Perhaps the hardest thing a pastor will ever do

Speak to the current moral dilemma facing the country (or dividing your community) without making matters worse.

That has to be one of the most difficult minefields a pastor ever has to tread.

One misstep and he’s a goner.

Twenty years ago, it was President Clinton’s infidelity that was dividing the country.  In the same decade it was the O. J. Simpson trial.  These days, the issue is sexual harassment (or any of its various manifestations: sexual molestation, intimidation, assault, etc.) by men in positions of power.

A man–always a man–runs for prominent public office and someone stands up and says, “He attacked me.”  Or, molested me.  Touched me inappropriately.  Took advantage of me.  Raped me.

The media flocks to the accuser and stories are written. Sleuths check out her story and some corroborate it while others trot out family members who say she is a chronic liar or family members of the accused to say they’ve never known him to do anything like that.

Then, next step.  Other women step up and say, “He treated me the same way.”

Quickly, the matter becomes page one across the country.  Leading the nightly news.  Fueling talk shows. Dividing everyone on Facebook.  Splitting families.

Defenders are enraged.  Supporters of the accusers are offended by the way their friends have accommodated themselves to the culture and forgotten Jesus’ call to defend the helpless and bless the children.

So, the poor pastor decides this matter must be addressed in next Sunday’s sermon.  What is he to do?

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The pictures we made at the hospital and cemetery

My daughter has been posting some photos which I would just as soon didn’t ever see the light of day.  It’s not that they’re bad pictures or that I don’t love the people in them.

They were shot either at the hospital where my wife lay on life support for six days or at the church in the luncheon following her funeral.  And they all have one terrible thing in common.

We’re all smiling.

I’ve noticed this in photographs our family has made in years past.  We would be at the funeral of my parents or a beloved aunt or uncle, and after the ceremonies have ended and people are milling around greeting one another or saying their farewells, someone breaks out a camera and begins grouping us.  And without fail, we do it.

We all smile.

I suppose it’s because we were taught from childhood if someone points a lens in our direction, we smile.  I certainly ask every person who sits before me to be sketched to smile.  Everyone looks better smiling, “including you,” I tell them.

But sometimes, it feels like a smile is out of place.

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Options the Lord did not leave open to us

“If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how shall you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (John 3:12)


Over the years, in theological debates between liberals and conservatives, I recall hearing some say, “The Bible is not a book of science and never was meant to be.  It is not a history book, in the same way it’s not a cook book or a travel guide.  It is reliable in terms of spiritual matters, but should not be expected to get the other things right.”

On the surface, that sounds reasonable enough. Anyone who has read the Bible with discernment admits there are places in Scripture that challenge our understanding as we try to reconcile its teaching with other things we (ahem) “know to be true.”  (This would include the Creation, Noah’s Flood, miracles of one type or the other, and of course, the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection.)

Is it possible to accept Scripture when it speaks of salvation, forgiveness, and eternal life but reject it on lesser matters?

The Lord Jesus, in His conversation with Nicodemus, closes that door and removes that option. He tells this “ruler of the Jews” three things:

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The Hardest Battle I Have to Fight

…is with myself.

I tend to be lazy, self-centered, thoughtless toward others, have a short attention span, forget the way others have blessed me, and not stick with projects. And, as a friend says, those are my good points.

I forgot vain, materialistic, and fearful. I also worry a lot.

Oh, great, some reader is thinking along about now. We get to endure all his soul-searching and wade through the results of the autopsy he has run on himself.

Nope. I’ll spare you.

Because, to tell the truth, I’m not at all unlike you. Whether you like that or not, it’s the unvarnished truth. You and I are two peas in a pod, twins of such similarities we might as well share the same DNA.

You too are self-centered in many areas, and childish in some ways, and with a tendency to give little thought to pleasing your Creator or for that matter, other people. You and I are sinners. And, just to set the record straight, I don’t mean respectable sinners but incorrigible, hard-core rebels of the first magnitude who need to be taken out to the woodshed and “whupped.”

When the Bible said, “There is none righteous, no, not one,”–it’s found in both the Old and New Testaments, so that ought to tell us something–it could just as well have inserted our names. (Romans 3:10)

When the Lord Jesus told us to deny ourselves in order to become His disciples (Matthew 16:24), He knew full well what He was asking. What He was NOT asking for was that we would deny our humanity, our identity, or our dignity–that is, how He made us, who we are, and what we are worth.

