What Serious Ministers of the Gospel Do: They Preach and Teach (Part Two)

William Hatherell; John Wesley Preaching from the Steps of a Market Cross, 1909

During 19 years as bishop in my denomination I listened at times to lay committees ponder the qualifications of a pastor being considered for appointment. One question was sure to surface from the laity with urgency: “Can this person preach?”

This question is particularly urgent now that a pastor’s neglect of this task can be concealed by the availability of “quickie” sermons from the internet. Real preaching takes more than that.

Preaching is rooted in the history of Christendom. It reflects, for one thing, the widespread influence of the Reformation – that mighty movement of the Spirit to renew Christendom in 16th century Europe.

Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, John Knox and many others came alive to the deeper truths of the Bible. As a result, biblical preaching was revived as God’s primary way of shining the light of the Gospel on his fallen creation and particularly on our human depravity. We can be saved! And begin to be ‘repaired!’

Later, the Methodist movement of the eighteenth century engendered the same high regard for preaching. John Wesley, a Spirit-appointed leader of that renewal, had much to say to his growing ranks of preachers.

For example, he gave them 12 rules to follow as Methodist preachers. The twelfth included this instruction: “It is your part to employ your time as our rules direct: partly in preaching and visiting from house to house, partly in reading, meditation, and prayer.”

They were to take the task of preaching seriously and also allow adequate time for reading, meditation, and prayer to inform and energize their efforts.

However, the often-asked question, “Can this person preach?” has deeper roots than either the Reformation or the Methodist revival. Long before and standing above these movements, the New Testament is rich in language that reflects the centrality of proclamation and teaching in the life of the church everywhere.

The most common word in the New Testament for preaching — used more than sixty times as a verb — means “to herald.” A herald is a servant to whom a ruler entrusts his message, expecting it to be delivered clearly and with authority, regardless of the cost.

A second New Testament word applied to preaching is translated as “to evangelize.” We know well that the word means “to broadcast good news.” Sermons, whatever the issue, should have some element of this in them.

These two words do not exhaust the vocabulary for preaching in the New Testament. The idea of teaching occurs, too, and these three elements — preaching, proclaiming, teaching — require that careful thought, serious preparation, and spiritual energy be invested into each effort.

In order to bring the three elements forward faithfully and with effect two pastoral habits are necessary. The first is good Bible study habits — the techniques and resources for exploring deeply what is in the passage upon which the sermon is based. The second discipline is to set aside and actually use significant time in study, prayer, and preparation at least five mornings a week.

And of course the congregation also has a role: to be committed to support the serious minister’s efforts with prayer, deep listening, and occasional encouragement for the pastor’s commitment to faithfulness in preaching.

To be a servant of the Word of God in the pulpit is a demanding assignment in these times of many distractions. But fulfilling the task enabled by the Holy Spirit and His work in the minds and hearts of hearers brings its rewards for the souls of both pastor and people — now and in eternity.

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Photo credit: John Wesley’s House & The Museum of Methodism

What Serious Ministers of the Gospel Do: Pastoral Care (Part One)

handshakeOur son, Robert, converses every now and then with a Lutheran minister. This man has agreed to come out of retirement several times to serve one congregation after another until the congregation’s officers find a long-term minister.

Recently, he reported to Robert that during one congregational interview a woman on the committee asked, “Do you visit in homes?” He replied without hesitation, “Oh my! That goes without saying.”

He then explained to Robert that through the years his custom had been to tell each congregation that if anyone had a neighbor or knew of someone in need or in the hospital who had no pastor, he would make a pastoral visit. To him, this kind of home or hospital visitation was an important aspect of pastoral care.

Pastoral visits, in some places, may have been taken from the pastoral agenda or at least dropped to a low priority. I heard of a young pastor who declared to a friend, “I don’t do hospital calls.”

I am sure the retired minister, along with a host of other pastors in chorus, would say “What a missed opportunity!” Such personal visits (at a home, in hospital, or in the pastor’s study) often open an opportunity to understand heart issues and present Christian counsel. They also allow pastors to minister to shut-ins, to families in distress, to newcomers to the congregation, and to parishioners who appear to be dropping away from congregational life.

