October 29, 2020

Fridays with Michael Spencer: Jan 6, 2017


Spring Mill House Side (2016)

To Do the Best with What We Have
from January 2008

* * *

Note: The following incident is fictionalized from real experience.

I look at my watch. It’s time for a counseling appointment. I clear my desk, bring in the extra chairs and wait.

My appointment arrives and the conversation begins. This is a first time conversation, with someone I don’t know. I spend a lot of time listening. Then questions. More listening. I try to put what I’m hearing into some kind of order; to make some kind of helpful response.
I’m not a quick thinker. My feelings are always way out in front of my thoughts. So I have to be cautious in counseling to be sure I’m doing what’s needed and helpful.

My counselee says the conversation has been helpful. He leaves. It’s been an hour and fifteen minutes. Longer than I like, but not unusual for a first conversation.

What did I hear? I heard what it means to do the best with what you have, as God brings all things into himself through Jesus Christ.
I hear about a broken marriage. Silence. Distance. Public pretense. I hear about broken children. The fear of what’s next and the impact of what has already been. I hear about ministry; a ministry that goes on under stress that’s unimaginable to me.

I hear about faith and its stumbling steps to do what is right. I hear of guilt, the certain knowledge that one has fallen short. I hear the cry for restoration of broken relationships; the longing for Christian community and the church to be what family and friends have failed to be.

I hear about secrets and the reluctance to speak of them. I hear of the learned response of looking away; the habit of staying busy; of attending to “real life” and never looking at the inner world. I hear of the pain of sin’s lingering work, its blindness creating deception and its deep roots that drive us away from God, others and even ourselves.
I hear of persistent belief in God, prayer, the Bible, the work of the Spirit. I hear the ache for a pronouncement of forgiveness.

I hear the mystery of God’s call to be a servant and a minister when life is broken. I hear the mystery of God’s presence in the midst of brokenness that is not healed and darkness that does not lift. Yet, I hear of love for others and a simple, loyal, persistent love for Jesus and for the people Jesus loved.

I hear about doing the best you can with what you have, even when what you have is broken, wounded and bleeding from our human frailties and cruelties.

The world loves to point out hypocrisy among Christians. I want to point out the inexplicable, amazing absurdity of people who continue on with Jesus when any rational, reasonable person would abandon all hope. Of course, love is not reasonable or rational. Love suffers long, all the while rejoicing in the truth.

If you are a person who believes that all ministers and their families are picture postcards, let me break this to you gently: many ministers and their families are living in hell, and you don’t know it. Perhaps right in front of you. For them, the ride to church to face you may have filled them with fear that somehow you might see past their facade and into the failure and hurt.

The tendency these days is to project the image of the minister as young, absurdly happy, socially perfect and free from care and hang-ups. In fact, many ministers are living lives of pain and facing situations that would make you wince, if not curse. The price of being the shepherd of Christ is often high; so high ordinary persons could seldom stand to see it.

Perhaps some Christians are masochists. Or truly warped from being around so much need and paying too little attention to their own lives. I cannot say what is motivating an individual person to carry burdens that would break others, and do to it for the sake of Christ, his gospel and his church.

Part of me wants to say “Go fix your marriage. Be 100% available to your kids. Let the ministry go for a while.” That’s probably very good advice.

But another part of me senses that brokenness is part of ministry, and it is not for me to say to God or another person what forms of brokenness should stop the show, and what others can be carried on and through.

I do know that my eyes are opened, again and again, to the immense pain that surrounds me in the Christian family. So many of God’s servants are hurting in their body, families, marriages and in ways I cannot label or identify.

Yet these are some of God’s best servants and most Christ-filled saints. Some of his most useful, loving people. The crucible does not need to be approved by me or you to be effective. God chooses his own instruments, preparing, sharpening and equipping them as He chooses. His agenda is Jesus. Mine would be comfort, wholeness, happiness and so forth, with Jesus as the end result. God is only interested in making us like Jesus.

So the cross, and the instruments of crucified glory, are his doing. I am a listener; an observer.

I bow my head and pray for what I’ve heard and seen. I will do so many times in the future as I realize I am watching, in the midst of pain, a kind of holiness that is only a rumor for me.

We do the best with what we have given to us, or what we have left over or with what still works after the latest wreck. And God forms Christ in us, brings Christ through us, glorifies Christ in us and all in all.

In such colors, the Spirit paints the Incarnation every day, and presents the painting to the Father. And each picture looks more and more like the Jesus we have never seen with our eyes.

Or have we?


  1. no epiphany
    but scraping shovel echoes
    in snowy silence

  2. Wow. Powerful. I needed this today. Thanks.

    BTW, Chaplain Mike, may I suggest that when reposting one of Michael’s essays you add the date it was originally posted? Since Michael had a quite varied journey during his blogging days, the date could provide a bit more of context to help us understand where he was coming from and what was on his mind at the time.

  3. There is a part of me that bristles at the thought of maintaining the ministry at the cost of your family’s health. Where Michael says that families are suffering but the minister is fruitful for the church I just get a little queasy. Perhaps that is because when I found my personal life suffering I got out. That’s when I entered the wilderness. I had to stop the merry-go-round and find some sanity and my initial thought would be to counsel the same. Start small. Make sure the acorn is well tended before expecting the oak. I appreciate that there are 1001 situations and every one is different but I just thought I would comment because I had a visceral reaction to that.

    • –> “Perhaps that is because when I found my personal life suffering I got out. That’s when I entered the wilderness. I had to stop the merry-go-round…”

      I think part of my own spiritual desert walk of 5-7 years was due to the need to get off the merry-go-round and figure out this God/Jesus/Holy Spirit thing on my own. While I remained in church through my whole desert time, it was definitely a wilderness journey. The church fed me little. In fact, a couple of books and fellowship with just a few believers are what kept me going and brought me out of the desert.

      • It makes me feel sorry for those people that are “trapped” in ministry. Too big to fail. It’s a pressure that’s virtually unendurable and can create some serious neuroses and dysfunction of all sorts. I’m very grateful that I was able to step away and come back (I mean to the Lord, not to ministry in the formal sense which might not ever happen). Stepping away was not easy but it saved me in every sense.

    • I feel you, and I’m sorry for your suffering. However, the message I get from this essay is that I don’t need to have my life in order before I can serve others (especially considering a broader view of ministry):

      “We do the best with what we have given to us, or what we have left over or with what still works after the latest wreck. And God forms Christ in us, brings Christ through us, glorifies Christ in us and all in all.”

      This gives me hope.

      • –> “This gives me hope.”

        Yes. That’s why we must always view the Gospel as Good News!

      • I agree Raphael. There is a sense in which our lives, and I mean a very real sense, are never in order. That’s the essence of our journey. My concern is when that relative disorder seems to rule the day and people, wives, children are really suffering. At that point I think consideration must be given to scaling back (if possible). It’s a driven mentality that must go on at all cost for the ‘glory of God’ that concerns me. I think Michael’s point is that it is amazing that ministers have the fortitude to fight through so much and that is indeed admirable if the net result is beneficial for both church and family. I am making a counterpoint to the post, that’s true.

        • My understanding is that most ministers are relatively ill paid, however the need for a paycheck, doing the only thing that they understand well, traps more people than ministers in a certain life track. I hope and pray for the day when all peoples needs are equitably met, materially, spiritually, and psychologically.

  4. My eyes were immediately drawn to the beauty of the log structure with its Swedish dove-tail joining. There is a certain substance and order in the life of people who are capable of that kind of craftsmanship. Perhaps everything else in their lives was pain and disorder. However, in one substantive way beauty and artistry was instantiated in their life.