Monday, October 29, 2012

Happy Congregation Appreciation Month!

Okay, so some years ago, a former pastor decided to designate October as “Pastor Appreciation Month.”  He got the word to the churches and a number of churches jumped on the bandwagon.  So in many churches during October pastors are honored for their service.  They receive cards of appreciation and gifts from the congregation.  It’s a nice gesture, but I’ve never been very comfortable with it.  It just seems a little self-serving for pastors to tell their congregations that it’s “Pastor Appreciation Month.”  Don’t get me wrong: it’s a good thing to show appreciation to your pastor.  But I’m partial to the more uninvited spontaneous acts of appreciation over the course of the year rather than some orchestrated “get out the appreciation” campaign.  To each his own.

So can I turn the tables a little bit and declare October as “Congregation Appreciation Month”?  We pastors can be quick to complain about our congregations.  What if we decided to express our appreciation instead.  In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, "A pastor should not complain about his congregation, certainly never to other people, but also not to God.  A congregation has not been entrusted to him in order that he should become its accuser before God."  How about we pastors show appreciation instead?

You need to know that this is easier for me than for some pastors I know.  God has blessed me with good churches to serve.  Some pastors serve churches with demanding people.  Not me.  I’ve been blessed to serve churches with demanding challenges and opportunities and open doors that God placed before us.  That’s a good thing, a faith-building thing—and so much better than churches that squabble over little things and find any excuse to take pot shots at their pastors.  God has spared me from such congregations, so my view Is skewed.  And could I suggest that these “difficult” churches skip the Pastor Appreciation Month and just give their pastor the month off from their bickering and their sniping and their griping?  He or she would appreciate that a lot more than a nice card. 

But I digress—back to “Congregation Appreciation Month.”  I’ve been working in the church since the summer of 1975.  Here’s a tip of the hat of appreciation to all the churches I’ve had the privilege to serve.

Thank you, First Baptist Church, Branson, MO, for allowing me to do campground ministry and assist the staff in the summers of ’75, ’76, and ’77.  This is where I cut my teeth in ministry, learned about the inner workings of the church, and the discipline of every Sunday preaching.  Your people loved me well.

Thank you, First Baptist, Fayetteville, AR, for giving me my first opportunity to serve on the regular staff of a church.  You called me to be your Youth and University Minister.  You were my college church and became my first staff church.  You loved me well and taught me much.

Thank you, First Baptist, Lee’s Summit, MO.  You called me as Associate Pastor and Youth Minister while I was a seminary student.  You gave me my first taste of hospital and funeral ministry.  You even allowed me to preach every Sunday morning after the pastor had resigned.  You believed in me and gave me the kind of challenges that snowballed my growth as a minister of the gospel.  You loved us well. 

Thank you, First Baptist, Greenwood, MO.  Though I was only 25 years old, you gave me my first opportunity as a senior pastor.  You loved me and trusted me and followed me into some God-sized things—building programs and fund-raising and calling staff.  You taught me how to be a pastor.  You helped us raise our kids.  You were family to us for almost fourteen years.

And thank you, First Baptist, Hot Springs, AR.  I had a hard time leaving Greenwood to come to you, but it sure appears that God has been in it.  You have loved and trusted me, and you followed my lead as we’ve tried to do new and bold things across the years.  You forgive my screw-ups.  You have prayed for my family and stood by us in some hard times.  You have given me opportunities to grow in my pastoral identity and skills.  You have watched me age from that 38 year old father of two teenagers into the 56 year old grandfather of five that I am now.  Listening to the same preacher for more than 17 years seems a little much for God to ask anyone to do, but you hang in there with me and even stay awake through most of my sermons.  You pay me far more than I’m worth.  And you allow Dayna and me to be who and what God called us to be rather than trying to force us into some mold of what a pastor and wife should be and do.  I don’t know how many times one of you has said to me, “We just don’t show our appreciation enough for you and what you do.”  So let me say now what I say every time I hear that: “Yes you do.  I’ve never felt more appreciated and loved in my life.”  Here’s the way things really are: I don’t tell you enough how much I appreciate you.  So I’m telling you now.

I declare October to be “Congregation Appreciation Month.”  And I want the congregation of which I’m a part to know how much I appreciate them.  Thank you, First Baptist Church of Hot Springs, Arkansas!  No pastor on the earth has a better post of service.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Presidential Debates and Sharing Christ

Have you been watching the debates?  These are some of the most intriguing I remember.  In the first debate, Romney grabbed Obama by the neck, jerked him out of his shoes, put him on a stick and mopped the floor with him for about 90 minutes.  Obama admitted as much.  In the VP debate, Joe Biden spent most of the time smirking, laughing, and patronizing his younger opponent, Paul Ryan.  Most considered that debate a draw.  In debate #3, the President came out swinging and scored his share of points in a town hall format that looked almost like a WWF Grudge Match without the cage.  They invaded one another’s space and each delivered verbal body blows and head shots.  It reminded me of the old hockey joke: “I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out.”  A debate broke out in the town hall meeting, but it felt more like a fight.  It appears to me that Obama and Romney just don’t like one another, maybe even hate each other.  No matter which candidate is your man, it’s been interesting.

