Let’s Go to the Hospital

I’d like to talk with my pastor.

Basic to a pastor’s ministry is care for the sick. In James 5:14, church members are instructed to call upon the elders to pray over them and anoint them with oil when they are sick. Not every pastor gets this. A pastor once told me, “I tell my people, ‘You don’t want me to visit you in the hospital because if I show up it means you’re about to die.'” This was a pastor of a large church. He felt he had bigger fish to fry. He also hated going to the hospital. Some pastors do. I understand: you see things you didn’t want to see; you smell unpleasant things; some insist on showing you their scar. Like some of you, I’ve held a tray under the chin of a parishioner who suddenly began to hurl chunks. Like some of you, I’ve accidentally caught people in various stages of undress. Like some of you, I’ve had to fight holding my nose in the wake of putrid smells. Like some of you, I’ve had to help people wrestle through horrible news and where God might be in all of that. I’ve even had brand new parents put a dead baby in my arm and ask, “Would you baptize her?” I get is when pastors are slow to make hospital calls. Some have to drag themselves there. So, drag yourself there. We sometimes forget that our presence symbolizes the presence of God. You are an ambassador for Jesus and the church. Your presence brings Jesus’ presence. Your touch is Jesus’ touch. It’s the church’s touch. It matters. It’s central to our calling as we care for souls and help shepherd them through the valley of their sickness.

Over time, pastors tend to find their groove, their style, in how they make a hospital visit. Find your style and do it your way, a way that’s reasonably comfortable for you. But that said, let me share some tips that reflect how I do hospital ministry.

In regard to surgery, I try to arrive at the hospital when the patient is scheduled to arrive. I find it helps my parishioner to see me when they arrive. It encourages them and in an unconscious way reminds them that God is with them too. I chat for a moment, assess nerves, offer a Scripture and prayer in their behalf, and go on about my day. If I (or none of our ministers) can’t be there in person, a phone call the night before surgery or even that morning is better than nothing. Physical presence is better. Though I don’t always remember to do so, I try to follow up by phone later that day to see how things went.

In regard to a basic hospital visit, here are some pointers born out of experience:

  • Utilize parenthesis prayer: before you go into the room, after you leave, and while you are there.
  • Respect closed doors. I usually knock. If no answer, I try to leave a note or a card in the door and move on.
  • Pay attention to medical directions posted on the door (gown and glove and mask?)
  • Foam in / Foam Out. (Most hospital provide hand sanitizer outside a room door. Don’t take any diseases into the room with you; don’t take any out.)
  • Don’t wake sleeping patients. Rest is critical in recovery from sickness and surgery. I only attempt to wake the parishioner if he/she has asked me to.
  • Don’t be afraid to offer your hand in greeting—kind and gentle touch matters.
  • I generally stand for the visit unless the patient asks me to sit, or I sense that the conversation might be longer than usual.
  • Keep your visit brief—unless the patient engages you in a significant conversation (5-10 minutes max.) If the room is full of visitors, I usually bring a greeting, offer an open-eye prayer, and move on.
  • It’s okay to ask the nature of the patient’s health issue—if you are comfortable with that.
  • Don’t offer health advice. You may be a Ph.D. or a D.Min., but you are not an MD. Keep your medical advice to yourself. Don’t confuse the patient or say something stupid about an issue with which you don’t have all the facts or the know-how.
  • Don’t make the visit about you and your health.  (It’s okay to say, “I’ve been there,” but don’t tell your whole story or show your scars. It’s not about you; it’s about your parishioner.)
  • Before you leave, ask, “Could I pray with you?”  You might even ask, “How can I pray for you?”  If the patient is not a Christian (someone I’ve been asked to see), I usually do open-eye prayers where I say something like, “I’ll be praying that the Lord helps you get better and so you can go home and get on with your life.” And if a non-Christian patient wants to talk, an evangelistic witness is appropriate.
  • If a Scripture comes to mind, share it. God’s words are better than our words. I encourage you to memorize several Scriptures that are appropriate for hospital ministry, so you are always ready with the Word.
  • Offer to pray, gathering up the concerns you’ve discovered during the visit, and keep it brief.  I take the parishioner’s hand as I pray or at least place my hand on his/her shoulder.

Now, a final word: if you have staff, share some of your hospital ministry with them. You don’t have to go all the time. In our current set up in our church, I go to the hospitals on Monday, on my call Friday, and on the weekend if necessary. Otherwise, all our ministers have their day. This is a good thing. When staff ministers make hospital calls, they get a chance to know the larger congregation and to be seen as a church pastor rather than a niche minister. If you don’t have staff, involve your deacons and some women in the church to help you in this ministry.

The Merry Heart (Proverbs 17:22)

Here’s a second example of preaching Proverbs with a focus on a single proverb. Much of Proverbs lends itself to using a compare/contrast strategy in formulating the sermon: not this, but this. That gives the preacher room to play a little bit in driving home the gist of the proverb. In the conclusion, I even sang “The Lord of the Dance.” By playing a little in the preaching, my goal was to help the congregation not just hear the proverb and understand the proverb; I wanted them to feel the proverb—to feel joy. Oh, an another plus for preaching a single proverb: if you repeat it enough, folks will have it memorized by the conclusion of the sermon. Anyway, this is one preacher’s attempt to preach a single proverb.

********

I invite you to open your Bible to Proverbs 17:22.  We’re continuing our series, Spiritual Cardiology, in which we’ve been thinking together about some of the heart texts in the Bible.  As we’ve discovered, such texts diagnose and expose spiritual heart disease.  We’ve already examined the hard heart, the deceitful heart, the bitter heart, and the broken heart, and we’ve learned something of Dr. God’s prescription for healing these heart diseases.  But now it’s time to move away from spiritual heart disease and consider the healthy heart.  And a healthy heart is a merry heart.  Hear the word and wisdom of the Lord in the Proverbs … (read the text).

A joyful heart!  A rose by any other name would smell as sweet: a joyful heart, a happy heart, a cheerful, glad, rejoicing heart, and as King James translated it, “a merry heart.”  All good words—adjectives with a smile on their face, a chuckle in their throat, and a dance in their step.  The joyful heart is good for what ails you.  No wonder the Proverbs calls the joyful heart “good medicine.”

Ask Robert Reid.  Though stricken with cerebral palsy and confined to a wheelchair, he moved to Portugal in 1972 to serve as a missionary.  He served there until 1983.  He employed a tutor to teach him the language.  He distributed gospel tracts in a public park.  He engaged people in conversation.  He even married a Portuguese woman named Rosa.  He helped lead 190 people to Christ and made an impact on numerous churches.  Today, in his old age, he lives in his childhood home of Abilene, Texas, and focuses most of his missionary efforts on prison ministries.  On one occasion, he was asked to speak to a group of pastors and missionaries.  They lifted his wheelchair onto the platform.  A friend laid his Bible in his lap.  The audience watched his stiff fingers force open the pages.  It was obvious the sympathetic crowd genuinely felt for him in his disabilities.  Reid could have played for sympathy or pity, but he did something very different.  He raised his bent hand up in the air and declared, “I have everything I need for joy.”[1]

A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones

Though the disabilities Reid suffers have crushed the spirits of some, they didn’t crush Reid’s.  The good medicine of a joyful heart is just what Dr. God prescribed to lift Reid to joy.

I

Who doesn’t want joy—or, as the world frames it, happiness?  Didn’t Thomas Jefferson suggest that, along with life and liberty, one of the inalienable rights given to us by our Creator is “the pursuit of happiness”?  People certainly pursue it.  Some think they can spend their way to happiness, divorce their way to happiness, indulge their way to happiness, or drink and drug and gamble their way to happiness, only to find that the happiness they gain is temporary, fleeting, and back-loaded with buyer’s remorse.  But it doesn’t keep people from trying. 

