The most frightening thing about preaching

It’s actually several facets of the same thing:  I’m speaking for God.

Imagine such a thing.

The God of the universe.  The Creator. Lord of every planet, every galaxy, every star.  And He makes me His spokesperson.

The Lord of eternity.  God of Heaven and earth.  And He calls me to be His personal representative.  Oh my.

From everlasting to everlasting, He is God.  He is in charge.  He holds us all in His hands.  He owns it all.  “If I were hungry, I would not ask you,” He says in Psalm 50.

And He calls a few of us to the assignment of opening His word and declaring His message, of speaking to people individually on HIs behalf, of being a priest, a spokesperson, a teacher, a preacher, an evangelist.  Oh my.

Whatever was He thinking???

I didn’t volunteer for this. I was drafted.  In my case, twenty-one years old and a college senior preparing to be a history professor, and I’m standing in the choir in Birmingham singing “Jesus Paid It All” while people are being saved during the Tuesday night service of a two week revival.  The pastor, Bill Burkett, was preaching that night.  Jim Carraway, billed as “the singing engineer” from Shreveport, was the singer.  I recall it as clearly as though it happened last night: The living God invaded my thoughts and said, I want you in the ministry.  That’s all.  Just, “I want you in the ministry.”

The call was not “to preach,” as many of my friends say theirs was.  To me, “in the ministry” ended up meaning a lot more than preaching.  I’ve been pastor of six churches, a staff member of two churches, the director of missions for 130 churches of metro New Orleans for five years, an evangelist, a writer, cartoonist, counselor, and a teacher/encourager of preachers.  And a few other things, seen only by the Father–and, if I’m any judge, important to Him.  And that is so encouraging.  And in all of these things, I was obeying the call.  As Paul said, “I was not disobedient to the Heavenly vision” (Acts 26:19).

That call came in April of 1961.  At this point, that was over 63 years ago, and I’m still at it.

You are looking at one blessed dude.

Continue reading

How to be miserable in the ministry

I don’t know anyone who wants to be miserable in anything, much less in serving the Lord, but some people give the appearance of working hard to achieve it.

Here are three self-destructive things (you’ll think of a hundred) we ministry-persons do which undermine our effectiveness in the work and fuel the angst of frustration which many people live with on a daily basis….

1) Expect to be paid what you think you’re worth.

Figure out what you are being paid, then total up the number of hours you put in, and divide the second into the first.  The result is your wages per hour.  Disgusting, ain’t it? (smiley-face here)

There is perhaps no more certain path to misery in the ministry than to estimate your own personal value based on such factors as years of training, the degrees you hold, and the tenure you have logged in the Lord’s work, and expect to be paid appropriately.  If this misery is not enough for you, then figure in the number of children you have, the hours your spouse invests in the ministry too (all of it unpaid), and the errands your children run for church members.  You will not, of course, ask to be recompensed for any of that, but dwelling on it makes you feel worse, and after all, that was the point in the first place.

In retirement, the math for certain misery gets easier.  You were invited for a specific event–a retreat for which you were the speaker, a banquet you did, a revival you preached for a church–and when it was over they handed you a check.  You have no trouble at all counting the miles you traveled, the hours you spent in your car, and the costs associated with your trip: meals, tips, dry cleaning bill, and other incidentals.  Then, you figure out the actual number of hours/days at that church, and compare to the numbers on the check you were paid.

Depressing, ain’t it?  (Answer: sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t.  I’m amazed that after a check that barely covers your mileage, the next event will result in a check three times what you were expecting.  Anyway, back to the subject….)

Everyone starting out in ministry should be clear up front that the Lord Himself is their Source.  He is their portion, and they should look to Him.

The Lord is my Employer; I shall not want.

Continue reading

How I want to be when I get old. If I do.

This little incident popped up in my “Memories” today.  It was eight years back, but still valid….

The old man stood at the checker’s station in my grocery store. The line behind him stretched out for a half-dozen people.

He’d bought a few things, but the process of paying for it was taking forever.  He fumbled around in his pocket for his wallet, then struggled with it in search of his debit card, and only with the checker’s help was he able to insert it into the machine and complete the transaction.  In the process, he flirted with the lady behind him, the one just ahead of me, and made friendly comments to anyone else who might be overhearing this.

I was pleased to see both the checker and the customer were patient with him.

When he finished, the man seemed in no hurry to pick up his purchase and move out of the way for the next customer.  He looked at the line forming behind him and muttered something about being 82 years old, as though this were an achievement for which he was being honored.

You will not believe this since I’m writing about it, but I was not impatient with him, and said nothing to anyone.  I did not roll my eyes, did not react, but sent up a quick prayer for the man.

But I was warned.

“There,” everything inside me shouted, “is how you do not want to be when you get old.”

