When No One Says “Thank You”

On most weekends I have the privilege of preaching during gathered worship. That has been the case for the past many years. I have preached to the same church week in and week out through easy seasons and more difficult ones. Over the years, I have preached passage-by-passage through Romans, 1 Corinthians, 1 Peter, 1 John, and Colossians; along with survey series on Genesis, Exodus, Job, Jeremiah, Ruth, and many Psalms. I have spent well over 6500 hours laboring over the Bible and books preparing for the sermons I have preached. I have about 3000 pages of sermon manuscripts to show for it.

And I have prepared and delivered most of those sermons (90%+?) without a single person saying “thank you” or offering any appreciation at all. In fact, on balance over the years, I think I have received more criticism than gratitude.

So what is a preacher like me to do on a Monday after preaching his heart out yet again and hearing crickets in response? That is what I am trying to work through with this post. Here are 5 things that might help you keep your head in the game.

  1. Thank God for the crickets. If you’re like me it would be easy to let the praise of man go to your head. If people were to swoon over my preaching, I have a feeling I would start feeling like a rock star and forget that anything good in me and from my labor is ultimately and entirely from God. God has ways of keeping us humble. The silence might be a means of grace in our lives. So take a minute on Monday to thank God for the crickets.
  2. Focus on pleasing God, not man. Remember that you did not sign up for this work because you love the praise of man, or because you desire to please people, but to please the Lord. So on this Monday reflect on that. Did you faithfully exposit God’s Word? Did you invest the appropriate amount of time and energy into the work? Did you exalt Christ and make the gospel plain and seek to love God’s people through preaching? Then take joy in the pleasure of God. It is far better than the fleeting and fickle praise of man.
  3. Don’t assume people are not thankful. Some people don’t say “thank you” very often, and yet they may be thankful. Many people have likely heard you preach and thanked God for his Word and the way it was proclaimed and how the Lord used his Word and your sermons in their lives. Don’t fault people for not saying it. Maybe expressing gratitude to you just didn’t cross their minds.
  4. Make it your habit to thank the preachers you hear. When I hear a sermon, I make it a point to let the preacher know that I am thankful that he has worked so diligently to serve me and others and Christ by preaching the Word. The more expositional, the more grateful I am. I especially make it my habit to thank up-and-coming preachers. While being careful not to puff them up or overcompliment, I make sure that they know that I am grateful for their work. I mention specific aspects of the sermon that were especially helpful to me.
  5. Bury your thoughts about yesterday and put your nose right back into The Book for next Sunday. Another week means another sermon and, since it is Monday, it is time to dig in. Sunday is coming. Get to work.

There is only one “well done” you really want to hear. In all the strength that God provides, aim for that on Monday. Keep preaching the Word for the glory of God and the good of his people!

Oh, and if you are a preacher who faithfully preaches the Word each week: thank you.

It’s Time to Be Real

In the Fall of last year, I think in October, some friends hosted a party and the theme of that party was the Lord of the Rings, from those famous books of J.R.R. Tolkien. It was fun and many of us nerded-out when it came to costumes. My wife created a pretty awesome outfit for me. I dressed as Radagast the Brown, the eccentric wizard who loved animals and the forest and was probably a wee bit mental. The costume totally nailed it. I had a long beard, long hair with a birds nest in it. I looked just like him.

But I am not Radagast. I am Mike. I was merely dressing up – like many of us enjoy doing – as someone who I am not. I wasn’t being real that night. I was doing the opposite of being real. Later I took that costume off and put my clothing back on and that is when I was being real. Being real means wearing our own clothes.

In Colossians 3:8-14, Paul urged Christians to wear our own clothes. So out with our old, musty, worn out, out-of-fashion duds – like anger and malice and lying and slander. And no more dress-up costumes; we don’t need to pretend that we are something we are not.

