Our Heart’s Greatest Desire

heart-in-woodIt’s important to have a heart for pastoral ministry, this being pretty much a no brainer. But I have a question for us: Is our heart captivated by the Lord’s work most of all or for the Lord Himself most of all?

I’ve been retired from pastoral ministry for almost two years. From my current perspective I can see that, at least at times, my greatest love was for the Lord’s work and not for the Lord Himself. The difference is crucial!

We can be passionate in our preaching, but is this passion in the preaching about Christ or in the Christ for whom we preach? It’s easy to confuse the two passions.

We can love unpacking the Word, but do we love The WORD who became flesh even more?

We can love shepherding the Lord’s flock, but do we love the Good Shepherd greater still?

We can love goal setting, but do we love looking to the Author and Finisher of our faith more yet?

We can love organizing, but do we have even a greater love for the One in whom “all things hold together?”  We do well to remember Jesus’ words to the church at Ephesus and make application to ourselves. “You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first.” (Revelation 2:3-4) Yes, we too can persevere and endure in our work, but is that heart we pour into ministry overflowing with an even greater love for Christ?

Our first reason to love our ministry and the people to whom we minister should not be that we are called to this work. Our first reason to love our ministry should be that we are first profoundly loved by the Lord who calls us to the ministry! “We love because he first loved us. (1 John 4:19)

My two years into retirement from pastoral ministry have been something like a time of fasting (actually, an ongoing fast). In fasting from food, or anything else, you come to realize how dependent you have been on that from which you’re fasting. Fasting also should prompt the heart to grow fonder for God. This is what I sense has been happening in my own life since retiring from pastoral ministry. I’ve realized in a fresh way my tendency to let the love of the pastoral work distract me from a deepening of my love relationship to the Lord.

God tells us we are to have no other gods before Him, and that includes making our pastoral ministry a god. Our very best objective should be to have our love for the Lord grow greater and greater, ever outpacing our love for doing His work!

The Demolition of Self-Confidence

Humble“How to Build Self-Confidence” is a good title for a self-help book, article, or talk. Think about it, who would buy a book, read an article, or pay to attend a talk titled, “How to Demolish Self-Confidence?”

I like feeling self-confident. Through my years in pastoral ministry it felt good to step to the center of the platform to begin my sermon with the feeling I was going to knock their socks off and leave them standing barefoot on holy ground during the singing of the closing song. I liked going into a congregational meeting with the self-confidence that I was going to boldly lead the congregation where they had never gone before (for the record, this rarely, if ever happened).

There are plenty of times I’ve lacked self-confidence. Preaching in general is a daunting task, but Christmas and Easter seemed to be especially so for me. How can you encapsulate in the length of a message the incomprehensible action of God’s incarnation in the Christmas story or the resurrection of God from the dead in the Easter story? Then there were the calls that someone had suddenly and tragically lost a loved one, and I wondered how I could possibly bring something from God into the situation as I drove to their house or the hospital. Why did I always feel like an amateur pastor as I approached such situations?

Yes, having self-confidence seems like a good place to be. I have come to discover, however, that God doesn’t want me to be self-confident. You’re probably way ahead of me here, saying to yourself, “We’re not to be self-confident but God-confident!” As pastors our Biblically centered and theologically focused brains know this truth, but to get that truth to the heart, well, it’s a long journey from head to heart!

It’s not easy feeling inadequate and feeling good about that, but I’m thinking this is the place where God is leading me to meet Him. In my more sane and more spiritual moments I have to admit that I can’t really experience God’s adequacy unless I experience inadequacy in myself. This means I must go against the hype of the self-help movement and go with the hope of finding my adequacy in God.

I know this stuff, I’ve preached it for years. However, I’m still working on the personal application part, you too? Take a deep breath with me, now exhale slowly, and whisper with me, “It’s OK to feel inadequate.”

“For the Lord takes delight in his people; he crowns the humble with victory.” (Psalm 149:4)

Sanctified Stubbornness

turtleshowsmallBeing stubborn is often seen as a negative attribute, but I’m thinking it can be sanctified for good use! I’m further thinking that sanctified stubbornness is good for a pastor’s heart. Words like determination and perseverance are synonyms, but there’s something “edgy” about stubbornness so I’m sticking with it. Even the word itself, with its three sets of double letters (bb,nn,ss), exemplifies and emphasizes its definition!

Pastoral ministry is, to coin a phrase from Eugene Peterson, “a long obedience in the same direction.” I’m thinking of a pastor who served a small rural church part-time several years ago. He had major struggles with a key, longtime leader in the church. From my conversations with my pastor friend I gathered that the troublemaker was getting close to leaving the church, but before that happened my friend resigned. I realize I may not have been aware of all the dynamics playing out in the situation, but it might well have been a situation where the pastor quit too soon.

We’re in a race, as the apostle Paul put it. I’d like to take Paul’s analogy and give it a bit of a different slant. This race, for the pastor, is often a case where the race is between the tortoise and the hare, and we’re the tortoise. A heart committed to the slow and steady running of the race will likely win in the end.

