My friend, Tullian Tchividjian, and I co-wrote the following article, which was posted on his website yesterday (August 16, 2018). Here's the introduction, followed by a link to the full article.
Jesus said it would have been better for this man not to have been born.
Shocking words, sad words.
But they are not the saddest words in Scripture.
The worth of a congregation is determined by statistics. A church with 25 people in the pews is not as important to Christ’s kingdom as a church with 2500. It’s simple arithmetic, really. The more worshipers, the more worth. The larger the church, the larger accolades it deserves.
When a preacher steps into the pulpit, he may carry a few things with him. A Bible. A sermon manuscript. A bottle of water. Perhaps a little something that’ll serve as an object lesson as he preaches. But whatever he brings, I hope he includes two birds.
It’s only a few steps from the pulpit to the pew, from being a pastor to being a former pastor, but it feels like a marathon you crawl on your knees.
Ask about anyone to draw a picture of an angel, and 99% of them would be sporting wings. De-wing the angels and their popularity in our culture would fly out the window. We want angels as long as they have those cute wings.
It happens to almost every pastor at some point in his ministry. He may not even realize that he's working with this assumption. And if he becomes aware of it, he's probably too afraid even to admit it to himself, much less to accuse God of it. Some may get so angry that they directly accuse the Lord of it.
I like the psalms, but I can’t pray some of them with a straight face. Psalm 122 is a prime example. David is a little too cheerful for me as he exclaims, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’”
When he stepped out of his church on Christmas Day, 2011, Dan Chambers had no idea that he had just preached his final sermon at that congregation. All he knew was that he needed a vacation. He and his family were heading south, to the Texas hill country outside San Antonio. There they’d unwrap presents with family, get a little R&R, and drive back to Illinois in a week or two. That was the plan—the plan that never came to be.
Let’s sit side-by-side in the pew and observe a pastor for a few minutes. Listen not only to his words but eyeball him. See how he communicates non-verbally, by his actions. He’s standing in the pulpit. He’s folding his hands in prayer. Notice his face, too. He’s smiling as he greets us. He’s earnest as he proclaims the Scriptures. His face compliments his words.
They walked to the gallows together, pastor and penitent. Each step up took them closer to the abbreviated, fatal fall to come. The criminal stood above the trapdoor. Moments later, it would open to rope him into eternity. An officer asked him if he had any final words. “I place all my confidence in the Lamb who made atonement for my sins. May God have mercy on my soul,” he said.
The earliest the McKenzie family ever made it to church was during the closing stanza of the opening hymn. Every Sunday something delayed them. By the time they piled in the car, broke the speed limit, and pushed open the sanctuary doors, they were anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes late. Every. Single. Sunday.
The man was crouched down in the aisle of an Office Depot when I turned the corner and our eyes met. It was December, so the coat he wore didn't look out of place. I had one on too, but it was unbuttoned enough to reveal the clerical shirt I was wearing beneath. I had dropped by to pick up a few items for my study. He had dropped by to pick up an item or two as well…and slide them inside the pocket of his coat. In fact, he was doing exactly that when I rounded the corner. I stopped and stood there. Didn’t move. Didn’t utter a syllable. Didn’t even blink. Never unlocking his eyes from mine, the would-be shoplifter eased the product out of his coat, put it back on the shelf, stood up, turned around and walked quickly away. He cast one last glance over his shoulder at the pastor who had caught him red-handed.
As I’ve told this story over the years, it’s always prompted knowing smiles and laughter. I'd even wager that the man eventually laughed as well. It’s not every day a thief gets caught by a man dressed as the Almighty’s representative.
I wonder, though, upon further reflection, if there’s an unhappy side to this story. Unhappy not because the man was stealing—though, of course, that is, lamentable. Unhappy not because the man ran off before he could be collared. No, unhappy because though that thief fled from a man dressed as a priest, you’d have thought I sported a badge and brandished a pistol. And I wonder if his reaction sums up many people’s view of the pastoral office, as if a shepherd of Christ's flock is actually a called and ordained sheriff of the word.
First of all, let me say that I understand his reaction, because I’ve been on both sides of the fence. On the one hand, when I was in the ministry, a few folks reacted to me as if I wore a Moses mask and lugged around two tablets of stone. They wouldn’t answer my calls, wouldn’t open the door when I knocked, because to them I was the embodiment of their guilty conscience. To some extent, that’s unavoidable. A pastor must preach the law. And that law causes some people to dive for the nearest cover. On the other hand, I’ve also been that sinner who fled from pastors. For a long time, I was carrying around an enormous amount of guilt and shame. So I avoided contact with men who, in my eyes, embodied so much of my pain. I fled from them like a criminal would a cop.
But I wonder, is it unavoidable that sinners run away from Christ’s shepherd as if he’s an officer of the law? Is there anything they can do to try and prevent it? Think of those questions in terms of Christ’s own ministry.
