Finishing With a Flourish

(Note from Joe: this is a variation on the same subject as our recent article “What the Godly Elderly Can Expect.” As with most pastors, I’m just trying to find the most effective way of getting the message across.)

…the time of my departure is close. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. In the future, there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the Righteous Judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me, but to all those who have loved his appearing. (II Timothy 4:6-8)

I wish you could have known Ed Logan. The Saturday morning that will forever stand out in my mind, he got up early and left Mary Ellen asleep while he drove across town to Shoneys. The Gideons were having their monthly meeting to plan for more Bibles to be handed out in local schools. When Ed got home, he told Mary Ellen, “I didn’t take any money with me, and those pancakes sure smelled good.” She made him pancakes and they sat there and visited while he ate.

“I’m going over and plow Mr. Everett’s garden,” Ed told Mary Ellen. Everett Beasley lives a couple of blocks from our church. I imagine the two men were similar in age, but Mr. Beasley had numerous medical problems. Ed cranked up his tiller and went to work in the back yard.

That’s where they found Ed Logan. Dead of a heart attack.

That’s the way to go out. In the saddle, with your boots on. In the harness. Hard at work. In the trenches. Choose your metaphor.

The Apostle Paul had been given a gift. He knew his departure was eminent. “I am already being poured out as a drink offering,” he said. “The time for my departure is close.”

So, he reported in. He filed his final report, announcing for anyone interested that his work was done and he had finished the assignment given him by the Lord on that Damascan Road.

They tell me that the trapeze artist and tightrope walker are most vulnerable when taking their last step or two to safety. They’ve been out there above the circus ring, defying death, thrilling the audience. Now, their routine has ended, the crowd is applauding, they’ve done well. If they are not careful, they’ll let their guard down. That final step to safety is critical.

Ty Cobb was one of the great baseball players ever. Over a 22-year-career with the Detroit Tigers he set records that still stand. But he may have been the orneriest, the surliest, the rudest player ever. He lived the last years of his life in a small town in Georgia. Someone told me recently that a few weeks or months before his death, Cobb gave his life to Jesus Christ and was saved.

He sent a message to his teammates. “Tell them I got into the Kingdom in the bottom of the ninth.” Then he said, “I sure wish I’d come in at the top of the first.”

My question for you today is: What inning is it for you? If life is thought of in terms of a baseball game, what inning are you in?

The answer is: There’s no way to know.

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Changing the Culture of Your Church

This is for pastors and other church leaders in particular.

When Jim went to his church as the new pastor, he told me, “They have a bad history. Every two years they run the preacher off.” He paused and said, “Let’s see if we can change that.”

He didn’t. Two years later, in spite of the wonderful growth the church was experiencing, a little group informed him that his work there was done and it would be better if he left.

I served one church where a small group of leaders–some elected and some not–met from time to time to make important decisions for the church. The poor pastor had little or no say. When I, the new preacher, suggested that this is the type of thing a congregation needs to know about and make the decision, the spokesman said, “We don’t like to upset the congregation about these things.”

These days, since I’m in a different church almost every Sunday, I see all kinds of arrangements in congregations. In one, the pastor seemed to be an appendage and was considered irrelevant by the lay leadership. In another, he was the good old boy expected to not make waves.

Since my ministry in a church (as the guest preacher) is usually confined to preaching a sermon and extending the public invitation, I try to find out certain things before the service begins:

–what is the congregation expecting from me today?

–are they responsive during the sermon? If they are, I see that as a great compliment to the pastor. No congregation suddenly begins listening and responding to a sermon when a new dynamic (ahem!) guest preacher arrives. If they are listening to me well, I decide they listen well to their pastor too.

–are the people responsive during the invitation? Do they get up and come to the altar area to pray without coaxing from the preacher? If so, that’s a great sign.

–are the people glad to be alive, to be in church, to be with each other? Or are they just enduring this hour.

I do not usually ask anyone about these issues, but just observe. I’m trying to get the temperature of the congregation.

I’m trying to assess the culture of this particular church.

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What the Godly Elderly Can Expect

They will still bring forth fruit in old age; they shall be full of sap and very green. (Psalm 92:14)

A godly old person is a work of art, something worth beholding.

Define: “Old.”

Not me, buster. Never in a hundred years.