Pastoral visits have a deep social dimension. They include conversations about troubling or unresolved moral, relational, and faith issues. Their ultimate purpose is to apply some aspect of the Gospel to the soul. Thus, after a pleasant conversation, the pastor may ask a question about spiritual matters or may read a brief scripture and offer prayer. When such ministry is maintained the results are placed by faith in God’s hands, and when fruit appears, pastors give thanks to God for his goodness.

One Sunday evening in the church I served in Western Canada I noticed a young man in the congregation I had never seen before. After service I spoke to him briefly. The ushers had obtained his address in the visitor’s book. A couple of nights later I went to his apartment. I learned that he was a 19-year-old German immigrant to Canada named Gunter whose loneliness had prompted his visit to the church.

My apartment visit and the warmth of the people of the congregation drew him back. Several Sundays later in an evening service Gunter came to kneel at the altar to give his heart to the Lord. When we stood around him afterwards we asked if he would like to say something. He said only, “I feel much more better.”

He was a quick learner and soon mastered English. In time he attended Seattle Pacific University, trained for the ministry, graduated, married, was ordained, and served as an effective pastor until a rare disease took his life regrettably. I will never forget that pastoral visit with my friend, Gunter, in his apartment.

I could draw up a list of memorable pastoral visits. Some, like this one, added tangibly to God’s Kingdom. For others, I have no follow-up. Many visits are cause for rejoicing. At the same time, there are memories of pastoral failures too — missed opportunities, ineffective approaches, broken connections. In our humanness we pastors on occasion come short and must commit our disappointments to the Lord and his mercy.

But, oh how precious the memories of heart-to-heart conversations in a home or pastor’s study concerning the deepest issues of life. And how enriching the knowledge that the good fruit of those visits still flourishes decades later. And how comforting the thought as well, that the results are the Lord’s and his Spirit is still working in the lives of those visited decades ago.

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Photo credit: Sam Butler (via flickr.com)

What God Says to Believers as They Leave a Service of Worship: In Praise of Benedictions

benedictionSunday morning services were basic in our church in the Saskatchewan town where I grew up. There was no printed order of service; no call to worship; no invocations, or prayers over the offerings. As I recall, the simple and informal style of that devout congregation reflected a desire to avoid “formalism” — the word they used — lest it encumber the work of the Holy Spirit.

But, as decades have passed, in my denomination such restrictions have dropped off in favor of more ordered services and the inclusion of such helpful aids to worship as the singing of the doxology over the offering, or the congregation‘s reciting of the Lord’s Prayer at the conclusion of a pastoral prayer. Then there’s the benediction (or blessing) to conclude a service of worship.

For many years, during early pastoral days I concluded worship services with a prayer or a benediction from the Scriptures, but I did not raise my hands over the congregation as the Old Testament priests were instructed to do (Leviticus 9:22). I suppose I feared appearing pretentious. Childhood influences are strong.

Over the years, however, my understanding of the importance of benedictions has grown in rich measure. Now, pronouncing a benediction over a gathering of the Lord’s people with hands raised toward them as a dismissal from public worship gives me joy.

Should benedictions be important? We get a cue from Numbers 6:22-27. The Lord said to Moses, Tell Aaron and his sons, ‘This is how you are to bless the Israelites.’ Say to them:

‘The Lord bless you and keep you;

the Lord make his face shine upon you

and be gracious to you;

the Lord turn his face toward you

and give you peace.’

In those few words there is a succession of six blessings. As well, the name of the Lord is repeated three times to emphasize that He, Jehovah, alone is the source of these blessings.

A benediction is therefore more than specially crafted words spoken over a congregation to give them a psychological boost. Man’s words alone are never enough. The New Living Translation clarifies Numbers 6:27 to show God is really the blesser: Whenever Aaron and his sons bless the people of Israel in my name, I myself will bless them”.

