Tuesday, September 21, 2010

What is a Pastor?

I’m sitting in a motel room in Decatur, Georgia, some 180 miles from my home in Fitzgerald, Georgia, as I write this.

I’m here because yesterday morning someone in our church family had surgery in Macon (more or less half-way between Fitzgerald and Atlanta) and someone else had surgery in Atlanta and either today or tomorrow someone else who is in the hospital in Atlanta will be having surgery.

I made the same run last Friday so by the time I get home tonight I will on those two pastoral sojourns have spent three days and will have travelled, not counting the slow and torturous miles getting from one place to another in the Atlanta area, around 720 miles in order to visit and to pray with those hospitalized folks and their families.

Such travelling is not unusual for me. In recent weeks I have also travelled to Columbus, Georgia (280 miles round-trip) and Jacksonville, Florida (300 miles) and I regularly travel to Albany, Georgia (120 miles) and Macon (185 miles) in order to visit hospitalized folks.

(We do have a hospital in Fitzgerald and folks do often go to the Tifton hospital, which is only a half-hour drive for me, but for “big stuff” they often to go to those more far-away places.)

As Walter Brennan’s character in the old TV Western “The Guns of Will Sonnet” used to say: “No brag—just fact”; besides, countless other pastors could tell the same story.

There are people, though, who would suggest—and even insist—that pastors who spend so much of their time conducting such visitation are using their time unwisely and are not establishing the proper priorities in their work. I have seen the question posed in more than one forum lately: do pastors spend too much of their time visiting sick folks rather than spending their time preparing for their preaching ministry and forming and forwarding a vision for the direction of their churches? Where did the expectation ever arise, some folks wonder, that the pastor would try to be present to pray with any member of the church who is having surgery or who is hospitalized?

After all, the apostles led the early church to appoint the Seven to tend to the needs of the people in the church so that the apostles could devote themselves to the ministry of the Word and to prayer, didn’t they?

Now, I am more than willing to admit to the frustration that comes with trying to properly prioritize in the work of the pastor. I often think of a cartoon I saw many years ago in which the first frame shows a pastor in his study preparing a sermon and thinking “I need to be visiting” and the second frame depicts that same pastor making a visit and thinking “I need to be working on my sermon.” Such is our life. Such is my life.

I received my M.Div. in 1982; during that course of study I received very balanced training in biblical studies, church history, theology, pastoral care, church administration, preaching, ethics, and missions. Implicitly I was taught that all those areas fell under my realm of responsibility as a pastor and that I could expect to function in all of them—and so it has been.

I cannot say what has been going on in seminary education since that time—and no blanket statement would be fair to every seminary—but it seems to me that pastors these days are getting the idea somewhere that their main job is to “cast the vision” and to preach the Word and that a lesser emphasis can and should be given to pastoral visitation.

And it is true that our job is to preach the Word—we are preachers, after all—and to lead our congregations to find and to carry out God’s vision for us—we are leaders, after all.

But I cannot and I will not give up my conviction that my pastoral care role is absolutely vital to the health of the church and to the health of my ministry.

To me, it all goes back to the primary biblical metaphor for the pastor—the shepherd. Indeed, the word “pastor” literally means “shepherd,” and the main function of a shepherd is to tend to the needs of the sheep by promoting their good and healing their hurts.

Karl Barth is credited with the assertion that theologians should do their work with their Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other; it is also the case that pastors (who are theologians, too) should do their work with the Word of God in their hearts and the people of their flock in their hearts, too. So far as I can tell, the only way to have that happen is to be as directly involved in their lives as possible, especially in times of crisis.

I hesitate to say that one attraction of the preaching and leadership aspect of the pastor’s work is that such efforts put her or him “out front” where adulation and adoration can be promoted; after all, it is just as possible that pastors might want to spend lots of time visiting the sick so that they can receive affirmation from people who find such ministry impressive. I myself must confess to the fault of too often wanting to be a “people pleaser.”

Still, pastors are shepherds. As shepherds, we represent the God who is the Great Shepherd and the Savior who is the Good Shepherd and, we hardly need reminding, shepherds lay down their lives for their sheep. Disciplined, loving, gracious pastoral care is a part of such laying down of our lives.

The pastor of my growing up years was Rev. Bill Coleman—“Preacher Bill” to everybody. Preacher Bill did not have a high school diploma, much less a seminary degree. He preached mail order sermons. But he was a caring and loving pastor who tended as well as he could to the hurts of his flock. When I announced my call to preach, my good father said to me, “Son, there’s one thing you can learn from Preacher Bill: people will tolerate fair preaching if you’re a good pastor—but they won’t appreciate even great preaching if you’re a lousy pastor.”

I’m not sure that’s true of everybody everywhere—but I committed then to trying my best, with the Lord’s help, to be an effective shepherd to my hurting sheep.

