I could scarcely believe my ears!

 

Last week I took advantage of a denominationally sponsored pre-retirement seminar for clergy that was hosted at our church. It was interesting in a number of ways but never more so than when one instructor, a retired pastor, spoke about how to cope with the painful memories of ministry: those hurts, feelings of having been betrayed, let down, and “done in” by some people we encounter as we serve the Lord. Although he retired seven years ago, the pain in the speaker’s eyes testified that here was someone who had been in the trenches. He reported that many pastors retire so broken by their experiences that they drop out of church altogether!

At first, I was shocked. “Why would we need time given to this topic in a pre-retirement seminar?” I asked myself. “What is the church coming to?” As I reflected on his words later, however, I found myself revisiting quiet conversations with a number of retired clergy and their wives whom I’ve known over the years. They each recounted their own disappointments with people who let them down or in some other way made life harder than it needed to be. One pastor’s wife whom I knew could not bring herself to attend church for the last several years of her husband’s ministry. There’s something wrong here, isn’t there? But it’s not something new!

Paul, the apostle, lived in those trenches, too. He alerts his young preacher friend Timothy: “Alexander the coppersmith did me much harm. May the Lord repay him according to his works. You also must beware of him, for he has greatly resisted our words” (2 Tim. 4:14-15).

Apart from these words, we know nothing else about Alexander the coppersmith. It seems that in some way he and Paul had some disagreement. Perhaps Alexander resisted Paul’s ministry. Maybe he brought intentional harm to Paul. Who knows what it was? Could it be that Alexander was an intentional mischief-maker, an agent of the great enemy of every gospel preacher? Perhaps Alexander was a former friend who broke a confidence that gave Paul’s enemies information leading to his arrest. The apostle is, after all, writing these words from prison.

Whatever it was, clearly Alexander is not one of Paul’s faith heroes. Paul is pained, also, moreover, that Alexander doesn’t stand alone: “Demas deserted me” (4:10) and Paul grieves that at his first trial in Rome, “no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me” (4:16).

Are you surprised? Don’t be. A study conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, released in June 2006, revealed that Americans have less people they can confide in than past generations. In 1985, the average American had three people in whom to confide matters that were important to them. In 2004, that number dropped to two.

Perhaps even more striking, the number of Americans with no close friends rose from 10 percent in 1985 to 24.6 percent in 2004, according to a report in USA Today last summer (June 23, 2006; Study: 25 Percent of Americans Have No One to Confide In). So, in this regard the church merely mirrors its society.

What was it my old professor used to say makes for a good pastor? Three things: A good head, a thick hide, and a soft heart. He was right. No good pastor I know is sufficiently well endowed with the prerequisite “thick hide” to make a perfect score on that part of the test of long-term pastoral living.

When we’re honest, we’ve all met Alexander, Demas, and the deserters. Sometimes their names are changed to protect the guilty. Be warned: If you haven’t met them yet, heed Paul’s follow-up words to young preacher Timothy, “You also must beware.” The Alexanders are there and if your ministry is worth having they’re out to get you.

Pastor George Duffield (1818-1888) must have met his Alexanders, too. Nearly 200 years ago he penned his great hymn, Stand Up Stand Up for Jesus. Among its verses are these words: “Stand up, stand up for Jesus, stand in His strength alone; The arm of flesh will fail you, ye dare not trust your own.” No truer word has ever been printed in a hymnbook, for Alexander, Demas, and the deserters have been, if nothing else, prolific. Their spiritual offspring have gone after — or run away from — preachers at the most inopportune times in each of our lives.

How shall we stand against our Alexanders and the rest? Paul, still in prison, testifies, “The Lord stood at my side and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. And I was delivered from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen” (2 Tim. 4:17,18).

How do we do it? The simple answer is: We don’t. We don’t need to. All we need do is give our Alexanders over to the Lord in prayer and let Him do the rest. Don’t dream revenge, don’t fight back for ‘“It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Rom. 12:19). Let God have Alexander.

Meanwhile, let us renew our resolve to simply “Stand up for Jesus!” “To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen.” Let all God’s preachers say “Amen!”

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Robert Leslie Holmes is Senior Pastor of Saxe Gotha Presbyterian Church in Lexington, SC. He may be reached at leslieholmes@saxegotha.org. His book When Good Enough Just Isn’t Good Enough (Ambassador Int’l), deals with leading your church in mission in the 21st Century.

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