The Unknown Pastor

The unknown comic 2The “Unknown Comic” wore a grocery bag over his head with holes cut out for his eyes and mouth. He appeared frequently on the Gong Show. Comic Rodney Dangerfield always lamented he didn’t get any respect, but Murray Langston gets little recognition. That’s the real name of the “unknown comic” which I, of course, didn’t know; after all he’s billed himself as the unknown comic!

It has been said that God must love common people, because He’s made so many. God must also love relatively unknown pastors, because he’s called so many of us to be just that!

This, of course, does not mean we’re unimportant or have little to contribute to God’s kingdom. I know this to be true. But do I really believe this of myself and of other pastors?

It’s time for true confession. If I don’t know the conference speaker, book author, or blogger, in other words, if the person is not famous, I tend to skip the conference session, look for a different book or move on to another blog. Why? Does being well-known give the person the credentials to speak or write truth, and does being a virtual unknown disqualify the person from speaking or writing truth into my life?

The answer is, of course not. What makes it all the more ironic is that I’m one of those virtually unknown pastors and writers. My ministry was never profiled in a major Christian magazine, nor did I lead church conferences. My books and blogs have never hit the stratosphere. (I commend you for reading this blog from an “unknown writer.”)

We need to encourage one another and allow God to speak truth to each of us through each other. Most of us aren’t going to be a disciple like Peter, James, or John. Of the twelve, the one we know the least about is James the Less. We can assume, however, that though he gets no ink in the New Testament pages he carried out his apostolic calling nonetheless. He presumably never wore a paper bag over his head, but he certainly could be called the “unknown apostle.” Perhaps he should be our patron saint!

The Vindication of Ministry

vindicationWe all know that some people go home from Sunday services and have roasted pastor for dinner. Some people believe that complaining is a spiritual gift! By God’s grace we pastors never hear most of the critical comments people make of us. There are times, however, when we hear it through the grapevine. Then too, there are those memorable times when people criticize us to our face (which is better than behind our back). Sometimes they don’t ask for a private appointment to air their grievances (which is the Biblical way) but choose a time when they have an audience, like at a congregational meeting!

I recall the time when three of the men from my church decided they had to confront me about how I was handling an issue. I’m sure they saw themselves as the three wise men. I, however, saw them as the Three Stoog… OK, that’s not a good direction to go for a person who is continuing to work on his sanctification! Ultimately two out of the three spoke up at the special congregational meeting. They were handed a wireless microphone, which allowed them to pace and roam as they questioned my ability to lead as pastor.

By God’s grace I was able to resist the temptation to defend myself. I sought to follow Jesus’ example and remain silent before my accusers. It was a wise choice. Months later, after reconciliation with one of the men, he told me, “While I was ranting and raving I could see in the people’s eyes that I had lost them.” Actually, again by God’s grace, I was reconciled with all three men, two along with their families returned to the church after leaving for a season, the other man and his family found another church home, but we’ve been cordial with each other when we’ve happened to meet.

I’ve come to believe that when God calls us to a course of action for which we are criticized He does not expect us to defend ourselves. As the apostle Paul writes, Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19)

I’ve learned that I don’t have to defend my ministry. (He who defends himself has a fool for a lawyer!) I seek to hold to the conviction that the Lord will vindicate me. That’s why my prayer when I’m tempted to defend myself echoes the words of the psalmist. The Lord will vindicate me; your love, Lord, endures forever— do not abandon the works of your hands.” (Psalm 138:8)

A number of the psalms speak to this theme of allowing God to vindicate. The entire Psalm 35 focuses on this theme. In a portion of that psalm the writer declares, “Lord, you have seen this; do not be silent. Do not be far from me, Lord. Awake, and rise to my defense! Contend for me, my God and Lord.” (Psalm 35:22-23) Part of the faith we need in ministry is to believe that God will vindicate us!

God and Efficiency

TurtleTimeI’m not convinced God ever calls someone to be an efficiency expert as a profession. OK, maybe I can’t be sure about that, but it does seem to me that God has little interest in efficiency. I see proof of this in His creation.

