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The Lion, the Witch, and the Church
What Pastors Do
In my mind, when a godly person hears troublesome news, she takes it to heart, considers it carefully in prayer, and emerges with a wise response.
I, on the other hand, throw things.
In the first year of my ministry as a solo pastor of a small church, someone called me to discuss his concerns about the way the church was doing certain things. When I hung up, I picked up my keys and threw them against the concrete block wall of my study. I spent the next few minutes mulling over the frustrations of pastoring people while I tried to straighten a bent car key so that once my tantrum was over I’d be able to drive home.
Paul spent years teaching and loving the church in Corinth. He modeled and faithfully preached the gospel of God’s grace. But after he had left, the news he received from Chloe’s peoplewas that something was rotten in the church of Corinth. The church was plagued with divisions and sin and conflict. Nothing he had taught seemed to have stuck.
I like to think that upon hearing this Paul kicked the table nearest him, shattering it. And then, in my fantasy, as Paul picks up the pieces of the table, he mulls over the state of this church and begins to dictate a letter to them.
When he draws that letter to a close, he reminds his readers, “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”
It’s funny that Paul would say this. Where had this feeling that ministry was vain and worthless come from? Nothing suggests that it was a struggle felt by the Corinthians themselves. I think rather it was Paul’s struggle, and that with these words Paul is speaking to Paul, and to every other pastor who has ever thought that his work was useless and wanted to throw things against a wall. Paul was not some Spock lately arrived from Vulcan or a bot recently emerged from an AI lab. He was a man persuading himself that his work had not been wasted.
I’ve come home many times and with exasperation and sometimes despair told my wife that I’ve wasted my life. I’ve accomplished nothing; I’ve made no difference in anyone’s life. Some people invest their lives in healing diseases. Some make sure that our cars don’t kill us. Some work so that when I plug my kettle into the wall power comes in or when I flush the toilet things go out. Those labors matter. Mine does not.
But then, maybe it does. Because what I do, what we do, is something very much like caring for a very powerful and very magical wardrobe.
The wardrobe that is central to C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is, to the eye, no more than a simple, plain, and abandoned closet, forgotten in a spare room in a large estate. But like our churches, this plain, ordinary wardrobe, was not all that it seemed. Through it, travelers found access to the land of the good and terrible lion Aslan, the lord of Narnia. To pass through that wardrobe was to travel to a place of wonder, of grace, and of rest.
The churches we pastor are like that.
They don’t look magical. The church on West County Road 419 in Oviedo, Florida, the one I pastor, is nondescript. Thousands of cars pass by each day, taking no more notice than they would of a closet in a spare room. But they don’t know that what they speed by is a portal for pilgrims, a pathway on which travelers can find safe passage to another land, a land of true grace and rest. Through the rhythms and routines we oversee in the church, through the faith we proclaim, and through the Spirit we invoke, people find shelter and are given access to the world their hearts were created to desire.
This is what we get to do.
A lot of smart people, worldly logicians, tell us that we oversee a fantasy. This passage cannot be real, nor this land to which we point others.Maybe Paul wrestled with those same objections. For if the critics are right, if there is nothing beyond the back of the wardrobe than the wall of the spare room, then, yes, we are to be rebuked for making people believe what is not so. As pilgrims and pastors we are the most to be pitied, if not condemned, if the destination does not exist and the magic is a lie.
And so Paul argues for a reality beyond what could be seen, a reality that was made real by the resurrection of Jesus. Certainly Paul gives to the Corinthian church an apologetic by which they can defend the gospel. But he is doing more than that. By drilling down on the resurrection, Paul is building a case for the validity of ministry, his and ours. His words about the resurrection terminate in the stabilizing conclusion that “your labor is not in vain.” Jesus is raised from the dead. Our labor on that account can never be wasted.
There is a world beyond the grave. There is a reality through the wardrobe. There is a purpose for the church. There is a job for pastors to do.
But of course, ministry is still exasperating, and more likely than not, I’ll still throw things.
But ministry is never in vain.
It is in fact magical.
1 Corinthians 1:11
I Corinthians 15:58
“Nothing is more probable,” said the Professor, taking off his spectacles and beginning to polish them, while he muttered to himself, “I wonder what they do teach them at these schools.” C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (United States: HarperCollins Publishers, 1978), p. 50.