Clueless Clergy

mr_magooIt was a congregation of about 15 people in the assisted living dining hall turned sanctuary. I wasn’t the preacher, but was a member of the congregation, along with my wife, her three siblings, their mother (my mother-in-law), and the three other in-laws. Along with us nine, there were about six residents of the facility in attendance. Our family was with Mom, one of the residents, because her husband had passed away a couple of days earlier, and we had all gathered for the coming funeral.

The preacher was the pastor of the Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church from nearby Hardwick, Minnesota. His wife played the piano as he led us in worship. The pastor was clueless to the fact that seven of the children and in-laws (excluding me) were musicians of one kind or another, all read music and sing in four-part harmony. To say the least, the family added a great deal to the congregational singing that Sunday afternoon, a virtual choir singing before the pastor as he stood behind the lectern. It was to his benefit that he was also clueless that there were two ordained ministers in the small congregation (me and my brother-in-law). I wouldn’t have wanted to know such a fact before the service if I were in his place.

He preached a great message. It was about having trust in God for this life and hope in heaven for the life to come. It was right on! Then, as an example, he said, “God is there for a wife who’s lost her husband and has four adult children who all live at a distance.” Okay, I thought, one of the family members must have had a conversation with him before the service and so he knew the circumstances of the extended family before him. I found out after the service that such was not the case! He was clueless, but he had nailed it with his example, not knowing that my mother-in-law had just lost her husband and that all four of her adult children lived at a distance! Amazing!

This experience was just another reminder to me that we pastors are often clueless as to how God is using our ministry. We pray about what we should preach and how best to minister, asking for God’s direction and help; then give it our best shot. We often wonder afterward if we hit the mark, if we’ve impacted people much at all. Sure, people sometimes say nice things but, really, did we make a difference?

It seems to me that we’re much like the cartoon character Mr. Magoo, only the opposite. Nearly blind Mr. Magoo meandered through his day oblivious to barely missing serious injury and death while leaving chaos and destruction behind him. We minister Magoos meander through our ministry and, by the grace of God, are often oblivious to the blessings God scatters in the path behind our pastoring. We are clueless clergy, and it’s by God’s design that we are!

Camping Beneath the Cross

crossnailsskysmallRecently I spoke at a gathering where funds were being raised for a local mission. I was among eight or so pastors who were to give a two-minute inspirational message between songs. I soon discovered that most of the pastors were from traditions where preaching is very emotional and energetic. The first speaker was Lutheran, so she was more my style. I was number seven, with five more before me and one after me. By preacher number four, I knew that my preaching would be, shall we say, very, very low-key by comparison. Each of them really worked up a sweat when they were preaching. It seemed like a preach-a-thon. My wife Diann, seated beside me, later told me that if she had been me she would have gotten up and said, “Excuse me; I don’t feel well, and I need to leave.”

Then it was my turn, and I spoke. I wanted to stop mid-sentence and remind the audience, “I really am excited, even though it doesn’t appear that way.” Another dynamic preacher followed me to wrap things up in grand style. I felt like I was the intermission!

The next morning on my prayer walk, I reflected on the evening. I got to thinking that they were all trying to outdo each other and that I was glad I was just being myself. Then the parable of Jesus came to mind where a Pharisee and a tax collector were praying. The Pharisee prayed that he was glad that he wasn’t like the others, especially the tax collector. I got the message: I had no right to judge the motives of those other pastors. Maybe they weren’t trying to outdo each other; maybe it was just the way they preach. I was thinking like the Pharisee, and I had to ask the Lord to forgive me. I’m not sure that my motive was all that pure by the time I got into the pulpit, trying to show them I could deliver a message without breaking into a sweat!

I’m continually in need of God’s gracious forgiveness! The cross of Christ I preach is a cross I need all the time. I have set up camp beneath the cross!

Each Sermon Better Than The One Before?

preacher“Pastor, your sermon today was the best I think I’ve ever heard you preach.” I receive such a compliment with mixed feelings. Yes, I’m glad the person got so much out of the message. On the other hand, I don’t want to be preaching to impress people. I’m also immediately prompted to think, “So does that mean I have to top this week’s message next week?” That’s pressure I don’t want to have to live with.

True, I want to continue to grow as a proclaimer of God’s Word. I hope I’m better at the task this year than I was last year, and that I’ll be better at it next year compared to this year. However, I’ve had to guard myself from the trap of trying to make each sermon better than the last one – it’s unsustainable.

The reality is that a great sermon to one parishioner is just an average sermon to another parishioner. Everyone is different, at a different place in their spiritual walk, and God speaks to everyone differently.

I want every message I deliver to be good, but I’m not necessarily aiming at it being better than last week’s (unless I feel I really bombed). We try to prepare tasty and nutritious meals in our home, but I don’t remember what we had for dinner a week ago Tuesday, though the food was nourishment for our bodies. I don’t expect my parishioners to remember every sermon I preach (I sure don’t), but my prayer is that I’m providing consistent spiritual nourishment.

