Pastors and discipline: Maybe we need a ‘plebe’ year.

You may know the name Jimmy Doolittle.

Doolittle flew those boxy bi-planes in World War I for the United States, and then barn-stormed throughout the 1920’s, giving thrills by taking risks you would not believe. He led the retaliatory bombing of Tokyo in early 1942, a few months after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. He played a major role in the Allied victory over the Axis, eventually becoming a General. His autobiography is titled I Could Never Be So Lucky Again.

Doolittle and his wife Joe (that’s how they spelled her name) had two sons, Jim and John, both of whom served in the Second World War.

The general wrote about the younger son:

John was in his plebe year at West Point and the upperclassmen were harassing him no end…. While the value of demeaning first-year cadets is debatable, I was sure “Peanut” could survive whatever they dreamed up. (p. 284)

Later, General Doolittle analyzes his own strengths and weaknesses and makes a fascinating observation:

(I) have finally come to realize what a good thing the plebe year at West Point is. The principle is that a man must learn to accept discipline before he can dish it out. I have never been properly disciplined. Would have gotten along better with my superiors if I had. (p. 339)

“I have never been properly disciplined.” What an admission. It takes a mature person to say that.

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The question is not “where is God?” but rather, “Where are you?”

In her World War Two novel, His Majesty’s Hope, Susan Elia MacNeal tells of a German nurse, Elise, who learns that a Down syndrome child in her care was abruptly discharged and bused to some distant hospital where she was later reported to have died of pneumonia. Elise decided to look further into this suspicious matter.

Donning her nurse’s uniform, Elise boarded the next bus carting children to the hospital in question. All the children on board, she noticed, were blind, deaf, epileptic, retarded, and similarly handicapped. The nurse in charge seemed callous and uncaring, and administered a sedative to “help the children rest.”

At its destination, the bus was met by authorities who instructed the children to disrobe for a shower. Doctors examined the children, marking those with gold fillings in their mouths with a large X on their bodies. As they entered the shower room, a large metal door slammed behind them and latches were thrown. That’s when Elise realized what was happening.

The children were being gassed. Exterminated.

“You’ll get used to it,” said an orderly to the stunned Elise.

She ran outside the building and vomited on the grass.

Later, on the bus ride back into Berlin, Elisa asked the other nurse, the hardened one, “But what about the fifth commandment? ‘Thou shalt not kill’?”

“That’s no commandment of God’s–just a Jewish lie, meant to keep us weak,” she said. “We don’t need to follow it any more. Besides, it’s not killing, it’s euthanasia.”

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Lord, make me a silken Christian.

“The silk we love for its softness and beauty is also one of the strongest and toughest fibers in the world. It has a strength of around five grams per denier compared with three grams per denier for a drawn wire of soft steel.” (From “The History of Silk,” by Harold Verner, quoted by Liz Trenow in her novel “The Last Telegram.”)

Soft and beautiful; strong and tough. What a combination.

Some in our day call this “a velvet-brick” or “a steel magnolia.” Soft and beautiful on the outside, strong and tough on the inside.

A pretty apt description of our Lord Jesus Christ, isn’t it?  We see His softness and beauty in a hundred things He did: the time He took to receive the little children and bless them, respond to the cries of the leper who had touched him, restore a dead son to his grieving mother, forgive an adulterous woman who had been publicly humiliated by religious bullies, and save a five-times married woman of Samaria.  He invited the dying thief on the cross to spend eternity with Him in Paradise, and prayed for His executioners.

Our Lord said, Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30).

No wonder people have been so enamored by this Lord Jesus Christ from day one.

He was a beautiful man.

But the Lord’s strength and toughness are also visible–on full display, even–throughout the Gospels. 

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Creativity in ministry: Try to find some!

I see by my notes that TIME for May 20, 2013, devoted an entire page to “assessing the creative spark,” a rarity in newsmagazines.

Now, I’m no authority on creativity or anything else, but have long been fascinated by the subject and attuned to writings dealing with it.

Creativity is that ineffable match-strike, that flash in the dark that comes to you from, well, it’s hard to say where. You can’t summon it on demand, though inclining your mind to a task does help. –TIME. (Jeffrey Kluger, writer)

I know a little about this right-brain activity, being a preacher, a writer, a cartoonist, and a story-teller.

