4 Posts from February 2014

It Takes Grace

Sarcastic infighting. Negative putdowns. Stinging stares. Volatile explosions of anger. Doors slamming. Desperate feelings of loneliness. Awkward silence. Those descriptions portray the marriages in many homes and families.

And also, in many parsonages.

We are not immune, are we? It is possible that you have gotten to the place where you look for excuses not to be home. Or to be there as little as possible. It’s easy in the ministry to justify our absence, isn’t it? Even in our own minds.

For more years than I care to remember, I was so insecure and fearful it wasn’t uncommon for me to drill Cynthia with questions—petty, probing questions that were little more than veiled accusations. It is amazing she endured it. Finally, we had one of those famous showdown confrontations every married couple has had. (Yes, even pastors.) No need to repeat it, but she made it painfully clear that I was smothering her, I was imagining things she never even thought of doing . . . and it had to stop. Her words hurt, but she did the right thing. Thankfully, I took her seriously.

I went to work on this ugly side of my life. I confessed my jealousy to Cynthia. I assured her I would never again treat her with such a lack of trust. I asked God for grace to help, for relief from the destructive habit I had formed, and for the ability to love and give myself to this woman without all the choking conditions.

I distinctly recall how much an understanding of grace helped me. It was as if grace was finally awake in my life, and I could appropriate its power for the first time. It seemed to free me; first in small ways, and finally in major areas. I can honestly say today that I do not entertain a single jealous thought. Grace literally wiped that slate clean.

I’ve said for years now that my favorite place on earth is just inside the door of my home. I absolutely love being home. It is there I find maximum security and acceptance, fulfillment and accountability, responsibility and harmony, and honesty and love. Why? Because we are committed to the same common denominator: Grace.

·   Grace releases and affirms. It doesn’t smother.

·   Grace values the dignity of individuals. It doesn’t destroy.

·   Grace supports and encourages. It isn’t jealous or suspicious.

What does it take for us as pastors to be just as thoughtful and encouraging and creative with our wives as with those who sit in front of us on Sundays?

I have the answer: it takes grace.

                                                           — Chuck

Erosion

When I was a little boy, we used to have our family reunions and vacations down at my grandfather’s cottage beside Carancahua Bay, near Palacios, Texas. It was a sleepy, little spot that smelled like shrimp 24/7. We would seine for shrimp early in the morning, fish for speckled trout and redfish during the day, and go floundering at night. Wonderful memories, all!

My maternal granddad was the most influential adult in my life as I grew up. One day he said to me, “I want to explain something to you.” And he used a big word I had never heard before: erosion. The bank that dropped off into the bay was continually being eaten away by the pounding waves and rainy weather. We walked over near the edge, and he measured a certain distance from that point to where the bank dropped off down to the water. He drove a stake into the ground. “You’re going to be here next summer,” he told me, “and we’ll measure this again then.”

When I came back the next summer there had been two hurricanes, several super-high tides, and rough waters. Eight inches were gone from the bank. I would never have noticed if we hadn’t measured it. I think the next year he wrote me and said, “Twelve inches dropped off this year.”

No one I’ve worked with in ministry who has fallen morally sat on the side of his bed one morning and thought, Let’s see, now, how can I ruin my life? How can I implode my reputation? Erosion doesn’t happen like that. It is always silent; it is always slow; it is always subtle. But its final blow is always severe.

Paul’s words to the Corinthians haunt me, as well as challenge me: “Let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). He goes on to write, “No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man” (10:13). Even the apostle Paul back in the first century lived with the horrible possibility that after even he had preached to others, he might disqualify himself (9:27). All of us who preach must remember his solemn warning.

Every day is a day I could begin the fall. Every day is a day I could choose to compromise . . . secretly, subtly, and silently. And the public would never know it . . . not then. But I would know it. Those close to me would someday begin to sense it, but the world at large wouldn’t know it until the final implosion.

I regularly evaluate my life. I measure the depth of my devotion to Jesus to discern if any commitment has eroded. My daily time with God is good for that. Driving around town in my pickup is also an excellent opportunity for self-appraisal. And of course, the Lord’s Table was designed for such self-examination. Whenever I find that erosion has occurred, I refuse to justify it or ignore it. I begin the hard work of repentance and renewal.

