Yesterday I preached on Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). In my sermon I stated that the rich man had not “died” spiritually because he still wanted to order Lazarus to serve his needs. The rich man still acted as if he was in charge. He had not died to himself.
Afterwards I remembered when such a death became real for me.
I have always felt comfortable about my ability to pray extemporaneously in front of large groups. Years ago I served on the staff of a large congregation with four other pastors. One Sunday morning I was preparing to lead prayers during worship when a pastoral colleague, Mark Wickstrom, handed me a prayer request. He asked that we pray for a former staff person who had died the previous week. Mark was not participating in this specific worship service so he wrote out the name of the person on a prayer request card with his stereotypical scribbled handwriting. I glanced at the card, recognized the name as a former custodian who had health issues and continued the preparation for congregational prayer.
As I lead prayer, we prayed for many written requests. When it came time to pray for those who are grieving, I glanced down at Mark Wickstrom’s scribbled note and prayed, “Lord comfort all who grieve the death of (pause) Mark Wickstrom.”
An audible gasp came from the congregation. Mark was a much-loved pastor whose death would be devastating. I immediately knew that I had made a huge gaffe and felt the red crimson of embarrassment rising in my face.
The next words out of my mouth must have been a gift of the Holy Spirit, because after a brief pause I continued, “And Lord, we thank you that you have raised Mark up and that he is alive and well, serving you in a different part of this building right now. (pause) But we do pray for those who grieve the death of Mark Webinger, our former custodian.”
There was an audible sigh of relief from the congregation as well as a few chuckles. After worship during the coffee fellowship, Mark received many affirmations for being alive, while I endured some ribbing for “killing a pastor.” But what happened that day was not simply a prayer faux pa, but also my trust in myself as a pastoral leader. I realized that I can become too self-assured in my abilities, even in prayer, and that I need to ‘die’ to myself and rise to newness of life in Christ, even as I pray for others. In a way two pastors “died” that morning. Thankfully, also two “resurrections.”
I have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives within me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me (Galatians 2:19b-20).
Lord Jesus, let me die to self and live for you.
P.S. Dr. Mark Wickstrom continues to live and serve as lead pastor of Community Lutheran Church in Las Vegas, Nevada.