Here are a few things of what I have learned about creativity:

 

1) The creative act can be nurtured.

Some people seem to be born with that spark, while others have to start from scratch. Either way, everyone can be creative. It’s just harder for some than others.

I used to have a staff member who was so creative that, after he left and moved to another state, sometimes I would phone him with a situation and ask for anything and everything that came to his mind. On the other hand, most of my colleagues on the church staff seemed clueless when the same question was tossed their way.

2) Creativity can be energized by outside input.

 

You’ve racked your brain and come up empty. You’ve lain awake at night worrying about the issue and nothing comes. It’s time to call in outside help.

Let’s say you are a minister looking for a theme for your next year’s church program. You know what your church will be doing, so all you are looking for is a combination of words that will express it, will be catchy, and perhaps even memorable.  You can call in a few friends, you can go online and research it there, or you can drive down to the public library. The last is my choice.

At the library, you pull out a chair in the periodicals section. For the next hour, you peruse a dozen magazines you’ve never heard of before, or at least rarely ever read. You scan ads and articles in publications dealing with rock music, fashions, politics, and electronics. You jot down phrases that jump out at you, expressions that intrigue you, and statements you find puzzling.  As you leave, you carry with you a dozen or twenty pithy slogans and phrases, any one of which may be exactly what you are looking for.

Or not. (Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s still a favorite method of mine.)

3) To be creative takes time.

You’re driving to a meeting where you need a new idea in a hurry.  Your mind is abuzz with panic. “I need it now!”  Too bad. Unless you are the one person in a million who can do the impossible, you can forget about finding a great idea when panic has grabbed you by the throat and won’t let go.

A better way is to clear off a day on your calendar for quiet walks, relaxation, something light and refreshing to eat and drink, and some inspirational reading.  Do something fun, get some exercise, then sit at the table with pen in hand (or laptop) with the question du jour in mind. Jot down ideas that occur.  A half hour later, get up and do other things. Go for a walk, read something funny, take a nap, and then come back.

4) Creativity requires quiet.

“Creativity must be nurtured by a circumference of silence.”

When we are rushed, creativity is the first casualty. Only when the body is rested and our spirit is quiet will the mind venture into those uncharted regions where new ideas lie waiting to be discovered.

5) Creativity loves indirection.

You’re looking for the answer to B when the solution to A pops up.  You are trying to find a great outreach program that will work in your church and in the midst of your search, you come across something a church in Iowa is doing that suggests the ideal way of handling benevolence.

Sometimes the subconscious works on a problem long after the conscious has moved on.

6) Creativity is usually tied to the volume of output.

If your goal is to write the great American novel, you will want to write a dozen books in the hope that one may qualify.  With the remarkable exceptions of Harper Lee and Margaret Mitchell (To Kill a Mockingbird and Gone With the Wind), authors do not write one book and achieve instant legendary status and never write another.

The website for Baptist Press carries thousands of my cartoons. My hunch is that a hundred of them might be really good. The others had to be thought up and drawn in order to produce the hundred. (The frustrating thing is that no one will agree on which 100 are good.) Likewise, this blog contains thousands of my articles, of which the same thing can be said.

The obvious question–perhaps the one we should have raised at the beginning–is: Why does a minister need to be creative?

I hope the answer to this is obvious. But, stating the obvious is a spiritual gift of mine, so here goes:

–You would like to find new ways to present wonderful old truths to your congregation.

–You want to find new and fascinating ways to say the same things to your people.  (Each year you have a stewardship, evangelism, or other kind of campaign. Your sermons may be basically the same each year, but the dressing and forms are different. That “difference” is where the creativity comes in.)

–You will be faced with insoluble problems. There seems to be no way out of this situation. And then someone gets creative. Love it.

–You will be planning a revival, a banquet, a senior emphasis, or a party.  Put on your creative hat now, friend, because you need this big time.

–Your wife wants to know why you forgot the date you and she made for today.  You need a quick answer and it had better be good.  Creative spark, I need you! 🙂

That’s the idea, at any rate. Well, other than the last. I just stuck that in for those who have stayed with us to the end. You get a star by your name.

 

 

 

 

When a pastor is called to an ignorant church

“But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (II Peter 3:18).

“By this time you ought to be teachers, but you need someone to teach you again the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and have come to need milk and not solid food” (Hebrews 5:12).

