Is there any encouragement? Then, let’s hear it.

“This hope we have as an anchor for our souls” (Hebrews 6:19).

Richard John Neuhaus, a Christian social critic, was picked up at the Pittsburgh airport and driven to his speaking engagement.  The entire drive, his host lamented about the disintegration of the American social fabric and the absence of Christian values in our culture.  Cases in point were too numerous to mention, but the man did anyway.  On and on, he railed against every known failure of humans, particularly his favorite sins.  Finally, as they neared their destination, Neuhaus offered these words of advice:  “Friend, the times may be bad, but they are the only times we are given. Never forget, hope is a Christian virtue and despair a mortal sin.”

Hope is a virtue.  Despair a mortal sin.

If there is one group of people on the planet who should be forever hopeful and expectant, it’s the disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.

If you want to see hope in the flesh, find a dedicated fisherman.  Someone asked one of those guys, “How can you stand it to stay out here in the hot sun all day without catching anything?”  The fisherman said, “Hold it–I think I feel something.”  When the line went slack, he said, “He’ll be back.”  Then, he turned to his friend and said, “What were you saying?”

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Loving the masses, one by one by one

While a battle is raging one can see his enemy mowed down by the thousand, or the ten thousand, with great composure;  but after the battle, these scenes are distressing, and one is naturally disposed to do as much to alleviate the suffering of an enemy as a friend.  –Ulysses S. Grant, “Personal Memoirs”

“One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”  –Joseph Stalin

“I love mankind. It’s people I can’t stand.”  –Lucy, in “Peanuts”

Pastors, young ones in particular, have to conquer this challenge or forever pay a huge price.  It’s one thing to love a crowd, but another entirely to love that quarrelsome family, the cranky old curmudgeon, the gossip in the congregation, the unwashed homeless guy who wandered into your service, and the deacon who is dead-set on making you unemployed.

God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son….  That would say to us that His love was not an abstractiont, not theoretical, and not just so much rhetoric.  Our Heavenly Father expressed His love by the supreme act of self-giving.

The radio preacher said into the night air waves, “Beloved, I love you.”  Everything inside me rebelled at such a claim.  How can he love someone he doesn’t even know?  Someone he will never see or have any dealings with?  He loves the concept of people, if he even does that.

Love is so easy to toss around, but so hard to live out.

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Go home again? We all try it from time to time.

For two years after college, I worked as the secretary to the production manager in a cast iron pipe plant in Tarrant City, a suburb of Birmingham. I took shorthand, wrote Mr. Hooper’s letters, typed up instructions for the foundry and orders for the shipping.  I worked the teletype and emptied Mr. Hooper’s spittoon.

It was unlike anything I had ever done before or did afterward.  I loved everything about those two years.  We were young marrieds, and soon with a baby son, and in addition to working at the plant, I was beginning to pastor a small church 25 miles north of the city. Everything was new and fresh, scary and untried, and the adrenalin was always pumping.

In college, I had majored in history planning to be a teacher, so to say my theological education was lacking is the understatement of the year.  I had no idea how to prepare a sermon or to deliver it once I came up with one.  So every week I re-invented the wheel.  The sermons were pitiful, but they were sincere efforts from this eager, naïve, kid preacher. Give Unity Baptist Church of Kimberly, Alabama credit; they were patient.  For the entire 14 months I remained with them.  Smiley-face here.

They paid me 10 dollars a week.  My tithe was twelve.  In one sense, I was paying them for the privilege of pastoring.  It was money well spent.  Another smiley-face.

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Pastoring: Giving it the personal touch

“I just called to say I love you…” –Stevie Wonder

My journal for the 1990s records something I never want to forget.

We were trying to line up 15 freezers of homemade ice cream for a church fellowship the following Sunday evening.  My assistant always had trouble getting enough freezers because he tried to do it from the pulpit.   A mass appeal like that makes it far too easy for people to ignore.

The best way to do this is by asking the people personally.

Profound, huh?

So, in order to make a point with my assistant, I made the phone calls.  In the process, I ended up making a huge discovery.  Or possibly a re-discovery.

Here is the Journal notation from a couple of days later, awkward syntax and all.

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How to read well and fast, and hopefully smart

Or, if you don’t like the title above, try this one: How to read a 500 page book in 30 minutes! And retain 90 percent of what you read!

That’s the come-on which led some of us to pay for the Evelyn Wood speed-reading course some years back.  It was not money well spent in my judgement, although I did discover how a few people in this world manage to pull that off.  (If your experience with that course was better than mine, congratulations.)

A friend who is an editor for a Christian news service suggested that, since I’m a constant reader, I should write a blog on the subject of reading and how to do it faster and better.  As a trained editor, she tends to read critically and thus slower than she’d like.

