Tuesday, March 29, 2016
This last weekend was one of those times when I experienced a real depressive episode after preaching. It was one of the worst I have ever had. I felt defeated, embarrassed and ashamed. When I was finished I couldn’t even remember how I had ended the sermon. Afterward, the Lord’s Supper was celebrated and I took the elements. Yet, as my daughter drove me home I was silent in the car. Usually I am asking members of my family how they thought it went, what stood out to them, even how it could have been done better. This time, I asked no questions.
I have had other pastors tell me that preaching is hard for them, that they often feel terrible after preaching, that they feel they have just not done a good job. I can’t objectively tell you if the sermon was really that bad. I know the Scripture is true, and I hope I “divided” the Word accurately. I am not sure if I made a huge mistake and I intuitively know it but my emotions are keeping me from realizing it.
Often I feel vulnerable after preaching. My wife was not with me on this Easter Sunday as she had singing responsibilities at our other church site. I will sometimes find her after preaching and just stand next to her for some emotional support.
I believe in “Spirit filled preaching” because I believe in the filling of the Holy Ghost. I ask the Lord to help me when I stand to preach. I don’t want to “preach in the flesh” as it were, or in my own strength. I certainly don’t want the sermon to be about me, or manipulative or crafty. I want to be full of God, and I want the sermon to glorify Christ. I realize the need to be prepared, to know the text, but sometimes I tend to get lost in the application and fail to end a sermon well. This is my very human failing.
My gift is to be more extemporaneous that to be literate, in short I don’t write out my sermons and have few notes. Yet, the danger is to lose my tether and to wander a bit, to start out on an illustration (which I often think of right at the moment of preaching) and hope it makes sense. Sounds dangerous even as I write about it, and it can be.
I was pumped to preach this weekend. I preached on the night of Good Friday and loved the experience, loved the reason for a sermon on this very special day. I was honored to be asked to preach on Easter, to celebrate the Resurrection. Yet, there I was feeling morose and even frightened after I had finished delivering God’s great truths. The pastor that mentored me taught me enough about spiritual warfare for me to know that the Devil is often involved in our ministries. He is the great accuser. At the time I didn’t even think about him, I just felt terrible. I was also taught to never beg for consolation after I preach as others may have been deeply blessed, convicted, or encouraged and would find my negative feelings very confusing.
I am hardly ever depressed, usually optimistic and very confident. If anything I tend to be over confident. So, this is not a constant struggle. It did make me feel for my brothers though, who struggle with depression, who even dread how they will feel after they attempt to minister. I am sure some people thanked me for preaching, but in a depressed moment we can hardly believe what others tell us since we are already convinced we are worthless. I have pastored a great congregation which has never been reticent about confirming my gifts or expressing their love for me, and my preaching. I can’t imagine what it must be like to never get that kind of emotional support. I tell you these things just in case someone else knows the feeling, and some others might not know their preachers ever have such feelings.
Maybe I need to be rebuked for my lack of faith. Now, a few days later I feel so blessed to be loved and forgiven by God, so please don’t take me to task too readily. Maybe it was a bad sermon and someone will have the courage to come and point out what I did wrong. I believe the Gospel enough, right now, to be able to hear it.
Tuesday, March 15, 2016
As we approach the coming General Assembly to be held in Mobile many of our presbyteries have been discussing the idea of an Assembly Confession and Repentance concerning racism, especially during the Civil Rights period of our nation. I have been involved in several discussions concerning this idea, and seen a few different proposed overtures. I want to make some observations about what I have heard in discussion.
One of the popular overtures has come out of Missouri, and it stakes out a covenantal type claim to the sins of our past and to our overall church. In seeming opposition an overture has arisen out of South Carolina which declines to make such a connection and rather simply condemns racism and calls for it to be repented of by those who persist in it. If there were no Missouri overture the South Carolina one might seem something easy on which to join and sign. As it is, it is a diversion and rejection of the ownership of our sins, and thus not simply inadequate but, in my opinion, a representation of a state of denial.
For some the SC overture might be an escape either into self-righteousness, or an angry rejection of blame for what is hardly deniable. I grant that others might honestly be confused but I am afraid the drift toward this alternative has pernicious consequences. There should be no confusion since the historical facts of some our founders taking Scripture out of context to defend segregation, ban inter-racial marriage, and thus aid and abet the demeaning, image of God denying and often violent racism of De Jure segregation has been clearly documented.
I have heard some say that even though these things might be true those who held racist views “lived in another era.” The question isn’t what historical period they lived in, and some of course are still living who held and stated those views, but were their views wrong, were they in fact sinful? If the answer is, “yes, those views and the actions they supported were wrong, and yes they were sinful” then have they repented or at least renounced them? If they have not repented or renounced them, has the church which gave them shelter and even prominence repented and renounced those sinful statements and actions?
