Pastoring The Wheat and the Tares Church

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is jcrye.jpgI find all four of J. C. Ryle’s expository thoughts on the Gospels to be great devotional reading and good primers for sermon ideas! In the quote below Ryle comments on Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares as recorded in Matthew 13. I find his words to be a realistic appraisal of what pastors face with their churches. I also find that the truth he expresses offers a measure of encouragement!

Ryle writes that “this parable teaches us that good and evil will always be found together in the professing church until the end of the world. The visible church is set before us as a mixed body. It is a vast field in which wheat and weeds grow side by side. We must expect to find believers and unbelievers, converted and unconverted, the sons of the kingdom, and the sons of the evil one, all mingled together in every congregation of baptized people.

“The purest preaching of the gospel will not prevent this. In every age of the church, the same state of things has existed. It was the experience of the early church Fathers. It was the experience of the Reformers. It is the experience of the best ministers at the present hour. There has never been a visible church or a religious assembly of which the members have been all wheat. The devil, that great enemy of souls, has always taken care to sow tares. The most strict and prudent discipline will not prevent this.

“Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Independents all alike find it to be so. Do what we will to purify a church, we shall never succeed in obtaining a perfectly pure communion. Tares will be found among the wheat. Hypocrites and deceivers will creep in. And, worst of all, if we are extreme in our efforts to obtain purity, we do more harm than good. We run the risk of encouraging many a Judas Iscariot, and breaking many a bruised reed. In our zeal to gather up the tares, we are in danger of uprooting the wheat with them. Such zeal is not according to knowledge and has often done much harm. Those who care not what happens to the wheat, provided they can root up the tares, show little of the mind of Christ. And after all, there is deep truth in the charitable saying of Augustine, ‘Those who are weeds today, may be wheat tomorrow.’” Expository Thoughts on the Gospel of Matthew [Updated Edition]: A Commentary” by J. C. Ryle

Influence

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is spheresinfluencesmall.jpgI’m continuing my reading of The Letters of John Newton. What a prolific letter writer! It’s taking me a long time to read through this thick book of his letters. That’s why you’re seeing frequent posts referencing John Newton’s thoughts.

The famous hymn writer, pastor, and author wrote a letter to an unidentified pastor who had greatly influenced his life. In part he writes, “It was, under God, that your favor and influence brought me into the ministry. And though I be nothing—yet he who put it into your heart to patronize me, has been pleased not to allow what you then did for his sake to be wholly in vain. He has been pleased, in a course of years, by so unworthy an instrument as I am, to awaken a number of people, who were at that time dead in trespasses and sins. And now some of them are pressing on to the prize of their high calling in Christ Jesus; and some of them are already before the throne!” (from The Letters of John Newton)

John Newton is famous, but we know nothing of the pastor whom Newton credits for guiding him into the ministry. Newton writes his mentor, sharing how his influence on Newton is spreading among those who Newton is influencing, some of whom are now in heaven.

I wonder if this pastor ever felt he wasn’t having much of an impact for the Lord. Very likely his ministry was obscure by human standards. He may not have had a large sphere of influence, but one of the men he influenced, John Newton, did, and still does have a large sphere of influence. Would we know of John Newton if it hadn’t been for this unknown pastor God used in his life?

The application for our own ministry is obvious. We may never know how far reaching our own ministry is or will be. That’s in God’s hands. We just need to be faithful and minister to those, be they many or few, the Lord puts within our sphere of influence. John Newton’s mentor was faithful with this task, and aren’t we glad he was!

Another John Newton Quote

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is john_newtonjpg.jpg“For every new service, I stand in need of a new supply, and can bring forth nothing of my supposed store into actual exercise–but by his immediate assistance. His gracious influence is that, to those who are best furnished with gifts, which the water is to the mill, or the wind to the ship, without which the whole apparatus is motionless and useless.” John Newton

“Live by Faith on Your Face”

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is stanleycharles.jpgCharles Stanley, the well-known pastor and writer is now 88 years old. In my opinion he oozes godliness, and when you add that to the wisdom that can come from many years of living, well, I’m ready to listen to anything Dr. Stanley has to say. Here’s a thought of his on prayer.

