Preaching for decisions: know when to land the sermon

I heard a well-prepared, well-delivered sermon that was intended to conclude with an invitation. As the sermon was finished a sweet spirit was evident in the service and I fully expected to see several people respond. The case had been made and the Spirit of the Lord was at work.

But the preacher wouldn’t land the sermon! Instead, we heard one more story followed by yet another application. By the time people were actually given opportunity to respond the moment had faded and the response was meager.

There are two points in the sermon that especially need to be well thought through by the preacher. The first is the first part of the sermon. The other is the closing of the sermon.

I’m not saying that sermons should never include “in flight” direction of the Holy Spirit, even at crucial points (like leading to a call for decisions). However, the preacher needs to be careful to leave the Spirit room to work in the hearts of the listeners and be leery of telling “one more story.”

Reflections on the 1st Anniversary of my Retirement

Time flies. It was one year ago this Sunday that I preached my final sermon as a pastor and said farewell to our wonderful congregation. We turned the page to a new chapter in our lives.

While I doubt that I will ever quit being a pastor at heart, I’ve begun to learn to go to church and sit in a pew. I’ve been learning what it means to go to church and have no responsibility other than to worship. I’d almost forgotten what that was like. For me church attendance was filled with responsibilities. I gave my all on Sundays and came home weary and, quite often satisfied. These days I come home less weary and less satisfied. Going to church no longer has “work” associated with it but it doesn’t carry with it the satisfaction only a pastor enjoys after an especially blessed Sunday morning.

Of course, Jackie and I didn’t retire in a normal way. The day after my last Sunday we headed out on a great adventure, traveling the country in our RV. It’s been a great year and we hope it has been the first of what will be many.

During the past year I stopped carrying an ink pen in my pocket. That meant I could shop for shirts without pockets for the first time in years. It took several months, but I finally stopped wearing a watch. I have a sun tan instead of a white band around my wrist! During the year Jackie and my mornings have morphed into a leisurely time punctuated by a long coffee break about 10:00 each day. Then, many evenings have been spent sitting outside watching the sky; counting the satellites that glide overhead. We’ve even seen a good number of shooting stars. We’re enjoying each other’s company in ways that were almost forgotten.

We aren’t quite there yet but we’re rediscovering something we haven’t experienced since childhood: the joy of doing nothing. Don’t get me wrong: we do a lot. We’ve gone sightseeing, taken hikes, and visited museums and National Parks. However, mixed in now, are days of reading or just fooling with the computer. There are times to just sit and watch the world go by; or blow an evening watching TV. Over the winter, when it was unusually old outside, we watched the entire Star Wars series, from beginning to end, every night for six nights in a row. No meetings to attend, no need to bundle up and go out and fight the weather or the traffic – just time to do what we wanted to do, which was, at that particular moment: nothing.

We’ve missed having family close by. Most people retire and spend more time with loved ones. We, in our own crazy way, retired and immediately traveled far from them. That absent time, though, was somewhat balanced out by the months when we were close by and available to them as never before.

So, here I am, one year into retirement. When anyone asks me how I’m enjoying retirement I generally respond with the quip that had I known it was this much fun, I would have done it 30 years ago. There’s no small amount of truth to it.

Thinking about pastor appreciation

Once again we’re in October, the month set aside in many churches for pastor appreciation.  This is my first October in many years to not be appreciated!  The reason is that I retired last May.  I think this gives me a unique perspective on pastor appreciation month.

Through the years I’ve been blessed in so many wonderful and undeserved ways by the congregations I’ve led.  One of my favorite honors was being given tickets to very good seats at a ball game.  Another year we were given a DVD filled with words of appreciation by members of our congregation.  Of course gift cards and cash are always welcome gifts.

I think pastors with children are especially blessed by being given a night out, including babysitting and the cost of a nice meal together.

Thinking in more general ways about pastoral care I think many pastors need to be encouraged to take some time off.   These days most pastors have spouses who work outside the home.  That means that their household seldom, if ever, gets time off together.  Say the spouse works a Monday-Friday job.  However, the pastor’s busiest days are Saturday and Sunday.  That means they never get a morning to sleep in or enjoy some “us time” around the house.  One way to bless your pastor is to arrange for your parsonage family to enjoy a long weekend once in a while.

Finally, I’ll let you in on a little secret.  Most pastors put a great deal of work into their sermons, Bible studies, etc.  They may not openly admit it, but a lack of interest by their laypeople in this element of their ministry is rather painful.  Pastors notice when ushers receive the offering and then disappear out to the church foyer for the rest of the service (specifically, for the sermon).  They notice when people skip other services, like prayer meetings and Bible studies.  It’s one thing to give the pastor an appreciation card during the month of October and something much better to allow the pastor to minister to you, fulfilling the calling of God on their life.  One of the best ways to show appreciation for your pastor is to show an interest in their ministry.  Stated rather bluntly, if you appreciate the pastor, stop hurting him or her by displaying a lack of interest in their preaching and teaching ministry.

An old preacher’s line is “saying ‘amen’ to a preacher is like saying sik’em to a dog.”  In the context of pastor appreciation I’d say that letting your pastor minister to you and then, after the service, shaking his or her hand and telling them that you appreciated their sermon is where pastor appreciation starts.