Instead, we should wear the clothing of our new self, created in the likeness of God (see also Ephesians 4:17-24). We should put on garments of compassion and kindness and humility and forgiveness. And we can’t forget the belt which brings the whole outfit together: love.

That is what being real looks like. My fellow Christians, be real. And by that I mean wear YOUR clothing today. The beautiful garments that Jesus bought for you with his blood.

On Pastoral Expectations

Why Are You So You?

The other day I was razzing one of my kids and she became frustrated and said, “Why are you so, so… so you?” Hmm. Fair enough.

Pastors don’t just get that question from their kids after a good bout of teasing, though. Most every pastor I know is asked that – sometimes with vitriol – by people in the church. So let’s think for a moment about the expectations Christians often have of their pastors.

I don’t have in mind the very healthy and biblical expectations that all of us should have of someone who is serving as an under-shepherd of God’s flock, such as the expectation of godliness, and the expectation that a pastor would devote himself with discipline and rigor to prayer and the ministry of the Word; the expectation that he would remain biblically qualified to hold his office or the expectation that a pastor would love the people entrusted to him. Those are very healthy expectations to have.

I have in mind the extra expectations people sometimes have because of a desirable trait or traits that they have observed in some other pastor but don’t see in their pastor, at least not in the same measure. Why aren’t you more funny? Why don’t you like the same authors I like? Why aren’t you a better conversationalist? Why are you sometimes reserved or awkward? Why are you so, so you? If you have an expectation of your pastor that isn’t stated in the Scriptures as an expectation of pastors/bishops/overseers/Christians, then that is an extra expectation, and the very sort I have in mind.

Most of the time, we have these expectations because we want more from a pastor than is right or good or healthy. That desire is usually rooted in selfishness and idolatry. But don’t let those two words – selfishness and idolatry – turn you off. Let me briefly explain before you turn off. 🙂

I think it is rooted in selfishness because central to such sentiments is our various needs which we demand to be met by our pastor. Of course, the pastor is supposed to meet certain needs of the flock. The pastor serves the congregation by shepherding and encouraging the church in godliness. He helps to meet a very real need we all have to be trained in the Word of God and to see how to apply the Word to our lives. He rebukes and encourages and equips and protects. Those are legitimate desires. We should want pastors to help us in those areas. It becomes selfish when we seek for the pastor to meet all of our “felt needs”, like the need to have someone around us who is of a certain temperament, or quick-witted, or funny, or chipper, or a great conversationalist.

Some pastors are better than others, and some men make awesome pastors. All pastors make horrible gods.

I think that sentiment is rooted in idolatry because we begin to look to the pastor to do for us what we should be looking to only God for. I know you know this, but it is a good reminder nonetheless: your pastor is not God. He is there to help point you to God, not be God for you, meeting all of your spiritual and emotional needs. I don’t mean that in a cold way. As a pastor, I desperately want to help people turn to God and find their rest and life in him. I try to do that well. But no matter how well a pastor does that, he is still not God. Some pastors are better than others, and some men make awesome pastors. All pastors make horrible gods.

If you woke up this morning and thought, boy I would really like to discourage my pastor today. Here is one of the easiest ways to do that. Send him an email or a text or drop by his study and ask him why he is so, so him. That will do it.

And a quick word to my pastor-brothers who might be feeling the weight of unmet and unhealthy expectations. But not a word from me. I am still fighting the same fight you are. Far better than my word is a quick word from the example of the Apostle Paul (Galatians 1:10): For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.

How to Combat Those Monday Blues

Every pastor knows how this feels because it happens every.monday.morning.

I’m usually emotionally zapped on Monday mornings. I spent the day before ministering to others, from morning to night. I preached my heart out, delivering a sermon I spent 20 hours preparing. I counseled and prayed with hurting people. I led an evening home group. I met with elders and prayed about the church and made tough decisions with them. And somewhere in that crazy day I also managed to spend some time with my wife and four kids. Now it is Monday. Oh blessed Monday!

