Being Good Stewards of Our Time, Talent, Treasure AND Troubles

Well-known minister and writer Frederick Buechner shared with a small group a portion of a piece of fiction he had written. It became clear to his listeners that, though fictional, the story revealed something of the deep hurt Buechner himself had experienced being raised in a home with an alcoholic and abusive father. After the reading a man in the group came up to him, deeply moved, and told Buechner, “You have a good deal of pain in your life, and you have been a good steward of it.” (from Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons by Frederick Buechner)

I wonder, are we good stewards of our pain? As a preacher for 40 years I often taught or preached on being good stewards of the time, talent, and treasure the Lord has given us. I now see I should have added a fourth “t” to the list: troubles.

What does that mean, that we can be a good steward of our troubles and pain? As a pastor of God’s people over these many years I’ve identified several ways I’ve seen how people have profited from their pain that we can apply to our own lives.

First, troubles can drive us to God. Looking back on my ministry I don’t recall a single person who started attending church and stated as the reason, “Life is going so well for me that I just had to better connect with God who has blessed me so.” On the other hand, countless were the people who showed up for the first time at church and shared with me, “Something terrible has happened in my life and I needed to reach out to God.”

Second, troubles can make us a better person instead of a bitter person; the choice is ours. I have known many people who have had multiple serious troubles in their lives and yet, in spite of all the pain, were beautiful, joyful, enthusiastic, and gracious.

Third, troubles that God has helped us cope and deal with give us the compassion and resources necessary to come alongside and help someone else going through similar troubles. Our troubled past can be of help to someone’s troubled present.

I know, when we’re in the midst of some troubling situation it’s hard to see how any good can come of it, but this is one place where faith has to come into play, believing God has a purpose in it all. Yes, it’s God’s will and His plan for us that we not only be good stewards of our time, talent, and treasure, but also of our troubles!

If I get the opportunity to preach on stewardship again, I’m going to include the stewardship of troubles. The bigger challenge is to be a good steward of pain in my own life!

“Though you have made me see troubles, many and bitter, you will restore my life again; from the depths of the earth you will again bring me up.” (Psalm 71:20)

Long Term Results

I received an e-mail from a woman named Jodi who had briefly attended our church 30 years ago. She wrote, “Something extremely important happened during my time there [at our church].” She went on to describe how she had volunteered to help in a ministry, but that I had made a visit to her home and told her she could not be involved in ministry because she was living with a man to whom she was not married. She wrote that she was “devastated emotionally” and that the next Sunday she cried throughout the service. Apparently she stopped attending soon thereafter.

I don’t remember Jodi or the incident, though throughout my nearly 40 years of ministry I have had a number of difficult conversations with folks who were living a non-repentant lifestyle contrary to the holy ways of Christ and yet wanted to serve in some ministry. How I hated to make those visits!

Jodi then wrote in her e-mail, “But here is my thank you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for telling me the truth about my sin. Thank you for caring enough about me to let me know that repentance was the only way to the Lord ~ truly to the Lord. When I think back on my journey to come to know and love the Lord, you stick out most predominately in my mind and heart. Even since that time, there have been VERY few people willing to speak God’s truth into my life in the kind of bold way that you did.”

What a blessing to see the fruit from painfully planted seed 30 years ago! Pastoring can be a real challenge when we have to do the difficult thing and there’s no apparent immediate positive results. In fact, we often get some strong push back or people may even leave the church (as Jodi did). The e-mail from Jodi was a good reminder that we’re not always going to see short-term results. Sometimes we’re called to sow seed that will take years to produce fruit. God’s timing often is not our timing.

Perhaps we don’t see more immediate positive reinforcement for our efforts, more fruit to our labors, because it would go to our heads. I’m wondering that when we get to heaven (and our heads can no longer swell in pride), if part of the joy of heaven will be God revealing to us the wonderful ways He used us here on earth of which we were unaware.

In the meantime, we’re to keep carrying out our calling. We may not see the fruit to our labors, but as long as we seek to remain His faithful servants we should count it a good day!

Not Knowing What We’re Doing (Though God Does)

Saw this on facebook. Thought if fit with the post below it.
Whoever this pastor is, I hope he keeps smiling!

notknowing

 

Clueless Clergy

mr_magooIt was a congregation of about 15 people in the assisted living dining hall turned sanctuary. I wasn’t the preacher, but was a member of the congregation, along with my wife, her three siblings, their mother (my mother-in-law), and the three other in-laws. Along with us nine, there were about six residents of the facility in attendance. Our family was with Mom, one of the residents, because her husband had passed away a couple of days earlier, and we had all gathered for the coming funeral.

The preacher was the pastor of the Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church from nearby Hardwick, Minnesota. His wife played the piano as he led us in worship. The pastor was clueless to the fact that seven of the children and in-laws (excluding me) were musicians of one kind or another, all read music and sing in four-part harmony. To say the least, the family added a great deal to the congregational singing that Sunday afternoon, a virtual choir singing before the pastor as he stood behind the lectern. It was to his benefit that he was also clueless that there were two ordained ministers in the small congregation (me and my brother-in-law). I wouldn’t have wanted to know such a fact before the service if I were in his place.

He preached a great message. It was about having trust in God for this life and hope in heaven for the life to come. It was right on! Then, as an example, he said, “God is there for a wife who’s lost her husband and has four adult children who all live at a distance.” Okay, I thought, one of the family members must have had a conversation with him before the service and so he knew the circumstances of the extended family before him. I found out after the service that such was not the case! He was clueless, but he had nailed it with his example, not knowing that my mother-in-law had just lost her husband and that all four of her adult children lived at a distance! Amazing!