I’m by that the way I am when a woman says, “Guess how old I am.” Laverne did that to me a few weeks ago. I served as her pastor decades ago, and probably had a general idea of her age. But I said, “Do I look to you like I’ve lost my mind? There is no way I’m going to guess your age. Not in a hundred years would I attempt it.”

Then she told me her age. I was stunned. I would have missed–underguessing–by two decades or more.

Old, someone has said, is twenty years older than yourself. As a rule, that’s probably pretty accurate. But no longer for me. I turned 71 this week, and know that I’m edging pretty close to the dividing line. No amount of walking-on-the-levee or doing-pushups-in-front-of-the-television or pumping those small weights slows down the passage of time for one minute. The years come and then they go, leaving their mark, taking their toll.

And that’s just fine. It’s how God set up the world.

But there is good news.

God has made promises to His children who walk with Him faithfully into those senior years. Psalm 92:14 contains three such promises. However, before looking at them, let us remind ourselves of something vital.

What God has not promised is that you and I will get to be among those old people.

Growing old is a privilege. It means we are blessed with long life. Scripture sees this as a blessing from Heaven. However, no one is guaranteed a certain number of years.

Growing old is a privilege denied to a great many. Over these 50 years in the ministry, I have conducted funerals for people of all ages, from infancy up. Some we buried in young adulthood, as they left their little children behind, never to see them grow up and marry and have babies of their own. They would have given everything they owned to have the privilege you and I are being given, to grow old. To be called seniors.

Many of us do something really strange in this regard: We don’t want to die/ however, we do not want to get old.

Think of the contradiction. We want to continue living and not die, but we don’t want to get old in the process. We want it both ways.

I suggest we all embrace our seniorhood. Accept those lines in the face and the grey in the hair and when necessary, the stoop to the shoulders. It’s a small price we pay for being allowed to continue breathing–living and serving, loving and giving.

For those who will serve God through their years and continue into the latter years, God gives three promises:

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Changing Standards for Changing Times? Not So Fast.

She still laughs about it, even though it happened a half century ago.

Gail had arrived in Columbus, Mississippi, to be interviewed for the position of Baptist director of college ministry. She would be the BSU director for the local campus of Mississippi State College for Women, or MSCW, now called Mississippi University for Women, or MUW. Since the position was paid by the First Baptist Church, the pastor, Dr. S. R. Woodson, was interviewing her and would be her primary supervisor.

After the interview, the pastor wanted to show Gail the nice building on College Street, some half-dozen blocks away.

The question was how to get her there without him, the preacher, sharing the automobile with her. A man alone in a car with a woman not his wife was unthinkable.

“I walked the entire six blocks,” Gail laughs. “With him driving his car alongside to make sure I was safe.”

Changing times? You bet. These days, almost every pastor I know would have said, “Come on and get in, and I’ll run you over there,” and not given it a second thought.

Changing standards? That’s another question altogether.

We’ve all heard Billy Graham say he decided early on in his ministry he would never be in a room alone with a woman not his wife, mother, daughter, or sister.

What about meeting a woman for coffee? Having lunch with a woman in a very public restaurant? Anything wrong with that?

Ah. Good question. One we’ve been discussing lately.

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What If Jesus Had Not Died

“What If?” is a series of best-selling books put together by Robert Cowley, in which historians look at some key event in history and try to imagine what if it had not happened that way.

What if Pontius Pilate had spared Jesus?

That is the title of the chapter by Carlos M. N. Eire, chairman of the Department of Religious Studies at Yale University. The subtitle reads, “Christianity without the Crucifixion.”

Eire imagines Pontius Pilate heeding the warning of his wife whose sleep had been disturbed that night by thoughts of “that righteous man.” Her message to the governor said, “Have nothing to do with him.”

So, he asks, what if Pilate had done the right thing and resisted the religious leaders and the rabble who were crying for Jesus to be executed and had released Him?

On one page, underneath a 13th century painting of Pilate with the Jewish leaders is the caption: “The Decision That Made a Religion.”

Eire asks, “What if Jesus hadn’t been nailed to a cross at Pilate’s orders? What if he had lived a long, long life? Or even just ten more years? Or one? What if his person and message had been interpreted differently, as they surely would have been?”

The answers could easily go all over the map, as Eire acknowledges. He says, “To speculate on what might have happened if anything at all had been different in the story of Jesus and his followers is to sail in an infinite ocean of possibilities.”