Since the mid-90s there’s been a lot of happiness research.  Who are the happy people?  What makes people happy?  Where do the happiest people live?  A lot of research.

A study from 2011 found that Americans are most happy between the ages of—get this—75 and 79. It also found that Americans are unhappiest between 40 and 44. Can anyone say ‘midlife crisis’?[2]

Other studies have found that some of the things that most contribute to happiness are these: giving, serving, forgiving, faith, gratitude, strong relationships.  Happy people also avoid “if only” fantasies (like, “If I only had more money or a better job or better health or a better spouse or whatever”).  And happy people allow themselves to be happy.[3]  They don’t live with some sort of martyr’s complex that thinks they don’t deserve to be happy or to have joy.  No, they choose to be happy.  They allow themselves to be happy.

And a 2013 study found that many of the world’s happiest people live in Northern Europe, with countries like Finland and Denmark right near the top and Norway coming in number one.  Oh, and in case you’re interested, the United States ranked number 11, just behind that burgeoning super-power Luxembourg.[4]  And in terms of the United States, guess which state ranked number one in happiness—no big surprise here, Hawaii.  And guess where Arkansas ranked: 45.[5]  Believe it or not, it has nothing to do with how disappointing Razorback football has been the last couple of years.  If ever a state needed a sermon on the joyful heart, it must be us. 

These studies make clear that people pursue happiness.  They want joy.  And I’d suggest that this very human desire is a reflection of the image of God in our lives.  Since Adam and Eve first bit in the garden and brought down sin on their heads and ours, this desire for joy has been corrupted.  People often chase joy in things and ways that are opposed to God and far from God.  But the pursuit of that joy is rooted in the fact that we are all created in the image of God, and God is full of joy.  God takes delight in His creation (Gen. 1:31).  God works in us, “both to will and to do for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).  Hebrews 1:9 says that God anointed Jesus with the oil of gladness.  Jesus himself declared in John 15:11, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”  And in Galatians 5:22, Paul writes that part of the fruit of the Holy Spirit is joy.  God is no cosmic sad sack, no celestial killjoy.  And His Son Jesus is more than “a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief”; He’s a bundle of joy.  And the Holy Spirit does more than convict of sin; He brings armloads of joy into the life of a believer.  Our pursuit of joy stems from the image of God in our lives. 

Dallas Willard described a scene he witnessed in South Africa in which he walked over a rise near the seashore and caught a view of the ocean that took his breath away.  It was so incredibly beautiful and glorious.  It stirred a profound joy in Willard’s heart as he enjoyed the view.  Willard goes on to say that while he rarely sees such views, God sees them all the time.  While we take joy in the colors and movements of little fish in an aquarium, God has seas full of them, and they are ever before Him.  Willard concludes, “All of the good and beautiful things from which we occasionally drink tiny droplets of soul-exhilarating joy, God continuously experiences in all their breadth and depth and richness.”  No wonder Willard calls God “the most joyous being in the universe.”[6]  And because we are made in God’s image, God has tucked that seed of joy in our hearts.

God has tucked it into the Bible too.  Joy is a predominant description of the Christian life.  The noun occurs 58 times in the New Testament alone.  The verb rejoice occurs 73 times.  And joy and rejoicing are rooted in another New Testament word: grace.  Because we are graced by our God of joy, we can be joyful too.

A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones

II

There are plenty of crushed spirits around, so why don’t we take our medicine—the medicine of a joyful heart.  And it is medicine.  In India, laughter is made a form of medical therapy through “laughing clubs.”  The first one opened in the mid-90s and hundreds more since then.  In the 1990s in Bogota, Columbia, the mayor had to deal with increasing episodes of road rage.  People were getting killed.  You know what the mayor did?  He dressed the traffic cops in clown costumes.  Much to everyone’s astonishment, the experiment worked.[7]  Laughter is good medicine.  Laughing reduces stress.  Why do you think there’s a category of laughter we call “the nervous laugh”?  Because it at least momentarily breaks tension and reduces stress.  Why do you think that when I preach on touchy, stress-y subjects like money and marriage I use a little humor?  Why do you think during occasional tense discussions in meetings, I employ a witty comment here and there?  To reduce tension and lighten a moment.  Laughter is good for you.  It even provides exercise.  Laughter works both facial and abdominal muscles.  It burns calories.  It lifts heavy hearts.  It usually leaves a feeling of serenity in its wake.  And laughter is no stranger to the person with a joyful heart.

A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones

III

In the record of Christian history, we discover that numbers of Christians have taken this medicine to heart.  The first Christians were so joyful they were accused of being drunk.  The first Franciscans had to be reproved for laughing in church because they were so happy.  During the Reformation the reformed church set Christian lyrics to tunes they borrowed from the barroom.  The first Methodists stole some of their hymn-tunes from operas and set the songs of Zion to dance music.

My God, I am Thine; what a comfort divine
What a blessing to know that Jesus is mine!
In the heavenly Lamb, thrice happy I am
And my heart it doth dance at the sound of His name.

The first Salvationists danced.  In fact, they jumped with joy.  General Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, told them that if they felt the Spirit move them they could leap in a hymn or a prayer.  They leapt all right.  One Dr. Farmer, a very prim and proper organist at a large church in England, used to tell how he adjudicated at a great music festival, and he heard a Salvation Army band in action for the very first time.  His most educated musical soul was offended both by the drummer and the man with the French horn.  He appealed to the drummer not to hit the drum so hard, to which the beaming bands-man replied, “Oh, sir, I’m so happy I could burst the blessed drum!”  When Dr. Farmer turned with a similar appeal to the man with the French horn, the man held up the much-twisted instrument and said, “But sir, I’m so full of joy I want to blow this thing quite straight!”[8]

And in the Great Awakening joyful outbursts were common and sometimes considered proof of one’s salvation.  When one had the “falls” he let out a scream of repentance, fell suddenly to the floor where he lay mute and motionless for a time and then returned to consciousness with a “heavenly smile.”  The “rolling” exercise was another outburst of joy in which one seized by the spirit of joy would roll over every obstacle (pews, stumps, or logs) until his spirit was calmed (thus the term “holy roller”).  The “holy dance” was late in arising and early in declining, but for a while it was considered an apt expression of praise and joy in which during a worship service one would go into a monotonous dance pattern keeping rhythm with a lively tune.  (I saw this happen in worship in Jamaica).  And then there was even the “holy laugh,” a soft, audible, rhythmic tone which young people found irresistible.  And because of its quiet nature, it outlasted other exercises of joy—the “holy laugh.”[9]  A few years ago, this “holy laugh” made a re-appearance in the Toronto revival.

Through our Christian history, joy has found a way to bubble up from the soul in any number of expressions.  And it’s provided some good medicine for the church.

A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones

IV

Sadly, along the way, some Christians tried to squelch joy.  They seemed to assume that “a crushed spirit” was more godly than a joyful heart.  The renowned ancient St. John of the Cross advised believers to mortify all joy and hope, to turn “not to what most pleases, but to what disgusts” and to “despise yourself, and that others should despise you.”  St. Bernard habitually covered his eyes to avoid the beauty of Swiss lakes.  The Puritans, as H. L. Mencken once described them, were persons with a haunting fear that someone somewhere is happy.  Much of 20th century Protestantism worked diligently to avoid any levity or humor in their gatherings.  Legalistic Christians have always done more to steal joy than to give it, to crush spirits rather than cure them.  And the late columnist Erma Bombeck once famously penned a column in which she wrote about overhearing a mother in her church scold her small child for smiling at people in the pews around him.  He turned around and looked at the people behind him and just smiled.  The kid wasn’t doing anything disrupting—no crying, no whining, no fiddling with hymnals, no noise of any kind; he was just smiling at the people around him.  And his mother snapped this classic line at her little boy: “Stop that grinning!  You’re in church.”[10]  Really?  Don’t the world and the devil do enough to crush our spirits and steal our joy without the church piling on and giving such aid and comfort to the enemy?