2 Chronicles 30:27 sheds further light. During a time of revival under King Hezekiah and at a moment of intense worship we read that the priests and Levites stood to bless the people…

Such blessings can be uttered in any part of a service of worship. In fact, the Scriptures are rich with benedictions (Psalm 121:7,8; 1 Thessalonians 3:11-13; Hebrews 13:20,21; 2 Peter 1:2; to cite a few). They have special meaning when used to send God’s people forth. Used in this way, a benediction tells believers that God has not only made his presence known to them while gathered for worship; he will also attend them as they disperse to go their various ways.

He will be with them even though this may mean they will be going back to a difficult job, a troubled home, or health uncertainties. In essence, the God who has made his presence known in the house of God assures them he can be counted on to make his presence known during the journey of the workweek, too.

For pastors, the benediction is a wonderful moment for the expression of holy love exchanged between pastor and people. It seals the service they have shared together.

Dipping into the New Testament, what more comprehensive expression of God’s ceaseless love for his people could a pastor call upon to bless his people as they depart than the benediction with which the Apostle Paul closed his second letter to the Corinthians:

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. (2 Corinthians 13:14). Amen!

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Photo credit: RichardBH (via flickr.com)

How Serious Is Sin in Postmodern Times?

va_-_raphael_the_death_of_ananias_1515

Raphael, The Death of Ananias (1515)

In 1973, the psychiatrist Karl Menninger published the book, Whatever Became of Sin? He noted that the word was disappearing from our vocabulary. Moral offenses were increasingly labeled by neutralizing words like “mistake” or “slip-up.”

Since Menninger wrote that book, the nature and gravity of sin have been further squeezed from our public understanding. Rarely if ever does one hear the word used to describe a lie, theft, corrupt act, cover-up of wrongdoing, or personal abuse.

The Christian Scriptures have an array of words or expressions to describe acts of sin such as: lawlessness; unrighteousness; depravity; disobedience. Sin will harm its perpetrator and/or another person, but is always first and foremost an offense against a holy God.

Here are two situations, one from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament, that might help us regain our understanding of the terrible consequences of sin.

Joshua had led the people of Israel in a great victory over Jericho (Joshua 6). They had marched around the walled city as the Lord ordered and the city’s walls had collapsed. They were on their way to taking possession of the Promised Land.

There followed the conquest of a much smaller town called Ai. Victory should have been easier here, but 3000 of Joshua’s soldiers were routed, and 36 were slain.

When Joshua heard of the failure he lay face down on the ground. The Lord rebuked him sternly saying the problem was that Israel had sinned. God had ordered that all property of the people of Jericho (the prior battle) be totally destroyed. But God told Joshua that one of his soldiers had greedily seized and hidden a selection of them. The Lord called this “stealing” and “lying.” Thus the sin of one man was behind the failure of the Lord’s soldiers to overcome their enemies at Ai.

After a detailed investigation, Achan confessed that he had buried a beautiful Babylonian garment, two hundred shekels of silver, and a wedge of gold in his tent. Messengers recovered the forbidden booty.

Despite his confession, Achan and his family were executed and all of their possessions destroyed. The sentence seems severe to our modern sensibilities, but we recall that these were ancient times; God’s longstanding covenant with Israel had been violated; Achan had caused the death of 36 soldiers; 3000 fighting men had been routed; and Israel had been demoralized for a time.

The greed of one man had devastated the whole nation. Yet, his act had not seemed serious until its consequences were brought to light.

Centuries later, in the earliest days of the New Testament church, an act of deception against a holy God and his people again brought severe punishment. In the young church in Jerusalem a spirit of generosity had broken out among the people. Some even sold their houses or lands, bringing the proceeds to the Apostles to provide for the needy.

Ananias and Sapphira, a husband and wife, noticed that open-handed giving had released great joy, and they decided on what they considered a harmless bit of deception to win them recognition as lavish givers.