In other words, your guess is as good as his.

One thing is sure: If no crucifixion, no resurrection. And without either a cross or an empty tomb, we have nothing but an inspiring story of a wonderful man who lived an exemplary life. In other words, we’re in big trouble.

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No Place for Fear

Fear is a constant companion with many a minister.

The problem is most do not recognize it as fear. The monster takes many disguises, and can even show up as our closest friend.

The pastor who refuses to preach on a touchy subject because someone in his congregation is engaged in it is not acting from compassion or discretion. It’s good old-fashioned fear.

The pastor who refuses to train his people in faithful stewardship principles or shrinks from preaching on money because he hates being accused of money-grabbing is motivated, not by wise caution but by fear.

The pastor who will not stand up to a deacon bully, who cow-tows to a matron with a controlling passion, who keeps catering to unreasonable demands from the congregation because he does not like to “cause waves,” that pastor is living in fear and undermining his own ministry.

Nothing about fear pleases God. No ministry that finds its source in fear of people is of God. No powerful sermon, no sacrificial gift, no pastoral ministry, no church program rooted in fear of someone or some group has the blessings of Heaven.

Fear hath torment, according to I John 4:18.

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Worship Surprises: How to Deal With Them

Sooner or later, every pastor has it happen. He’s in the middle of a sermon, all is going well, he’s on top of his game, the Lord is near, the people are listening well. And then, bam!

An interruption. A disruption. (He will feel like it’s a “corruption.” The trick, however, is not to turn it into a PRO-duction. Okay, enough of that.)

Something happens in the service the pastor was not prepared for. It throws him. For a moment, he is stunned into silence.

What he says/does next and how he does it could end up being far more important than anything he was saying in the sermon.

The people sitting in front of the pastor are of two minds: like him, they had their train of thought disrupted by whatever happened, and they are watching to see how he handles things.

These interruptions–surprises, disruptions, snafus, foulups–are generally of two types: 1) those involving matters within the congregation, and 2) those which pertain primarily to the preacher himself.

The pastoral team can make preparations for dealing with the first kind. By setting up a first aid team or training the ushers for emergencies, you’re set for handling most crises.

Someone in the pew has a health crisis. In the middle of your sermon, you notice a commotion on the right side of the auditorium. People are hurrying to attend to the victim. What to do? Because you have a first aid team on site, the pastor calmly tells the congregation that well-trained people are taking care of matters. He asks for quietness and prayer while they do their job. A musician will play softly and the pastor will walk back to check on matters. The EMS people arrive and the victim is taken to the hospital. The pastor will lead in prayer for the person, and then make a determination whether the service is ended or to go forward.

An intruder invades the worship service and creates a commotion with his loud rants. The ushers go into action and whisk the person into the foyer where he is dealt with in an appropriate manner.

A bride faints in the middle of the wedding. The wedding director is ready. Someone carries the bride into the church parlor, where she is laid on a couch or the carpet. The wedding director breaks open a vial of smelling salts, and she is given nourishment (a glass of juice or something). After a 10 minute break, the wedding resumes. All is well.

I’ve had all these things happen and more. And, we survived them.

Our concern here, however, is with the second type of abrupt surprises–those directly involving the preacher. He’s using powerpoint when it fails. He is relying heavily on his notes when he realizes the last pages are not to be found. Someone he was counting on to do something necessary to his sermon has dropped the ball.

The pastor is announcing some event or program when a staffer interrupts to say his information is wrong and to correct him. The staff member is correct. The pastor now stands corrected.

What he does next tells volumes about the pastor’s character.

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The Passive Husband/Father

The family and I were traveling on U.S. Highway 45 some miles below Meridian, Mississippi, returning home to Columbus from a week at the Alabama beaches.

My wife was driving and I was to her right, reading the newspaper.

I looked up occasionally at the highway in front of us. It occurred to me our car was inching too close to the right edge. The shoulder of the road did not join with the highway, but where the concrete ended, there was a dropoff of at least six inches.

I should have been alarmed and should have alerted Margaret.

You would have thought this was happening to someone else. I sat there watching the highway, thinking, “The car’s wheels are getting uncomfortably close to the edge.”

Our three children were in the back seat. All our lives were at risk. And I did nothing.

Suddenly, the wheels dipped over the edge.

