Wearing Dead Men’s Clothes

deadmenclothesSmallOne of the strange aspects of my pastoral ministry is that I’ve ended up wearing dead men’s clothes. This is not something they prepared me for in seminary!

This is how it happens: some man dies in my congregation, someone about my size. Getting rid of a deceased husband’s clothes is a difficult task for the widow. She can give the clothes to a non-profit, but there’s strong emotional attachment to her husband’s clothes. She thinks of a compromise, a way to give the clothes away and still see it worn (my bit of amateur psychoanalyzing here). The widow determines that I’m about the size of her late husband. She offers me his best clothes. (Clarification: I’ve not been offered any clothes the man has actually died in, at least not to my knowledge.)

Such an offer is a risk for the widow. “I don’t want to offend you, pastor, just say ‘No’ if you don’t want them.” I take no offense and accept the clothes, especially if he was a man with good taste.

One of the deceased men and I looked enough alike that people said we could pass for brothers. Some weeks after sharing her late husband’s wardrobe with me the widow, glancing into my office, said, “Oh, for a minute I thought it was Jim.” That particular day I was wearing both her husband’s sport coat and slacks. All in all, I sensed she was glad to see I was making use of Jim’s clothes.

I stopped by the apartment of the widow of our first associate pastor, Ray. His wife Marie had asked if I wanted to come over and go through his clothes. I had been close to Ray. He was old enough to be my father and, in fact, with my own father being deceased, was sort of a father figure to me. I drove home with a collection of his suits, sport jackets, slacks, and ties piled on my back seat, clothes he had often ministered in at our church alongside me. Wearing his clothes has been a reminder that his legacy lives on through my ministry.

Being a preacher/writer means I’m always looking for an illustration, a metaphor, or some kind of applicable principle in almost everything that happens to me, even the strange. What observations are there to be made from wearing dead men’s clothes?

First: if I want to save money on clothes I should target my evangelism to older men in failing health who are near my own size. Just kidding. Seriously now…

Christ “put on” humanity. The apostle Paul wrote that Christ was “…being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man… (Philippians 2:7-8) Our call to pastoral ministry is a call to live among His people, a call to be incarnated among them, in some small way, as He was among humanity.

Empathy is a key characteristic we’re to exhibit as pastors, which calls to mind the metaphor of walking in another’s shoes. As pastors we attempt to walk in our parishoner’s shoes. We “wear” our parishoners’ circumstances by imagining ourselves in their place as best we can. The apostle Paul says to “rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.” (Romans 12:15) Though empathy is to be a characteristic of every Christian, we who pastor His people should lead the way in modeling it.

Walking in a man’s shoes, a dead man’s shoes, or wearing his coat or slacks is a vivid metaphor for incarnational ministry. It may not be listed as a sacrament by any church body but I, for one, have found it to be sacramental!

aaaqaqaq copyI came across this statement by a character in a novel I’m reading. Sometimes we find Biblical truth in strange places, including a science fiction novel that’s not necessarily religious. The truth of what this character expressed can help realign our heart and soul for ministry.

Assault from Nearby

KnifeInHeartMedWe were conducting a medical and evangelistic mission in Mexico with our daughter, her husband and their Fishers of Men ministry. Our daughter Julie asked the host pastor’s wife how she could best pray for her. They pastor a small church of about fifteen adults in a large town dominated by the Catholic Church. One needs to remember that the Catholic Church in Mexico has lingering and strong influences of the pagan beliefs that were a part of the culture long before the Catholic Church evangelized the country. For this, and I suspect other hard to define reasons, the Catholic Church is very antagonistic toward evangelical protestantism which has, in some cases, resulted in violence against evangelical Christians.

Given this spiritual environment you would expect the pastor’s wife to suggest that this conflict was her and her husband’s greatest challenge. Not so. She asked for prayer concerning the discord within their small church, especially for the critical attitudes people had toward her husband and his ministry.

Just a couple of weeks earlier I was in communication with a young pastor who I know well. I see no red lights in his ministry. He’s doing a great job but is facing harsh criticism by a couple of key leaders. These leaders are not handling their grievances in a way that honors the pastor they themselves believed just a couple of years ago God had called to be their pastor and the pastor of their church.