A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones

V

So choose joy!  “But, preacher, my spirit is crushed.  And if you knew my circumstances, you’d realize there is no room for joy in my heart.”  Oh yes there is—because joy is not dictated by circumstances.  Joy is more about faith than about feeling.  We faith our way to joy.  If we couldn’t faith our way to joy, the Bible wouldn’t couch it as a command and teach us that joy is something we can choose.  The psalmist declared, “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (118:24).  Choose joy!  To the Philippians Paul wrote, “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice” (Phil. 4:4).  Choose joy!  And to the Thessalonians Paul wrote, “Be joyful always” (1 Thess. 5:16).  Choose joy!  God wouldn’t command something He wouldn’t empower us to do.  Remember: part of the fruit of the Spirit is joy.  So when the Spirit is in your life, joy is in your life.  You have to lay hold of it in faith.  Paul did.  He wrote those commands to be joyful not from a beach resort in southern Italy; he wrote those commands behind prison bars in Rome.  Choose joy!

Sure, studies show that we can contribute to our happiness when we do things like give and forgive, serve others and cultivate healthy relationships, exercise faith and cultivate gratitude.  Those things help, but the source of the joyful heart is not in the things we do.  The source is in what God has done for us in Christ.  We can only find our deepest joy, joy that lasts, when we live in relationship with God—a relationship made possible because, as Hebrews teaches, Jesus, “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2).  Don’t look for your joy in the world; find your joy in Jesus.  The world will break your heart; Jesus never fails.  Don’t look for your joy in circumstances.  Circumstances are fickle and changing all the time; “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever” (Heb. 13:8).  Lean into Jesus and develop your relationship with Him.  The deeper you go into Jesus, the deeper your joy.  Like Paul and Silas in the Philippian jail, you’ll find a song even when bombs and bullets and battles are exploding all around you.  It may be the blues for a while, but it will be a song of Jesus’ faithfulness and love.  And if you can’t sing when your spirit is crushed, then remember God’s promises:

  • And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28).
  • Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:39).
  • For this light and momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (2 Cor. 4:17)
  • The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit (Ps. 34:18).
  • In this world, you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world (John 16:33).
  • And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5).

Lay hold of the promises of God.  Speak God’s promises to your pain.  Take your burdens to Jesus.  Relax into the joy of the Holy Spirit in your life.  And in spite of your circumstances, joy will bubble up in your soul, and you may find yourself whistling in the dark.

A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones

VI

It was Bible School as usual on that summer day so many years ago.  I had been visiting with various classes, and it was my time to sit down with the kindergarteners.  Usually, these visits became question and answer sessions.  And kids can ask some great questions.  More often than you’d think the youngest kids ask me about death.  So we were talking about that kind of thing, as much as we could on a kindergarten level.  I was trying to be as engaged as I could but that was a tough week.  On top of VBS every day and my regular preparations and responsibilities, as I recall I also had a couple of funerals that week for people I genuinely loved.  So not only was I already feeling rather crushed and pressed and dried in spirit, the conversation felt heavy too.  And that’s when a boy named Noah, a kid who didn’t have the easiest life in the world, spontaneously shot up his hand and in the most random of comments said, “My mommy taught me a song this week, and I want to sing it.”  And before I even gave permission, he stood up and broke into song—this song

I danced in the morning when the world was begun,
And I danced in the moon and the stars and the sun.
And I came down from heaven and I danced on the earth;
At Bethlehem I had my birth.

Dance, then, wherever you may be
I am the Lord of the dance, said he,
And I'll lead you all wherever you may be,
And I'll lead you all in the dance, said he.

I danced for the scribe and the Pharisee,
But they wouldn't dance, and they wouldn't follow me;
I danced for the fishermen, for James and John
They came with me, and the dance went on.

Dance, then, wherever you may be
I am the Lord of the dance, said he,
And I'll lead you all wherever you may be,
And I'll lead you all in the dance, said he.

I danced on the Sabbath, and I cured the lame;
The holy people said it was a shame.
They whipped and they stripped and they hung me on high.
And they left me there on the cross to die.

Dance, then, wherever you may be
I am the Lord of the dance, said he,
And I'll lead you all wherever you may be,
And I'll lead you all in the dance, said he.

I danced on a Friday when the sky turned black;
It's hard to dance with the devil on your back.
They buried my body, and they thought I'd gone;
But I am the dance, and I still go on.

They cut me down, and I leapt up high;
I am the life that'll never, never die.
I'll live in you if you'll live in me;
I am the Lord of the dance, said he.

Dance, then, wherever you may be
I am the Lord of the dance, said he,
And I'll lead you all wherever you may be,
And I'll lead you all in the dance, said he.

He sang the whole thing acapella and in key and with the most beatific smile on his face.  My eyes welled up.  I smiled too.  And in spite of a painful, pressured week, I kind of wanted … to dance.

A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.


[1]http://maxlucado.com/read/topical/peace-that-defies-pain/ and other internet sites.

[2]http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/02/12/age-and-happiness_n_4773484.html

[3]This kind of data is readily available on the internet through a google search “what makes people happy”  

[4]http://www.forbes.com/sites/christopherhelman/2013/10/29/the-worlds-happiest-and-saddest-countries-2013/

[5]http://info.healthways.com/wbi2013

[6]Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (San Francisco: Harper, 1998), 62-64.

[7]I found this information on India and Colombia in Leonard Sweet, Learn to Dance the Soul Salsa (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 188-189.

[8]I am indebted for most of the material in this historical survey to a sermon by William Sangster cited in 20 Centuries of Great Preaching, Vol. XI (Waco: Word Books, 1971), 341-342.

[9]This Great Awakening survey is cited in Hugh Wamble, Through Trial to Triumph (Nashville: Convention Press, 1958), 42-43.

[10]Much of this historical survey is found in Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 31-33.

Let’s Have That Talk About Alcohol Prov. 20:1; 23:29-35

I was born smack-dab in the middle of the Baby Boom Generation.  My parents grew up during the Great Depression and my dad fought World War II.  But there’s another thing we baby-boomers have in common.  We grew up in an era where everybody smoked.  My parents smoked.  Their friends smoked.  We had ashtrays in every room—in fact, making an ashtray was a pretty common project in grade school art classes.  I remember my doctor checking me over on the exam table with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth.  Nobody thought two things about it.  Cigarette ads o wned television: “I’d rather fight than switch!”  “I’d walk a mile for a Camel.”  “Welcome to Marlboro Country.”  “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.”  There was no such thing as smoking and no-smoking sections in restaurants.  When I was a busboy at a local restaurant, part of my job was cleaning the ashtray after clearing the dishes from a table—I cleaned a lot of ashtrays.  I was around cigarette smoke for much of my life.  I have no clue how many packs I smoked second-hand across the years.

And growing up in the home of a family who attended a mainline church, it was also common in our home to see some beer in the fridge and some Mogan-David Wine in the cabinet.  On rare occasions, even a mixed-drink called a high ball was put together and consumed.  I never saw either of my parents drunk, neither drank much, my mom barely at all, but neither had any moral or biblical qualms about drinking a little alcohol now and then.

Somewhere along the way, smoking became a national sin.  Warning labels from the Surgeon General showed up on cigarette packages.  Television ads were removed from the air.  Cities started creating smoke-free zones.  Other than the loss of personal freedom involved and the way smokers are often treated like something less than human, I don’t mind these changes.  I can’t stand the smell of cigarette smoke.  But in spite of the fact that alcohol does way more damage to families and society than smoking, alcohol gets a pass.

Now, any historians in the congregation will be quick to say, “Alcohol hasn’t always gotten a pass.  Remember the Volstead Act—Prohibition?  It didn’t work.”  No, it didn’t.  People still got their booze, and the crime involved in making it happen made legends out of people like Al Capone and Eliot Ness.  And it even made good citizens criminals according to the letter of the law.  Whether those rip-roaring years of Prohibition have anything to do with alcohol getting a pass in today’s culture, who can say?  But alcohol—America’s drug of choice—sure does get a pass.