What is most amazing to me is not that Jesus welcomed public transgressors into his company. What astounds me is that they came to him with the full expectation of not being turned away. He is the holy one of God, after all. He’s a sinless priest, above reproach, the most moral man on earth. Yet these unholy people seek Jesus out. Lepers cry out to him. Whores weep on his feet. Tax collectors climb trees to get a peek at him. Some men even rip apart a roof to lower their friend into his midst! Far from running away from Jesus, sinners of all stripes run to him.
Why? Because Jesus never preached the law? No. Because he was soft on sin? Hardly. Rather, it’s because he not only beckoned the weary and heavy laden to come to him; he took a seat at their dinner tables, became their friend, accepted them as his followers, praised their faith, and defended them. And, perhaps most significantly, Jesus shrugged his shoulders at the name-calling and tsk-tsking of the religious superstars who were offended that he would lower himself to hang in the gutter with such unworthies. He was the kind of pastor who didn’t damn the woman caught in adultery, much less make a public example out of her. He sent her away to a new, unadulterated life, forgiven and loved. He made an apostle out of a hated tax-collector. Restored another betraying apostle. Chose a murderous, blaspheming persecutor to be the evangelist to the nations. There was really only one group to whom Jesus was harsh and unyielding: those who deemed themselves better than other sinners, who walked around flexing their spiritual muscles, whose treasure was trashing others whose lives were not as outwardly righteous as their own.
It's a risky action to emulate this kind of ministry, to associate yourself with sheep that some consider wolves and others label goats. You’ll be lied about. Your morals will be questioned. You’ll be ostracized by some, laughed at by others, or simply stop hearing from those adept at toeing the religious-political line.
But you might also find yourself listening to hurting people pour out their hearts to you about how good it is to finally find a Christian who’ll listen to them and talk with them without sounding condescending. You might discover the outcasts and unwanted and branded and scarlet-lettered flocking to you because they perceive that in you they will find the sympathy and love and forgiveness of Christ. Rather than running from you as a called and ordained sheriff, they'll recognize in you the kind of shepherd who doesn't care how much mud and dung has defiled their wool. You stand in the stead of the one who washes clean every sinner, loves them, names them his own, and makes them part of his flock.
Fidelity to Christ and love of the outcast neighbor go hand in hand. The mark of an orthodox pastor—indeed, of an orthodox Christian—is not, for example, making sure everyone knows you would never attend a homosexual wedding, much less bake a cake for it. Maybe you would, maybe you wouldn’t; I don’t care. But I would like to know if you would bake them a cake when you asked them over to your home for dinner, introduced them as your friends to your Christian friends, invited them to your church, and showed them in every imaginable way that they, like you, are dead in sin but loved and redeemed by Jesus Christ. It seems rather impossible to bring the Gospel to those we will have nothing to do with. Might this scandalous love result in being shunned by some within the conservative Christian community? Yes, but there is perhaps no clearer sign that you are being a Christ-like shepherd than when you are rejected by some because you embrace those the religious establishment keeps at arm’s length.
This week, in at least two seminaries, men who have been studying for the ministry will receive their calls into that sacred vocation. I pray for them and the congregations they will serve. And part of my prayer is that they will not see or portray themselves as called and ordained sheriffs of the word, but as called and ordained servants of the friend of sinners.
What we need in our fragmented world, full of hurting people, is the love of Jesus Christ, who welcomes home sinners with a grace that knows no bounds. My book Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons, is packed with reflections that go that extra mile of grace. Again and again, they present the Christ who is crucified and risen for you. Please take a moment to check it out here. You may also be interested in my collections of hymns and poetry entitled, The Infant Priest, which you can purchase here. Both books are also available on Amazon, as is my booklet Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing (also on Kindle). Thank you for your prayers and support!
Headhunters have a straightforward job. There’s a position to fill, usually in the corporate world, so they hunt down a candidate for that position. Of course, they’re searching for an employee with a top-notch resume, one who has the necessary experience and know-how. Headhunters don’t waste their time recruiting underachievers or amateurs. They’re matchmakers; they introduce just the right employee to just the right employer so that they’ll enjoy a healthy, thriving relationship.
And that’s why God would be, quite possibly, the world’s worst headhunter. Yes, often He does find people to work for Him who have extraordinary skills that they use for service in His kingdom. I have many friends and colleagues who are gifted in this way, and for them I thank God. But we cannot deny that the Lord also has a tendency to call people to do jobs for which they have little or no experience, not to mention few of the skills requisite for the task. In fact, some of them don’t want anything to do with the position. And, to make matters worse, when God strong-arms them into service anyway, much of the time they wind up making fools of themselves, making a mess of the work, or even telling God that He can take this job and shove it. It's as if sometimes the Lord asks Himself, “Now who would most people think would be a miserable candidate for this mission?” Then He goes headhunting precisely for that individual.
