We graduated in May of 1958 from the Winston County High School in Double Springs, Alabama. We were all so glad for that long-anticipated event to arrive, once it was over we quickly scattered in our own directions without a thought to the fact that we were seeing some of our classmates for the last time. We had no way of knowing that in a few short years our school would burn down or that by the 50th anniversary of our graduation, over one third of our members would no longer be living.
There is a reason only older people attend class reunions. They know.
The recent graduates are still in college somewhere or serving Uncle Sam or trying to get established in low-paying jobs and can’t afford the trip back home. But mostly they don’t come to reunions because they haven’t figured it out yet.
They think they have forever. They think of the rest of us as oldsters, like ancient relics of a previous civilization that has no bearing on the world they live in today. They have no idea that the time between now and their fiftieth will seem like weeks. They will still be looking upon themselves as the younger generation when suddenly their twentieth reunion will be announced in the newspapers.
If they’re like me, the twentieth will be the first reunion they attend. And if they’re really like me, they will open the door and look in that room, taking in all the bald heads and unfamiliar faces, and decide this can’t be my class and walk on down the hall looking for the real class. They will soon realize there is no one else in the building and that this is their class.
That’s the moment when they start to grow up.
In the same way the Spirit also helps us in our weakness. For we do not know how to pray as we should. But the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. (Romans 8:26)
Recently, our country had a National Day of Prayer. That’s a good thing. It keeps us focused on the importance of prayer, and probably dumps a load of guilt on all of us for not praying more or better.
Three aspects of prayer make it difficult, and probably even unreasonable. And then, one overwhelming reality keeps us at it with the strong confidence that praying is the best thing we can ever do.
The three impossible aspects of prayer that befuddle us…
–One. The Object of our prayers is unseen.
In prayer, we are addressing One we’ve never seen and can’t even prove exists. And yet, we keep at it, drawing aside day after day, year after year, speaking to the Invisible, Unprovable Lord in the firm belief that He is there, that He hears, and cares and will answer.
Is this bizarre or not?! Smile, please.
When my pastor friend’s grandchild died in a drowning accident, we were all shocked and saddened. I wrote this for him and his family. (That was a number of years ago, and my heart hurts for these good people yet.)
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.
“Joy is the business of Heaven.” –C. S. Lewis
What started me thinking of this was a line from former FBI Director 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.”
He explained 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?
“Where joy goes to die.” A fit description for a place–a business, a family, a team, a congregation–characterized by low morale, battle fatigue and discouragement.
I’ve worked in places like that. I’ve pastored a church or two like that. And I’ve known several such congregations.
“It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.” Somewhere in the Psalms. (see note at the end)
Movie-maker Jeffrey Katzenberg was talking about movie-making lessons he learned from Walt Disney: Walt believed that an animated movie was only as good as its villain. I never forgot that.
Think about that for a second. Villains make movies work. Villains turn ordinary people into heroes. Villains rivet our attention on the story. Villains keep us fixated on the plot until justice is served.
The greatest drama of the Twentieth Century was the Second World War. Think about its villains–Hitler, Mussolini, Hirohito, and then Joseph Stalin, too. Now, consider that without that war and those villains, we would never have heard of heroes such as Generals Eisenhower, Patton, MacArthur, Montgomery, etc. That war turned Winston Churchill arguably into the man of the century.
Now, as the leader of a church, you have encountered your own set of villains. You’ve noticed that they fall into two camps. One is the devil himself and all his legion. The other are people who are supposed to be on your side but instead of helping the program, they scheme and plot and maneuver, looking for ways to bring it down.
I’m on the interstate, solidly in the middle of heavy traffic, trying to hold my own at a comfortable 65 or 70 or slightly more. Suddenly, from out of nowhere–maybe he dropped down out of the sky!–a motorcycle is all over me, appearing suddenly on my back bumper or just to my left elbow, then swerving around in front. The noise is horrendous and completely unexpected. He zooms past like he was jet-propelled and disappears into the distance.
I am unnerved.
Honestly, I need to exit immediately and find a rest area where I can kill the engine, get out and walk around, and get my wits back.
That was frightening.
The cyclist has no idea what he did. Or maybe he did.
