Letter to the new young elder

(Christian Courier column, Oct. 27, 2041)

Dear son,

You are too young to be an elder! (Grin).

I’m sorry that what I should have said first, I didn’t actually say until later: “I’m proud of you. Proud that your spiritual maturity has been recognized and affirmed, but even more so because you accepted the task of leadership in the church of Jesus Christ.” Not very long ago, in the CRC anyway, families would travel a considerable distance to attend the installation of a relative as an office bearer. It was deemed an honour worthy of celebration! After the service, the whole congregation would line up to congratulate the new office bearers. Those customs are fading, another obscure consequence, perhaps, of the democratizing individualism of our society with its subtle effacing of any rank or authority. Today people are reluctant to serve on Council for analogous reasons; it’s perceived as a thankless task offering no intrinsic reward, an intrusive commitment of time and energy into lives already fast-paced and heavily scheduled. Thus, how much more should your willingness to serve have sparked my immediate appreciation!

What emerged first, of course, was that involuntary exhalation of maternal protectiveness: “Oh, no, really?” I wasn’t prepared to have you experience the bald reality of being a church leader: that close-up view of the stark unloveliness of the sagging, scarred, unclothed Body. The stench of sin – adultery, shady business practice, abuse. The bile of petty bickering. The burdensome weight of confidentiality. Not because your church family is worse or more troubled than any other; but because we are all Gomer and now you are Hosea, called to love the church in a more particular way – with greater resolve, more forgiveness, more looking to Christ to learn devotion and sacrifice.

As a mom, selfishly, I didn’t want to see your youthful faith and positive outlook tainted. Frederick Dale Bruner, in his Commentary on John, wrote, “The gospel is for admitted failures, for confessed incompetents, in short, for people like all of us when we are honest. The incomprehension and incompetence, almost the rudeness and even perhaps the slight contempt detectible in both Nicodemus and the Samaritan Woman may all be intended by John to say to readers: Jesus’ promises are for problematic people; get used to it; be grateful.”

Admonished, I will be grateful. Like Hannah, I will give you up. I will trust that if God sends you on stony paths, he will provide strong shoes, to quote Corrie Ten Boom. As an elder, yes, you will deal with problematic people. But beyond the conflicts and controversies, you will also be privileged to speak peace and spread joy. You are not only Hosea, but his contemporary Isaiah. “Comfort, comfort my people,” says your God. “Proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for,” urges the Holy One of Israel (Is. 40: 1-5). So, in the baptisms and Lord’s Suppers, in the graduations, weddings, anniversaries, funerals, meetings and potlucks, be the voice of God’s faithfulness. Prophesy to the people in your church, your people, that the glory of the Lord will be revealed, has been revealed, and is being revealed every day to those who affix their hope to the cross of Christ.

Speak the good news, but know that your best leadership will be tapped in the habitual unsexy practice of kindness and caring attention. The elders who have blessed me are those who have smiled at my kids in the fellowship hall and learned their names. Who thanked me for my service as a catechism teacher. Who asked my opinion on church matters during home visits and then paid me the respect of listening. Who paid a short visit to your grandfather in the hospital, shared a bit of Scripture and the briefest prayer, and offered a compassionate handshake instead of a pious sermon. Who listened patiently to your grandmother as she relayed her worries about her family and then remembered to ask how things were going … weeks later. Who picked up a shovel on a wintry Sunday morning to scrape fresh snow off the sidewalk. Who stacked chairs after the congregational meeting.

In the confidence of your church, God comes calling. In your willingness, the Holy Spirit comes anointing. In your doing, the Word is embodied. In the serving, comes the blessing.

But let me be first: God bless you, son.

Tom off to church