Replaying a conversation with a troubled pastor recently was like listening to sound-bites from the Book of Lamentations. Certainly Prophet Jeremiah, if truly the author of Lamentations, was familiar with stressful times. The "weeping prophet" just couldn't fathom the condition of his beloved city and then shoulder the weight of trying to lead the people to overcome their dark times. Lamentations, originally titled "Alas" or "How" in the Hebrew, is the sorrowful reflection of that time. If I could hold the editors pen for a brief moment I would place one phrase in bold italics, underlined, bracketed, and with asterisks inserted at both ends. Jeremiah wrote, "My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the Lord" (Lamentations 3:18, ESV). Evidently Jeremiah had arrived at that critical pivot point where his future service was hanging by a thread.
Many moderns get there as well. Do the homework on any number of distinguished church research sites for a dose of reality about the condition of spiritual leaders in America today. PEW Research, the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute for Church Leadership Development, LifeWay Research, Peacemaker Ministries, expastors.com, and others have pages of statistics proving the hardship of serving in times like these and the wear and tear on church workers as a result. Now, I'm generally Mr. Positive and usually click my tongue and nod my head at such data. But, it is what it is, and the trend line slopes downward right now, like it or not. The end result is the number of people at that very same critical pivot point at this time. For many of them escape seems to be the only answer, one of the natural extremes for dealing with personal conflict. When pushed to the edge it's either fight or flight, and so many take the exit ramps. Seventeen hundred pastors walked away from ministry every month last year. Several committed suicide. They were living the nightmare Jeremiah experienced---"My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the Lord".
It's not just spiritual leaders either. The empty suit has become a significant icon in a culture where people in so many walks of life seem pushed to the edge. Underneath marriage stats, shortened career tenures, revolving church doors, a longer road to adulthood, prevalence of casual sex, social drinking and recreational drug usage, and any number of social indicators, is an endurance shortage. All of the social sciences play footsie with questions: are the times actually more demanding, or are people less prepared for them? The answer, of course, is perhaps some level of "yes" to both. They are unique times, complicated on levels not anticipated by the ancients. Just the same, with the spiritual dynamics being what they are, we are less field-tested and ready than our predecessors. Whichever, the numbers are what they are and our ability to endure the times, however difficult, is shorter.
Jeremiah's confession was evidently a moment of weakness, words spoken in the heat of the hour, when the temperature was up. Lamentations 3: 1-20 are verses of deep remorse and grief. With his theo-centric orientation every calamity he was experiencing seemed to be the direct action of God, perhaps extended punishment for the sins of the nation, or some unconfessed sin in his own life. Jeremiah visualized himself under the "...rod of his wrath..." (3:1). In verse 21, there is a turn, however. He wrote, "But I call this to mind..." (3:21). Suddenly, the horrors of the moment were over-shadowed by eternal truth. Then, he wrote the most memorable verses of the Lamentations---
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
The entire passage pulls some of my chains---
1. Endurance lapses are often circumstantial.
Circumstances often change by the moment. Our emotions are just as volatile. Endurance, while a spiritual virtue, is triggered emotionally. We should not, however, permit emotional responses to changing realities dictate spiritual decisions.
2. Truth is eternal. It must guide our ways and out-weigh our circumstances.
Jeremiah became distracted by circumstances that tested and challenged him. In the text of Lamentations 3, he spoke some horrible, dark words about them. In a moment of clarity, he remembered the words of truth. They eventually over-shadowed what was happening at the moment.
3. Truth should be stored in our memory banks.
King David had written from his own experience a power lesson for those of us facing times of trial. He wrote,, "I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you" (Psalm 119:11). Like Jeremiah, the truth stored in our hearts can help us break the chains of demanding times.
4. Important decisions must not be made in the valley or on the mountaintop.
Incredibly, many important decisions are made when we're in an emotional crisis. Many marriages end after an eruption. Pastors resign or just walk away after something eventful. In the same ways people abandon a career, educational opportunities, the important elements of a relationship, their family members, or some other significant commitment because they are under the momentary gun. Truth gains us level ground, so that the highs and lows of life don't' define us.
5. Endurance is deeper than the moment.
Jeremiah's confession is an eye-opener for those of us under extended stress. He wrote, "The Lord is my portion, says my soul, therefore I will hope in him" (Lamentations 3:24). Earlier, in the heat of the moment, he had connected his low endurance threshold to his hope. But, truth runs deeper, into his soul. Now, in deeper consideration, he knows that the Lord is his portion in his soul, not his circumstances, and as a result, he will hope in him. I can't list the times when people have said they wished they had gone deeper than the moment when they did something rash. Endurance is that deeper thing.
Recovering the depth of spiritual endurance in the deal this week. Let's pray that we will go deep in discovering it.
"...looking to Jesus, the founder and perfector of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross..."