Mondays are a slower day, typically, than the other days of my week. It is a day I typically spend almost entirely in my study at the church. Few people schedule counseling appointments on Mondays. I don’t have any Bible studies or small groups to meet with on Monday. I have few meetings of any kind on Mondays. At the church, there are a few people working and coming and going, but it is a relatively quiet day – unlike the rest of the week.

Those two things by themselves – my emotional exhaustion and the slow pace of the day – heighten the temptation to become discouraged. But on any given Monday there might be even more to it. Maybe the weekend didn’t go as well as I had hoped. Maybe someone made an overly-critical comment to me after the service (or a normal comment that felt overly critical to my overly-sensitive ears). Maybe no one said anything at all – not even a simple ‘thank you’ for preaching the Word. Maybe (and likely) I am overthinking things.

So now it is Monday and I have to begin again. A new week, with new Bible studies to lead, new counseling sessions, new people to serve, and a new sermon to prepare. New everything. Again.

Whatever the exact causes, the blues often knock on my door on Monday mornings. And, as a pastor I have to fight against it. So how do I do that?  Here are four things that work for me when I get serious about the fight for joy on a Monday:

  1. I pray and read the Bible. It is essential for me to get up early on Monday mornings and spend time alone with God. I do that every day, but Mondays are especially important. I read the Bible and ponder how to apply the passages to my life – how God wants to speak this into my life. And I confess my wrong thinking, and my general self-absorption. I ask for God’s help to be self-forgetful, to seek to serve others, and to view the new day and the new week as gifts to be well-stewarded for the glory of God. I ask him for his strength and enabling grace to resist the temptation to be glum, and to rejoice in him. I do this in the morning and repeat as necessary throughout the day.
  2. I jump into the new week with gusto and work as hard as I can – prepare for as much as possible and get as far as I can on my sermon. Not only is this super helpful for my week’s workload and for productivity, it helps me stay encouraged. I think discouragement and laziness (or idleness) are first cousins, if not best buds. If I let discouragement take root, I will accomplish very little. And if I accomplish very little, discouragement will likely take root. So I work, asking God to help me keep my head in the game.
  3. I exercise. Never underestimate the emotional helpfulness of a good five-mile run, especially on a Monday! I try to run three times a week, but I try even harder to never miss a Monday.

These are the three main things that help me not fall to the temptation of self-absorbed discouragement. These things help me fight the Monday morning blues. What do you do?

Nasty Disturbing Uncomfortable Things That Make You Late for Dinner

Through the years, I’ve received more than pleasure from reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s books. He had a deep and keen and helpful insight into life and human nature. Take, for instance, the dialog between Gandalf and Bilbo at the beginning of The Hobbit. Gandalf makes it known that he is looking for someone with whom to share in an adventure. Bilbo’s reply:

We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!

Then there is Bilbo, a scene or two later missing his beloved handkerchief, and Dwalin gives him a dose of life in the real world:

You will have to manage without pocket-handkerchiefs, and a good many other things, before you get to the journey’s end.

Then, that made-famous-by-the-movie scene in The Fellowship of the Ring in which Frodo complains about the times into which he had been thrust (“I wish it need not have happened in my time.”), and Gandalf imparts to him this nugget of gold:

So do I and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.

So.much.insight.

I woke up this morning thinking that I would much rather read an epic historical account than to continue living through one today. Why? Because adventures are nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things that make one late for dinner and forget his pocket-handkerchief. I didn’t choose this epoch. I didn’t choose to be the first pastor in the history of the church I serve to close its public gatherings indefinitely. I didn’t choose this COVID-19 era, full of sickness and lockdowns and fear and financial ruin. Honestly, I am partial to arm chairs and fireplaces and pipes and books – far more than I am to adventures.

But that is not for me to decide. I don’t get to choose my trials or my suffering or my lot in life. God is sovereign and wise and good, and in that goodness and wisdom he has decided that I will live now, through this time (and that is true for you too, by the way). As Isaiah 46:10 says:

I declare the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.’

