Leading to the Leeches

Members of our church’s married couples group were camping at a state park. The park has a concrete dam over which the water cascades. Most of us couples had been swimming in the lake below the dam when I ventured onto the dam and laid down on it. “Hey, come over here. This is really great, letting the water flow over you,” I shouted. Many of them accepted the invitation of their pastor, so there we were, all scattered out, laying down on the slope of the concrete dam letting the water flow over us.

Then I noticed something. There were leeches on that concrete dam! I shouted out, “There’s leeches!” Immediately everyone jumped up, faster than a baby can climb out of a tub of bathwater! Most of us couples headed back to our tents and campers to check out whether any leeches were where they shouldn’t be. The only redeeming part of the whole episode was that each couple had to do a full body check on their mate!

Their pastor had led them into the land of the leeches. It wasn’t one of my most shining moments of pastoral leadership! My words of invitation had to be followed up by words of alarm.

The fact is, we pastors are put in the position of having great influence, and a key aspect of that influence is the words we say. The apostle Paul admonished the Colossian church, “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” (Colossians 4:6) We pastors are, by trade, word crafters; words are our tools.

We usually give some thought as to what we’re going to say (yes, there are those unfortunate times when we speak before we think). We seek to guard our mouth, but we’d be better off guarding our heart! The reality is that the genesis of much of what we say is not the head but the heart. Guarding what we say by thinking it through is important, but is only the second line of defense against saying something stupid, hurtful, and sinful. The first line of defense is guarding our hearts, the ultimate source of our words!

I suspect I’m not the only one who thought he was quite good at guarding his words, but then heard myself letting words slip out that came from a heart that was not in a very good place. Most of us have also been witness any number of times to parishioners letting go with a torrent of words that had bypassed the filter of the mind and had come straight from a hurting, angry, or sinful heart.

We pastors know the following statement by Jesus and probably have preached on it a number of times, but it’s good to make personal application to our own influence through the words we use. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” (Luke 6:45) A good prayer for us pastors to pray is that of the psalmist, Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer.” (Psalm 19:14)

When I tend to forget how powerful are the words I speak as a pastor, I have only to remind myself of the time when my words led my people to the leeches! It caused no real harm, not like my words have on other occasions. Guarding the tongue at the moment is important, but more important is the guarding of my heart!

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What Velma Taught Me about Communion

“We can have communion together,” I said to Bill over the phone. We were discussing meeting at the Alzheimer’s group home where his wife of over 60 years, Velma, was a resident.

“I don’t think she will understand what she’s doing,” Bill warned.

“She’s had communion many times before, right?” I asked, knowing they had been committed Christians for a very long time.

“Oh, yes,” he said.

“Then I’m certain the Lord wouldn’t mind if she took communion, even if she doesn’t fully grasp what she’s doing.”

A few hours later we were gathered around a small circular table in the dining area. Velma sat there, a blank look on her face, as I set out the little cubes of bread and small cups of juice in front of each of us.

I gave a prayer of preparation. As I tried to place the cube of bread in Velma’s hand, I repeated the words of Jesus, “This is my body broken for you; eat this in remembrance of me.”

She clenched her hand, rejecting the bread. “She often resists eating,” Bill said. Then, before partaking of his own bread, he got up from his chair, took her bread and gently but firmly pushed it between her pursed lips. “Chew now,” he said softly under his breath.

The same with the cup. “This represents my blood shed for you. Drink this in remembrance of me.” Bill became Velma’s cup bearer and put it to her lips, cupping his hand under her chin as he did so. Lips tightly shut eventually gave way enough for the liquid to seep past. She swallowed.

I repeated the words of a song certainly familiar to her, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so,” and then the words of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son…” A closing prayer and our time of communion was concluded.

As I left the Alzheimer’s home I realized I had been on holy ground. During my years of pastoral ministry I’ve led in the celebration of Communion countless times, both before the public assembly of the congregation and in the more intimate setting of a shut-in’s home, a hospital room, a nursing home or, as in this case, a group home.

In sharing Communion I remind all of us participants of how the celebration speaks of God’s grace through the giving of His Son and the gift of salvation. This particular celebration of Communion, however, revealed God’s grace to me as never before. Eat and drink in remembrance of me, Jesus had said. But Velma could no longer remember. No matter; the elements of bread and cup were given to her in love by her husband and pastor anyway. We remembered for her.

Velma unknowingly gave her pastor a fresh experience of the Lord’s Supper that afternoon. When we find ourselves before the bread and the cup of the Lord we can fool ourselves into believing we have a great hunger and deep thirst for God. But from heaven’s perspective we have a meager desire at best and are too easily satisfied.

Still, God comes to us, even when our hands are clenched against receiving more of His bread of life and our lips pressed tightly against receiving more of His new wine. He is lovingly insistent we partake of more of Him. That’s our God, full of grace and mercy! I learned that from sharing communion with Velma.