Just to Lighten Up Your Day

Prayer Under a Pine Tree

Actual pine tree that inspired the thought for this post

I was taking my morning walk the path of which took me under a pine tree. I hadn’t noticed the breeze until I stopped under the tree. It was the sound I heard first, the sound of the wind through the tens of millions of needles. Then I noticed how each of the multitude of needles on the ends of dozens of branches caught just enough of the breeze to, collectively, cause the branches to sway.

I was inspired to pray something to the effect, “Lord, even though I can’t see the wind, I hear it in the pine needles, and I see it in the moving pine branches. So blow through me with your Holy Spirit that those around me will hear and see you through me. Amen.”

Pastoring People from the Heart

This FROM A PASTOR’S HEART blog is all about nurturing our heart as a pastor. Our ministry is to be a ministry from the heart. The people to whom we minister have hurting hearts, and our most effective ministry happens when it is heart-to-heart ministry, our heart reaching out to their hearts.

It’s so easy in pastoral ministry to focus on relating to people, especially our leaders, in terms of goals, objectives, schedules, programs, and problem-solving. This results in a disheartening ministry, a leaving of the heart out of the ministry! It results in the people under our care, no surprise here, being disheartened. They deeply want to be seen first as a human being, not as a human doing.

I remember telling one youth pastor after another who served the youth in our church (we seemed to go through quite a number of youth pastors over the years) that the three most important aspects of being a youth pastor (or any other ministry role for that matter) are relationships, relationships, relationships! When I was retiring from pastoral ministry I didn’t have all that many people come up to me recalling some wise words I once taught them; what they reminisced about was the relationship we had over the years. In fact, they frequently referenced our relationship as friend to friend, not so much as pastor to parishioner.

I’ve come to realize that we pastors can focus on having a great teaching ministry, which is important, but, as Theodore Roosevelt said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” I’ve also come to realize that if there’s a heart-to-heart connection with people they tend to extend more grace and mercy when you’ve goofed up or dropped the ball. Isn’t that what the apostle Peter was getting at when he wrote, “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins”? 1 Peter 4:8

One of the great challenges for a pastor is to make meaningful but brief contacts with a multitude of people before and after large or small group events. The few seconds we encounter a parishioner in the hallway or at a coffee hour is, for most of them, their few seconds to connect with us. Do they find us distracted, anxious to move on, or disinterested in them?

I was prompted to think about how I treat people whom I casually meet after reading an article by Douglas Groothuis in Christianity Today magazine titled, “Learning to Say Hello Again.” He concludes his article by stating, “It seems like a small thing, but it really isn’t. How we greet—or fail to greet—others says much about our character. But in the power of the Holy Spirit, we may practice the presence of people by acknowledging and recognizing them for who they are: creatures made in God’s image.”

Every person we meet has been made in the image of God; each has an eternal destiny. Groothuis quotes C. S Lewis in The Weight of Glory, “You have never talked to a mere mortal.” How will we treat, even in casual encounters, these beloved creatures of God made in His image and whom He loves?

Most of us have taught and preached on the opening and closing words of the apostle Paul’s letters where he expresses his heartfelt love for his readers. He does so with the Philippian Christians. I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart…” Philippians 1:3-7a

One of our ongoing prayers should be that we might have a heart for the people He’s put under our care. They need something more from us than our biblically based insights and teaching and our vision for the church (though they need this); they need for us to share our heart with them!

Wind in the Pines, Wind in the Corn

That actual location on my walk when the thought for this blog post came to me.

On my morning walk recently I was on a part of the path that had a set of pine trees on the one side of the path and a cornfield on the other side. A mountain breeze was blowing. I heard the wind in the pines and the wind in the corn, but the sound of the wind was different on the two sides of the path. The wind swished through the tens of thousands of pine needles and rustled through the thousands of corn leaves, stereophonic diversity! It was a fresh reminder of God’s ruach, God’s pneuma, the Holy Spirit, who blows around, into, and out of us in very unique ways, like the wind does through the pines and the corn.

I know, we’ve all preached and taught a hundred or more times on the unique gifts the Holy Spirit provides every believer. I found, however, I needed to be reminded of this myself all over again. The walk between the pines and the corn gave me a fresh incentive to quit playing the comparison game where I’m envious or jealous of other pastors and their talents or opportunities. It also provided the additional antidote to overcome a prideful attitude that leads me to think judgmentally of other pastors who don’t do ministry the way I think it should be done.

Similar to the wind making unique sounds when blowing through the pines and the corn, so the Spirit of God exhibits Himself in wonderfully different ways to each of us who has been gifted by Him to be His pastor to a group of His people. For each of us it’s a very unique call!

Yes, we’re familiar with the following statement by the apostle Paul, but instead of preaching it to others this might be a good moment to let it speak to the preacher! There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” (1 Corinthians 12:4-7)

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)