Steeping the Tea, Steeping the Teaching

TeaSteepI’m an avid coffee drinker, but sometimes in the afternoon I enjoy a cup of tea. I was recently watching my cup as the teabag steeped in the hot water – what else does a retired pastor have to do but watch tea steep? It occurred to me that just as I steep my tea I had to learn as a pastor to let steep that which I wanted to preach or teach.

The unrelenting schedule of a weekly sermon or teaching was sometimes difficult to keep up with. It’s easy to find yourself hurrying and scurrying to prepare for a presentation that’s coming up too soon. What I came to realize was that I needed to study and reflect on a Biblical passage or subject for a message more than just a few days before delivery. Letting it brew and stew, or steep, for a longer period of time helped me to do more justice to that which I had to deliver. It allowed me time to reflect, to let what I was going to deliver impact my own life first, and to find fresh and creative ways of communicating the truth without resorting to clichés.

Lectio Divina, the quiet and reflective study of a small portion of scripture, is the spirit which I find helpful to use in processing the material that’s to end up in a sermon or teaching several days or weeks away. Turning my mind and heart into something like a quiet library rather than a bustling office or a noisy factory is more conducive to hearing the still small voice of the Lord more easily.

Then, too, I have often been amazed at how an insight, an illustration, or a practical application will seem to pop into my thoughts out of nowhere, when I was focused on something entirely different. This rarely happens when I’m hurried and harried in preparation for a presentation that’s too close for comfort.

It’s good to do what the psalmist did. I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways.” (Psalm 119:15)

Yes, my tea and teaching have something in common. Both are better with steeping!

Making Light The Burden

yoke

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened,
and I will give you rest.

Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,
for I am gentle and humble in heart,
and you will find rest for your souls.

For my yoke is easy
and my burden is light.”

Matthew 11:28-30

As a pastor/preacher I’ve often approached the yoke teaching of Jesus with ambivalence. On the one hand I have attempted to preach the text so my congregation grasped the truth that He wants to lighten our burdens. On the other hand I have often felt the heavy burden of pastoring the very people to whom I’m preaching the message about having a light burden! Now that I’m retired from active pastoral ministry I see with something closer to 20/20 hindsight the burden I felt, and how I should have better applied Jesus’ invitation to lighten my own burden.

A proper exegesis of the words of Jesus concerning His yoke, as most of us discovered in preparation to preach on this text, reveals that Jesus was referring to the unnecessary burden of legalism the religious leaders of His day heaped upon the people. We grasp the wonderful principle that Jesus taught, that we don’t get right with God by taking on the burden of following right rules and rituals but by accepting the gift of God’s grace (the redundancy of gift and grace is intentional on my part, for emphasis).

I preached it well (I think) but I didn’t always live it well (this I know). Somehow, as a pastor I accumulated burdens of ministry Jesus never asked me to bear. I allowed people’s opinions of how I did ministry to begin to define how well I was doing ministry. A worship service with a higher attendance seemed to be more successful worship than a service where attendance was down. I found it much easier to see God’s miraculous working in the successes than in the failures, though now I see, again, with something closer to 20/20 hindsight, that the formation of Christ within me (and others) was clearly more evident in the valleys than on the mountain tops.

Jesus’ grace is given to pastors as well as to the congregation! Our success will not cause Him to love us more, for He already loves us completely, nor will our lack of success or even failures cause Him to love us less.

Jesus says that the yoke He calls us to bear is a light burden (still a burden but a light burden) because He’s in the yoke with us. Our strength is found in the yoke with Him, our identity is found in the yoke with Him, our joy is found in the yoke with Him. The yoke of pastoral ministry He puts upon us is light and bearable because we share the yoke with Him!

Just a Reminder…

aaalightsstreaks copy

Gleanings from Facebook

Preacher

Heart-to-Heart Ministry

DiscouragementArtyRev. Teddy Parker, age 42, a pastor in Macon, Georgia, committed suicide by a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his home on a Sunday morning while his congregation and family waited for him at church to preach. The pastor had apparently struggled with depression and was on medication. In an article in churchleaders.com author Tony Ridgaway quotes a close pastor friend of his, Dr. E. Dewey Smith Jr.

“He needed to take a break from ministry and the way our culture is, the culture forbids that. How much do you share? How much grace do people allow?” he explained.

“It’s hard to be honest. It’s difficult for some preachers to be honest. Every pastor needs a pastor to kind of lead and guide them. But it’s hard for us to really find that relationship because often pastors are trying to compete with or cremate you. And so it’s difficult to find camaraderie,” Smith added.

The tragic ending of Rev. Parker’s life and ministry is a reminder to all of us how fragile our own hearts and souls are and that we pastors need the help and support of others, particularly other pastors. We’ve probably all preached or taught on Galatians 6:2, Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ,” but for some odd reason can exempt ourselves from carrying out Paul’s admonition.

I’m grateful for having been part of a pastor’s accountability group for the last 20 or so years of my ministry. We were a group of guys numbering between three to seven in our group (the group changed in members and in size over the years). We were committed to confidentiality, a high degree of openness with each other, and being supportive of one another. We laughed and we cried together. We were good for each other’s heart and soul! I’d strongly suggest any pastor finds or creates such a pastor’s support group. I’d also argue that you can’t have such support within your own denomination or church network; there’s just too much of a temptation to try and look good with such a group of professional peers.

