Thursday, August 29, 2013

The one-legged duck

We have a one-legged duck in the pond behind our house.

I can't tell if his leg was bitten off, lost in a fight, or if he was born with only one leg. Either way, it's sad because when he comes up on land he labors to get anywhere. He's straining with life. He hops and falls over, hops and falls over. When you see him in the water, he looks just fine. But when he's on shore, you ache for him.

I've been feeding the ducks so they have grown in number. But today the one-legged duck was all by himself. So I brought out some bread and took these photos. Finally the one-legged duck didn't have to compete with all the two-legged ducks to get some food. When they are around, it's really pitiful. He's slow. They grab the bread before he can get there.

I can relate to the one-legged duck. I am broken just like him. I hop and fall over, hop and fall over. I say the wrong thing, think the wrong thing, and do the wrong thing, many times a day. "I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing" (Romans 7:19).

The whole world is like this. Things are not as they are supposed to be. Everybody's missing a leg. You see this on the news, when you read about a death, or a rape, or a terrorist act, or a drug bust. On the outside most people seem to have it all together. But when you look more closely into their eyes, you ache for them.

You know this yourself. You think about this when you're all alone, late at night, when the house is quiet. You're not what you always thought you would be or should be. Either you're not happy, or married, or successful, or hip, or good looking. Something's always missing. You're just like the one-legged duck.

The good news is, one day everyone who trusts in Jesus will get their legs. 

Jesus died and rose again not just to save our souls and take us to heaven, but to make things right. All things. To rid the earth of injustice, and loneliness, and fear, and hate, and poverty, and death. One day we won't read about kids beating up another kid. One day we won't see a young starlet gyrating on stage and cheapening the gift of sex. One day we won't pack up a friend's truck and say goodbye. One day we won't need to bomb Syria. One day weeping wives won't talk about how lonely they are in their marriage. One day men won't get told they're worthless.

"For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and dust shall be the serpent's food. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, says the Lord" (Isaiah 65:17, 25).   

Thursday, August 08, 2013

The ordinary

My granddaughter Talitha with Dabo
I've told you before about my dog Dabo. He's a little 3-year old Bichon Frise. Not a yapper, thankfully, and lots of fun. He's never met a stranger, and he especially adores kids.

Everybody wants to know what his name means. Dabo Swinney is the head coach of the Clemson Tigers football team. So, since we're big Clemson fans, we named our dog Dabo. His full name is Dabo LeBlanc. The dog's, that is.

Dabo regularly teaches me lessons. One is not to be in a hurry. When I take him outside to go to the bathroom, he just kind of wanders around the yard aimlessly, taking his time, smelling everything, chasing lizards, looking around, and sniffing the air. Finally he gets down to business.

But another lesson Dabo teaches me is enjoyment of the ordinary. On sunny afternoons I'll go outside with Dabo and he'll find a spot in the backyard and just...sit. I'll say, "Let's go over here, Dabo." And he'll glance at me, turn away, and...lie down in the grass. It's like I can hear him say, "Umm, I don't think so. Why are you in a hurry? Don't you want to just stay here a few minutes and feel the sunshine?" I can't resist. So I'll walk over, plop myself down next to Dabo, stroke his back, and enjoy the ordinary.

I hate to confess this, but I apparently need a dog to teach me this lesson. Otherwise I don't know if I'd ever stop and feel the sunshine on my face.

I'm reading Zack Eswine's book for pastors, titled Sensing Jesus: Life and Ministry As a Human Being. It's a wonderful but convicting book about enjoying the ordinary. He says we ministers are, generally speaking, driven people. We are always hankering after some "significant" work, chasing some "God-sized" dream, trying to change the world, thinking that we have to move on to some exotic place where we can "make a difference." Problem is, we are not God, though we secretly fancy ourselves to be. We are not omniscient, omnipresent, or omnipotent. We are actually pretty much...a mess. And anyway, God usually chooses to work through ordinary people in ordinary places.
He who called you to where you are declares that you needn't repent of being in one place at one time. You needn't repent of doing only a long, small work in an extraordinary but unknown place. Standing long in one place allows the roots to deepen.
I wish I'd read Eswine's book years ago when, as a young pastor, I felt "called" away from my small, rural church to a city I knew nothing about but where, I thought, I would really make a difference for the kingdom. I don't know, maybe I was called there. But looking back from Dabo's perspective, maybe I was in too much of a hurry.

