encouragement

The Fearful Ring

I’m calling tomorrow about how worship went.”

That’s not an encouraging text. Not when the congregation is experimenting with a new order of service. Most of the time, people who approve of a change will remain silent and content. Pastors hear a lot from folks that are unhappy, though.

I braced. I didn’t want the phone call. I’m not a fan of phone calls in general, much less unhappy ones. I’ve received so many people telling me about how dangerous something is we were doing, or how they were going to leave, or how “someone” they know was really upset (and that “Someone” 95% of the time is them, but they’re not brave enough to own up to their own reactions).

I understand that change is difficult, and I understand that we can’t please everyone. As I led worship this past Sunday, I started worship by announcing that we were trying something different. “You might not like it. Frankly, I don’t care. Because the point of worship is not giving you something you like. It’s about a conversation. It’s about listening to what God says and then responding. So as you evaluate these changes, don’t think about whether or not you like them. Think about whether or not you hear what God says more clearly through his Word, and whether you’re equipped to respond better not just for this hour, but for the next 167 hours until we come together in worship again.”

And those, frankly, are fightin’ words. So I expected a fight. And with that text I received, I felt the stress threading through my shoulders and pulling tight. (more…)

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Brace for the Storm

So… apparently the sky is going to fall.

Sunday, a guest told me, “God used you to speak to me today.” It was a very basic Law-Gospel sermon. This is why we praise God: Because we know who we are. We are sinners. We know what Jesus did for sinners like us: Die. When we put those two together, we have to praise.

Apparently that deeply touched this guest.

Sunday a prospect told me, “God has used you to make me a more mature Christian.”

Today my church president told me, “We called the right man. Pastor, I am so glad you’re here.”

This is… this is so much encouragement that I want to hear. This touches my heart so, so much.

And it makes me nervous as hell. (more…)

The Ominous Assignment

The last time I asked this question, I ended up with all the problems brought to the surface. 

It was a simple assignment: Share what you use for personal devotions. Listening to a radio devotion? Reading a chapter of the Bible a day? Reading a meditation? Listening to a podcast? Whatever it is – what do you use?

Look, it’s not a hard concept. Those leading God’s church need to be in God’s Word. You can’t steward his people and not be listening to him. You can’t stand against the dark forces of this world unless you’re strengthened by his Word. You can’t know the lies if you don’t listen to the Truth. And you have no reason to resist sin if you don’t know the Gospel. Hearing God’s Gospel empowers God’s servants to serve.

Basically: There’s a gazillion reasons for any Christian to be regularly in God’s Word both in worship with other believers – and a gazillion more if you’re also a leader of Christians. (more…)

United

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I have discovered what unites Christians. I have uncovered the long-buried secret that will band Christians together, that will make them move as a single family, that will bond them. Oh, it is no gimmick, and it is no leadership tactic. It’s not a program and it’s not a new sermon style.

It is the cross.

I have nearly two separate churches in the same building. The morning rarely seems to acknowledge the evening exists, and the evening is quite content to remain in the evening and not interact, for the most part. I feared mostly that the morning discounted the evening. One person had even said they didn’t count, mostly for monetary reasons.

But this week… this week has united us.

It began Thursday. We celebrated Maundy Thursday, the day that Jesus gave a new command – that we love one another. We also celebrate the founding of the Sacrament of Holy Communion. And on that day, a regular visitor who came to Refresh was confirmed. He had studied what we teach and proclaimed it to be his faith. He joined us as a member, and that night, he joined us in Communion for the first time.

The evening ended with the “Stripping of the Altar,” a tradition I introduced to the congregation. Every movable piece of furniture is taken from the altar area, until the altar is left alone and bare, just as Jesus was abandoned and alone on that first Thursday night of the first Holy Week. Several individuals assisted me: Two councilmen, a mother-son duo (the son is in first grade), and two young men from the evening service. Two different worlds, united to serve at the foot of the cross. When I thanked each one individually after the service, the response I got was, “Anytime, pastor. Just ask.”

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Thursday night the congregation was divided nearly equally between evening and morning. And they blended together in marvelous ways – united by worshiping at the feet of the Savior who served them.

