Saturday, February 20, 2016

Repaying an Old Debt

Dr. Lloyd Perry was my homiletics professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in the late '60s and early '70s. As I relate in the letter below, he used to drive me crazy with his obsession with how sermons should be written — and his requirement that every sermon written or preached in class follow precisely his prescribed forms.

However, years later — again as I describe in the letter — I realized what Dr. Perry was really up to: he was giving us a strong foundation for sermon construction that I am sure he knew we would gradually shape for ourselves. But at least we would know how to put a well-crafted sermon together. When that "revelation" hit me, I determined to write Dr. Perry and thank him for how much he had influenced my life as a preacher. Sadly, before I got around to doing that, Dr. Perry died, and I felt sad that I had never thanked him.

But today I met someone who not only knew Dr. Perry but knows his widow well (she's 95), and he gave me her address. So I just wrote her the following letter:

Dear Mrs. Perry,

I was a student of your husband’s at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in 1969 and 1970. And, I must tell you in all honesty, he drove me crazy. As you know, he was extremely meticulous in how he wanted us to construct our sermons; and while I never had the courage to tell him this personally, I thought he was forcing us into some sort of artificial sermonic straitjacket! And, for a while after I graduated and was pastoring my first church, I rather prided myself in NOT preaching “Perry Sermons!” 

But as time went on, and my sermonic preparation (and humility!) improved, I was somewhat shocked to realize that, more often than not, my sermons were beginning more or less to follow the approach that Dr. Perry had taught us. But more than that, I began to understand that what he had been doing was not inflicting on us a not-to-be-tinkered-with absolute system of sermon construction, but rather he was giving us this wonderful tool for approaching the Biblical text that he expected us to take and shape and make our own. 

At that point, I decided I needed to write Dr. Perry and thank him for the amazing foundation for preaching that he had so patiently instilled in me (and maybe even apologize for all those thoughts I’d had as a very young and inexperienced student, way too proud for his own good!). But, sadly, in the busyness of that time in my life, I never got around to it. And when I saw the notice of his death in the Trinity newsletter, I felt terrible that I had never written him. 

I am in his debt for so many aspects of my pastoral ministry, not just preaching. To this day, I tell young pastors not to make any changes in their church during the first year of their ministry and to figure out who the “church boss” in their congregation is (I found mine within hours of my arrival at my congregation — fortunately a good man who didn’t abuse the power that people had conferred on him. But I knew I needed to make him my friend if I wanted to get anything done). By contrast, every time I don’t  wear a white dress shirt on Sunday morning, I think of Dr. Perry and wonder if he’s frowning! And it took me years ... years before I would wear anything but a formal suit on Sunday morning. I still wear a suit or sports coat — I can’t imagine what he would say if I tried to get away with what some are wearing in the pulpit these days. And you will be pleased to know that I never step into the pulpit with unshined shoes! I say all this, of course, with such warm feelings for my old mentor, and am consoled by the thought that from his present perch he is able to laugh with me — or, more likely, to be so distracted by his conversations with Jesus and others that he scarcely has time to think of his former students or life at TEDS. But I still felt badly that I had never taken the time to actually thank him for what he had meant to me all these years.

So when, by “chance” I met Dan this afternoon, and he asked me what seminary I had gone to, and I mentioned TEDS, he said, “Did you ever know a Dr. Perry?” I exploded with memories, as I’ve shared with you, and told him that I’d always regretted not sending that letter of thanks to him. And then when Dan related that he had known Dr. Perry and you — and knew your address — you can’t imagine how excited I was! 

Your husband was and is such a formative part of my pastoral life, that when I retired earlier this year after 42 years of ministry, including 37 years at my last church, his book on sermon construction was one of a very few that I kept. (Tears are coming as I think of him even now.)Most of the other books — about 3/4 of them — I gave away or sold. But two books, one by your husband and a signed copy of a Romans commentary by Richard Longenecker, I kept soley because I cherished the memories of those fine and influential men and so appreciate their effect on my personal and pastoral life.

You know, far more than I, what a gracious and caring man your husband was. He was not just a brilliant scholar and teacher but a warm Christian gentleman who wished that his students bring a measure of “class” to their pastoral work. I shall always be grateful that he was my teacher, and I am so thankful to be able to share my memories of him with you.

I pray that our great God will continue to bless you in abundance!

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Long Term Becomes Short Term!

After 6 months of stress-free living, I have accepted a position as an intentional interim at a church very similar (at least in many ways) to the one I retired from. The scary thing is that I feel reasonably competent to do this job (in distinction to my normal Moses mode — "Here am I, Lord, send Aaron, because this is more than I can handle.") Hopefully, that's a sign of maturity not hubris! I've met a number of people and feel very comfortable with them, and they seem to be equally comfortable with me; so we'll see how it goes. Sunday will be my first preaching experience here which doesn't bother me in the least, but we're having communion this week, and the choreography is fairly demanding. Complicating it all is my preference to do most of the communion liturgy from memory. I'm praying for a calm heart and a clear mind!

