Mark D. Roberts

Part 3 of series: Grace in the Rearview Mirror: A Pastoral Retrospective
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In my last post I explained my conviction that my pastoral work at Irvine Presbyterian Church was by God’s grace. The gifts and talents that enabled me to be a pastor are themselves evidence of grace. Moreover, in many and various ways I experienced God’s grace in the form of extra help when I most needed it.
Let me cite two common examples. There were many, many times when, as I was preparing a sermon, I’d get stuck. Either I couldn’t figure out the precise meaning of a biblical passage, or I knew the meaning but was lacking a strong illustration to bring home the point. In these times I’d call out to God for extra help. Sometimes I’d have to wait on Him for a while before that help would come. But there were many times when the Holy Spirit would immediately respond to my request. All of a sudden I’d see what was really going on in a biblical passage. Or in a moment I’d have a fantastic illustration. There was no question in my mind that God was helping me by His grace. Was I working hard to be a truthful, relevant preacher? Yes, indeed. But it was also God’s grace working through me. (Photo: I’m holding forth in the sanctuary of Irvine Pres.)
There were quite a few times during the past sixteen years when I became discouraged. Often these were associated with overwork, and with my subsequent neglect of my family, my devotional time, and my personal health. But they usually began with some negative event, or perhaps with a harsh word of criticism from somebody in the church. When my heart felt heavy, I’d call out to God for help. Sometimes this process of crying out went on for days or even months. But there were other times when the Lord answered my prayers quickly. For example, dozens of times when I was feeling discouraged, a member of the church would come up to me and, out of the blue, tell me a story about how something I had done really helped them in their faith. Similarly, there were many times when encouragement would come in the form of thank you notes or e-mails. These were such obvious instances of God’s grace helping me to keep going as a pastor.
Yet I want to add a word of caution. The examples I have just given might suggest that most of the time I was pastoring in my own strength. Then, in special moments, God helped me. I would admit that it sometimes felt like this. I can be rather dull spiritually, I must confess. But when I look back upon my ministry, I can see clearly that God was at work in and through me even when I was completely unaware of it. The special gifts of grace, like preaching illustrations or notes of encouragement, were simply times when God’s goodness to me was so obvious I couldn’t miss it. Besides, I believe that the natural talents that I used as a pastor were themselves gifts from God. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 4:7: “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?”
From this perspective, everything I invested in my ministry at Irvine was a gift of grace. This doesn’t deny the fact that I worked hard. But it sees even my very ability to work, my health and personal energy, as God’s grace active within me. Thus, as I look back at the last sixteen years of pastoral ministry, I rejoice in God’s grace, and I am filled with gratitude. I’ll have more to say about gratitude in my next post.

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