This experience was just another reminder to me that we pastors are often clueless as to how God is using our ministry. We pray about what we should preach and how best to minister, asking for God’s direction and help; then give it our best shot. We often wonder afterward if we hit the mark, if we’ve impacted people much at all. Sure, people sometimes say nice things but, really, did we make a difference?

It seems to me that we’re much like the cartoon character Mr. Magoo, only the opposite. Nearly blind Mr. Magoo meandered through his day oblivious to barely missing serious injury and death while leaving chaos and destruction behind him. We minister Magoos meander through our ministry and, by the grace of God, are often oblivious to the blessings God scatters in the path behind our pastoring. We are clueless clergy, and it’s by God’s design that we are!

The Old Year, the New Year, Both a Mixed Bag

calendar2017small“I hope the new year is better than this past year was” is a comment we pastors frequently hear around the New Year’s holiday.  Maybe we’ve said it ourselves!  It expresses the opinion that the past year was horrible but that there’s hope for the new year being better. What’s interesting is that if you could fast forward a year from now you’d hear the same phrase just as frequently, “I hope this year is better than this past year was.”

The reality is that every year contains a mixture of both good and bad. True, some years may seem to be better or worse than other years, but on the whole most years contain a mixture of both. In 2016, for instance, we celebrated the wedding of a granddaughter and mourned the death of my mother. You can probably identify a similar mix in your own life in the year that’s just past.

The truth is that we can fixate on the bad of the past year and insist on only good for the new year, but neither is a realistic perspective. There’s a better perspective we can adopt, and that’s the view that God was with us in the past year and will be with us in the new year, no matter what the circumstances!

God was with us as we went through those tough times of last year. In fact, sometimes it’s easier to identify His working in those difficult situations with the passing of time. And then too, He did bless in different ways in the past year, right?

The coming year will undoubtedly also be a mixed bag. Our comfort can come from knowing, believing, and acting upon the fact that God will be with us, and we with Him, through the new year. We may not know what’s coming our way, but He does, and He has a plan! As the old adage goes, “We can’t know what the future holds, but we can know the One who holds the future!”

“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (the apostle Paul in Romans 8:38-39)

There’s No Such Thing as an Omni-gifted Pastor

bulbcroppedsmallI was helping a few of the men of our church do some work in the sanctuary. One of the house light fixtures had a socket that wouldn’t light, even when we tried a new bulb. I suggested to Tim, perched at the top of a stepladder beneath the light, that perhaps the little metal “thingy” in the center of the socket was pushed up and wasn’t making contact with the center connection of the light bulb. I assured him I had turned the house light switch to the “off” position and that it was safe for him to put his finger into the socket to try and pry the “thingy” down a bit. (You know where this is going, but please humor me and let me continue).

I did not know that this light was on a three-way switch. I did not know what a three-way switch was. I now know that the current is not stopped from flowing even though you’ve turned off one of the switches. When Tim probed the socket with his index finger he jumped (thankfully not off the ladder) and made some kind of grunting, gasping sound. I was shocked! Okay, I wasn’t shocked like Tim was, but I was definitely surprised. For my remaining years at the church Tim often brought up this little episode in the presence of congregational members who were to hold me in high regard and with great respect. I have to admit that he did so with a smile on his face, proving the principle that you can forgive but not necessarily forget!

Memory of this electrifying episode is a continuing reminder to me that we can’t be good at everything. We all have our gifts and abilities and our lack of gifts and abilities. Now I know that as pastors we’ve preached and taught this theme time and time again. But I also know that we pastors can beat ourselves up when we exhibit lackadaisical performance in some area of ministry, or are reminded of such by a parishioner. Maybe we need to sit back and listen to a recording of our own last sermon we preached on spiritual gifts!

I’m going to resist giving a set of bullet points on how to deal with this, because you don’t need for me to do so; you’ve undoubtedly prepared enough sermons that you’re good at that. Anyway, it’s more about an attitude than it is about a set of actions. We just have to resist the temptation of trying to be viewed by our parishioners and fellow clergy as some kind of a super pastor. Each of us is uniquely gifted, yes, but not omni-gifted!

Hunting for Hypocrisy in the Heart

heartoniongrayIt’s sobering that some of Jesus’ harshest condemnations against sin was against the sin of hypocrisy and that it was leveled against religious leaders, the category to which we belong as pastors. I’d like to quickly disqualify myself from being included in the group of the condemned, but it’s this very desire that gives me pause. Perhaps I shouldn’t jettison too quickly the possibility that there might be hypocrisy in my own heart!

An occupational hazard for those of us who are public spiritual leaders is to project an outward image that’s more Christ-like than the way we are behind closed doors or in the privacy of our own hearts. We can become both comfortable and adept at living something of a double life. Let me be blunt; if a sampling of our thoughts were projected onto a screen before our congregation on Sunday morning most of us pastors would be out of a job come Monday morning!

We pastors should make personal application of a familiar teaching of Jesus’ that we find rather easy to preach or teach to our congregations. “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:3-5)

True, as pastors there’s a proper role of judging that comes with the calling. We’re to judge whether someone is fit for a specific church position. We have an obligation to confront overt and unrepentant sin within our congregation and not simply look the other way. But what’s our attitude when we have to carry out such responsibilities?

Recently I’ve been involved, along with others, in helping a person identify significant sin in their life that the person has failed to deal with. All of us involved have tried to be led of the Lord as to how we carry out this discipline. Surprisingly, in this process I’ve experienced a fresh awareness of how my own heart isn’t what it ought to be.

Of all people, we who are charged with preaching the good news of God’s gracious desire to forgive and sanctify should have the courage to hunt for the hypocrisy in our own hearts. The goal? To be the same person within that we seek to project outwardly! The onion is a good metaphor; no matter how you slice it, it’s the same all the way through! It may sound odd but what I know I should aim for is to have an onion-like heart!