I smile at that.  “When I get old.” I’m only six years behind that fellow. So, am I old yet? And when will I know?  (As I say, it was eight years ago.  I’m now 84, two years past that guy.  Wonder how I’m doing?)

Continue reading

Does “touch not mine anointed” refer to pastors?

Do not touch My anointed ones, and do My prophets no harm.  –I Chronicles 16:22. (Psalm 105:15) 

A pastor who wants a free hand to come and go as he pleases chafes when told he is accountable to the membership or must report to a committee of members. The very idea!  He pulls out Psalm 105:15 and I Chronicles 16:22 and uses these as a battering ram on his people.

He bellows, “God’s Word says, ‘Touch not Mine anointed!’  It says, ‘Do My prophets no harm.’”

Then, he gives his twisted interpretation to his misconstrued favorite passage.

“This means no one in the church and no group is allowed to criticize the pastor.  God’s messengers answer only to God!”

The only problem with that is it just isn’t so.

No one is above criticism or accountability.  No one has a free hand to do with the people of God as he pleases.

Scriptures call the church by many names: “the Bride of Christ” (Ephesians 5:25-27; Revelation 19:7-9; 21:1-2), “the household of God, the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth” (I Timothy 3:15), and “the Body of Christ” (I Corinthians 12:27 and Ephesians 4:12).  But nowhere is it the toy of the pastor, the playground or proving ground of preachers, the personal possession of ministers.

Here is what the Apostle Peter said to preachers:

Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion, but willingly; not for dishonest gain but eagerly;  nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that fades not away.  (I Peter 5:2-4)

The pastor is not the lord of the congregation.  As the overseer, he is an example for God’s people, the role model.  The people are entrusted to the minister and he will give account for each of them before God (Hebrews 13:17).

Instead of announcing his sovereignty and proclaiming his independence, a faithful pastor will concentrate on showing God’s people how to love and serve, how to humble themselves and bless one another.

I worry about pastors who play the headship card.  He tells the church, “As God has made the husband the head of the home and of the wife, He made the pastor the head of the church.”

Continue reading

Seven reasons God wants unity in His churches

It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.

When we call for unity in the church, t’s not just that we don’t want dissent. It’s not that we hate division, although we do that.

Unity is far more than the nay-sayers being gagged or rebellion put down. The old joke goes, “You can tie two cats’ tails together and throw them over the clothesline and you’ll have union. But you will not have unity.”

Unity is a positive quality.

When the oaring team refers to perfect moments in their boat, they do not mean the time they won a race. A perfect moment is when they feel all eight oars in the water together, working in perfect harmony.

At such moments, we’re told, the boat seems to lift right out of the water. Oarsmen call this the moment of swing.

In an old Readers Digest article, Olympic oarsman John Biglow says what he likes most about that perfect moment is it allows one to trust the other rowers. A boat does not have “swing,” he says, unless everyone is exerting equal effort, and only because of that was there the possibility of true trust among oarsmen.

The athletes put it in the form of a formula:

Equal Effort + Synchronization + Lift = Trust.

Now, if we apply this to the body of Christ–a local congregation is usually a lot more than eight people, but regardless of the number–we will see what lessons of harmony and unity it yields.

Continue reading

The biggest problem I have in worship

I can worship anywhere, and often have. A creekbank, a busy sidewalk, in my car, at the library, anywhere.

I can worship alone or with one or two or with a crowd.

My opinion is that I worship best in a group of God’s people. I sing better and louder, am inspired by the devotion of others, and enjoy hearing God’s preaching more while I’m with the family.

Our Lord Jesus knew we worship better with our brethren than alone. He said, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). God’s word reminds us not to “forsake the assembling of yourselves together, as the manner of some is,” but to encourage one another (Hebrews 10:25).

I cannot explain how the Lord is more present when I among a group of believers than otherwise, but there it is.  I’ve found that to be the reality.

I love to worship with the Lord’s family.

And that’s the problem.

Those same people in the room who often bless and inspire my worship may end up as a hindrance to my worship.

–Some may be carrying bad attitudes.  Sometimes, a few are mad at the preacher. Some married couples are angry with each other and have brought that coldness to church with them.  A few husbands were coerced by their wives into coming and their faces are not keeping it a secret.

–Among the rest, not everyone is worshiping. They’ve come for a hundred reasons other than to bow down before the Living God and “give Him the glory due His name.”

Continue reading

Doing the right thing when no one is watching

“God is Watching.”  –sign over the door of Gwen Williams’ home in Picayune, Mississippi.

Longtime United Methodist Pastor John Ed Mathiston told his congregation in Montgomery, Alabama a story about kindness.

“Not long ago, a man from the Middle East walked into a new car showroom and asked to speak with a particular salesperson.  The receptionist called for him, the fellow walked to the front, and they greeted each other.

The foreigner said, “I’d like to buy some trucks.”

Some trucks. That caught the sales guy’s attention.

