Wednesday, April 24, 2013

In Defense of Pastors

As I was waiting in my cart to start the afternoon flight of the Wounded Warrior Golf Tournament, I overheard a guy in the cart next to mine going off on pastors.  The man’s partner said he heard that in the morning flight a pastor hit an incredibly long drive.  That’s all it took to set the man off.  “Well, I’m not surprised!” he said.  “Pastors don’t do a d--- thing.  All they have to do is write one little sermon a week, do nothing the rest of the time, and get paid a six-figure salary.  No wonder he hit a good shot, pastors can play all the golf they want.”

Now I can take a joke and we pastors do bring some of this on ourselves.  But this was no joke.  The guy hates pastors (maybe for reasons I don't know). Still, his comments pushed my buttons.  To show how far I have yet to go in my walk with Jesus, I wanted to leap from my cart, look down on this little man, and talk to this man like God talked to Job at the end of the that Bible book.  “You don’t know what the heck you’re talking about!”  (Notice I said “heck.”  I have made some progress, I guess—though “heck” was not the word in my mind.)  And that would just be the first salvo: 

Listen, Jack, do you know any pastors personally?  Have you ever walked in a pastor’s shoes?  Do you know what it’s like to try and come up with something fresh to say to a congregation, not once a week, but at least twice and sometimes three or more times a week in those ‘little’ sermons you rant about?  Does your job keep you up to your neck in death and dying?  Do you know what it’s like to have to tell a mom and dad their wonderful young son with his whole life ahead of him was killed in a car wreck?  Have you ever had to stand over the graves and before the families of people you dearly love and stuff your own grief so you can try to say something meaningful to comfort a family in their grief?  Answer me if you know.  
Have you ever had to lead a large organization that runs primarily on the backs of volunteers?  Have you ever managed an organization that depends on un-coerced giving from willing people to provide the financial resources to run that organization and fund its mission?  Does your family have to live in a fishbowl knowing that people watch your lives intently and knowing that if you ever stray from the path even a little bit, many will call you a hypocrite, and others will recommend that you lose your job?  Have you ever spent so much time trying to rescue the failing marriages of others that you put your own marriage in jeopardy?  How many times have you had to bring your family home too early from a scheduled vacation because duty called?  How do you answer these questions, little man?  
Do you have to deal with being put on a pedestal you do not want and wrestle with the fact that people think you're a better man than you know yourself to be?  Do you ever worry in your job that you will get glory that belongs only to God?  Do you regularly have people ask you life’s most difficult questions, expect you to have definitive answers, and are very disappointed in you when you don’t?  Did you ever work in a situation where hundreds of people think they’re your boss and feel free to criticize you anytime they want?  Is eternity at stake in what you do for a living?  Do you often work for weeks at a time without a full day off?  Well, do you, punk? 

I’m sorry, but stuff like this not only brings out my inner God-to-Job side, it brings out my inner Clint Eastwood too.  That’s what I wanted to say.  But I didn’t say it.  And it’s not because I was afraid to say it.  It’s because it was Monday afternoon, I am a pastor, I make more money than I deserve, and I was on the golf course.  That alone would have confirmed everything the guy thinks about pastors … unless he could have seen me play … or unless he could spend a week or two in my shoes—and not just my shoes, but the shoes of many, many pastors that I know.

So can I just say a good word in defense of pastors today?  Sure, we have our share of jerks and phonies in the pack, and even the best pastors are very human and have their flaws.  But in spite of that, pastors are a pretty good breed all in all.  Most pastors work very hard.  Most pastors and their families love God deeply and love His church sacrificially.  Most pastors put up with long hours, more than their share of cheap shots from their critics, more stress than non-pastors would ever understand, and much less pay than they could get in the business world.  But get this (and this is what really makes a pastor a pastor): these guys and gals wouldn’t give up their work for anything.  They don’t do it for money.  They don’t do it for applause.  They don’t do it for personal advancement.  They do it because God called them to do it.  They do it as a life-offering to God.  They endure the struggles and give thanks for the joys.  They seek to do it hand-in-hand with Jesus.  And in spite of the inherent obstacles and problems involved in being a pastor, they consider it the greatest privilege and the greatest job in the world.      

Monday, April 15, 2013

Of Fish and Taxes

Benjamin Franklin is the one who coined the phrase, "The only two certainties in life are death and taxes."  Later, Will Rogers would play off that statement and say, "The only difference between death and taxes is that death doesn't get worse every time Congress meets."  Death and taxes do go together, I guess.  There are some among us who die a little every April 15 when we have to pay our taxes.  Sure, some get refunds, even large refunds.  Unfortunately, that's rarely me.  A friend of mine once told me that there are two checks he enjoys writing the most: his tithe check to the church and his tax check to the government. Well, I agree with half of his statement.  I enjoy writing checks to the church.  No one forces me to write them. No one threatens me if I don't.  I write tithe and offering checks for the sheer joy of participating in a financial way in the church and the kingdom of God.  The Bible says, "God loves hilarious givers."  Hey, I can laugh all the way to the offering plate.  And the larger the check the louder my laugh.