One of our responsibilities as pastors is to model the kind of honesty and openness that we expect among our parishioners. I know, there’s limits here, but our congregations need to know that we’re human too. The times I’ve tried to be a bit transparent with my congregation they have expressed relief that I too have struggles. What we need is heart-to-heart ministry where we open our hearts up more to the hearts of other pastors and even to the hearts of our own congregation. This blog is called A Pastor’s Heart, and that heart needs to be shared with others more than it often is.

Article link at churchleaders.com

Speaking Softly and Carrying a Big Stick

A photo I took directly outside our home here in Mexico of a shepherd taking his flock up the road.

A photo I took directly outside our home here in Mexico of a shepherd taking his flock up the road.

“Speak softly and carry a big stick, was a phrase President Teddy Roosevelt used in a letter in 1900. It was in reference to a philosophy of foreign policy but has been used by many since then in all kinds of situations. From what I understand the meaning is that you should use as gentle and non-aggressive an approach as possible but also have available the power and authority to have your own way if the mild method doesn’t work.

I was a pastor in a Congregational church my entire pastoral career where the people have a major say in what happens, usually expressed by a vote, as to what they, or at least a majority of them, want for the church. I recall many a congregational meeting where I sat in the pew with most of the congregation, tense and anxiously waiting, as a few trusted souls were off in another room counting the paper ballots of the voting members on a crucial issue.

On such occasions, and others too, I found myself wishing I had more authority, more power, so that things would go the way I believed they should. Generally pastors can’t bark out orders; we’re supposed to use a softer, loving, gentler, what could be called a pastoral approach (an approach we know our congregation also is most comfortable with), but the fantasy of being able to carry a big stick (perhaps a cub?) was, nevertheless, often present for me. That’s the fantasy, but the fact is, I know that’s not the way to pastor!

Oh, we pastors are called to carry a big stick, but not a club, rather a staff, the shepherd’s crook. It’s not a stick to clobber people but one to care for people. Sure, sometimes the shepherd flipped it end for end and used the straight end for a club, a rod, but not on the sheep. Used as a rod it was a defensive weapon against the enemies of the flock under his care.

It seems to me that whenever we pastors start thinking about our power, how to guarantee that we have a significant amount of it or lament that we don’t have enough of it, we’re experiencing pastoral slippage, a drifting from our calling.

The people of the church don’t want to see their pastor as being manipulative. Besides, they can easily vote against being manipulated! The people of the church want to trust their pastor, and my experience is that they’re most open to change when the level of trust and a sense of safety is greater than the perceived risks of change. This level of trust and sense of safety ultimately comes from the pastor and, even more specifically, from the pastor’s heart.

That shepherd of sheep and greatest king of Israel, David, penned these poetic words, referring to the Lord as his shepherd, “Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” The “stick” we carry as an under-shepherd of the Great Shepherd is to bring comfort.

As pastors we must guard our hearts from being power hungry. After all, we’re not manipulators but ministers. Yes, we’re to speak softly and carry a big stick, but that big stick is to be the shepherd’s staff!

Eggs and Baskets

eggsbasketsSmallI frequently combine my two interests of photography and writing devotional literature in what I call photovotionals, a photograph of mine upon which I base a devotional thought. Pictured here are two baskets, each containing eggs. It illustrates the old saying, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”

As a grandfather if I wanted to have the help of a grandchild in carrying a dozen eggs I’d enlist the help of two grandchildren and let each carry half of them. I’d have a better chance of enjoying eggs for breakfast; the chances of both children dropping the eggs seems a better risk than letting one child carry them all. I suspect this is the principle behind the practice of the president and vice-president of the United States never flying on the same plane.

A good financial policy is to have a diversified portfolio. If one company or one industry falls on hard times you’re not going to be ruined financially.

It seems to me that the principle of not putting all of our eggs in one basket also applies to those of us in pastoral ministry. Having retired in my 40th year of ministry at one church I can now see, with something close to 20/20 hindsight, that I’m glad I didn’t put all my eggs in the basket of being a pastor. God has blessed me with a great many interests. Throughout my pastoral ministry I also had an active writing ministry. No, I’m not a best selling author, but I wrote a weekly inspirational newspaper column for my hometown paper and a local paper in the area where I served as pastor. Along with my flock of people at the church I served I also enjoyed the hobby of raising a small flock of chickens. I also enjoyed photography, maintaining a decorative fish pond, and ventriloquism.

So much of pastoral ministry seems to be out of our control, and so I found some solace in spending some time in other things over which I felt I could have more control. Although it’s hard to lead a flock of chickens! It’s not that they have their own minds, it’s that they don’t have minds…OK, very tiny ones. I could take the pictures I wanted to, and when it comes to ventriloquism my vent figure Ricky only said what I wanted him to say!

If we as pastors put all of our focus, all of our energy, all of our identity in being a pastor, then we’re setting ourselves up for a devastating experience. We should put our emotional eggs in more than one basket, into many baskets. The Lord Himself should be the biggest basket of all, having a relationship with Him apart from ministering for Him and with Him. If we’re married and have a family we have two more baskets that we should be filling. I believe it’s very good for a pastor to have a sideline ministry; writing was mine. For some pastors the outside ministry might be as a chaplain for a hospital, police force, fire department, nursing home, or as military chaplain as is the case with my successor at the church I served. We tell our congregation that they can minister in many different ways; we can model that for them.

If the basket of pastoral ministry is the only basket into which we put our emotional eggs we can easily end up a basket case! I have found the old adage to be true: don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

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