The two agreed to sell a piece of property but to give only a portion of the proceeds to the church — while allowing it to appear that they were giving the whole. The Holy Spirit revealed this deception to the apostle Peter, who rebuked Ananias for “lying to the Holy Spirit.” The shock was more than Ananias could take and he collapsed and died at the Apostle’s feet.

Three hours later, his wife, Sapphira, having not heard the news, came before Peter, repeated her husband’s lie, and also died on the spot. The Acts of the Apostles records, “Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events” (Acts 5:11).

Each of the two incidents occurs at the outset of a God-directed venture. If the offenses had been ignored or covered, both ventures would have been seriously compromised. In each case, the point had to be made in a way that would speak clearly for the times: however hidden, sin is primarily an offense against God, and thus profoundly serious for that reason alone.

Today, we can find many examples in business and politics of lies, deceptions, broken laws, raunchy talk, and corrupted processes. And nowhere is the word ‘sin’ to be found in news reports even in quotes. That may be partly because today, God’s judgments of sin may not seem so immediate as they were in the cases of Achan or Ananias and Sapphira. Grace restrains judgment for a time and God’s mercy is extended. But situations like the above are included in our Sacred Book to warn us about our peril. These stories counter the notion that God is just nice and he will understand and be indulgent when his holy standards are violated.

The church has everything to offer society today, provided the church, too, keeps its sense of the reality and gravity of sin. After all, our God is holy. With the empowerment of the Spirit, his people must be, too.

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Chokecherries and the Mystery of Providence

15556356962_cd274884a3_mI was six years old and my sister, Eunice, was three-and-a-half. It was late August, 1931, in southern Saskatchewan, and my parents planned to take us down to the old farm three miles south of town to pick chokecherries, a wild sour cherry used for jam or jelly. This would be a big outing for us prairie kids so we were restless to get going.

Mid-morning I looked out the window into the back yard and suddenly realized that my father’s Model A Ford truck was gone. At the same time, there was no sound in the house so my six-year-old brain concluded with a bit of shock that our parents had gone without us.

In retrospect, my father likely had gone to gas up the truck and my mother was quiet in the bedroom upstairs. But in the moment I thought they were on their way and I was set to get my sister and me there on our own.

So we started our journey. This meant crossing the alley behind our Fourth Street home to Third Street. We followed Third Street a block-and-a-half east to Souris Avenue which ran diagonally south. After walking about three or four blocks on Souris we went down a first slope and then, at the edge of town, down a second much longer hill dropping gradually into the three-mile-wide valley south of town. There were no sidewalks; we were walking on the road.

Where the road became level on the valley floor, a man was sitting on a flatbed wagon pulled by a none-too-energetic nag. I asked for a ride and he stopped the horse so we could climb up on the flatbed at the back, our legs dangling over the edge. He didn’t ask where we were going. I helped my sister up and then climbed up myself.

Half a mile or so farther south along this road another road veered off to the southwest and rounded the base of a large, treeless hill. Just past the hill the road swung straight west, crossing a bridge that spanned a narrow river. At this point we were a good two miles from our home.

During our silent ride under the big-sky prairies the only sound we heard came from the incessant crunch of the gravel under the metal wheels of the wagon. The driver had nothing to say to my sister and me. It was as though we weren’t there, but I knew we were on the right course.

One or two hundred yards beyond that bridge, on the left, was the entrance to the Pawson Nursery. It opened to a long single lane and it was the last road we must take to get to the farm.

I called to the driver and he stopped his nag so that we could get off. Still no words were exchanged. I estimate we were already well on the way to three miles beyond where our adventure had begun. Now we had to walk the long narrow road south past the nursery and on toward the farm.

After reaching the Pawson house, a narrow single lane went west towards the next property where the chokecherry bushes and our parents would be waiting, I thought. This lane was the scariest part of our venture because the trees on both sides of the lane had grown to meet overhead. I remember this portion as shady and eerie to a little boy, but it opened eventually to a clearing with an old farm house. To my surprise, our parents weren’t there.