And the church doesn’t say much about it one way or the other anymore.  Catholic and mainline Protestant churches have never had much to say about alcohol.  But there was a day when conservative churches were all over it.  Listen to this excerpt from a Billy Sunday sermon called “Get on the Water Wagon.”

I am the sworn, eternal, uncompromising enemy of the Liquor Traffic.  I ask no quarter and I give none.  I have drawn the sword in defense of God, home, wife, children and native land, and I will never sheathe it until the undertaker pumps me full of embalming fluid, and if my wife is alive, I think I shall call her to my bedside and say: “Nell, when I am dead, send for the butcher and skin me, and have my hide tanned and made into drumheads, and hire men to go up and down the land and beat the drums and say, ’My husband, Bill Sunday still lives and gives the whiskey gang a run for its money.”[1]

When I joined the Baptist church in 1974, I noticed in the hymnal a copy of something called “The Church Covenant,” and there was a line in there about members agreeing to neither use alcohol nor sell it.  It was in the hymnal, but in all the years since, I never heard anybody talk about it except every now and then when a Youth Minister would warn kids to steer clear of it.  I never heard any pastor preach on it except when “drunkenness” was included in one of the sin lists in the Bible passage they were preaching.  I’ve been preaching most every Sunday since 1981, and I’ve only preached on it once—and that was on a Sunday night in 1992.

I

Sorry about that.  We should have had this talk before.  And as I was putting together this Front Porch Wisdom series, I sensed God leading me to have that talk today.  There’s not enough alcohol in the Bible to taste it, but there’s probably enough to at least get a whiff of it when you flip through the pages.  And a lot of it makes it difficult to build the case for total abstinence.

  • There are some places in Deuteronomy where the gift of wine is viewed as God’s blessing (7:13) and the absence of wine is viewed as a curse (28:39).
  • There’s the text in Ecclesiastes 9:7 about drinking wine with a merry heart.
  • And of course, there’s Jesus’ first miracle of turning water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana.  Jesus certainly would have made it a lot easier on us Baptist preachers if He had turned wine into water.  But He didn’t.

I wish I could say that there is a proof-text in the Bible that calls for God’s people to abstain from alcohol, but there’s not.  There are plenty of verses that label drunkenness a sin and warn of the dangers of alcohol, but there are no verses that say drinking alcohol is always a sin.  I wish I could make a biblical case that there was, but I can’t.  Drinking alcohol is not always sinful, but it’s not always wise either.  It’s a matter of personal conscience like the foods we eat and the entertainment choices we make.  So we better be wise as we discern what’s best for us in this matter.  I invite you to open your Bible to Proverbs 20:1 and 23:29-35.  Solomon helps us here. 

And we need his help because nobody does a better job selling their product than companies that market alcohol.  They spend a fortune on enticing us to drink their products.  If your only basis of judgment concerning alcohol was magazine and television ads, you’d conclude that alcohol is essential if you want to hang out with pretty girls and handsome guys, if you want to be popular, if you want to be where the action is, if you want to live the happy life, if you want to taste the Rocky Mountains, if you want to be one of the most interesting people in the world.  “Hey,” says alcohol, “throwing back a few brewskies with your pals, well, it doesn’t get any better than this.”  That’s what alcohol says when it gets paid to say it.

But the truth paints a different story.  Alcohol is closely linked to crime.  Alcohol is involved in:

  • 40% of all violent crimes, including murder.
  • 37% of rapes and sexual assaults
  • 27% of aggravated assaults
  • 25% of simple assaults
  • And 36% of those in jail were under the influence of alcohol when they committed the crimes that put them there.[2]

And those statistics don’t count the cost to families and employers and communities who must deal with the consequences of alcohol use and abuse.  And none of this brings comfort to those whose loved ones were killed or disabled by some drunk driver.  Alcohol gets paid to say what a wonderful elixir of life it is and what happiness it brings.  But the larger truth is a different story, a tragic story of families, fortunes, jobs, and lives lost.

Solomon is getting at this larger truth when he tries to wise us up about alcohol.  Hear the word of the Lord … (read the texts).

The Surgeon General won’t put a warning label on alcohol, but Solomon does in these texts.

II

Alcohol is a mocker.  Alcohol makes fun of us and fools of us.  In my day it was Otis Campbell riding a cow through Mayberry, thinking he was on a horse—hilarious!  It was comedian Foster Brooks, doing monologues while he pretended to be drunk stuttering and stammering and tripping all over his tongue—hysterical!  It was Animal House and college kids doing things in their drunkenness they would never have done in their sobriety.  Well, slap my knee!  That’s all staged humor built on the fact that alcohol mocks us, ridicules us and makes us do ridiculous things.

But it’s not so funny in real life.  I remember a great uncle who used to sit in his chair and get drunk most every night—which would embarrass my aunt to no end.  I remember a cousin who in a drunken fit over his wife’s threat to leave him, tore up their home, embarrassed himself and his family, and left those of us who were trying to keep his wife safe, on pins and needles wondering when he would show up at our door and what he might do when he got there.  I don’t think I laughed even once during that ordeal.  Only alcohol was busting a gut. 

I experimented with alcohol for a few months in the middle of my senior year in high school.  Didn’t feel pressured to do it.  I decided I wanted to do it.  In the process, one of my friends got so drunk on cherry vodka that he puked all over himself and the Dairy Queen.  We cleaned that up, took him to a friend’s house to sober him up, and laid him the bathtub so if he puked anymore it would be easier to clean.  Shortly thereafter, even before I got serious about Jesus, I decided alcohol didn’t live up to the hype.  I didn’t like it anyway.  And I didn’t like what it did to me and to my friends.  I was breaking the law to do it and encouraging others to break the law to provide it.  I was a fool.  So I said, “I’m done with alcohol.”  Alcohol is a mocker.  All the supposed good times it creates don’t make up for that one bad time, because that one bad time could get somebody killed or maimed or a criminal record.  Alcohol is a mocker.  And in families where alcoholism lives, alcohol mocks those families for generations, breaking children’s hearts and creating a home that functions not as a haven but as a ticking time bomb.  Alcohol is a mocker.

III

Alcohol can lead us astray.  The choice to consume alcohol is a choice to give away self-control.  It’s a choice to put yourself in a position that is unwise, says Solomon.  Because alcohol breaks down inhibitions, hampers quality judgment, and destroys self-control, those who use it are essentially putting the keys of their life in alcohol’s hands and saying, “Take me where you want me to go.”  Would you put the keys of your life in the hand of a stranger you could not trust?  Then why would you put the keys of your life in the hands of alcohol.  You can’t trust alcohol.  You can’t be sure when to say when.  You can’t be sure what you’ll do under alcohol’s influence.  How many drinkers, when told what they did under the influence of alcohol, have said, “I can’t believe I did that”?  This is why Solomon says that “whoever is led astray by alcohol is not wise.” 

I don’t know about you, but I can lead myself astray enough without the help of alcohol, so why would I want to double-down by adding alcohol to the mix?  That’s just foolish, says Solomon.  Alcohol can lead us astray.

IV

Alcohol promises pleasure and delivers trouble.  It looks good there in the bottle or the glass.  It sparkles.  It foams.  It may even go down smooth on that first or second drink.  It promises friendship, happy times, liquid courage.  But in the end, it bites like a rattlesnake.  In chapter 23, Solomon catalogues what alcohol delivers.