Look at a maple tree, oak tree, or cottonwood tree and you’ll see seemingly gazillions of whirlybirds, acorns, and flying cottonwood seeds. Sure, there needs to be enough seeds to find the right conditions to produce new trees, but that many? God’s creation is filled with such examples of extravagance. Beauty and diversity are two such huge areas. Why didn’t God stick to making plants and animals with few variations and functionally mundane appearances?

I also see proof of God’s lack of interest in efficiency in the special revelation of the Bible. In all of my years of studying the Bible I can’t recall any passage that shows God to be interested in efficiency or calling His people to efficiency. In other words, if I had to deliver a speech to an audience of efficiency experts, I’d be hard pressed to find a Biblical passage to base it on!

I share all of this because it relates to my experience as a pastor in one place for 39 plus years; in retrospect it seems He called me to “waste time” on many occasions. I believe He frequently called me to spend significant time with people who would never, in my humble estimation, return the investment by being a more active contributor to the church’s life. This does not surprise me. Jesus spent much of His preciously short time of three years of public ministry healing and helping those who are never mentioned again in the New Testament, people who apparently didn’t make a big, measurable mark on the early church. One time Jesus healed a man who was then thrown out of the temple. The Gospel states, Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and when he found him…” (John 9:35) Time on earth was running out for Jesus, and here He goes and traipses after a nondescript guy treated badly by a few others.

Corporations make much of everyone in their employ being efficient. The Kingdom of God is not a corporation. An implication of this fact is that there’s a real danger in taking corporate principles and automatically applying them to the church. We are, after all, pastors, not CEOs. In many ways God’s kingdom is topsy-turvy to how the business world operates; the importance of efficiency is one such area.

Does this mean we’re never to ask ourselves if we’re making wise use of our time? Of course not. Balance is the key. If we can find someone else to move the tables and chairs then it’s probably wise to do so, leaving us time to do that which the movers and shakers of tables and chairs aren’t gifted or called to do. On the other hand, we might have some of our best conversations while we work with our parishioners at setting up a room for a meeting.

For decades I served coffee at our annual fish fries at the church. It offered me countless opportunities to connect with people, especially people who enjoyed the Friday night physical food at the church but didn’t show up for the spiritual food on Sunday. Would I have better served the church by staying in my church office, studying and strategizing during those hours? I don’t think so.

Efficiency may have a place in ministry, but it doesn’t hold the number one place. The top priority is to be open to God’s calling, and that may not always lend itself to efficiency.

“While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head. Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor. And they rebuked her harshly. Leave her alone,said Jesus. Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.‘” (Mark14:3-9)

A Humble Heart

towelbowelI’ve read a number of books by Andrew Murray (1828-1917) on my tablet because ebooks by Murray are cheap to download (some only 99 cents). OK, that’s a distant secondary reason. The first reason is that his writings are still full of insight these many years later. Murray was the son of missionaries to South Africa where he lived and ministered most of his life. He was a pastor and writer, having written an astonishing number of books, 240, one of which I just finished, Humility.

I’ve always been humble, so really didn’t need to read this book. Oops! OK, I did need to read this book. I realized that I give mental acknowledgment and verbal affirmation to the importance of humility, but it was Murray’s book that helped my heart to be more open to being humbled.

For those of us who pastor people there’s no better place to tend to our pastor’s heart than to reflect on the subject of humility. Murray writes of the importance of humility for the professional Christian worker. “We may find professors and ministers, evangelists and workers, missionaries and teachers, in whom the gifts of the Spirit are many and manifest, and who are the channels of blessing to multitudes, but of whom, when the testing comes… it is only to painfully manifest that the grace of humility, as an abiding characteristic, is scarce to be seen.” (page 19) We can be very gifted workers in God’s kingdom, but if we come across as prideful as over against being seen as humble our ministry won’t ring true with people. Then, too, if we want God’s help and not His opposition, we need to work on this area. God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” (James 4:6)

Murray unpacks a great deal about humility in his small volume. We don’t normally think of humility as being an attribute of God’s, but Murray reminds the reader how Jesus was truly humble in coming to earth as one of us, lived humbly, and humbled Himself to the point of dying for us. Jesus taught a great deal about humility. For instance, “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:26-28)  Then too, there was the time Jesus washed his disciples feet in the upper room, a task often done by a servant.  His use of the bowl and towel were an example to His diciples of how they were to treat each other, how we’re to treat others.

