What 40 Years of Ministry Has Taught Me
On Sunday, November 4th, 1979, the Lachine Church of Christ in Montreal, Quebec, met in order to officially commend me into the ministry of preaching, and thus began my service to the church as a full time minister of the gospel. They gave me what's called my Letter of Ordination, because in Quebec in those days you needed to have an official letter for when you began to preach, in order to hold books of public record. As ministers in those days, we signed the birth certificates, we also signed the marriage certificates. So you needed an official letter. And that's the date that officially started my ministry.
This Sunday in November marks my 40th year in full time ministry. And, you know me, any event is an excuse to write a sermon, and this event is no different. When you spend four decades focused on one task, you learn a thing or two about that task. And so my sermon this evening will deal with a couple of specific things that God has taught me through 40 years of ministry.
I have primarily served the church as a preacher and a Bible teacher, and one who has used various forms of media in my ministry. While I have been teaching using newspapers, and radio and television, and in the last 14 years the internet, as my platform for my ministry, God has taught me a couple of things. So in this lesson, on this anniversary date, I want to review some of the things that He has shown me.
Things like: God is good, we need to trust in the Lord, or that God will provide, these are all things that all of us learn, not just ministers, so I'm not going to review those things. I want to actually just talk about two things; two things that were helpful to me as a minister, but hopefully two things that can be helpful to someone else who's thinking of going into ministry, or perhaps who is already in ministry. This is not the typical three points. I thought maybe after 40 years, I'd change my style and go to two points.
1. Church Work is the Same Everywhere
The first thing I learned: church work is the same wherever you go. It's the same wherever you go. I know that many think that I've moved around a whole lot, but I really have only worked for five congregations in my career. Three in Canada, one in San Diego and the Choctaw congregation here, where I have served in different roles for a total of 24 years as of this January. These congregations, however, were very different from one another.
One was a small church located in the suburbs of Montreal. Two were brand new works in the inner city, made up of new Christians and mostly immigrants. The church in San Diego was a product of a merger of two churches that pooled their resources to build a brand new building, with several hundred people gathering. It was a church that we would say was well off, had a pretty sizable budget. And then you have the Choctaw congregation, which is today a semi-rural, white middle-class congregation with most of the people who have been members here for a long time, or who have been Christians for quite a while.
Different times- I've preached in the 80s, in the 90s- different languages, different climate, different culture, different economics, different experience as Christians. But as I worked with each of these congregations throughout the years, two things remained constant in every place, with every group.
The Problem of Sin
First of all, the problem of sin. Wherever I went, the real problem was always the problem of sin. Paul says:
All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
- Romans 3:23
The first part of this passage speaks to the main task of the minister no matter where he serves, and that's dealing with sinful people while being a sinner himself. Thankfully, the New Testament clearly defines the preacher's task when it comes to sin. Did not Jesus say to the apostles,
18All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, 20teaching them to observe all that I command you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.
- Matthew 28:18-20
My task has always been clearly understood when it comes to sin. From Canada to Cambodia, this message right here is to be preached, so that sinners can be made aware of the good news that Paul summarizes in Romans 6:23, when he says,
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus.
- Romans 6:23
You see, even though each church and each location was different, the negative effect of sin on people's lives was exactly the same. Addiction and abuse destroyed English families in the same way that they destroyed French families in Quebec. Pride and selfishness caused divorce in sunny California in exactly the same way that these sins cause divorce in windy Oklahoma. And those without faith in Christ died without hope, no matter where they lived.
I remember a young intern that I was training in Montreal, came into my office one day, slammed the door, threw himself in the chair across from my desk. And I asked him what was wrong? And he said that he was fed up with people sinning. He was working with someone who was an alcoholic, and that person had had a relapse. Oh dear, what a surprise. I told him that preachers, we're in the sin business. Don't be surprised when it happens, expect it. Don't be discouraged by it. Preach the gospel. That's the antidote to sin. Yes, all have sinned, but God has sent us to preach the good news that forgiveness and regeneration are available through Jesus Christ.