Case in point: Jonah. Calling this man to be a prophet makes about as much as sense as hiring an executioner to be the CEO of a hospital. To begin with, he doesn’t want the job, period. He lets his feet do the talking. When God says, “Go preach in Nineveh,” he boards a ship sailing away from Nineveh. Is he afraid of the people in Nineveh? No. Does he doubt his abilities as a preacher? No. Rather, those people he’s supposed to serve—they sicken him. Nothing would make him happier than for God to fry those fiends with fire and brimstone, to play the ole Sodom-and-Gomorrah card. They’re his people’s sworn enemies. They’re infamous as butchers. They make ISIS look tame. The problem is simply this: Jonah knows that if he preaches God’s word to them, they may actually repent and believe. And if they do that, God will do the very thing which angers Jonah most: He’ll forgive them. In His audacious, scandalous love, He’ll let them off scot-free. That Jonah can’t stomach. And if you remember the rest of Jonah’s story, that’s exactly what happened.
So why would the heavenly headhunter choose someone with such personal animosity towards his mission field? We could ask the same type question of any number of the Lord's other choices, many of whom have rather soiled resumes. Why would He choose Moses, a man with Egyptian blood on his hands, to lead one of the greatest act of redemption ever accomplished? Why would He let David, a renowned murderer and adulterer, remain on the throne of Israel, and even use his words of repentance in one of the most widely sung psalms in Christendom? Why would He fill Samson with His Spirit, a judge who's always getting caught with his pants down? Why appoint Peter as part of the apostolic foundation of the church, a man who publicly denied three times that he even knew Jesus? Why call Saul, a once blaspheming, murdering, Christian-hating Pharisee, to take the Good News throughout the Roman world? Why would the Lord of wisdom make such foolish choices?
Someone might say that the messenger doesn't matter but the message does. I disagree. In fact, the messengers do matter—they matter greatly. In fact, they are part of the word that God is speaking. And that word is that God is the God of the cross, the cross that is “foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God,” (1 Cor 1:18). God has chosen the foolish things and foolish people of the world to shame the wise. God has chosen the lowly things and lowly people of the world to shame the high and mighty. God has chosen the weak things and the weak, broken, soiled, despised people of the world to shame the powerful and self-righteous. He chose tax collectors and prostitutes and renegades and doubters to show the religious establishment that they didn't know their theological ass from a hole in the ground. He even chose a mule-headed prophet named Jonah to demonstrate that He can be as stubborn in love as people can be in judgement.
God's kingdom is a wild and wacky place. It's pregnant with seeming contradictions. A God who's a man. A king who's a servant. A priest who's a sacrifice. Shepherds who get fed to wolves. Men and women with scars proclaiming His healing. Pastors with skeletons in their closets revealing a bodiless tomb. Preachers with soiled resumes uttering words that wash us white in the blood of the Lamb.
All this seemingly contradictory work God does, however, not to be vague and sneaky but to show us that it's okay to be weak. It's okay to be broken. You don't have to fix yourself so you're good enough for God. Christ loves you in your brokenness. His light shines through the cracks in your soul. His cross is for you, where He was broken to heal you, to cleanse you, to make you better than okay. In Christ not just your resume, but your whole body and soul are as pure as snow.
Blessed are the soiled, for in Christ they are clean. Blessed are the weak, for in Christ they are strong. Blessed are the despised, for they leave the temple justified. Blessed are the Moseses, Davids, Samsons, Sauls, and Jonahs, for in Christ they are God’s chosen leaders, poets, warriors, apostles, and prophets.
The pulpit is a blessedly dangerous place to stand. He whom the Lord places there is to speak truths that have got some men killed. Yet speak them he must. They are fire in his bones. They are the nouns and verbs of heaven. They are as sharp as flint, as soft as oil. They crucify and resurrect. Some will love the pastor for what he speaks, some will spit in his face. His is a lonely way, fraught with danger, yet punctuated with joy over sinners who repent, lost lambs carried home. He is a messenger, like the angels, sent by the Lord to announce Christ to the world. Given the challenges faced by those who serve as pastors, it is good to celebrate milestones in the ministry of these men. This past Sunday the believers at Trinity Lutheran, Sheboygan, WI, did just that. Their senior pastor, Timothy J. Mech, was ordained into the ministry 25 years ago. They celebrated his anniversary in conjunction with the celebration of St. Michael and All Angels, which was uniquely fitting since God uses the ministry of men and angels alike to shepherd His flock. The Rev. John Pless of Concordia Theological Seminary, Ft. Wayne, IN, was the guest preacher. I was privileged to write a hymn for the occasion (see below), the tune of which was composed by Ken Kosche.
Thanks be to God for the ministry of Pastor Mech, along with the ministry of all others whom the Lord has called to serve as His under-shepherds.
"Angels and Men the Lord Ordains" Hymn for the 25th Ordination Anniversary of the Rev. Timothy Mech St. Michael and All Angels
Angels and men the Lord ordains, To guard His flock with heaven’s sword. This blade of words by which Christ reigns, Will keep at bay the devil’s horde. Angels above, shepherds below, The Lord sends forth His grace to show.
As Michael wars ‘gainst hellish foes To stem the tide of evil’s flood, So pastors strive, lies they oppose With truth that’s steeped in Jesus’ blood. For us our shepherd fights this fight With Scripture’s sword, the Word of light.