Jesus had to help His disciples grapple with the need to be humble, for instance, when the sons of Zebedee and their mom asked Jesus for the boys to be at the head of the class of the twelve. The remaining ten disciples were really ticked at the two, so, obviously, they had as much work to do on the subject of humility as the two. If the original twelve needed to attend to the subject of humility then it’s probably a good bet it needs to be addressed in our lives as well.

Murray points out an aspect of humility that I’ve frequently overlooked. “Humility is often identified with penitence and contrition. As a consequence, there appears to be no way of fostering humility but by keeping the soul occupied with its sin. We have learned, I think, [through reading thus far through his book] that humility is something else and something more. We have seen in the teaching of our Lord Jesus and the Epistles how often virtue is inculcated without any reference to sin. In the very nature of things, in the whole relation of creature to the Creator, in the life of Jesus as He lives it and imparts it to us, humility is the very essence of holiness as of blessedness. It is the displacement of self by the enthronement of God. Where God is all, self is nothing.” (page 31) Our sin humbles us, but another marvelous method of God humbling us is when we become freshly aware of how awesome God is and yet how willing He is to stoop down to us in love!

There is no better way to conclude this post than to give Mr. Murray the final word. “Reckon humility to be indeed the mother-virtue, your very first duty before God, the one perpetual safeguard of the soul, and set your heart upon it as the source of all blessing.” (page 50)

I’m re-reading the passages I’ve highlighted in Murray’s book, Humility. I need a second exposure to this all-important subject of humility as Murray unpacks it.

Clark Kent or Superman?


Hanging in my closet is the robe and hood I wore when leading worship and preaching for many years at the church I served as pastor for 39+ years. I didn’t always wear the robe. Before air conditioning the summers in the sanctuary were too hot. Then we added a contemporary service; with a backdrop of drums and guitar the robe was not appropriate, though I still wore it in the traditional service.


I’m now retired, and when I look at my robe in the closet I feel a little like Clark Kent must have felt when he came back to his apartment at the end of the day from working as a reporter for the Daily Planet newspaper and viewed his Superman costume hanging in his closet. (I know, Clark was able to transform into Superman wherever he was, but in one episode we saw a Superman costume in Clark’s closet.) I no longer zoom around trying to be a super pastor; I am now living the life of a mild mannered retired pastor.

OK, so we pastors know we can’t be all things to all people as pastors and please all the people all the time. Being a super pastor isn’t our call from God, we get that, most of the time. I know, however, I was tempted to try to be that super pastor.

I recall the time Marlene called me in a panic and said her husband had fallen in the garage and couldn’t get up. My office at the church was just a few blocks from their home so I rushed over there, probably had him sitting back up in a folding chair in the garage within two minutes after she called. I kidded her that I really could use a flashing light on top of my car! I’m glad I was able to help, but I’ll also admit to feeling a little bit of the super pastor at the moment.

I’m thinking that once in a while we might need a couple of reminders as to why we’re to be a mild mannered pastor and not a super hero pastor. First, we know, as did John the Baptist, that Christ must increase and we must decrease. If we try to be a super pastor we’re going to inhibit people from depending on us less and on Christ more. Second, we know we can’t live up to the super hero role. Sooner or later the kryptonite gets to us and we’ll be weak and broken before our people.

The apostle Paul wrote to the Christians at Corinth concerning how he had ministered among them, a good approach, it seems to me, for all of us who come to God’s people as His pastor. “And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.” (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)

We may or may not wear a robe in the tradition in which we serve as pastor, but most pastors, I suspect, find themselves wearing the clerical vestments of the role. The more the clerical vestments of the super pastor can hang in the closet and the more we can be mild mannered Clark Kent the better!

The Greatest Achievement

Achievement“How’s your church doing?” The question is often asked at church conferences by one pastor of another pastor. It may not always be verbalized, but most pastors are at least thinking the question when in conversation with another pastor.