Friday night the wonder continued. Good Friday here does not allow much fellowship; we enter and leave in silence in this one very special service as we commemorate our Savior’s death. We did not have as many from the usual Sunday evening crowd at this service, but they were still well represented. Once again, the people gathered around the Word. They gathered to worship the Savior who bled for them.

And tonight. Oh, tonight!

We moved the Sunday evening service to tonight. I knew there was no way after Holy Week I’d have any steam left to lead a Sunday evening service. Instead, we held an “Easter Vigil.” We waited by the tomb after Jesus has died, considering his promises to us. It was a service in the style of a Sunday evening service – so much more laid back, with discussion throughout – but held in the sanctuary and with more ceremony than they were used to. In other words, it was nearly a hybrid service. This is the first time we’ve ever performed such a service.

We had nearly all the normal attenders for Sunday evening, and about the same amount of Sunday morning people came. Through all the “unusual” elements, they worshiped.

And what united them?

Oh, it was not me. There was no charismatic leadership here. And it was not some mysterious “new service” that brought Christians out to sate their curiosity. It was no gimmick.

They came to worship the Savior who died for them.

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And afterward? Afterward, men and women leaped into action, preparing the sanctuary for Easter morning. Take the black cloth down from the cross; put up the white! Bring on the flowers! Change the paraments!

And once more, though the Sunday evening crowd knew not what to do… all worked together. Learning names. Laughing together and considering whether this flower looked better here or over there.

United not by simple service, but by serving their Savior, who lives again for them.

We are not even to Easter yet, but God has poured such blessings onto this congregation. He has united us around Word and Sacrament. He has brought us together, not simply into a family, but into His family.

And I stand back. I didn’t do this. He did.

And what God has begun, he will bring to completion. I may not see that completion until heaven. I may have no clue what that completion looks like. But this is the Savior who bled, died, and lives for me. How could I not trust him? His mercies are new every morning.

Friday night ended with reproaches. Our service ended with God laying out our need for repentance. Part of that service includes the congregation begging God for mercy.

And last night it struck me.

I am Scar.

At the end of The Lion King, Scar has destroyed the Pride Lands. The rightful king, Simba, returns, and the two battle. Scar had murdered the previous king and thought Simba dead . When Simba learns of Scar’s betrayal, Simba attacks – and Scar ends up on his back, defenseless, as Simba holds claws to Scar’s throat.

And Scar begs, “Mercy, Simba! Mercy!”

Simba has no reason to give it. Scar has earned death. He is the villain of the piece.

And Simba lets him go. As Scar slinks away, he throws burning coals into Simba’s face and attacks again. In the end, in defense, Simba kills Scar.

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How often have I been Scar? How often have I stood at the foot of the cross, convinced of my sins, the claws of the Law at my neck, and I know God would be right to destroy me?

And I beg “Mercy.”

And God gives it. I slink away – only to return to my treacherous ways. How often have I attempted to steal God’s property? How often have I made the ministry here about me? How often have I stolen his glory and thought it was my responsibility to get people in here, to grow the church, to get them to listen? How often have I complained about the gift God has given me of serving him here? And how often have I repented of my sinful pride, of stealing God’s place?

Mercy!”

And here God reminds me: Here is the price of my sin. And he gladly paid it.

And here God reminds me: He is in charge of this congregation. Do you see, my child, as I call my own to worship?

And here God reminds me: This is all his, and I merely steward.

Mercy!”

And here I, too, am united with the congregation I serve. Here, too, I come to fall at the foot of the cross. I, too, cry out “Mercy!”

And I, too, receive the mercy I should not have. I, too, am washed of my offenses. I, too, stand and marvel at the cross.

Because that is what unites me with my people. It is not my service to them… but His service to us.

It is the cross.

And tomorrow… oh, tomorrow, the empty tomb!

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Times of Refreshing

Maple syrup

Apparently I am worth half a gallon of real maple syrup. I count this as a win.

God has heard my plea and peppered the last few weeks with shining spots of encouragement. They were all needed.

