Thirty-eight years in the ministry have taught me that people are impossibly complex and unpredictable. In college I majored in social work and minored in psychology, in seminary I took all the counseling classes that were offered, and as a young pastor I filled my shelves with books on the subject. I believed back then that if I could just understand people, I would be able to fix them; and I was fascinated by what I learned about human nature in those books and classes. I thought if I had enough books, I could look up whatever I needed to help anyone and everyone with anything.
But as I got to know people better, I came to an understanding of how complex we all are. I would look at someone and ask, “Why do that keep doing that?; why are they that way?; why don’t they just change this or that?– it is so obvious what they need to do.” It wasn’t that I could not come up with reasons for why they were the way they were. I had read enough books that I could come up with a dozen convincing theories to explain someone’s bizarre behavior. But I might be wrong on every one. How would I know? How can anyone know? I began to understand better (and fully believe) what Paul meant when he said in the seventh chapter of Romans that he did not understand even himself. I could also understand Paul’s words in I Corinthians 4 where he said he would not even examine his own motives, but would just do his best to keep on preaching Christ. Paul did not try to figure everyone out, but just kept pointing people to the cross and the forgiveness of sins for all of our failings. There are experts in psychology and psychiatry and I’m glad they are there and I have referred people to them. But my work as a pastor, I learned, would be to proclaim Christ, and not to try to figure everyone out and fix them. Not even Paul attempted that.
People keep surprising me. One of the first weddings I ever did had a rather shaky beginning. The groom-to-be had not been getting along very well with his future father-in-law and one night in a drive-by shooting shot a bullet through his future in-laws living room window. The future father-in-law had guns too, so he and his brother got their guns and went out looking for his future son-in-law. Fortunately their paths did not cross that night. Things cooled down a bit and the wedding took place, though no one gave it any chance of succeeding. I probably should have refused to marry them under those circumstances. But, years later I heard that they had several children and were doing just great. I can also recall other couples who I have married with every reason to believe they would succeed, but the marriages did not last a year. People are so unpredictable.
Confirmands are unpredictable. I think back to some of my favorite confirmation students. They were bright, friendly, faithful, and blessed with every opportunity– good parents, good friends, and no financial difficulties in the home. Yet, some of these fortunate children went on to squander it all, messing up their lives, and hurting everyone who got close to them. Then I think of some of my less privileged students, coming out of broken homes, living in poverty with parents who ignored them, and taking out their frustration on everyone around them, including their pastor in confirmation class. Yet, years later I would hear that some of those difficult kids, now grown adults and parents with children of their own, were doing well, and not making the same mistakes as their parents. Who would have thought?
In the well known story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8) Jesus saved a woman from being stoned to death by telling the mob that whoever was without sin could cast the first stone. After the crowd dropped their stones and left, Jesus told the woman that he did not condemn her, but that she should, “Go and sin no more.” Jesus is always ready to forgive us and offer us a new beginning, no matter what we have done. At the same time, he is always challenging us to follow him in lives of obedience.
So I always tell my confirmation students and couples preparing to get married: “Always remember, no one (and no marriage) is hopeless, and no one (and no couple) ever has it made.”
“Every saint has a past. Every sinner has a future.” –Oscar Wilde
“In college I mastered four methods of successful child raising, but had no children. I now have four children and know of no methods of successful child raising.” –A frazzled young mother.
John 8:10-11 — Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go and sin no more.”
Romans 7:15 — I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.
I Corinthians 4:4-5 — My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God.
I Corinthians 10:12 — So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!
O God, our Father, we are exceedingly frail and averse to every virtuous and noble undertaking. Strengthen our weakness, we pray, that we may be courageous in this spiritual war; help us against our own negligence and cowardice, and defend us from the treachery of our unfaithful hearts. Amen.