Applying God’s Grace to My Disappointments

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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!

The Rearview Mirror Look at my Ministry

RearviewSmallNow that it’s been nearly four months since I retired from thirty-nine-plus years of ministry at Mayfair-Plymouth Church, I’m reflecting on my past ministry in a way I never could while living it. Looking back I realize my greatest roles were pastoring the people and proclaiming the Word (both spoken and written). There was also the role of leader that included being a visionary, manager, problem solver, and reconciler. The rearview look only confirms what I felt at the time, that the role as leader was the least enjoyable and most frustrating part of the calling as pastor. (I suspect that if you check earlier blog entries, written when I was still in the thick of things, you’ll find confirmation of this view.)

What’s the “take away” value for any pastor who’s reading this, agrees, but still has to do the leadership stuff? Here’s my thought on that: you have to be the pastoral leader (whatever that means in your church) but keep it on a short leash! It’s easy to let the tyranny of the urgent leadership or management issue distract from the pastoring and proclaiming. I know, it’s starting to sound as if this blog entry would be more appropriate in a pastoral leadership blog instead of a blog focused on the pastor’s heart, so let me put this blog entry back on course. Our heart as a pastor must be inclined most of all toward the Lord and what He speaks to our heart that needs to be spoken, from the heart, to the people. They want a word from the Lord in what we communicate! Our heart as a pastor must be inclined second of all to the needs of the people we’ve been called to shepherd. Do we really have a love for them? They want the love of the Lord to show through what we do in their lives.

Now in my retirement I find I can focus on communicating God’s Word and relating to His people, and I don’t have to do the leadership thing. Let me tell you, it’s great!

I’ll repeat something I believe I shared in an earlier blog: at the end of my ministry when people reminisced about our life together it was never about my bold leadership, great ideas, new program, or some effective use of management skills. Their warm reflections were about how I had come alongside them in a time of need or how I had spoken just the right word at the right time into their lives.

Do the leadership thing, just don’t make it the main thing. Keep the heart of ministry focused on a heart for God’s Word and for God’s people!

Our Dynamite of a God

logoThere’s been major changes in my life since retirement from pastoral ministry the middle of October of last year. That’s one reason I’ve been delinquent in posting blogs here. Diann and I are dividing our time between our son and his family in the Tampa, Florida area and our daughter and her family who have a mission in Mexico (alternating between our two homes about every fourth months). We bought a small home in Florida and are building an even smaller home here in Mexico. Building a house in Mexico is very interesting to say the least! I’m doing an on-going journal on my web site about the process. The last entry I thought might be of interest to readers of my A PASTOR’S HEART blog. It’s reprinted below. You can follow the entire series at www.daveclaassen.com . I hope you enjoy it!

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It’s a dynamite of a Sunday morning. There’s some stubborn rock that refuses to be easily moved at the very location of the front steps of our home we’re building here in Mexico. We blasted it out with dynamite this morning. We had not yet left for church in Mexico City (the service starts at noon) so we got to see Dynamite Man do his work.

DynamiteManDynamite Man had a weathered face, the wrinkles of which were only partly covered by several days growth of dark beard. He wore a red baseball cap and had a shirt that was set free from being tucked into his pants. He pulled the items of his trade from several bags to make ready for the blasting of the rocks. Our contractor Marco and his workers had previously drilled, by pounding a long chisel with a sledge hammer, the holes Dynamite Man had requested. Now Diann and I watched as he made his own dynamite sticks, packing a cardboard tube with granules of dynamite. What we found interesting was that Dynamite Man smokes cigarettes, not while he’s packing the dynamite, however. In fact, I’m not sure he smokes other than when he’s ready to light the fuses to the dynamite, which is what he did with the cigarette (I assume this is what he did, I was hiding behind some bags of cement some distance away at the lighting of the fuse). KABOOM!!!i (This is how they show an explosion in the comic books, so I thought I would adopt the method here). Only a few small rocks flew skyward because Dynamite Man had laid an old box spring over where he had placed the dynamite and then laid a couple of large truck tires on top of the mattress. He set off about seven blasts. The rock was shattered enough for removal.

Dynamite is very useful, but it certainly needs to be respected. It got me to thinking that every Sunday morning should be a dynamite of a Sunday morning, the time when many of us gather with others to worship the Lord. I’m reminded of something Annie Dillard wrote, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does not one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares: they should lash us to our pews.”

I sometimes remind myself when I’m praying in a comfortable and familiar way with the Lord that He is not only the ultimate Friend, my loving Heavenly Father, and indwelling Holy Spirit, but that He is also Lord God almighty, transcendent, and holy, holy, holy. I remember that when Moses asked to see God the Lord allowed Moses only to see His back because to see more of Him would have killed Moses. “Then Moses said, ‘Now show me your glory.’ And the Lord said, ‘I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,’ he said, ‘you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.’ Then the Lord said, ‘There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.’” (Exodus 33:18-23)

I remember how Isaiah the prophet thought he was going to die when God revealed something significant of Himself to the prophet. “’Woe to me!’ I cried. ‘I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.’” (Isaiah 6:5) I remind myself that if God were to really reveal Himself to me on one of my prayer walks I would find myself face down eating dirt, full of fear and trepidation. As C.S. Lewis had a character say of Aslan the Lion (the Christ-figure) in the Chronicles of Narnia, “’Safe?’ said Mr. Beaver; ‘don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.’”