But I reach for a box of Kleenex when I write my tax check.  I don't chuckle when I say to myself, "After paying you thousands of dollars already, you still demand more?"  No laughter here; get out the crying towel instead.  I think I could enjoy writing that tax check if it wasn't so outrageously high, if I didn't feel a gun in my ribs and hear a voice saying, "Gimme your dough."  Every April 15th I'm reminded of what some joker calls "the new simplified tax form: line 1: What did you make?  Line 2: Send it in."  Don't get me wrong: I love being American and living in America.  I don't mind paying my share of the rent to live in this country.  But, and you may feel the same, it seems like I pay more than my share of the rent.  Thankfully, God provides for me.  I have a good job.  I get paid more than I'm worth.  And when I have to write that tax check, the money is there to do it.  But I'd be lying if I didn't say I resent paying as much as I am required to pay, and that's why I can't join my friend in kicking up his heels with glee every time he pays his taxes.

Maybe every April 15, before I write my check, I should go fishing.  Matthew tells a story about the religious tax-collectors approaching Peter and asking him if Jesus pays the temple tax—which, of course, implies that Jesus hadn't paid it yet.  The temple tax was a small tax Jews were required to pay by religious law for the upkeep of the temple.  This was not a Roman tax.  Jews had to pay that too.  So Peter asked Jesus about it, and Jesus answered Peter's question with a question: "What do you think, Simon?  From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax?  From their sons or others?"  

Peter said, "From others."

And Jesus replied, "Then the sons are free.  But since we don't want to offend, let's pay the tax."  But instead of writing a check or pulling some coins out of his pocket, Jesus said to Peter, "Go down to the sea, throw in a line, take the first fish you catch, and open its mouth.  When you do, you'll find a silver coin.  Take that coin and go pay the tax for the both of us."

There's a lesson here that has nothing to do with taxes.  This is one more way that Jesus is reminding Peter that the times they-are-a-changing.  In Jesus, the old order is gone and a new order has come.  Those in Christ are sons of the Father and the Father isn't about to charge them tax to be in His house.  I understand the lesson.

But today is tax day, and I sure wouldn't mind reeling in a fish that had my tax payment in its mouth.  How about you?   

Oh well, one day that other certainty along with taxes—death—is going to take me out of this world.  And even though the government will still go for a chunk of whatever I leave behind, I'll be heading to the Father's House.  And in that place beyond time there will be no April 15 and there will be no taxes.  Because of what Jesus did for us in paying our sin "tax" on the cross, God is going to let all those who love and follow Jesus live in His house for free.  That's not just a good deal; that's good news.  And who can't use a little good news on tax day?  Heck, I'm feeling better already.  Happy Tax Day, everyone.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Why It's Great to Be a Papa

Papa, Reese, and Grammy after her basketball game
On August 2, 2001, I became a papa.  Noah Scott McCallum said hello to the world and we said hello to him and hello to grandparenting.  While it was a little shocking to realize that I was suddenly married to a grandmother, it was and is still a very wonderful thing.  Since that day in August of 2001, four more grandchildren have been added to the fold: Reese, Hallie, Macey Jo, and Benjamin.  I fear I'm not near as good a papa as many are.  I still have a demanding job.  I work weekends.  I don't get to see them as often as I'd like.  It doesn't help that I am married to a woman who was born to be a Grammy.  She's so good at being Grammy that even if I was to papas what Joe Montana is to quarterbacks, I'd still fall miserably short.  But while I may not be the best papa in the world, I do have the best grandkids in the world.  And I love being a papa.

It's a great thing, and here are a few reasons why:  
  • It means neither you nor your kids died young.
  • It means you never killed your kids while they were growing up.
  • Dirty diapers?  "Oh Mom … my."  Or if she's not there, "Oh Gram … my."
  • No pressure: you mostly get to play with them and rarely have to discipline them.
  • As much as you enjoy your grandkids, at the end of the visit or the day or the week or whatever, you get to give them back. 
  • You get to tell your old stories and jokes to people who have never heard them before.
  • Your kid's college education: paid in full.  Your grandkids' college education: not your responsibility.
  • You are wiser.
  • You get a second chance to do things with or for your grandkids you wish you'd have done with or for your own kids.
  • You get to watch your kids shine as they raise their kids and enjoy in their kids what you got to enjoy in yours.
  • You get to teach another generation to love the Razorbacks.
  • You get to teach another generation to love and follow God.
Those are good reasons for sure.  But let me tell you about one more—the one that spawned this blog post.  On Monday morning as I was showering, Dayna got a text from the mother of our granddaughter, Reese.  The text included a picture of a little project Reese had to do for school.  Reese never showed it to anyone; her mother found it while looking through her folder, and she figured I'd like to see it.  She figured right.  Since I was in the shower I couldn't see it, so Dayna read it to me.  Talk about bringing a lump to the throat and a tear to the eye.  Reese's words did just that for me.  I had just been telling Dayna that I feel like I fall so short at being a good papa.  And then I get this:  