  • It delivers “woe” — Ask anyone who ever woke up with a hangover.  “What was I thinking?”
  • It delivers “sorrow”“Did I really do that?  How could I have been so foolish?”
  • It delivers “strife” — Alcohol contributes to fights in bars and fights in the home.
  • It delivers “complaining” — over the mess alcohol makes of a life and a family.
  • It delivers “wounds without cause”“How’d I get that bruise?  How did I cut my head?”  And in the words of Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville:
I don't know the reason
I stayed here all season
Nothin' to show but this brand new tattoo
But it's a real beauty
A Mexican cutie
How it got here I haven't a clue
Wastin' away in Margaritaville.
  • It delivers “redness of eyes” — And if you drink long enough you’ll end up with yellow eyes, 20 or 30 extra pounds, a fried brain, and a liver that looks like Swiss cheese.
  • “Your eyes will see strange things” … Hallucinations are not that unusual for someone who is rip-roaring drunk.
  • “Your heart will utter perverse things” … People under the influence of alcohol will say perverse things they’d never say sober, and they will do sinful things they’d never do sober.
  • You’ll have the up and down sensation which can leave a drinker reeling with a spinning head and feeling sea-sick.  The initial buzz becomes a buzz saw.
  • You’ll dull your senses … You might get beat up but won’t feel it much because the alcohol numbs your pain in the moment … but the next day will tell a different story.

For some reason the alcohol peddlers forget to tell us this story when they’re pimping their product.  So, wise Solomon tells us the story instead.  Alcohol promises pleasure and delivers trouble.

V

And alcohol can enslave.  At the end of v. 35, Solomon writes, “When shall I awake?  I must have another drink.”  Did you get that?  I “must have.”  Alcohol can enslave.  Most drinkers don’t get that far, but plenty do.  They get to that place where they no longer choose to have a drink; they have to have a drink.  We call this alcoholism.  This is when alcohol becomes not a choice but an addiction, not a may have but a must.  This is when people drink to escape troubles, when they drink most every day, when they hide alcohol and sneak drinks when no one can see them.  And if you asked them to stop drinking for a month, they couldn’t do it.  They’ll say they can, but they can’t.  This is a problem drinker for sure, probably an alcoholic, certainly a person who “must have another drink.”  Alcohol can enslave.

If this describes you, you need to seek help.  You need Celebrate Recovery or A.A. or some group like that which helps you own your problem and gives you resources to overcome.  And you need the Lord.  The Lord will help you win this battle if you seek Him in the fight.  Jesus bore this sin on the cross.  Jesus bore this shame on the cross.  He can help you.  He doesn’t want you enslaved to alcohol; He wants you enslaved to Him.  Listen to Paul in Ephesians 5:18: “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit.”  Live under the influence of the Spirit, not alcohol.  Seek courage in Christ, not alcohol.  Seek freedom from worry and stress in Jesus, not a bottle of booze.  Seek joy in the Jesus the joy-giver, not a six-pack of beer.  Be enslaved to Christ—a good and wise thing.  Not to alcohol—a bad and foolish thing.   Alcohol can get in the way of responsible discipleship in our Christian walk.  The person who “must have another drink” lives for that drink, not for Christ.  “But I’d never become an alcoholic.”  Every alcoholic in the world has said the same thing.  The only way to be sure you never become an alcoholic is to never take that first drink.  That goes especially for those who may be genetically or environmentally disposed to such things.  Alcohol can enslave.  Wise people recognize this.

VI

The use of alcohol requires wisdom.  If it didn’t, it wouldn’t show up in the Proverbs.  Because the Bible does not forbid its use entirely, Christ-followers must exercise great wisdom here.  All Christ-followers won’t land in the same place on this matter.  And the Bible gives tea-totalers no leverage to condemn those who choose to take a drink now and then or those who as Paul told Timothy, take a little wine for the sake of their health (1 Tim. 5:23).  You and I can’t choose for anyone else; we must choose for ourselves.

I chose decades ago to abstain from alcohol.  I tried it and didn’t like it or what it did to my friends and me.  And once I got serious about Jesus, I thought abstention was my wisest choice.  Not because I thought taking a drink now and then was a sin, but for reasons like these: I didn’t want anyone to start drinking because they saw me drinking.  And if my children ever took up drinking it wouldn’t be because they learned it from me.  That’s my choice.  You’ve got to make yours.  (And let me say parenthetically that teenagers really have no choice: it’s against the law for you, and you haven’t accumulated enough wisdom to handle alcohol.  For you, drinking is a sin to avoid.)  But we adults do have choices to make, and we need to exercise wisdom in our choosing.

Years ago I came across someone’s reflection on the use of alcohol.  I offer it to you as a means for wise evaluation.  Have you ever known …

  • A man to lose his job because he drank too little?
  • A doctor to advise his patient, “Your chances to survive this surgery would be better if you were a drinker”?
  • An employer seeking a person for a responsible position to say, “Give me a drinker every time”?
  • A wife to explain, “My husband would be the best man in the world if he would only drink more”?
  • A husband to say, “My wife would be a better mother to our children if she spent more time in bars”?
  • A defendant in a courtroom to seek acquittal with the plea, “If I had been drunk I never would have done it”?
  • An insurance company to offer reduced premiums to drinkers?
  • A police chief to advocate more consumption of alcohol as a means of reducing crime?
  • Or a Christian to say, “I’d be a better person and a more convincing witness for Jesus if I just drank more alcohol”?

It really doesn’t take any great wisdom to answer those questions, does it?  Common sense and life experience answer those questions.  But only you can answer the larger question: in this alcohol-saturated culture, what’s the wisest choice I can make concerning my own use of such beverages?

I’m glad we finally had this little talk.  I’m thankful for the wise guidance of the Scriptures in this matter.  And as you make your choices, I just hope you’ll listen more to the Scripture than to the booze peddlers or the opinions of your pals.  Because as Solomon says in another place: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom …” (Prov. 9:10).    


[1]Lyle W. Dorsett, Billy Sunday and the Redemption of Urban America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 181.

[2]https://ncadd.org/learn-about-alcohol/alcohol-and-crime

Preaching the Proverbs

Opened an email from a pastor-friend of mine this morning. He is putting together a study of the Proverbs. He asked if I had done much with that book over the years. I’ve read a jillion times. I’ve never preached through the book, but I’ve preached a number of Proverbs in other series across the decades.

Good things can come from preaching the Proverbs. What’s not to love about laying out biblical wisdom for the congregation? What can’t be gained by drawing a distinction between a foolish life and wise one. In a culture where self-help books sell like hotcakes, Proverbs might gain a hearing even among those who don’t follow Jesus.

And Proverbs can be flat out fun to preach. There are some rich images and pictures in the book that fire up the imagination. Metaphors and similes abound. Employing the image-rich language of the Proverbs in our preaching can help people see the sermon as well as hear it. Most practical situation in life find voice in the Proverbs. The preaching can be very down to earth. People can relate: “Yes, I get it. I’ve been there. That’s me.” There’s some good preaching to be had from the Proverbs.

But there are some challenges too. There is so little historical context. So much of Proverbs are collected “sayings” that are rooted in life experience but in no particular historical situation (other than the kingship of Solomon). That creates a more generic, free-wheeling feel to the Proverbs, which makes the bridge over the river that separates their time from our time a little shorter maybe.

Another challenge in preaching the Proverbs is the temptation to preach them as promises. They are not promises. They are conventional biblical wisdom that describe things as they are or at least tend to be in the general course of life: lazy people end up with empty hands while industrious people have what they need; children raised in the right way tend to walk in that way when they get old; live wisely and your life is likely to be stable, fruitful, and joyful, but live like a fool and reap disaster. It’s tempting to preach the Proverbs as promises. Don’t do it. Preach it as wisdom literature.