The occupants of the house became aware of our presence — two little unknown children in their yard. There was something strange in their reaction. It was probably consternation mixed with a degree of shock. They asked our names and we told them and we said we had come to pick chokecherries. They gave us a brown paper grocery sack and showed us a bush near the house where we could busy ourselves.

They then disappeared indoors. I know now they must have done some furious telephoning. Even as a six-year-old I sensed their uneasiness, but had no idea why. Soon, the Model A Ford came chugging out of the shaded lane. Our parents were half frantic about our disappearance and half joyful to have found us.

Everyone of us who has reached adulthood has come through childhood episodes that were perilous — close calls, serious illnesses, life-threatening accidents, or unusual escapes from danger even if we didn’t perceive it as danger at the time.

When we review such memories there’s a word we should use. It’s called providence. It means that “God governs and guides in all the affairs of our lives.” At these moments of recollection, let’s give Him thanks for His gracious protection.

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Photo credit: Sharon Mollerus (via flickr.com)

 

A Great Honor Bestowed at Age 90

greenvillecollegecrestA great honor has recently come to Kathleen and me. Greenville College, the school at which I earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English 63 years ago, has bestowed the honor. My impulse is to share the details with my readers but I must first tell you about the college.

Greenville is a Christian liberal arts college. In September it is to become Greenville University. The school was founded in Greenville, Illinois in 1892, by ministers and members of the Free Methodist Church. Greenville, a city of 7000 on Interstate 70, is about 50 miles east of St.Louis, Missouri.

Today the college has 1600 students and offers more than 50 majors. It was smaller by far when I was a student long ago, but it continues with the reputation of providing solid higher education and sending a significant number of students to graduate school and then onward to lives of character and service.

I graduated from GC in 1953 at 27 years of age. With three small children in tow, Kathleen and I then went on to Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky for a three year program of pastoral education. Only eight years after I graduated from Greenville I was brought back from Western Canada to be the pastor of the college and community church. The new church building was just across the street from the campus, and this move began for us a 13-year, wide-ranging pastoral ministry.

Later, at 48-years-of-age I was voted into the bishop’s office for a period of service that lasted 19 years. Kathleen and I took that election with full intent to treat it as another though broader pastoral assignment. Our life’s commitment to the pastoral office did not flag.

A few months ago, 63 years after my graduation and 42 years after completing my 13 years as pastor of the Greenville Free Methodist church, President Ivan Filby asked me a question that took me by surprise: Would my wife and I consent to have the college name a renewed School of Theology, Philosophy and Ministry after us, and would I also be agreeable to having a Chair of Pastoral Theology and Christian Ministry established in my name?

Needless to say, we were astonished and felt deeply honored at the same time. On several occasions during our Greenville pastorate we turned down invitations to other enticing Christian ministries. I refused such offers in order to continue as a local pastor. So we said yes to President Filby’s inquiry.

Now to the formal inauguration of the Donald N. and Kathleen G. Bastian School of Theology, Philosophy, and Ministry. It occurred just three weeks ago, on October 5 and 6. For months Linda Myette, Vice President for Advancement, and her staff, had been working diligently to put together a two-day program of celebration of this event. In addition to the school, the Donald N. Bastian Chair of Pastoral Theology and Christian Ministry was to be established.

So, on October 4 members of our family converged on Greenville. Kathleen and I and two Greater Toronto children Carolyn and Don with spouses, Doug and June, traveled together. Son Robert and wife Jan drove from the Chicago area. Two grandchildren, Charis and Zach, also drove from there. A grandson, Jonathan, and great granddaughter, Rebekah, came from Pennsylvania. It all turned out to be the experience of a lifetime for all of us.

Among many wonderful moments of the two days, here are the three highlights for me and for Kathleen as well.

First, to start the celebration we listened to heavenly choir pieces in chapel, and afterwards I preached the sermon to an attentive student body. The text: But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness and all things needful will be added as well. For me and for Kathleen, that verse summarizes the life we have attempted to lead, and I believe the students received it as a challenge from the Lord for their lives too.

img_2712A second highlight was the ribbon cutting and the uncovering of the large plaque at the front door of the school of theology, announcing the new name of the school housed in the JKL building, a gift to the college made by Don and Esther Jones.