About a week ago I met with my church council to point out the problems we have with our culture and being able to do effective outreach. The council (or rather, a few loudmouths on the council) countered with other churches that are just as cold as us (because that helps us somehow?), and one councilman pointed out some doctrine that does indeed scare some people away – but I will not bend on doctrine. If God says it, it is good for us, even if it scares sinful humans away. (more…)

Nothing Left to Give

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What was that Lassie? My ability to care fell down a well? Huh. Well, screw it all, then.

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s that time of year again, and I just don’t care. My euphemism is “I’m feeling down.” And it’s true. At first I thought it was just overwork and exhaustion. Five thirteen-hour days in a row will do that to you. But then I slept. And I was no longer tired.

Still, I did not care.

It’s not as bad as it was a few years back when I finally decided to go and get checked out for depression. I was able to get out of bed, though it still seems like getting out of bed was the worst thing I could possibly do in most situations. I was still capable of dealing with most people, though I had no desire to. I’ve faced darker tunnels and longer days.

Doesn’t mean these days are great.

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It’s not funny. It’s true.

Last Thursday I went to a regular Thursday appointment to see a certain family. I’m there nearly every week for a variety of reasons that don’t really matter for this post, other than to say they’re all involving ministry and sharing Jesus.

This particular family also knows about my struggles with depression. I’ve shared with them, because many in their family have the same struggle.

One particular woman in the family asked how I was doing on Thursday, and I shared honestly: Not great. “I’ve been having some down days lately. Not terrible, but it’s not been good.” I shrugged. I went about my business with the family.

Friday I got a text from that woman: “Hi Pastor, how are you doing today? Is there anything I can do for you?”

My heart broke. I read the text again. And again. I was not alone. This woman reached out to support me, just to see how I was doing.

She loved her pastor.

The body of Christ reached out to one who was hurting. To me.

Maybe your pastor is well-loved. Maybe he can experience that love. Maybe, though he is a shepherd who faces many hardships, is reminded of his congregation’s support. I don’t feel that support here. Please notice how I phrased that: I don’t feel that support. Perhaps it’s there and I’m blind to it. Perhaps my people love me and don’t have opportunity or knowledge in how to show it.

But in a week of darkness, this woman reached out.

God knows what I need, and he sent someone to give it.

(Please note: My Bride is awesome and has been as long as I have known her. She supports me, too. She has all this week. I do not discount that support at all! However, it’s a touch different receiving support form an unexpected quarter.)

When that woman came to church tonight, I thanked her personally. I wanted her to know how much that simple little text meant to me.

God knows what he’s doing. This week, I encountered this webcomic:

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Very seriously, visit http://adam4d.com/ for some really, really great webcomics.

Again, exactly what I needed.

I am struggling with caring about the flock given to me. The last several posts show how I have been wavering so much on this. Part of that struggle is with the loveliness of the congregation. Frankly, they can be a hard group to love. That shouldn’t matter. It shouldn’t.

It does.

Though I long to be like my Shepherd, I am not Jesus. I want to show the grace he has shown me. Oh, it is so hard. In many ways, I simply feel empty.

And another element reared its head this week: Depression. Woo!

And now I’m dried up. Like pottery thrown on the floor, I’m just a shard of the refuse.

Today I got to lead my congregation into grace. And I loved preaching to them. Bible study was such a joy. I played volleyball with some of my congregation. I came back energized. I led a Sunday evening worship service and drove several teens back to their homes. I smiled most of the way.

And then I sit down… empty.

When I think of the individuals of the congregation, this is where I want to be. I think of the man who longs to see his Savior and reminds me so often of Jesus’s love. I think of another man who faithfully cleans the church every week. I think of the woman who struggles to care for her family and still types up large-print bulletins for us. I think of the teen who’s excited to teach Sunday school. These are the people I have been called to shepherd. I know them by name, and I ache, I ache to shepherd them.

And then I think of them as a group… and my heart turns off. I just don’t care anymore.

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I tried to find a picture of “I just don’t care anymore,” but every image included swear words. I’ll let you imagine them here.

What is this? Some symptom of being an introvert? Some element of depression or exhaustion or burnout?