Another challenge in preaching Proverbs is working in the gospel.  I’m afraid I’ve not done as well at this in the past as I do now.  It’s easy to turn Proverbs into moralistic preaching that invites people to live life in their own strength instead of in the strength of Jesus. It’s easy in preaching Proverbs to stir in people a sense of “Hey, I can do that.” We’d be wise to avoid that approach to Proverbs.  I would encourage you in whatever proverb you teach or preach to show our incapacity to live wisely without Christ’s strength and presence. The wisest life is not enough to bring us into relationship with God and gain us heaven. We need Jesus. Keep that in your Proverbs preaching. And in a larger sense, use the Proverbs to demonstrate that Jesus is not only source of wisdom, he is its personification. Though wisdom is pictured as a lady in the Proverbs; the larger, better picture is wisdom as Jesus.

Like any book, preaching Proverbs has its blessings and challenges. But there is rich wisdom in the Proverbs God’s people need to learn and apply.

But how to get at it? Because there is no narrative plot to the Proverbs, some pastors preach through them thematically.  They gather up what various proverbs say about money, work, the tongue, marriage, parenting, integrity, laziness, etc., and they work through them that way. That seems to me more effective than a verse-by-verse approach.

Anyway, in the next couple of posts I’m going to share some of the attempts I’ve made at Proverbs.  No doubt you will do better than I.  Blessings as you teach this great book! May it lead to a wiser, more Christ-dependent congregation.

The Blessings of Tenure

In my previous post, I reflected on the ingredients of tenure, those things that have helped me maintain a fruitful ministry in one place for a long time: my first pastorate more than 13 years; my current pastorate 24 years and counting.

This week, I want to reflect on the blessings of tenure.  While there are blessings in any length of pastoral tenure, longer tenures bring different blessings.  And when I feel like I’m getting a bit stale or bored or feel the urge to flick the switch to auto-pilot, when I get itchy feet and ponder what it might be like in some new place, I count the blessings of tenure—some general and some very specific.  But even the more general blessings I cite come with names and faces. 

These blessings of tenure were brought home to me in two recent events that happened one on top of the other. 

First, I received a letter from a social worker in a local hospital who thanked me for coming to the hospital to support a family who’s loved one died in the ER.  She wrote, “You are a highly respected and dedicated professional in our community and bring healing with you wherever you go.”  Of course, when I read that line I checked the envelope again to make sure that note was addressed to me.  But that reputation doesn’t happen in one year or three years or five years.  Tenure helped make that happen.

And the second event happened at the wedding of a young woman who grew up in our church but has lived away for a number of years.  It was my honor to help officiate this wedding in Little Rock.  One of her bridesmaids was another young woman I’d watched grow up in the church.  I prayed with the bridal party just before the ceremony, and the bridesmaid said after the prayer: “I still find your voice so comforting, bringing back warm childhood memories.”  Another blessing of tenure.

Those are specific things that just happened.  Here are a few of the general blessings of tenure I enjoy:

  • I get to unpack all my boxes.
  • I have time to teach “the whole counsel” of God’s word, rather than just my hobby horses or the same 200 sermons over and over again at first one church and then the next.  This forces me to read and study and stay fresh.  I like that … most of the time.
  • I get to see God redeem my bloopers and blunders and mistakes and sins.
  • I get to see the lost person come to Christ for whom some in the church (including me) have been praying for years.  In fact, I get to see answers to lots of prayers that have been faithfully prayed for years.
  • I get to know my people over time and on deeper levels.  I get to watch young ones grow up and older ones age.  I get to watch new Christians grow in their faith, and I get to witness older Christians mature in their faith.
  • I get to perform the wedding for children I baptized and sometimes baptize their children too.
  • I get to see firsthand how stories turn out: Does the young person make it to the mission field?  Does the young couple wanting children so desperately finally get one?  Does the troubled marriage get restored?  Does the prodigal come home?
  • I get to see some of that Romans 8:28 “good” that God works in the terrible things that happen to our people.  More often than not, that “good” doesn’t show up till years after the crisis.  I get to see some of that, and it builds my faith.
  • People in the community view me not just as the pastor of First Baptist Church but as a pastor of the Hot Springs community.
  • Will God use my preaching and teaching to shape and form a congregation to look more like Jesus?  I get to see.
  • My leadership gains gravitas and my viewpoint gains weight with every passing year.
  • Early on in my ministry in Hot Springs, a number of folks said, “I hope you’re here to do my funeral.”  I have been here for many of them—604 of them to this point.
  • I get to be with many of the same people through the various seasons of their lives: birth, graduation, marriage, divorce, surgeries, crises, moves, promotions, victories, sickness, dying and death.  I get to do a lot of weeping with those who weep and rejoicing with those who rejoice.  I get to be their pastor.  It’s so gratifying to hear someone tell me, “I remember when you were there for us when mom died … when the baby was sick … when we played for the championship … when I lost my job … when our marriage was falling apart … when our son was arrested … when the doctor said the cancer was gone …” and a hundred other things.

And I’ve only been here for 24 years.  I’ve recently read of pastors who just finished 34 and 30 years respectively (makes me feel like the new kid on the block).  And those pastors tell us that the blessings just get deeper and better as the years go by.  If a critical key in pastoring a church is developing relationships, tenure gives relationships room to grow and season and develop.  And as you can tell in my list, relationships are at the heart of almost every blessing. 

Dr. John Fawcett was the pastor of a small church in Wainsgate, England, and was called from there to pastor a large, influential church in London in 1772.  He accepted the call and preached his farewell sermon.  The wagons were loaded with his books and furniture, and all was ready for the departure when his parishioners gathered around him.  With tears in their eyes, they begged him to stay.  His wife said, “Oh John, John, I cannot bear this.”  Fawcett replied, “Neither can I, and we will not go.  Unload the wagons and put everything as it was before.”  His decision was greeted with great joy by his people.  In commemoration of the event, he wrote the words of this hymn:

Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.

Before our Father’s throne
We pour our ardent prayers;
Our fears, our hopes, our aims are one
Our comforts and our cares.

We share each other’s woes,
Our mutual burdens bear;
And often for each other flows
The sympathizing tear.

From sorrow, toil and pain,
And sin, we shall be free,
And perfect love and friendship reign
Through all eternity.

Oh, the blessings of tenure!

The Ingredients of Pastoral Tenure

When pastors get together for some kind of group experience, the convener usually opens discussion by asking the pastors to share their name, the name of the church they serve, and how long they have been there. When it’s my turn, I say, “My name is John McCallum.  I serve First Baptist Church, Hot Springs.  And I’ve been there for 24 years.” Would it surprise you to know that I’m usually the odd man out? I’m thinking about this today because this Sunday I begin my 25th year as pastor of First Baptist Church, Hot Springs. I’ve served here almost 39% of my life. I served more than 13 years in my only other pastorate. I guess tenure is kind of my deal.

I wish I could say it was on purpose, but it’s not. When I began both of my pastorates, I never said to myself, “I’m going to stay here x number of years.” It just happened. But as I look back on my ministry, there are some ingredients that factored into a longer tenure.

The first is no pulpit committees.  Chances are pretty high that if no other church asks you to consider becoming their pastor, you’ll stay where you are.  That’s been the case for me.  In 38 years of pastoring, I’ve only had serious conversations with two pulpit committees both of which contacted me in the first church I served, and  one of which was the committee for the church I’ve now served for 24 years.  In the interest of full disclosure, I suspect it helps that I made a decision at the beginning of my ministry that I would never initiate contact with a church that was looking for a pastor.  I wouldn’t send an unsolicited resume, and I wouldn’t ask a friend to do it for me.  I’ve always figured that was God’s business and sure as I tried to make something happen, it would end badly.  This posture certainly limits opportunities.  And the lack of opportunities to move elsewhere has surely helped keep me undistracted in one place for long periods of time.  That’s the ingredient in my long tenure.

Here’s a second: I continue to nurture my personal walk with Jesus through Scripture and prayer. These are my first and most important disciplines. Jesus meets me in these disciplines, keeps me rooted in the one main thing (my walk with him), and mitigates the inevitable discouragements and seasons of burnout in ministry. A pastor’s longer tenure isn’t first about the church; it’s about Jesus and the pastor’s personal walk with him. This is a critical ingredient for tenure.