It is not the path to glory.

Then again, maybe it is.

All I know is that over the past few days in the course of my travels I have prayed with, among others, a fourteen-month old child having a cochlear implant in an effort to give him hearing, with a fifty-something year old man whose melanoma has led to tumors in his brain and his lungs, and with a twenty-something year old woman whose breast cancer has resulted in her having a mastectomy.

In such moments I am most fully a pastor.

Thanks be to God.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Lord, Have Mercy!

(A sermon based on Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28 & Luke 15:1-10 for Sunday, September 19, 2010)

When I was a child my parents, like many parents do with their children, taught me some prayers. They taught me to pray as I was getting ready to go to sleep,

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
Guide me safely through the night,
And wake me with the morning light.

And they taught me to pray as I was getting ready to eat a meal,

God is great, God is good,
Let us thank him for our food.
By his hands we all are fed,
Give us Lord our daily bread.

My parents wanted to set some patterns in the way that I thought so that I would remember to make prayer a regular part of my life and as a result never forget that the Lord was deeply involved in every facet of my life.

Although I no longer pray those particular prayers I never forgot the lesson. I learned how important it is to “pray without ceasing.”

And so it came to pass that somewhere along the line I came across what is known as the Jesus Prayer. Based on the prayer that the tax collector prayed in Jesus’ story about the Pharisee and the tax collector who went up to the Temple to pray, the Jesus Prayer simply says, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

That is a prayer that I pray every day and that we all, if we have any insight into ourselves at all, pray every day: “Lord, have mercy!” Because if we have any insight into ourselves at all, if we have not deluded and fooled ourselves, we know that we are sinners. And if we are sinners we are in need of mercy and that mercy comes only from God.

The Bible teaches us in passages like our Jeremiah text that God is a God of justice and that if we persist in turning away from God we will be judged for it. But if justice is all that God is interested in, we’re all in trouble, aren’t we? If justice is the last thing that is on God’s mind and in God’s heart, we’re all in trouble. It is rather mercy that is the last thing and the main thing on God’s mind and in God’s heart.

What is that mercy? It is as someone has said: mercy means that we don’t get what we deserve.

In his book The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis paints an imaginative picture of a group of ghosts riding a bus on a field trip of sorts from hell to heaven. Upon arrival, one of the ghosts encounters a former employee of his who in life had murdered a man. The ghost, who had already been talking a lot about what a solid citizen he had been in life and about how all he wanted was his “rights,” was incredulous that the murder was in heaven while he, an upstanding person, lived in hell. The murderer told him that it was all right now and that in fact he and the man he had murdered were in heaven together. The ghost keeps on insisting that he just wants his rights until finally the murderer tells him, "It's not as bad as all that! You don't want your rights! Why, if I had gotten my rights, I would never be here. You'll not get your rights, you'll get something far better. You will get the mercy of God."

Be glad that justice is not the last thing on God’s mind and in God’s heart. Be glad that mercy is. Be very glad.

The parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin appear in Luke’s Gospel just before the even more famous parable of the lost son. In that latter parable, there is no indication that the father goes after the wandering son; the son has to come to his senses on his own and has to go back home on his own. When he does, though, his father abandons all restraint and decorum in welcoming his returning son. But in the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, we notice the reckless mercy with which the shepherd seeks his lost sheep and the woman seeks her lost coin. They are bound and determined to seek and to save that which is lost.

And so is God. God’s mercy is relentless. Remember that I said earlier that mercy means that we don’t get what we deserve. But these parables teach us that God pulls out all the stops to make sure that we get that mercy. God’s mercy is persistent, determined, and relentless.

It is risky and messy and potentially embarrassing business for God. But, “The repentance of a sinner so delights heaven that it justifies all the risk holiness takes in lowering itself into the mist of the fallen.” (MacKenzie Scott, “Living by the Word: Sunday, September 12,” Christian Century, September 7, 2010, p. 20)

Do you know what it is to need God’s mercy? Surely you do. I know that I do.

I was born as the first and as it turned out only child of 37-year-old Christian parents who unashamedly made me feel loved and accepted and nurtured and valued. They made it crystal clear that they loved me and wanted me and that God loved me and wanted me. And yet I have no memory of a time when I did not feel deep in my spirit that I was desperately in need of the mercy of God.

I was in the youth choir at my home church and one of the songs that our director had us sing was a version of “Lord I’m Coming Home” that incorporated a spoken part that was written from the point of view of a young man who had been sent to prison and now was riding the bus home wondering all the way if he would be welcomed and accepted when he got there—think a Christian version of “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Old Oak Tree.” I was assigned to deliver that oration.

Every time we performed that piece, as I spoke about being an exile from home and wanting to go home and being afraid of being rejected at home—even though there was nothing in my experience like that—I would break down and sob.