“What did you have in mind, sir?”

“I want to buy 750 heavy duty trucks and 250 pickups.”

The salesman is stunned.  Surely someone is pulling a prank.  This cannot be happening.

The Middle Easterner pulls out a letter of credit with a huge American bank.  It is legitimate. This is the real deal.

The salesman says, “Sir, you know you can go to Detroit and buy those trucks at a huge discount.”

The customer said, ”Sir, ten years ago I was a college student in your city.  Being from the Middle East made it hard for Americans to befriend me.  I soon discovered you have to have a car in America, so I came to you.  I picked out a car.  You said to me, ‘I can sell you that car and I’ll make a nice commission. But you would not be happy with it.  It’s more car than you need.’ So you sold me a smaller car.  It was the nicest thing anyone in America had ever done for me.  And I decided I would repay you when I got a chance.  So, I want to buy one thousand trucks through you.”

Sometimes small acts of kindness reap great rewards.  But whether they do or do not, doing right is always the right thing to do.

Historians tell us that Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto studied and traveled in America in the 1920s.  He was once turned away from a San Francisco barber shop because he was Japanese.  And he never forgot the slight.  In 1941 and for two years after, he oversaw Japan’s attacks on the United States, at Pearl Harbor and beyond. (He was killed while flying over the Pacific during the war.)

We may assume the barber went home that day without a clue as to the chain of events he had just triggered.  (Or at least, contributed to.)  Just a small thing, showing prejudice to someone with no power.  Surely nothing would ever come from that.  He’d done it countless times.

Showing kindness or acting with malice–just a small thing.  And in most cases, it goes unnoticed.

But the Heavenly Father sees. And it matters to Him.

Continue reading

A friend asked how I prepare sermons

If you had asked me years ago how I prepared sermons, the answer would have been different from the one I’m about to give.  Forty years ago, I would have been forty-four years old and in the prime of my pastoral ministry, I think we could say.

Back then I would have told you that a couple of times a year I take my Bible and some books and leave town for a few days in order to plan my preaching schedule for the next six months or more. I would decide on topics, scriptures, and themes, and little more than that.  Then, back at home, I would try to reserve a few hours two or three days a week for sermon study, and give thought to the sermons in the hopper for the next month or two.

In the meantime, in all my thinking and reading I was on the lookout for material to flesh out those sermons:  Illustrations, stories, insights, ideas, burdens, conversations with anyone, everything.

I was a sermon producing machine.  You have to be–every pastor knows this–to turn out several sermons a week year after year, and not repeat yourself.  Trying to stay fresh, always biblical, and forever interesting.

And we would laugh at the jokes about how pastors work one hour a week.  My wife (wives) could tell you of the times I got up in the middle of the night to write down something about an upcoming sermon.  Even in my subconscious, I was working on sermons.

But no longer.

Continue reading

Don’t blame God for your cowardice

“For God has not given us the spirit of cowardice, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (II Timothy 1:7).

The spirit of cowardice lives and thrives in churches these days. It has a corner in the office of many a pastor, and makes whimpering sounds familiar to many of us….

“You don’t want to do that. It might rock the boat.”

“Deacon Crenshaw will be upset if you preach that. I wouldn’t.”

“Back off on that vision God gave you. You’re going to lose some members if you push that.”

“Pastor, you must not oppose the power group in your church. They ran off the last three preachers.”

“The biggest giver in the church is threatening to withhold his tithes if you persist in letting those people come to our church.”

We surely don’t want to offend anyone, do we?

We don’t?  Show me that one in the Bible.  Jesus didn’t mind offending those who were dead-set on flouting the laws of God and blocking the ministries of the faithful.

Jesus did not mind offending those who were stealing from widows and burdening down the hurting and scoffing at the hungry.

Go ahead and offend them, preacher. Even if you lose your job–and many a faithful pastor has indeed found himself out of the pulpit and selling used cars for a time as a result of his obedience to God–you will have all eternity to be glad you were faithful.

In fact, if I may be so bold as to say so, you will be a hero in Heaven.

Continue reading

Living emphatically: God does not want your spare time or loose change

“What I tell you in the darkness, speak in the light; and what you hear whispered in your ear, proclaim upon the housetops” (Matthew 10:27).

“The disciples went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name” (Acts 5:41).

“Nobody ever enjoyed the presidency as I did…. While president I have been president emphatically.”  –Theodore Roosevelt, quoted by David McCullough in “The American Spirit”

The Lord does not want your spare time and loose change.”  –Pastor Brent Thompson, Heflin (AL) Baptist Church.

The Lord wants His people to live life emphatically.  “Whatsoever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might,” says Ecclesiastes 9:10.

We are to seize the day, live each moment, and to delight ourselves in Him.

Listen to Paul as he seeks to motivate and energize young Pastor Timothy:

“You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.  And 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…”

“Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the word of truth….”

Continue reading