Lord, forgive us our platitudes and deliver us from our word-congestion

“Let thy words be few” (Ecclesiastes 5:2).

We preachers know how to “multiply words without end.”

It’s our occupation, and it’s an occupational hazard.

They call on us for a few words and half an hour later, they wish we would sit down and shut up.

When one preacher asked why his hosts had not called on him to say grace throughout the entire week they’d been together, the man replied, “Because we want to eat tonight!”  (I was there and I heard it.)

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Jesus and only Jesus. Why is that so difficult?

Only Jesus.

–No one has been to Heaven except the One who came from there.  John 3:13.  How clear is that?  He is the One who knows.

–No one can come to God the Father except through Jesus.  John 14:6.  How clear is that?  He is our Mediator.

–No one can know God unless Jesus reveals Him to them.  Matthew 11:27.  How clear is that?  He is the Revealer.

–There is no other name under Heaven given among men whereby we must be saved. Only Jesus.  Acts 4:12.  How clear is that?  He is our Savior.

–Jesus said He was given authority over all mankind.  John 3:35; 13:3; 17:2 and Matthew 28:18.  How clear is that?  He is Lord.

Here’s an outline that sums it up for me. 

It got me out of bed in the middle of the night recently.  Use it if you can and if the Lord leads…

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The most significant thing a pastor will ever do

The title is a come-on, to give me the chance to say one huge thing to every pastor:  You have no idea what ranks as the most important part of your work.

You think you do.  You think it’s speaking to the Chamber of Commerce dinner Thursday night.  Or helping plan a community Thanksgiving service.  Or guest-teaching a class at the seminary.  And it may be.

You think it’s that great sermon you preached a couple of weeks back, the glow from which is still warming your memory.  The one which brought several new families to join your church.  Or, maybe that mission trip to Tanzania last year.  Or the revival last month.

Could be.  Or not.

The most valuable ministry thing you have done just may be the time you stopped to encourage a homeless man and bought him lunch.  Or that time you gave a new family a tour of the church.  Or even the prayer you prayed for a missionary family in northern Italy this morning.

You never know.

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The credentials of those making huge claims

“Trust. But verify.”  –sign on the desk of President Ronald Reagan

Someone wants to invest your money and offers big rewards.  A person has offered to babysit your child for little or nothing.  A stranger wants to tell you how to get to Heaven.

Can you trust them?

How do you know?

The credentials of one making big claims or offering great rewards are everything.  We must not assume because they seem okay, look impressive, drive a big car or live in a huge house, and everyone speaks well of them, that they are trustworthy.  Con men and scam artists succeed by big talk, great confidence, appearing successful, and winning your confidence.  They depend on your naivete, and count on you not asking the big questions.

Credentials.  How do you know this person is who they say they are, that they are trustworthy?

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What to do when flush with God’s money

“I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones.  There I will store all my grain and my goods.  And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink, and be  merry'” (Luke 12:18-19).

It happens more frequently than you might think.

A Christian brother or sister comes to a point in life when their bank account is fuller than it has ever been.  Their investments have paid off beyond anything they ever expected. Someone in the family died and left their estate to them.  Their stocks and bonds flourished in this booming economy.  A business they owned has been sold and now they have all this money.

They are wealthy by anyone’s definition.

At this point they ask themselves–and the Lord, too, we trust–“What do I do now?”

Four or five years back, an old gentleman with that very problem decided to pay off the indebtedness of our Global Maritime Ministries in New Orleans.   The fascinating thing to me was that he knew no one at GMM personally, but only that it had been begun by a Navy veteran of WW2.  The man himself had been in the Navy during that great period, and he had a place in his heart for this ministry.

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100 things we do by faith

“The just shall live by faith” (Habakkuk 2:4; quoted in Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11; Hebrews 10:38).

“We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).

We are all about faith.

Every human on the planet lives by faith.  There is no one, no matter how scientifically driven or how agnostically-convicted, who does not live by faith in those around him–the druggist, the chef, the doctor, the other motorists.

Almost everything Christians do, we do by faith.  This means the presence of two huge elements: A strong confidence in Jesus Christ (the very essence of faith) and the absence of something (which is what makes this faith, not sight).

We believe…yet we still have unanswered questions or doubts arise or fears persist.  We believe…but we don’t have enough resources to go forward, or the vote was negative, or our advisors counsel against it.