Christian or Hindu or Buddhist or Muslim?

I’ve traveled enough to know that there are many good places to live on the face of the earth. I’m glad I’m an American and I love my country but I don’t automatically nod my head when someone says America is the best country on the face of the earth. While I’d personally rather live here than anywhere else, I’ve seen enough to know that other people also have plenty of reasons to prefer their country over others. To a great extent it all comes down to the fact that I was born here. This is “my country” and for me, it’s the best place to live on the planet.

Today, I found myself thinking about the fact that I was born into a Christian family. Some of my earliest memories are associated with church services. Even more specific than that, I’ve been a part of the Church of the Nazarene all my life. Once someone asked me why I was a Nazarene. My answer was a mixture of humor and truth: I’m a Nazarene because I don’t know any better.

Still, as I combine my thoughts about my country and my religion I can’t help but wonder what my religious views would be had I been born in India or Thailand or Pakistan . Would I just as confidently be a Hindu or Buddhist or Muslim?

Frankly, I don’t have a good answer to that question because I’ve never been any of the above. I’m left with this: my religion, which is actually more of a “relationship” than it is a religion, satisfies my life. I’ve never been tempted to try out the others because what I have satisfies my life completely.

Sometimes, after a meal, I might say, “I don’t know what I want, but I’m not satisfied, there’s something missing.” When I apply that “feeling of want” spiritually I can say that the only thing I want is more of what I have. Nothing else appeals to me.

If you’re reading this today because you’re seeking here’s what I have for you: I’ve given my life to Jesus Christ, making him my Lord and Savior. That relationship is the most satisfying thing in my life. Nothing else calls to me. Can you say that about your spiritual life?

Sabbatical Journey #17

We woke up to the sound of rain early this morning. We closed down camp and got ready to roll without getting too wet. It’s a good thing we didn’t try to wait it out because we drove in steady rain for several hours before breaking through to dryer conditions around 11:00. The drive across Alabama and Mississippi brings us to Paul B. Johnson state park near Hattiesburg. We are camped on a finger of land at a nice, tree lined lake. However, as we arrived in late afternoon it was about 90 degrees and we are feeling the humidity. Still, it’s a pretty spot. We’ll probably use the air conditioner in the camper tonight for the first time since the first day or two of our trip.

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Sabbatical Journey #16

We still have a week to go, but in a sense this was turnaround day. It was with a sense of sadness that we hooked up the camper and drove out of the GSMNP. Leaving that beautiful place is difficult enough, but it also marked our first step toward home.

It was just a small step though. Just south of Chattanooga in Georgia we arrived at Cloudlands State Park. I don’t know how much elevation we gained as we left the town of Trenton and began to climb but I did see the outside temperature drop from 87 down to 79 by the time we got to the park entrance. Cloudlands is a good way to ease one’s way out of the magical Smokies. We gave up an awesome place, but exchanged it for a nicer campground with water and electricity (including a bathhouse with hot showers if we want to use them instead of the camper’s). All the while we are in a deeply wooded, mountain park. We’ll look around more tomorrow, otherwise, we’re going to spend a couple of nights relaxing and maybe, just a little, start looking to reentry into real life.

All the photos from this trip are here.

Sabbatical Journey #15

Sunday morning we headed into Townsend, TN for church. We spotted a Baptist church up on a hill with a large cemetery and decided to visit there. It was a good service. There were patriotic songs in observance of Memorial Day, but then the choir sang a worshipful song and the pastor brought a solid salvation message about Jesus being the Living Water. Of the three churches we have visited thus far, this one was the most satisfying to me. There was a freedom and genuine flavor to the service that made me feel at home.

After church we returned back to the park via a longer scenic route. We drove up to Tremont Institute and then took the trail up to the Spruce Flats Falls they told us about. The trail was just a mile, but it was rougher than we expected, with scrambling over rocks and roots. Once we got to the falls it was truly beautiful. By the time we got back to the pickup we were ready to call it a day. Since this is a holiday weekend the park is packed. We had to wait through a traffic jam just to be back to the campground. Since it is full, things are pretty much the same here with lots of noise from kids playing. I have no complaints about that because it is happy noise.

All the photos from this trip are here.

Sabbatical Journey #14

We arrived in Cades Cove Campground here in GSMNP on Thursday afternoon and are set up in a nice site. It isn’t as spectacular as the one in Elkmont was, but it’s another good spot. Since this is Memorial Day weekend we have plenty of company. The ranger told me they have a “full house” this weekend. Yesterday we drove the Cades Cove loop, an 11 mile loop that features homesteads and churches from the old community and also large open fields which are good for viewing wildlife. We got up this morning and drove the loop again and saw deer, turkey, and bear. It was pretty neat. Our purpose in getting out this morning was to hike the trail to Abrams Falls. It is a 5 mile round drip and considered to be a “moderate” trail. The hike was a good one and the falls are impressive. It is a truly beautiful spot.

Sad to say I got back to the campground with a bad headache. I took some pills and lay down. That helped but I still had a headache when I woke up. After more pills and some supper I feel I am back to 75% or so. Tomorrow should be a pretty low key day for us.

All the photos from this trip are here.