Every pastor gets invited to offer invocations at public gatherings. It goes with the territory.
I once prayed at the grand opening of a big box home-and-hardware store. As a thank-you, they gave me an electric Stihl saw. Not being a woodworker, I passed it on to a neighbor.
Once in a pastor’s office I noticed the wall covered with plaques and degrees and framed certificates. Not only was his high school diploma on display, but when the local supermarket thanked him for praying at their grand opening, he framed that letter too.
Okay. Here’s what happens. The secretary of the city council or school board or state legislature calls. “Pastor, would you say the opening prayer at next Wednesday’s session?” Before the call ends, you may expect them to say something like, “And pastor, please make the prayer inclusive.” Or interdenominational. Or non-sectarian. What she means is a) don’t preach to us and try to convert people in your prayer and b) if you must include Jesus, try to be gentle about it.
In other words, be nice.
You would think no one would have to tell a preacher to be considerate of others when he prays. But these public prayers have been abused by so many preachers, it’s necessary.
Now, if they tell me to leave Jesus out of it–in just so many words–I tell them I will not be able to help them, but “thank you so much for asking.”
This is merely one possible scenario, but I’ve seen it happen several times.
We had interviewed Brian and all the background checks and references were great. We liked him, were impressed by the work he was doing in his present church, and knew God was going to continue doing great things through him.
He liked us, and possibly felt some leadership from the Lord. If we had called, I expect he would have accepted.
But we backed off. We did not call him to our staff.
My journal tells how he responded when I informed him.
“I told Brian we had learned 100 good things about him. But the bottom line is I don’t have inner peace about this.”
He asked what in particular was the hangup. I said “Nothing. It’s just that I feel a sense of unease, that it’s not right.”
Don’t jump to conclusions. Ask for more information before you jump.
Sometimes when something just seems wrong–this could not be!–it is wrong.
Here’s the story, from my journal of the 1990s. I had forgotten this.
I had been out of town for the weekend, and my assistant had preached. We had four additions to the church and everyone praised the preaching of Dwight Munn. And then, I began going through my mail…
An offering envelope from Byron (last name) had been placed in my mailbox. He’s a new member, a super nice guy, a pathologist, and was engaged to marry Carol, who was equally nice and as lovely as anyone has a right to be! Inside the offering envelope was a note. A rather angry note.
The writer–presumably Byron–was criticizing all the announcements in the service, particularly the two made by the wives of a couple of staffers. The writer said it’s enough to welcome new members at the end of the service, but nothing more should be said.
As I say, the tone was angry.
My journal records one of those pressurized times some 20 or more years ago.
Consider that the church was still recovering from a split five years earlier, leaving us with a diminished congregation but an all-consuming debt. Consider that some of our people still carried guilt over their actions during the fight, while others nursed hurts and anger from the same tragic event. I’d not been around during that catastrophe, I’m happy to report, but the Father had sent me in to help the congregation pick up the pieces and return to health and usefulness.
It was hard.
I was weak personally, having just emerged from a brutal three-plus years trying to shepherd another congregation that was divided. So, without doubt I came in gun-shy, hoping to avoid conflicts with church leadership and carping from church membership.
Naïve, huh? Probably so. People are going to look and act like who they are.
Daily I was being undermined by the angry, criticized by the hurting, ostracized by the pious, and scrutinized to the nth degree by leaders, self-appointed and otherwise. When I tried to do a few things I considered normal and healthy, these also were thrown back in my face.
The journal records my efforts to bring in community leaders for a forum during which the guest would speak and be questioned. Our people could not understand why in the world I would want to bring a congressman, for example, to our church.
“Lord, teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12)
“Lord, make me to know my end, and what is the extent of my days; Let me know how transient I am.” (Psalm 39:4)
“They will still bear fruit in old age; they will be full of sap and very green.” (Psalm 92:14).
The Bible has a lot to say about getting old. And most of it is great.
As a child, I would lie awake wondering about the future. For one born in 1940, the turn of the 21st century was several lifetimes away. “In the year 2000,” I thought, “I’ll be 60 years old. Almost at the end of my life.”
When that momentous time arrived, I was scarcely out of my teens. I was anything but old. Surely not. No way was I ready to cash in my chips, to hang it all up. To call it a day. To head for the house. And a lot of metaphors like that.
I was still young and alive and working.
From the beginning, the Lord’s people talk a better game than we live.
