A Long Obedience in the Wrong Direction

Author’s note: Over the past several months I’ve been asked the same question by multiple […]

Josh Retterer / 8.30.18

Author’s note:

Over the past several months I’ve been asked the same question by multiple people, all in a very particular way. In the middle of a conversation, they will suddenly ask, “Who are you?” It’s not phrased in a demeaning way, but definitely with a politely confused inflection. My life doesn’t quite add up to them, and I realized it might be worth filling in a bit more of my story than I had previously. It’s taken a couple of months to do the cognitive reframing in order to write this, and I’ll be completely honest with you, dear readers, the process has sucked on an industrial scale. Giving an account of my feelings of failure and futility in years of ministry is by no means easy. But here is my attempt at answering that question.

She looked more beautiful than I had remembered. I didn’t know that was even possible. Avoiding my usual haunts in the months since we had broken up had workeduntil that night. We had the same argument we always did. She couldn’t see how this ministry thing would pan out. She wasn’t wrong; she had children. She had found someone else. Before we parted ways, she asked me to kiss her, like I used to kiss her. I held her shoulders, and kissed her forehead instead. I couldn’t let her mess up what she had now. I had made her unhappy one last time, this person I loved. It didn’t feel like chivalry; it felt like self-harm, an amputation I had performed on myself. I had just watched a future end with a kiss. 

I have told you these things …

It wasn’t long after this cinematically “tragic romance” scene that I found myself stuffed into a little church conference room with a bunch of young ministry leaders. There had been panicked phone calls and texts coming in, telling me their bosses were not happy about this unscheduled meeting, and that they couldn’t come. I felt like a union organizer. What we were doing suddenly felt very transgressive, which was ridiculous, especially once you hear what we were meeting about. I called my mentor, who was home trying to recover from the illness that would later claim him. After quickly outlining what was happening, he said, “Josh, go ahead with the meeting—I’ll make some calls. I’ll take care of it.” Take care of it he did, and the meeting was allowed to happen. He ran interference for me because he believed in what I was doing. That meant the world to me. That last sentence seems an inadequate description of what I felt in that moment, stretching to this very day. That phone call shaped my ministry for the next decade.

We were meeting about these young leaders asking their bosses—pastors with a few hundred years of combined experience—to mentor them. That’s all … no really … that was what the meeting was about. After that meeting, they asked. To a person, they were told, “No.” I was pretty naive, but honestly, I didn’t know that was one of the possible answers! It was crushing for everyone involved, and to this day, I’m still not sure why it turned out that way. The closest I ever got to an explanation was, “Not enough time.” Some of the young leaders asked again, in the months and years that followed, but the answer remained the same.

… so that in Me you may have peace.

The next church context I found myself in leveled up exponentially in difficulty for me. After attending for several months, I found I would start weeping over my Sunday lunch; I hadn’t heard the Gospel preached, at all, and I felt the loss. I did what I could to encourage it, but it was bizarrely slow to take hold. I sensed a little resentment, or maybe it was embarrassment, when I brought this up to the pastor and elders privately. The church had a growing group of young married couples —the ultimate prize for older churches. Noticing this windfall, I tried to preempt the potential problems from the previous debacle at the front end. I gave some presentations to the leadership about generational differences, gave a few one-on-one pep talks, trying to describe what discipleship might look like, bought stacks of books to hand out, prepared custom material to fill in the gaps. There were even pie charts! I even gave a mini-refresher course on the Gospel just to cover all the bases. Then it happened; unprompted by me, several of the younger folks approached me (I was the unofficial chaplain of the young adults) about asking some of the older generation of leaders to disciple them. I think I was probably visibly beaming at that point. Everyone was prepped, expectations managed; this time would be different … like shooting fish in a barrel!

Guess what happened, dear readers—to a person, the younger folks were told, “No.” It was like déjà vu all over again! This time, the reason for saying no was that those asked felt they didn’t know enough to disciple. All that effort on the front end hadn’t worked … at all. Months and months of work, prayer, planning, preparation, all of it, down the tubes. I had even foreshadowed a Mockingbird technique before I even heard of Mockingbird: I had tried to describe how discipleship might look rather than giving a to-do list. The problem was, they wanted the to-do list, and they didn’t feel prepared to disciple without it. I remember one of the young adults saying, “If they don’t want to disciple, if they don’t get why this is so important, I don’t want them to disciple me!” Just great. People stopped talking to me. Suddenly, as a result of this, I was a divisive trouble maker. How had this happened, again?

There is no feeling quite so lonely as being at a church were you have a bad reputation for doing something you thought was a good thing, and no one’s telling you why it wasn’t. After each of these experiences, I would often wake up in the middle of the night sobbing. I had been dream-pleading with God for these churches. “If this was so important to You, God, then please send someone who they can actually hear, because they aren’t hearing it from me.” The grace that was compelling enough for me to to encourage it in the first place seemingly wasn’t enough to communicate it effectively. Even my intercession didn’t seem to work. The sky had turned to brass, so, after awhile, I just kept my mouth shut. Maybe I should have “shaken the dust off my sandals” right then and there, but that didn’t seem like the right thing to do, either. Rather than be divisive, I pulled back from my involvement in the church’s ministries and concentrated on just forcing myself to attend Sunday mornings. There was no us-versus-them in my mind—just one body, but I seemed to be serving as a splinter, or maybe a hangnail. The next months were spent trying to be less pain-inducing.

In this world you will have trouble. 