Reese might have written those words, but I swear I smell the fragrance of God's breath in them too—a little encouragement from Father God to one of His children who never really feels like he measures up when it comes to family.

Thank you, Father.  And thank you, Reese.  While you might have whipped that out in no time at all, I will treasure it forever.  I love you, sweet girl.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Take That, Death!

Still basking in Easter glow, I've been thinking this week about a few of the people I've been privileged to shepherd in their dying days.  Driving to work on roads lined with trees, still in their winter nakedness, I couldn't help but think of Ed McWha.  You'll see the connection in a moment.

Ed was a big man—tall, dark, lean, strong as a bear.  He wore black horn-rimmed glasses which added a kind of a professor look to his size.  I loved Ed.  He and his wife, Irene, loved God. loved the church, and loved their pastor.  They were serious followers of Jesus.  They knew what they believed, and they sought to live what they believed.

I still remember cringing when Ed told me the doctor said he had cancer.  I hate cancer.  But Ed had it and there wasn't a lot they were going to be able to do about it.  They pretty much told him to get ready to die.  Ed took this news like a Christian.  He wanted to live but he was not afraid of death.  He believed with all his heart that Jesus took care of that problem for His people through the cross and resurrection.

Ed and I visited several times over the next many months.  We'd talk about life and faith and Jesus and stuff.  We talked frankly about death.  We talked of muscadines too.  Muscadines are a kind of a grape that is more tree-like than vine-like.  Ed and Irene loved muscadines and muscadine jelly.  I don't know if they liked muscadine wine, and even if they did they probably wouldn't tell their Baptist preacher.  They gave Dayna and I muscadines every year.  I'm pretty sure Ed was convinced that some of those fruit trees along the river of life in heaven are surely loaded with muscadines.  We had good conversations along the way.  And every time we talked, I could see how cancer had taken a little more out of him—turning a strong, lean man into skin and bones.

I still remember when Irene called and said that Ed, on hospice care by then, was probably a day or two out from death.  I headed over to visit with Ed.  I read him some Scriptures like 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:1 …

Therefore we do not lose heart.  Though outwardly we are wasting away, inwardly we are being renewed every day, for our light and momentary trouble is preparing for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  For we fix our eyes not on what is seen but on what is unseen.  For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.  And we know that if this earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house in the heavens, not built by human hands.

He grinned so big I'd have needed a wide angle lens to get a picture of it.  He nodded his head.  "That's right," he said with the weak and breathy voice of one whose body had been pillaged and plundered by a relentless cancer.  "That's right."  I could tell he wanted to say more but had neither the strength nor the concentration to do so.

Then I told him a story from Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress about how Christian and his companion had made it to Living River.  All they had to do was cross the river and they would make it to the City of God.  Christian was frightened of the river's swift and powerful current.  He was a bit hesitant.  His companion was not.  He entered the river and shouted, "Don't be afraid, Christian.  I have felt the bottom and it is sound."  And suddenly, Ed raised his bony, stick-figure arms to the sky and shouted, "Woo-hoo!"  That was Ed's two syllable version of Paul's mocking of death in 1 Corinthians 15—"O grave, where is your sting?  O death, where is your victory?  Death has been swallowed up in victory in Jesus Christ our Lord."  This was Ed's "Na-na-na-na-na-na!" to Death.  It was Ed's sticking out his tongue at Death, poking a finger in Death's eye.  It was Ed laying hold of his faith in the death-killer—the crucified, resurrected Jesus.  It gave me chills that day.  It still does.  I think it gave Death chills too because for just a fleeting second or two, I'd have sworn that death looked emaciated and Ed looked strong as an ox.  Ed died two days later.  Death took Ed's body for now, but it couldn't take Ed.  Ed went on to be with Lord, once again strong and healthy and alive.  And I wouldn't be surprised if he meets me at the gate when it comes my turn to die with a sack full of muscadines to welcome me home.

You know, had Jesus never come out of that tomb, had Friday, instead of Sunday, been the end of the story, Ed would have had to die in fear.  "Woo-hoo" would have been "Uh oh."  But Jesus Christ died for our sins and rose from the grave, and for those who put their trust in Him, all the power of death is dead.

Take that, Death!