If we’re honest we pastors have to admit to a twinge of jealousy when we hear of another pastor’s church doing better in some way than our own. If we’re honest we have to admit to a twinge of perverse delight when we hear of another church’s struggle. May God forgive us!

The church culture of our time doesn’t help us here. Church seminars are frequently conducted by mega churches, a superstar pastor, or are by church “experts” who refer to the mega churches as examples and quote the superstar pastors as experts. Images of dynamic churches we see in church magazines are rarely of the smaller church sanctuary with a pastor positioned between the Lord’s table behind him and the pulpit before him. Rather, the images are of a large stage and a multitude of lights casting a rainbow of colors upon a large praise band leading worship before a seemingly endless sea of people. Stories of thriving churches are more often than not stories of growing crowds and expanding buildings led by pastors who are bestselling authors.

Over the years I’ve grappled with what it means to have achieved something great for God as a pastor. Now that I’m retired from the pastoral ministry and looking back from the vantage point of hindsight, my perspective is a little different. The dreams didn’t always come true; the hard work didn’t always pay off the way I expected it to. Could I have done things differently? Yes, but would that have been better? Sometimes I think so, but in many cases I can’t be sure. Hindsight is not always 20/20. At any rate, it is what it is. Thankfully, I can also reflect on many good experiences and lives that were changed over the thirty-nine plus years we were together as a pastor and people. How can I accurately assess what was achieved?

I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t have to assess what was achieved! I’ll leave that to the One whom I serve, and sought to serve all of those years. In one of Jesus’ stores two of three guys who were given their master’s resources (all three received different amounts) were obedient and did something worthwhile with what had been entrusted to them, with differing results. As Jesus told the story, the master gave the same response to the two faithful servants.Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” (Matthew 25:21, 23)

This, then, is what I have come to see as the greatest achievement of pastoral ministry, and of life in general, for that matter: to seek to be faithful and obedient so that by His grace and mercy the Lord will say to me, Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”

When Thomas Hooker, a preacher in the colonial time of our country, was dying a friend said to him that he would soon be going to heaven to receive his reward. Hooker replied, “I go to receive mercy.”

If a sponge’s greatest achievement is to absorb water, then my greatest achievement is to absorb the grace and mercy of God, articulated in His “well done” for me. I seek to live for Him and to serve Him knowing that this affirmation from Him already is a done deal. Any measurement of my achievements is irrelevant in the face of His immeasurable grace toward me. My greatest achievement is the acceptance of His grace!

Tears From the Plank in My Eye

LatheArtistSmallI’ve cut and sanded a fair amount of lumber over the years in my attempt to do home improvement projects. Handling wood can result in getting a speck of sawdust in the eye. It may be a speck, but it feels like a plank!

Jesus, having grown up in his stepdad Joseph’s carpenter shop and then presumably, as the oldest child, taking over the family business at Joseph’s death, knew about sawdust in the eyes feeling like planks. One time Jesus used his early years of experience with wood to make a point when He taught, How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:4)

I’ve preached and taught on the passage a number of times, as probably have you. I’ll admit that my motive often was to help my parishioners see how wrong it was for them to be nitpicking, complaining, and judgmental people. I was missing the right application of the text, that the message was first meant for me! Jesus’ whole point was that we’re not to convict others so much as to be convicted ourselves. In seeking to drive home the message for my parishioners’ benefit rather than my own I was inadvertently demonstrating the very sin Jesus was illustrating! My ego prompts me to hope my listeners didn’t see that.

Oswald Chambers states in his June 1 devotion in My Utmost for His Highest,When God wants to show you what human nature is like apart from Himself, He has to show it to you in yourself.” We pastors are quick to point out that we understand fallen human nature very well because of our observation and frequent experience of it in the lives of our parishioners. Silly us; our first and most graphic example is closer to us than any of our parishioners, it is we ourselves!

In the latter years of my ministry leading up to my retirement I came to see more clearly that I am in the best position to pray for someone’s struggle with sin when I’ve first been humbled by the need for God’s grace with the sin in my own life. My heart must tear up over the “speck” of sin in myself more than the “plank” of sin I see in others.


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