He does not preach to itching ears, But shows to all their guilt and sin. Then heralds Christ, who calms our fears, And by His cross grants peace within. Ordained to stand in Christ’s own stead, He echoes words our Lord has said.
With lips of grace our shepherd speaks. He bathes us in baptismal streams. The wand’ring lambs, in love he seeks. When wolves prowl near, he thwarts their schemes. Christ chose this man; He placed him here To shepherd us in grace each year.
All praise to you, our faithful God, For men who bear our Savior’s yoke, Who guide us with Your staff and rod, Your love proclaim, Your name invoke. With angel hosts to You we sing, The Lamb who is our shepherd King.
If you'd like to read more of my hymns and poems, please take a moment to check out my book, The Infant Priest. This collection of hymns and poems gives voice to the triumphs and tragedies of life in a broken world. Here there is praise of the crucified and risen Christ, dark lamentation of a penitent wrestling with despair, meditations upon the life of our Lord, thanksgiving for family, and much more. If you’d like to purchase a copy, you may do so at this website or on Amazon.com. Thank you!
Although I wrote this article almost a year and a half ago, someone reads it almost every day. Readers stumble upon it when they Google phrases such as "divorce anniversary." That's just one small token of the multitudes of people who struggle to recover from a broken marriage and the lifelong scars that violent separation can bring. I am reposting it on my blog today so that perhaps it will reach some who haven't seen it. This is my own unedited, raw reflection upon what divorce did to me, as well as what I learned from it. I'm sure some will take issue with my disagreement with St. Paul, but that's okay. Perhaps I misunderstand the apostle and need to be corrected. If you are reading this as one who suffers the ongoing pains of divorce, know that I am praying for you, that Christ may work healing in you, as He has in me. Today, December 29, would have been the twenty-second anniversary of my first marriage. Five years have passed since our divorce—years raw with emotion, scarred by mistakes, scabbed over with hints of hope. Every year, when this day rolls around, I turn over the stones of remembrance that litter my mind, to see what lurks beneath. I see things there I don’t want to see, learn things about myself that I never wanted to know, but do anyway. I also see there lessons learned, painful but positive lessons. This piece is more for me than anyone else, though you are welcome to tag along and spy on my thoughts.
1. The Undivorced Don’t Get It. I’ve never stood by the freshly dug grave of my beloved wife. Never has the blood of a fellow soldier been showered on me during a firefight. I’ve never been bankrupt or homeless or had cancer. I don’t know about a lot of things, because I haven’t experienced those hells. The happily married, undivorced man or woman knows nothing of the agony of divorce, and should never pretend otherwise. This includes pastors, and all those who may seek to counsel the divorced. They should never assume they “get” what the divorced person is going through. Every loss, every grief is unique, and to make it generic by universalizing it cheapens the hurt the divorced feel.
2. I disagree with St. Paul. When he writes to the Corinthians, Paul says, “One who is unmarried is concerned with the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife,” (1 Cor 7:32-33). Not for me. Most men who are unmarried are concerned with finding a woman whom they can marry. And until they do that, most of their thoughts, energies, time, and, yes, money, are directed toward that end. I was much more concerned about the things of the Lord when I was married than when I became single. It is not good for the man to be alone, and so long as he is, it won’t be good for him personally, or his service to the Lord. With notable exceptions, men are created for women. And it is in the vocation of husband that they serve the Lord best, for they are completed by her.
3. Lonely, Hurting Men Make Bad Decisions. I made the mistake many men do immediately after their divorce: the first woman I dated, I “fell in love with” and soon we were making wedding plans. I later broke off the engagement as the reality that this was a rebound relationship slowly sank in, although, of course, it was at an additional emotional cost to both of us, as well as our mutual children. Every relationship is a risk, but the risk skyrockets when the man is still nursing wounds from a failed marriage. He wants nothing more than a restored wholeness, to recreate a past that either did exist, or exists only in his nostalgic imagination. And in this state of yearning for healing, he tends to idealize a woman, seeing in her the wife he wants her to be instead of the woman whom she really is.
4. Divorce Unveils the Monster Within Divorce brings out the worst in people. It certainly did in me. I was little aware of the fathomless depths of anger, spite, depression, regret, pettiness, and selfishness within me until my marriage ended. Then it all came oozing, or exploding, to the surface, in various ways and at various times. I remember late one night, while working in the oil field, having a conversation with another driver who was going through a divorce. His wife had left him for another man. He described how his every waking moment was consumed with fantasies of revenge, murderous payback, horrid thoughts he’d never entertained before. Divorce can do that, unearthing new evils within. It’s a dark journey of self-knowledge. And although, thank God, most of the time these monsters within us remain caged, never acting out the evils of which they are capable, the sheer fact that they are there at all is enough to make me scared of the man I have the potential to become.