What helps us exhibit this sanctified stubbornness is a profound sense of call from the Lord. We need to determine that until we’re “uncalled” we will continue to carry out our call!

Often, these unholy hassles come from one or two, or no more than a small contingent of people. Why would we allow a small minority of our parishioners to cast the vote for us to stop doing what we believe God has called us to do?

Yes, I believe there’s a place in the pastor’s heart for some sanctified stubbornness! You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised.” (Hebrews 10:36)

Speaking Softly and Carrying a Big Stick

A photo I took directly outside our home here in Mexico of a shepherd taking his flock up the road.

A photo I took directly outside our home here in Mexico of a shepherd taking his flock up the road.

“Speak softly and carry a big stick, was a phrase President Teddy Roosevelt used in a letter in 1900. It was in reference to a philosophy of foreign policy but has been used by many since then in all kinds of situations. From what I understand the meaning is that you should use as gentle and non-aggressive an approach as possible but also have available the power and authority to have your own way if the mild method doesn’t work.

I was a pastor in a Congregational church my entire pastoral career where the people have a major say in what happens, usually expressed by a vote, as to what they, or at least a majority of them, want for the church. I recall many a congregational meeting where I sat in the pew with most of the congregation, tense and anxiously waiting, as a few trusted souls were off in another room counting the paper ballots of the voting members on a crucial issue.

On such occasions, and others too, I found myself wishing I had more authority, more power, so that things would go the way I believed they should. Generally pastors can’t bark out orders; we’re supposed to use a softer, loving, gentler, what could be called a pastoral approach (an approach we know our congregation also is most comfortable with), but the fantasy of being able to carry a big stick (perhaps a cub?) was, nevertheless, often present for me. That’s the fantasy, but the fact is, I know that’s not the way to pastor!

Oh, we pastors are called to carry a big stick, but not a club, rather a staff, the shepherd’s crook. It’s not a stick to clobber people but one to care for people. Sure, sometimes the shepherd flipped it end for end and used the straight end for a club, a rod, but not on the sheep. Used as a rod it was a defensive weapon against the enemies of the flock under his care.

It seems to me that whenever we pastors start thinking about our power, how to guarantee that we have a significant amount of it or lament that we don’t have enough of it, we’re experiencing pastoral slippage, a drifting from our calling.

The people of the church don’t want to see their pastor as being manipulative. Besides, they can easily vote against being manipulated! The people of the church want to trust their pastor, and my experience is that they’re most open to change when the level of trust and a sense of safety is greater than the perceived risks of change. This level of trust and sense of safety ultimately comes from the pastor and, even more specifically, from the pastor’s heart.

That shepherd of sheep and greatest king of Israel, David, penned these poetic words, referring to the Lord as his shepherd, “Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” The “stick” we carry as an under-shepherd of the Great Shepherd is to bring comfort.

As pastors we must guard our hearts from being power hungry. After all, we’re not manipulators but ministers. Yes, we’re to speak softly and carry a big stick, but that big stick is to be the shepherd’s staff!

Eggs and Baskets

eggsbasketsSmallI frequently combine my two interests of photography and writing devotional literature in what I call photovotionals, a photograph of mine upon which I base a devotional thought. Pictured here are two baskets, each containing eggs. It illustrates the old saying, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”

As a grandfather if I wanted to have the help of a grandchild in carrying a dozen eggs I’d enlist the help of two grandchildren and let each carry half of them. I’d have a better chance of enjoying eggs for breakfast; the chances of both children dropping the eggs seems a better risk than letting one child carry them all. I suspect this is the principle behind the practice of the president and vice-president of the United States never flying on the same plane.

A good financial policy is to have a diversified portfolio. If one company or one industry falls on hard times you’re not going to be ruined financially.

It seems to me that the principle of not putting all of our eggs in one basket also applies to those of us in pastoral ministry. Having retired in my 40th year of ministry at one church I can now see, with something close to 20/20 hindsight, that I’m glad I didn’t put all my eggs in the basket of being a pastor. God has blessed me with a great many interests. Throughout my pastoral ministry I also had an active writing ministry. No, I’m not a best selling author, but I wrote a weekly inspirational newspaper column for my hometown paper and a local paper in the area where I served as pastor. Along with my flock of people at the church I served I also enjoyed the hobby of raising a small flock of chickens. I also enjoyed photography, maintaining a decorative fish pond, and ventriloquism.

So much of pastoral ministry seems to be out of our control, and so I found some solace in spending some time in other things over which I felt I could have more control. Although it’s hard to lead a flock of chickens! It’s not that they have their own minds, it’s that they don’t have minds…OK, very tiny ones. I could take the pictures I wanted to, and when it comes to ventriloquism my vent figure Ricky only said what I wanted him to say!