So, with Frodo, what we need to decide is what we will do with the time that is given to us.

And, frankly, we might have to manage without pocket-handkerchiefs and a good many other things before we get to the journey’s end.

Don’t Waste Your Pandemic

Nearly 10 years ago, a famous pastor from Minnesota was diagnosed with cancer. On the eve of his surgery, John Piper wrote an essay called, “Don’t Waste Your Cancer.” It has helped thousands of people walk through cancer with a determination to glorify God with and through and in their trial. You can read that here. I’m shamelessly coopting the title to encourage you, my brothers and sisters in Christ, not to waste our pandemic. I want to focus my heart and mind on glorifying God through this, and I want to encourage others to do the same. So with that, here are some thoughts about not wasting our pandemic.

You will waste your pandemic if you fail to set your hope in our sovereign God. This, of all things, ought to humble the world and help us see how fragile we are, and how little control over things we actually have. A tiny, nearly invisible agent has shut down the most powerful countries on earth – nearly shut down all of the world! That’s humbling, and it ought to focus our hope in God.

Our ultimate hope can never be in preventative measures or in science or in medicine, as important as all these things are. We have to trust in God. He is God over all, big and small. From the mightiest nations to the tiniest microbes – he is Lord.

You will waste your pandemic if you spend all your time worrying about the future or complaining about the present. By all means, do what you can to secure your business, or find other employment, or whatever you can do today to keep food on the table. But doing things is different than worrying. You have no idea what tomorrow will bring (James 4:14), so leave tomorrow’s concerns to tomorrow and focus your efforts on today. Meditate on Philippians 4:4-7 (memorize it) and preach the truths of those verses to your soul until they stick there.

And complaining is about as helpful as worrying. Which is to say, it is not at all helpful. In fact, there is little in this world that is more faith-killing than a complaining or grumbling heart. So don’t give in to that. Start a journal and write down, every day, all the things for which you are thankful. Share the things for which you are thankful with those around you. Post evidence of thankfulness on your social media. Let the world know that we are thankful to the Lord, for he is good and his steadfast love endures forever. Read 1 Corinthians 10:10 to sober up from the stupor of complaint, and then drink deeply from passages like Psalm 136:1-26.

You will waste your pandemic if you spend all your time browsing or ranting on social media. Social media can be a wonderful thing during an event like this – an unprecedented means of communication while we are sheltered in place. Many thousands of Christians will be watching live-streamed sermons and services this Sunday from the safety of their own homes. We can easily check in on one another. We should be thankful for social media (and related technology). I’m thankful.

Yet, these things can also be a great means of discouragement. Christians would do well to stop Facebook shouting at their neighbors for either over or under-reacting (according to their superior, better-informed judgment). Please remember that the bridges you burn during this pandemic will likely stay burned after this is over. And people need love right now, especially from the children of God. So use this time to show love to your neighbors. And maybe turn the phone off and go read a book.

You will waste your pandemic if you focus only on your own needs. The world is reeling from this. Fear is everywhere. Use this time to show the love of Jesus to those around you. Call an elderly person and tell them you are praying for them and ask them what they need. Gather a list of needs and people and pray for them, every day. Seek for ways to serve others.

And do good things for your soul. If you have extra time off from work, spend that time with your family. Start up some online prayer groups (Zoom is an excellent tool for that). Read good books, go for a [socially-distanced] walk. Play a board game. Get on the floor and build a castle with your six-year old.

These are hard times. Let’s not waste them! Soli Deo gloria.

Looking Forward to the City

Why do we, with Abraham, look with faith and hope and joy towards the city not made by man, but whose builder and maker is God?

There was a riot today in an overcrowded Indonesian prison. There’s a pandemic virus keeping a bunch of people stuck on a cruise boat that is offering free porn. My mom is in a hospital bed 2000 miles away. She sometimes forgets where she is and why she is there. My wife’s father has cancer, and he is 6000 miles away.

