Over the Hill

[ 5 minutes to read ]

Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee.
~ 1 Timothy 4:16
I sat in the small, mostly white room. You could say it had a mauve accent. It was cold, though I wasn’t chilled. But, it was cold enough that everything felt almost damp. The cleanliness of the room was not in question, but I still wanted to touch as little as possible in there. Directly across from the straight, vinyl covered chair was a wall poster of a blackened lung that belonged to a longtime smoker. It reminded me of warnings against smoking from junior high.

I would again be reminded of junior high when the doctor came in and asked me questions I didn’t want to answer and scolded me about stuff I didn’t want to do. At least there was no paddle. The doctor came in and spent more time looking at the infamous chart and typing on the computer than making eye contact or giving me visible assurance I was being heard. As the doctor shuffled the file and the computer, I glanced at the chart. I don’t know why I felt so guilty about it, as if I were cheating on a test or something. I noticed my chart with my name on it was marked, “Prime of Life.” I almost laughed. I wanted to ask, “Does that mean this is the best it’s going to get for me?”

Have you ever noticed a lot of doctors don’t have much of what us civilians call a sense of humor. I suppose it’s the rigors of the work and all that. Once again, I’m back to junior high when the principal has serious concerns about my actions and I try to point out the funny in the business. Inevitably, they, and I quote, “Failed to see the humor.”

Middle Age is Also Middle Danger

Prime of life sounds nicer than middle-aged, but it doesn’t soften the realities that come with it. We could also say I’m at the top of the hill looking down the other side. I appreciate the attempts at positive spin, but I’m not bothered by it. Middle age frightens me, but not because of reduced energy levels, increased blood pressure, gray overtaking what’s left of hair, or more time spent in that little room with the doctor. Middle age is dangerous, particularly for a preacher, because being over the hill means it’s effortless to coast down the other side. The allure of easy chairs, TV sports, warm beds, and food and drink becomes stronger, or maybe the man is weaker.

As a young preacher you cannot easily see this fork in the road coming up. You’re full of fire and energy and can never imagine having to make a choice between leisure and work. You have so many things to learn and do you can’t imagine a strong desire to relax and do nothing. What’s unimaginable at 25 can become a daily battle at 45. Several years ago an older preacher asked me what hobbies I enjoyed. I don’t remember my reply, but the one in my head ran on this wise, “Hobbies? I ain’t got time for no hobbies. I got work to do.”

Young preachers all know older preachers they do not want to be like. They’ve seen the preacher who might as well advertise, “Have sermons, will travel.” He has his kit of sermons he’s preached hundreds of times and has warmed over so many times he could deliver them comatose. Young preachers see the cranky, bitter, ill-spirited old preacher who can instantly rain on any parade. They’ve seen the greasy salesman preacher always buttering everybody up and, as C. S. Lewis once said, if the biblical text had smallpox, his sermons would be in no danger of catching it. They’ve seen the politicking old preacher who is always calculating and being in the right place at the right time with the right people. They’ve seen the weeping preacher who’s not like Jeremiah, but rather is weepily pouting in the corner and continually licking his thirty year old wounds. They’ve seen the Elijah-under-the-juniper-tree preacher. He’s convinced he’s the only one faithful left and all these whippersnappers ain’t much.

Young preachers see these older specimens and don’t want to be like that guy. I doubt most of those older preachers started out that way. They probably weren’t so different from the young preachers today. I venture to guess that decisive turn came in middle age for them. That’s the time when it’s easy to think you’ve laid up enough goods that you can relax and live off the store. That’s the time when it’s deceptively easy to stop making progress in the ministry.

A Call to Preach is a Call to Work

In the interest of Fair Use, I disclose I’m about to paraphrase and fool about with something John Stott said somebody else said in his book on preaching, Between Two Worlds. When men stop making progress in the ministry, stop reading and thinking, it begins to show around the age of 45, or middle age. Their coasting typically deposits them on one side or the other. They become a bigot or a sentimentalist. The bigot resorts to the points of his dogma and hammers those nails until the heads are shiny at first, but soon they’re worn clean off. The sentimentalist is a widower who can’t let his deceased wife named Tradition rest in peace. He’s always digging her back up and bemoaning how they don’t make ’em like they used to.

Whatever you or I think about Stott’s thoughts about somebody else’s thoughts, there’s something there. A call to ministry is a call to serious, strenuous work marked by progress (1 Timothy 4:15). Paul told Timothy to give himself “wholly” to this work and continue to do so (1 Timothy 4:16). Paul explains what it takes to be “a good minister of Jesus Christ.” Spoiler alert: it takes a whole lot of continued, really hard work (1 Timothy 4:6-16). Just like the guy riding the pine wants to the be the star of the game but doesn’t want to practice, everyone wants to preach well when in the pulpit, but not everyone wants to work hard every day in the study.

Middle age comes and brings a lot of dangers, but it should not be the top of the hill for the preacher. He should continue to climb and make progress until death comes, or he is no longer physically able to climb. Young preachers will face this Hill of Difficulty at some point. It will be tempting to coast. Remember the warnings and persevere, brothers, persevere.

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