Slowly and steadily, I want to be moving closer to Jesus in my life and ministry . . . and not eroding away from Him. I want the same for you.

You’re not keeping any secrets are you?

—Chuck

Longhorn Sermons

There are all kinds of sermons: topical sermons, biographical sermons, expository sermons . . . and longhorn sermons—a point here, and a point there, and a lot of bull in between! It’s easy to preach those kinds of sermons, isn’t it?

A mentor of mine told me about the time he worked for an older pastor who used to come to the pulpit unprepared. So he would try to prepare during the song service.  “Lord, give me something to say,” he’d pray. “Give me Your message.” After another song he’d ask again, “Lord, give me Your message.” Every Sunday it happened.

“One day,” the pastor said, “the Lord finally gave me His message. God told me, ‘Ralph, you’re lazy. That’s my message.’”

To be blunt, the issue of pastoral sloth is one of the major battles we must fight as pastors. It breeds longhorns.

When I’m sitting there some Sunday morning during hymn number 275 and I’m trying to remember point number two of my message, there’s a quiet sweating that goes on. Because—to be honest—I feel unfaithful. I think, These people have come wanting to be fed, and I feel as if the Holy Spirit is saying, “You have not sufficiently prepared for this moment.”

So here’s what I’ve found that helps me to present myself “approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). 

·         First of all, tell yourself the truth. If you’re faking it, you’re faking it. (Most people know it whether we admit it or not.)

·         Next, sit down with your calendar and schedule the time. Except for life-or-death situations, have your assistant cover for you. Or have your wife cover for you at home. But guard that time in the study.

·         Then, when you have time alone, stay there! It’s amazing how you can fritter away your hours—wiping dust off your books, getting a drink of water, going to the bathroom, catching an article in Time magazine. Don’t let yourself do that! Put your tail in that chair, turn that light on, get that pencil moving (or keyboard clicking), and start putting something on the page. Force the beginning of it. I force it at times. Tell the Lord you have to get this down. Ask Him to give you the thoughts. When He does, you’ll be thrilled with how it begins to fall together. I am always amazed with how God multiplies the fish and loaves I pray over.

·         Finally, after having formed the habit, explain to the board and others the value you place on those times of study. It’s not that you don’t want to be with them, but that when you are with them on Sundays, you must have a prepared mind and heart. Very few times will the board say, “We don’t believe in that.” Rather, they’ll say, “Thank you for caring enough.”

Falling into Saturday night panic is a habit. I’ve done it just enough to know I don’t want to go there another time.

Discipline is also a habit, I’ve discovered.

It kills those longhorns.

—Chuck

I'm Third

Occasionally, when Cynthia and I attend a party, she’ll say to me, “Let’s not be the center of everything. Why don’t we just sit on the side and listen for a change?” That’s a great reminder in our narcissistic culture, and especially for pastors who are expected to exhibit a servant’s heart.

This reminds me of a story that always makes me smile. Imagine the scene: James and John approached Jesus one day and asked Him to write them a blank check, to do whatever they asked of Him. When Jesus inquired about what they wanted, they said, in effect, “We don’t want to be the center of Your kingdom, that’s Your place, but we want to sit right beside You, one on Your left and the other on Your right.” Can you imagine?

Obviously, the other disciples, who heard this exchange were . . . well, ticked off! The selfishness of James and John in wanting to be first was more than the others could stand.

That’s when Jesus gathered all the disciples around and talked to them about being servants. “You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them. But it is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant” (Mark 10:42–43).

Ready for a little advice? Work on servanthood—genuine humility—and you’ll find people respecting your leadership. It melts away resistance. All we have to do is follow Jesus as our model leader. The only reason we have the positions we have is to give and to serve. Not to be seen, not to be heard, not to be quoted, not to be in the center, but to give and to serve.

One of our granddaughters returned from Kanakuk Kamp wearing a button that illustrates this beautifully. It read: “I’M THIRD.” Naturally, there’s only one question to ask when you see a button like that. I loved her reply.

“Well, you need to know, Bubba, Jesus is always first, others are second, and I’m always third.” She got it right!

Remember that phrase in our narcissistic culture—“I’m third.” No matter how much money you make, what your title is, how influential you may become, how many people know your name or applaud you, or how many wonderful letters you receive—keep reminding yourself, “I’m third.”

—Chuck