The pastor had been called from his rural church to another part of the country. He was excited about the new challenge, as he well should have been. In a parting comment to a friend, he assessed the state of spirituality of the church members he was leaving behind:

“There is enough ignorance in this county to ignorantize the whole country.”

What happens when a pastor gets called to a church like that? A church where the members and leaders alike do not know the Word of God and have no idea of how things should be done (what Paul called “how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God”–I Timothy 3:15), or why it all matters.

A church that exists to condemn sin and sinners, that knows only slivers of Scripture, that sees ministers as slaves of the whims of the congregation, and that is ready to reject as a liberal any minister who wants the church to feed the hungry in the community, take a stand for justice, or invite in the minority neighbors–the ignorance takes all kinds of forms.

We wish we could say such congregations are few and rare, but they aren’t.  Veteran preachers have stories of those churches, tales of run-ins with those leaders, and scars from the battles they have waged to set matters right.

–One pastor told the group of ministers meeting in his fellowship hall, “This building is actually owned by a member of the KKK. We rent it from him.”  The rest of us were naive and thought the Ku Klux Klan had died out ages ago. Here they were living among us in our own southern town.

–One lady visible in church leadership told her pastor, “I don’t know what the Bible says but I know what I believe.”

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The number one failure of 90 percent of pastors

The four-year-old who says, “I can do it by myself” has a lot in common with many a pastor.

Pastors are notorious for their lone ranger approach to ministry. I call that the number one failure of 90 percent of pastors. They prefer to go it alone.

Even Jesus needed a buddy. “He came to the disciples and found them sleeping, and said to Peter, ‘So, you men could not keep watch with me for one hour?’” (Matthew 26:40)

Sometimes it helps to have someone nearby, praying, loving, caring, even hurting with you.

The word paracletos from John 16:7 is translated “Comforter” and “Helper” in most Bible versions. The literal meaning is “one called alongside,” the usual idea being that the Holy Spirit is our Comforting Companion, a true Friend in need. And each time that word is found in the New Testament–John 14:16,20; 15:26; 16:7; and I John 2:1–it always refers to the Lord.

However, here’s something important.

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I’ve been forgiven? How could I have forgotten??

If you had nearly died from a strange illness and the doctors had given up hope, then suddenly you recovered and were able to get on with your life, could you ever ever forget that?

If you had suffered on death’s row at Angola Prison, and the prison chaplain was preparing a final prayer and the chef had laid out your last meal, when suddenly the governor pardoned you and you walked outside a free man, and then got on with your life, could you ever forget it?

Apparently some people can forget the most momentuous events in their lives.

Consider this line: For he who lacks these qualities is blind or short-sighted, having forgotten that he was forgiven from his past sins. (II Peter 1:9)

It appears that some calling themselves Christians no longer remember that they have been forgiven of their sins. How strange is that? And how does it happen?

I think we know.


The Apostle Peter saw professing Christians around him living as though they had no past, as though they had dropped full-grown into the Christian life out of heaven.

It was a bizarre thought to him, as it is to us.

Peter identifies qualities which make for fruitfulness and usefulness in a believer’s life: Applying all diligence, add to your faith moral excellence, and to your moral excellence knowledge, and to your knowledge, self-control….perseverance….godliness….brotherly kindness….love. (II Peter 1:5-7)

Believers exhibiting such godly traits have great influence for the Lord in this world. However, some who call themselves believers show no evidence of moral excellence (virtue), have no knowledge, little or no self-control, a complete lack of perseverance, and so forth (vs. 8). That is, they are living in sin, are ignorant of God’s word, indulge every passion, cannot stay with anything they start, show no signs of Christlikeness or simple kindness or a love for other believers. And yet they call themselves Christians. How could this be?

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Why I could never “love Lucy.” And what that says about me.

“I have spoken openly to the world.  I always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together.  I spoke nothing in secret” (John 18:20).

Something happened this week to remind me of why, as a young teen, I hated the typical television sitcom.  I could never say “I Love Lucy.”  And here’s why.

I was listening to the replay of a 1950’s radio program “The Life of Riley.”  William Bendix’ character, the husband and father of the Riley household and namesake of the program, was a bumbling, stumbling embarrassment to the males in the audience, always jumping to conclusions and misunderstanding what the normal people around him were up to.  He needed a good whupping, I always thought.  As a nine-year-old as well as today, I find that hard to listen to.

