The Number

By Ross Engel

Recently I watched the 2006 Kevin Costner/Ashton Kutcher movie, “The Guardian.” The film centers on the training of the U.S. Coast Guard’s elite rescue swimmers. Kevin Costner is the seasoned veteran—a legend with more rescues than one can keep track of—and Ashton Kutcher is the talented yet cocky recruit who yearns to make a name for himself. Both men are running from tragedies and brokenness and the movie is dripping with themes of self-sacrifice and coping with loss. There is appreciable depth to this movie.

“The Guardian” is bookended with similar opening and closing lines: “There is a legend of a man who lives beneath the sea. He is a fisher of men, the last hope of all those who have been left behind. Many survivors claim to have felt his gripping hands beneath them; pushing them up to the surface; whispering strength until help could arrive. But this, of course, is only a legend.” And the closing line of the film: “There is a legend of a man who lives beneath the sea. He is a fisher of men, a last hope for all those who’ve been left behind. He is known as the Guardian.”

The character that Costner plays is a legend in the rescue swimmer world. The hopeful trainees try to guess how many “saves” they think that he has. One guesses 200; another says he heard it was over 300. Regardless of the number of saves, they know that he has saved a lot of lives and the awe and respect bestowed upon this decorated open water savior is well deserved.

As the movie comes to a close, Kutcher stops Costner and asks him, “What’s your real number?” Costner gives a number. Kutcher replies, “That’s not bad. It’s not 200, but..” Costner cuts him off and declares, “That’s the number of people I lost. The only number I kept track of.”

It turns out that the only number this life saving legend kept track of was the number of people he lost, the number of people he couldn’t save or didn’t save. He probably saved hundreds, thousands if you consider the influence he had on future rescue swimmers, but the only number that he carried with him, was those he lost.

I’ve been a pastor for ten years now, and ministry has been much like life; there have been bountiful joys as well as the occasional crushing sorrows. I’ve preached hundreds of hours of sermons, performed plenty of Baptisms, and married many a happy couple. I’ve worked side by side with the people I’ve been called to serve. I’ve delivered Law and Gospel to hungry hearers. I’ve been celebrated and I’ve been cussed at. I’ve delivered the Good News of Jesus Christ to mourning families. I’ve taught the young and the old, visited the sick and infirm, listened to confessions, delivered absolution, welcomed new members, and all the other things that I promised to do when I was ordained into this Holy Office.

When it comes to ministry, most pastors have more than a few ministerial moments that might be “numbered” as successes. But most of us don’t focus on the successes or the potential positive impact that our ministries may have. Instead, the one number that haunts so many of us is the number of people that we lost.

Now, as a pastor, it is expected that there will be people who will leave when you faithfully discharge the duties of the pastoral office. Even Jesus preached one sermon, and half his disciples left Him in John 6.

We sinners don’t always like to hear what God’s Word has to say, and so it occasionally happens that someone will walk away from that Word. It is saddening when the truth of God’s Word is traded for a lie, throwing away the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, denying the saving waters of Holy Baptism, rejecting Biblical Marriage, or some other reality of God’s Word because they stopped believing what God’s Word says. But I’m not sure if that’s the number most pastors keep track of. The number that seems to haunt is the number who were lost because their pastor “failed” them.

Failing as a pastor can take on all sorts of forms. Certainly there is no comprehensive list that covers them all. But in one of the first pieces I submitted for The Jagged Word, “An Open Letter to Pastors” I wrote, “in ministry, it seems as though every pastor is one word, one sermon, one study, one missed phone call, one difficult decision, or one mistake away from having the very people that you love, that you’ve counseled, or encouraged, cared for, prayed for, held hands with in a hospital, comforted in hard times, sacrificed family and health for, who you’ve guided through life’s big moments and more, turn on you, hate you, slander you or worse.

Coping with loss is tough but on top of that, every pastor knows the difficult words of Hebrews 13. “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.”

Pastors are “Seelsorgers;” they are caretakers of souls; they keep watch. And on the Last Day, they will give an account regarding how they discharged their duties. Every undershepherd of the Chief Shepherd hopes to approach the true Guardian of Souls, declaring, “By Your power and authority, Sir, Your servant delivers to You safely this contingent of Your church: All souls present and accounted for!”

But will any pastor be able to make such an assertion on the Last Day? All present? All accounted for? I know my number doesn’t reflect that reality. Is there any hope?

St. Paul writes, “Such confidence we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God, who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” – 2 Corinthians 3:4-6

It is good to be reminded that true comfort is not found in keeping track of the number who were lost or whether that number is high or low. Comfort is found in the knowledge that, as caretaker of souls, pastors serve the Guardian of Souls. He feeds His flock and He will lead them to rest. He will bind up the broken, and He will strengthen the sick. He does the work, and He accomplishes His purposes even through sinful pastors. And at the last, this Guardian of Souls declares with absolute confidence that He has not lost any whom the Father has given to Him. His number is zero!

So, brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord, your labor is not in vain!

While we may keep track, in the end, the only number that truly matters is 1. For there is only one name under heaven by which we are saved: Jesus Christ, our Savior, our Lord, the Guardian of our souls!