Which brings me to the second part of that verse in Romans 3:23, "All have sinned," what's the other part? "and fall short of the glory of God." Do you notice that the sinning part is in the past, but the falling short part is in the present? Yeah, we all have sin, and some may have been forgiven through Christ. But there is the constant reminder in our mortal flesh that we still fall short, and therein lies the other main task of the preacher, no matter where he ministers, and that is to help Christians deal with the dual reality that they are truly saved and acceptable to God because of their faith in Christ, while at the same time painfully aware of the weakness, imperfection and sinfulness of their flesh on a daily basis. It is this back and forth process that causes such angst in people.
Most of the spiritual counseling that ministers do, and certainly that I did, is based on this dichotomy here. People understand in their minds that they're saved, they get it, they can spout the passages that explain it. But in their hearts, they are painfully aware that every day they fall short of the glory of God. And if someone is interested in being a disciple of Jesus Christ, falling short of the glory is no small matter. It's painful to be imperfect. I know that sounds a little weird, but it is painful to be imperfect, when what you're striving to do is to please God.
This sermon is not about how to deal with this dilemma, but rather to point out that encouraging brothers and sisters to persevere in faith and service despite these feelings of unworthiness at times, this is the preacher's work with Christians everywhere, at all times. I've encouraged people who can barely speak English with this issue, and also have spoken to others who have written books in English, who struggle with this issue.
We know this is a common work of all ministers because Paul the Apostle summarizes the burden of this spiritual dilemma when in Romans 7:24, he says,
Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?
- Romans 7:24
And then he answers his own rhetorical question,
Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
- Romans 7:25
Meaning: through Jesus Christ our Lord, I'm free. And then in Romans 8:1 he says,
Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
- Romans 8:1
Brothers and sisters, this is the essence of the good news. There's got to be good in the good news, otherwise it's not worth preaching, not worth listening to. So, no matter the place, no matter the people, my time in ministry has taught me that two things are constant: The real problem is sin.
And then, the real need is for more love. A lot of church work for ministers and elders, if the congregation is blessed to have elders, a lot of church work involves putting out fires. I don't mean actual flames that could damage the building, but issues concerning members that threaten to destroy peace, and harmony and fellowship between brothers and sisters in the church.
For example, a couple having marriage problems begin rounding up people sympathetic to their side, and thus creating potential division. Or a Bible class teacher reprimands a misbehaving student in class, and then that student's parents go to the elders because they want that teacher dismissed for having raised his voice to that student. Or a member feels neglected because the minister didn't visit or call during a recent illness, and as a result has stopped coming to church.
The thing about these fires is that no matter where you go, they're exactly the same. It's as if all the scripts for these disputes have all been written by the same author. And in a way they have, because who does Jesus say is the father of lies, the accuser of the brethren, the author of discord and division, but the devil himself.
Now, in the same way that the same fires with similar scenarios are common to all churches, the answer or the response to all of these is the same as well: more love. I go once again to Paul, but this time in Ephesians, where he devotes a section of his letter to instruction dealing with discord and disputes taking place in this particular church. Fires had been set that threatened to ravage an otherwise dynamic and productive church.
31Let all bitterness and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. 32Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ has also forgiven you. 1Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; 2and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.
- Ephesians 4:31- 5:2
Note the types of fires that were burning in that church. He says, bitterness. And the original word that Paul uses, that is translated into bitterness, is actually sharp- sharp words, sharp attitudes. He says, wrath. And I found it amazing that that word in the Greek is, a whirlwind. A whirlwind. Fierce anger. Not just angry- I lost my temper- but fierce anger, a whirlwind of anger. Clamor, meaning shouting or an outcry. Slander, actually the word for blasphemy, the root word, we would say, abusive language. And malice, which is simply wickedness and evil.
