Passionate about Passion!

How many aspects are there to a pastoral ministry? A thousand? There’s preaching, studying, pastoral calling, counseling, administration, writing, moderating business meetings, conflict resolution, teaching, prayer, denominational service, motivation, planning meetings, mentoring, correspondence, communication, and cartooning. (Okay, I just put the last one in there because it was always a part of my pastoral work.)

Now, under each of those categories there are subdivisions. “Preaching” involves various kinds of preaching, different styles and reasons and goals. “Studying” may involve learning the original languages, reading theological textbooks, combing through commentaries, reading books of sermons, and pursuing all kinds of online resources.

Okay. Now, here’s the point.

If we made a list of one thousand aspects of a typical pastoral ministry, we would find someone somewhere who is passionate about each one.

I guarantee you that someone somewhere is passionate about writing a column for the church newsletter, someone else is passionate about staff meetings, another is passionate about pastoral calling in the homes of members. A huge percentage of preachers is passionate about delivering sermons and a smaller percentage about doing the study which preaching requires.

Passion. It means a single-mindedness. Whatever is our passion turns us on, drives us, pulls us, motivates us. We love it above all else. If the ministry were taken away from us today, this is what we would miss most.

Figure out the five worst jobs in your ministry, pastor, and somewhere there are preachers who love those tasks above all else. The human animal is complex and comes in ten thousand varieties.

No, ten billion is more like it. With no two alike. Anyway….

I cannot quit thinking about a conversation with James in my office one day. He had pastored several churches and owned two seminary degrees, but at the moment was “between churches.” As the director of missions, I was the denominational go-to guy to help him find a church. At least, in his thinking I was.

“I have to preach, Joe!” he said, growing excited. “It’s in my blood! I’m passionate about preaching.”

I knew that about him, and therefore used that moment to make a point.

“Jim, that might be the problem, my friend.”

“What do you mean?”

“Preaching should not be your passion. Jesus should be your passion.”

Give him credit. Jim took that like a man. In fact, he settled back down in his chair and, after a moment, said, “Wow. Thank you for that. You are so right.”

So, what is your passion, preacher? And how does it compare with your passion for Jesus?

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How to Take Criticism Well

Let me say up front that I do not have a formula for enabling anyone to enjoy criticism. No one finds pleasure in being told he is wrong, that she needs to change the way she does something, that an apology is in order. Even the most accurate and helpful criticism can be painful when it arrives. How much more an unfair accusation flung our way.

Simply stated, there are two kinds of criticisms: the fair and the unfair. The truthful and the slanderous. The well-intentioned and the mean-spirited.

If you live long enough, you will encounter both kinds. How you deal with them will determine a thousand things about your character and your happiness.

Chuck Swindoll has something to say that fits here:

Anybody can accept a reward graciously, and many people can even take their punishment patiently when they have done something wrong. But how many people are equipped to handle mistreatment after they’ve done right? Only Christians are equipped to do that. This is what makes believers stand out. That’s our uniqueness. (from “Bedside Blessings,” a daily devotional)

This morning, my favorite early news talk program was dealing with this very thing. The talkers (I hesitate to call them anything other than that; do they do anything other than appear on talk shows and write their opinions for the newspapers?) were wondering something about Sarah Palin.

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The Scary Art of Criticism

Originally, we’re told, a critic was someone who remarked on the worth of a literary piece. To “critique” was to pass judgment on a writing.

“Everyone’s a critic,” goes the old line. Not in the sense that everyone is passing judgment on literary offerings but simply that everyone has an opinion on everything.

“How’s the food?” you ask a diner in the restaurant. “Did you enjoy the movie?” you ask someone coming out the cinema. “So, what did you think of today’s sermon?” you ask the worshiper since you had to miss church this morning. “And how was the choir special?”

Everyone has an opinion. Everyone is a critic. Welcome to Human Nature 101.

You and I sit in our living room and notice the television news anchor has dyed her hair a rather strange color. The weather guy has put on weight. And what an odd outfit one of the other women on the program is wearing.

One thing you can count on: If you and I notice these things enough to remark on them, someone is writing or calling the station to point it out. And that bugs the fire out of the television personalities.

I’ve heard them complain, “Why do people think they have a right to call attention to what you are wearing or how you do your hair or whether I’ve added a few pounds?”

The answer: If we are going to be staring at you every day of our lives, we will notice these things. And if something is not right, it bugs us. And–important point coming up!–when we are bugged, we feel we have to try to remedy the situation.

In fact, it’s more than a right. It’s our duty.

That’s why we are all critics. Ask a coach. At any level, in any sport, coaches are constantly pestered by spectators who sit in the stands and call attention to their shortcomings. He should have taken that player out, put this one in, not called that play, called a timeout.

We are critics because when we see things that upset us, we want to set them right. In that sense, we are all “controllers.”

Nowhere does the matter of criticism come into play more than in the congregation of Christian people. It’s there that people have come for healing. It’s there many find such compassionate friends whom they come to trust that they begin to open themselves up. And they become vulnerable to great hurt from those who should have been their best friends.