The prophet Jeremiah told his friend and secretary Baruch, "Should you then seek great things for yourself? Seek them not" (Jeremiah 45:5).

That's what I hear Dabo saying to me in the backyard on sunny afternoons. Standing long in one place allows the roots to deepen.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013


In my Bible reading this morning I came across Jeremiah 9:23-24.
"Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight," declares the Lord.
I also thought about Galatians 6:14, one of my favorite verses.
May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.
The idea of boasting gripped me because just last night I was reading Paul David Tripp's book for pastors, Dangerous Calling, in which he says, "You are constantly preaching to yourself some kind of gospel."

I think there's a connection between the things we boast in and the gospel we believe.

Look around and you'll see all sorts of human boasting. Bumper stickers parading our outstanding kids or righteous convictions... fast, shiny new cars that bury us in debt... shouts of "We're Number One!" from the football stands... exaggerated fish stories... immodest or loud clothing... talking too much... Why, even photos of smiling family members set on display in our office can be our way of telling untrue stories about how great we are.

I look at my own heart and find that I boast in jobs well done, sermons well preached, counseling sessions well run. I generally boast in things that bring me the praise of man. Conversely, my regrets and griefs generally revolve around personal failures, mistakes, and foul-ups.

The common denominator: ME. God is not even in the equation.

Jeremiah admonishes me not to boast in things that bring me attention, admiration, and power, but to boast in the astonishing fact that I know God. Or as Galatians 4:9 points out, the even more astonishing idea that I am known by God!

As long as I preach to myself the "gospel" of good works and accomplishments, I am set up for disappointment. Because the bar is too high. I can never be good enough to satisfy the voracious appetite of pride. There will always be someone out there better than me. I will fail. In less than an hour, or sooner.

But the gospel of Jesus says that Someone who is perfect has gone to bat for me, has fully paid for all my sins, and has satisfied on my behalf the one Being in the universe whose opinion really matters. The struggle for significance is over. It's done. If I want to boast in anything, I can boast in my weaknesses (2 Corinthians 12:9). I'm free! I can be small, and obscure, and unknown, because my identity is rooted not in what I do but in the fact that I'm a loved, forgiven, adopted, justified, redeemed, rescued, secure child of God.

May I never boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Book writing begins

In an earlier post I shared about the book I am writing. Tomorrow it begins in earnest! I'm taking advantage of my annual study leave at church to write a proposal for my agent, along with at least an introduction and first chapter.

Many pastors out there are in the midst of a ministry storm and don't know what to do. I read recently that over 1,700 pastors leave the ministry each MONTH! That doesn't seem possible. Seventy-five percent of pastors report a significant stress-related crisis at least once in their ministry. Several of the men who were my friends in seminary are no longer pastors. I just about gave up once myself. After my ministry crisis I felt cynical about the church, feared another failure, was suspicious of other church leaders, and felt very far away from God. Thanks to God's grace and a loving church family, I recovered. I love being a pastor.

But my book is aimed at those people in ministry who are in the hurricane, are discouraged, and don't see a way out. 

If you'll pray for me I'll be forever grateful!

Saturday, June 29, 2013


My oldest "child" turned 36 yesterday. Rebecca Suzanne was born on June 28, 1977. She is now married and has three children of her own, one of whom is almost a teenager. I am stunned by the passage of time.

Suzy and I had been married just two months when we got pregnant with Rebecca. We were both 22 years old. I was working as a salesman for Greenville Office Supply Co., traveling around the upstate of South Carolina in my one new suit selling pencils, paper, file folders, and other office necessities to businesses and industries. And I wasn't very successful. Six months later I asked my boss for a transfer to another part of the company - the print shop. He only too gladly complied. I was costing the company too much money and making very little. When Rebecca was born I was running the company's printing presses, setting type, and laying out artwork. That was my line of work for the next five years before I went off to seminary.