These people were having a war of words, and the solution was to increase their love for one another through other kinds of actions. Paul describes to them, replace those things, he says, with kindness, which means the doing of good for and to another. Tender-heartedness, today we would say empathy. And forgiveness, which means to let go our just right for compensation, or considering what someone owes us paid in full. We're not sure what the disputes were about in Ephesus. Some believe it was over doctrinal matters and how these should be interpreted and applied. But the net result was ugly behavior, unbecoming of one that claims Jesus Christ as their Lord. Like I said before, I've preached and done seminars for churches in Canada, the United States, in Haiti, Guadalupe and in Europe. And the troubles that they had could always be traced back to a lack of love in some form or another, always. I mean, sin is an attack on love. When love is the motivating factor behind our ministries, people will respond.
Why do you think the young children here love coming to Bible class on Sunday morning and on Wednesday? Why do you think they love coming here? Do you think it's because we have the latest Bible school materials, or we have high tech equipment in each classroom? Do you think that's why they come? These may be good things, but I'll tell you why they're eager to come back every single time. It's because they know that their teachers and the assistants and coordinators, they know that these people love them. And I want to tell you something, some of these children receive love, receive affection, probably more on Sunday morning and on Wednesday night, than they receive at home. Not because their parents hate their children, but maybe their parents are just too busy to show them and to tell them, "I love you, you're important." When children come here, they feel important. This is home. This is where love is.
When somebody grows up- a person who's grown up in the church, and maybe he's fallen away or wandered away from the church, and one day they start having a family and the husband says to the wife, "You know what, I think we need to get back into church. I think it would be a good thing if we got back into church." Usually getting back into church, the thing that motivates that is not so much, because we want to hear Mike's preaching or Marty's preaching. I don't think that that's what motivates that. Amen, brother (congregation laughing). I think what motivates that, is they remember down deep inside, they remember that church is where the love is.
Brothers and sisters, yes, it's the gospel that puts you into the church, but it's love that keeps you there. We need to remember that. One of the dangers of the present political climate in this country is that unlike times past, when we simply debated those that we disagreed with, politically, and that was it. Today we're being led to hate those that we disagree with. The danger is that this attitude can creep even into the church. I'm concerned that this attitude will creep into the church and brothers and sisters will no longer simply agree to disagree over various issues, but we will start a war of words, much like the one Paul described in Ephesians. Of course if this happens, the answer will be the same today as it was 2000 years ago. More love, more love.
I challenge you to think about an issue in the church that is difficult to resolve. I challenge you to examine that issue and ask yourself, would more love help? Would greater love smooth out this thing? The approach and methods may be different, but this, essentially, is the work of the minister in any church, large or small.
This I have learned, church work is the same wherever you go: It's the preaching of the gospel; It's the encouragement to the church to exhibit more love. Okay, that's the first thing.
2. This World Belongs to the Young
The second thing that I've learned: this world belongs to the young, for a time.
That church work is the same everywhere, is the lesson I wish I knew at the start of my career, it would have saved me perhaps a couple of moves. That this world belongs to the young however, could only be learned over a 40-year period.
Let me explain. Many of you know that I recently had an episode during the Men's Power Breakfast, without getting into a lot of medical detail, I had become dehydrated and as a result grew faint and nearly passed out in the fellowship hall. Thankfully a couple of brothers, Shannon Wann and Jake Anthony helped me, carried me into my office, so I could lay down on the couch. The great thing about Choctaw is, if you're going to be sick, it's a good place to be sick because Shannon Wann is a pharmacist and Jake Anthony is a firefighter and a paramedic, and they were sitting on each side of me. So I was blessed in that sense. So not knowing what exactly was wrong, the decision was made to bring me to the ER where they ran some preliminary tests in order to rule out the usual thing. Is this old guy having a heart attack, or what's going on? Once this was done, the doctor recommended that I be kept overnight for observation, just to be sure that no other serious issues were at hand.
I was then taken by ambulance, to St. Anthony's main location downtown, I was installed in a private room along with other patients with heart conditions in their heart unit on the fourth floor. Soon after my arrival, a new battery of blood samples and pressure checks, and x-rays ensued. All of this was finally completed when an attendant gently knocked on my door at 11:00 p.m. announcing that he was there to take me on his gurney to another part of the hospital for a final x-ray of the day, and this would be an ultrasound of the carotid arteries in my neck to make sure that blood was flowing to my brain, an accusation often made after some of my sermons.