“I start the day on my knees with the Lord. I end it that way. And oftentimes I’ll be studying and think, ‘It’s time for me to ask the Lord about something here.’ And so for me, that’s the key. It’s the key to everything. Because what you are doing, you’re acknowledging God at the moment—you need his help, his insight, his understanding, or his courage, or his faith, whatever it might be.

“I would say to anybody: the greatest lesson you can learn is to learn to live by faith on your face before God. You can face anything, no matter what it is. He said, ‘I’ll never leave you or forsake you,’ but if I’m so busy I’m not listening to him, I’m not waiting for him, I’m not expecting him to do something—I think people face a lot of circumstances and go through a lot of heartache and trouble that would be unnecessary if they would just stop and listen.”

Taken from Christianitytoday.com at https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2016/september-web-only/charles-stanley.html

Both Joy & Shame

John Newton

I’m still reading Letters from John Newton, a wonderful compilation of many, many letters the famous hymn writer penned over the years. What wonderful wisdom flowed from his pen to paper in his letters! Here’s yet another example, a quote that should go straight to the pastor’s heart.

“When I look at some of my people, I am filled both with joy and shame; joy to see that the Lord has not allowed my labor among them to be in vain; shame to think that I have preached so much more effectually to them—than to my own heart.” John Newton

Resisting the Celebrity Pastor Temptation

RICH VILLODAS

We pastors like to be respected, even admired.  This can be good, we aren’t going to positively influence our parishoners if they don’t have a loving and positive view of us.  However, the danger is to want our parishonerss to take us too seriously. I’ll admit I sometimes bristled at how a church board resisted my ideas and sometimes seemed to treat me as an employee. I dreamed of being highly esteemed like some mega church pastors.

“The Celebrity Pastor Problem Is Every Church’s Struggle” is an article by RICH VILLODAS, a pastor that’s worth reading on the Christianity Today website.

 

The Last Idol

John Newton

Cotton Mather

I’m no longer in the “thick of it” as a pastor, having been retired as of this writing for over six years. The following quote from a letter of John Newton, author of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” articulates a truth that’s become more clear to me since my retirement from pastoral ministry.

John Newton writes concerning God and his own pastoral ministry, May he make me willing to resign it at a moment’s warning; and to sit quiet in my chair or my bed, and rejoice that his work is prospering without me, and that others are serving him better when I can serve him no longer! A sentence in Dr. Cotton Mather’s life struck me more than fifty years ago, and has been often upon my mind from that time — ‘My usefulness was the last idol I was willing to part with — but now I can part with that, and am content to be laid aside and forgotten, so that he may be glorified.’”

The fact that I gain great value from the writings of John Newton from centuries ago is good enough in and of itself, but then he gives a quote from Cotton Mather that meant much to him for more than fifty years! It’s a keepsake quote handed down from Mather to Newton, from Newton to Claassen, and now from Claassen to you! In this quote from Mather, John Newton reminds us that one of the idols we may worship is the idol of usefulness!

Now retired, I sometimes don’t feel as useful as I did when I was in the mad rush of ministry. In my occasional lamenting concerning this perceived diminished usefulness I’m learning that the Lord Himself is to be my all in all. While doing ministry it was always tempting to make the Lord’s work my all in all. Making work, even the Lord’s work, our all in all, turns it into an idol. I see this with greater clarity now that I’m retired.

It’s easy to see how the business person, the athlete, or the entertainer makes their work their idol. Not so easy is seeing how we as pastors can make our calling our idol.

Here’s a short checklist I’ve come up with to determine if ministry might be an idol (you probably can add to the list): Do I find it difficult to relax and feel like a whole person when I take a day off or take some vacation time? Am I jealous of other pastors who seem to be succeeding more than I am? Am I disappointed when I don’t get the affirmation I expected? Am I debilitated by criticism? Is all of my study and spiritual reflection geared to putting it into a future sermon or teaching?