And as I was driving home for lunch, thinking about tonight’s debate, wondering what might unfold in this third and final rematch, an idea came to mind.  I got to thinking about presidential debates and sharing Christ.  My mind raced back to the mid-70s when Evangelist Bob Harrington (“the Chaplain of Bourbon Street”) debated famous atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair about the Christian faith on the University of Arkansas campus.  It struck me then that sharing Christian faith is not really designed for debate.  Sharing Christ is not about making points; it’s not about winners and losers.  It’s not about playing to the crowd either. 

So with all that in mind, what can we learn from these debates about sharing Christ?  It’s kind of a mixed bag of dos and don’ts.  What do you think of these observations?

1)      Be prepared.  Peter encouraged us to “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Pet 3:15).  Know who and what you believe, and be ready to share it when asked.  This doesn’t mean you have to have every answer to every question, but at least be ready to share who Christ is and what Christ has done for us all.

2)      Value the person with whom you’re sharing—not just in flattering word either, but in heart and in deed.  Not only will this open ears, it will communicate in non-verbal ways the love of which you speak.

3)      Sharing Christ is not a “talking point” dump.  Sooner or later all of these debates descend into talking point blather that the candidates’ surrogates have been spewing every chance they get.  Sharing Christ involves the sharing of information, but don’t just back up the truck and dump the whole load on person.  Maybe that person is ready for just a piece right now.  Trust the Holy Spirit with that.  Be content with that.

4)      Answer the question you’re asked, not the question you wish had been asked.  Have you noticed that no matter whether a moderator or Jane Q. Public asks the question, the candidates essentially answer whatever question they want to answer?  They just want to push their own agenda on the questioner.  In sharing Christ, don’t you think it’s best if we limit our answers to the questions that are raised?  That way the discussion stays more focused and more other-centered than self-centered.  It makes our sharing Christ an act of service.

5)      Don’t interrupt to make your points.  That says, “I’m not listening.”  That says, “What you have to say is not as important as what I want to say.”  Interrupting is rude in any conversation, and all the more rude when we represent our Lord Jesus.

6)      Don’t patronize the person with whom you’re sharing.  Does it advance the love of Jesus to treat people as if they are unimportant, uninformed, or less important than oneself?  Does talking down to someone open their ears to the Gospel?

I don’t share these ideas as a means of being overly critical if you share your faith in a more aggressive fashion.  Evangelist D. L. Moody once said to a harsh critic of his evangelism methods, “I may not always get it right, but I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it.”  Touché!  If you’re a faithful witness for Jesus, more power to you.

But these things I’ve learned about sharing Christ from these presidential debates just seems like common sense to me.  Jesus came to seek and to save the lost (Lk 19:10).  Let’s join him in that journey.  And let’s do it in such a way that when we tell a person Jesus loves them, they will find it easier to believe because they experience His love through us.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Benjamin Is Here

Benjamin made landfall on October 10, 2012, in New Braunfels, Texas.  No, I’m not talking about a hurricane; I’m talking about my new grandson.  (Whether or not he becomes a hurricane remains to be seen.)  Benjamin Robert Parrish was born to Robert and Kristen Parrish and sisters, Hallie and Macey Jo.  He weighed in at 8’13” and was 21.5 inches long—a big ‘un. 

The name Benjamin means “son of my right hand.”  If you recall your Old Testament history, you’ll remember that Benjamin was Jacob’s twelfth and last son.  He was the second of only two sons (Joseph being the other) born to Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel.  Sadly, Rachel died after childbirth.  Just before she breathed her last Rachel named the boy Benoni, which means “son of my sorrow.”  Jacob didn’t want the boy growing up with a name like that.  Think about about it: how many times in one’s life does someone call you by name?  And every time that happened, the boy would have been reminded that his birth led to his mother’s death.  And every time Jacob called the boy by name, he would have been reminded of Rachel’s death yet again.  So Jacob did a wise thing.  He changed the boy’s name from Benoni (son of my sorrow) to Benjamin (son of my right hand).  And I guess if you called him Ben for short both mom and dad would have had their way.  Benjamin—son of my right hand.

Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?  I know there are a number of southpaws in our world.  My little brother is one of them.  Most estimate that 10% of the population is left-handed.  So nothing against left-handers here, but most of us are right-handers.  So think about just how important our right hand is to us.  Most of us write, eat, and throw with our right hand.  If you use a weapon, you generally hold it in your right hand.  And if you swear allegiance or take an oath you put your right hand in the air or over your heart.  Also, the right hand side is usually our stronger side and usually the side with which we have the best balance and flexibility.  And in the Bible, the right hand symbolizes wisdom, victory, power, strength, and the place of honor.  Benjamin—son of my right hand.

There are a few famous people past and present who carry the name Benjamin or Ben:

·         Benjamin bar Jacob: passive, baby of the family, much loved, father of the tribe from which Israel’s first king was chosen, son of Jacob’s right hand.

·         Benjamin Franklin: scholar, writer, inventor, patriot, scientist, journalist, kite-flyer.

·         Benjamin Henry Harrison: the 23rd President of the United States.

·         Ben Bradlee: journalist, longtime editor of the Washington Post who gave Woodward and Bernstein a free hand in their Watergate reporting.

·         Benji: the cute little dog who appeared first on Petticoat Junction and then went on to star in a few movies in his own name.

·         Ben Stein: economist, presidential speech-writer, author, actor, funny guy

·         Ben Affleck—pop actor; Ben Kingsley—classic actor; Ben Stiller—comic actor

·         Ben Hogan and Ben Crenshaw—golfers; Ben Rothlisberger: football player and Super Bowl champion.

·         Ben Vereen: dancer extraordinaire.

I don’t know what our Benjamin will become in the years ahead.  A golfer who can help America finally win the Ryder Cup again?  A writer who stirs people with poetry and prose?  A politician who’ll serve his nation the best he can?  A man who invents some kind of widget that changes the world?  A wise old sage and a renaissance man?  An Oscar-caliber actor capable of performing, romantic comedies, gripping drama, and Shakespeare?  Or maybe he’ll be the big winner on Dancing with the Stars?  I don’t know what our Benjamin will become.

But I know what he is now: a loved and welcome addition to our family; a child knit together in his mother’s womb by the loving hands of God; a boy planted in a home where Christ is loved and adored and the Bible is treasured, read, memorized, and believed; an infant in the nursery of a church he visited in the womb and that has loved him before he was even born; a youngster who will love Jesus from the moment he hears His name and who will one day trust Jesus for salvation from his sins and for real life now and forever; a child who will learn to thank God when times are good and trust God when times are hard.  Already Benjamin’s life is in God’s good hands.  Already God is shaping and forming Benjamin for the plans God has for his life.  God, who knows the end from the beginning, sees exactly what Benjamin will become in the years ahead. 

Though we may have our dreams, all we can really see of Benjamin is what we see today.  But we love what we see.  And we’re grateful God has given us a ringside seat to watch his life unfold.

So welcome to the world and welcome to the family, Benjamin: child of God, son of your father’s right hand, grandchild of a Grammy and a Papa who couldn’t be more grateful, more happy, and more proud.   

Monday, October 8, 2012

Today Makes 35

On October 8, 1977, I had the good sense to marry Dayna Vanderpool.  Whether she exercised the same good sense is worthy of debate.  But either way, on that day we both said, “I do.”  And we have “done” now for 35 years.  I was visiting a lady in the hospital last week and she told me that she and her husband will celebrate their 70th anniversary this year.  Compared to that, 35 ain’t much.  But 35 is still a pretty long time.  I was 21, Dayna was 19, and now we’re 56 and 54.  Our children are in their 30s, and we have four (soon to be five) grandchildren.  So 35 years is no 70, but it’s no blink either; it’s a pretty long time.

Do you remember what was going on in 1977?

·    Gary Gilmore was executed by firing squad in Utah as the death penalty was reinstituted in the United States.  (While it may seem ironic to some that the death penalty was instituted the year I got married, I assure you that there is no direct correlation.)

·         Jimmy Carter was inaugurated as the 39th President of the United States.

·         Elvis Presley died a young man; Groucho Marx and Bing Crosby died as old men.

·         The Food Stamp program began.

·    The World Trade Center opened in New York City.  (Yes, that’s the same one the terrorists knocked down on September 11, 2001.)

·       Star Wars was the big movie that year; Debby Boone’s You Light Up My Life was the big song, and TV was loaded with shows like The Waltons, Little House on the Prairie, The Dukes of Hazard, Dallas, M*A*S*H, All in the Family, Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, and Kojak.  (Yes, it was a different day in television).

·         Cable television was just starting to get its feet on the ground but most Americans still only got three channels and used an outdoor antenna to receive those.

·         The first Apple II Computers went on sale.

·       The Oakland Raiders won Super Bowl XI and the Yankees won yet another World Series.

·         And consider these prices: a gallon of gas cost .65 a gallon, the average cost of new house was $49,300, and the average annual income for Americans was $15,000.

