LEADERSHIP LESSON NO. 37–“Get Humble and Stay That Way.”

Humility is not putting yourself down. It’s seeing yourself as you really are. It’s not thinking, “How small I am.” It’s not thinking of yourself at all.

What appears to some as humility may be inferiority. Think of the wallflower at the dance who pulls into her shell, makes eye contact with no one, and sits there moping, “No one likes me. No one wants to dance with me.” The truth is, she’s the most egotistical person in the hall. The belle of the ball, the young lady who is charming everyone by her dazzling smile and sunny personality, is the very opposite: she’s not preoccupied with herself at all. She’s thinking of others, and they are responding to her attention.

For some reason the ministry seems to attract more than its share of not-very-humble persons. I suppose it has to do with the fact that they are “performing.” People are sitting in pews and looking up to them, and it goes to their heads. Poor things. If they only knew.

I’ve been in pastors offices where the walls were literally covered with plaques and framed certificates. The office was a shrine to the minister. I’ve seen ministers receive doctorates, then change every sign in the building to reflect their new status, and make sure the secretary never misses an opportunity to add his new title to his name.

Read a pastor’s resume when you get a chance. Or an evangelist–they tend to be even worse. Notice the ones that are quick to cover themselves in the glory of large pastorates or successful revivals or books published or other awards. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.

These are our spiritual leaders, the ones sent to teach character and integrity to the rest of us.

There are so many reasons to be humble and so many temptations not to.

Judging from his epistles, the Apostle Paul had to deal with the problem of arrogance and pride in the various churches where he served. In his letter to the church at Corinth, he took on those who were “arrogant in behalf of one against the other.” Think of the way high school or colleges promote their football teams and put down their opponents; that’s what was happening in Corinth.

Paul asks these boastful believers three questions:

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We Each Have Our Battles

My friend Xena used to ride her motorcycle to church, then call me the next week. “I don’t know what I’m doing in that ritzy church,” she would say. “Surrounded by all those women wearing their furs and me in my denims.”

Usually I would assure her that she was an important part of our congregation and that we would be much poorer without her, but once I tried a different approach.

“I saw where you were sitting Sunday morning, Xena. It might interest you to know that on the row behind you, that handsome well-dressed couple just buried their only son. He was in the Air Force and was killed when his trainer crashed. And on the same row as you, that family is battling alcoholism. An older lady a couple of rows in front of you is facing bankruptcy. Everyone around you was in church because they were hurting and needed the comfort only the Heavenly Father can give.”

“Thanks. I needed that,” Xena said.

Someone has said that everyone you know is either in a crisis, just coming out of one, or about to experience one.

You cannot look at their exterior appearance and tell. I had a reminder of that Sunday morning at Riverside Baptist Church down the street a mile from my home.

Toward the end of the worship service, Joe Marsh asked the pastor if he could say a word about the church’s Celebrate Recovery program. He rose from the pew behind me, walked to the front and stunned everyone with his testimony. Later, I asked for the privilege of sharing his story. After you read it (which I have edited slightly), I’ll give you my own little tale of woe, one I’ve never mentioned on these pages.

“I’m Joe Marsh. Those who look at me see a normal guy. I grew up in church, surrendered to the ministry at 17, and have been a grad student in seminary for 18 months. I’m 6 feet 1 inch and weigh 195. People who look at me have no idea what struggles I have in my personal life.”

“I am an overeater.”

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LEADERSHIP LESSON NO. 36–“Speak Well But Don’t Overtalk”

The number one tool in the leadership kit is words.

Opening our mouth, we utter sounds which others recognize as meaningful words and which we hope to have arranged in such a way as to inspire, instruct, and encourage, and once in a while rebuke. That’s a pretty hefty order for something as simple as words, but we’ve all seen people do it. We remember Churchill’s words in 1940 and Martin Luther King’s words in 1963 and we thrill at the power of speech well-chosen and powerfully delivered.

I’d like to do that, we all think to ourselves. We imagine the effect of speaking just the right words and watching lives change before our eyes.

If the number one tool in the leader’s kit is words, I daresay the number one failing of leaders, and especially the preacher-kind-of-leaders, is overtalking. It’s not that we did not use some great words in our talks, our sermons or our prayers; it’s that we surrounded those wonderful words with so many other words that we ended up devaluing their worth and weakening their impact.

Ask one of us preachers a question and 15 minutes later, we pause for breath and ask, “What was the question again?”

Shame on us.

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This Christmas Season

As Rosanna Rosannadanna said, “It’s always something.”

My niece Deanna’s house burned down Friday night. She lives a city block from my Mom, but Mom slept through the fire trucks that finally extinguished the blaze. She lost everything.

Fires are not unknown in our family. Until the death of my brother Charlie in 2006 and our father’s death on November 3, 2007, the most defining event in our family was the burning of our house in February of 1954. It came when all 6 children were still living at home and a month after Dad had lost his job. Twenty or more years later, Charlie’s house burned.