Somewhere in my heart I felt a sense of lostness and a need for mercy.

I always have. I still do.

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

And he is!

So the Lord, with heart and hands filled with mercy, is feverishly, doggedly, relentlessly, furiously pursuing you. Stop where you are. Turn around. See…

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Changing Course

(A sermon based on Jeremiah 18:1-11 & Luke 14:25-33 for Sunday, September 5, 2010)

It matters what First Baptist Church as a community of faith decides to be and what we decide to do. It matters what the people who make up First Baptist Church decide to be and to do.

God has purposes and plans that God is working out. But our decisions and actions matter. How we allow our hearts and spirits to be formed and shaped matters.

Whether or not we follow in the way of Jesus matters.

The Bible presents tensions with which we just have to live. Some people like to stress the absolute sovereignty of God; they insist that God is working God’s purposes out and that human actions cannot change the purposes of God. Others like to stress human freedom; they insist that pretty much everything is contingent on the choices that people make. Our text shows that this is not an either/or matter; rather, it is a both/and situation. God is working God’s purposes out but our actions do affect what God decides to do. We need to hold God’s sovereignty and our freedom in tension because that’s what our Bibles do. That’s what our text does.

The practical implication of that deep theology is that while God is ultimately in control but at the same time how we are and what we do matter very much.

God told Jeremiah to go down to the potter’s house and when he did he saw the potter at work. Most of us know how that process works. The potter puts the clay on the wheel and as the wheel spins the potter works to mold and form the clay into the shape that the potter desires. Where the vessel in progress becomes too thick the potter works to make it thinner; where it becomes too thin the potter works to make it thicker. Where a flaw emerges in the vessel the potter works to remedy the flaw. It is an ongoing process in which a kind of partnership emerges between the potter and the clay; the clay responds to the potter’s touch but it is the will of the potter that ultimately matters. If the vessel being formed becomes hopelessly flawed, the potter has to work it into another kind of vessel entirely.

So the Lord told Jeremiah that his people Israel were in his hands like the vessel in the hands of the potter. God could do with them what he wanted. If God planned to do good with them and to them but they turned away from God’s way for them, then God would have to change God’s mind and work them into a completely different kind of vessel that would more accurately reflect his purpose and will and way.

Unfortunately, Israel of the Old Testament consistently and habitually chose to go their own way, to follow “gods” other than the Lord, and to violate the ways that God had set down for them to live in establishing a covenant with them. So their history was one of God the potter continually having to change the course that God had planned for them and to reshape them, sometimes through very painful means, into who they were supposed to be.

Now, such forming and shaping and redirecting has to take place even under the best of circumstances. The truth is that even in those brief shining moments when Israel came somewhat close to being what they were supposed to be they still had a long way to go; the same is true for the church. Moreover, the Bible ultimately makes it clear that even when things are going well or when you seem to be having success it doesn’t mean that all is right or that all will go right.

Still, sometimes God has to intervene to change our course for us. The point for today is that it is a good thing when we follow God’s leadership and change our own course. The biblical word for such a change is, of course, “repent.”

As a church lives its life and moves through its history, making decisions all along the way that affect the direction it will go and the ways that God will work through it. As the people of First Baptist Church have lived out its life and moved through its history, we have chosen courses, no doubt believing that we were following God’s will, that have made a difference.

It matters, for example, that the church bought this property and moved here rather than staying in town; it mattered also that we decided to renovate our buildings and stay here rather than do something else.

It matters that we called the pastors we have called over the years rather than calling some others that we could have called.

It matters that we have chosen the various ministry paths that we have chosen over the years.

It matters that we have handled our conflicts in the ways that we have.

In every case we were on the potter’s wheel. God was working to form and shape us into the church that God wanted and needed us to be. In some cases God was able to step back and say, “Now that’s a church that’s shaping up rather nicely” and in other cases God had to say, “Well, there’s a flaw that’s going to be hard to work with; I may have to do some serious reforming.” In every case, the best course for us would have been to seek to know and to do God’s will for the church.

Now, we are where we are. And we are still on the potter’s wheel. We are basically healthy and we are basically doing well. We nevertheless need to seriously think and pray about where we go from here.

How do we need to turn around and go a different way? How do we need to choose a different course, one that is more in tune with God’s will for us? And how do we know what that will is?

The main way is this: we need to look at Jesus Christ. He showed us how to live as obedient children of God. He showed us how to follow God selflessly and sacrificially. By his words and by his actions Jesus showed and taught us what we need to know and to do.

As a church, will we take up our cross and follow him? Will we, like Jesus did, put our commitment to God absolutely and completely ahead of everything else? Will we give up whatever we have to give up, including those things in which we find our security, in order to serve God? Will we focus on loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and our neighbor as ourselves? Will we do everything we can to turn our inner attention to God and our outer attention to others?