I woke up this morning with a toothache. A friend is going through a divorce. Another friend can’t lift his arm above his shoulder anymore – and never will again. My computer won’t stop updating. Muslims in Nigeria are persecuting Christians. Twitter exists.

I struggle against my own sin – still, after all these years!

My oldest son leaves for college in a few months, and the thought makes me cry. My basement often leaks in the Spring and that is only weeks away. Venezuelan money is almost worthless. Did you catch the Superbowl half-time show? I alternate between burning and under-cooking the food I grill. Human trafficking is still a thing.

Statistically, 8 Christians will be killed today for their faith. 4 others will be imprisoned. Nearly 2000 babies will be aborted. And it is only Wednesday. It is Wednesday! A socialist won another state primary yesterday. A popular Christian leader whom I used to like has gone Catholic.

People call good things bad and bad things good. A few big hotel chains decided not to allow Bibles placed in their rooms anymore. Many people twist the truth, and many more hate God, hate churches, and hate Christians. This world is not our home.

That is why.

In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8:37-39

New Decade: Same Ambition

2020I’m sitting in a cozy leather chair with my laptop, and it is pretty early in the morning on January 1, 2020. A cold wind is howling outside. The warm house sheltering me is in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. My family and I came down to spend the New Year’s holiday with friends. We had a wonderful time, but probably stayed up too late. I think I am the only one awake right now. But people will soon begin to stir.

A decade is over, and a new one has begun. 10 years ago I was a 35 year-old associate pastor in Orlando, Florida. We had 3 children and a 3-legged dog. A decade later, and I am not 35 anymore. We have 4 children and a 4-legged dog. And I am the preaching pastor for a church in North-West Nebraska. A lot has changed in a decade.

But my ambition hasn’t. By God’s grace, I still want to serve Jesus Christ. I still want to live every day for the glory of God in my life and his glory in this world. I still want to be a good husband, a good father, a good pastor and a good friend. I still want the Lord to be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death. It is a new decade, but the ambition I am feeling is the same.

I do have a few resolutions for 2020 (moan and groan away, but I still think resolutions are helpful. Maybe I’ve been reading Jonathan Edwards too much; or maybe Paul?). I intend to read more in 2020 (I’m taking the Christian Reading Challenge by Tim Challies and I plan to read the Bible through again). I plan to write more in 2020 (this blog, and maybe finish a couple of books projects). I want to be more intentional in my conversations with others. I want to love people more and forget myself more in 2020.

These aren’t new ambitions, just resolutions in keeping with the same old ambition – the one that has driven my life and ministry for the last two decades. It is a new decade, but the same ambition.

Hello 2020. Soli Deo gloria!

 

The Art of Double-Speak

double-tongue-paulDeacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued… 1 Timothy 3:8

I don’t want to speak badly about so and so but let me tell you how bad he is. I’m not complaining, but here is my complaint. I don’t want to gossip but let me tell you this juicy and defaming bit of information about so and so, just so that you would know (or maybe so that you can pray). I won’t slander, but this person said this, and I want you to think as badly as possible about them even though in context the thing was more understandable than I will share.

No one is as forthright as the above about his or her double-speaking ways. And that is the problem, isn’t it? We might be so given to the double-tongue that we are double-tongued even about our double-tongued-ness. It might be such a pattern in our lives that we don’t even see it as wrong.

Sadly, this might be true of us even in the church. Even as professing Christians.

In our church, the new deacon team and I are working through what the Bible teaches about deacon qualifications (mainly from 1 Timothy 3:8-13). We had to pause on this gem of a word: double-tongued. It is translated from the Greek word δίλογος. The word is constructed by the prefix di, which means two or double, and the root logos which means word. So double-tongued or double-worded or insincere seems to capture the meaning well. Ironically, the word is employed exactly once in the New Testament, and only once in the Greek Apostolic Fathers. The Bible and the Fathers didn’t doubly use di-word. 🙂

Why do we say one thing and mean another, or say one thing to one person and a different thing to another? Why do we often give a disclaimer that is completely out of step with the thing being disclaimed (i.e., I don’t want to gossip or be hurtful but here is some hurtful gossip.)?

