Dear Pastor: Expect Scars

Earlier this year, one of my first sensations on driving the new Camry home from the dealer was how pristine the windshield was. No nicks, no dents, no dried bugs. None of the stuff you get with cars that traveled a few thousand miles across city streets and country highways.

Now, four months and quite a few thousand miles later, that windshield is beginning to look like all the others I’ve stared through and lived with.

There is a way to keep a windshield unflicked (is that a word?). Park it in the garage and leave it there. Never take it outside.

There’s a tiny dent with white paint (the car is a bright red) on one door where some thoughtless person in another car opened a door against it.

It happens. I was expecting it, although I admit I was dreading it.

Real life is this way. If you get out in the world, you get nicked up and dented and even scarred. If you get involved with where people are and attempt to move them to where they ought to be, you will occasionally come home at night with bruises and the occasional black eye and bloody nose.

A friend who left the pastorate to become the director of missions (my former ministry) with the Baptist churches in a Gulf Coast county wrote recently to say no sooner had he unpacked his boxes than he had to mediate a situation between a pastor and a church. The pastor was being forced out and the DOM worked with the church leadership to arrange an appropriate severance package.

I observed that sooner or later, if he does this enough, both sides will turn on him. He was unfair, he was partial to the other side, he is unworthy to call himself a Christian, let alone a minister, he is no friend.

The minister should expect it; don’t be blind-sided; it happens.

The same day the DOM’s note arrived, a pastor in another state emailed asking for prayer. He and his deacon chairman were visiting a wayward deacon who has ended his marriage for another woman in the church, and nothing about this confrontation bodes well.

No one said it was going to be fun.

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Obeying Regardless

She was as poor as anyone in our church. A single parent–probably never married and only recently born into God’s family–she was bringing up three small children without the assistance of any extended family member that I could see. She was a hard worker and impressed all of us by her sincerity, while touching our hearts by her poverty.

That morning, my wife had brought this young mother and her children to church, and now, after the services, was driving them home.

All of a sudden, in the middle of their conversation, without reference to anything they had been talking about or anything in the sermon that day, she said, “Mrs. Margaret, I know I need to start tithing my income to the Lord. I can’t afford it of course. I don’t make enough to get by as it is.”

She was quiet a moment, then said, “But I’ve decided. I’m just going to do it regardless.”

When my wife told me what she had said, all the bells went off inside me. “That’s it!” something said. “That’s what the Christian life is all about! Serving the Lord regardless. Regardless of all the reasons you find not to do it, regardless of what others say, regardless of what you don’t have and regardless of your own fears and doubts. You go forward and do it anyway.”

The more I thought of it, the more I decided we can redefine faith this way: doing the right thing regardless.

THINK OF BARTIMAEUS, the blind beggar of Jericho. (Mark 10 and Luke 18) He hears that Jesus of Nazareth is passing by and he begins to clamor to meet him.

“Jesus! Son of David! Have mercy on me!”

He’s hollering now. This beggar, who has sat there as long as anyone can remember, always quiet and humble and submissive, now becomes persistent and insistent and loud.

“Jesus! Over here! Son of David, have mercy on me!”

People try to shush him. “Mister, can you hold it down. We are trying to honor our distinguished Friend today and the last thing we need is a blind beggar creating a ruckus.”

But the more they tried to silence him, the louder Bartimaeus called, “Jesus! Jesus! Son of David! Have mercy!”

When the Lord came within earshot, He stopped. “Who is that?” Someone said, “Oh, Lord, we have this blind beggar over here and he’s calling for you.”

“Bring him to me,” the Lord said.

And He healed him. Just like that. Sweet and simple. A complete lack of dramatics. No slapping him on the head, no slaying him in the Spirit. The Lord just said, “All right, be healed.” And he was.

There is faith. You can search Scripture and not find a finer demonstration of faith than the one the blind beggar of Jericho gave us that day: against opposition and discouragement, he called on Jesus until the Lord heard him and answered his prayer.

They could have given Bartimaeus a long list of reasons why he should not call on the Lord that day, such as: you’re dirty, you’re unpresentable, you’re unlearned, you are a beggar, you are not worthy, you don’t know your Bible, you don’t know how to address a person of His eminence, you have no offering to give, nothing in your hand to bring.

All those things were true. But he came to Jesus regardless.

Why don’t you come to Jesus that way? No matter what others say, no matter what kind of discouragement you may receive from your family or friends. Regardless of your fears and without giving in to your doubts.

Use your faith. Do the right thing. Come to Jesus.

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It’s About Jesus, All of It

In another city, I dropped in on a church near the hotel for their Sunday morning worship service. The church belonged to a denomination that is unapologetically liberal, so I was not surprised by anything. But there is one thing about such congregations and their leadership that always amazes me.

I’m continually surprised at how thoroughly they leave Jesus out of things.

We use the same Bible, so it’s not like we’re reading from different texts.

We’re working from the same blueprint, so it’s not like we have different architects.