I know this coming week, I’m spending more time at home and not planning on working all those hours. We’ll see if I’m able to do so. I suspect less hours will help me approach people with a heart full of God’s love and not empty. I suspect some rest will also combat my depression.

I also know I’m thankful for that little text. I’m thankful for Jesus using that woman to show love.

Can I encourage you to do something?

Tell your pastor. Call him up. Send him an email or a text. Write him a note. In fact, I encourage you to do something written rather than oral, so he can look back at it.

Tell him you care for him. Tell him you are thankful he brings you the Word. Ask how you can support him – not even the church, but him, as he goes out to shepherd the flock that Christ has placed under him. He may not need that encouragement at that moment. He may not need any help you are equipped to provide.

But simply knowing that one of the sheep cares about the health of the shepherd means so, so much on a dark day.

Tell him.

And even if he never says thank you, let me say it for him:

Thank you.

 

The End of the Week

It was a long week. We’re talking fourteen-hour days of ministry that usually ended with me not only physically exhausted but also emotionally exhausted. My youngest child decided now would be an awesome time to stop sleeping through the night. My day off was very far from restful. I didn’t get done what I wanted to get done. Oh, and this was supposed to be the lightest week of the month. Grand.

I’m working on the sermon. Really.

So you might understand that I was looking at the weekend with some trepidation. I saw a men’s Bible breakfast our church had been invited to; our men are not a group known for their exuberance for Bible study. We had an extended council meeting planned; council meetings may be the regularly-scheduled item that raises my blood pressure the highest. We had Sunday worship and Bible study, which is uplifting yet exhausting. Sunday afternoon our congregation hosted a Christian singer-songwriter, and I had no clue what turnout for that would be. After a long week, what would happen on this weekend?

Holy crap God knows how to make a guy smile. (more…)

Call Day!

This image is actually from a year ago at my call day. Sorry; I couldn’t find anything newer.

Last Thursday I trekked to the seminary to attend Call Day. On this day, graduates from the seminary present themselves for assignment to a congregation or other ministry (for instance, teaching). Others also present themselves: for instance, me. I had a one-year call, remember?

Thankfully, there were no surprises about my call: It was in fact made permanent. Yay! Some of my friends got sent to various places around the country or the world.

After the worship service where the calls are announced, the ministerial candidates go to meet with their new district presidents and get some information about the ministry they are to serve. My congregation happens to be in the South-East Wisconsin District. Though I didn’t need to stop in, I decided to poke my head into the meeting.

The District President made a nice welcome speech and introduced the soon-to-be pastors to pertinent people within the district (himself, his wife, a few other prominent pastors that are involved in big doings). After that, the meeting broke up as he moved from candidate to candidate to talk about some specifics.

I noticed a timid form in the corner. I went over to introduce myself and found out that he was the new vicar (or intern) for the congregation where I had vicared! Now, I may have been misreading this man. It was a busy, warm day and there were a lot of things going on. I gave him assurance: The bishop (supervising pastor) was an excellent man. He had talent in being able to read talent and put it to good use. The congregation was welcoming. The city was ripe for evangelism in so many ways! This man is going to have an awesome time at his vicar year.

And then… my bishop was there! We’ve not talked a lot since that year. We weren’t exactly close, though he taught me so much that I still use on a daily basis. (Remind me to mention our evangelism plan for this summer…) He put his arm around me…

…and told me he was proud of me.

Whoa.

I’ve never been good about accepting compliments. And, really, I haven’t done a whole lot here. I’m a tool. When someone puts together an awesome rocking chair, you usually don’t say, “Man, you have a spectacular tool set.” No, you compliment the man! Well, God has used me as a tool to do awesome stuff. And I can admit that. There are amazing doings here. And all of it’s God’s doings. He just used me to accomplish his purpose!

But to have that acknowledgement from a man I greatly respect and in many ways pattern myself after…

…whoa.

I’ve been blessed in incredible ways. I’ve been used in ways that blow my mind. But to have someone of that caliber say that he’s proud of me?

It’s a shadow — a teeny one, I grant you — a shadow of the last day. When God looks down and says, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” To be acknowledged that what I’ve been used to do is good? That someone like that is proud of me?

Whoa.