If we as pastors put all of our focus, all of our energy, all of our identity in being a pastor, then we’re setting ourselves up for a devastating experience. We should put our emotional eggs in more than one basket, into many baskets. The Lord Himself should be the biggest basket of all, having a relationship with Him apart from ministering for Him and with Him. If we’re married and have a family we have two more baskets that we should be filling. I believe it’s very good for a pastor to have a sideline ministry; writing was mine. For some pastors the outside ministry might be as a chaplain for a hospital, police force, fire department, nursing home, or as military chaplain as is the case with my successor at the church I served. We tell our congregation that they can minister in many different ways; we can model that for them.

If the basket of pastoral ministry is the only basket into which we put our emotional eggs we can easily end up a basket case! I have found the old adage to be true: don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

The Unknown Pastor

The unknown comic 2The “Unknown Comic” wore a grocery bag over his head with holes cut out for his eyes and mouth. He appeared frequently on the Gong Show. Comic Rodney Dangerfield always lamented he didn’t get any respect, but Murray Langston gets little recognition. That’s the real name of the “unknown comic” which I, of course, didn’t know; after all he’s billed himself as the unknown comic!

It has been said that God must love common people, because He’s made so many. God must also love relatively unknown pastors, because he’s called so many of us to be just that!

This, of course, does not mean we’re unimportant or have little to contribute to God’s kingdom. I know this to be true. But do I really believe this of myself and of other pastors?

It’s time for true confession. If I don’t know the conference speaker, book author, or blogger, in other words, if the person is not famous, I tend to skip the conference session, look for a different book or move on to another blog. Why? Does being well-known give the person the credentials to speak or write truth, and does being a virtual unknown disqualify the person from speaking or writing truth into my life?

The answer is, of course not. What makes it all the more ironic is that I’m one of those virtually unknown pastors and writers. My ministry was never profiled in a major Christian magazine, nor did I lead church conferences. My books and blogs have never hit the stratosphere. (I commend you for reading this blog from an “unknown writer.”)

We need to encourage one another and allow God to speak truth to each of us through each other. Most of us aren’t going to be a disciple like Peter, James, or John. Of the twelve, the one we know the least about is James the Less. We can assume, however, that though he gets no ink in the New Testament pages he carried out his apostolic calling nonetheless. He presumably never wore a paper bag over his head, but he certainly could be called the “unknown apostle.” Perhaps he should be our patron saint!

God and Efficiency

TurtleTimeI’m not convinced God ever calls someone to be an efficiency expert as a profession. OK, maybe I can’t be sure about that, but it does seem to me that God has little interest in efficiency. I see proof of this in His creation.

Look at a maple tree, oak tree, or cottonwood tree and you’ll see seemingly gazillions of whirlybirds, acorns, and flying cottonwood seeds. Sure, there needs to be enough seeds to find the right conditions to produce new trees, but that many? God’s creation is filled with such examples of extravagance. Beauty and diversity are two such huge areas. Why didn’t God stick to making plants and animals with few variations and functionally mundane appearances?

I also see proof of God’s lack of interest in efficiency in the special revelation of the Bible. In all of my years of studying the Bible I can’t recall any passage that shows God to be interested in efficiency or calling His people to efficiency. In other words, if I had to deliver a speech to an audience of efficiency experts, I’d be hard pressed to find a Biblical passage to base it on!

I share all of this because it relates to my experience as a pastor in one place for 39 plus years; in retrospect it seems He called me to “waste time” on many occasions. I believe He frequently called me to spend significant time with people who would never, in my humble estimation, return the investment by being a more active contributor to the church’s life. This does not surprise me. Jesus spent much of His preciously short time of three years of public ministry healing and helping those who are never mentioned again in the New Testament, people who apparently didn’t make a big, measurable mark on the early church. One time Jesus healed a man who was then thrown out of the temple. The Gospel states, Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and when he found him…” (John 9:35) Time on earth was running out for Jesus, and here He goes and traipses after a nondescript guy treated badly by a few others.

Corporations make much of everyone in their employ being efficient. The Kingdom of God is not a corporation. An implication of this fact is that there’s a real danger in taking corporate principles and automatically applying them to the church. We are, after all, pastors, not CEOs. In many ways God’s kingdom is topsy-turvy to how the business world operates; the importance of efficiency is one such area.

Does this mean we’re never to ask ourselves if we’re making wise use of our time? Of course not. Balance is the key. If we can find someone else to move the tables and chairs then it’s probably wise to do so, leaving us time to do that which the movers and shakers of tables and chairs aren’t gifted or called to do. On the other hand, we might have some of our best conversations while we work with our parishioners at setting up a room for a meeting.

For decades I served coffee at our annual fish fries at the church. It offered me countless opportunities to connect with people, especially people who enjoyed the Friday night physical food at the church but didn’t show up for the spiritual food on Sunday. Would I have better served the church by staying in my church office, studying and strategizing during those hours? I don’t think so.

Efficiency may have a place in ministry, but it doesn’t hold the number one place. The top priority is to be open to God’s calling, and that may not always lend itself to efficiency.

“While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head. Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor. And they rebuked her harshly. Leave her alone,said Jesus. Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.‘” (Mark14:3-9)