The new Adventure begins....

Monday, October 05, 2015

Back in the Saddle!

So it's been four months since I retired, and I recently received an invitation to serve as fill-in preacher at a local church. I accepted with the idea that I would simply dust off an old sermon (after all, I have lots!) and re-preach it. Simple and painless.

But then, as I was worshiping at another church this past weekend, the pastor read a passage from 2 Kings and my mind took off. I don't remember much of what he said, because my mind was racing in other directions as I thought about the implications of that text for my "new" church later this month.

All of which is to say I spent today working through that text for myself and coming up with a new sermon for my fill-in opportunity. I guess I hadn't realized how much this wonderful process of listening to the text so I can explain it to my people has been burned into my bones! Second hand is just not good enough.

(On the other hand, I still have no regrets about my decision to retire! This is fun — literally — not work!)

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

One Month Into Retirement

I've been retired for one month, and while additional time may bring different perspectives, I am thoroughly enjoying my new life! That tells me a couple of things:

1) It was time. Retired friends had always said to me, "You'll know when it's time." And I did!

2) The ease with which I've been able to let go has surprised me. A retired colleague attending my retirement party cautioned me that not only would the church family grieve, but I would especially grieve. "One day you're this important figure in all these people's lives, and the next day you wake up and you're a nobody," he said. It takes a while for a pastor to work though that transition. Well, maybe; but I haven't felt that way yet! (I certainly went through some grieving in the months following my announcement, and perhaps that anticipatory grief prepared the way for how I feel now.)

All this confirms for me a truth I have always felt deep in my soul — that despite my extended tenure there, I never thought of it as my church. People often called it, "your church," and I probably even called it, "my church" from time to time, but I never felt possessive; I never felt it really was mine. So, while I wish the best for "my people" that I've left behind, I do not in the least feel a need to keep my fingers in the pot, nor am I threatened by the inevitable changes that will come.

It's Jesus' church, and He'll take care of it and me just fine.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Early Post-Retirement Thoughts

A friend encouraged me to enlarge on some comments I made to the congregation at our retirement celebration.

Some have asked — as they saw the books in my office grow fewer and fewer — if it was a hard process for me to clean out my office. While I had a few sad moments, I found it all surprisingly enjoyable. Almost immediately after announcing my retirement plans last November, I began to cull out books that I intended to give away, throw away, or sell. That only took a few days, because even though you accumulate lots of books, you only need a few. (A lesson I had learned years ago, during a building program in which I had to store nearly all my books for almost a year. I thought it would be unbearable, but I made it through the year with just one bookcase and, as a result, ended up giving away about half of my collection. From that point on, I deliberately limited the book space in my office, giving away, selling, or throwing away an old book before adding a new one.)

Next, I turned to cleaning out my file cabinet. Because I had been collecting materials since my high school days, I assumed this would be a weeks-long process, but it took perhaps an afternoon and a half as I tossed file after file into the recycling bin (finally they would be put to good use!) and came across the occasional serendipitous find (like my candidating sermon from 1978 that I re-preached in my final service at the church).

There was for me something cleansing about getting rid of all these old files that I no longer needed (and probably, for the most part, never did) and those old books that had outlived their usefulness. And then it dawned on me why this whole process had not been that difficult: ministry is not about books and files and plaques on the wall, it's about people. I used books, but I don't love my books. Like tools, I used some of those files, but I never cherished them. Rather, as I told our folks that Sunday afternoon, "It's you I love, and it's you I will miss."

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

The End of the Term!

After 36 1/2 years at the same church and 42 years in pastoral ministry, I have retired. And I must say I am enjoying it! I know that some believe pastors should never retire, but I was ready. I no longer have the energy to cheer-lead the growth and change that need to come, and I didn't want to be the one about whom people said, "Too bad he didn't leave a year or two sooner!" 

When I was younger I worried about burning out; now I discover that I have worn out! I am sure, after a bit of R & R, that I will do something — fill pulpits, work as an interim, maybe push carts at Walmart (!) — one needs a reason to get up in the morning. But, for now, I am quite content to putter around our home and cottage and wake up in the morning with no particular place to go.

I am so grateful to our people who made my retirement celebration such a joy — as they have made my ministry a joy for so many years. Their cards and notes made us laugh and cry and reminded me that we touched lives in ways we had never imagined.

But now it's time for the next stage of God's great plan for us. This term — as long as wonderful as it has been — is over, and a new term begins. As one of my colleagues reminded me recently, I had said I wanted to finish well — to complete my ministry here, still loving Jesus and my wife. That I have done! But, God willing, I still have some years left in this world, and I want to finish those just as well.

So the adventure begins ....