And we all call ourselves Christian.

But how in the world two groups of people who read the same Bible and call themselves disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ can come up with such disparate renditions of the Christian faith is beyond me.

The way I read the Bible, everything there is about Jesus. Not some of it, all of it. Not the major portion, but every blessed thing in there in one way or the other points to Jesus.

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What Football Teaches Us

We who are fans only of college or professional football have no idea what it must be like to walk out onto the field at game time.

Growing up, most of us played the game at some level. We’re used to the green expanse stretching before us and the guys on the other team facing us. But there’s one thing we never saw that is a powerful element in the game played by the big boys.

There are a jillion fans sitting all around them.

Think of it. On your field of vision as you exit the locker room is a sliver of green which is the playing field. But filling 90 percent of your eyeballs is a stadium filled with raving, cheering, expectant fans. When the ball is thrown into the air, the backdrop is the fans. When it’s kicked, the player has to pick the ball out of a mural of fans.

That’s the part of the game I cannot imagine. I have little trouble imagining the running, throwing, hitting, blocking, catching parts of the game. But what a difference it must make for a player to be the object of 75 thousand fans, all screaming for him to make it or break it, to catch it or miss it. He’s cheered, he’s booed, he’s a goat, he’s a hero.

I’m thinking of the time Rex Ryan, coach of the NFL’s New York Jets, gave the game ball (signifying their leading role in a victory) to the fans who helped his team to a rare win over the New England Patriots. The previous week, Ryan had sent a voice mail to every season-ticket holder calling on them to “be there and be loud” at the game.

It worked. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady admitted he had trouble being heard when calling signals to his players. At one point, twice in a row the referees threw the penalty flag on Brady’s team for getting out of sync.

Pastors know the difference the congregation makes.

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Weekend New Orleans Things

For a long time, we were beginning to think the First Baptist Church of Chalmette, just below New Orleans, would never finish with their rebuilding. Hurricane Katrina had ruined their facilities and they were razed. New plans were made and volunteers came in by the thousands to help construct the plant. Finally, this weekend, this church is having an open house and a dedication.

Today, Saturday, I spent several hours at their open house sketching people and listening to the oohs and ahhs from those taking the tours. It’s a lovely building and I am beyond excited for Pastor John Jeffries and his people.

I said to one member, “I know you’re tired of meeting in Chalmette High School.” She hesitated. “They are the sweetest people in the world to us. But we’re ready to be here and I know they’re ready to see us go.”

Almost every Facebook friend I have has been commenting today on various football games this weekend. I’m a fan, but these days have a hard time sitting down to watch a complete game. I thought of a great line from Scripture, however, in the pyschological give-and-take that has been going on between the teams and fans of the Universities of Tennessee and Florida.

First year coach Lane Kiffin of Tennessee had commented that he was looking forward to singing “Rocky Top” (the Volunteers’ song) all night long “after we beat the Florida Gators this year.” Well sir, that didn’t sit too well with Florida Coach Urban Meyer and his people. They are, after all, the defending national champions and presently number one in the nation. According to the Sportscenter people–I’m unsure how reliable they are–that comment really pumped up the Florida fans and inspired its team to rub Tennessee’s nose in it.

One ESPN guy said he’d not be surprised if Florida tried to score as many as 100 points on Tennessee, they were so infuriated by Kiffin’s comments.

Sooner or later, young coaches have to learn the hard way not to say anything which will inspire his opponents. Kiffin will learn.

In the meantime, I thought of the line from an Israeli king to a bragging Syrian ruler found in I Kings 20:11. “Let not him who puts on his armor boast like him who takes it off.” (I love the subtlety of that little comment.)

When all was said and done, Tennessee held their own for the most part, and even though they lost, returned home with their heads held high. They’re going to beat some good teams this year, I expect.

Would it surprise you to learn there is political infighting occurring in New Orleans?

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Put An Edge On It, Pastor

A preacher stands to his feet and walks to the pulpit. It’s the biggest moment of the week for him. This could be a life-altering experience for a lot of people, if he does it well and does not get in God’s way.

Everything–his study and praying and working throughout the week–now comes down to what he is about to do. Over the next 30 minutes, more or less, he will be prescribing remedies for what he has diagnosed in the church and community the last six days.

Pray he doesn’t drop the ball.

There are so many ways he can mess up. He can lie (by delivering someone else’s sermon and calling it his), he can almost-lie (by exaggerating and playing loose with the truth), he can offend needlessly (by getting more personal than was necessary), and he can bore the congregation to tears (by boring the congregation to tears!).

All of these are wrong and terrible, but the greatest of these may be the last: to bore the people who look toward the pulpit expecting a word from God.

Search the Bible. Do you find one boring sermon? Wherever Jesus preached, members of His audience wanted to stone him or worship him. When Paul preached, everyone chose up sides; no one was neutral, although some said, “We’d like to hear more on this subject.”

How exactly would one go about taking the greatest message in the history of this small planet and making it boring?