And another thing has helped in my tenure: I’ve never pastored a church in a dying community.  God first placed me in a growing suburb and then in a stable mid-size city at the hub of a fairly dynamic county.  I’ve not pastored in a community that regularly witnessed factories close, downtown businesses shut their doors and board up their windows, or had more people moving out than moving in.  My hat is off to pastors who serve in dying communities.  Those churches need pastors as much or more than the kinds of churches I’ve served.  But how does a pastor stay for very long in a dying community with a shrinking church and no prospects to see it grow enough to sustain the pastor’s family?  Pastoring in more dynamic communities is something I have no control over, but it sure helps tenure.

And so does this: my age.  Now this wasn’t always the case.  While it’s hard for me to remember that I was once a young man, there was a day when I was in the sweet-spot for pastoral transitions—which is usually age 35-49.  I moved to First Baptist, Hot Springs, when I was 38.  I still had several “prime” years left for moving elsewhere after I came to Hot Springs, but I got busy with my work here and the next time I checked the calendar, I was 50.  Opportunities diminish after that—especially opportunities for growing churches that are composed of mostly younger adults or are in need of reaching younger adults.  Churches are enamored with youth, and I don’t blame them.  While age usually means experience and accumulated wisdom, it can also mean cynicism and bitterness too.  While age can certainly mean a pastor works smarter instead of harder, it can also mean a pastor decides to put his/her ministry in neutral and coast into retirement.  Experience tells me that a pastor’s longer tenures happen on the back-end of his/her ministry rather than on the front end.  Age may make a difference in tenure.  At least it has for me.

And so has this: instead of focusing on changing churches, I focus on changing the church I am in.  While I’ve only been pastor of two churches, I’ve actually pastored three or four different churches in both places.  Churches can change and grow in so many ways: numbers, budgets, spiritual development, mission engagement, unity, additional ministries, additional staff, and, among other things, additional or remodeled buildings that create new or better space.  It’s hard for a pastor to get bored when things are changing and popping.  The challenge for pastors in these situations is to make appropriate and necessary changes in the way we pastor—what do we take up and what do we give up?  This is hard work: sometimes painful, but seldom boring.  I’ve been blessed to be in churches that were willing to make changes and grow in different ways.  I can honestly say that the quality of the two churches I’ve served and their willingness to change have had more to do with my tenure than my own gifts, skills, or abilities.

Here’s another ingredient in tenure: I am committed to be a lifelong learner. As we age, it’s easy to assume we know all we need to know to keep the church humming along. Mistake! Keep learning. Keep reading. Attend a conference or two. Get a few pastor friends who can help you stay sharp. And be open to new ways of learning. In the first third of my ministry, nobody had ever heard of blogs or podcasts or social media. Now those things keep me learning and growing. And Audible—well, that enables me to read more books than I ever could before. Being a lifelong learner keeps a pastor from getting bored, and boredom is a tenure-killer. It can lead a pastor to look for a different church where he hopes he can get excited again but where he will probably grow bored again unless he’s committed to lifelong learning. This is an important ingredient in my tenure.

As is this: engage the community. Don’t become so sequestered in your church, you forget you also live in a community you need and a community that needs you. If your kids like sports, coach them in a city league. Serve as a volunteer in some local not-for-profit that captures your interest. Attend some high school sports from time to time. Get connected to other pastors in the community. The only limit is your time and your imagination. The more you love the community in which you live, the more you want to stay where you are. Hot Springs took some getting used to for my family, but we’ve grown to love the city and can’t imagine not living here. This ingredient has added to our tenure.

And one more thing: I make friends with church members.  Conventional pastoral wisdom often suggests that it’s not wise to make friends with church members.  “Get your friends outside of the church.”  That may be good advice, but that never worked for me.  My best friends are church members—have been in both churches I’ve pastored.  These are friends with whom my family has vacationed, friends with whom I’ve traveled to Razorback road games, friends who’ve shared our joys and halved our sorrows and who have allowed us the same privilege. Here’s how this helps tenure: friends root your heart in one place; friends make it easier to stay and harder to leave; friends add joy to the journey.  I’ve never fashioned myself a very good friend, but I’ve sure been blessed with some.  If I was to move, I wouldn’t just be leaving a church, I’d be leaving friends.

And these are the things that have helped me stay put for way longer than the average tenure of most pastors.  I’m not saying that a long tenure is always better than a short one.  God calls some pastors to short tenures, often to do hard things that need to be done but make it hard for the pastor to stay.  A dynamic ministry of three or four years in one church is probably better for the kingdom of God than doing the same year of ministry twenty years in a row in the same church.  My calling has been to long tenures.  And if you think God might be calling you to the same, my prayer is that the things that have helped me stay put will help you stay put too.

Summer Sermon Series 3

Here are the breakdowns for a couple of more summer sermon series I’ve done over the years. If you’re interested in a sermon manuscript for any of these sermons, email me at john@firsthotsprings.com

Summer Nights

You Must Be Born Again (John 3:1-18)

All Night Long (Luke 6:12-13)

All the Way Home (Mark 4:35-41)

The Right Question (Acts 16:22-34)

Courage in the Night (Judges 7:15-23)

Come On Over and Help Us (Acts 6:6-10)

Get Ready Now (Matthew 25:1-13)

Speak Lord, I’m All Ears (1 Samuel 3:1-18)

Summer Songs

I used a clip of the song for which the sermon was named.

Lovely Day (Psalm 118:24)

The Long and Winding Road (Psalm 23)

Kyrie Eleison (Psalm 32)

A Man of Constant Sorrow (Psalm 88)

We Are Family (Psalm 128)

Thanks for the Memory (Psalm 105:1-5)

A Time for Us (Psalm 131)

Eye of the Tiger (Psalm 124)

Leaving on a Jet Plane (Psalm 121)

Hallelujah (Psalm 147:1; 150)

If these summer sermon series posts have primed the pump for your summer preaching, then I’m grateful. Here’s to biblical, engaging summer preaching!

Summer Sermon Series 2

For anyone interested, here are the titles and texts from some of the summer sermon series I shared in the previous post …

Not Just Another Day at the Beach

The God Who Heals (2 Kings 5:1-14)

The God of Second Chances (Jonah 1:17-2:10)

The God Who Makes a Way (Exodus 14:10-31)

Life’s Defining Question (John 21:15-19)

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Head for the Hills

Mt. Moriah: The God Who Tests (Genesis 22:1-14)

Mt. Sinai: Laying Down the Law (Exodus 20:1-21)

Mt. Nebo: Dying Well (Deuteronomy 34:1-12)

The Hills of Hebron: Wholly Follow the Lord (Joshua 14:6-15)

Mt. Carmel: Get Off the Fence (1 Kings 18:20-40)

Mt. Transfiguration: See the Glory (Matthew 17:1-8)

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Here Comes the Sun

Hanging the Sun (Genesis 1-2:3)

General God (Joshua 10:1-15)

Is Anything New Under the Sun? (Ecclesiastes 1:1-11)

Of Sunscreens and Umbrellas (Matthew 5:43-48; Luke 6:32-36)

Ain’t No Sunshine When He Comes (Matthew 24:29-31)

Goodbye Sun, Hello God (Revelation 21:22-27)

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Summer Blockbusters

Brave (Luke 1:26-38)

Despicable Me (1 Timothy 1:12-17)

Parenthood (Psalm 46)

Finding Nemo (Jonah 1:1-17)

The Lion King (Revelation 5:1-10)

The Sixth Sense (James 4:14)

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (2 Corinthians 5:6-10)

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I’m sharing this to illustrate how to flesh out a topical series. In choosing particular texts, I prayed through the needs in the church as best I understood them, and selected texts that might speak the gospel to their needs. This is one way the 23rd pastor becomes a 23rd preacher—shepherding the flock through preaching, applying the Scripture to their particular struggles, questions, joys, and Bible literacy needs. That’s why your series, even under the same series name, might have different texts. If you’re curious about the individual sermons, email me at john@firsthotsprings.com, and I can send you a manuscript.