Common sense says the fellow under that helmet drives a car from time to time and surely has had the experience of having a daredevil on a Harley materialize out of nowhere and scare the blazes out of him. Or maybe not.
If he had, he’d never do that to anyone else.
“This is a hard saying. Who can hear it?” (John 6:60)
“In (Paul’s letters) are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of Scriptures, to their own destruction” (2 Peter 3:15-16).
A fellow arguing for a cult religion scoffed at my statement that some doctrines are difficult and sincere Christian people differ on their interpretation.
“If it’s difficult,” he said, almost yelling with delight, “it’s because you are getting it wrong!”
I knew enough about his religion to be wary of anything he said. The leaders of that religion grew tired of having to explain away the obvious teachings of Scripture that contradict them, so they brought out their own translation. Bible scholars scoff at what they did and Greek/Hebrew linguists assure us that no one involved in that translation–if we want to call it that–was trained and capable of such a mammoth task.
What these people did with Scripture in order to get it simple and make it say what they wanted was akin to a fellow trying to close an overstuffed suitcase by taking the scissors to anything that didn’t fit and snipping it off. At the end, it closed easily. The only problem is that everything inside was injured. (After note: He was a Jehovah Witness and their monstrosity is called New World Translation.)
(I’m in the middle of my “wedding season.” Did one wedding last weekend, this weekend will marry my granddaughter Abigail to Cody, and have a couple more scheduled for this year. And that prompted the following.)
Most pastors agree we will take a funeral over a wedding any day.
You don’t have to rehearse a funeral. And there are no formal meals or receptions involved. You stand up in front of the honored guest, and do your thing, say your prayers, enjoy a couple of great songs, and go your way.
But with weddings, you have these rehearsals where a thousand things can go wrong, where the bride and her mother argue, where bridesmaids sometimes see how risque’ they can dress, and the groomsmen how rambunctious they can behave. You have a wedding director who may or may not be capable. (I’ll take a drill sergeant from Parris Island any day over a lazy director who has no idea all the awful things that can happen the next day.)
“Apart from these external things, there is the daily pressure upon me of concern for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:28).
When showing his scars and enumerating his sufferings, the Apostle Paul ends with a mention of the daily care of the Lord’s people. That too was a great burden.
You don’t bleed from caring for the Lord’s flock. But you hurt as much as if you did.
The worst part of pastoring, the burden that keeps hammering you down into the ground, is the perfectionism.
It’s not something the Lord puts on us–well, not any more than on anyone else–because “He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust” (Psalm 103:14). He is under no illusions about any of us. The quickest way to divine frustration, I would think, is for the Father to expect perfection from His children.
He’s smarter than that. Thankfully.
Nor is it something most congregation put on us. Most members know their pastors are human, even if some do tend to lose sight of that sometimes. (I heard of a pastor whose teenage daughter has come up pregnant, and some in the church are calling for the pastor’s resignation. He ministered to them in their crises, but let him go through one and a few are ready to cut him off. What is wrong with such people?! God bless the leadership of this church and help them do the right thing.)
The perfectionism that hounds the pastor and nags at him without letup he mostly puts on himself.
Those of us who counsel pastors and teach future preachers are known to caution them to “study the Bible for itself, just to receive the Word into your heart, and not to prepare sermons.”
We might as well tell Sherlock Holmes to enjoy crime scenes for the beauty of the occasion and stop looking for criminals, tell Mike Trout not to worry about actually striking at the baseball crossing the plate but to relax and take in the inspiration of the moment, or tell Hollywood beauty queens to forsake plastic surgery.
Some things you do because this is who you are.
When a pastor comes across a great insight in the Scriptural text, does anyone think for one minute that he is going to file that away in a personal-edification file, never to be shared in sermons?
Yes, he is blessed by it, and certainly it enriches his own soul. But if it does feed his spirit and call him to realign his priorities, you can bet that he will be off and running to trace out similar teachings in the Word with a view to sharing the results with his flock.
That’s how it ought to be. It’s not an aberration at all. He’s doing what he does, what God called him for.
At some point in a Sherlock Holmes story, someone complimented the sleuth on his brilliant deduction. He said simply, “Of course. It’s what I do.”