14

Fourteen is a significant number for me, not because of the date of this post. It’s not because it is the last day that my favorite grandson is 14, although that is true. This is not the 14th of a series of posts with 13 previous ones. Fourteen is a significant number because it is the number of years I have served Forsythe church as their preaching minister. Yes, February is my preaching anniversary at Forsythe. That means I am “in” my 15th year of ministry here, but that number seems a bit presumptuous at this point.

It feels special to me because so often preachers are nomads, serving a church for two or three years before moving on to the next church. Some of them are concerned with upward mobility and as soon as they can land a larger ministry they break loose from the smaller one. Some just can’t get along with people more than a couple of years and wear out their welcome. I don’t judge them because ministry is kind of like your family – there are multiple layers of factors that are sometimes hard to sort out.

Of the Shepherds that were guiding this flock when I arrived, one is with the Lord. The other three have been serving for many years, loved and respected by the church (and me). Four newer Shepherds have joined them. Just the way a new baby born into a family changes all the family dynamics, new Shepherds change the approaches and dynamics of leadership as well. So, now we have seven Shepherds, each one loved and respected by this church (and me). I’m grateful.

I’ve been blessed to work alongside four different partners in my time here. It is a blessing that a church our size can have two full time ministers on staff. Working with Daniel is a joy. We are from different generations. He is about to turn 40, I’ll be 60 next year. In what is an improbable turn of events, I have known him his entire life. Even so, it is not hard to regard him as a peer. He has a winsome spirit that God is using to influence many.

A retiring minister told me many many years ago, “I’m tired of this church, and they’re tired of me.” That struck me as a sad epitaph for a long ministry. Though I’ve not been at Forsythe nearly as long as that minister had been at that church, I don’t want to end up with that being the summary of my years of work. I can’t imagine that it would be. The church I serve is a loving and caring church. Not a perfect church (there aren’t any of those). They don’t have a perfect preacher, either.

If I count my ministry years as beginning when I drove weekly to Oak Ridge Church of Christ in rural Attala County, Mississippi, I’ve been working with churches for 39 years. I don’t really know how to do anything else. I’m sure there are some who would say I don’t know how to do this either.

The last three years have been especially difficult. We spent much of 2019 in research and discussions with an area congregation talking about merging. We spent some time with brothers and sisters, which we enjoyed. We ultimately decided not to merge. It was hard to plan ahead when the future was uncertain, so after the merger discussions ended we took a deep breath and started to refocus on a future at Forsythe. In mere weeks that followed we began to hear news of a spreading unknown virus. I don’t have to tell you how that year and the following went. The polarization and politics of it all, those who mourned the loss of loved ones, and the personal struggles people had as they tried to live life with an airborne virus coming at us in waves made life erratic for all of us.

In May of 2020, I wrote a blog post that took on a life of it’s own called The Coming Pastoral Crash. Though some took issue with what I wrote, it has aged well. There is a wellspring of documentation that after two years of ministry in a covid world, many ministers are quitting. It just took so much out of us and required so much of us for which we were not equipped. (Please do not read into this that I think ministers had it worse than other professions, but I can only really speak from my own point of view here.)

So I think we have looked over the horizon a few times over the past year and feel we are beginning to emerge into a new post-covid world. Or at least a world where we will co-habitate with covid. The lost still need the Gospel. The church still needs to be a united family. The Word still needs to be studied and preached. On the widest outlook, nothing much has changed. However, everything feels like it has changed. So what challenges lie ahead in my 15th year at Forsythe? I don’t know. Really. I continue with the most basic and crucial perspectives that I have grown into over the years of being a preacher:

*God is my strength. My ministry cannot be stronger than my own connection to the Lord. Prayer and Scripture feed the soul of ministry.

*God is love. Love must always be the motive, the action, and the foundation of ministry because God is love.

*God reaches out to the world. I pursue growth and understanding of ministry as it evolves, learning what I can and using that to serve the community of faith and the community in which I live.

*God knows who we are. I never forget that I am a human being, faulty, grace-dependent, failing at times, doing some things well and flailing in other areas. Humility drives me to see the truth about myself and continue to rely on God’s power and strength through His Spirit.

If you read this far, thanks. I just wanted to reflect a bit about my first 14 years at Forsythe – a beautiful family of faith.

John

Review: Furious Longing of God

The Furious Longing of God by Brennan Manning

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Among books written by men, I doubt that The Ragamuffin Gospel can be surpassed in it’s influence and meaning for me. The Furious Longing of God revisits several themes from Ragamuffin, and does so in a beautiful way. This book was written from a broken heart being held together by the love of Christ.

I was affected by several messages contained in this book, and I was so sorry to see it come to conclusion.

Everyone understands that Brennan Manning was far from a saint. I think he shares his worst moments with us so we can know that the power of God’s grace is strong enough and deep enough to save even someone such as ourselves.

