Wearing Dead Men’s Clothes

deadmenclothesSmallOne of the strange aspects of my pastoral ministry is that I’ve ended up wearing dead men’s clothes. This is not something they prepared me for in seminary!

This is how it happens: some man dies in my congregation, someone about my size. Getting rid of a deceased husband’s clothes is a difficult task for the widow. She can give the clothes to a non-profit, but there’s strong emotional attachment to her husband’s clothes. She thinks of a compromise, a way to give the clothes away and still see it worn (my bit of amateur psychoanalyzing here). The widow determines that I’m about the size of her late husband. She offers me his best clothes. (Clarification: I’ve not been offered any clothes the man has actually died in, at least not to my knowledge.)

Such an offer is a risk for the widow. “I don’t want to offend you, pastor, just say ‘No’ if you don’t want them.” I take no offense and accept the clothes, especially if he was a man with good taste.

One of the deceased men and I looked enough alike that people said we could pass for brothers. Some weeks after sharing her late husband’s wardrobe with me the widow, glancing into my office, said, “Oh, for a minute I thought it was Jim.” That particular day I was wearing both her husband’s sport coat and slacks. All in all, I sensed she was glad to see I was making use of Jim’s clothes.

I stopped by the apartment of the widow of our first associate pastor, Ray. His wife Marie had asked if I wanted to come over and go through his clothes. I had been close to Ray. He was old enough to be my father and, in fact, with my own father being deceased, was sort of a father figure to me. I drove home with a collection of his suits, sport jackets, slacks, and ties piled on my back seat, clothes he had often ministered in at our church alongside me. Wearing his clothes has been a reminder that his legacy lives on through my ministry.

Being a preacher/writer means I’m always looking for an illustration, a metaphor, or some kind of applicable principle in almost everything that happens to me, even the strange. What observations are there to be made from wearing dead men’s clothes?

First: if I want to save money on clothes I should target my evangelism to older men in failing health who are near my own size. Just kidding. Seriously now…

Christ “put on” humanity. The apostle Paul wrote that Christ was “…being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man… (Philippians 2:7-8) Our call to pastoral ministry is a call to live among His people, a call to be incarnated among them, in some small way, as He was among humanity.

Empathy is a key characteristic we’re to exhibit as pastors, which calls to mind the metaphor of walking in another’s shoes. As pastors we attempt to walk in our parishoner’s shoes. We “wear” our parishoners’ circumstances by imagining ourselves in their place as best we can. The apostle Paul says to “rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.” (Romans 12:15) Though empathy is to be a characteristic of every Christian, we who pastor His people should lead the way in modeling it.

Walking in a man’s shoes, a dead man’s shoes, or wearing his coat or slacks is a vivid metaphor for incarnational ministry. It may not be listed as a sacrament by any church body but I, for one, have found it to be sacramental!

aaaqaqaq copyI came across this statement by a character in a novel I’m reading. Sometimes we find Biblical truth in strange places, including a science fiction novel that’s not necessarily religious. The truth of what this character expressed can help realign our heart and soul for ministry.

Assault from Nearby

KnifeInHeartMedWe were conducting a medical and evangelistic mission in Mexico with our daughter, her husband and their Fishers of Men ministry. Our daughter Julie asked the host pastor’s wife how she could best pray for her. They pastor a small church of about fifteen adults in a large town dominated by the Catholic Church. One needs to remember that the Catholic Church in Mexico has lingering and strong influences of the pagan beliefs that were a part of the culture long before the Catholic Church evangelized the country. For this, and I suspect other hard to define reasons, the Catholic Church is very antagonistic toward evangelical protestantism which has, in some cases, resulted in violence against evangelical Christians.

Given this spiritual environment you would expect the pastor’s wife to suggest that this conflict was her and her husband’s greatest challenge. Not so. She asked for prayer concerning the discord within their small church, especially for the critical attitudes people had toward her husband and his ministry.

Just a couple of weeks earlier I was in communication with a young pastor who I know well. I see no red lights in his ministry. He’s doing a great job but is facing harsh criticism by a couple of key leaders. These leaders are not handling their grievances in a way that honors the pastor they themselves believed just a couple of years ago God had called to be their pastor and the pastor of their church.

It may shock many to know the number one reason missionaries leave the mission field. It’s not because of conflict with local authorities, antagonism from other religious groups, cultural differences or inclement weather conditions. The number one reason missionaries leave the mission field is conflict with other missionaries!