So many biblical truths look good on paper and sound great when we’re spouting them. And yet, judging by the way we live, the Lord’s people probably do not believe the following…
One. God sends the pastor to the church.
Churches survey their congregation to find the kind of pastor everyone wants in the next guy. People lobby for a candidate they like and rally against one they don’t. And they vote on the recommendation of their committee. And after he arrives, when some turn against him, they send him on his way.
Do we really believe God sends pastors to churches? They are God’s undershepherds (see I Peter 5:1-4) and appointed by the Holy Spirit as overseers of the church (Acts 20:28).
Two. God hears our prayers, cares for our needs, and answers our prayers.
In the typical congregation, what percentage of the people are serious about their prayer life?
If we believed that God hears, cares, and answers, we would be praying over every detail of our lives. “Pray without ceasing” (I Thessalonians 5:17) would define our very existence.
If I were a young man just beginning to minister for the Lord, I would want to make sure I did these things…
One. Stayed close to the church. Loyal to it, involved in it, faithfully preaching that the church is the only institution the Lord formed, and I would work through the local church.
Two. I would want to get as much formal education as possible, and do it as fully and completely as possible. This means, I would move my family to the campus just as we did the first time, and get to know the professors and students personally. The bonds formed in class and in between class periods last a lifetime. Thereafter, I would continue getting as much education as I could, and if some of that was online, that would be fine. But the basic seminary education, I would do on campus.
“I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:27). “A disciple is not above his teacher or a slave above his master” (Luke 6:24).
In the days following Hurricane Katrina, Rudy and Rose traveled to New Orleans to help. Unable to find a place to plug in, Rudy walked into the kitchen of Williams Boulevard Baptist Church and volunteered. That church was strategically situated next to the Highway Patrol headquarters which was hosting hundreds of troopers from the nation, as they protected the darkened city. The church had become a hotel for the troopers and the women of the congregation were serving three meals a day. They welcomed Rudy and assigned him to the garbage detail.
Not exactly what he had in mind.
Rudy had been pastoring a church in southern Canada. When he saw the suffering of our people on television–entire neighborhoods flooded, thousands homeless, people being rescued off rooftops–he resigned his church, sold his gun collection to fund the move, and he and Rose came to help.
Now, he ends up emptying garbage cans. By his own admission, Rudy was developing an attitude problem.
One day he was lifting a large bag of garbage into the dumpster. The kitchen workers had been told not to put liquid garbage into the bags, but evidently they didn’t get the message. Suddenly, as Rudy was hoisting it up, the bag ripped and all kinds of kitchen leftovers poured down over him–gumbo, red beans and rice, gravy, grease, whatever.
Drenched in garbage from head to foot, Rudy stood there crying like a baby.
We all preach boring sermons from time to time. The trick is not to make a habit of it.
I’m almost tempted to say a pastor should give his people a boring sermon once in a while, if for no other reason than to help them appreciate the good ones when they come.
Bill Baker was pastor of Clinton, Mississippi’s First Baptist Church. He told me this one himself. At the Friday night high school football game, during halftime the other team’s band marched onto the field and did their show. Right in the middle of their presentation, a group of students on the other side of the stadium called out, “B-O-R-I-N-G!!” Real loud and very slow.
A four-year-old girl was puzzled by that. ‘What are they doing, Mama?” she asked. Her mother explained that sometimes students will do that when they feel the other band is doing poor work. “It tells them they stink,” she laughed.
That’s why the very next Sunday, right in the middle of Pastor Baker’s sermon, this four-year-old stood in church and did the same thing.
I’ve preached boring sermons. And I’ll bet you have too.
Often, a sermon is boring when we have not thought the subject through sufficiently. Or the subject is too much for us and we do not grasp it well enough to be able to convey it simply. Or, we are tired and not able to give this our all. Or something has distracted us from being able to give our best effort. Or we’re preaching something assigned to us but about which we do not feel strong convictions.
Which is to say: A sermon can be boring for a hundred reasons.
“Let every man examine himself….” (I Corinthians 11:28). The women too.
Toward the end of each issue, Vanity Fair magazine interviews some celebrity. The questions they pose are good ones. Consider answering them for yourself.
Here are the questions in the September 2017 issue–
–What is your idea of perfect happiness?
–What is your favorite journey?
–What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
–On what occasion do you lie?
–What do you dislike most about your appearance?
–Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
–What do you consider your greatest achievement?
–What is your greatest regret?