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.

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The Vindication of Ministry

vindicationWe all know that some people go home from Sunday services and have roasted pastor for dinner. Some people believe that complaining is a spiritual gift! By God’s grace we pastors never hear most of the critical comments people make of us. There are times, however, when we hear it through the grapevine. Then too, there are those memorable times when people criticize us to our face (which is better than behind our back). Sometimes they don’t ask for a private appointment to air their grievances (which is the Biblical way) but choose a time when they have an audience, like at a congregational meeting!

I recall the time when three of the men from my church decided they had to confront me about how I was handling an issue. I’m sure they saw themselves as the three wise men. I, however, saw them as the Three Stoog… OK, that’s not a good direction to go for a person who is continuing to work on his sanctification! Ultimately two out of the three spoke up at the special congregational meeting. They were handed a wireless microphone, which allowed them to pace and roam as they questioned my ability to lead as pastor.

By God’s grace I was able to resist the temptation to defend myself. I sought to follow Jesus’ example and remain silent before my accusers. It was a wise choice. Months later, after reconciliation with one of the men, he told me, “While I was ranting and raving I could see in the people’s eyes that I had lost them.” Actually, again by God’s grace, I was reconciled with all three men, two along with their families returned to the church after leaving for a season, the other man and his family found another church home, but we’ve been cordial with each other when we’ve happened to meet.

I’ve come to believe that when God calls us to a course of action for which we are criticized He does not expect us to defend ourselves. As the apostle Paul writes, Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19)

I’ve learned that I don’t have to defend my ministry. (He who defends himself has a fool for a lawyer!) I seek to hold to the conviction that the Lord will vindicate me. That’s why my prayer when I’m tempted to defend myself echoes the words of the psalmist. The Lord will vindicate me; your love, Lord, endures forever— do not abandon the works of your hands.” (Psalm 138:8)

A number of the psalms speak to this theme of allowing God to vindicate. The entire Psalm 35 focuses on this theme. In a portion of that psalm the writer declares, “Lord, you have seen this; do not be silent. Do not be far from me, Lord. Awake, and rise to my defense! Contend for me, my God and Lord.” (Psalm 35:22-23) Part of the faith we need in ministry is to believe that God will vindicate us!

The Greatest Achievement

Achievement“How’s your church doing?” The question is often asked at church conferences by one pastor of another pastor. It may not always be verbalized, but most pastors are at least thinking the question when in conversation with another pastor.

If we’re honest we pastors have to admit to a twinge of jealousy when we hear of another pastor’s church doing better in some way than our own. If we’re honest we have to admit to a twinge of perverse delight when we hear of another church’s struggle. May God forgive us!

The church culture of our time doesn’t help us here. Church seminars are frequently conducted by mega churches, a superstar pastor, or are by church “experts” who refer to the mega churches as examples and quote the superstar pastors as experts. Images of dynamic churches we see in church magazines are rarely of the smaller church sanctuary with a pastor positioned between the Lord’s table behind him and the pulpit before him. Rather, the images are of a large stage and a multitude of lights casting a rainbow of colors upon a large praise band leading worship before a seemingly endless sea of people. Stories of thriving churches are more often than not stories of growing crowds and expanding buildings led by pastors who are bestselling authors.

Over the years I’ve grappled with what it means to have achieved something great for God as a pastor. Now that I’m retired from the pastoral ministry and looking back from the vantage point of hindsight, my perspective is a little different. The dreams didn’t always come true; the hard work didn’t always pay off the way I expected it to. Could I have done things differently? Yes, but would that have been better? Sometimes I think so, but in many cases I can’t be sure. Hindsight is not always 20/20. At any rate, it is what it is. Thankfully, I can also reflect on many good experiences and lives that were changed over the thirty-nine plus years we were together as a pastor and people. How can I accurately assess what was achieved?

I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t have to assess what was achieved! I’ll leave that to the One whom I serve, and sought to serve all of those years. In one of Jesus’ stores two of three guys who were given their master’s resources (all three received different amounts) were obedient and did something worthwhile with what had been entrusted to them, with differing results. As Jesus told the story, the master gave the same response to the two faithful servants.Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” (Matthew 25:21, 23)

This, then, is what I have come to see as the greatest achievement of pastoral ministry, and of life in general, for that matter: to seek to be faithful and obedient so that by His grace and mercy the Lord will say to me, Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”

When Thomas Hooker, a preacher in the colonial time of our country, was dying a friend said to him that he would soon be going to heaven to receive his reward. Hooker replied, “I go to receive mercy.”

If a sponge’s greatest achievement is to absorb water, then my greatest achievement is to absorb the grace and mercy of God, articulated in His “well done” for me. I seek to live for Him and to serve Him knowing that this affirmation from Him already is a done deal. Any measurement of my achievements is irrelevant in the face of His immeasurable grace toward me. My greatest achievement is the acceptance of His grace!

A Heart of Humility

We’re living part of the time at Refuge Ranch in Mexico, the home of our daughter and her family. Recently a pastor’s conference was being held near Refuge Ranch so we were hosts for about a dozen pastors and their families for an afternoon and evening.