Yes, God is loving, tender, forgiving, compassionate, and full of grace and mercy. But God is also full of power beyond imagining and glory that is infinitely more brilliant than the biggest, brightest mega star. Balance in our belief in Him is key. That’s why I found this dynamite of a Sunday morning to be not only destructive to the rock but instructive for my walk of faith.

Yes, it was a dynamite of a Sunday morning! We had a blast!

Beyond Goals and Resolutions for 2015

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Individuals often make resolutions for a new year and pastors often set goals for their churches or the new year. The personal resolutions are often forgotten and the goals for a church frequently fall short.

I know a church where the pastor set an attendance goal at the beginning of the new year for the church to achieve by the end of the year. They didn’t meet it.

Goal setting can be good, but looking back on my ministry I’m not sure goals are all that we make them out to be. There can be a sense of obligation to set goals, after all, isn’t that what any good leader worth his or her salt would do? Actually, goal setting is easy to do; achieving the goal is another story, and one that doesn’t always have a happy ending.

Sometimes I think goals that leaders set never really trickle down to motivate the followers, it just makes the leaders feel good for having set them. Corporate buying into a goal is a tough process.

I’ve also sensed that my setting exciting goals for our church for the future could be a distraction from doing the better and more difficult work of grasping the opportunities (sometimes fairly well hidden) of what is at hand. Then too, there’s the reality that we can never predict the future and so we often find ourselves making things up as we go along instead of carrying out a carefully crafted plan of action toward a certain set of goals. I doubt Moses had a clear plan of action with objectives and goals in mind of how to lead, let alone feed, the people of Israel as they made their way toward the Promised Land. He certainly didn’t start out with the idea it would be a forty year process!

I can think of several goals I set for myself and my ministry years ago that never happened. On the other hand, God’s acted in some wonderfully serendipitous ways over those same years. It was that great theologian Woody Allen who said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him about your plans.”

I don’t want to communicate that I believe goals are not good, I believe they can be. It’s just that they need to be kept in proper perspective. I want my heart and soul be in such a place with the Lord that I can both sense the goals for which He would have me aim and also be sensitive to His moment-by-moment leading.

Happy New Year!

Dave

Merry Christmas!

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May you not only be able to communicate the message of Christmas in a powerful way but may you experience that message personally in a profound way.

Merry Christmas!

Dave

More Than a Vicarious Christmas

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It’s now been two months since my retirement as senior pastor at Mayfair-Plymouth Church. Many things are different since then, including how I view the holidays. I’ve now experienced Thanksgiving and am currently going through the Advent/Christmas season without guiding the congregation through those experiences.

I realize now, more than ever, that so much of my reflection on the holiday themes was on how “it would preach.” I put a lot of thought and effort into how I could help the people get the most out of the season.

I’d like to pause and give myself at least a little credit here. Yes, I was aware, as I’m sure you are, that I was to make it all personal, and I think I did to, hopefully, to a major degree. I realized I had to embrace the meaning of it all for Dave Claassen, not just as Pastor Dave leading the congregation. It’s just that now I see it even more clearly, now that I’m no longer actively being Pastor Dave and that Christmas services I’m in an unadorned pew instead of nestled among the Christmas decorations on the church platform.

It’s easy to critique others for their approach to Christmas. I even preached about how it’s not primarily about the gift giving, Santa, the family gatherings or any of the other many traditions we associate with Christmas. It’s supposed to be primarily about Jesus, His coming, what that means to us, and how it should impact our lives. I think I heard my own preaching and didn’t make my own Christmas all about the gifts, the gatherings or whatever, yet, it was sometimes more about putting together a Christmas service that would knock the Christmas socks off the snow-covered feet of the C & E folks (Christmas and Easter) than I would care to admit.

Truth be told, the joy of Christmas for us pastors may not be so much the joy of experiencing it personally but the thrill we’re trying to create for others to experience. We can leave a Christmas service thinking, “That was really emotional, powerful, and life-changing for the people,” and all the while not having really experienced it that way ourselves.

I inwardly shake my head when someone states that the best way to experience Christmas is to be around children and see it through their eyes of wonder. Yes, this is a thrill (I am, after all a grandpa), but experiencing Christmas should be more than experiencing it vicariously. Christmas is not just for kids! If we’re not careful as pastors the Christmas season can be more a vicarious experience than anything else.

So, I want to do more than wish you a very merry vicarious Christmas! My prayer is that in spite of the disadvantage of the distraction of having to lead people in Christmas worship and celebration you’ll be able to put aside the pastor role enough to experience Christmas with the child-like wonder from your own position of being a child of God’s.

May you have a very personal merry Christmas!

Dave

 

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