The car went into a spin on that two-lane highway while we were traveling at 60 miles per hour. That right front tire blew out. We spun around several times, and came to a rest in our lane, facing the opposite direction.

I can still hear our youngest son, about 10, calling out, “What’s happening? What’s happening?” as the car went into the whirlwind.

A man ran out of a house across the road to check on us. What he said scared me even worse than the experience.

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A Call for Caution Regarding Earthquakeology

A friend called me a spoon this week. “You’re always stirring up things,” Raeanne Olivier teased. She was referring to something I had posted on Facebook. At last count, around 50 people had clicked that they liked it and another 80 or so comments had been left. Some have probably unfriended me by now.

No one was neutral.

I said something to the effect that Earthquakes are not a sign of anything. They are not a sign that the world is coming to an end. They are evidence that we reside on a living planet, one that has to deal with its inner pressures and stresses. Tornadoes and hurricanes are pressure relief valves for this planet and not the whims of a vindictive God. Come on!

A lot of people agreed and sent thanks for a clear word of reason. But not everyone.

Some started quoting scripture to me. Which was funny.

You wonder where they think I’ve been all these years. Like I’ve not read the Scriptures.

What was funny about that–if it weren’t so tragic–is that they quoted it completely out of context. They cited verses where Jesus referred to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 that have nothing to do with eschatology (end of the world stuff). And when I told one writer that he/she needed to go back and read the context of those verses, someone else sent me the same verse.

Groan. Okay.

I’m a realist, folks. I am completely aware of two overwhelming facts: I do not have all knowledge and we’re not going to change everyone’s mind on anything.

Young pastors sometimes think if they preach the definitive sermon on a subject they have forever banished the darkness in that corner of their universe. But darkness has a way of hanging in there, taking root, and giving up none of its hard-won territory.

We have to fight these battles against biblical ignorance again and again. What’s frustrating is that some of the defenders of the darkness are in pulpits.

Any disciple of Jesus hates to see the Lord slandered. And that’s precisely what many who would try to defend Him are doing.

When people attribute the earthquake in Japan last week to the Almighty, someone quickly responds, “What kind of God would send such a calamity that killed untold thousands of unsuspecting people?” And a preacher quickly answers that God killed all those people in the Old Testament, so He is that kind of God.

Those of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus Christ would do well to get our theology from the New Testament. There are a hundred activities of God and His people in the Old Testament that are not for us. I don’t plan to stone my child who curses me or the couple caught in adultery, to name a couple. I do not agree with the psalmist who wrote that he would delight to bash in the heads of Babylonian babies (Psalm 137:9).

Even though we’ll not solve or resolve all this, I’d like to address a couple of concerns here.

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10 Things Healthy Churches Do Well

(When it comes to problems, here are ten things a healthy church will do.)

On Facebook this week, I posted an invitation for people to tell in one word each their concept of church, sermons, and church music. To no one’s surprise but mine, I suppose, the responses were all over the map.

With so benign a request, I had unearthed acres of pain and anger about the Lord’s people and His churches. Some had so much ill will that others responded that they must never have been saved in the first place.

To one such commenter, I replied, “Let’s go easy there, friend.” After all, I know there are indeed enemies of the church who have bought into Satan’s slander without any experience of their own. However, many of the church’s severest critics are faithful brethren who carry scars from mistreatment by the Lord’s own people, the very ones they had been trusting.

Write a book on “Why I’m Through With the Church Forever” and you will make money. Even those of us who love the church and have devoted our lives in her service will feel a need to hear what you have to say.

Write a book on “Why I Love the Church” and you end up with a garage-ful of your efforts. Those who already love the church will “amen” you and critics on the outside will mark you off as deluded.

Whether we are a critic or a lover of the church–or for some of us, both–it’s important to be balanced. (I started to say “fair and balanced,” but someone has co-opted that term, it seems.)

Let’s acknowledge that there are both kinds of churches in the world today. Good and bad. Strong and weak. Churches that ought to be cloned and some that should be euthanized.

For these moments, let’s focus on the churches which are healthy and strong, faithful and loving, redemptive and grace-ful.

There are cases in Scripture of churches getting it right. The incident in Acts 6, comprising only 7 verses, is a wonderful illustration of a congregation that faced up to a crisis in a healthy, Christ-honoring way and bore great fruit as a result.

Let’s use that Jerusalem church as an object lesson.

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