Martin Luther painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder in 1529

As we deal with the pandemic of the coronavirus, we can learn much from something the great church reformer Martin Luther wrote over 400 years ago. I first saw this quote in a post on the Rock Point Church (of Schertz, Texas) Facebook page. Their post stated…

“When Martin Luther was dealing with The Black Death (Bubonic Plague, 14th-16th centuries), he wrote these wise words that can help inform the way we approach things happening in our world right now…

‘I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me, and I have done what he has expected of me, and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely as stated above. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.’

And so Luther stayed in his hometown of Wittenberg, Germany, along with his pregnant wife. He cared for and ministered to those dying of The Black Death until the plague had passed from his area.

Quote From: Luther’s Works Volume 43 pg 132 the letter “Whether one may flee from a Deadly Plague” written to Rev. Dr. John Hess.

I wanted to pass along this Facebook post because Martin Luther’s words are insightful and helpful all these years later! So are the words of the Psalmist with which we close.

“Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’ You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday.”  Psalm 91:1-2 & 5-6

Behind the Patchwork Quilt

“What makes me a successful pastor is __________,” or “What would make me a successful pastor would be if ____________.” How would we fill in the blanks?

I suspect most of our responses would actually describe aspects of a healthy, thriving church. After all, if our church is successful then we’d likely see ourselves as a successful pastor. So, what phrase first popped into your head with which to fill in the blank or blanks? Would it be “growing numerically,” “mission minded,” “where almost everyone is in a small group,” “a tithing church,” “a God glorifying church,” “a Christ-centered church,” “a socially engaged church,” “a ____________ church?”

It could be a more personal answer too. “Being an expository preacher,” “working a lot of hours,” “knowing most of the people love me as their pastor,” “being well respected by my pastoral peers.”

More likely than not we’d like the option of filling in the blanks with several different responses. Perhaps our core identity is a patchwork quilt of a number of aspects of ministry that would be a comforter we could snuggle in so as to feel good about ourselves as ministers.

Now that I’m retired from pastoring, I’m seeing things a bit differently in hindsight. Having been out of the pastoral ministry for nearly six years I’ve had to grapple with what my core identity is, that means apart from being a pastor. The essential question is, who is the real Dave Claassen, now that I’m no longer “Pastor Dave”?

The answer is, of course, that I’m the same Dave Claassen! My identity is not in what I do but who I am, a loved child of God who has a call from God! That’s always been true, even all those years I pastored a church; it’s just easier for me to see it now than it was when I was in the thick of it as a pastor.

The Apostle Paul put it well when he wrote to the Corinthian church, “I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God.” 1 Corinthians 4:3-5

The pastoral ministry has many aspects to it, like a patchwork quilt with all of its pieces. Most of these pieces of ministry are important (to one degree or another), but they shouldn’t be what we wrap up our identity in. An interesting characteristic of a quilt is that it has a backing, one piece of material, that backs everything, that helps hold it together and give it strength. That’s how I see God, as the all important backing to my patchwork quilt of calls from Him. It’s in who I am in Him, not in what I do for Him, that I seek to wrap my identity.

John Newton’s Confession, and Mine!

I’m reading “The Letters of John Newton” who was an English Anglican clergyman and wrote the most beloved hymn of all time, “Amazing Grace.” In a letter to a friend he wrote, “I continue to creep on. I preach to others with some marks of acceptance. I attempt to preach to my own heart likewise – but it is very dull, and not easily impressed. It is a strange heart; it needs to be emptied – and filled, to be broken – and bound up, to be softened – and consolidated, at the same time….

“… I am sometimes almost weary and ashamed either to write or preach anymore, there is such a vast difference between what I am in myself, and the idea the Lord has given me of what a believing sinner ought to be.”

I take a perverse kind of comfort to know that such a great man of God and great pastor was open and honest enough to share such thoughts with a minister friend in a letter. John Newton certainly knew of what he wrote when he composed the hymn “Amazing Grace.” We pastors, if we’re as honest as John Newton, will have as our personal anthem “Amazing Grace.”

On the Lighter Side

My “Fan Mail” File

My actual “Fan Mail” file

I have a file marked “Fan Mail” in our filing cabinet. Years ago my wife suggested I start the file for the occasional thank you note, pastor’s card, and (in the later years) e-mails with nice things to say about me and my ministry.

I’ll admit my first inclination was to begin this post with the statement, “I confess I have a file marked ‘Fan Mail’,” but quickly realized that this would be completely contrary to the point of the post. There’s no need to confess about having such a file.