Five points on the subject of criticism need to be emphasized here.

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The Sermon/Song/Article Shot Round the World

The other day I posted a note on Facebook that went something like this: “It’s not a resolution for 2011, but my goal is to write an article for my website that gets passed around the world and is used of God to change everyone who reads it.”

That thought has lingered with me ever since, to the point that I really feel it’s something I need to try to do.

And yes, I have checked out my motives on this. I imagine this is not unlike a pastor wanting to preach a sermon that will be read and quoted across the globe. Or someone wanting to write a song that will top the charts. Are my motives pure? I think so. With all my heart I want to glorify the Lord Jesus and to bless His people. In no way is this about me.

As the subject burned in my heart, I began reflecting on what kind of article it would have to be in order to have that kind of effect. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

It would have to–

–touch a nerve. That is, connect with people immediately.

–meet a need. It can’t be theoretical but has to deal with genuine issues.

–tell a story. Stories connect better than abstract principles.

–give a formula. It needs to offer solid solutions to the problem it addresses.

Later, it occurred to me that this is also the description (prescription?) for a good sermon and for a great country song!

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How to Spot a Healthy Church in 30 Seconds

Something about those children intrigued me, but I couldn’t figure out what it was.

For the past week or two, I have noticed these three small children playing in their yard near the Mississippi River levee. Normally, in my daily walk I don’t travel as far east as their house, but recently I began lengthening the walk by another mile, trying to lose more weight. That’s when I began noticing them.

The oldest child seemed to be seven or eight. There was a younger brother and a little sister. In the yard was all kinds of play equipment. No matter how cold it was, they were out there laughing and running, jumping and hiding, having a big time. You could hear them a block away.

Something about that made me smile. “Whatever the parents are doing,” I thought, “it’s working.”

Yesterday, the children were out once more, enjoying life. As I reached my turning-around point and headed back, I noticed they were doing something different. They and another boy had several large-wheel vehicles at the top of the levee which they were riding down to their yard across the grassy expanse. Two women sat in chairs near the house, keeping an eye on them. One was the mother, I assumed.

As I neared them, all the children rode off the levee except the oldest boy. As I approached, he looked in my direction and said, “Hi. I’m Harley.” I was so taken aback, I had to ask, “That’s your name?” He said it was. I said, “Hi Harley. My name is Mister Joe.” He smiled a big grin and said,”Hi, Mister Joe!” Then, off the levee he went.

I walked away thinking my first impression of that family was right on. The parents are doing many things right. Here is a little kid with a great friendly attitude, confident enough to introduce himself to strangers, and enjoying life to its fullest.

One day soon I plan to introduce myself to the parents. I’m going to predict that I will find the family does not have a television set and the children do not own computer games. There’s more to that family than this, of course, and I want to find out what it is.

From the first, I had felt there was something so attractive about that family.

And that’s what started me thinking about churches. Is it possible to do a drive-by of a church and within a few seconds determine that it’s a healthy church?

I’ve run that question by a number of friends.

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The 10 Best Things in Galatians

You’re sitting in church listening to the pastor. His sermon is typical of most you have heard through the years: sometimes he scales the rhetorical heights and leads you to emotional highs, and once in a while he bogs down in minutiae and loses you in details. In between, he “shells the corn,” as we used to say on the farm to indicate someone doing a job well but not spectacularly.

Paul’s Epistle to the Galatian churches has its emotional highs and also bogs down in places with theological details. Anyone attempting to teach the six chapters to his congregation will want to work hard and prepare well if he wishes to keep the people with him during the slower, heavier sections.

The most fun thing for a pastor to do–this is just my opinion–is to decide not to give his people a verse-by-verse study but to preach Galatians’ high points. He will “fill in the cracks” between the sermons with enough contextual material to get across the essence of the book. The advantage is he can take the epistle in bite-size portions. The disadvantage–well, the major one–is that he will be teaching the epistle piecemeal and not everyone will be present for all the sermons.

That said, here are my candidates for the ten best verses or passages in Galatians. If I were pastoring, these would be the basis for my series of ten sermons from this epistle. A word of explanation: The commentary here is not intended to be a sermon, but merely insights and other material you may find helpful.

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Man is Basically Good. (Try Saying That With a Straight Face.)

My pastor says he was checking into a website responsible for a series of “believe-in-yourself” television commercials that have been airing over the holidays. When he checked to see who was responsible and what their values were, he found where they stated, “We believe in the basic goodness of all people.”

One wonders what kind of number a person would have to do on himself to convince himself of that misguided philosophy.

We want to believe it. That’s part of our sinful nature, to believe that we are all right and not in need of anyone saving us or forgiving us. It’s a major strain in our sinful system to hold that all we need to do is release everyone from restraints and for preachers to quit laying guilt trips on us and all will be well.

Uh huh. Did you read your morning paper? How many people were killed in your city last night by people who were resisting restraints and determining to have their own way.

Recently, I have discovered discussions on the contradictory nature of man in two of the strangest places. One was a western novel and the other a biography of a longshoreman philosophy from over 40 years ago.

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