5. Healing Will Begin, But It Takes Its Sweet Time I’m fortunate because I survived divorce. I didn’t put a gun to my head and pull the trigger, though on my darkest of days I held the pistol in my hand. I didn’t become addicted to something that would dull the pain, though I did my fair share of self-medicating with alcohol. I came through, wounded and scarred to be sure, but at least alive. Not every one is so lucky. God placed into my life a few select friends without whose love I would not have made it. Not surprisingly, these friends are divorced as well. They get it. I am at a point of healing now, five years later, that I thought I’d never reach, even if I had five lifetimes. I still have a long way to go, but at least I’ve made progress. Baby steps are steps nonetheless. I have two children, a son and daughter. They live with their mother and step-father. I see them four to six days a month—days that mean the world to me. As heart-breaking as my time apart from them is, I have grown to thank God that, in the aftermath of our divorce, our children are still provided with a stable, secure, Christian home in which to grow up. Indeed, they are blessed with a good mother and a caring stepfather.
The very fact that I can write that last sentence, and mean every word, is proof positive that, five years after my divorce, the Lord has made a little progress in putting this shattered man back together again.
If you’d like to read more of my writings, check out my new book, Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons. If you’re looking for feel-good, saccharine devotional material, you’d better keep looking because you’re not going to find it here. If you’re looking for moralistic guides to the victorious Christian life, you’ll be thoroughly disappointed by all the Gospel in this book. But if you’re looking for reflections drenched in the Scriptures, focused through and through on the saving work of Jesus Christ, and guided by a law-and-Gospel approach to proclamation, then I daresay you’ll be pleased with this book. Purchase your copy by clicking on CreateSpace or Amazon. And thank you!
He had suffered through both world wars and the Great Depression; been amazed by everything from the first cars chugging down the road to a man stepping onto the moon; witnessed the rise and fall of world leaders, the terms of seventeen U.S. presidents; and several generations of his own family create families of their own. Ingram Robinson was 91 years old and had seen it all—well, almost seen it all. For what his eyes were about to behold, as the sun rose on his ninth decade in this world, was something entirely, and radically, new. Days you will never forget usually begin as days you will never remember. You roll out of bed, pour a cup of coffee, get yourself to work, and assume all along that the day will be a humdrum repeat of the days before. So it was for me on the first of December, 1998. Oklahomans were enjoying an unseasonably warm beginning to winter, with temperatures in the low 70’s. I spent the morning working on my upcoming Sunday sermon. Then it was off to Oklahoma City to make a hospital visit or two. One of my parishioners, Dennis, had invited me to visit his father, Ingram, who had been ill with heart problems. So I drove to his home, where Dennis met me and introduced me to his dad.
Conversations, as is their wont, drift from topic to topic, as ours did that day. We meandered from the getting-to-know-you phase, to a discussion of his medical problems, and finally to concerns which transcend this life. We spoke of Jesus. We talked of who he is, his active and ongoing love for us, our life unending in him. And Ingram believed; indeed, he had believed for years. But to my surprise, and contrary to what even his own son assumed, Ingram had never been baptized.
I suppose there are times when delaying baptism is acceptable, to provide an opportunity for fully instructing the believer in the Faith into which he is about to be baptized. But when a man is advanced in age, suffers heart problems, and confesses faith in the Messiah, you scout out the nearest water source and let the Spirit do what the Spirit does best. In our case, the kitchen sink was transformed into a font of new creation. Where two or three were gathered, there Jesus was in the midst of them. He co-opted my lips to speak his vivifying words. A prayer, a creed, a confession, and the words, “I baptize you, Ingram, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Above this holy sink a whole host of the celestial angels flocked to witness a sight rare even to them: a ninety-one year old newborn. New birth through water and the Spirit was his. Heaven and earth broke out in grand applause.
Within two or three months, Ingram said Goodbye to this world and an everlasting Hello to the Promised Land above. The angels who so soon before had rejoiced at his new birth, now rejoiced even more at a life in which 91 years is but a blink in eternal felicity. Some receive baptism’s saving gifts when life on earth has barely begun, and some receive them when that same life draws to a close. But young or old, or anywhere in between, baptism is never a work achieved, but always a gift received. Naked we come into this world, and naked we shall depart it. And anytime in between, the Father of all stands ready to clothe us all in the righteousness of his Son. One day, I was privileged to be the hands that wrapped those sacred garments around Ingram. And that’s a day I’ll never forget.
If you sit in the pew on Sunday morning, part of you also stands in the pulpit. Whether you realize it or not, you have a hand in shaping every sermon that your pastor preaches. That’s because the word of God that your shepherd is expounding is not a one-size-fits-all message; he specifically tailored this sermon to fit the life situations of the saints whom he serves. He has you in his mind, and on his heart, when he preaches.
A Blessing and a Challenge
This is a blessing, but it’s also a tremendous challenge. It’s a blessing because who wants a sermon that’s like a Hallmark card, written vaguely enough to apply to just about any situation? Paul wrote very different letters to the churches at Rome and Corinth and Ephesus for a reason: each congregation had unique struggles which required different applications of the divine word to their situation. It’s no different today.