What He WAS calling for was that we turn our backs on our self-centered, destructive, people-using tendencies and misguided behaviors.

And that’s where our biggest battles come.

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The Hardest Funeral I Ever Held

Sometimes you pity the preacher. When everyone has been shocked into silence and stillness by a death of tragic or untimely proportions, he’s the one who has to stand up and voice the grief and try to put the life of the deceased into focus. While they’re grieving, he goes to work.

Charlie Dale pastors the Grace Baptist Church in the Bywater section of New Orleans. This weekend, two men in our city were walking on sidewalks and were killed by motorists. One took place 5 blocks from Charlie’s church, the other in the central business district. Charlie will be holding the funeral of the latter one Wednesday morning.

If Charlie and other pastors are like me, even while they are in the midst of the mourning and grieving, when they are struggling to find just the right words, and while their hearts are being torn in two, they will feel a surge of inner joy that few others would understand. That joy is evidence that God has called that pastor into this ministry, that he is doing the very thing for which he was created and to which he was called.

How many funerals have I conducted over a half-century of ministry? I made no attempt to keep records on such. But if you conservatively figure just one funeral a month, the number exceeds 500. Most were normal and fairly indistinguishable from the others. A few stand out.

The strangest funeral I ever held was for a 64 year old man and his 32 year old grandson. Now, stop and do the math on that. How could a 64 year old man have a grandson that age? The answer is that the older gentleman had died 10 years previously and the family had kept his ashes, but there had never been a funeral. Now that the grandson was dead and would receive a funeral service, the family included grandpa.

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The Hardest Prayer I Ever Prayed

I’m very aware of the tabloid mentality of our generation and the love for scandals, but, sorry, none today, not here. However, what I will tell you is that I was in a valley of depression, Margaret and I were going through a terrible time in our marriage, and absolutely nothing I was doing was of any interest to me. Furthermore, I could not find any alternative that offered hope for anything better.

Classic depression, I’d call that. My first bout with it. I was 39 years old and truly miserable for the first time in my life.

And a pastor. Yep, I was still in the pulpit, still going to the church office every morning, still holding funerals and weddings and counseling people with problems. And me a basket case.

I looked into becoming a college professor, which had been my original career plan until the Lord called me into the ministry while a senior at Birmingham-Southern. Since we had a good college in the town where we were living, I asked a professor what a beginning instructor would earn, someone who had just received his Ph.D., which I had not done, of course. The figure he named was so low, about half of what I was making, that it was like cold water in my face. It pricked my little pretentious balloon in record time.

Margaret and I had gone into, suffered through, and emerged on the other side of a solid year of marriage counseling. We had learned much about ourselves and our different backgrounds and the completely opposite drives that had brought us into this marriage in the first place. She had had an unhappy home life and was latching onto the “prince charming” who would take her away from it. I was a young minister who wanted a wife of low maintenance who would keep the home fires burning while I saved the world. We had not been married a month when we began to see that the reality of our marriage was light years away from what we had anticipated.

And yet, all the while I knew that this marriage was God’s will for me, and that Margaret was the person He had chosen for me. Even in my rebellion, I knew that, and it even made me angrier. Like a spoiled child, I did not want anyone telling me what was best, what was the will of God, and how I should repress my own agenda to find happiness in life.

A rebellious heart is a terrible thing. I was my own worst enemy.

Two years later, when Margaret and I took the Sunday night worship service at our church and gave our testimonies as to how the Lord had changed our hearts and saved our home, I told the congregation how I had continued preaching during this bleak time: “I never said a thing I didn’t believe; I said a great deal I didn’t feel.”

My adult children will read this and probably have only vague memories of any of it, which is good. We both always adored our children, and in fact, that only added to my complete frustration. I wanted what I wanted–which was out of that marriage and in a teaching profession and to continue being the father of Neil and Marty and Carla–and was torn right down the middle. I was holding onto two dead-opposite goals in life.

A perfect recipe for misery.

So I began to pray.