We know all too well the pain caused by such things. Deanna has health problems too and frankly, this was the last thing she needed. We will appreciate our friends praying for her.

I’m about to do something here I never do: tell you what we’ve been doing, where we went, and such.

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Homes for the Holidays

The big controversy raging in our city these days has to do with the planned demolition of five shuttered housing projects to make room for planned multi-level-income housing. No one is neutral on the subject and everyone has “the truth”.

We need housing for the poor. The test of any society is how it takes care of its poor. We have to get the homeless out of the parks and off the streets. Demolish those projects and you will multiply the number of homeless in New Orleans. Save those buildings.

Those projects were breeding grounds for crime and violence. They provided sanctuary for drug pushers and a haven for gangs. We do no favor to the poor of our city when we relegate them into the saddest accommodations on the planet where they will be victimized by the ruthless and terrorized by the ungodly. Tear down those buildings.

The New Orleans City Council is on the spot and has to make the ultimate call. Citizens on both sides of this issue are bombarding council members with emails, phone calls, letters, and visits.

One council member shared some of the emails she is receiving with the Times-Picayune, and they were printed in Sunday’s edition.

Beth Pesses is a nurse at Charity Hospital. “For 32 years I have served the poor in our community. I have wiped their tears, bandaged their wounds and prepared their bodies for the morgue. Very few people have more empathy for the poor in our society than Charity nurses. But the housing projects are not the answer… The combination of asbestos, lead paint and violence are three community health issues that nurses are interested in on an international level. But nurses need their leaders to back them up. We need our leaders to stand up to those who are demanding, some through violent means, to reopen these unhealthy environments. We look to our leaders to use their knowledge and expertise to make the RIGHT decision and not just the most popular one.”

Erin O. Stopak is with Talbot Realty Group. “My wife and I are very politically active New Orleanians, and understand y’all are in a ‘no-win’ situation in regard to the tear down of public housing units. Whatever or however you choose to vote will anger somebody. Please know that myself, family, and friends all want what is best for the future of this city, and most importantly fair to former public housing residents displaced by Katrina. PLEASE DO NOT BLOCK THE TEARDOWN OF ANY PUBLIC HOUSING UNITS!!!!!!!! Katrina was a horrific event, but has given us the chance to rebuild our city correctly, and break the cycles of poverty (which) trapped so many of our residents for generations.”

Then, two on the opposite side of the issue.

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Christians Should Choose Their Fights Carefully

“A dog can whip a skunk,” the old-timer said, “but it just ain’t worth it.”

Some fights ought to be called off; they’re not worth the trouble and if you win them, you haven’t got much.

Just north of New Orleans lies the bedroom community of Slidell. Earlier this year, the courthouse there became ground zero for a contest between the ACLU and the political establishment as well as the religious right, all because of a picture of Jesus hanging on the wall. Defenders of the picture spoke of the Lord’s being our Lawgiver, of the debt our society owes to Him, as well as the worthiness of the painting from the standpoint of art and antiquity. The ACLU, to no one’s surprise, wanted it down, period. They said the picture was violating the well-known rule against blending religion and public life in a pluralistic society like ours.

The courts got involved and were equally divided. Then, as the ACLU folks fumed and threatened, the Slidell people did something rather brilliant. They left the picture up, but added some more. I’m not sure who’s images are now adorning the wall in addition to the first one, but presumably they were founders of other religions and other noted lawgivers.

Just like that, the furor died down and the controversy went away.

This Christmas season, like the last several, we’ve been treated to the spectre of Christians speaking out against greetings which omit “Merry Christmas” in favor of “Happy Holidays” or the like. Now, I’m a conservative, almost-but-not-quite-right-winger–the type who would love to have Mike Huckabee as president, for example–but I am really amazed at this controversy.

It’s probably not necessary to remind my brothers and sisters in Christ that this season of the year is not just for Christians. Everyone has the same calendar and every sect in the world has its own celebrations. In America at this time, the Jews have Hanukkah and our African-American friends have Kwanzaa.

Frankly, that’s fine with me, although…

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My Favorite Christmas Verse

“Unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:11)

It should go without saying that the angels from Heaven know a lot more than you or I do. And when Jesus was born in Bethlehem and they brought the announcement to the shepherds on a dark hillside nearby, they identified Jesus as “a Savior.” Check any dictionary and you’ll find the obvious: the word means “one who saves.”

I once pastored a church which used to have a blue neon sign out front which beamed out the message JESUS SAVES. They took it down in the 1950s, I think, but have never asked anyone the reason. I think I know. People are embarrassed by that message. Erect it on the front of a church building, and immediately people think you are a bunch of holy rollers or religious nuts. And since we all want to appear dignified and respectful, they took it off the building and probably sent it to the trash heap.

Read a thousand Christmas messages–cards, advertisements, songs, sermons–and you’ll find very few dealing with the salvation aspect of Jesus’ coming to earth. And yet, according to the angels, that was the whole point of His coming! He came to save us.