During this time, as if these experiences weren’t enough to empty what was left in my tank of feeling the least bit capable or competent, I started discipling some young guys who felt a call to ministry and were trying to squirm their way out of it. Hey, I never claimed to be a smart man. I wasn’t qualified, obviously, but there simply wasn’t any one else willing to do it. Occasionally, when they were going through tough times related to their call or in their ministries, they would say, “You don’t understand what it’s like.” No … no I guess I don’t understand the horrible costs that can come when you respond to a call to ministry, the painful choices you sometimes have to make. A pastor once asked me what I did to serve the church. I explained that I guess my ministry was discipling and mentoring these young pastors and ministry leaders. He looked at me puzzled, “But that’s not really ministry, is it?”

No … no, I guess it isn’t. I had rearranged my life around doing this thing that wasn’t really ministry, repeatedly. Why did I do that, exactly? Seems kinda silly if it wasn’t ministry. I should have, in hindsight, spent more time developing my career rather than pestering guys running from their calling. Some days, I agree with that pastor. I’m not sure if God stuck me in the lives of these young men because it was going to be a difficult and painful time for them, or if it was a difficult and painful time for them because I was in their lives. Among the ones that are still speaking to me, the consensus seems to be an even split. Part of their irritation stemmed from the fact that I insisted on a God-dependent faith and trust if they had any hope of surviving ministry. Think of it like scuba gear, discipleship being the process of helping them learn the necessity of having and using said scuba gear. Where the rub came was when they didn’t want scuba gear; they wanted me to make them into Aquaman. Who doesn’t want to be Aquaman? But that’s not how it works, so I became the bearer of bad news. “I wish I had never met you.”

But take heart!

After 15 years of engaging in this non-ministry, I was exhausted, and convinced by every failure, every dismissal, every criticism, that I wasn’t a very effective communicator, and what’s more, I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about. It had taken its toll. I felt like I was paying the price for either doing the right thing the wrong way, or the wrong thing with such a stoic resolve, there at least should be some sort of consolation prize! There is a lyric in the song Nux Vomica by The Veils that sums up that time perfectly:

Am I on the right train headed in the wrong direction?
What say You, Lord? What say You, Lord?

When the opportunity to write for Mockingbird came along, I took it. I wanted to see if I wrote the same things I had been writing and saying for all those years at these churches and to these guys I discipled was really the suspiciously fringe theology everybody had been looking askance at whenever I opened my mouth. Maybe it was, but at least now I have some great people to keep me company!

I’ve taken this rather maudlin trip down memory lane because of something strange that happened to me recently. Inexplicably, a well-respected pastor asked my opinion on something related to a new ministry context. He was wondering if he should keep preaching the same way he had been. I told him to keep doing that thing he had already been doing, and doing wellthis beautifully clear way of presenting the Gospel, which is almost Capon-like in the way it cuts through people’s barriers, their misunderstandings and objections. He had done this in good times and in rough times, to both public praise and private death threatswhy change course now? I listened to his next sermon, and apparently I had stoked the fires a little too enthusiastically, because he forged ahead so vigorously, I was honestly worried that he was going to be fired. He slaughtered that congregation’s sacred cows right in front of them, and with such gusto, the front row probably felt like they were at a Gallagher concert by mistake, splatter and all, minus the courtesy rain ponchos.

This scared the crap out of me. I had lost friends, strained relationships, and earned myself a bad reputation for saying the things I was now encouraging him to say. He has a wife and kids, a career, a life, for crying out loud! I sent him a long and very detailed “please don’t listen to me” email, outlining every failure and misstep I had made over the years, the same ones I’ve told you, plus a few more for good measure.

Where did all this come from? I had been thinking about my beloved mentor, now of blessed memory, who had taught me everything I knew, the same man who used to run interference for me all those years ago. His widow once told me, “He always used to say, ‘Josh, he can do anything!'” Whenever I would think of that, I would burst into tears. “If only he could see me now,” I would think, rather unfairly to him, “he would be so disappointed in me.” Why did I think that? Because am disappointed in me.

I have overcome the world.

You’ve probably noticed by now, John 16:33 has been woven through my story. It’s the cornerstone of my discipling people in ministry. The grace is in what Christ said, “I have told you these things, so that in Me you may have peace.” He didn’t want us to be shocked or discouraged at the inevitable, unavoidable suffering we would experience. As I retold my storywhich is a rhetorical form of counting the costyou can see John 16:33 has applied at each and every point along the way. My mentor knew that, and it allowed him to pour himself out into others until the day he died, because Christ already had. It’s what emboldened my pastor friend to preach the Gospel so bravely in face of possibly getting fired. It’s what enables me to be the repeatedly ineffective messenger that I am.

The cognitive reframing I’ve been doing of late isn’t really my doing. You don’t have to have blown it at discipling to have experienced repeated failure. It’s called being human. Oscar Wilde, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, calls our experiences “merely the name men gave to their mistakes.” Christ comes and turns that on its head. He calls our mistakes, our failures what they aresinand says the suffering caused by them, either from us or from others, the trouble we will have in this world, is no longer something we need to be afraid of because He overcame all of it on the cross. Most of our time is spent, at considerable effort, with a generous side of gratuitously self-imposed suffering, not believing this is true. We have been set free, indeed, to paraphrase John 8:36; it just is, says the I AM. My story, your story, often feels like a wild goose chase, until we realize the goose has already been caught. That’s the real cognitive reframing we’ve all been looking for.

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2 responses to “A Long Obedience in the Wrong Direction”

  1. Sean says:


  2. Al says:

    Thank you, Josh.

    Well lived, well pondered, well written.

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