Now You Know How a Pastor Feels

If you’ve had the television on at all in the last 24 hours, you’ve heard of the senseless death of Cincinnati Bengal’s football player Chris Henry. Apparently, he and his fiancee, the mother of his three children, were having a Tiger-and-Elin-Woods type spat and he was angry. As she drove away in her pickup truck a few miles north of Charlotte, North Carolina, he jumped in the back.

A motorist called 911 saying, “A black man is in the back of a pickup, beating on the window. It looks like he’s trying to get in. He’s wearing a cast on one arm.”

The next call to the emergency system from a second motorist reported the man lying in the highway, motionless. “It looks like he’s dead.” He was.

The victim of his temper, his uncontrolled rage? It would appear so.

One after another, representatives of the NFL, of the Bengals, and of Chris Henry’s friends, have uttered to the media and the sporting community the same three things: It’s sad, we’re sorry, and he was turning his life around.

Henry is a native of our area. Belle Chasse, just downriver from New Orleans, the location of the Belle Chasse Naval Air Station, is where he grew up and played high school ball. People there remember how “he came from nothing” and quickly found what sports stardom can do for a person. It brings great opportunities and incredible temptations.

We’ve not been told what trouble he got into during his high school or college (at West Virginia) years, but the NFL suspended him several times. He was arrested 5 times in the last 3 years for marijuana possession, driving under the influence, and such. He was only 26 years old.

“He was turning his life around.”


The fact that he died the way he did would seem to indicate otherwise, in my opinion, that he still had uncontrolled anger problems.

But no one wants to say a bad word about the deceased. And that’s just fine. There’s no need; what would be the point?

Now you know how pastors feel at funerals.

A pastor feels no need at a funeral service to lay out the entire life-record of the deceased. There’s no need. We’re not the judge. Another is. We’re perfectly content to leave that to God.

We preachers get criticized–sometimes with justification–for glossing over the life record of the guest-of-honor occupying the casket. Around here, a fellow who leaves a string of broken marriages and disgusted business partners but who gave a large amount of money to the church (one church or another; not naming any) will get a send-off that would do justice to the Apostle Paul.

But for the most part, when the man of God puts a good spin on the deceased life, he is trying to do one thing: help the family get through this the best they can. That’s all.

He will not tell all he knows about the individual. He won’t even tell what everyone in the room knows. He might give some passing reference to the troubles the fellow dealt with or even the heartaches he caused others. But he’ll get off it quickly and try to put as positive a spin on it as he can without doing damage to truth.

So, when you hear the accolades regarding Chris Henry this weekend–the NFL has asked all teams to commemorate his passing–don’t be surprised when you keep hearing “he had turned his life around.”

Some readers will remember Len Bias who played basketball at Maryland some 20 years ago. He was a bonafide star and headed for big things in the NBA. Just before he went into the big leagues and achieved full stardom, he died of drugs. That was a while ago and if I’m wrong on any of this, readers are invited to leave a correction in the comments at the end.*

At his funeral, a minister said something that has stuck with me these two decades: “You don’t judge a player on the court by his last shot.” True enough. We don’t judge him at all, of course, although we must make judgements all the time. That is to say, we make decisions about actions, our own and other people’s, as a matter of getting through our day.

That minister was trying to help the family and friends get through this.

If you understand that and agree with it, you’re sensing the heart of a pastor.

What exactly is that, the “heart of a pastor”?

“Speak the truth in love.” (Ephesians 4:15) No phrase in the Bible says it better.

We in the ministry deal with two commodities: truth and love.

If we speak the truth but without love, we come across as righteous hard-nosed zealots who “let the chips fall where they may.” That figure of speech actually means, “I don’t care who I hurt.”

No pastor worthy of his calling would ever say such a thing.

A pastor cares.

On the other hand, if we have love but do not speak the truth, we are blubbering sentimentalists with nothing to offer anyone that can do them any good.

The pastor speaks the truth, but in love.

It’s the combination that provides the balance and achieves the good.

My friend Ralph Neighbour was pastoring a church in Houston in 1972 when an Indian guru came to the Astrodome for a mass rally. Guru Maharaj Ji was a teenager who was being manipulated and programmed and used–it later came out–by family and managers to con a generation of gullible young Americans. Their contributions had allowed this young Indian to lease a 747 plane and live like royalty.

So, Ralph sent a young staff member to the rally at the Astrodome. “Check it out, and come back and tell me what you observed,” he instructed. The student minister sat in the stands with fifty thousand other young adults and came back all aglow over the day’s events.

