Camping Beneath the Cross

crossnailsskysmallRecently I spoke at a gathering where funds were being raised for a local mission. I was among eight or so pastors who were to give a two-minute inspirational message between songs. I soon discovered that most of the pastors were from traditions where preaching is very emotional and energetic. The first speaker was Lutheran, so she was more my style. I was number seven, with five more before me and one after me. By preacher number four, I knew that my preaching would be, shall we say, very, very low-key by comparison. Each of them really worked up a sweat when they were preaching. It seemed like a preach-a-thon. My wife Diann, seated beside me, later told me that if she had been me she would have gotten up and said, “Excuse me; I don’t feel well, and I need to leave.”

Then it was my turn, and I spoke. I wanted to stop mid-sentence and remind the audience, “I really am excited, even though it doesn’t appear that way.” Another dynamic preacher followed me to wrap things up in grand style. I felt like I was the intermission!

The next morning on my prayer walk, I reflected on the evening. I got to thinking that they were all trying to outdo each other and that I was glad I was just being myself. Then the parable of Jesus came to mind where a Pharisee and a tax collector were praying. The Pharisee prayed that he was glad that he wasn’t like the others, especially the tax collector. I got the message: I had no right to judge the motives of those other pastors. Maybe they weren’t trying to outdo each other; maybe it was just the way they preach. I was thinking like the Pharisee, and I had to ask the Lord to forgive me. I’m not sure that my motive was all that pure by the time I got into the pulpit, trying to show them I could deliver a message without breaking into a sweat!

I’m continually in need of God’s gracious forgiveness! The cross of Christ I preach is a cross I need all the time. I have set up camp beneath the cross!

Rejoicing With the More Fortunate

“The love for the less fortunate is a beautiful thing – the love for those who suffer, for those who are poor, the sick, the failures, the unlovely. This is compassion, and it touches the heart of the world. The love for the more fortunate is a rare thing – to love those who succeed where we fail, to rejoice without envy with those who rejoice…” (Frederick Buechner in The Magnificent Defeat, as quoted by Francis Chan in Crazy Love, p. 132)

The love for the more fortunate is a rare thing…”

Ouch! I must confess there have been times when I’ve heard of the success of another pastor and I have not rejoiced. Why couldn’t I celebrate the news that the Kingdom of God had advanced through another pastor? This is a terrible thing! An honest appraisal of my lack of rejoicing exposes the presence of envy, even jealousy. The apostle Paul encouraged his Roman readers to “rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” (Romans 12:15) I find it much easier to comply with the second half of that challenge than the first half! I can feel sorry for a pastor who’s struggling, but to be happy for a pastor who’s seeing success is often another matter.

Plotting my own perceived position among others who pastor can become the objective rather than advancing God’s kingdom through the people I pastor. We’re supposed to be in this together! How dark the soul! It’s a reminder of my constant need of the grace and mercy of the Christ I follow and proclaim.

The Comparison Game

Pastor and best-selling author Max Lucado was interviewed in the Summer 2011 issue of Leadership Journal. Because I feel called to both pastor and write, like Max Lucado, it’s a great temptation to give in to the sin of envy when I think of Max. I suspect his grocery list would sell well. Yes, I have wished I could write like Max Lucado.

In the interview Max said, “Some pastors, like Tim Keller or John Piper, are different than I am, and they excel at reaching those deeper thinkers. I listen to their sermons, and they’re just at a different level. And I think that’s phenomenal. I’m so grateful for people like that. I speak to folks who don’t dwell at that altitude.” (p. 26) Max Lucado is no Tim Keller or John Piper, and he’s OK with that.

Come to think of it, I’ve been tempted to envy the speaking, writing, and pastoral ministries of both Tim Keller and John Piper (both of whom I regularly read) as well as that of Max Lucado! I confess that I can be quite a mess at times.

In the same issue of Leadership Journal Eugene Peterson, another favorite pastor/author of mine, was interviewed. The article includes an excerpt from his book, The Pastor (which I’ve read – excellent!) In the excerpt Peterson writes, “Along the way, I want to insist that there is no blueprint on file for becoming a pastor. In becoming one, I have found that it is a most context-specific way of life: the pastor’s emotional life, family life, experience in the faith, and aptitudes worked out in an actual congregation in the neighborhood in which she or he lives – these people just as they are, in this place. No copying. The ways in which the vocation of pastor is conceived, develops, and comes to birth is unique to each pastor.” (p. 53)

When I’m tempted to play the comparison game I have to remind myself that it’s a game the Lord never calls me to play. When I do I never win in the long run! I’ve struggled with this enough that I did a sermon series on the topic, then self-published the material in a book called, interestingly enough, The Comparison Game.

One of my favorite scriptures to use as an antidote against the sin of envy in the ministry is found in a statement Jesus made to Peter. It occurred after Jesus’ resurrection, when He was walking with Peter and had hinted at how Peter’s life would go in his final days. Peter then asks Jesus about John, who was walking behind them. What would happen to him? Jesus said to Peter,“What is that to you? You must follow me.” (John 21:22)

When I start comparing my writing ministry and/or pastoral ministry to someone else I remember Jesus’ words to Peter, and own them for myself. “What is that to you? You must follow me.”

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