I want to take the apostle Paul’s admonition to the young pastor Timothy to heart. “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction.” (2 Timothy 4:2) Faithful, not flashy, preaching is what I want to aim for.

Preach What You Know

soapbox_preacher_originalI’ve been to several writer’s conferences and have read a number of books on writing. One suggestion that’s frequently given is to write about what you know. That’s why my novel Kathryn’s Fountain needed little research and why I was able to get into my characters’ heads.

Kathryn, the novel’s main character, is an elderly woman who lives in an assisted living facility that’s an old Victorian-styled house. As a pastor I’ve visited countless elderly people like Kathryn. The facility in which I had Kathryn live was inspired by a real house of an historic nature transformed into an assisted living facility in which one of my elderly parishoners lived. I wrote about what I knew.

I’ve discovered the value of adopting the writer’s adage to preaching: to preach about what I know. By this I mean I must have experienced the sermon impacting my own life before I can expect it to impact the lives of those to whom I’m called to deliver it. I must be my own congregation of one to whom the message is first delivered.

Every so often someone tells me that they have a sermon they’d like to preach. Usually they’re not serious. What they mean is that they have something to say that they think others should hear. They don’t really want to speak from behind a pulpit but on a soapbox.

I have come to understand after 38 years of preaching that if I’m picturing a certain person in the congregation who needs to hear the message, I’m preaching with the wrong motive, attempting to straighten someone out. I’m preaching from a bully pulpit, trying to deliver a message to a person in a public setting instead of talking to them privately. It’s the coward’s way, because I find it easier to confront a crowd than to confront one person. And more often than not, that person isn’t in the congregation that day!

I have also come to realize that my best sermons are those with which I have grappled most on a personal and often painful level during the preparation. No one should get more out of the sermon than me! As the Lord’s under-shepherd I must first let Him lead me on the path of righteousness for His name’s sake before I can lead His people to green pastures and still waters.

“I took the little scroll from the angel’s hand and ate it. It tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach turned sour.” (Revelation 10:10)

God’s Word — Professional Use vs Private Use

BibleOpen“That’ll preach” I’m tempted to think when I’ve gained some fresh insight from a Biblical text. Therein lies the danger of preachers reading their Bibles; we can come to see scripture primarily as a tool for carrying out the task of preaching. Yes, it’s that, the crucial tool we use in preaching, but I regularly have to remind myself it’s to be so much more.

When my primary motivation for opening up the Bible is to find a message to deliver to the people then I’m using it professionally and not personally. I have a need to go first to the Bible as a person, not as a parson. The Bible must speak to me before I can expect God to use me as an instrument through which His Word can speak to His people.

I find it helpful to have a separate time and place to read God’s Word from when I study it for sermon preparation. For me, this means opening up God’s Word early in the morning and at home, away from my office and the commentaries.

I also have to approach God’s Word differently. It requires me to read it devotionally. The ancients called this lectio divina. My reading should have a personally directed prayer in the background, “Lord, what would you have me see, understand, and apply to my life from this Word of Yours?”

Perhaps this personal, devotional approach as over against an in-depth study is like the two different ways you can come to know a frog. You can dissect a dead frog in a biology lab, learning about all it’s inner parts, or you can observe a living frog on a lily pad, discovering and appreciating what a frog’s life is like.

I’m not putting down a scholarly and thoughtful study of God’s Word. We proclaimers of the Holy Scriptures need this discipline as a regular part of our preparation to preach. What I am suggesting is that we first need to read God’s Word for ourselves.

What are your thoughts on this? How do you differentiate your private and public use of God’s Word?

Letting Some Time Pass

While on my recent personal retreat at a monastery in Iowa, I read a lot and attempted to process it during my prayer walks. As I was reading a book I began to think, “this will preach,” but then caught myself. I have a habit of doing this, of gaining an insight and quickly thinking how I can do a sermon on the subject, or maybe even a sermon series.

I realized that I needed to let God speak to me, for the sake of my relationship with Him. By immediately thinking of how I could use the insight in my ministry I professionalized it before I had fully personalized it.

I got to thinking how many things need to be processed or aged before they can be used. Lumber can’t be used straight from the forest but must be dried. Grapes, too, need to be given time to dry if you want raisins. Concrete needs time to set before you start walking on it or building on it. Yeast in bread dough has to be given time to ferment and make the bread rise. Tea needs to steep.

I need to give an idea, a concept, an insight from God time to work in me, for me to process it and apply it for myself, before I share it with others. Sharing with others that which has not had adequate time to work in me both short changes what it can do for me and what it can do for those with whom I share it.

Speak to me, Lord, and give me the patience to let your Word brew, steep, ferment, and marinate in me. Help me keep a good distance between the hearing and the speaking.

Preaching from The Soul

I came across this verse in my morning reading.  I thought it very appropriate for those of us who pastor a church.

“Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell what he has done for my soul.” (Psalm 66:16)

Our preaching, at least to some measure, needs to be autobiographical.  We can’t take God’s Word and run it only through our mind before we deliver it to those we serve.  We also must let the scripture flow through our heart and soul.