“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:9–12 NIV 1984).
There’s an unspeakable mix of emotions that fill a room like incense as someone is about to pass through the gateway of death into eternity. May I be honest for a moment? In my years of pastoral ministry, I’ve never found it easy or comfortable to be present in those moments. Not knowing what to say, fear of speaking platitudes into someone’s grief, or simply being in the way of deeply personal family moments are not easy for me to navigate. But I have — several times.
One late night I found myself at the hospital with a family in this very situation. Their mom/wife was about to die, and the family was not equipped to deal with it. I was standing in the hospital room experiencing every awkward feeling described above, when one of the nurses came in and asked me a question. “You’re the pastor; aren’t you?” I’m sure I couldn’t hide the surprised and confused look on my face as I responded, “I am, but how did you know?” “I can tell. I can always tell who the pastor is,” she replied with the kind of look that leaves you wondering how someone could learn of such inside information.
My personal feelings of awkwardness couldn’t hide the presence of God in me at that moment, and, not only me, but many other pastors who had been in that same place of ministry. Part of being a stranger in the world is learning that we can exude a distinct Christlike aroma even when we feel entirely inadequate. Paul described this mystery to the Colossians this way: “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27b). The presence of Christ in me – in you – reveals the glory of God to the world. Here’s the good news. This dynamic isn’t just for pastors, but for all who will open themselves to the work of the Lord in their life.
Presently, the world could use hope that only the glory of God can give. Remember, the coronavirus pandemic is still a reality, and the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd are still raw, gaping wounds in our society that have given way to national protests. Perhaps we’re all feeling a bit like I do when I awkwardly stand in a hospital room. So let me be blunt, when it comes to dealing with the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, we are dealing with an entire national family of black Americans who have had to live most of their lives in that “hospital room” place. We should feel awkward at this moment and refuse to deflect or speak cheap platitudes to the family who is mourning and grieving.
Instead of acting like the world, we should be strangers in the world. Because of Christ in us, the people of God, we can be assured that His presence is with us. Many of us feel like we’re left to our own devices to figure out everything that’s wrong with the world, but we’re not alone!
Now, please don’t misunderstand me. This is not an excuse to hide. Quite the contrary, we need to be present in the places where conversations are happening around race, disease and despair. We need to be spending more time in the private prayer closet so we’re prepared for the public arena. The transformation that is imparted to you in the prayer closet will be the aroma you exude in the public arena.
The world needs us to be the “strangers.” Paul speaks of not conforming to ways of the world but being transformed by the renewing of our mind (Romans 12:2). Be set apart as holy unto the Lord.
Brett Heintzman is the publisher of LIGHT + LIFE through his role as the communications director of the Free Methodist Church – USA, which he also serves as the co-director of the National Prayer Ministry. Visit freemethodistbooks.com to order his books “Becoming a Person of Prayer,” “Holy People” (Volume 1 of the “Vital” series), “Jericho: Your Journey to Deliverance and Freedom” and “The Crossroads: Asking for the Ancient Paths.”1