It’s hard to do, but some manage to pull it off.

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A Mirror for the Preacher

Once in a while we will come across something from the morning news that has nothing in the world to do with preachers or Christians or the church, but which is as good a mirror as one could ever find for us to find our own reflection.

So this morning.

Mackie Shilstone is described in the (New Orleans) Times-Picayune as a “noted sports trainer (who) has been working with tennis star Serena Williams the past 18 months.”

Anyone who has anything to do with professional sports knows his name. He’s a New Orleanian, is often on TV and radio, and is evidently the answer to the prayers of a lot of athletes regarding their conditioning.

Over the last week or so, while the U.S.Open tennis championship has been being played out in New York City, Shilstone has been sending a “postcard” to our newspaper. At least, that’s what the paper calls it. Today’s was the first column of his I’ve seen.

It’s evidently the last one, too, since Serena Williams lost in the semifinals against Kim Clijsters in a profanity-laced tirade that got her fined and provoked an investigation into the possibility of additional penalties.

Okay, enough background. I want you to see a portion of Mackie Shilstone’s column in which he is supposed to be talking about the tennis star, the championship, and the competition. Today would have been a great time for him to give us his take on what Serena did. But nope. She’s paying him the big bucks.

Here’s something of what he said….

“Over my last 27 years of working with more than 3,000 pro athletes, and in every pro sports venue from being in the dugout of the San Francisco Giants in the World Series, the sideline of the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl IX, to working the corner of championship boxing matches, I must say that being part of Team Serena will go down as a cherished memory.”

One wonders how much Shilstone paid the Times-Picayune for that self-promoting ad?

Mostly I wonder, can we preachers read that and see ourselves in its reflection?

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The Best Thing in the Bible?

Everyone has his own contender for that honor–the “best thing in the Bible”–and here’s mine.

“Since then the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil,

“And might deliver those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.” (Hebrews 2:14-15)

Those two loaded verses tell us why the incarnation (the act by which Jesus became human) and why the crucifixion (His death on the cross). It all pointed to the same purpose.

Jesus defeated the one holding the power of death, the devil, and delivered those in bondage to the fear of death. (That would be “us.”) He accomplished this by His death.

Eugene Peterson restates that in The Message:

“Since the children are made of flesh and blood, it’s logical that the Savior took on flesh and blood in order to rescue them by His death. By embracing death, taking it into Himself, He destroyed the devil’s hold on death and freed all who cower through life, scared to death of death.”

Think of that: “scared to death of death.”

It describes our generation to a T.

Now, a wonderful little glimpse of something. Fast forward over to the first chapter of Revelation. In John’s vision of the ascended/glorified Jesus, there is a detail you may have missed.

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Leadership Development 3

We’re not in the dark as to how the Lord prefers to train leaders. Take a gander at His favorite leaders in the Scriptures….

In Genesis, Joseph. In Exodus, Moses. Later, Joshua. In I Samuel, David. In the New Testament, it’s clearly Paul.

What one thing do all these leaders have in common?

They all suffered a great deal before the Lord decided they were ready to be used by Him. (And often continued to suffer while serving Him.)

Joseph spent the best years of his youth as a slave in Egypt, then was mistreated by his master and thrown in prison where he seemed to have been forgotten for a number of years.

Moses spent 40 years in remote areas keeping sheep before God decided that at the age of 80, this man was ready to face Pharaoh and lead the Israelites.

Joshua served as Moses’ servant for more years than he could count and endured the entire 40 years of wilderness wandering before Moses left the scene and gave him the keys to the car.

David was anointed as the new king sometime around his 17th year, we think. Soon, he fought Goliath and became a national champion, then a hero acclaimed by the masses. A jealous King Saul put a price on his head, turning David into an outlaw for a number of years.

Want to be a leader greatly used of God? Get ready to suffer first.

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Anyone for Three Sermon Illustrations?

The newspaper column by Andy Rooney, resident curmudgeon of CBS television, does not appear in the New Orleans paper but I found it today in the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rooney thought we’d like to see what he shared Wednesday at the memorial service for Walter Cronkite at the Avery Fisher Hall in the Lincoln Center.

Two stories from that have special meaning for us.

The first illustration…

Rooney says he and his wife were often invited to go sailing with Walter and Betsy Cronkite. “Once while we were sailing in Maine several years ago, we tied up near a little village and Walter and Betsy went into a country store.”

“This strange-looking character comes up to Walter and asks him a question. Walter was always polite to his fans and, with Betsy standing there, Walter said, “Oh sure. We’ve met several times . We’re not really close friends. I talk to him once in a while.”

Outside, Betsy said, “Walter, did you hear who he asked you about?” And Walter, who was hard of hearing answered,”No, I didn’t.” She said, “Well, he asked if you knew Jesus Christ.”

(What if it turned out that that accidental answer was the real one? Let’s hope he knew Jesus well and is in His presence at this very moment.)

And then the second Cronkite story.

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