Dealing With the Early-Morning Angst

“…in whatever our heart condemns us….God is greater than our heart, and knows all things. Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God….” (I John 3:20-21)

(If too much transparency is not your cup of tea, you may want to skip this. My sharing it–something I would never have done in earlier years–is partly to deal with it and partly in the hope that someone else may be dealing with the same bete noir and find comfort from a fellow struggler. Misery loves company, they say. Let’s see if it does.)

It defies explanation.

I wake up far earlier than a retired preacher should have to.  Today, there is nothing on my agenda except a few tasks I have assigned myself, and those can be done at any time. If I wished, I could have slept until noon.

If I could, rather. But after five hours of what must pass for sleep, I’m finished.

I wake up with a thousand things on my mind. This week is our oldest granddaughter’s birthday and I’ve not sent her anything. My seminary class has reports to be graded online (which is one of the things I plan to get to today). This house needs some repairs, projects that are beyond me, which means I should be making arrangements with a friend whose company does this. We are trying to make a decision about a new car, and giving my wife’s ’05 Camry to a family member. My work space is cluttered and needs clearing out. The Baptist Press cartoons have been drawn and colored but not captioned and must be emailed this morning. An out-of-state revival is coming up soon, and with the following weekend preaching in Atlanta, I do not like being gone from home that long. I need to be taking better care of my health. Is that thing on the back of my neck nothing or possibly skin cancer? Our granddaughter is recovering in New Hampshire from being hit by a car while on her bike, and decisions are being made there about her future. I wish certain family members knew the Lord and would take their children to church. My next birthday, I’ll be 73 years old. How did this happen so quickly?  How much longer do I have to get things done?

And those are just for starters. You want the full list? I didn’t think so.

And how is your Monday going?

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Young Pastors: 7 Women to Watch Out For

“For the lips of an adulteress drip honey, and smoother than oil is her speech.” (Proverbs 4:3)

Before there was a folk singer by that name, James Taylor was a professor of preaching. This veteran teacher of preachers held forth in classrooms at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary for many years. One day, in a room filled with young preacher boys, Dr. Taylor cautioned us about the temptations we would be facing.

“The day will come when a woman will sit in your office and proposition you. She will make herself available to you sexually. If your marriage is in trouble or if you are not up-to-date in your relationship with your Lord, you could get in big trouble fast.”

I raised my hand. “Dr. Taylor,” I said, “do you really believe that every one of us in this room will face this?” My mind was incapable of imagining a scenario in which a woman–any woman–would sit in a pastor’s office and try to seduce him.

“Yes, I do,” he said. “Even you, McKeever.”

That got a laugh.

I lived to see that day. (Fifteen years after she sat in my office making herself available to the young preacher, while preaching in another state, I spotted that woman and her husband–the same husband whose antics had given her cause to seek my counsel originally–in the congregation. I was thankful I had gotten this thing right in my office that day.)

The writer of Proverbs tried to do the same thing Dr. Taylor did for us in seminary that day: prepare the young lad for what he would be facing down the road.

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“The Bible Says.” Why That’s Not As Simple As It Sounds.

In the Arizona desert, there is a little critter called a “stick lizard.” On days when the temperature is sky high and the desert floor is like a hot plate, this little animal runs around with a stick in its mouth. When its feet become too hot to stand, it stops, pokes the stick in the sand, and climbs up on it. Then, after they cool, he hops off, grabs the stick in his mouth, and he’s gone again.  — I want to be like the stick lizard: going on and doing my job when everyone else stays home because they can’t take the heat.

I posted that on Facebook the other day.

Where did I get the story? I found it in Smithsonian magazine some years back.

Well, I did and I didn’t.

It was actually a letter to the editor of the Smithsonian. But I never forgot it, and have used the stick lizard in the occasional article, devotional and sermon over these years. He seems like such a survivor, a tiny creature that has figured a way to overcome obstacles.

And now, I find out it’s not so.

One of my Facebook friends, a pastor in Arkansas, commented that according to “,” the stick lizard does not exist. It’s “old-timer, tall-tale hooey,” he said, but “it amuses the tourists.”