I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised; Jesus’ arrest and execution were orchestrated by the religious establishment, leaders of His own religion, the Jewish faith. He was the Messiah of the Jews, and it was the Jewish Sanhedrin, the highest Jewish ruling body, that manipulated the Romans to have Him executed!

Then, too, remember David’s lament. “Even my close friend, someone I trust, one who shared my bread, has turned against me.” (Psalm 41:9)

This blog is all about the pastor’s heart, and it is a heart often pierced and even broken by the very people we pastors are called to serve! What are we to make of this? What are we to do?

I don’t want to disappoint, but I don’t have a magic cure to offer. If I did, I’d set up my own consulting firm and charge an exorbitant price for you to attend my conference! Just kidding – about the consulting, exorbitant price and conference part – not about my lack of a magic cure.

Reflecting on my thirty-nine plus years at the church I served I can recall time and time again when I was deeply hurt by people in the church. I believe I survived it primarily because I had a sense of a profound call from God to be their pastor. I can remember one night, after a brutal congregational meeting in which two leaders took turns with the wireless hand held microphone and questioned my ability to lead. I lay in bed that night, on my back, in the dark, my wife lying beside me. I raised my arm up toward the ceiling, formed a fist, shook it and nearly hollered out between clenched teeth, “I will not quit.” It was, in retrospect, one of the shortest and most bizarre prayers I’ve ever prayed!

I know we can question our call when things get tough, but if our questioning is prompted primarily by complaints or criticisms, then we have good reason to question our questioning of our call! It seems to me if God wants to steer us in a new direction that He will speak through angels and not demons. If, after some quiet, reflective, prayerful soul-searching one feels a ministry in a certain place is no longer effective and no longer God’s plan, then so be it. I don’t think, however, we can hear that still small voice of the Lord in the high decibels criticism coming from our detractors. Our call should always trump criticism.

Two Ways to View Our Shepherding Role

The image of shepherd helps us define our calling as pastors. Jesus is the Great Shepherd, but in His physical absence He has assigned us pastors to the task of shepherding a local flock of His. Images of sheep and a shepherd have always prompted my personal reflection on this amazing calling He’s placed upon me. I find myself probing the shepherd imagery even more in recent months since moving to rural Mexico where we have neighbors who shepherd a flock of a couple of hundred sheep. Whenever they lead them to greener pastures, if I’m aware of the flock’s movement, I’m there with my camera. Observing the flock and the shepherd neighbors has brought to mind two different ways we can see our role in pastoring a local flock of His.

The Younger Sibling Shepherd

ShepherdBrothersSmallI’ve noticed that often there are two shepherd boys taking care of the sheep, an older brother and a younger brother. I’m sure the older brother is in charge and that the younger brother is obedient to him and learns from him.

We sometimes identify Jesus as our “big brother” and that makes us the little brother or sister. As a pastor we can see ourselves as the younger brother shepherd or little sister shepherd. As we shepherd the flock we can know that our big brother shepherd is not far away and has His watchful eye on both us and the sheep He’s put under our care. He is there, always, always giving us His help and direction.

The Shepherd’s Dog

ShepherdDogSmallThe neighbors have a couple of sheep dogs, one is a German Shepherd mix, I’m not sure about the other. The dogs take their verbal orders from the shepherd (I’ve heard it many times). The dogs run and round up the stray sheep. They stand guard. Our own two Saint Bernard dogs have approached the sheep and the sheepdogs and have learned the hard way that this was not a wise move! The shepherd’s dogs guide and also protect the flock of their master, the shepherd.

I often made the comment during my years of pastoral ministry that I was the Lord’s sheepdog! It comes across to me as a self-deprecating title, but an accurate one, helping me to stay a bit more humble (I hope) and more useful to Him. The Lord is the Good Shepherd of the small flock He assigned to me, and I was but His sheepdog, seeking to obey His commands as to where to take the sheep and, yes, feeling protective of them.

Two Images to Hold in Mind and Heart

Images are powerful, and the images of the younger sibling to the big brother shepherd and of the sheepdog serving the master who is shepherd have helped me better grasp my role as a pastor. After all, there’s nothing I want more than to please the Good Shepherd!

Retreats for Your Soul

LakeMistDuring my 39+ years of ministry at Mayfair-Plymouth Church I would take an annual study leave. They varied from writers’ conferences to church growth conferences. Several of my study leaves could be classified as retreats. I believe of all of my study leaves the retreats were the most valuable. Because a retreat is a great way for a pastor to restore his or her soul I’m providing a link to a list of retreats compiled by Ed Stetzer at the Christianity Today web site. You can find it here.

