies and resources, and we are no different.
We dare not evaluate ourselves by the standards of worldly success. If we have stayed faithful, then even if everyone else has proved themselves unfaithful, we have succeeded. If we have caused anybody, even if only a few, to experience the love of God in relationship with us, then we have grown the Church. And if we exit the ranks of active clergy with our reputations and credentials intact, then we have accomplished something that some of those who have risen to the highest honors have not been able to do.
I look around at the battlefield and count the casualties. It amazes me, sometimes, that I am still standing, when so many others who seemed to me more mature, better prepared, more skilled, with more connections have fallen -- dropped out, driven out, flamed out, crippled by bitterness or hollowed out by disappointment. And I think, were these not your children, too, Lord? Who will love them as they tried to love others in your Name? When my retired military officer parishioner who suffers from PTSD talks about his comrades and their struggles, I understand. Still, he who would save his life shall lose it. You can't go through life in a defensive crouch. And you can't do this job if you're worried too much about surviving it.
I will end this post with the text of one of my favorite hymns, which I intend to have sung at my funeral. It is a prayer for all those in the ranks of the clergy. I offer it for my friend as for myself this day.
Pour out thy spirit from on high;
Lord, thine ordained servants bless;
Graces and gifts to each supply,
And clothe them with thy righteousness.
Within thy temple when they stand
To teach the truth as taught by thee,
Savior, like stars in thy right hand
Thy servants in the churches be.
Wisdom and zeal and faith impart,
Firmness with meekness from above,
To bear thy people on their heart,
And love the souls whom thou dost love:
To watch and pray, and never faint;
By day and night strict guard to keep;
To warn the sinner, cheer the saint,
Nourish thy lambs and feed thy sheep.
Then, when their work is finished here,
In humble hope their charge resign.
When the chief Shepherd shall appear,
O God, may they and we be thine. Amen.