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The Hardest Church Member I Ever Loved

There’s no contest for this “honor,” although quite a few made it into the “honorable mention” category. These are members of the seven churches I pastored over 42 years who dedicated themselves to making life miserable for the pastor. Looking back now–with much clearer vision and perspective than I had at the time–I find myself thanking God for everyone of these people. Those that didn’t teach me something by their opposition drove me closer to the Father in desperation. Anything that does that is not all bad.

Mr. Wyatt stormed into my office one morning during Sunday School, a few minutes before the worship service. “Preacher, you have offended me and upset my wife!”

I said, “Tell me who you are, then tell me how I did that.” I had never met the man.

He told me his name, then explained what had happened.

“Yesterday, you came into the fellowship hall where they were taking pictures for the pictorial church directory. You spent time with everyone in the room and I saw you drawing sketches for the children. Then, before you left, you stood in the doorway and looked around. You looked my wife and me squarely in the eyes, then walked out without speaking to us.”

I apologized all over myself and assured Mr. Wyatt that if I did that, it was completely inexcusable, but that I had no memory of ever seeing him and his wife there.

That didn’t do the job for him. He was angry when he entered and angrier when he left.

That week, I ran by his house to apologize to his wife. He was not at home, so she and I visited at the front door. “Oh, preacher, don’t worry about that,” she said. “That’s just Wyatt.”

Even if it was not an issue with her, it continued to be with him. From that moment on, Mr. Wyatt went on a tear against me. In church business meetings, he rose to speak against motions on the floor, usually with an anger all out of proportion to what we were discussing.

In worship services, he sat in the rear of the sanctuary, wearing a scowl that would have lasered a hole through me if it could.

Had Mr. Wyatt been the only church member despising me, I probably would have dealt with it more directly. But the truth is, for the first several years at that church, he had lots of company. One inactive deacon stood in the foyer of the church and told everyone who entered that I was a liberal and destroying the church. Another small group of older members met in a corner before and after the services to compare notes and feed off each other’s misery. Wyatt was the least of my problems.

Then came the sermon I preached in June of 1997, the message posted on this blog a couple of days ago under the heading, “The Hardest Sermon I Ever Preached.”

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The Hardest Sermon I Ever Preached

(It was Sunday, June 21, 1997. After putting up with the immature rants and raves of a few church members for seven years of that pastorate, I decided it was time to air this dirty linen on a Sunday morning, something pastors are loathe to do. This became the watershed moment for our church. Afterwards, I remained as pastor another 7 years, and they became some of the sweetest years of my long ministry. Recently, I ran across the typed version of that sermon, and decided to reprint it here in the hope that it may help some other pastor who may be going through his own private hell in the church where the Lord Jesus Christ assigned him.)

The title was “Our Church is in Crisis–Just Like All Those Other Churches.” The text was Revelation chapters 2 and 3.

I want to say a word to you who are visiting with us this morning. Normally, pastors hesitate to ‘hang out the wash’ on a Sunday morning. If we have problems in the church, we deal with them at other times. On Sunday mornings, we have a lot of visitors and we naturally would like you to feel good about this church and come back, maybe even join us. However, we have some church members who never come to church except on Sunday morning and they are some who need to hear this.

In my last church, I learned that one of our deacons and his wife, Pat and Betty Hance, had witnessed a fist fight on their first day at our church. I found that hard to believe, and could not wait to ask them about it. Pat told how two men in the church had a grudge going and one was bullying the other. As the Hances sat in the Sunday School assembly, the bully walked by and made a snide remark about his opponent. With that, the man got up and knocked the daylights out of the bully.

I said to Pat, “Here’s my question. We pastors bend over backwards to impress visitors so they will come back. But on your first Sunday, you witnessed a fight–and not only did you return, you even joined the church. Explain that to me.”

He smiled and said, “Oh, we like an active church.”

I need to tell the visitors this morning, we have an active church.

Bernice Nicely was around 80 years old and sickly when she sent for me. She’d been in and out of hospitals, and I figured she wanted to talk about “last things.” But she had something else on her mind. She said, “Pastor, I know I’m saved. I know I’m going to Heaven when I die. But there’s something else troubling me.” She paused a moment and said, “Pastor, I haven’t done right by the church.”

The next Sunday she joined the church and began sending her tithe.

I need to ask each of you in this building, “Have you done right by the church?”

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