It may shock many to know the number one reason missionaries leave the mission field. It’s not because of conflict with local authorities, antagonism from other religious groups, cultural differences or inclement weather conditions. The number one reason missionaries leave the mission field is conflict with other missionaries!

I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised; Jesus’ arrest and execution were orchestrated by the religious establishment, leaders of His own religion, the Jewish faith. He was the Messiah of the Jews, and it was the Jewish Sanhedrin, the highest Jewish ruling body, that manipulated the Romans to have Him executed!

Then, too, remember David’s lament. “Even my close friend, someone I trust, one who shared my bread, has turned against me.” (Psalm 41:9)

This blog is all about the pastor’s heart, and it is a heart often pierced and even broken by the very people we pastors are called to serve! What are we to make of this? What are we to do?

I don’t want to disappoint, but I don’t have a magic cure to offer. If I did, I’d set up my own consulting firm and charge an exorbitant price for you to attend my conference! Just kidding – about the consulting, exorbitant price and conference part – not about my lack of a magic cure.

Reflecting on my thirty-nine plus years at the church I served I can recall time and time again when I was deeply hurt by people in the church. I believe I survived it primarily because I had a sense of a profound call from God to be their pastor. I can remember one night, after a brutal congregational meeting in which two leaders took turns with the wireless hand held microphone and questioned my ability to lead. I lay in bed that night, on my back, in the dark, my wife lying beside me. I raised my arm up toward the ceiling, formed a fist, shook it and nearly hollered out between clenched teeth, “I will not quit.” It was, in retrospect, one of the shortest and most bizarre prayers I’ve ever prayed!

I know we can question our call when things get tough, but if our questioning is prompted primarily by complaints or criticisms, then we have good reason to question our questioning of our call! It seems to me if God wants to steer us in a new direction that He will speak through angels and not demons. If, after some quiet, reflective, prayerful soul-searching one feels a ministry in a certain place is no longer effective and no longer God’s plan, then so be it. I don’t think, however, we can hear that still small voice of the Lord in the high decibels criticism coming from our detractors. Our call should always trump criticism.

Two Ways to View Our Shepherding Role

The image of shepherd helps us define our calling as pastors. Jesus is the Great Shepherd, but in His physical absence He has assigned us pastors to the task of shepherding a local flock of His. Images of sheep and a shepherd have always prompted my personal reflection on this amazing calling He’s placed upon me. I find myself probing the shepherd imagery even more in recent months since moving to rural Mexico where we have neighbors who shepherd a flock of a couple of hundred sheep. Whenever they lead them to greener pastures, if I’m aware of the flock’s movement, I’m there with my camera. Observing the flock and the shepherd neighbors has brought to mind two different ways we can see our role in pastoring a local flock of His.

The Younger Sibling Shepherd

ShepherdBrothersSmallI’ve noticed that often there are two shepherd boys taking care of the sheep, an older brother and a younger brother. I’m sure the older brother is in charge and that the younger brother is obedient to him and learns from him.

We sometimes identify Jesus as our “big brother” and that makes us the little brother or sister. As a pastor we can see ourselves as the younger brother shepherd or little sister shepherd. As we shepherd the flock we can know that our big brother shepherd is not far away and has His watchful eye on both us and the sheep He’s put under our care. He is there, always, always giving us His help and direction.

The Shepherd’s Dog

ShepherdDogSmallThe neighbors have a couple of sheep dogs, one is a German Shepherd mix, I’m not sure about the other. The dogs take their verbal orders from the shepherd (I’ve heard it many times). The dogs run and round up the stray sheep. They stand guard. Our own two Saint Bernard dogs have approached the sheep and the sheepdogs and have learned the hard way that this was not a wise move! The shepherd’s dogs guide and also protect the flock of their master, the shepherd.

I often made the comment during my years of pastoral ministry that I was the Lord’s sheepdog! It comes across to me as a self-deprecating title, but an accurate one, helping me to stay a bit more humble (I hope) and more useful to Him. The Lord is the Good Shepherd of the small flock He assigned to me, and I was but His sheepdog, seeking to obey His commands as to where to take the sheep and, yes, feeling protective of them.

Two Images to Hold in Mind and Heart

Images are powerful, and the images of the younger sibling to the big brother shepherd and of the sheepdog serving the master who is shepherd have helped me better grasp my role as a pastor. After all, there’s nothing I want more than to please the Good Shepherd!