My friend, Dr. Bill Wilson, loves to quote the words to a favorite old hymn.
“O soul, are you weary and troubled?
No light in the darkness you see?
There’s a light for a look at the Savior,
And life more abundant and free!
Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in his wonderful face,
And the things of the earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of his glory and grace.”
Bill is given to reciting these words when working with a church that is experiencing anxiety over some pastoral change or facing a significant congregational decision or simply when they find themselves in a crisis of budget reductions and/or declining attendance. The hymn paints a clear picture of this anxiety…’a weary and troubled soul’…’no light in the darkness’. Somewhere along the way most congregations, and people, have felt the destabilizing grip of anxiety and lostness because they do not have a clear sense of who they are and in what direction they are headed.
Of course, the refrain offers the only real antidote for this anxiety and lack of direction…’the wonderful face of Jesus’; and it goes a step further to tell us what happens when we ‘turn our eyes upon Jesus’. It reminds us that ‘the things of the earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.’ What, exactly, do those words mean? They mean exactly what they say.
In the midst of such anxiety, we often hear church leaders say things like: ‘If we just had a better preacher or more parking…if we just did contemporary music or renovated the sanctuary…if we had more for the youth to do…if we just gave more to missions…if we…’ Most everyone, it seems, has a suggestion as to what needs to be done…usually by someone else…to ‘fix’ whatever it is they see as wrong with the church. It is rare to find the group of leaders who begin with the question “What does Jesus want us to do right now?’
The reason for this is that all too often we are preoccupied with ‘the things of the earth’…temporal things…remodeling the church, setting budgets, paving parking lots, replacing a pastor or staff member. Those things are easy when compared to living out the gospel. We have substituted the things we can control in the place of Jesus’ call to the hard work of disciplined discipleship. No wonder we have feelings of anxiety and a lack of direction in many of our congregations and for many of our clergy. The good news is that Jesus loves us so much that he never stops calling us back to him when we lose our way or chase after ‘the things of the earth’.
One of my favorite modern day poets is singer/songwriter, Grace Potter. When I first heard her sing ‘Things I Never Needed’, I assumed it was a song about love gone bad. But upon further reflection, her words could easily be taken as a haunting prayer to God from someone who is anxious about their future or who has lost their way in the past. I invite you to read them slowly, and you be the judge.
“Take away this sense of regret
Take the things I need to forget
Take the mistakes I haven’t made yet
They’re all I have left
I don’t want to be the one who lets you down
All I did was run myself around
I wish I could have seen through your eyes
Maybe then I would have realized
I’m the only one who is bleeding
For the things I never needed.”
As one who has been privileged to be in ministry with some incredibly wonderful congregations, I am keenly aware that there were still too many times when we (both the church and I) were driven by the ‘the things of this earth’. Sometimes we chased after things we never needed. Sometimes they seemed to salve our anxiety or make us feel better about what we were doing. None of those things were bad, but always…they were temporary.
As important as they were, new buildings and new programs did not change us. It was only when we humbled ourselves before God and literally ‘turned our eyes upon Jesus’ that the truly transformational things in the life of our congregation occurred…like feeding the hungry each day in our fellowship hall or taking the gospel into the county jail four days a week. Those were things we might have missed because we were focused on the things of the earth…focused on things we never really needed. It took a while. There was some pain on the journey. But once we learned that lesson, we were never again the same.
So, when you feel deeply in your bones that something is ‘of God’…that it is a ‘Jesus thing’…and you humbly pursue that; know this. It will change your life. It will change your church. And it just might changes someone else’s world.