Another great sermon illustration shot down by reality.

Now, in all fairness, all we have said is that an Arkansas pastor “said” someone named Clay Thompson says this. I have not followed up to see if there is such a person, if he said such, and if he has evidence the critter is fictional. The letter to the editor of the Smithsonian does not make the animal exist, and the report of a nay-sayer does not prove he doesn’t.

Having a reference to cite as the source of a great story or quote is always good policy, but simply saying “Thom DickenHarry said this” does not make it so.

People play this little game with the Scriptures. Case in point.

A couple of years back, I ran across a newspaper column where prominent columnist  Cal Thomas was taking a potshot at some preacher or other for living lavishly.  He did so by quoting our Lord: “Do not acquire gold or silver or copper for your money belts, or a bag for your journey, or even two tunics, or sandals, or a staff, for the worker is worthy of his support” (Matthew 10:9-10).

Did Jesus say that? He sure did. The quote is accurate.

But that’s not all He said on that subject.

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Reforming the Deacons (22): The Final Word on the Subject

Last Sunday, I had an off day from preaching, so was able to worship with our home church, where I pastored 1990-2004.  As I took my seat and opened the worship bulletin, I noticed we were nominating deacons. Inside was an insert with the names of 18 or so men, and blanks enough to nominate another dozen.  I think we have an active group of 24 plus a few lifers.

Over the next twenty minutes of hymns and announcements and prayers, I scribbled in the names of several good men.

My son Neil, currently chairman of deacons, was singing in the choir. Just before the sermon, they all came down, and he and wife Julie sat behind me. He slipped me a note, “Dad, several people have written your name in as a possible deacon. Are you ready to go over to the dark side?” That was a joke.

I smiled and shook my head. That’s not even anything to pray about. My calling as pastor/preacher is still in force and, I expect, will be the rest of the way home.

After church, I told Margaret about this. She said, “That’s all Pastor Mike needs–the former pastor to be a deacon.” We both laughed at that. She remembers as well as I do the conflicts I’ve had with a few deacons over nearly a half-century of pastoring.  But according to all reports, our deacons here are servants and only that.

Some have asked where we’re going with this “reforming the deacons” series, and how many more articles.  Since I did not start out to write an entire series, but simply took each subject as it occurred, I have no answer.  But, I’m thinking this one should be the final word, perhaps a summation of what has gone before.

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Pastor, Think Twice Before You Click ‘Send!’

The date on my letter says December 4, 1997.

In a book written by a professor at an Adventist college somewhere, the author was lambasting the rest of the Christian world for worshiping on Sunday instead of keeping the Sabbath. In one chapter, he had run a cartoon of mine and given it a negative slant.

So, I hastily scratched out a hand-written letter to him. Here it is, verbatim:

Dear Mr. Spencer,

On page 29 of (name of the book), you have printed a cartoon of mine without permission.  You will please remove it from any subsequent printings. I receive requests all the time and am always happy to grant permission to use my cartoons free of charge. I am not surprised you did not ask, seeing the slanderous way you deal with opposing points of view.

Your committee’s name (Committee for the Preservation of Truth) is very humorous. You will have to find the truth, sir, before you start preserving it. Your explanation (in the book) of Colossians 2:16 must have sent you to the chiropractor, with all that bending, stretching, etc.”

That was the letter.

I didn’t send it.

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Who Gets the Credit?

They say Ronald Reagan had a sign on his desk declaring there is no limit to what can be accomplished so long as who gets the credit is not an issue.

Today, I read about a wonderful revival in a church where I preached a series of meetings recently. In the weeks since our meeting, the church has added 47 new members, with 25 of them first-time believers in Christ. The pastor recently baptized 18 in a local river. “Things are really hopping at our church,” the pastor said. “There’s been an explosion.” (Bear in mind this is a church which typically runs less than 100.)

What I find fascinating about this is that in our revival meeting–and they were precious, hospitable, and responsive–I don’t recall anyone being saved or joining the church.

