Avoiding Extremism

One of the best ways to gauge your mental health is by what you do with the teachings of Scripture.

A few instances….

Jesus said, “Do not worry about tomorrow” (Matthew 6:34). Bad mental health takes that to mean that long range plans, insurance programs, and concerns about the future of one’s loved ones is sinful. Good mental health keeps it in the perspective of the entire Bible’s teachings on the subject.

Jesus said, “By their fruits you will know them” (Matthew 7:20). Bad mental health takes this as a license to inspect the lives and productivity of anyone claiming to follow Christ. Good mental health sees it in context, that one’s works will generally speaking tell the tale on who we really are.

Jesus said, “As you have believed, so let it be done for you” (Matthew 8:13). Bad mental health interprets this (and similar scriptures) as carte blanche promises that we get what we believe God for, and if we are not getting, it’s because we are not believing strongly enough. Good mental health knows that there is far more to this issue than some isolated scriptures or instances of the Lord’s healing.

The shooter in Tucson from a few weeks back provided one more lesson that we seem to keep getting in this country again and again: The person with poor mental health can look at anything and make it into something bad.

Three texts in I Corinthians impressed this upon me during my reading this morning.

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If You’ve Got a Story. I Have One.

I do love a good story.

The only thing I love more is being the one telling it.

I’m clearly not alone in my devotion to the story. It forms the outline of every television soap opera, sitcom and cop show and most of the movies. It fells forests to supply paper for an unending outpouring of novels, all with a story to tell. It connects with people as nothing else does.

In “My Reading Life,” novelist Pat Conroy drops story upon story upon the reader, supplying me with more writing-or-sermon illustrations than any single book I’ve read in a year.

Last night, I came across Conroy’s tale of the time an agent for his publisher took him as a young, up-and-coming writer as he called on booksellers to market their latest line. On the third day out, the agent suddenly turned to Pat and said, “You’ve seen me do this. Now, let’s see if you’ve got what it takes…. We know you can write a book; now let’s see if you can sell one.”

Conroy was game. He gave it a try. Addressing the bookseller, he launched into the chatter he’d heard from the agent, making the case for each of the new works coming from the publisher. Then he came to his own book, “The Water is Wide.” He described it.

The store owner said, “Who gives a d–n?”

Conroy was stunned. The man said, “What should my readers care what happened to a bunch of black kids on an island no one’s ever heard of?”

Conroy said, “Well, the book is well written.”

But the owner was not swallowing that. “I don’t want to order a single copy of the book. It’s not for me. I can’t think of a soul who’d buy it.”

Conroy says, “I finished selling the list in a barely controlled rage…. By the time I left that bookstore, I was ready to whack the living daylights out of that smug, hostile bookseller who had taken such grotesque pleasure in my humiliation.”

Later, over dinner with the agent, he found out what had happened.

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10 Foundational Principles to Tell Your People Again and Again

Remind them of these things…. (II Timothy 2:14)

If you have pastored for more than four or five years, or if you are in your second (or more) pastorate, you have learned the hard way that saying something one time to your people does not suffice. Some lessons–the most important ones, particularly–have to be said again and again.

Some of the most foundational messages–such as salvation by faith in Christ, the adequacy of the Word, and the importance of the cross–we continually work into sermons and lessons. These cannot be over-stressed.

Other lessons have to do with how the Christian faith is applied in our daily lives or in the operation of the Lord’s church. These too need to be iterated and re-iterated.

Each minister will have his/her own list. Here are my top ten principles to stress to your congregation again and again.

I suggest that we run these in the church bulletin, figure out how to get the gist of them onto the sign in front of the campus, print them on posters and post around the church, and speak them repeatedly in committees and classes and sermons.

Eventually, if you say them often enough and strong enough, people will begin to remember them. They might even tease you a little, as though you made these up and no one else in the Lord’s work says this. When they tease you, take pride. You’re finally getting through.

1. If you have a problem with change, you are not going to get along with Jesus very well and you are going to be unhappy in this church.

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So You Know Jesus, Do You?

Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness.’ (Matthew 7:23)

Sometimes we read something in the Bible and come away wondering. Matthew 7 is an example.

Jesus told how at the last day–that means at the final judgment–“many” would say to Him, “Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in your name, cast out demons in your name, and done many wonders in your name?”

His answer (above) is intriguing. It tells us it’s possible for a person to do all kinds of miracle-working ministry in the name of Jesus and still get it wrong. The “lawlessness” in the NKJV is translated as “iniquity” in the KJV. Knox expressed this as “you that traffic in wrongdoing,” J. B. Phillips has it say “you have worked on the side of evil!” and Beck’s translation says “you who are so busy doing wrong.”

This has always puzzled me. But last week something happened to throw light on the issue. And it came from the unlikeliest of sources.

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You Meet the Strangest People

Have you ever met a children’s worker who hated kids? I have.

Have you ever seen a preacher who did not believe in God? My friend John attended some divinity school classes with such people at Berkeley.

Have you ever met a Bible teacher who did not believe the Bible? The woods are filled with them.

It takes all kinds, they say. I reckon so.

I thought of some of the weird people we meet in the ministry this week while reading Pat Conroy’s latest book, “My Reading Life.” For everyone who loves to read, I cannot recommend this too highly. Every chapter is a delight. And for anyone who loves to write, ditto; every sentence is a wonder.