·         You could buy a brand new Camaro for just over $6,000, a BMW for just over 12 grand, and a Chevette (our first car) for just over 3,000 bucks.

A lot of water has gone under the bridge since 1977—35 years worth to be exact.  As you can see from my little trip down memory lane, a lot has changed.  And that includes my love for Dayna.  I haven’t always loved her well, and I could have loved her better, but in spite of the ups and downs of a lifetime marriage, my love for her has grown deeper and richer and more mature along the way.  Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be?  Isn’t that what God was shooting for since Adam and Eve?  I think so. 

So Happy 35th Anniversary, Dayna!  I love you.  Unlike the lady I mentioned earlier, I doubt we’ll ever make it to 70 years.  Very, very few ever do.  But this I know and can say with confidence: however many more years God gives, I’ll be grateful for every one.

Christmas 2011

Monday, October 1, 2012

Baseball, the Pastor, and the Church

A few weeks ago I wrote about my resurgent interest in baseball this year.  That interest was rewarded when my Baltimore Orioles clinched post-season play on Sunday.  Add to my baseball interest the fact that 36 years ago this month I was ordained to the ministry, and I thought I’d reflect on my ministry through a baseball lens. 

The pastor is a player-coach.  He leads by word and example.  He doesn’t ask others to do things he wouldn’t do himself.  He doesn’t just pontificate; he is also in the thick of the game.  So after almost four decades in the ministry, more than three of them as a senior pastor, I want to share some of the wisdom I’ve accumulated.  Though I could have done a lot better at my job over the years, God has blessed and I have learned a few things along the way.  A caveat: you won’t see a lot of supernatural references in these little quips; God’s overarching providence and power are assumed.  So with that in mind, here goes.

·         The team belongs to the Owner; the coach’s job is to manage and develop the team.

·         The coach is going to take some criticism.  He needs to learn what he can from it and let the rest of it go.  His primary job is to please the owner.

·         Our opponent is a tough out.

·         Coach the team up, not down.

·         There are no roster limits—you can’t have too many players on your team.

·         I’d rather go down swinging than take a called third strike.

·         Laying down a sacrifice to advance a teammate is a worthy at bat.

·         Sometimes you’ve got to play small ball to manufacture runs.  Small ball = don’t swing at bad pitches, a walk is as good as a hit, bunt for a base hit, sacrifice to move the runners, take the extra base every chance you get.  Small ball is neither flashy nor glamorous, but it gets the job done.

·         A long fly ball to the warning track is still an out.

·         Every player and every team is prone to a slump now and then—coaches too.

·         If you bat .300 in sharing your faith, you are an all-star; if you share your faith at all, you’re a starter on the team.

·         Don’t forget to thank the bat boys, the grounds crew, and the folks who clean the locker room—they’re part of the team too.

·         Pound the strike zone.

·         Even though you’ll probably never change the call, it’s okay to argue with the umpire once in a while on behalf of your team (see Job, Jeremiah, and the Psalms).

·         Everybody makes an error now and then, so lighten up.

·         Make sure the team gets plenty of practice.

·         The positions are different but every position matters.

·         Shuffle the line up every now and then; change the batting order once in a while.

·         The guys in the bullpen need to get their innings.

·         Don’t lose touch with the players on the Disabled List; they’re still part of the team.

·         Talk with each other in the field so there are no collisions and we don’t hurt ourselves.

·         The guy who scores and the guy who knocks him in count the same.

·         It’s okay to let a player rest and sit out a game now and then.

·         Work to maintain unity in the dugout and the locker room.

·         When you’re on a serious losing streak, a team meeting may be in order to clear the air and get refocused on the goal.

·         Don’t let the guy on the bench who would rather watch than play soak up all your energy; give your best attention to the ones who take the field.

·         Don’t be afraid to bring up the guy from the minor leagues and give him a shot at the big-time.  He just might become the rookie-of-the-year.

·         Most every team member thinks he’s a free agent, and some of them will leave your team to join another.  Don’t worry too much about that; you’ll probably grab your share of free agents too … whether you want them or not.

·         When team members get too old or infirm to play and have to take a seat in the stands, tip your hat to them now and then and honor them for all they’ve done.

·         In the course of a long season, some games are more important than others.  It’s important to discern the difference.

·         When on a winning streak, stay humble and stay hungry.

·         And no matter what happens with the team, remember this: the Owner always has your back.

So there you have it: a little pastoral/baseball wisdom as the Major League Baseball playoffs ensue.  If you’re a pastor, I hope this encourages you a little bit.  If you’re a team member, I hope this helps you see some things through your coach’s (uh … pastor’s) eyes.  And if you’re either and you want to add a little pastoral/baseball wisdom of your own, please do so.

Go O’s!  And go Church!