I had been getting more and more excited as Suzy's delivery date approached. These were the days before routine ultrasounds, so we didn't know whether we were having a boy or a girl. I secretly prayed for a daughter. I grew up with just one brother, and hoped for the experience of having a girl in my family.  I am glad God answered my prayer.

When we got to Greenville General Hospital, we were met by the nurse who, it just so happened, had been our Lamaze instructor. That was comforting for this young, naive couple who had no real idea what was about to happen. I donned my scrubs, mentally reviewed everything I knew I was supposed to do, and repeated to myself, "I will not faint, I will not faint...." Suzy's labor was short. She delivered naturally, without medication (what a trooper). When Rebecca came out, she was beautiful. Of course, the whole birth experience is just too profound to describe. It shattered all my categories. Emotions were all over the place. Suzy and I cried. "It's a girl!" someone said. I was very, very happy.

But soon we discovered that Rebecca was not a happy baby. When the infants were rolled out of the nursery at feeding time, there was always one baby crying her lungs out. Yep, that was Rebecca. It was an ear-piercing cry. And it seemed she rarely stopped crying for the next several months. We soon found out that Rebecca had colic.

Colic is a strange syndrome whose cause is unknown. Fewer than 5% of infants with colic have an underlying physical problem. Wikipedia says, "An infant with colic may negatively affect family stability and result in short term anxiety or depression in the mother. It may also contribute to exhaustion and stress in the parents." I can identify with all those statements. Suzy and I didn't know what to do. Were we doing something wrong? Why couldn't Rebecca fall asleep? Why did she always seem to be in such pain? How long will this last? Those questions swirled around us those first few months of Rebecca's life and made them difficult.

But in time, the crying stopped and we started to enjoy being new parents of this delightful little girl. Rebecca grew locks of curly, golden hair, inherited we think from my dad's side of the family. She also had a small spot of white hair, a trait that would show up in our next child, David. As a little girl she would sing all around the house, and I loved playing games with her, tossing her up in the air in all kinds of dangerous ways, telling her stories, and doing all the things dads do with their daughters. I cherish the growing-up years of my firstborn.

Rebecca has always been a leader. Decisive. Strong. Brave. Confident. Yet she can cry watching family films. A great organizer. Someone who adjusts to new situations and circumstances with optimism and determination. A rebounder. An overcomer. An encourager. Superb in cooking, singing, reading, and planning events. An excellent parent and a faithful friend to people she's met through the years. A lover of Jesus and His church. A maker of fun and hope. These are a few of Rebecca's qualities and talents.

Happy birthday, Rebecca Suzanne. I love you.   

Monday, June 03, 2013

A shepherd's humble request of the sheep

Every pastor has gotten at least several letters or emails that go something like this:
"Dear Pastor, I'm letting you know that I've found another church. You apparently are not aware (or do not care) that I have missed six Sundays in a row. No one called to check on me. No one visited me after my operation. I thought you valued your members, but it's clear that your church is just too big and too busy to follow up on individuals in need. Please send a letter of transfer to my new church...."
It really hurts when people leave their church with these kinds of feelings. There is no question that pastors, staff, elders, and other church leaders share some of the blame when sheep feel neglected by their shepherds. Ezekiel's warning should keep pastors awake at night: "The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts" (Ezekiel 34:4-5). I can think of a number of people in the churches I've served that I should have pursued more faithfully.

But I don't think it's out of line to make a humble plea to you sheep out there: Please let us know.

Let us know you're hurting or unhappy. Let us know you're in the hospital. Let us know you want to serve. Because more often than you may guess, we don't know.

Take my church, for example. Roughly once a month at a staff meeting, we review a list of people we suspect are "MIA" (missing in action). We try to connect with these folks and discover if indeed there is a problem. In most cases, all is well. You see, it's very difficult to determine who is and is not truly MIA. Our average Sunday morning attendance is over 500. We ask people to fill out an attendance slip, but just a fraction of our folks do so. Also, we have two services, which makes it hard for our members and staff to know when someone is truly absent ("Where's Margaret been? Oh, she probably goes to the early service"). We've told people that our primary means of shepherding the flock is our small groups ministry. If someone is sick, hospitalized, or unhappy, it's in a small group of trusted friends that one's needs can be immediately addressed. But if one doesn't take advantage of a small group, he or she must let the leadership know what's going on.