That hit me like the time another editor asked me for an article on gluttony.  I had consumed three large meals that day.  But I thought, “Who better than me, who knows the subject so well?”  I wrote the article and it’s still circulating the globe in cyberspace.

So, I opened the laptop with that intention.  But first, I decided to put the question to my friends on Facebook.  How to read faster and more effectively.  The answers were many, some helpful and several silly.  For instance, the latter…

–Bob recommended the Jeff Foxworthy method of “reading more gooder fastly.”

–Ken suggested, “Rd onl fw ltrs, dnt dwl on evy wd.  Dnt gv u!”   Someone needs to buy Ken a vowel.

–Luther learned to cut his reading time in one-half, he says, by turning two pages at a time.

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The Irreducibles: My ten strongest sermons.

Whether you are retired or still actively pastoring, try reducing your sermons to ten that mean the most to you.  Ten sermons that basically say everything God has laid on your heart. Quite a challenge!

Dr. Perry Hancock is the longtime executive of the Louisiana Baptist Children’s Home in Monroe.  This week, on campus to sketch the children and talk to them, I had several visits with this great friend.  I was his and Tanya’s pastor in New Orleans, so we go back a ways.

At one point, Perry said, “I’m down to ten sermons which I preach all over.”  In a different church every Sunday, many for the first time, he does not need to reinvent the wheel each week in the way of a pastor of a congregation, God bless ’em!

He added, “I do have to keep up with where I’ve preached them so I won’t repeat myself when they invite me back!”

We laughed.  I know that feeling, being retired.

How many sermons do I have, I wondered.  Of course, as with every pastor, I have a Bible full of messages preached over some 55 years of ministry.  I’ve preached through the 28 chapters of Acts at least twice and could do it again.  (The first time, when still in my 20’s, toward the end of that long year, a deacon said, “Preacher, you’re about to Acts us to death!”  I said, “The famous ACTS-murders!”).  I have informed my new wife, “Honey, I cannot repair a car or build you a back porch, but I can give you a Bible study on Ephesians right now!”  We laughed. She’d been married to a good preacher for over half a century, so she knew how that is.

Anyway, here are my “ten best sermons,” so to speak.  Or, a better way of stating it is: These messages form the heart of what God has called me to preach to His people.

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The favorite books on my shelves

After giving away a few thousands books–dealing with the ministry, history, cartooning, and a hundred other subjects–I’ve pared down my collection to a stark 500 or so.  And, painful though it is, I’m still trying to shrink that number.

Adrian Rogers stood in my pastor’s study once, perusing the titles on the shelves.  “I’m a book-aholic,” he said.  “I cannot throw a book away.”  He paused and said, “I even have ‘None Dare Call it Treason,'” perhaps the worst book of the 20th century. Well, it is if we rule out Mein Kampf, and I’m in favor of ruling that one out forever.

Some books are such keepers, they are practically enshrined on my shelves.  They had something–a chapter, a story, a paragraph, a line, a fact–that left an indelible imprint on my soul, and are as dear to me as it’s possible for an inanimate object to be.  I keep Jeff Christopherson’s “Kingdom Matrix” just because of the story he tells of his parents.

Two or three are books I read in elementary school and never forgot. So, when I stumbled across them in old, used bookstores, I had to have them.  A few are Bible commentaries, but most are not.  Some are history books, my major field of study in college and seminary.  Three of them tell the same story, basically, of the life of one of the 20th century’s most fascinating characters, Mitsuo Fuchida, who led the Japanese bombing raid on Pearl Harbor in 1941, triggering U.S. involvement in the Second World War.  Later, he was converted to Christ and spent the last quarter-century of his life spreading the Gospel across the globe. The most fascinating aspect of his never boring story is how the Lord reached him. Two of the books are biographies of Fuchida and one is his own account of his life.

An entire bookcase is devoted to books dealing with World War 2.  Two of them, sitting side by side, deal with incidents in 1940, arguably the most dramatic year of the century (due to the Nazi invasion of the low countries, the coming to power of Winston Churchill, the bombing of Britain, and all the hemming and hawing going on in this country as America tried to figure out what to do, what to do).  1940 was the year both my wife and I arrived on the planet, so that might figure into the choice, but I doubt.

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What is a pastor to do when a church kicks him out?

The headline from an online preacher magazines says a pastor fired because of his alcoholism is bitter at his mistreatment by that congregation’s leaders.  Not good.

I’ll not be reading that article, thank you.  But a lot of people will.  Looks to me like he deserved what he got.  But then, I’m neither his judge nor their advisor.  But when a fired preacher walks away bitter, that does concern me.