In fact, that’s what His very name means. “You shall call his name Jesus for He shall save His people from their sins,” the angel Gabriel had told Joseph (Matthew 1:21). The literal meaning of ‘Jesus’ is something like ‘The Lord saves.’

All of which begs the question: SAVED FROM WHAT? And to what? The New Testament is filled with answers to both questions, and I’ll let you do your own spadework on that. But in essence, it tells us we are saved from ourselves, from our sins, from the penalty for our sins, from this perverse generation, and such. We are saved to new purpose in this life, to Heaven in the life to come, and to all the plans and promises of God.

I hate to argue with Christmas cards–they can be so beautiful and inspiring–but Jesus did not come to bring peace on earth according to His own words (Matthew 10:34). He did not come to make everyone feel good about themselves or the human situation. He did not come to bless religion or to tell everyone they are loved and beautiful in God’s sight. He came to save us.

That’s what His death on the cross was all about. It was the culmination of the very purpose for His appearance in the first place. A gospel song about His death puts it like this: ‘Don’t feel sorry for my Jesus; He did exactly what He came to do.’

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Wondering About Christmas

“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night.”

Have you ever wondered what those shepherds and their flocks were doing outside in the open in the dead of night? How many sermons have we heard over the years describing how shepherds put their sheep inside the shelter at night, and then lay down across the door opening, giving illustration to our Lord’s teaching that “I am the door of the sheep.” (John 10)

Some writers say shepherds in that part of the world kept their sheep outside from March through November. Maybe that’s the reason. I wonder.

Have you ever wondered if there were other shepherds in nearby fields at the same time? And why only these shepherds were chosen as the earthly audience for the very first Christmas pageant ever, and this one the standard by which to judge all the succeeding ones?

Is it because only these shepherds were available? We do know that God puts a high prize on availability, more than on ability itself.

Were these shepherds the only people available?

“And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid.”

I guess they were afraid. I would have been frightened out of my wits.

Have you ever wondered what that scene looked like? And if other people in other fields could see this heavenly vision? Would they have seen a bright light in the sky coming from the acreage these particular shepherds had staked out? Or would they have seen nothing at all, even had they been nearby?

“And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not. For behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.’

Fear not. Oh yeah. Easy for you to say, angel.

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LEADERSHIP LESSON NO. 35–“Humor is Good; Don’t Overdo It.”

I was 27 years old with a new seminary degree and ready to take on the world. We had driven up from the bayou country of Louisiana to Greenville, Mississippi, to visit Emmanuel Baptist Church for a trial weekend. If we liked them and they liked us and if we all agreed God was “in this,” then I would become their new pastor.

I had pastored two small churches before, but this was my first “trial weekend.” Those are well named, incidentally, for they are trials for everyone concerned. That’s why I did what I did that Sunday morning.

I told three jokes at the sermon time.

During the worship service, someone introduced Margaret and our small boys and presented me. I walked to the pulpit, smiled at the expectant congregation, and opened my mouth to speak. Up until then, I had done fine.

First. “This is my first time to preach in Mississippi. I’m delighted to be here, and particularly glad to see you’re all wearing shoes.”

Okay, not a joke, but I meant it as one. They actually laughed, which was all I wanted. They knew I was teasing them about the reputation for backwardness Mississippi has.

Second. “Preaching here today–and you and I looking each other over–reminds me of the country preacher who was in the same situation I’m in today. He looked out at the congregation and said, ‘There is a powerful lot of wonderin’ goin’ on here today. You are wonderin’ if I can preach, and I am wonderin’ if you know good preachin’ when you hear it!'”

Again, it got some laughter. It’s not a knee-slapper, but a pleasant bit of humor. Up until now, I was okay. This was the time to move into the sermon. But I didn’t. I had another joke, the best one yet.

Third. “Flip Wilson (African-American comedian everyone was familiar with in 1967) was portraying a Black preacher in this same situation on his television program. You know how the congregation answers the preacher in their churches. He looked out at the people and said, ‘If I’s called to be pastor of this church, this church is going to WALK!’ The people called back, ‘Let ‘er walk, boy, let ‘er walk!'”

“The preacher said, ‘If I’s called to be pastor of this church, this church is going to RUN!’ They said, ‘Let ‘er run, boy, let ‘er run!'”

“The preacher said, ‘If I’s called to be pastor of this church, this church is going to FLY!’ They said, ‘Let ‘er fly, boy, let ‘er fly.'”

“The preacher said, ‘If this church is going to fly, it’s going to take money!’ They said, ‘Let ‘er walk, boy, let ‘er walk.'”

(Hope I don’t offend anyone by printing the joke in dialect, but that’s how he said it and it’s the only way to tell it. The teller has to raise his voice in the appropriate places to make it work, too.)

It is a funny story. They laughed, and finally I went into my sermon. Oddly, I have long ago forgotten what the sermon was about, but will never forget those three little jokes. The reason I remember is what happened afterward.

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