Productivity and usefulness are highly regarded in our culture. There’s no doubt that they have their place; we certainly should attempt to be productive and useful, especially for the Lord. But they can be overrated! Undoubtedly the Lord having given us one day in seven to rest from work should help us grasp this truth and live it out. Unfortunately for us pastors the designated day of rest, Sunday, is one of our busiest days. Yes, we can find another day of the week for our Sabbath, and that’s good. But keeping productivity and usefulness from becoming idols will require a change of heart and attitude.

I’ve always been amazed that Jesus, the Son of God, God incarnate, waited until about the age of 30 to begin His active, public ministry. Here He was, God come to earth, and He was comfortable working in his stepfather’s carpenter shop from around age 15 to 30. If anyone could have been a child prodigy preacher it would have been Jesus. He was not; He was a carpenter. He obviously didn’t look at productivity and usefulness in the same way as we often do.

“My usefulness was the last idol I was willing to part with,”  Cotton Mather observed of himself.  If we’re honest with ourselves it’s probably a stubborn idol in our lives too.  I suspect, however, that once we stop making our productivity and usefulness an idol, we’ll be more productive and useful to the Lord!

Paul’s Heart-felt Words, Expressing a Pastor’s Heart

In my morning devotions a portion of 1 Thessalonians 2 was next up for me to read. I thought, wow, this describes the pastor’s heart. I re-read it. This is, by God’s grace, the way I tried to be during my nearly 40 years of ministry at Mayfair-Plymouth Church in Toledo, Ohio. My prayer is that Paul’s words will warm your own heart for this kind of ministry.

“But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us… For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.” (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8, 11-12)

What words! We’re to pastor like a mother, being gentle, and like a father, exhorting, encouraging, and charging our people to walk worthy of God… Being affectionately desirous of our people… Sharing ourselves, as well as the gospel, because the people are dear to us.

I just thought the reminder from Paul would be helpful in re-imaging for us what a pastor’s heart is to be like. It was for me.

Oxygen for Your Soul, First!

We hear the instructions every time we fly, the flight attendant explaining the oxygen masks that will deploy in an emergency. If we’re traveling with a child, we’re told to first put on our oxygen mask before we help the child put on theirs. For only the first time and then for only an instant, the instructions seem wrong. Of course, it makes total sense; you can’t help the child if you’ve already passed out from oxygen deprivation!

By God’s grace we pastors/preachers provide a breath of fresh air every Sunday, and oftentimes the days in between, for our parishioners. We’re conduits of sorts of the Breath of God, the Holy Spirit. Our calling is to be used of the Lord to breathe greater spiritual life into those under our pastoral care.

We all need oxygen for the soul, those of us who pastor and those we pastor. Oxygenating souls, increasing the spiritual metabolic rate, moving people beyond spiritual lethargy, helping to prevent Holy Spirit deprivation is what we’re about as pastors. We’re even called upon to resuscitate those who are drifting dangerously close to being unresponsive to God or unconscious of God.

The reality is that we can end up so exhausted and winded ourselves, our own souls being Holy Breath deprived, that we’re little good for helping others take in the Breath of God. We need to apply the instructions of the flight attendant to our ministry!

It may seem like proper Biblical sacrifice to allow ourselves to be winded and soul-depleted of the Holy Breath of God’s Spirit for the benefit of others, but it’s not. Any scripture about self-sacrifice we might attempt to use is bad exegesis, using it as a proof text to back up our misguided efforts. Even Jesus took time away from the crowds and from His disciples too, spending much time alone in prayer. Not surprising that it’s been said prayer is oxygen for the soul; Jesus lived the principle. We do well if we do the same.

Taking time off, days off, vacations, study leaves, taking time each day to be alone with God to pray, even more than once a day, all are ways to catch our breath, the Breath of the Holy Spirit. The flight attendants have it right. We should inhale the oxygen of the soul for ourselves first, then we’ll be in a good position to help provide oxygen for the soul to those God has providentially placed around us.