But this blessed, precise preaching is a weekly challenge. Your pastor, above all, wants his proclamation to remain true to the word of God. But he also wants it to remain fresh, creative, understandable, and applicable to his flock. When it comes to facing and overcoming this challenge, you can either assist your pastor or make it even more difficult for him. The part of you that stands in the pulpit with him can either be a help or a hindrance.
Here are ten suggestions on how you can be helpful, how you can make your pastor an even better preacher.
1. Spend time with your pastor outside of church. This can be as simple as enjoying a meal or a cup of coffee together during the week. Pastors cannot really get to know you if they know only the Sunday-morning you. Welcome his visits to your home. Include him and his family in your family’s life. The better he knows you outside of church, the better he will preach to you inside of church.
2. Be open with him about your personal struggles. If you’re sick and want your doctor to help you, you can’t sit there on the table, fully-dressed, smiling, and telling him you feel like a million bucks. He needs to know where you hurt and how you hurt if he’s going to help you. The more he knows about your sickness, the better he’ll be at prescribing the right medicine. So it is with your pastor. The more you tell him about your struggles, your sins, your addictions, your regrets—all the ills from which you suffer—the better physician of your soul he will be. This may take place in a more structured format such as private confession and absolution, or it may be in a less liturgical setting. Wherever it happens, this deeper knowledge of his flock will in turn deepen the pastor’s preaching, for the better he knows what’s going on inside his hearers, the better he will be inside the pulpit as he applies the healing balm of the Gospel.
3. Give your pastor honest feedback about his sermons. Very often the only substantive feedback a pastor gets about his sermons is from his wife. As helpful as that may be, he needs to hear from you, too. And a word to you pastors: pray for humility and thick skin so that you will receive this honest feedback—be it positive or negative—with gratitude. Hear me well: I’m not advocating that parishioners critique sermons like a movie critic rates the latest Hollywood blockbuster. Rather, you should freely communicate with your pastor if anything about his sermons troubles you, seems unclear, or just plain doesn’t square with your understanding of the word of God. To remain silent about preaching that could be improved, clarified, or corrected, only gives voice to apathy. At the same time, express to him how thankful you are for his bold adherence to pure doctrine, and for placing before you, week after week, the good news of Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected for you. Like any Christian, pastors too need vocal encouragement to remain steadfast and faithful in their vocation.
4. Ask your pastor questions about the sermon. This dovetails with the point made above concerning feedback. Some biblical texts are harder to understand than others. And if you think these biblical knots are hard to untie, try preparing a sermon on them! It can be a formidable task. So if you listen to a sermon on one of these passages, or any text for that matter, where certain issues still remain difficult for you to understand, then don’t be afraid to ask your pastor about them. Chances are he has many insights into that passage of Scripture that he chose not to include in the sermon. Your post-homily conversation will give him a chance to explain the biblical story more fully, and you to understand it more clearly. And your questions will reveal to him ways in which he can provide even greater clarity to his hearers about this passage of Scripture in his ongoing proclamation of it.
5. Be a faithful student in the Bible Class your pastor teaches. I cannot overemphasize this point. To put it quite simply: the deeper knowledge you have of the Bible, the deeper understanding you will have of biblical preaching. And the deeper understanding you have of both the Bible and biblical preaching will enable your pastor to be a better preacher for you. Imagine how frustrating it would be for a high school teacher who wants to introduce his students to the beauties and intricacies of Shakespeare, to discover that many in the class only want to read the CliffsNotes. Unfortunately, a parallel situation often exists in congregations. The pastor wishes to lead his hearers more deeply into the Scriptures, but many of them only want to skim the surface. Immerse yourself in the word of God with your pastor, ask him questions, listen to the discussions, ponder how all the biblical stories fit together in Christ. What you learn from your pastor in Bible class, as well as what he learns from his interaction with you and other students of the word, will have a direct and positive impact on his preaching.
6. Encourage your pastor to study God’s word with other pastors. The best pulpits are crowded pulpits. Surrounding your pastor are patriarchs and prophets, apostles and evangelists, college and seminary professors, fellow saints and sinners—everyone whom Christ has used to shape your shepherd’s preaching. Especially helpful to your pastor are his fellow proclaimers. Like him, they wrestle weekly with the word, know the angst of the office, and strive to preach faithfully in their own parishes. These men lean on and learn from each other. If your pastor regularly studies the Scriptures with other pastors, encourage him to continue to do so. Indeed, encourage your fellow members to respect that time he has with his brothers in the ministry. What they learn from him, and what he learns from them, will enrich the preaching that you and your fellow Christians hear.
7. Protect the time your pastor needs for sermon preparation. One of the earliest recorded problems faced by the church was that the apostles were so overburdened that they were in danger of neglecting the real duties of their office (Acts 6:1ff). It wasn’t right, they said, for them to “neglect the word of God in order to serve tables.” The duties of the office of the ministry are weighty enough without your pastor also being asked to make sure the church lawn gets mowed, the budget prepared, pews dusted, and a thousand other responsibilities that someone else can take care of. Protect the time he needs to be fully engaged in the real duties of his office, which includes study of the Scriptures on which he will preaching. The more time he has to prepare a homily, the better his proclamation to you will be.