As a military brat, Conroy’s family moved around a lot. When they settled in Beaufort, SC, he found it hard to form new friendships and while dodging the campus bullies discovered the school library. This became his favorite place. The odd thing however, is that the librarian resented him coming in and reading books.

I thought you’d appreciate Conroy’s story about the librarian who hated readers. Here’s the story….

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What to Do When A Sermon Bores You the Preacher

This morning a pastor friend told some of us the sermon he is working on for next Sunday. The challenge, he said, was that part of the text is very difficult. “How to convey its message without getting too theological is my problem,” he said.

My own skeptical nature translated that as: “How to preach it without boring my people to death is what I’m up against!”

Earlier this week, on this website we addressed the question of what a pastor is to do when his guest preacher is boring the congregation. But there is a more urgent question….

What should the preacher do when his own preaching is boring the people in the pews?

If he discovers that in the middle of a sermon, there’s little he can do other than to shoot up an emergency prayer-flare for divine help.

But if he is preparing adequately for his pulpit work, he will know early on that this sermon has great potential to bore his people and can take steps to head off that peril.

Question: How does a pastor know on Tuesday that next Sunday’s sermon will be boring?

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Pastor, Take Care of Your People

When it comes to sheep, the shepherd wants to protect them from wolves and other predators.

But when those sheep are the members of a church, the shepherd–aka, the pastor–has two groups to safeguard them from: predators who would take unfair advantage of the people and ruin a church and the dullards who would kill a good congregation by sheer boredom.

Protecting them from one group is as big a challenge as from the other.

Two stories today. One tells how on one occasion I determined to protect my people from a boring Bible study, and the second reveals how I learned that lesson the hard way.

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Ineffectual Worship: Wearying the Lord With our Words

Some of us work with words. As much as a farmer works does with the soil and a potter with the clay, we deal with words. Writers, pastors, teachers–we are wordsmiths.

And therein lies the challenge. Unless we stay close to the Lord and keep a steady eye on our assignment, it’s possible that in time we can send forth empty words to do our work for us. We can fill a page or an hour with words and words and more words. Eventually, we think that’s all we need to do, just speak words.

You have wearied the Lord with your words. Yet you say, “In what way have we wearied Him?” (Malachi 2:17)

Addressing the people of the Lord, the prophet Malachi is in no way limiting his message to the professional priests and ministers. All the Lord’s people were guilty of the sin of word inflation.

It’s an easy trap to fall into, filling our worship on Sunday with so many words. And leaving the church thinking we have done something worthwhile just because we spoke some words, read some written words, and sang words printed in a book or flashed on a screen.

The Lord in Heaven is sick and tired of words that are multiplied and inflated as though He were some mindless professor grading term papers by their weight.

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The Worst Kind of Christianity

I know what it is to bore myself with my preaching.

It’s not putting words into the Lord’s mouth to say that one thing the Living God utterly despises is limp, weak-as-tea ministry rendered by insipid, bored disciples who would rather be doing anything in the world than that.

I have been guilty of this. And if you have been in the ministry for any length of time, my guess is you know about this kind of failure also.

You possess endurance and have tolerated many things because of My Name, and have not grown weary. But I have this against you: you have abandoned the love you had at first. (Revelation 2:3-4)

The church at Ephesus was doing a hundred things right and one big thing wrong: they had lost the heart for God they had at first. They preached and taught, they ministered and served, they prayed and witnessed. But their heart was not in it any longer.

And that negated the entire thing.

Remember how far you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. Otherwise I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. (Revelation 2:5)

If you think that sounds like what the Lord said to another church down the road a few miles, you would be correct.

I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I am going to vomit you out of my mouth. (Revelation 3:15-16)

Lukewarm religion. Passionless Christianity.

The worst kind.

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The Pastor and His Wife Can’t Agree on Moving

Say you’re a pastor. And let’s say a pastor search committee is all over you, believing that you are the man for their church, God’s own choice. And they want you to travel to their city and preach in their pulpit and give their people a chance to “call” you as their new shepherd.

And let’s say the church is much larger, the salary provides a hefty boost in your income, and the prestige is twice what it is where you are. This has to be of God, right?

Oh, one thing more. Let’s say your wife is unhappy about it.

What does a pastor do in this case?

Most of us in the ministry have been there at one time or another, in one way or the other.

In my case, it was the opposite. My wife thought the committee was correct, that relocating to the bigger church was of the Lord. I was the holdout, the one who could not decide.

It wasn’t that I was opposed to moving. I just wanted a word from God that it was the right thing to do.

A friend counseled me on how to pray in this matter. I did as he suggested, and a half-hour later rose to my feet and picked up the phone and called the chairman of the pastor search committee, asking them to remove my name from consideration. I called Margaret and told her, then buckled down to becoming the best pastor for my people I knew how to be. It worked out.

Or did it? To this day, Margaret is not so sure we did the right thing.

The main reason is that one year later, we accepted the call to another church–yes, a larger and more prestigious church–and it did not turn out well. After a very hard three years, we took a paid leave of absence and walked away from that pastorate, ending up in metro New Orleans.

This is one of those things which every husband and wife have in their relationship attic somewhere: an issue on which they simply agree to disagree.

The other day a pastor’s wife e-mailed me about a similar situation she and her husband were facing.

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