I’ve been reflecting recently on what role(s) the Lord would have for me in my new stage of life commonly called retirement. I’ve thought that, perhaps, one such role is as a mentor to other pastors. Perhaps this gathering of pastors would offer such an opportunity, I thought. True, most of them only spoke Spanish and I only speak English, but I knew one of the key pastors, an American, was fluent in both languages. I envisioned him saying something like this to the other pastors: “Dave has just finished spending nearly forty years of pastoral ministry in one church. I’ve invited him to share some of his thoughts with us and then he can answer any questions you have.” It didn’t turn out that way.

The pastors and their families enjoyed a meal of grilled beef, prepared by our son-in-law Victor. After the meal they all gathered in the house to hear our grandchildren share a worship song, with some of our grandchildren providing musical accompaniment with guitar, violin and tambourine and our daughter, their mother, accompanying on the piano.

The Zaragoza children singing with their mom, Julie

The Zaragoza children singing with their mom, Julie (our daughter)

Dirty plates and silverware had piled up. My wife Diann and I knew that our daughter, who was enjoying conversation and fellowship with the pastors’ wives, would, after the guest had left, end up doing dishes late into the evening. We did what any self-respecting set of parents would do; we started doing the dishes.

With the house filled with the pastors and their families, their attention focused on the Zaragoza children sharing their song, I found myself, with my back to the scene, washing dishes at the kitchen sink. It occurred to me that my role that evening had turned out quite different than I had envisioned. Instead of serving the Lord by sharing the wealth of my wisdom with the pastors I was washing their dirty dishes! Though I resisted the thought at first, I came to realize that this was the Lord’s calling for me that evening.

The experience brings to mind something Brother Lawrence (1611-1691) wrote, a monk who washed dishes in a monastery. “In my kitchen’s noise and clatter, while several people are all calling for different things, I possess God just as peacefully as if I were on my knees at the altar, ready to take communion.” Yes, I was serving God as much by washing dishes as I would have if sharing profound insights with those pastors. In fact, I was serving the Lord more effectively at the sink, because this was obviously His calling for me for the moment. I’m not saying I fully embraced the concept, for it was a humbling experience and being humbled is hardly ever a fun experience.

The pastors and their families

The pastors and their families

My dish washing ministry that night prompted my recollection of another experience I had in Florida a few months earlier. We had just retired from pastoral ministry and moved to Florida to live part-time near our son and his family, who had moved their from Indianapolis to help plant a church. My wife and I decided it was the Lord’s call for us to lend our support to the church plant. What role would I play in helping to plant a church after having spent a lifetime pastoring an established church?

After we had been part of this new church plant for about two months there came a Sunday when a number of ministry people were gone. I ended up filling one of the vacant ministry positions, being the parking lot greeter! Wearing an orange vest I waved at the folks as they drove in and gave them a hearty “Good morning!” as they walked from their cars to the school where the church was holding services. As I stood on the parking lot, wearing my orange vest and waiting for the next car to arrive, I thought to myself, “This is what it has come to.” A few weeks earlier I had enjoyed the attention, affection, and love of several hundred people as they struggled with saying good-by to their pastor of nearly forty years. They listened carefully to my every word, some of my last words for them, sometimes with tears in their eyes. What an experience! Now, here I was, just a few weeks later, a parking lot greeter!

Of all the new adventures the Lord could send me on as a newly retired pastor He has plotted out for me an inward journey, a journey into being humbled. I’ve titled this blog A PASTOR’S HEART and what I’m learning is that having a humble heart is a big part of having a true pastor’s heart. It’s easy, as a pastor, to take the position, the attention of the people, the responsibility, and (at least occasionally) the praise too seriously. Pride can keep us from being truly productive for Him. We can be so full of our self that we have little of Christ to share; I’m convinced it’s an occupational hazard of pastoral ministry. The truth is the Lord seems to be able to work best through those who have been humbled.

The problem is that any effort to be humble is a journey with a slippery slope, for the moment we think we’ve acquired a bit of humility, we’ve just slipped and lost it! My goal, I’ve determined, should not be humility but an acceptance of the humbling situations the Lord brings my way, including washing the dirty dishes of pastors and being a church parking lot greeter!

Grumbling Stomach, Grumbling Soul

stormIt’s embarrassing to have your stomach grumble in public, that’s why church potlucks are so important, they help keep that from happening! I got to thinking recently that not only can my stomach grumble but often my soul grumbles too!

I grumble about the people I serve in my church. I grumble about the people who I think should be attending and aren’t. I have caught myself grumbling about serving God in a small way in an out of the way place (my perception of my situation).

While working on a sermon recently I was reminded of the seriousness of the sin of grumbling (sometimes I don’t even consider it a sin). The Israelites who were led out of slavery in Egypt never survived the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness and had to leave possession of the promised land to their descendants. The reason? God told them, “In this desert your bodies will fall – every one of you twenty years old or more who was counted in the census and who has grumbled against me.” (Numbers 14:29)

When I think of the times I’ve succumbed to grumbling I realize that frequently it’s a disguised complaint against God. My grumbling is ingratitude for something in my circumstances that’s a part of my calling.

So, I confess as sin my grumbling. I also rejoice in God’s grace and goodness toward me even when I’ve allowed my soul to grumble!