Best Practices Postscript

Dr. Timothy E. Saleska is professor of Exegetical Theology and dean of Ministerial Formation at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.

Dr. Tim Saleska shares a devotional reflection in response to Pat's talk at Best Practices for Ministry:


Reflections on My Brother-in-Law, Pat Ferry
But Especially a Plea to our Synod to Live in the Gospel

From good to evil is one quaver, says the proverb. 
And correspondingly, from evil to good.

-Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

The Tyranny of the Past

In the movie, Magnolia, Jimmy Gator says, “We might be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.” His words have burned themselves into my soul, because—from the inside out--Jimmy Gator speaks a painful truth to me. You can see that truth play out in the lives of each character in the movie as well. Each character suffers intensely from a past that continues to haunt them. I find myself suffering with them every time I watch the movie.

I too carry the burden of this truth. From the long passed past, memories can still bring regret, shame, humiliations, inadequacies, and fear back to into my present conscience. Sometimes, from out of nowhere, a memory will rise reminding me of a past failure or sin, or a lonely moment, or heartbreak. No matter how far I have travelled in my life, when I look over my shoulder, I can see them all dogging my heels.

This is what life under the Law feels like. The Law does not permit you to go back and undo your mistakes or take back those words or make that other choice. The Laws of time and space trap you in the present tense. Do-overs are forbidden.

The moral Law doesn’t give you a way to work your way out of the grip of the past. No matter how pious you are now. No matter how holy your present life. No matter how great your charity, none of it will change what you did or didn’t do, what happened or didn’t happen. The past remains etched in stone in spite of your attempts to cover it or scratch it out of your mind.

The Law does nothing to quell the guilt, shame, and self-recrimination when these ghosts from the past come to haunt you. The Law offers no solace, no sanctuary. The Law gives no quarter. What the Law does is remind you that you didn’t measure up back then. You failed. You’re a failure. And in the present, the Law reminds you that you will never measure up. The Law accuses, accuses, accuses.

We may be finished with the past, but the past ain’t finished with us. That’s the Law. And it is so true. So much suffering and misery because the past does not relent. No wonder therapists spend most of their time trying to help people deal with their past and the damage it continues to cause in the present.

This is why, contrary to popular opinion, Satan loves the law and wants to keep you in it . . . or drag you back into its clutches. He wants you to think there is something redemptive to be found in the Law. He wants you to think that the Law is the solution to your personal problems, to society’s problems and. . . . (gasp!) to the Church’s problems. He wants you to measure your life by the Law. And he especially loves it when you measure the lives of others by the Law, and when you judge them by the Law’s standards, and when you point out how others fall short. Satan knows that if he can keep you centered on the Law, he can ride you straight to hell.

Satan hates the Gospel because God’s Word of forgiveness works entirely outside of the Law. Through his powerful Word of forgiveness, the Holy Spirit frees us from our guilt and sin and shame. Not because of our pious lives and holy works, but in spite of them. In spite of our pride and our past and present sins, In Christ, our heavenly Father redeems us from death and hell--freely, unexpectedly, miraculously. Satan can’t deal with that. He has no weapon to defeat it.

The whole point of the Gospel is to free you from your broken and sinful past. God’s forgiveness promises you that you don’t have to worry about the past any longer. God has forgiven it. It is over and done with. We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us. Well, because Jesus has redeemed you, outside of the Law, this simply is not true. It is not true. St. Paul is bold to say, “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” Who are you going to believe, Jimmy Gator or the apostle Paul?

For these reasons, it is particularly disturbing to me when voices in our church start whispers about my brother-in-law’s divorce. I am not disturbed because they are trying to hurt his chances of being elected. I am not interested in the question of whether or not my brother-in-law is or is not qualified to be the president of our Synod. That question was decided long ago when those who had charge over him said that Pat was qualified for pastoral ministry.

I’m troubled because these sinful whispers bring Pat back under the accusing voice of the Law from which our Lord freed him long ago. These whispers bring back old sins which have been repented of and forgiven long ago. These whispers start back up the accusing voices in Pat’s heart. They bring back the feelings of guilt and shame from which Jesus himself died to free him. And if you don’t believe that the Law can do this to Pat at this point in his life, listen to his speech that he gave at the Best Practices Conference.

(Pat's speech starts at 30:48)

It's like speaking Jimmy Gator’s untruth into Pat’s ear, “You may be finished with the past, but I’m making sure the past isn’t finished with you.” Is this the Holy Spirit speaking? Or Satan? 

Think of the spiritual damage that such talk may inflict. Not only on Pat (I know that he will be ok) but on others who have suffered divorce or some other dark night of the soul in their lives. Think of all the Christians who struggle with feelings of guilt because of their past or those of tender conscience who may now feel unworthy and confused. What does such talk suggest to them? “Do you mean that God’s forgiveness doesn’t really get the past off my back?” “Do you mean that God forgives but still demands his pound of flesh—and it’s up to other Christians to exact it?” “Do you mean that I still have to carry this burden and that others are judging me for it?” Please, do not let it be so.

The Gift of the Present

In addition to easing our regret and shame over our past, there is another gift that God’s forgiveness brings to us. Not only does it release us from past guilt, but it also relieves us of anxiety and fear over our future. Both regret for the past and fear of the future are huge problems in our culture. People are plagued by regret on the one hand and fear on the other. But God’s forgiveness gives us a bold certainty on both counts. It frees us from regret, and it calms our fears. Even in death, we may know for certain that our Lord will deliver us from the grave. He has promised it, and he will do it.

So, God’s forgiveness leaves in its wake a wonderful gift—the present. God gives us back the present. That is to say, God’s forgiveness gives us the opportunity to live our present lives without being dragged down by past regrets or nagged by anxiety over our future security. This is an amazing present--an amazing gift God offers to our guilt ridden and anxious age.

As the Confessions urge us to do (Ap 21.4), I thank God for the mercy he showed my brother-in-law so many years ago. Think about it, our Lord rescued Pat from unbelief and enteral judgment. And through him, the Holy Spirit brought the rest of his family to faith. And over the past decades, he has led institutions where literally thousands of young people from all over the world, have had the opportunity to hear God’s Word preached to them and taught to them, where the Holy Spirit has been lively and active and doing his saving work.

This is the miracle of the Gospel and a witness to the power of the Holy Spirit. I pray that you can see it for what it is—miraculous. It is this miracle that we should be talking about. God’s grace given to my brother-in-law, his family, you, your family, our church. The miracle of God’s grace in Christ. The miracle of our salvation. The miracle of each new day where God gives us the opportunity to serve Him with neither regret nor fear. These are the things that should be on our lips and in our hearts.

Please, look behind you, and if you see Satan riding the saddle of your heart, go immediately to your pastor beg him for that Word of forgiveness from Christ himself to you, and pray that the Holy Spirit knock Satan off his seat and put Jesus back right where he belongs—guiding and directing your lives and your words until he brings you safely home.

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,
Compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience,
Bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another,
Forgiving each other;
As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.

-St. Paul

Tim Saleska

Some say that this is a rip off of William Faulkner’s “The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.” They both express the same truth, but I like Jimmy Gator’s version better.


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Patrick Ferry in his officePatrick Ferry in his office