No one deserves to pastor the Lord’s church.

Your bitterness feels like you no longer trust the Lord.  Read Acts 16 again, preacher, and remind yourself how God loves to use setbacks and what appears to be defeats for His purposes.  But the one thing He requires to pull that off is trusting servants who know how to sing at midnight (16:25).

That God would allow any of us to preach to His people year after year, declaring Heaven’s message to the redeemed, without giving us what we truly deserve–the fires of hell come to mind, frankly–shows Him to be a God of grace.  Why don’t we see that?

Whenever I hear a Christian talking about not getting what he deserved, I run in the opposite direction, lest the Father suddenly decide to give the fellow what he’s asking for!

So, you were fired.  Okay.  Can we talk?

Call it whatever you will.  Perhaps they dressed up the terminology and told the congregation you were taking an extended leave, with pay for three months.  But you weren’t coming back.  Or, you were taking a well-needed sabbatical for rest and study. But you weren’t coming back.  Or you were going to the “wilderness” for some retraining and redirection for your ministry. But you weren’t coming back.

You will hold your head up and go forward and look to the Lord who called you into this work in the first place, asking Him to do with it whatever He has chosen.

Repeat:  Hold your head up!  Look to the Lord.  Give this whole business to Him.  And keep on doing that until no trace of resentment can be found on your person.  Even if it takes five years!

Sure it’s hard.  It’s very hard.

In fact, most people won’t be able to pull it off.  They will grasp their hurt to themselves like a prized possession and refuse to give it up.  Only those who truly trust the Savior can keep their eyes on Him, keep abiding in Him, and keep on trusting and loving and giving.

“The arm of flesh will fail you; you dare not trust your own. Put on the gospel armor….”

What other things can the ousted pastor do, now that his status with the church is no longer in doubt?

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What I told the embattled pastor

Some friend reading this may think I’m revealing a confidence.  But the fact is I have much of the same conversation almost weekly.  Pastors call or visit to tell of the stresses they are facing, the opposition threatening their ministry, and various crises their church is dealing with, each one more than they can bear.  One said, “The strain is killing me.”    That is the background to this piece….

You’re the pastor of the church.  Things have gone well for the first couple of years (or longer) in this ministry.  You have loved a hundred things about serving here.  But lately, things have slowed down and you’re now hearing a rumbling in the congregation.  It’s like footsteps in the night.

They’re after you.

A few people have lurked around the edges of the fellowship since you arrived as pastor.  They seemed to be searching for something to use against you.  They spoke pleasant words but the sinister reports you heard made you guard yourself around them. And then, something occurred in the church to ignite the opposition against you.  The “something” could have been trouble with a staff member, a moral problem with a leader, a heavy contributor dying or moving away causing financial hardships, anything.  It doesn’t take much of a spark to ignite a fuel dump.

Members who had been on the fence about your leadership now jump onto the bandwagon opposing you.  Finally, they found something they could use against you.  The nay-sayers come out of the woodwork.  Some withhold their offerings and then they say, “The church finances are hurting, proving the pastor is failing.”

Nothing about this is fun.

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The noise of wolves in the night…and a few church members

You’re getting scared.  Your enemies are making fierce noises.  There are so many of them. You  are shaking in your boots, your time may be up, the end may be near, and as pastor, you have nowhere to go.  Whatever will you do? This is so awful.

Or, maybe not.

In the mid-1840s, Ulysses S. Grant was a Second Lieutenant in the war between the U.S. and Mexico, with the prize being Texas.  Grant’s “Memoirs” make fascinating reading.  We’re told that Grant was the first former president to write his memoirs, and these are generally conceded to be the best of the lot.  (Before reading the Memoirs, I read “Grant’s Final Victory,” an account of the last year of his life when he penned his story to earn enough money to provide for his wife after his impending death.  Great story.  He was a far better man than he is often given credit for. )

At one point, Grant and some troopers were in west Texas, which was sparsely settled except by the Indians and plenty of varmints. One night, they heard “the most unearthly howling of wolves, directly in our front.”  The tall grass hid the wolves but they were definitely close by.  “To my ear, it appeared that there must have been enough of them to devour our party, horses and all at a single meal.”

The part of Ohio where Grant had been brought up had no wolves, but his friend Lt. Calvin Benjamin came from rural Indiana where they were still in abundance.  “He understood the nature of the animal and the capacity of a few to make believe there was an unlimited number of them.”

Benjamin began moving straight toward the wolves, seemingly unafraid.  “I followed in his trail, lacking moral courage to turn back….”

After a bit, Benjamin spoke. “Grant, how many wolves do you think are in that pack?’

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