When you suddenly realize the pastor’s sermon is missing something

My wife was commenting on a sermon she heard recently.  “It was a fine sermon in many respects.  It called for the right kind of actions and spoke of the Holy Spirit.  And then it hit me.  Nowhere does this person’s preaching deal with the gospel, mention Calvary, or call for repentance.”

She said, “I suppose the sermon works if everyone is saved and obedient and has a sincere desire to serve God.  But what if they aren’t?  What if we are rebels, what if our hearts are in rebellion against God? What then?”

“Preaching like this sneaks up on you,” she said, referring to what that sermon was missing.

Much has been said about the sermon delivered by the Episcopal bishop at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on May 19.  Most of us enjoyed hearing the sermon, particularly because it was so American and so typical of the African-American tradition we’re familiar with but which presumably the British elite crowd is not.

Continue reading

When a friend grieves, we all hurt.

This was written some years back after the drowning death of little Haylee Mazzella, the granddaughter of my dear friends Dr. Buford and Bonnie Easley.  I came across it this week, handwritten hastily, in an old file.  I have no idea whether I ever shared it with the family or not. The grandfather is now in Heaven, alongside our wonderful Lord Jesus and Buford’s precious granddaughter.  My heart still hurts from the memory.

If our grief could ease just a sliver of your grief, you would have none left because so many friends are sorrowing for you today.

If our tears could dry your tears, you would weep no more, because so many are heartbroken for you today.

If our pain could erase yours, you would never against experience a moment’s discomfort the rest of your life, because so many are hurting for you today.

If our prayers could bring your child back, she would be with us this very moment because so many are interceding for you today.

If our grief could ease your grief, our tears dry your tears, our pain erase your pain, and our prayers undo this tragedy, it would be done in a heartbeat.

Continue reading

Where joy goes to die

“Joy is the business of Heaven.”  –C. S. Lewis 

What started me thinking of this was a line from James Comey’s book “A Higher Loyalty.”

“Although I have had a different idea of ‘fun’ than most, there were some parts of the Justice Department that had become black holes, where joy went to die.” 

James Comey explains further about his days at the Justice Department: “Places where morale had gotten so low and the battle scars from bureaucratic wrangling with other departments and the White House so deep, I worried that we were on the verge of losing some of our best, most capable lawyers.”

Sound familiar, pastor?

Continue reading

A reservoir of trust–and a hole in the dam

This is one somewhat lengthy paragraph from James Comey, taken from his book “A Higher Loyalty,” concerning his years as a U.S. Attorney, in the Attorney General’s office, and as director of the F.B.I.

It was now my responsibility to build my own culture within the U.S.Attorney’s office, one that would get the best out of our team and drawing, in different ways, on the lessons of Giuliana and Fahey.  I tried to attend to this task from the very first day. I hired about fifty new prosecutors during my time as U.S. Attorney and sat with each of them as they took the oath of office.  I invited them to bring their families.  I told them that something remarkable was going to happen when they stood up (in court) and said they represented the United States of America–total strangers were going to believe what they said next.  I explained to them that although I didn’t want to burst their bubbles, this would not happen because of them.  It would happen because of those who had gone before them and, through hundreds of promises made and kept, and hundreds of truths told and errors instantly corrected, built something for them.  I called it a reservoir.  I told them it was a reservoir of trust and credibility built for you and filled for you by people you never knew, by those who are long gone.  A reservoir that makes possible so much of the good that is done by the institution you serve.  A remarkable gift.  I would explain to these bright young lawyers that, like all great gifts, this one comes with a responsibility, a solemn obligation to guard and protect that reservoir and pass it on to those who follow as full as you received it, or maybe even fuller.  I would explain that the problem with reservoirs is that they take a very long time to fill but they can be drained by one hole in the dam.  The actions of one person can destroy what ti took hundreds of people years to build.

The credibility of an institution.  Like a government, a college, a school, a church.  Even the credibility of one person–a leader, a president, a senator, a law enforcer, a pastor.

Plenty of people are saying that Mr. Comey himself blew a hole in the dam of the FBI during his time as its leader.  Which, if so, makes his words above even more poignant.

Continue reading

Does your church need an ethics commission?

Many a pastor and/or staff member would still be in ministry today had they sought the counsel of church leaders on some practice they were contemplating.

Can the pastor start a business on the side and still receive full pay from the church? Is it all right if he markets something to the church?  Or to the members?