Before moving on to other matters, in my next post I’ll put bones on two other summer series I mentioned in the previous post: Summer Nights and Summer Songs.

Are you preaching a series this summer? Please let others know what your series looks like in the comment section below.

Summer Sermon Series

Summertime is upon us.  We are all aware that church attendance is becoming more sporadic among our members.  Sadly, this is becoming an all year long phenomenon.  But we expect sporadic attendance in the summer: vacations, camps, mission trips, weekend getaways.  There’s a reason why someone coined the term “summer slump.”  But slump or not, we’re still worshiping every Sunday, and the pastor has the privilege to preach the word, even it is to a few less people than usual.  As an every Sunday preacher for 39 years, I’ve logged a lot of summer Sundays in the pulpit.  I enjoy summer preaching.  Seems to have a more relaxed feel about it.  It’s also a time when the preacher can experiment a little in his preaching, try some new things, exercise a little creativity.  So, preacher, what’s your plan this summer?

Series or One-off Sermons?

I am typically a series preacher—even in the summer.  A summer series has the potential to build a little interest in the congregation, perhaps even a little summer momentum.  Even folks who miss a Sunday may choose to livestream the sermon now or later just to keep up with the series.  But this year, I’ve decided to do one-off sermons.  This gives me the opportunity to address some things from the Scripture that seem particularly relevant to the congregation in this season.  It’s a little more work, but it seems right for this summer.  Plus, I am off in July.  My guest preachers can preach what they feel led to preach rather than forcing them into a series that’s not their own.  I will begin a new series when I come back in August.

What about re-preaching some of your best sermons?

The renowned, late Calvin Miller awakened me to this idea years ago.  He said that during the summers he schedules sermons he’s preached before.  As I recall, he operated by three rules: 1) At least 5 years must have passed since he’d first preached the sermon.  2) He must refresh the sermon to reflect the current situation and needs.  3) He must be able to preach the sermon as if it were brand new.

Miller believe there were some advantages to this practice: it gave the sermon longer life, and it allowed Miller to spend more time in study and preparation for the preaching he would do in the coming school year.

Usual homiletic approach or experiment with some different approaches?

Most preachers have their “style.”  Some prefer sermon “points”—a deductive style: state the main point and proceed to say this, this, and this about it.  Others prefer sermon “moves”—a more episodic, thought building upon thought to a conclusion (feels more narrative and inductive in nature).  If we’re sensitive to the mood and the flow of the text we preach, our “style” will vary naturally, but most of us weren’t trained that way, so we tend to force every text into our comfortable homiletic mold.  What if you used the summer to experiment with a style outside your norm?  Summer is a more relaxed time.  Preach a sermon with narrative contours instead of points.  Preach a sermon in monologue style telling the story as the main character from that character’s point of view.  What if you preached the text in the form of a story with plot and tension and resolution?  We tend to default to our comfort-level style.  Summer gives us the opportunity to experiment with a little creativity in our preaching, a creativity that your congregation will probably welcome and enjoy.

Preach through a Bible book or do a topical series?

Bible book series often work in the summer.  Summer is a good time to preach through a shorter Bible book that could be preached in 8-10 Sundays.  And if you can’t preach the entire book, you can hit the highlights of the book that seem most relevant to the needs in the church.  In a recent summer I did a series called “Road Trip.”  Each Sunday we figuratively boarded the church van and traveled to key places in Acts where vital events in the spread of the gospel were taking place.  In a season when people are all about road trips, we thought this would be a good hook for the congregation.  We couldn’t preach every text, but we certainly were able to hit the high points and meet the key characters.

Or instead of preaching a book, a preacher could tackle sections of Scripture or common themes in Scripture.  For example, a preacher might track through the minor prophets, preaching one key text from each of the 12 minor prophets (a step forward in biblical literacy for the congregation in texts seldom preached).  Maybe you’d want to preach the 10 Commandments during the summer.  You could even preach the larger story of the Bible by choosing 8-10 key characters in God’s story from Genesis to Revelation using a biographical approach to tell God’s story.  Or how about developing a summer sermon series on relationships with the “one another” texts in the Bible.  Pray through the possibilities for your congregation.  God will lead you.

I mostly use topical series in my summer preaching.  I like to choose a broad theme that captures something of the essence of summer and ties it to the Scripture.  Below are some of those series across the years:

  • Not Just Another Day at the Beach — Since many people spend some time on the water during the summer, I chose texts from the Scripture that happened on the water or at the shore.
  • Head for the Hills — Some prefer to take their vacations in the mountains.  I chose texts that happened on a hill or a mountain.
  • Front Porch Wisdom — Summer is a time of front-porching with people.  A lot of wisdom has been dispensed across the years on front porches.  I chose texts (mostly from Proverbs) that offer wisdom for the practical matters of living.
  • Summer Songs — Who hasn’t spent a summer evening driving with the windows down and the radio up?  I took well-known songs from culture, connected them to a psalm, played a part of the song during the sermon, and preached the gospel through the psalm.  I used the song title for the sermon title.  People were highly engaged in this series: “What song are you doing this Sunday, preacher?”
  • Summer Blockbusters — Hollywood hopes to make a lot of money at the box office in the summer.  I did a little google research of well-known summer blockbusters from the last few decades, chose a few, used the title as the title for the sermon, and preached a text that captured the essence of the title.  I only used film clips for a couple of the sermons.
  • Here Comes the Sun — Summer and sun go hand in hand.  I chose texts that involved the sun and preached those texts.
  • Summer Nights — More than a song from Grease, this became a sermon series.  I chose texts where the action happened at night, and I preached the gospel through those texts.
  • Summer of Love — Baby boomers remember the so-called Summer of Love in 1967 San Francisco.  We spent the first half of the series preaching texts that proclaim God’s love for us.  We spent the last half preaching texts that teach us how to love others.  We also asked our small groups to do a service/ministry/mission project of their own choosing in our community that summer.

Over the next few posts, I’ll flesh out some of those topical series, citing titles and texts.  So if you’re interested, check back a few times in the next week or two.

What do you do with your summer preaching?  What are you doing this summer?  Leave a comment below,  We might just help each other out.

The Journey Begins

Thanks for joining me!

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton

Welcome to my new blog site, The 23rd Pastor.  My name is John McCallum, and I have been a lead pastor since 1982.  Since that time I have served only two churches: First Baptist Church of Greenwood, Missouri (now Fellowship Greenwood) and First Baptist Church of Hot Springs, Arkansas.  I am just completing my 24th year as pastor of this good congregation.

A little background: I have been married to Dayna for 41 years.  We have two grown children and seven grandchildren.  In other words, I’m old :).  But old is not so bad when you’ve been taking a few notes along life’s journey.  At this stage of my ministry, I feel compelled to share out of my decades of experience in the hopes of encouraging other pastors and ministers in the church.

Education: I received a B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.  And I received both an M.Div. and a D.Min. from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri.  And having served as a lead pastor for almost four decades, I have also earned my degree from the School of Hard Knocks.

Last October I published the book, The 23rd Pastor.   (I’ll post the Amazon link at the bottom of this page, if you’re interested.)  The book has been well-received by both pastors and laity.  The interest the book has received has inspired me to do a little blogging on the pastoral life: pastoral care, preaching, leadership.  Years ago, I began a blog called Life at the Altar in which I address a variety of issues.  Some of those posts apply to pastoral life, most are posts addressing a variety of issues.  This blog, The 23rd Pastor, will focus on pastoral matters only.

I hope you’ll join me on the journey, interact along the way, and create a little community of brothers and sisters longing to be the shepherds God has called us to be.