Besides, people take vows when they join the church. In a Presbyterian church like mine, one of the vows is to support the church in its worship and work to the best of your ability. Another is to promote the purity and peace of the church. Bound up in these vows is the promise to take responsibility for the health and unity of the church. If you are unhappy about something, it is your responsibility to speak to someone in leadership. If you've been offended, says Jesus, "go and tell [your brother] his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother" (Matthew 18:15).

I trust you hear the spirit behind this plea. We who are shepherds are duty-bound to look for and seek after neglected, offended sheep. But we shepherds are but sheep ourselves. We are not omniscient. If we are going to care for you - and we want to, we really do! - we need your help.

If we work together, in a spirit of patience and mutual trust, we can (in most cases) close the back door of the church and show the reality of the gospel by our love for one another.           

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The problem I have with Twitter

Well, I don't really have a problem with Twitter per se. I just said that to get your attention. What I have a problem with is slogans. Especially when the slogans are Christian. And when the slogan-er thinks that by dropping a cute little saying or quoting a Bible verse or famous person he or she has just done a slam-dunk, given the last word, and solved the problem.

I tweet, and I read other people's tweets. But I wonder what culture we are creating with our new adroitness at 140-character sayings. Christians seem the best at it. I've done it myself. "Jesus is all you need." "God is good all the time; all the time God is good." "Let go and let God." "God works all things together for good." "Hate the sin but love the sinner." "Christianity is not a religion, it's a relationship." And the worst offender? I saw it again just the other day on a bumper sticker: "Try God."

It's not that there's not truth in each of these cliches. (Well, except that last one.) And I know what Ecclesiastes 5:2 says: "Let your words be few." But God himself took 66 books to tell us what we need to know. If it's evangelism we're after, I suspect what non-believers are really looking for these days is conversation - the chance to ask us questions and get reasoned, thoughtful answers. Not one-liners. Not Thomas Kinkade-ish pearls of "wisdom."

What got me thinking about this today is Rosaria Butterfield's excellent book, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert. In that book the author chronicles her journey out of lesbianism and atheism to Jesus. She credits her conversion not to slogans, Scripture references on football players' eye black, a quick presentation of the Romans Road, a tract, or even a dramatic evangelistic sermon, but to a long, patient relationship with a Reformed pastor, his wife, and several members of their local church. These Christians embraced her, welcomed her into their homes, and cultivated extended conversations that eventually led to her asking THE question: "What must I do to be saved?"

Butterfield writes that when she came to faith, she began to devour the Bible - "huge chunks at a time." But soon she observed that even seasoned believers liked to pull a few words of Scripture out of their context and display them on placards. To her, this made Scripture verses seem "like sneaky little raids, quick and insulated targets into culture, with no sense that a worldview of care lay behind them."

I know that we don't always have time for the kind of relationship-building that brought Rosaria Butterfield to the Savior. (Hmm, could that be the real problem?) I also realize that some of Jesus' teachings were tweet-like. He was a master at packing profound truth into bite-size pieces. "The first will be last and the last, first." "It is more blessed to give than to receive." "I am the Bread of life," etc. But these sayings were not intended to be printed on bumper stickers or Precious Moments figurines. They were most often said in the context of extended dialogues with disciples, inquirers, and foes. Besides, Jesus is...well, God.

I'll keep tweeting. Twitter serves a purpose. But let's invest time in words and in people, that the culture we leave the next generation is an intelligent one.

Monday, May 06, 2013

My book proposal

I've started writing a book! Well, not really. I'm just developing the proposal. But I've talked with an agent at Credo Communications, attended a workshop on "How to Get Published," talked extensively with an author-friend, and gotten words of encouragement from my church. This summer I'll take a four-week study leave to (hopefully) knock out a good bit of work on the book.

So what's my book about?

Here's the way I've pitched it to my agent:

Being a pastor is sort of like living on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi or Louisiana. There's always the danger of a ministry-killing catastrophe. Churches are often unsafe places for ministers. Churches are filled with sinners - just like me! Many pastors walk into a church with a naivete about the danger of what they do every day. They are vulnerable to difficult people, unresolved conflict, incompatible visions, hidden agendas, and sin - their own and that of others.