On my final Sunday at the church, I gave our people a collection of answers to questions (about theology, the Bible, life) they had asked me over the years. Here's the last answer in that collection:

If you could go back and talk to your 26-year old self (when you began in pastoral ministry), what would you tell him? 
I’d tell him that life and ministry are going to be incredibly more difficult than he could ever imagine — that the essence of ministry is suffering — but to relax and enjoy the ride, because God is incredibly more gracious and patient than he could possibly believe. I’d tell him to exchange his fear for faith and his self-reliance for humility — to trust in God’s power and plan. I’d tell him not to be so dependent on success nor discouraged by failures, because the one is a fleeting vapor and the other a constant companion, and above both stand the sovereign purposes of God that none of us will fully figure out in our lifetimes. I’d tell him to rest every day on God’s incredible grace.
I’d tell him not to work so hard (even though I know he wouldn’t listen) and to slow down and enjoy God’s good earth — to plant a tree and watch it grow (which, fortunately, he would manage to do on many occasions) — and to enjoy God’s good people who will be all around him, loving him and cheering him on. (And I’d tell him to pay less attention to those who don’t!) I’d tell him to trust his gut more and not worry so much about what others think — to be the person and pastor God had made rather than trying to be a clone of someone else or someone else’s vision of what a husband/father/pastor should be. I’d tell him to get out of the office and into the community (which I think he would do reasonably well) so non-church members could see that a pastor is actually a fairly normal person. 
I’d also tell him that during the span of his ministerial career, dozens of Christian “fads” (“models” is probably a kinder word) will cross his path — relational theology, WWJD, Body Life, Evangelism Explosion, lifestyle evangelism, Promise Keepers, spiritual warfare, second coming fever, church growth, small groups, Purpose Driven Church, spiritual disciplines, Sonship ministry, the worship wars, the culture wars — to name a few. I’d tell him to take whatever good he can from any of these but to see none of them as the answer. They will pass, and the next generation will introduce its own suite of programs, but the Word of God transcends fads and programs and generations; and so more than anything else, he needs to major on the Word. I’d tell him (as Dick Lucas would put it) to “hold the line." 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Tom Ascol has served as a pastor for 35 years, the past 28 with the same congregation. In a recent blog post he recounted what he has learned. While I would probably use slightly different words, I found myself nodding in agreement over most of his points:
Thirty-five years ago this month I began serving my first church as pastor. The Rock Prairie Baptist Church in College Station, Texas took a major risk on a senior Texas A&M student by issuing me a call to be their pastor. It was my happy privilege to serve them for nearly two years before being called to the Spring Valley Baptist Church in Dallas. I am currently in my twenty-eighth year of serving Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, Florida.
As I recently reflected on the last thirty-five years I wrote down some lessons learned and convictions I’ve come to or continued to hold. Here are thirty-five of them.
    1. Long-term perspective helps you to endure and to think wisely about immediate problems.
    2. The kingdom of God does not—and will not—skip a beat when I am sidelined.
    3. The church is more important than I thought when I started.
    4. Some of my words and actions to which I am most oblivious can be hurtful to people.
    5. Pastoral ministry is indeed, as John Newton puts it, “a bitter full of sweet” and “a sorrow full of joy.”
    6. Christians are the greatest people in the world.
    7. Christians are capable of the most wicked actions in the world.
    8. My greatest challenge at the beginning of my ministry continues to be dealing with my own heart.
    9. An excellent wife is the greatest earthly gift I have, and she is more excellent than I ever could have imagined.
    10. True friends are rare and invaluable.
    11. Some of the most outwardly religious people can be the biggest hypocrites.
    12. It is nearly impossible for a man who marries poorly to make it in the ministry.
    13. Some of the most humble, unassuming saints provide the greatest encouragement to pastors.
    14. Some of the most effective pastoral ministry I have ever had has come through my presence more than my words.
    15. Some words I have spoken incidentally have ministered God’s grace more powerfully than others over which I labored and prepared for hours.
    16. Preaching really is a divinely ordained, foolish activity.
    17. Every conversion to Christ is a miracle of grace involving intricate acts and provisions that have been divinely orchestrated.
    18. Having the right books is far more important than have many books.
    19. God’s grace has shined brightest through the suffering of His people.
    20. Justification by faith is a bottomless well of grace.
    21. The complete humanity and spotless righteousness of Jesus has become more amazing to me.
    22. There is no easy way to do a hard task and ministry is full of hard tasks.
    23. The propitiatory work of Jesus on the cross amazes me more and more.
    24. The relationship of God’s law to His gospel has implications for every biblical doctrine.
    25. Some of the greatest pastors are men who live, serve and die in relative obscurity.
    26. Incremental progress is real progress and should not be dismissed.
    27. God is far more patient than I could have ever imagined.
    28. Forgiveness is one of the sweetest graces both in its giving and receiving.
    29. Though I’ve stayed in one place a long time, I have served at least 4 different churches during that time and my people have had at least that many different pastors in the same man.
    30. Wherever you see a long pastorate you can be sure there is an abundance of grace in the congregation.
    31. Godly widows and widowers are worthy heroes.
    32. The advance of the gospel and the spread of God’s kingdom is a testimony to power of His grace.
    33. Raising children is one of the greatest privileges and challenges in human experience.
    34. Having adult children is a greater joy and blessing than I ever imagined it would be.
    35. Grandchildren rock!
Well said!