8. Gift your pastor with helpful, trustworthy preaching resources. There is a wealth of material available for pastors who are looking for fresh and faithful ways to preach. There are journals and books, seminars and conferences, as well as online resources. The only problem is that there’s a price tag attached to most of these. And the ministry not being the most lucrative calling there is, sometimes that cost is prohibitive. Every pastor has a birthday, an ordination anniversary day, and he too sets up a Christmas tree. Why not ask him if there’s a preaching resource he’d like as a gift? Not only will he profit from that gift, so will you as you see it bear fruit in the pulpit.
9. Be “all there” when you’re in the pew. Imagine what your reaction would be if you placed a costly gift into the lap of your child, only to have him reach for his phone to text a friend, or yawn then fall asleep, or turn to a friend to begin a whispered conversation, all the while ignoring the gift you had worked so hard to give him. Every sermon your pastor preaches is his gift to you; indeed, it is the Lord’s gift to you, His saving word wrapped in your pastor’s words. He places that gift in your lap every Sunday. Receive it with attentiveness, thankfulness, faithfulness. Make eye contact with your pastor as he preaches. What you communicate nonverbally says volumes about what you think of his preaching. And, believe me, he notices every yawn, every whispered conversation, every head down not-so-secretly texting or Facebooking or tweeting or whatever else you might be doing that amounts to a despising of the divine word you are ignoring. You took the time to be in church; when you’re there, be all there.
10. Pray for your pastor. It’s common for pastors to spend a few moments in prayer before they enter the pulpit. Perhaps they pray something like Psalm 19:14, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight.” Echo that prayer with your own. Ask the Lord to bless your pastor’s words, to give you repentance and faith to hear them aright. And continue to pray even as he preaches. Translate his words of law into prayers of repentance. Respond to his words of grace with prayers of thanksgiving. Preaching is not a monologue; it is a conversation, partly spoken aloud, partly prayed silently, between you, your pastor, and Jesus Christ. Before, during, after your pastor preaches, endeavor to pray for him and yourself and all who are present, that the words from your pastor's mouth and the meditations of every heart present, may be acceptable in the sight of the Lord of the church.
There are, no doubt, other ways besides these ten suggestions by which you can help your pastor become an even better preacher. And, if you are so inclined, I encourage you to write about those ideas in the comment section of my blog. I offer these, however, as some ways in which you can help the man whom God has called to serve you in the stead and by the command of Jesus Christ.
If you enjoy my writings, and would like to read more of them, check out my two recently published books, one of hymns and poetry, and one of meditations and sermons. The Infant Priest is a collection of about 20 hymns and 90 poems. Christ Alone contains brief meditations and sermons that are steeped in the language of creation, the Passover, the worship life of Israel, and the Gospels. Click on either of the titles, or visit Amazon.com, to read more and find out how you can purchase a copy. Thank you for your interest!
Buried somewhere in the piles of boxes in my garage is the composite picture of the graduating class of Concordia Theological Seminary in 1996. There’s a whole lot of black and white in that color picture, what with all the clerical shirts and clerical collars and clerical teeth smiling for the camera. I learned theology with these men, debated with them, partied with them, prayed with them. And through it all, one truth arose to the surface, over and over again. It’s an obvious truth, but sometimes it’s the obvious truths that we tend to ignore the most. And it’s a truth that the congregations these men serve frequently forget: these pastors, although they stand in the stead of Christ to minister to the people of God, are full of the same fears and flaws, loneliness and lust, desires and desperations, as the folks in the pew. Pastors are built from the same stuff as everyone else. And that’s good, and that’s bad. It’s good because the more they’re able to identify with the people to whom they minister, the better ministers they’ll be. The more they’re acquainted with grief, the better comforters they’ll be at the graveside. The more they know of depression, the better they’ll be at walking with the downcast through their dark valleys. They can sympathize with the weakness of the human heart, and apply to other hearts the same divine, healing words that they apply to their own. It’s a good thing that pastors are built from the same stuff as everyone else. And it’s a bad thing.
It’s a bad thing for lots of reasons. It means that some of them, when they struggle with the same lust that bedevils all men, will succumb, will fall, and will likely find themselves divorced both from marriage and ministry. It means that a few of them will become so lonely, so depressed, that when the pills and booze no longer do the trick, they opt for the loaded pistol next. It means that sometimes they will quarrel with members over stupid things, that they’ll sulk because of wounded pride, that they’ll show favoritism. That they’re built from the same stuff as everyone else means that they’re sinners, and, as such, they’re going to suck at their job sometimes.
It also means that you’re not always going to like your pastor. He’s not always going to be the charming, polite, patient, thick-skinned, wise, caring soul that you want him to be.
Did he not seem all there last Sunday? A bit red-eyed, maybe even hung over? Did you ever stop to consider that perhaps he and wife got into a fight late Saturday night about something that’s none of your business, that he drank too much, and got maybe two hours sleep on the couch? It happens. And I bet some version of that happens at your house, too. Cut him some slack. He’s built of the same stuff as you are.