Maybe it is because we really want to act ugly while still appearing pure or righteous? Maybe it is because our Christianity is a mere pretense, and we don’t want to let that show through? Maybe it is because life (or church) is a game to us, and it is okay to hurt people in games?

I’m sure there are many reasons. But the Bible makes it clear: being double-tongued is not befitting for a Christian. Sincerity and love ought to be the marks of a people who have been transformed by God’s grace. We should be the one demographic that actually says what we mean (and not mean mean things!).

Christians – all Christians, but especially those who are in church leadership – are called to be sincere and loving in the way that we talk. So much hurt and division can spring up from the insincere speech of one double-tongued person. May it not be so among us!

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. – Ephesians 4:29

Why Keep Harping on Grumbling? I mean, seriously…

rainIn the church where I serve as pastor, we’ve been talking quite a bit lately about grumbling. Not so much because there is a lot of grumbling (though I am sure we have our fair share) but because we preached through Exodus during the summer, and a few weeks ago we hit 1 Corinthians 10:10. And in those Scriptures, we encounter the sin of grumbling. And big-time warnings against it!

So what is grumbling and why all the fuss? BDAG defines the Greek word translated grumble as speaking in low tones of disapprobation or to complain against someone or to murmur. Merriam-Webster says it is a mutter of discontent.

Grumbling can be the natural and sinful response to pretty much anything we do not like or agree with.

Grumbling can be audible, or it can be an attitude in the heart. When it is vocalized, it is spoken in low, muted tones (literally or metaphorically) because grumblers don’t want everyone to know they are grumbling. It can be directed against a person, such as a spouse; or a group of people like a church. Grumbling is often against a situation or circumstance. We even grumble against God (honestly, I think all grumbling is ultimately against God, but I’ll leave that deep thought for another post)! Grumbling can be the natural and sinful response to pretty much anything we do not like or agree with.

The word comes up in the New Testament 11 times, and every time it is in a negative light. Here is a sample:

Philippians 2:14, “Do all things without grumbling or disputing…”

1 Corinthians 10:10, “nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer.”

James 5:9, “do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged…”

1 Peter 4:9, “Show hospitality to one another without grumbling.”

What, pray tell, is the big deal? Can’t we complain a little once in a while? Why such a sweeping – and repeated – prohibition against grumbling?

Here are three brief reasons for why we should view grumbling as the serious sin that it is, and run from it.

First, grumbling poses a real threat to the unity of a church. Of the 11 times the word grumbling occurs in the New Testament, at least 4 of them have to do, at least indirectly, with church unity (all the ones quoted above). Of course, maintaining unity has always been an issue in the church for many reasons. But one really quick method to directly harm unity is simply to grumble against one another and/or against the leadership.

Second, grumbling dims the light we are called to shine in this “crooked and perverse generation”. That is an implication from Philippians 2:14. Since doing all things without grumbling leads to shining as a light, it follows that grumbling dims that light. To put that another way: grumbling mutes the gospel. It is a very serious thing!

Third, grumbling demonstrates a lack of faith in God. In 1 Corinthians 10:10, the context points to Israel in the Wilderness “putting Christ to the test” by complaining against Moses and grumbling against God because of their situation, and the way God was providing for Israel. Instead of trusting God in their trails, they complained and muttered their discontent. Grumbling is the opposite of faith. In fact, it demonstrates a heart-level belief that God is doing something wrong in your life.

So, brothers and sisters, let us resolve to not be grumblers. For the unity of the church, for her testimony to this lost world and to show that we believe that God is good, let’s do all things without grumbling or disputing.