Once completed, I was wheeled back to the quiet of my room with the assurance that that was it for the day. It's now midnight, approximately 15 hours since the incident that took place at the men's breakfast at the church building, and I'm sitting in my bed and I'm contemplating the day with its blood work, and tests, and poking, and prodding, and forms to be signed, and x-rays, and cold hospital food, and quick visits from our kids, each with a slightly worried look on their face, and some late night texts to Lise to say good night. And so I'm thinking through this unusual day and one particular realization came to mind as I lay my head back on that hospital bed in room 4003. And that is, this world belongs to the young for a time.
You see, from the intake person at the front desk of the ER, to my night nurse at St. Anthony's, I was always the oldest person in the room. Every doctor, every technician, the ambulance driver, the administrator, the cafeteria worker who delivered my food, all of them were younger than I was. Even the heart specialist was my junior. This reality reminded me that we all have our time. But that special time in our lives passes quickly, very quickly.
As I thought of this, it seemed that only a moment ago, I was the one visiting sick people. I was the one leading the way and pushing for new ideas and new approaches in ministry. Oh, of course, the elders had the responsibility to lead the flock, but my energy and my enthusiasm were moving the church to build and to grow. Those were heady times, 25 years ago, exciting times, spiritually edifying times when we tore apart this building and added quite a few thousand feet of space. The view from that hospital bed, however, showed me that my time had passed, as I observe younger men in the church implement their ideas, as I watch younger men and women articulate their agendas to bring about change and development for today's church.
The point I want to make here is not about feeling nostalgic for the past, but rather to emphasize what the Spirit says to those whose time is now. And the Spirit says,
Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might; for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol where you are going.
- Ecclesiastes 9:10
You see, we all get the chance to stand in the bright light of youth, and opportunity and fearless confidence in a shiny future. However, know this for sure, that time passes quickly. And once your moment is over, it rarely returns. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches His disciples to live one day at a time, and He promises that He will provide the essentials, if we keep our spiritual priorities in order. What does He say,
"But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness and all these things," and I put in brackets, the essentials, food, clothing, place to live all that stuff. The essentials I call them, "will be added unto you."
- Matthew 6:33
Now, this promise is not some kind of spiritual mathematic equation. You do this you get that, that's not what this is. That Jesus provides the life essentials for those who seek Him daily, frees the believer from having to focus his emotional and spiritual energy exclusively on survival issues and permits him to invest the best of himself or herself into creating, or building, or improving, or discovering, or producing something that will glorify God, bless others and edify himself while he has his moment in the sun.
You know the saying, right? You're only young once. You're only young once, the saying goes, and that period is gone before you know it. Wisdom teaches us that we shouldn't waste that time with self-destructive behavior or self-doubt or disbelief. If God gives you your time, then use it with everything you've got. When you get to be the oldest guy in the room, better you have tales to tell, then reasons to regret.
Well, that's it. 40 years, two basic things: Church work is the same wherever you go, a combination of preaching the gospel and increasing the love quotient wherever you're at; And if God blesses you with a time in the sun, don't waste it because it passes quickly and rarely returns.
If you know these two things, knowing them can help ministers and members persevere in faithful church life when things are rough, since all churches face similar problems sooner or later. No use going somewhere else, the same problems will exist over there. And understanding that the lack of love is usually at the root of most church disputes, gives us the advantage of knowing where and how to begin resolving difficult issues.
Well, at this point in the lesson, I revert back to my primary work as a minister, calling on sinners to believe in Jesus, to repent of their sins and be baptized, for the forgiveness of those sins and the reception of the Holy Spirit.
That's the invitation that I offered in my very first sermon 40 years ago, and it is the same invitation that I make this evening to you. Also, if you have not been as loving as you should and need to be, and perhaps require prayers to help you become a more loving person, then the church is here tonight, it has gathered to minister to you. Our elders are here to pray over you. The ministers are here to give you guidance and encouragement. If you have any needs at this time, then I encourage you to come forward now as we stand and as we sing our song of encouragement.