As far as I am aware no one has asked for a “witch hunt” to drum out anyone who published error or evil, or whose congregation obstinately refused inclusion of various races and ethnicities. We have not sought to lynch those who refused to love their own brothers and sisters of the Spirit and thus put the lie to the image that they truly loved God. No, only that folks own up to what happened, and what should have happened, and help bring healing and unity in the church. The fact is that the Matthew 18 process has been gently attempted, and not only rejected but condemned as an attack on persons of prominence.
Thank God our testimony as a continuing church is not simply that of those who wished to continue segregation. Jesus has always had heroes, in the south and in the Presbyterian Church, who stood up for truth, and loved everyone, and called for justice. The refusal to distance ourselves from the words and actions of those who advocated injustice keeps us from properly celebrating those who were champions of it
As long as there is an obstinate and stubborn refusal to humbly admit the truth, and accept the reality that this has brought shame to the message of Christ, it will cause African Americans who are drawn to the Reformed faith and wish to join our fellowship to stumble over what it is we actually represent. It will put them in a place of severe cultural and ethnic challenge within their own cultural groups, and cause pain in their own conscience.
I have heard some Elders say they disagreed with some things that happened during that Civil Rights period, and claim that the Civil Rights acts of 1964 and 1965 were wrong and made mistakes. This of course has nothing to do with the issue at hand, it is an irrelevant comment. The overture from Missouri and such as those that agree with its spirit are not a defense of any particular legislation. This is not an entrance into the affairs of the magistrate or the State. This has to do with the sins of the church, the “continuing church”, and the portion of that continuing church that wanted to continue segregation and thus racism. This is squarely in the context of the church being spiritual and how it’s members advocated or violated the ethical and moral demands of the Gospel.
Others have made comments that they fear this is all "political correctness" and motivated by what is happening in the streets and from groups like Black Lives Matter. This too is irrelevant. Events in politics, the media, and the street may have all kinds of motivations. Will we not do right because others have the wrong motivation? Our motivation has to be the glory of God, the witness of and for Christ, the defense of the Truth and what is true, and the peace and unity of the Church.
The issue will be joined in Mobile. We all ought to be praying for a godly, honest, humble, and open conversation. We all ought to be aware that the wrong decision can actually hold our denomination back, and roll back many of the gains we have made in these issues thus far.
Thursday, March 10, 2016
MY GREATEST SUCCESSES IN LIFE AND MINISTRY
Recently I saw that sometimes in interviews people ask applicants to tell what they think are their greatest moments of success. That spurred my thinking so I want to try to name a dozen or so in my life, but I would hesitate to call them “accomplishments.”
1. Realizing that grace is more of a reality than luck and that even the bad things were, and can be, turned around for good in my life. This has saved me from a lot of bitterness, to which I am often tempted, but thankfully haven’t stayed there long.
2. Surviving fatherlessness and poverty and being found by the family of God.
3. Having an amazing, self-sacrificing and encouraging mother.
4. Being loved by, and loving, African Americans among whom I grew up, and ministered with, to, and by. Gaining a depth of rich cultural experience through a kindness and welcome that I never deserved or earned except simply through friendship.
5. Being loved by loyal, delightful, and gifted friends in many places, and for many years, even though doing in my own assessment a poor job of loving them back.
6. Gaining a really sound education in a very good secondary school, wonderful college and theological seminary, which foundation and preparation has served me well and spurred me to keep on learning.
7. Looking back in astonishment to realize that I found, in my own tough and poor neighborhood, a beautiful, gifted, and loving wife who has borne, adopted, and raised our children, made our home, and been a tenacious teammate with me in our church and ministry life. Laughing, singing, and thinking with her, added to all the other pleasures of marriage, revive me constantly.
8. Being mentored by faithful and skilled men and women of God who spoke encouragement and challenge into my life, believed in me, and modeled life.
9. Having sinful weakness, humiliating spiritual failure, actual human enemies who opposed me and slandered me, and drove me to repentance, the delivering cross of Christ, and the sheltering and protecting hand of God.
10.Being a pastor whose congregation endured his administrative ineptness, jerky and impetuous kind of visionary leadership, and allowed him to preach, and preach, and get better at preaching, and made him feel like they enjoyed hearing him.
11.Being surrounded by wonderful musicians that made worship a foretaste of heaven and Sunday mornings to be anticipated.
12.Being a soldier and a Chaplain, enduring training, deployments, and war. Loving soldiers, feeling humble and very proud that I was able to serve them and my country, while also feeling the pride of my family and friends for that service.
For all this, and more, I bless God and say that if there was any success in it, then it was all by grace.