A Common Enemy to Worship and Outreach

In his famous short story The Tell-Tale Heart, Edgar Allan Poe explores the effect of guilt on human behavior. Told as a first person narrative, the main character insists on his innocence throughout. However, in the climax of the story, his guilt overwhelms him, leading him to tear up the floorboards and reveal the subject of his grisly crime.

Pastors don’t have to be taught about how guilt manifests itself. A parishioner who won’t look you in the eye, a spouse who maintains their innocence against evidence to the contrary, or a family in good standing who suddenly disappears from worship are all too common examples.

While we may be skilled at recognizing it in others, we are not always so good at recognizing in ourselves. The sheer volume of people and the press of ministerial duties is overwhelming. Emails go unanswered. Phone calls go unreturned. Deadlines are missed. Souls are neglected. We are home infrequently; we miss our children grow up. A hundred other guilt-inducing events overwhelm our souls. We may do our best to rationalize and insist on our innocence - we’re doing all we can. But the low, dull, heartbeat of guilt says otherwise.

A pastor’s personal guilt is perhaps the most common enemy to his best efforts in worship and outreach. If my soul is unhealthy, won’t I also be compromising the worship and proclamation of my flock? Procrastination, shoddily prepared worship or a lazily produced manuscript might be different ways guilt manifests itself. Then worship and outreach suffers not just for me, but for everyone.

David knew a thing or two about unresolved guilt. Writing in Psalm 51, David not only details the guilt of his sin, but more so the freedom of God’s forgiveness. In the first two verses alone he describes forgiveness as “mercy,” “unfailing love,” “great compassion,” “blotting out of transgressions,” “washing away iniquity” and “cleansing from sin.” And in the last few verses, we learn that forgiveness has a direct impact on worship and outreach: Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will turn back to you. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise (Psalm 51:13,15).

During his presidency, Ronald Reagan popularized the phrase, “trickle-down economics.” Pastors understand that when they shepherd their own souls first - when their guilt is forgiven, when their hearts are healthy and their souls are cleansed and fed (see the essay by Jon Zabell) - it has a trickle down effect on the worship and outreach of the entire congregation. Then they can turn sinners back to the Lord and open their lips in praise of God.

The Lenten season is upon us. Its evening services, somber mood and minor-chorded hymns all lead us to deal face to face with our own sin and guilt. Unlike Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, we know where our guilt finds its resolution. Guilt did not overcome Jesus; Jesus overcame our guilt. If Poe made insightful points about the effect of guilt on the soul, don’t we have something much more insightful to say this Easter about the effect of the Gospel on the soul?

Rev. Adam Mueller

Adam Mueller serves as pastor of Peace Lutheran in Kokomo, Indiana. In addition to his pastoral duties, he serves the synod as a member of the WELS Commission for Congregational Counseling.

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