The pastor said, “We even had a prayer vigil asking the Lord to send revival no matter what the cost. We were asking the Lord to pour out a blessing on us, and we were really seeking His face.”

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How to Fire a Minister–and have him like it!

As the incoming pastor, I asked the church committee not to terminate Manley, a staff member whose chief failing was that he was ineffective. The committee was willing to cut him loose before I arrived to save me the trouble.

“Give me a chance to work with him,” I said quickly and perhaps a little naively.

A year later, after finding him lazy and incapable of doing the work his position required and with no other spot on the church staff suitable for him, I released him.

He was so angry at me.

That evening, I was complaining to my wife about the unfairness of his criticism. Hadn’t I saved his job for a full year? Hadn’t we given him ample warning and opportunities to improve? Weren’t we providing generous severance?

Margaret said, “Joe, be realistic.  You want to fire a man and have him like it.”

I guess I did. (His anger made me feel that I had failed him in some way, even though the personnel committee met with Manley that very evening to assure him the decision was unanimous. That helped me a little, but not much. Manley moved away and soon got on with a smaller church across the state line.)

Is there a way to terminate a minister (senior pastor, associate, staffer, etc) and have him like it? Maybe there is.

Only yesterday, a friend called to say their bishop had just terminated their pastor. The firing was abrupt and effective immediately, with the congregation receiving no explanation or advance warning. The minister is gone and Sunday they will have a substitute in the pulpit. Everyone is left to wonder what went on, what the pastor did or did not do, and what they are not being told.

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Always On Duty

Paul to Timothy: “Be instant, in season and out of season.”

I met Sarah three mornings ago when she and three co-workers were having breakfast in the hotel where I was staying while in the St. Louis area for a revival.  The four of them were sharing a small table, obviously enjoying one another’s company. As they got up to leave, I did what I often do for an interesting looking party: asked, “Hey, do you guys have a minute?”

“I’m a cartoonist and I would love to draw you. It takes one minute and it’s free. Would you let me draw you?”

They mildly protested that they might be late for work, but they lingered and I sketched them, two guys and two girls. All in their early 20’s, I surmised. All young and cool and looking good.

“We work at Buckle,” one said. I had no idea what that was.

“It’s a denim store in the mall. Right next to the food court,” they explained. “You ought to come by.”

I had been in the food court the previous afternoon sketching people.  I promised to run by the next time I was there. Buckle, huh? Interesting name.

That afternoon, after a brief nap, I grabbed my drawing pad and walked over to the mall, a short walk across the parking lot from my hotel. I found “Buckle” and stepped inside.

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The Three Tests of a Servant Leader

“The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28)

The pastor who is a servant to his flock has an authority and influence unmatched by those who have taken all the leadership courses and read all the  books and are able to display all the certificates on their walls.

The leader who will serve his people demonstrates Jesus Christ to them, proves his concern for their needs, models effective leadership for those coming after him, and builds a solid structure on a firm foundation.

Not all pastors want to serve. Some wish to be known as strategists and pulpiteers, managerial experts and motivational geniuses. But only those who serve are building a church that will last upon a solid biblical foundation. The others are playing their control games.

Here are 3 areas by which anyone considering becoming a leader of God’s people can check himself.

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Preaching on Racism

We all have our blind spots. Yours is a little more obvious to the rest of us than it is to you. Mine is so much a part of me, I might need your assistance to find it.

“Well, one thing I know–I’m not a racist.”

No one automatically thinks of themselves as in bondage to prejudice. Not even the fiercest member of the most radical white-supremacy group would admit to such. No, he’s just fully aware of the differences in people, he would probably say, and proud of his own identity.

Since racism wears so many disguises, all of them attractive and comfortable–just being who we are, authentically human, our true nature, and “I’m no hypocrite!”–we may require an outside source to call our attention to this alien force which can poison our relationships, betray our commitments, and abandon those looking to us as Christ-figures.

I once preached on racism to the largest church in the state, a congregation without a single minority member, and some of whose leaders were known as staunch defenders of segregation.  It will not surprise you to know I was very young at the time. (Translation: bold, daring, and somewhat foolhardy.)

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