I know this is a very limited list, so if you have other suggestions please “comment” with your recommendation(s) for a good place to retreat. For instance, I did a retreat at a Catholic monastery near Dubuque, Iowa called New Melleray Abbey. It was a great retreat. An interesting note: the monks provide some of their own financial needs by making caskets! The link is here.

Then too, Diann and spend half of our time at Refuge Ranch here in Mexico.  For the price of a flight to Mexico (about $700) and $55 per day for room and board you can retreat on the mountainside in Mexico!  Time your visit while Diann and I are here and we can take walks together and pray together.  I’ll pick you up at the Mexico City airport.  The link for the ministry of our daughter and son-in-law is here.

Jesus invited His disciples to get away with Him for awhile. “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” (Mark 6:31) I believe He still offers the invitation, we just have to listen.

Applying God’s Grace to My Disappointments

DisappointmentSmall

Having recently retired from the pastoral ministry I find it rather easy to compile pastoral lists; a list of funny stories, a list of ugly congregational meetings, a list of wedding snafus, and so on. Another such list is that of disappointments, plans that didn’t turn out the way I thought they would, the way I believed God wanted them to turn out.

There were people into whom I poured my life who left our church to pursue “God’s call” to go elsewhere. Their motives, it seemed in my humble opinion, were based more on running from their anger and the resulting conflict with fellow parishioners or with me rather than a running after the call of the Lord.

There were meetings that were planned, but as it turned out very few planned on attending the meetings. You try not to get caught up in the numbers game, but you do need at least a few people if anything’s going to happen at a meeting you’ve called.

I never expected to be the pastor of a mega church, but I’ll have to admit I thought we’d grow more than we did. In fact, the weekly attendance had slowly gone down the last few years of my ministry. This was in spite of the fact that, by my own estimation and that of church leaders, we were growing in Christ and had a clearer awareness of what the church should be.

Probably one of the biggest disappointments was spending over twelve years planning to build a new facility that never was built. We acquired a piece of ground, had countless meetings, carried out two major fund raising campaigns, went through several drafts of architectural plans, and had a ground breaking ceremony. The church is now in the process of selling the land (which, for the record, I believe is God’s will for the church to do). Over a quarter of my ministry involved this process of seeking to build a new facility better able to be the home for carrying out the Lord’s work, but it was not to be.

Life in general, but pastoral ministry in particular, has its disappointments. How are we to view these disappointments?

I’m reminded of the times Jesus was disappointed in people. He healed ten lepers but was disappointed when only one returned to give thanks. He was disappointed that His disciples were with Him a considerable length of time and still didn’t get some basic principles He had been teaching them. If it was OK for Jesus to be disappointed in people then we’re in good company when it happens to us! It’s part of the experience of ministering to and with people.

Then too, I have to remind myself that as much as I’m disappointed in others I also am sometimes a disappointment to others. Jesus’ teaching of the speck and the plank in the eye is a good one to remember at this point.

But that leaves those times when I’ve been disappointed, sometimes deeply so, that things did not work out as I thought they should. John Koessler wrote a book titled The Surprising Grace of Disappointment. I had never thought about applying God’s grace to my disappointment before reading John’s book.

When reflecting on some of my disappointments I wonder if I did all I could, or if I even took the right course of action. Was my timing off? Did I misread God’s will for me or for the church? Did I listen to bad advice from others or fail to take seriously the good advice of others? To such questions my honest answer is usually, “I don’t know.” Hindsight is not 20/20 in most of these cases.

There’s an incident in the ministry of Jesus and His disciples that comes to mind as I grapple with my disappointments. Jesus was sending His disciples out to do ministry, and He warned them that there would be times when they wouldn’t get the results they wanted, that people would not respond to the Good News they tried to share. “And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, shake the dust off your feet when you leave, as a testimony against them.” (Mark 6:11) I think what Jesus was trying to tell them is that they would be disappointed. His advice to them? Shake the dust from their feet and move on to the next village. In other words, let it go!

I believe Jesus’ words of advice to the original proclaimers of His Good News are there for those of us who proclaim His Word today too. We too are given the advice to shake the dust from our feet and move on. Yes, the grace of God is there for me to receive when I’m disappointed. I can hear Him whisper to me in His gracious way, “Let it go.”