A large group of friends, family, and community gathered outside to hear the greetings, comments and proclamations. The ribbon cutting made us feel we will always be a part of Greenville.

Third, I had been asked to be guest lecturer for a one-hour class of about 20 ministerial students. My subject: The Pastoral Vision. It was a joy to break down the pastoral task into three main components: Ministry of the Word, pastoral care of persons, and administration, and to illustrate these assignments from a long life of ministry. The class was alert and engaged and afterward we enjoyed a special luncheon with them. What a privilege to connect and share with a coming generation of likely pastors.

Please share with us in giving all glory to God for the possibilities launched on this occasion.

And join Kathleen and me in praying for the students of Greenville University, rejoicing with us in the faithful service of President Ivan Filby and his wife, Kathy, as well as the faculty, staff, administration, and trustees of this greatly loved institution!

Re-post: Of Turkey Legs and Left-Over Scraps

At a big family dinner, savory dishes began the rounds. When the platter, heavy with turkey, came to eight-year-old Luke, he took enough for himself and then pulled onto his plate a large browned turkey leg.

His mother noticed and asked, “Luke, what are you going to do with all that?” Pointing to the leg he said, “That’s for Buster.”

As his mother returned the leg to the platter she said, “You can’t take a turkey leg for your dog. Wait until after the meal and we’ll give you lots of scraps for him.”

When the meal was over, Luke was heard to say to Buster, “Here’s something for you. I thought I was going to bring you an offering but all I’ve got is a collection.”

For those who lead in the Sunday morning worship of God, it’s good to ask from time to time, are the gifts we place in the plates treated like offerings or collections?

In other words, how do we treat the time in the service when we receive the worshiper’s gifts? Is it an intermission from worship in order to collect up “leftovers” to look after mundane matters like paying the pastor and repairing the church van? That would be a collection.

Or is that time a high moment of worship in its own right? Do the worshipers think of themselves as giving not to the plate, or even the church, but to God Himself, our Heavenly Father? Are they giving it as a portion of what he has entrusted to them as his stewards? And is their participation in this part of the service as much a moment of worship as when they bow their heads to say The Lord’s Prayer or settle to hear God’s word preached? If so, that would be an offering.

I love to remember the sight of ushers receiving the Sunday morning offering at the last church I served. It took twelve ushers to receive the congregations gifts, three ushers on each side aisle and six in the middle. When it was received, the ushers gathered at the back of the center aisle, assembled the plates into four stacks, and then four ushers walked in formation to place the plates on the communion table. The congregation stood and sang the Doxology.

How the pastor frames the giving of tithes and offerings has a lot to do with how seriously the congregation, young and old, worship in the giving of their gifts. And it may determine whether a congregation gives collections or offerings.

For the pastor, it should be a theological issue of great importance. Is the worship of the Triune God what we do in a service only when we sing or pray? Or is everything we do in a service an act of worship — including announcements and offering?

What pastors teach a congregation from week to week out of their own reservoir of truth becomes what the congregation learns to hold true also. It is to be hoped that pastors often resolve on behalf of their people: “No collection mentalities around here; no more timeouts in worship to look after paying the bills.” Only offerings.

Every congregation needs to think of presenting tithes and offerings into the care of the church as a sanctifying moment. To sanctify means to set apart to God. It is an act of thanksgiving and trust – thanksgiving that God out of his provident care has made the gifts possible, and trust that the officers of the church will dispense the gifts prayerfully and with diligence.

What a clever distinction eight-year-old Luke made between collections and offerings. And how aptly the distinction can be applied to the stewardship moment in every worship service. If what we put into the offering plate is the leftover scraps from the week – what we can spare after all other needs have been met — it is a collection. If it is the first fruits, right off the top, set aside to be given with joy, it is an offering.

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Photo credit: motoyen (via flickr.com)