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Things impossible for most pastors to do

One can’t believe impossible things,” said Alice to the White Queen. “I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” –From Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

I write this mostly tongue in cheek.  But not completely.

Try not to appear to be bragging, pastor.  It’s unbecoming to you.

Having pastored six churches over 42 years and having preached for over 55 years, I know how what I am doing or thinking, fearing or dreading, anticipating or remembering tend to work themselves into what I am preaching.

In fact, it seems to require the strength of Samson to keep these things out of our sermons….

If a pastor jogs or works out, it is impossible for him not to work that into a sermon at least monthly.  “As I was jogging yesterday morning, I’d just completed my third mile….”

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When opening the Word, context may be an advisor, but not the “King.”

“Context is king.”  Ever heard that?  Many seminary professors have taught that to the young preachers in their classrooms.

It’s in error.

According to so many scholars, “What did the author mean?” is the first question we should ask when seeking to understand a Scripture.  It implies that if we can get inside the head of the writer(s), we will have the full and accurate meaning of the text.

Not right.  Not even close.

This morning, a friend shared a devotional from Exodus 12 concerning the Passover Lamb and the blood upon the doorpost.  Christians–i.e., those who know the rest of the story and enjoy the teaching of the New Testament and the perspective of Calvary–know this was pointing to the blood of the Lamb of God, the Lord Jesus Christ.  We are redeemed by the blood is the constant theme of the New Testament.  And the Passover Lamb was just one of many ways the inspiring Holy Spirit chose to plant that preparation in the minds and hearts of His people.

But Moses could not have known that.  He surely had no clue.

His job was to obey, whether he understood or not.

What the writer understood is informative, but not the end of the story.

Did Moses understand the “snake on a stick” from Numbers 21?  No way did he know what God was up to with that.  But Jesus knew. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15).

So, what Moses understood has nothing to do with anything.

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Dear Pastor: Our search committee liked you. However….

The only method I can find in the Bible to seeking a new pastor is to ask the Lord repeatedly (maybe ten days?), then narrow it to two candidates, offer up a this-is-it-Lord prayer and then flip a coin.  That seems to have been the system the disciples used in Acts 1, but if anyone thinks that is presented as a recommended formula, it’s news to me.  (And btw, I am not one of those who thinks the disciples did a wise thing there in the Upper Room.  But it’s merely my opinion.)

There is no scriptural precedent for pastor search committees that I know of.  Yet, they are a necessary evil, if I may be permitted to say.  The alternative seems to be bishops appointing pastors or church bosses hiring them.  Both methods have been tried and found wanting.  But so has the search committee system been found to be flawed. There is no foolproof method.

“We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).

These days, some churches are hiring firms to conduct the initial searching and culling for them.  If they have found this system to be an improvement over the spontaneous-committee-of-the-untrained, I haven’t heard.

Pastors eventually conclude that search committees come in all shapes and sizes, all theologies and philosophies and agendas.  Ministers learn to take what they say with quite a few grains of salt.  Committees often function like the local chamber of commerce, giving their community and church the glamour treatment to the point that even their own members wouldn’t recognize it.  They make promises they never follow through on, and ask all kinds of ridiculous questions they ignore once the questionnaire is returned.

Not all, of course.  Once in a while, a pastor discovers a gem of a committee.  I once told such a team, “The Lord is not leading me to your church, but I want all six of you in my church forever!”

Alas, those are the exceptions.

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10 ways pastors can save their sanity

Alternate titles for this might be: Ways to Prevent Burnout.  Or, How to Pastor the Saints Without Losing Your Religion.  How to Mind God’s Work Without Losing Yours.  How to Enter the Ministry Rejoicing and End the Same Way.

Okay. With me now?   This list is as it occurs to me, and is neither definitive nor exhaustive.  You’ll think of others.

One. Pace yourself.  You’re in this for the long haul, not just till Sunday.  Ministry is a marathon, not a sprint.  Among other things, this means you should not stay in the office too long, should not stay away from home too much, and should not become overly righteous.

Say what?  The “overly righteous” line comes from Ecclesiastes, something they say Martin Luther claimed as one of his favorites.  “Do not be excessively righteous and do not be overly wise.  Why should you ruin yourself?”  (7:16).   I interpret this to mean: “Don’t overdo it, pastor.  Keep your feet on the ground, and your humanity intact.”  It’s possible to be so religious you become a recluse, so devout you come to despise lesser humans, and so righteous you become a terror in the pulpit.  Stay grounded, friend.

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