Pastors from Another Planet

“That’s the strangest thing about this life, about being in the ministry. People change the subject when they see you coming. And then sometimes those very same people come into your study and tell you the most remarkable things.”

These words are spoken by an old pastor, John Ames, in Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Gilead. I agree with this fictional pastor. Many people really don’t know how to act around a minister, (especially those who are irregular church attenders or non-attenders). They apologize for using God’s name in vain when they discover that a pastor is present, never giving it a thought that God is omnipresent and has been listening to their language all along. Others cover themselves the opposite way when a pastor is present, using religious language like “God bless” and “what a blessing” and “I’m so thankful” which are phrases that they’ve not uttered since the last time a pastor was within ear shot. Still others will quickly move off to join a different person or group for conversation as if the pastor is contagious. It’s as if pastors are from another planet.

Many folks would be surprised to know that pastors are normal in most ways, having similar struggles, problems, and also interests and talents as everybody else. I remember being invited over to a family’s home for Sunday dinner after I had baptized a member of the family in our morning service. They had a pool table in the basement, so I joined in on a game of pool. They didn’t know that one of the few luxuries my parents allowed me and my siblings while growing up on an Iowa farm was a pool table that was squeezed into the second story bedroom my brother and I shared in the farmhouse. I can still play a decent game of pool. My opponent in the game, an unsuspecting non-church attender was shocked when the pastor beat him. I recall him mumbling something about the pool table not being level (as if this irregularity hindered his game and somehow benefited mine).

Then, too, it’s amazing how many people think a pastor lives an isolated existence, an innocent life, and is unaware of the real world out there. They have no idea of the number of people who enter the pastor’s study bringing with them their real world. They pour out their heart, unpack their dirty laundry, and vomit forth gut wrenching feelings they can no longer stomach. Pastors don’t have to go out into the real world to experience life as it really is; the people bring it to us! Of course, there are many times we do venture forth out into this real world to make house calls, hospital calls, funeral home calls, jail and prison calls, and calls to any place where someone is facing a crisis in their life.

People in our churches think we don’t know the half of all that’s going on in our own congregation. Truth be told, we know a lot more than they think we know!

It seems some folks want to compartmentalize pastors into one of two cubicles. Pastors are either out of touch with the real world (nice but naive) or they’re hypocritical pastors (including most televangelists) who are interested only in money and extra-marital affairs. There seems to be no cubicle for the majority of pastors who honestly are seeking to serve the Lord while dealing with the same day-to-day fallen world situations everyone else does.

My conclusion to all of this? First of all, how people view us as pastors probably says as much or more about them as it does about us, so we shouldn’t take it personally. We can learn a lot about the condition of their hearts and souls by watching their reactions to us.

A second observation: I think we just have to accept the fact that to some people we’re an oddity, love them where they’re at, and hope and pray that they’ll really get to know us and, more importantly, the Jesus we serve. The final thought I have on this subject is that it felt really good beating that non-church attending pool player!


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!

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.

Facebook vs. Books & Facebook Wins?

During my pastoral ministry I was fairly intentional about reading books. I had the goal of reading the first hour in my church office each mornig. I didn’t always achieve that goal, but it helped just having it in mind.

This blog focuses on the pastor’s heart. One of the genres I attempted to dive into regularly in my reading were the kinds of books that would nurture my heart and soul.

True confession time: Now I’m retired, and I read less than I did when I was pastoring full time! Part of the problem is that I now have facebook, something that wasn’t in existence during my pastoral ministry and therefore not a temptation.

One of my favorite authors, Philip Yancey, has written on this new reality of reading fewer books. You can check out his blog post here .

I’ve determined I’m going to raise the bar when it comes to reading book. A good book can do the heart good, especially the pastor’s heart!

It’s Not All About The Pastor

“It’s not all about you” are the often quoted opening words of Rick Warren’s best selling book The Purpose Driven Life. I need the reminder of these words when I reflect on my ministry and my responsibilities as a preacher and pastor.

Yes, being a pastor to the Lord’s people and the preacher/teacher of God’s Word to His people are serious and heavy responsibilities. There’s the sobering statement by the apostle James,Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, because you know that we will be judged more strictly.” (James 3:1)

The other side of this coin is that every human being is ultimately responsible for their own relationship with the Lord and spiritual growth. It’s good for us pastors to remember this.

Why do we take on this extra burden of feeling as if we the pastors are ultimately responsible for the spiritual development of the people of our congregations? Could it be because it makes us feel important? Perhaps our parishioners have communicated to us that their spiritual health is primarily our responsibility. Or maybe we’ve successfully communicated this to the people and the expectation has boomeranged back on us. The result can be an unhealthy co-dependent pastor/people relationship.

The pastoral ministry has enough burdens without us adding the burden of believing that the spiritual development of the people of our flock falls primarily on us. These words are a gentle reminder to those of us who are pastors that every believer is responsible for his or her own prayer life, study of the Word, growing passion for Christ, and living out of a God-honoring life-style. The Good Shepherd has called us to be His assistant shepherds, but all we can do is lead His sheep to still waters and green pastures. We can’t make them drink or eat; they have to do that for themselves. Oh, what a relief that is! It’s not all about us!

“He [Jesus] also said, This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.‘” (Mark 4:26-28)

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!