“It was great,” he said. “They are the real thing.”

Ralph said, “What do you mean?”

The staffer said, “Man, they really love each other.”

Ralph calmly pointed out to him that the guru’s teaching was pure heresy. He was claiming that in every generation God has walked the earth, that Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Krishna, and other religious leaders were all embodiments of the Almighty. The guru, of course, was the latest in a long line of personifications of God.

Even if they had love, the pastor said, and that’s debatable, they did not have truth.

That movement, incidentally, quickly dissolved when the guru married his secretary and came down with bleeding ulcers. His humanity was too strong a contrast with the divine nature he was claiming for himself and too much to ask the flower children of that day to accept in their deity.

The pastor deals with truth or he is no man of God. He does so in love or he is no shepherd.

When a New Orleans pastor was indicted for racketeering this week, it brought more blame upon both the city and more shame upon the ministry. As a longtime member of the Sewage and Water Board, this pastor of an independent Missionary Baptist church put the screws on contractors to contribute to the “scholarship program of his church,” he would no doubt say with an “ahem” in his voice. Millions of dollars were given to the church, which was a money-laundering operation, according to U.S. Attorney Jim Letten.

Incidentally, I have finally learned to quit posting the name of the indicted on this blog. When I quote from the newspaper–and that’s the source of my information about this shameful preacher–and use the name of the culprit, in the future, if someone googles his name, this article pops up on his screen.

One pastor accused of sexual molestation in the newspaper, but who later had the charges dropped, e-mailed me that everytime he applied for a job, the employer would type his name into the search engine. “The first thing that comes up is your article,” he said, “and that’s the end of that.”

We went back to that old article and removed his name.

Truth might demand that we print his name. Love asks us not to, since he was never convicted of a crime and it would serve no useful purpose. Was he guilty of molestation? I do not know and have no way of knowing. But since we’re not running the Police Gazette here, we want to do the loving thing.

It’s hard to know sometime.

Yesterday, for example.

I had posted a note on Facebook with a humorous comment from a well-known pastor now in Heaven. Several people who admired that pastor left comments in agreement. But one in particular stood out.

One minister posted a lengthy and effusive tribute that overflowed–way, way over the top!–in accolades praising that minister. He ended, “He is the one who taught me that all the glory goes to God.” And then, his comment was signed with something like: “From Dr. Johnny Johnson, D.D., Ph.D. Pastor, Bible expositor, and Author of the best-selling book ‘Teach the Word!'”

A friend was struck by that. He said, “Did you notice that after he said all the glory goes to God, he calls attention to himself and to his degrees and the book he has written?”

I agreed that it was over-the-top and in poor taste. We both agreed that someone ought to tell that pastor. “He needs to know how he’s coming across.”

For a fleeting moment, I thought of doing it, of sending him a note to say a reader had noticed the incongruity of his self-identity with his desire to glorify the Lord. But then I backed down.

I’m not the one to do it, I decided. To intrude into this private area of another person’s life requires a relationship of trust, something he and I do not have since we barely know one another. Unless our relationship is based on love, my “truth” would only injure him.

It’s an old line, but has never been improved on:

“Pastor, they don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

My opinion is this explains why the newly converted Apostle Paul was ineffective when he first began proclaiming Jesus. (Acts 9) He had the truth and was zealous in proclaiming it. What he lacked was the love. That took a little more aging and mellowing, so the Lord allowed Paul to return to Tarsus, his home, to think things through. Later, when the revival broke out in Antioch of Syria, he was ready.

Tell them the truth, pastor. Do it lovingly or not at all.

You’ll be preaching like Jesus.

(*I’m indebted to a friend for correcting Len Bias’ name from the way I originally posted it here.)

3 thoughts on “Now You Know How a Pastor Feels

  1. Bro. Joe,

    Thank you for talking about love in Christ. As I grow older, I realize the importance of this love in order to withness to others. Also, honesty is so important, even though sometimes honesty hurts. Merry Christmas to you and Margaret.

    Sara Criswell

    Picayune, Ms.

  2. Nice article. As a pastor I see the death of someone as another opportunity to give the gospel. That gives the hearer the choice to judge the deceased on their own terms but without excuse as to examining their own similarites.


    Its Len Bias, the basketball player from Maryland.

  3. I conduct funerals for a couple of Parlors when the family request them to furnish a pastor for the service. Mom wanted to know how I could conduct a funeral of someone whom I did not know. I informed her that I am ministering to the living…not to the deceased!

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