More Than a Vicarious Christmas

ChristmasFamilyInLight

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

 

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!

A Ministry of Minutia

weekly-calendarI’m at the church alone. The phone rings. I answer it. “Mayfair-Plymouth Church,” I say. The voice on the other end says, “This is Matilda. Would you do me a favor? I can’t find my cake carrier. I think I might have left it in the church kitchen. Could you go down and check to see if it’s there?” The details are fictional, but the scene is reminiscent of many through my years of ministry. Sometimes my ministry seems to be a ministry of minutia.

Just how much and how often should I allow the small details of the life of the church to distract me from bigger and more important ministry obligations or opportunities? Do I quickly change that burned out light bulb or make a note to tell the custodian? I know where the new ones are kept. It would take about as much time for me to write the note as it would to change the bulb. Do I ask the head of the committee responsible for the outdated poster in the hallway to take it down, making it a teachable moment that the committee should keep on top of things, or do I just take the thing off the wall myself? Do I spend the time to do maintenance on the computer in my office (defragging, updating virus software, etc.) or do I track down the techy in our church and ask him to do it, whenever he can get around to it? Yes, God is in the details, but does He want to drag me into them too?

It’s not that I think I’m too high and mighty for such pedestrian tasks. I do them around my home all the time. It’s just that I want to make the most of my time when involved in ministry. I want to delegate when I should, but also do the small task at hand when it seems appropriate.

I had some communication with a mega church pastor via e-mail. I sent and received my own e-mail, but his came via his personal secretary. I’d like to have said to him, “Have your people contact my people,” but when it comes to e-mail management “my people” is me! And that’s OK. I understand there’s going to be a difference between what a mega church pastor does and what he delegates and what I do and what I delegate. I need to remember this when most of the models of how to do ministry come from the well-known mega church pastors.

Jesus didn’t do all His ministry Himself. He sent out the twelve to preach. He even sent them off to buy food. Jesus was great at delegating. On the other hand, Jesus prepared a fish breakfast for His disciples one morning along the lakeshore while they were out on the lake fishing, and that was after He was raised from the dead and in His glorified body. Jesus was great at doing the details. I, too, need to delight in both delegating and in the details. Balance, I suppose, is what I’m aiming to achieve, balance between delegating and doing the details.

HeartCarvedInSandThere are times when the sheep we’re called to shepherd hurt us.  This statement by Spurgeon spoke to me.

“When others behave badly to us, it should only stir us up the more heartily to give thanks unto the Lord, because He is good; and when we ourselves are conscious that we are far from being good, we should only the more reverently bless Him that He is good.” (quoted from Attributes of God, A. W. Pink, eBook Loc 1116)

“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.” (Psalm 118:1 — and five other times in the Bible)

Grumbling Stomach, Grumbling Soul

stormIt’s embarrassing to have your stomach grumble in public, that’s why church potlucks are so important, they help keep that from happening! I got to thinking recently that not only can my stomach grumble but often my soul grumbles too!

I grumble about the people I serve in my church. I grumble about the people who I think should be attending and aren’t. I have caught myself grumbling about serving God in a small way in an out of the way place (my perception of my situation).

While working on a sermon recently I was reminded of the seriousness of the sin of grumbling (sometimes I don’t even consider it a sin). The Israelites who were led out of slavery in Egypt never survived the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness and had to leave possession of the promised land to their descendants. The reason? God told them, “In this desert your bodies will fall – every one of you twenty years old or more who was counted in the census and who has grumbled against me.” (Numbers 14:29)

When I think of the times I’ve succumbed to grumbling I realize that frequently it’s a disguised complaint against God. My grumbling is ingratitude for something in my circumstances that’s a part of my calling.

So, I confess as sin my grumbling. I also rejoice in God’s grace and goodness toward me even when I’ve allowed my soul to grumble!

An Old Prayer for Today

Here’s a portion of a prayer from The Life of God in the Soul of Man by Henry Scougal. Scougal was born in 1650, exactly 300 years before me! I came across him when reading John Piper, who wrote that Scougal had a profound influence on him. I ordered Scougal’s book (you’d never find it on the shelf at a local bookstore). Come to find out Susanna Wesley was highly influenced by Scougal and commended him to her two sons. Whitefield also was impacted by him. And to think I had never heard of him. OK, so here’s the portion of a prayer of his I promised.

“O God, grant that the consideration of what thou art, and what we ourselves are, may both humble and lay us low before thee and also stir up in us the strongest and most ardent aspirations towards thee! We desire to resign and give up ourselves to the conduct of thy Holy Spirit… Amen” (p. 95)

The Right Preposition for Pastors, and Everyone Else Too

Christianity Today magazine recently listed the best books for the leader’s inner life. With, Reimaging the Way You Relate to God by Skye Jethani was on that short list. I read a majority of the book while on a three day study leave at a Trappist monastery in Iowa. What a great book with which to have retreated! It’s at the top of my list of books that have impacted my walk with Christ and my ministry. Jethani creatively uses five prepositions to explain the different ways we position ourselves with God, four that aren’t good as the ultimate positions from which to relate to God and one that is.

In one place Jethani summarizes by stating that “…when God desired to restore his broken relationship with people, he sent his Son to dwell with us. His plan to restore his creation was not to send a list of rules and rituals to follow (LIFE UNDER GOD), nor was it the implementation of useful principles (LIFE OVER GOD). He did not send a genie to grant us our desires (LIFE FROM GOD), nor did he give us a task to accomplish (LIFE FOR GOD). Instead God himself came to be with us – to walk with us once again as he had done in Eden in the beginning.” (1402, location in e-book)

As Jethani explains it LIFE UNDER GOD is when I fear I’ve not been good enough or done well enough to be the recipient of God’s blessings, either for myself or for my church. I’m always wondering if I’m measuring up, and I never do. If, for some strange reason, I think I’m doing quite well with God, then I begin to believe God owes me, and I’m disappointed or angry when God doesn’t bless as I think He should.

I see myself living LIFE OVER GOD when I believe that if I do things right that God will bless. If I lead my church toward being a church that exhibits the Biblical church growth principles of a what church should be then I can expect it to be a growing and thriving church, guaranteed! I use His Word as a manual on how to do things right.

When I’m living from the perspective of LIFE FROM GOD I’m operating under the assumption that if I just have enough faith then God will bless the way I imagine He should. If I believe that God is really a big God then I’m going to see really big results, every time.

LIFE FOR GOD is the perspective, I believe, that sincere disciples of Jesus focus on most, including sincere pastors. We want to serve God, to carry out His purposes for us. Obedience is good, but it easily becomes something of a duty, even a drudgery.

All of these four perspectives have some elements of truth to them, they just make for a lousy ultimate perspective. Our ultimate perspective is to be LIFE WITH GOD. The goals of the other perspectives are to, in some way, use God, that God is a means to an end. LIFE WITH GOD makes God Himself the goal!

It’s painful for me to reflect on how frequently I’ve focused on the four less-than-ideal positions in my own walk with Christ and how often I’ve sought to move my parishoners into one or more of these positions. I’ve renewed my commitment to have a LIFE WITH GOD. Everything else falls into its proper place when I live from this perspective.

If I could recommend one book I’ve read in the last couple of years this would be it. More than anything else, more than any other perspective from which I could live, I want to live a LIFE WITH GOD! Jethani’s book reminded me of that.

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