 

A Heart of Humility

We’re living part of the time at Refuge Ranch in Mexico, the home of our daughter and her family. Recently a pastor’s conference was being held near Refuge Ranch so we were hosts for about a dozen pastors and their families for an afternoon and evening.

I’ve been reflecting recently on what role(s) the Lord would have for me in my new stage of life commonly called retirement. I’ve thought that, perhaps, one such role is as a mentor to other pastors. Perhaps this gathering of pastors would offer such an opportunity, I thought. True, most of them only spoke Spanish and I only speak English, but I knew one of the key pastors, an American, was fluent in both languages. I envisioned him saying something like this to the other pastors: “Dave has just finished spending nearly forty years of pastoral ministry in one church. I’ve invited him to share some of his thoughts with us and then he can answer any questions you have.” It didn’t turn out that way.

The pastors and their families enjoyed a meal of grilled beef, prepared by our son-in-law Victor. After the meal they all gathered in the house to hear our grandchildren share a worship song, with some of our grandchildren providing musical accompaniment with guitar, violin and tambourine and our daughter, their mother, accompanying on the piano.

The Zaragoza children singing with their mom, Julie

The Zaragoza children singing with their mom, Julie (our daughter)

Dirty plates and silverware had piled up. My wife Diann and I knew that our daughter, who was enjoying conversation and fellowship with the pastors’ wives, would, after the guest had left, end up doing dishes late into the evening. We did what any self-respecting set of parents would do; we started doing the dishes.

With the house filled with the pastors and their families, their attention focused on the Zaragoza children sharing their song, I found myself, with my back to the scene, washing dishes at the kitchen sink. It occurred to me that my role that evening had turned out quite different than I had envisioned. Instead of serving the Lord by sharing the wealth of my wisdom with the pastors I was washing their dirty dishes! Though I resisted the thought at first, I came to realize that this was the Lord’s calling for me that evening.

The experience brings to mind something Brother Lawrence (1611-1691) wrote, a monk who washed dishes in a monastery. “In my kitchen’s noise and clatter, while several people are all calling for different things, I possess God just as peacefully as if I were on my knees at the altar, ready to take communion.” Yes, I was serving God as much by washing dishes as I would have if sharing profound insights with those pastors. In fact, I was serving the Lord more effectively at the sink, because this was obviously His calling for me for the moment. I’m not saying I fully embraced the concept, for it was a humbling experience and being humbled is hardly ever a fun experience.

The pastors and their families

The pastors and their families

My dish washing ministry that night prompted my recollection of another experience I had in Florida a few months earlier. We had just retired from pastoral ministry and moved to Florida to live part-time near our son and his family, who had moved their from Indianapolis to help plant a church. My wife and I decided it was the Lord’s call for us to lend our support to the church plant. What role would I play in helping to plant a church after having spent a lifetime pastoring an established church?

After we had been part of this new church plant for about two months there came a Sunday when a number of ministry people were gone. I ended up filling one of the vacant ministry positions, being the parking lot greeter! Wearing an orange vest I waved at the folks as they drove in and gave them a hearty “Good morning!” as they walked from their cars to the school where the church was holding services. As I stood on the parking lot, wearing my orange vest and waiting for the next car to arrive, I thought to myself, “This is what it has come to.” A few weeks earlier I had enjoyed the attention, affection, and love of several hundred people as they struggled with saying good-by to their pastor of nearly forty years. They listened carefully to my every word, some of my last words for them, sometimes with tears in their eyes. What an experience! Now, here I was, just a few weeks later, a parking lot greeter!

Of all the new adventures the Lord could send me on as a newly retired pastor He has plotted out for me an inward journey, a journey into being humbled. I’ve titled this blog A PASTOR’S HEART and what I’m learning is that having a humble heart is a big part of having a true pastor’s heart. It’s easy, as a pastor, to take the position, the attention of the people, the responsibility, and (at least occasionally) the praise too seriously. Pride can keep us from being truly productive for Him. We can be so full of our self that we have little of Christ to share; I’m convinced it’s an occupational hazard of pastoral ministry. The truth is the Lord seems to be able to work best through those who have been humbled.

The problem is that any effort to be humble is a journey with a slippery slope, for the moment we think we’ve acquired a bit of humility, we’ve just slipped and lost it! My goal, I’ve determined, should not be humility but an acceptance of the humbling situations the Lord brings my way, including washing the dirty dishes of pastors and being a church parking lot greeter!

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