A member of a mission team with which I had worked e-mailed me, encouraging me in my writing and speaking. I appreciated it, but didn’t dwell on it, thinking maybe that was egotistical or prideful. My wife suggested that I take a second look at what she had written. “I think the Lord is encouraging you through her,” my wife said. She was right.

I believe there have been many times over the years when I have robbed myself of the gratitude, affirmation, and encouragement God had for me that He was channeling through the people whose lives my ministry had impacted.

The Bible says to encourage one another, but paying a compliment is a two-sided coin. If someone is to be encouraged then that means someone has to allow themselves to be encouraged!

It’s a form of false humility to blow off the praise or affirmation from someone. If we’re honest enough to check our motives at such times we’ll find that we want to come off humble before the other person. We’re proud of the fact that we’re so humble!

Pastoral ministry is a challenging calling. There’s plenty of criticism that comes our way. Complaining parishioners usually greatly outnumber complimenting parishioners. God’s grace toward us is sometimes given in the expressions of praise, gratitude, and affirmation that come our way. Graciously receiving such encouragement is a way to express gratitude to the Lord for how He has chosen to work through our life and ministry. It’s one more way we give praise and glory to Him.

Thankfully, I haven’t had too many occasions when I was in desperate need of reading my “Fan Mail” file. Occasionally just pulling it out of the file drawer to add another expression of affirmation is usually enough to keep me going.

Yes, as pastors we should model being an encourager, but we should also model how to receive encouragement. We don’t have to let it go to our head, but we can let it go to our discouraged heart!

Our Pastor’s Heart and Church Growth

Why I’m Not Pushing for Church Growth Any More is a great blog post by Karl Vaters. It can help treat the AFib of our pastor’s heart, keeping it in a healthy rhythm, in sync with God’s heart for our ministry.

The View from Retirement and the One Thing I Would Do Differently

As of this writing I’m four and half years into retirement from active pastoral ministry. I ponder what I might want to share with pastors from this vantage point of being years and miles away from where I did pastoral ministry. I try not to dwell too much on the regrets, because the past can’t be changed. Still, as I reflect on my nearly 40 years of ministry, is there something I’d do differently that might be helpful to share with others still in the trenches of pastoral ministry? Maybe, so here goes…

One regret comes to mind rather quickly: if I had to do my ministry over again I’d focus more on the present and less on the future! As I think back I was always anxious to get to the next stage in the church’s life: more small groups, greater giving to missions, increased discipleship, growth in attendance, a move to a new and larger facility on 20 acres of land we had purchased up the road (which never happened). I know, these all sound like admirable goals, and they were. In fact, I still believe they were good goals to have at the time. After all, as the old saying goes, “If you aim at nothing you’ll hit it.”

But I recall often lamenting about the lack of growth of one kind or another. It made me close to miserable on more occasions than I care to admit, and in the midst of it all I believe I missed the good in the moment. For instance, very telling was how I would enjoy my Sunday afternoon more when attendance that morning had been good and would easily slip into a dark mood if the attendance had been disappointing.

I know, a measure of divinely inspired dissatisfaction is good. God doesn’t want us to be complacent as pastors. But on the other hand, contentment can also be good. What’s needed is balance, and I believe I overdid the focusing on the what I wanted in the future at the expense of celebrating what I had in the present.

On an imaginary teeter-totter where the present is on the one seat and the future is on the other, I let the future kid grow really big and kept the present kid stunted and small. On this imaginary teeter-totter the future was weighty and well grounded with all kinds of plans and projections, but I was light on the present, leaving it up in the air. There often was little balance on the playground of my ministry.

Much has been written about the sacrament of the moment, that wherever you are, be all there! This, I believe in retrospect now more than ever, should be more of our focus when doing daily ministry. I fear that some of our dreaming about what God might want for our ministry is an escape from our dissatisfaction with what God has given us to do in our present ministry. Gratitude and celebration for what God can do with us and our church TODAY is as important as goal setting and vision for what God can do with us and our church TOMORROW.

Our present ecclesiastical circumstances may be far from perfect, and we do have a call from our Great Shepherd to move His flock on to better things. Still, there’s also the call to enjoy the scenery in the current meadow where our flock is now grazing, among the familiar hills, trees, and winding stream, walking slowly among them, shepherding them, and delighting in them. As we shepherd the flock one day to the next we may yearn for greener pastures, but as long as the Lord is our Shepherd we shall not want right where we are!