Did he not seem happy to take your call last Friday? Did it cross your mind that it might have been the one day off he has, or that he’s worked 70+ hours this week, or that he has a migraine, or simply that he’s worn down from caring for hurting people and desperately needs a vacation that he probably can’t afford? Cut him some slack. He’s built of the same stuff as you are.
Christians live by the forgiveness of sins. And pastors do too. They turn to the same crucified and resurrected Lord as you do. They confess. They hear the absolution. They believe. They drink from the same cup of His blood, eat of His same body. For they fail—they fail themselves, they fail their wives and children, they fail their congregation. They are mortal men beset with weaknesses, most of which they keep hidden deep within. Do not expect them to be perfect. Do not expect to like them all time. But do forgive them. It’s one of the greatest gifts that you can give your pastor: to cover his multitude of sins with your love, to extend to him the same forgiveness that he extends to you, to welcome him as a fellow sinner who lives by the same Lord of grace as you do.
This Sunday many congregations will celebrate Good Shepherd Sunday. When they do, I hope they remember that Jesus, and Jesus alone, is the only truly good, truly perfect pastor that will ever serve the church.
I had to introduce myself to her every time I visited. A thin curtain, strung from wall to wall, halved her already tiny room. The air was thick with that unmistakable nursing home odor. She’d point her two sightless eyes in my direction and ask, “Who?” I’d tell her again. Then as she sat on the edge of her tiny bed, and I on a nearby fold-up chair, we would visit as if for the first time. And as we talked, this blind, mere wisp of a woman would unwittingly remind me of who I was. Who was I? A very different man from who I am now. I was a naïve, inexperienced pastor in his mid-twenties; now, a couple of decades and a lot of scars later, I am no longer a pastor, no longer naïve, and certainly experienced in a few things of which I wish I’d remained ignorant. Time and life and sin—yes, let us not forget that dirty word—they have their way with a man. Nevertheless, as I peer back over the years between the me-then and the me-now, I see one striking similarity. I am always a man who forgets who he really is, because I’m always focused on becoming the man I want others to think I am.
When I sat in that nursing home, with this sweet elderly woman, I was her pastor, there to give Jesus to her in word and meal. Yet what I really wanted people to think of me was that I was a professor-in-training, a man of deep learning, who knew the Old Testament like the back of his hand. I was a man who wrestled with doubt and unbelief, but I wanted everyone to think I was a man of unwavering faith. I was a mere servant, and not a good one at that, but I wanted everyone to think of me as that guy with those three Master’s degrees, who has mastered this, and mastered that, and deserved to go far and do well.
Today, older yet evidently still as foolish, I fight the same battles. I drive a truck for a living, delivering and picking up freight, but I want others to think of me as a former professor who’s published a couple of books. I am now very happily married, but also twice-divorced, but I want others to think that I’ve never screwed up, that I’ve always been the ideal husband. Some days I wonder if there even is a God, much less one who loves me, yet I want other to think I’m a Christian who’s got it all together. Yes, I am always a man who forgets who he really is, because I’m always focused on becoming the man I want others to think I am.
A woman who suffered from dementia, who saw nothing through her eyes but blackness, she would remind me of who I am. An amazing thing would happen as we talked. When we got past the superficial introductions—since she always forgot who I was—I would speak to her of our lost condition, of our sin, of the dreadful place we find ourselves in apart from God, condemned by His law because of our transgressions. Then I would tell her of Jesus, who sought us in love, who bled out His life’s blood to wash away our transgressions, who exited the tomb alive and well that we might follow Him in our resurrection.
Every single time, after she had listened, speechless, to all I said, she would respond with shock and surprise, as if this were the first time in her life that she had heard the Gospel. She would literally rejoice, almost laugh with glee, that God loved her so much that He would do all things for her. If blind eyes could light up, hers would illumine the room. Then I would open my little Communion case, pour a little wine, select a couple of wafers, say the words of Jesus, and feed her the body crucified, the blood poured out, the gift given in God’s own Son.
Every time I visited this precious child of God, I remembered who I was really was. And thinking back on now, I remember the same. She would introduce me to myself. I am a man with a life full of regret, full of failure, whom Jesus loves without regret, without fail. No matter what job I have, I am defined not by what I do but by what God has done for me in His Son. No matter how stupid or how smart I am, no matter who much I know or how little, the only knowledge that really matters is that Jesus was ready and willing to die for me. That is my identity: I am Jesus’ friend, for He is the friend of sinners.
A woman who could barely remember who she was, much less who I am; a woman who couldn’t see a thing, much less read my soul through my eyes; this woman would teach me who I was. She would see the real me, and introduce me to myself.
+++If you enjoy my writings, please take a moment to check out the book I just published: Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons. Here you will find page after page of reflections upon the Christian life, its struggles and pains, its joys and hopes. Most importantly, you will find Jesus at the center of this book, even as He is at the center of the Christian’s life. Click on this link to view the book. Thank you for your interest!