“This, my friends, is what it really means to be a Christian. Our religion never begins with what we do for God. It always starts with what God has done for us, the great and wondrous things that God dreamed of and achieved for us in Christ Jesus.”

In The Furious Longing of God, Manning keeps pointing us back to the cross, back to Jesus, and the divine love that He demonstrates in his teachings, life, death, and resurrection. I highly recommend this book and the spirit that one finds while reading its contents.





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Your Assignment

Photo by Andres Ayrton from Pexels

A recovery meeting happens on the other side of my office wall every day. Every day the beat up and defeated and strugglers gather together to help each other find a way forward. I’m sure there are tears and sharing of hardships, but that’s not what I hear.

What I hear is applause and sometimes a rousing cheer. I know (from visiting that meeting) that someone has expressed a victory, or even a desire for a victory, and the ragamuffin crowd cheers on their own as if they were olympic athletes crossing the finishing line.

They come every day. Sometimes after a defeat, sometimes after one more day of sobriety. And they cheer one another on. I’m not even in the room and I feel encouraged.

I wonder how many people we encounter who are weary, worn out, whipped by the everyday demons that push our buttons and lead us wayward … and they just need someone … anyone … to cheer them on and believe for them that they can make it just one more day.

You have your assignment.

Review: Searching For The Pattern

Searching for the Pattern: My Journey in Interpreting the BibleSearching for the Pattern: My Journey in Interpreting the Bible by John Mark Hicks
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Searching for the Pattern is both a challenging and enlightening read. My friend Dr. John Mark Hicks has presented an interesting approach to interpreting the Bible that is rooted in the story of the Bible itself.

I wonder if anyone who did NOT grow up in the Church of Christ will be able to identify with the spiritual journey that Dr. Hicks presents. I suppose every denomination has its extremes, and maybe if one changes the names, the story would remain the same. But I don’t know. As a lifelong member of the Church of Christ, I know all too well the journey he has taken. But I know I couldn’t have put it in the kind of words / framework that he has. I do think that any Christian who is committed to studying the Bible would benefit from the approach that is most clearly outlined in the second half of the book – a theological hermeneutic.

I will say that I am very very appreciative of the tone that Dr. Hicks sets as he talks about those with whom he knows will disagree with him. He is no stranger to how churches treat those who think outside of the box and arrive at different conclusions. Even so, he is kind as he speaks about those who still retain a sturdy tripartite hermeneutic of command/example/inference and who search the scriptures for a blueprint for today.

Along the way there were a few times where I felt very uncomfortable reading this book. It does address, after all, the kind of approach to interpretation that I grew up with, was trained in, and exercised for many years. Still, my discomfort was evident as I continued to read and soak in the approach he suggests. To my relief, as I read, I understood that he had the same discomforts as he described his journey and addressed the very concerns that were running through my mind.

I highly recommend this book, primarily for those who are familiar with the Churches of Christ and the approach to the Bible that is common among us. I think ministers and studious Christians would gain much from this book. I would hope and pray that it is influential in the minds and studies of young men who are entering the ministry. Maybe they won’t be like me, with many sermons presenting 2+2=5 (because a ‘necessary’ inference became larger than the text itself!).

I’m grateful to John Mark Hicks for this book and his friendship and the scholarship he brings to the table.

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Review: A Little Handbook for Preachers

A Little Handbook for Preachers: Ten Practical Ways to a Better Sermon by SundayA Little Handbook for Preachers: Ten Practical Ways to a Better Sermon by Sunday by Mary S. Hulst
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After preaching almost every Sunday for 35 years, it’s easy to fall into old habits and familiar ruts of preparation and delivery. These not only make the message seem stale, but also rob the process of creating a sermon of the inherent joy that is possesses. So, for a good while I tried to read at least one book about preaching each year, but the past few years I have failed to do this.

I don’t recall how I heard about Mary Hulst’s ‘Little Handbook for Preachers’, but I am so glad that I did. I gave this book five stars, with the caveat that this is from a preacher and for preachers. I was encouraged by this book and found many blessings within. I was also challenged and reminded, which is what I would hope.

I could encourage anyone in the preaching ministry to spend a little while with this book and absorb some of the encouragements here. Not only is there very specific and interesting instruction about the preaching event, I found Hulst’s spirit to be energizing, positive, and realistic. There is a perceived camaraderie here, a humble approach that isn’t “above” the reader.

You might not engage all ten of Hulst’s “practical ways to a better sermon”, but you will certainly consider some of them and I believe it will be a “better sermon by Sunday”. I loved a thought that comes at the end of the book. I think it gives you a taste of the kind of encouragement and appreciation for preachers/preaching to be found in this book:

“I hope this book cheers you on in the beautiful, hard work of writing and delivering sermons. Preaching is a great privilege, holy work, and I believe that God uses it to change people, change the church and change the world. Keep it up.”

I highly encourage this as a great guide for new preachers, and great reminders for old preachers, and some well-grounded advice for all preachers.

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