In the early 1950s, we had no television.  To watch anything, we had to walk down the country road either to my grandmother’s or to Uncle Cecil’s.  Now, Granny would watch whatever you wished–she was just glad to have the company–but at my uncle’s, you sat there and watched whatever they chose.  And the one program they loved above all others was “I Love Lucy.”  They even named their youngest child after the baby in the show.

The plot was almost always based on a misunderstanding or deceit, something Lucy was keeping from her husband Rick.  She might take a job to earn money to buy Rick an anniversary present, but for some unknown reason did not want him to know about it.  Then, he phones to say he’s bringing the boss home for dinner tonight.  The problem is she’s on her way out the door headed to her afternoon job.  But does she tell her husband?   No.  Doing so would be the normal thing, of course, but there would be no program.  The deceit may have formed the basis of the plot, but it also made the story contrived and unreal.

“Normal people do not act this way,” I would mutter to no one but myself, and would often leave the house and walk home.

The few times I made myself sit there and watch a complete “I Love Lucy,” I recall feeling actual pain.  It was terrible. Why do people watch this stuff, I wondered.

“Why doesn’t she just tell her husband she is taking a part-time job?” I would say.  And someone in the  darkened room would answer, although in a nice tone, “Shut up and watch the program.”

Tell the truth.

Some of my longtime friends would say to you, “Joe has just told you a great deal about himself.”

I hate subterfuge.  Deceit.  Hiding things from those you love, people you should trust.  I hate dishonesty.

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How to awaken a sleeping church. 20 suggestions.

“Awake thou that sleepest and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light” (Ephesians 5:14).

A pastor I know has a problem.  It’s not unlike that experienced by a large group of his peers, I imagine.

He has deacons who are undisciplined, church members who do not take care of the hurting in their midst, and in general, a congregation of unmotivated people.  When he preaches evangelism or discipleship or ministry in their community, the way they sit and stare makes him wonder if the language he’s using might be a foreign tongue to them.

Sound like your church?  Sounds like some I’ve pastored and a whole lot I’ve known.

The pastor of that unresponsive bunch asked for my advice.  Had I written anything on how to revive a comatose church?  Does our website have any help for him?

I asked him to give me a day or two to reflect on the subject and seek the Lord’s guidance.  (More and more, I keep thinking: This is an uphill task, wakening a sleeping church.  If it were easy, every pastor would do it and no church would be stagnant or declining. )

Here are my suggestions on how to transform a collection of comatose do-nothing members into a thriving, caring, loving church of the Lord Jesus Christ. And, since every church is both similar and different, we will use a lot of generalities and broad-sweeping statements.  Pastors should take anything that fits their situation and skip the rest.

One.  The bad news: You will encounter this same problem to one degree or another in every church you serve.  No church is without the sleeping, the dormant, the complacent.  It’s the human thing. In high school physics we learned that a body at rest prefers to remain at rest, while one on the move wants to keep traveling.  So, the question is how to arouse the church that seems cemented to the floor, how to get it up and going.

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In the world, tribulation. But from within the church? Oh my.

“In the world you will have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

We were expecting hostility from the world.  But certainly not from the Lord’s people.

Church is where we get blindsided.

The Lord wanted His people to know what to expect.  The road ahead would be rough.  They should prepare for turbulence.

The Lord would not be bringing His children around the storms but through them.  We will not miss out on the tempest, but will ride it out with Jesus in our boat, at times standing at the helm and at other times, seemingly asleep and unconcerned.

The lengthy passage of Matthew 10:16ff is the holy grail on this subject, as the Lord instructs His children on what lies ahead and what to expect.  His disciples should expect to encounter opposition, persecution, slander, defamation, and for some, even death.  So, when it comes–as it does daily to millions of His children throughout the world–no one can say they weren’t warned.

But what about the church?  Should we expect opposition and persecution there also?

Jesus said, “They will scourge you in their synagogues” (10:17), and that’s where the faithful were meeting to worship.

He said members of our own households–parents, siblings, offspring–would lead the opposition at times. They will “cause them to be put to death” (10:21).

He doesn’t specifically say “the church,” but surely all of the above includes it.  And that’s where the typical believer runs into a buzzsaw.

Church is where we get blindsided.

We knew opposition would come from the world.  Scripture makes this plain.  But in the church?

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