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Guarding The Gate
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b00c5b20 83ef 401b ba17 740eec44eee4I’ve been enjoying some time at home over the last week, doing a lot of reading, enjoying time with Jennifer, and breaking in a new pair of hiking shoes for the next phase of renewal leave. I also had the chance to have a mid-leave session with my spiritual director, Rev. Pam Roberts of the Centered Life Counseling Center. Pam helped our SPR and renewal leave subcommittee in envisioning this renewal leave and she has long been a sounding board for me. I think every pastor needs someone like her in his or her life to help us process the life of ministry!


During our meeting this week, Pam was telling me about a conversation she had with an Air Force chaplain (she does a lot of Clinical Pastoral Education teaching with military chaplains) where the chaplain proposed that there are two main places where clergy are called to minister—they are either wired to be near the “gates of heaven,” helping greater numbers of people toward eternity, or they are poised to serve at the “gates of hell,” or the places where people are broken, wounded, and hurting. It’s not that pastors don’t serve in both places in their ministries, it’s just that their fundamental orientation is toward one or the other.


That got me thinking about which of those “gates” I gravitate toward the most (and which churches I’ve served are nearer to which location). In my younger years, I certainly aspired to pastor closer to the gates of heaven. That’s a popular place to serve, actually, because it’s a place where one can see fruit in terms of numbers of people, the size of one’s “gatehouse” or church building, and the influence one has for the kingdom. Most of the ministry books I’ve read concerning leadership and church growth are aimed at being a church at heaven’s gate. After all, who wouldn’t want to serve there?


But I was reminded that when Jesus wanted to outline the kind of leader he was looking for among disciples, he took the group to Caesarea Philippi, a Gentile area which was near the Cave of Pan, believed by the Greco-Romans to be one of the entrances to Hades (and the fact that depictions of Pan had horns and hooves makes it easy to make the leap to our images of Satan). It was there, at the very gates of hell itself, that Jesus asked his disciples the question, “Who do you say that I am?”


The crowds thought he was a reincarnation of John the Baptist or the prophet Elijah, but Peter jumps in with the truth—“You are the Messiah”  In Matthew’s version, Jesus gives Peter an attaboy and says, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:17-20).


It’s interesting that in popular culture (and not just Christian culture) Peter is seen as the gatekeeper for heaven—that his primary location of ministry is about getting people in (or keeping them out). But notice that Jesus begins by mentioning the gates of hell (and probably pointed to the cave as he said it). That’s where the primary battle is going to be waged, and that’s where the leader of the disciples is going to spend most of his time—battling the forces of evil and helping broken people find wholeness. Holding the keys to the kingdom is a big deal, but we must remember that Jesus constantly preached about the kingdom of heaven coming to earth—coming closer to the broken places in our world; a kingdom that will come and subsume the gates of hell!


Ministry at the gates of hell is a lot less glamorous than at the pearly gates. It’s tough down there. It’s there that things get real because real people have real problems. Pastors and churches who minister at the gates of hell generally don’t get a lot of book contracts, nor do they make the denominational list of fastest growing churches. They’re too busy and too tired dealing with people on the razor’s edge of life. Notice that Paul was an evangelist and wrote a lot more than Peter. But then again, where would we be if we didn’t have both of them?


I am learning during this renewal leave that longevity in ministry has a lot to do with paying attention to your shadow side and being willing to move toward the other gate. If you’re a “gates of heaven” type, you need to be willing to go closer to the cave and get your hands dirty with people who are in deep need. If you’re more inclined to minister at the gates of hell, you still need a vision of the kingdom toward which to point people and offer them new life. A good minister and a good church will walk both those posts well, meeting people in whichever location they find themselves.


The gates of hell can be a scary place—a messy and difficult place—but Jesus reminds us that those gates will eventually fall. I’ve seen enough hell to know that it’s not an easy place to be, but it’s where Jesus calls me (and all of us) to go. But I’ve also seen enough heaven to know that pointing people toward that horizon of the kingdom will give them hope for whatever situation in which they find themselves. Holding those two poles in tension is the key to a ministry that really makes a difference.


A soldier’s First General Order is, “I will guard everything within the limits of my post and quit my post only when properly relieved.” I look forward to returning to work in a few weeks and walking my post, but with a renewed vigilance.

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