Pastoral Peripheral Vision

Most pastoral leadership material encourages pastors to pour a majority of their time and effort into the lay leaders and potential lay leaders of the church. These leaders, when well discipled and trained, are to, in turn, do much of the ministry with the rest of the congregation. I would argue, however, that while we should have a focus on leaders and potential leaders, we should also utilize our peripheral vision and see the value of our ministry as pastors to the peripheral people!

Pastors who believe they should focus almost exclusively on leading leaders find the basis for this approach in Jesus’ example. Jesus, especially toward the end of His ministry on earth, spent a majority of his time with His disciples who, in turn, would reach others.

But there’s another side to Jesus’ ministry. The early part of His ministry not only included spending time with His disciples but also reaching out to the peripheral people. Think of the Samaritan woman at the well, a prime example of a peripheral person. Note that her encounter with Jesus takes up the entire fourth chapter of the Gospel of John; this peripheral person was pretty important! Unless we have a premonition of our own ensuing arrest and crucifixion, perhaps we should also embrace Jesus’ early model of ministry to peripheral people!

Jesus frequently and habitually reached out to the marginalized people of His day, the peripheral people, and He did so to such an extent that He was criticized by the “religious leaders” of His day for doing so! Ministering in the name of Jesus, therefore, certainly must include giving significant attention to those in our church who are not mature spiritually or active in ministry, the marginalized, the peripheral people.

During my nearly 40 years of pastoral ministry I conducted an every other week men’s breakfast and/or luncheon that consisted primarily of men who were not in leadership, were not potential leaders, and weren’t active in any ministry. Most, by my estimation, were not very mature in their faith, though some had been church attenders a majority of their lives. In all honesty, they were more interested in the camaraderie over a meal than in the short Bible study that I brought to the table. That was okay by me. After all, many of the people drawn to Jesus wanted a healing more than a Word of the Lord, and He obliged them.

We pastors aim for offering college level studies in the church, perhaps even seminary level courses, with ourselves being the professor. In our church I found myself the adult nursery attendant taking care of the infants in the Lord, the crawlers in Christ, and the toddlers in the Truth.

I would bring with me to the restaurant pocket New Testaments, hand them out, and give the page number of the Biblical text which we were to study. I doubt most could have found the Gospel of Matthew without resorting to the table of contents. If I had asked them to bring Bibles I wouldn’t have been surprised if someone showed up with a white gift Bible still stored in a polished cedar wooden box!

But these were good times with these guys! On rare occasions one of them offered to give thanks after the server brought us our food (I never put anyone on the spot to pray, read the text or answer a question). It usually was a beautifully simple, child-like, and honest prayer. The pray-er had not yet “learned” how to intone a long pastoral-type prayer with “thees” and “thous” peppered throughout.

None of these men were the student type nor would they likely ever be, it just wasn’t in their DNA. You would not have caught a single one of them with a three-ring binder taking notes of a sermon or Bible study. Some had difficulty comprehending what they read, so they didn’t read much. Yet, I saw growth in them, a warming to the Lord, a grasping of the things of God that up until our restaurant rendezvous had eluded them.

As I reflect back on these men, I can’t recall any of them giving me any hassle as their pastor. Ironically, though I would have loved to have seen them blossom into leaders and sacrificial participants in the church’s programs, I found they caused me far less grief than the leaders and sacrificial participants in our church!

Yes, I have fond memories of meeting with these men and am sobered by how many have gone into eternity. My prayer is that all of them are with the Lord; we certainly talked about how to be assured that that happens.

Back to the training of leaders to lead the rest of our people: how can we as pastors train our leaders to connect with the marginal and peripheral people, seeking to move them along in their faith, when we ourselves are not regularly doing so? We can’t teach and model what we don’t do.

As much as we pastors need to focus on leadership development, let’s also be aware of what is in our peripheral vision! Those peripheral people are a blessing in disguise! Let’s embrace them!