May the pastor’s wife be paid for all the hard work she’s doing?  How much should the pastor be reimbursed when the allotted money did not cover his expenses for a church mission trip?  What if a company doing business with the church offers to build the pastor a swimming pool (or garage or bird house!) in appreciation?

Get advice, pastor.

Continue reading

The test of an honest person (when discussing religion)

“In all things, love.”  –I Corinthians 16:14

That’s one test of a believer and a mighty important one it is.  Our Lord said it is the mark of a disciple.  (John 13:34-35)

Look for the love.  Otherwise, you know this one with whom you are discussing scriptures and doctrines is no follower of Jesus.

The cultist you’re talking religion to across the table or across the continent feels no need to love you since he/she has decided you are not a follower of Jesus since you disagree with their doctrine.  I’ve sat at a table with a Jehovah’s Witness who was brutal and mean-spirited and who may as well have thought of me as a child-molester by the scoffing and belittling he was dishing out.  (I was a younger pastor, and had not learned that there comes a time when it’s all right to say, “This meeting is over,” and walk out.)

But while love is the first mark of the believer, there’s another test for determining whether the person across the table is an honest seeker.

Continue reading

When the search committees say no: The question to ask

The brethren brought (Saul) down to Caesarea and sent him away to Tarsus (his home town).  Acts 9:30.

So, the great soon-to-be Apostle Pau, but presently still Saul of Tarsus, went home and made tents.  Perhaps he moved back into his old room.  We can hear his parents saying, “For this we sacrificed for him to attend the rabbinic school in Jerusalem?  Why isn’t he working?”

Saul was waiting on the call from the Lord.  Hadn’t the Father called him?  Hadn’t he prepared himself?  Wasn’t he effective in preaching?  So, what’s going on here?

Saul had no idea what the Lord was up to.  Later, he would write a lesson learned by hard experience: “We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).

“Is this normal?”

Continue reading

There will always be people we have to learn to love

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?  The unsaved do that…. But love your enemies and do good and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great…. –Luke 6:32-35

I was a freshman in college, with everything that implies:  I was green, scared, eager, excited, learning, stupid, silly, and a hundred other things.

Among the civilians working on our campus was Mrs. Grigsby.  I can see her to this day: stern, tight-lipped, unfriendly, and unloving. We thought she looked more like a man than a woman. She was all business, never a ‘good morning,’ and generally unpleasant, we all thought.

Continue reading

Just before the pastor enters the pulpit

As a guest preacher, I can clear my mind before rising to preach and start fresh.  This is the high point of my week, and in most cases nothing has happened to cloud my focus or burden my spirit.  I am going to give this my best.

Pastors of congregations, however, are often in an entirely different situation.

As a pastor enters the sanctuary to begin the worship service and preach the sermon which has weighed heavily on his mind and heart all week, this is not the only thing on his mind.  Things happened at his home earlier this morning, in the car driving to church, and during Sunday School.  Then, someone stopped by his office with a complaint or a problem, a staff member did something poorly (or wrong) in the early part of the worship service, and several musicians are absent today.  A family is not sitting where they normally do, we have several new people–that’s good; sure hope they like us!–and a light bulb is out over the balcony.  The pastor knows this service is the high point of the week for many and the sermon should be that for him.  But this is Sunday, a full day of work for the leader of the congregation.  The budget planning committee meets this afternoon at 3, the deacons at 4, a class at 5, and the preacher will be bringing another sermon at 6.  Someone wants to have an after-church fellowship tonight, and he has to leave town early tomorrow to attend a convention in the state capital.

In the service, the pastor sees he picked up the wrong Bible for the sermon today–he prefers that other version of the text–he wonders where his notes are, and he’s uncertain about point three of his sermon.

Continue reading

Ten things lay leaders can teach the congregation

The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, these entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.  –2 Timothy 2:2

Pastors teach from the pulpit.  Bible teachers will teach in classes.  But in addition, there will be occasions–often sudden, spontaneous occasions–when a lay leader will have the opportunity to teach a biblical truth.

Leaders should always be prepared.

Here’s one way it often happens….

The church member is upset at the pastor.  She calls her deacon to complain about last Sunday’s sermon.  “We don’t need more sermons on (whatever the subject was).”   He listens until she is empty.  Then, he asks her something.

“Do you have a minute to listen to something?”

She is puzzled.  “Sure. What is it?”

Continue reading