I endured five years of conflict and crisis in a church. I went into that church naive and unprepared. I should have asked harder questions. I should have taken more time to build trust. I should have been more careful about introducing change. Fellow leaders should have been more cooperative and forgiving. It was, in short, a perfect storm, a Category 5 hurricane in the making. When the catastrophe happened, I should have been more prayerful, less accommodating to the wishes of others, move loving, patient, and honest. The conflict eventually exploded in a "planned split" that devastated my family and me and many other people. It threatened to end my career as a pastor and seriously damage my marriage.

But through that catastrophe, I learned valuable lessons. I moved on, recovered a love for the church, and eventually returned to the role of lead pastor elsewhere. In my book I will reflect on my experience and share the lessons learned. I hope to redeem the experience by helping other pastors recognize, negotiate, and redeem their own ministry hurricanes. I will also share anecdotes I collect from other pastors. Unfortunately, there are many stories out there to share.

(By the way, if you're in ministry and you've gone through a ministry catastrophe -- or have a friend who has -- I would appreciate getting the story in writing. Or I can interview you over the phone. I plan to keep all stories anonymous and will change the names of people and places.)

Obviously, my book will be aimed at pastors, but people in a variety of ministry settings will be able to relate to my story. My goal is to help people in ministry recognize the signs of an impending catastrophe, limit its damage, learn its lessons, and live with gospel optimism for the future.


Mud is the name of a new movie starring Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard, and two teens who put in an amazing performance: Tye Sheridan (also in Tree of Life) and Jacob Lofland. Mud is directed by Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Shotgun Stories). It's a really good movie, not only from the acting and cinematography angles but also for the values it highlights: family, friendship, loyalty, and forgiveness.

Sheridan and Lofland play the roles of Ellis and Neckbone, respectively, two boys growing up on an Arkansas river and learning something about love in an adult world filled with disappointment.

I usually dislike Matthew McConaughey movies. This one's an exception. He is Mud, a mysterious, grimy, gutsy guy who can't quite be figured out. Is he a hero or a fool? Is he to be trusted or feared? He wins the boys' help in tracking down a lost love, Juniper, played by Witherspoon in an understated role. Along the way, young Ellis has to deal with the break-up of his parents and the rejection of a girlfriend. Despite it all, he becomes the real hero as he seeks to pull Mud out of the mud he's made of his life.

In this movie, everybody's broken and everybody needs help. Help comes from unlikely sources. While Mud has been wounded by life, in him we catch a glimpse of Jesus, who like the prophet Hosea doggedly pursues his adulterous bride. Mud understands there's a devil out there who steals, kills, and destroys. Mud risks his life to rescue Ellis from death. He himself is rescued by a father who lost hope but finds it again. In the end, the many risks of love are proven worthwhile.

The Christian view of life holds that this world is messy, just like Mud. Investing your hope in people, places, and pursuits will leave you high and dry - just like the boat Mud lives in that's stuck up in a tree. The best of
human loves disappoint. Only Jesus can come to you in your helpless state, lift you out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire, set your feet on a rock and give you a firm place to stand (Psalm 40:2).

Monday, March 25, 2013

Why I did it

As many of my readers know, I recently decided to step aside from being the senior pastor of University Presbyterian Church, and "trade places" with my able associate pastor Matt Ryman, pictured here on the far right with Mark Bates (center), the founding pastor of UPC. It's not really official until we're installed in our new positions, but the transition has already begun. My new title will be Pastor of Discipleship. It's a move that was about seven months in the making, requiring the support of my elders and staff, numerous meetings, tons of communication, and the approval of 4/5 of the congregation.

Many people have asked me why I did it. Some have credited me with humility. But I assure you, as God knows quite well, "humble" is not one of my attributes. No, I was motivated by two simple desires -- to focus on what I love most, and to see God glorified at UPC.

My journey began when I gave serious thought to the fact that in less than a year I will be sixty years old. I took some time to ask myself some probing questions:

  • What’s my “sweet spot”? 
  • When am I at my best?
  • Where can I make my most significant contribution in my last “third” of life?
  • How can I simplify my life in order to be at my peak for the Lord?
  • What should I focus on now?
  • How can I maximize my value to UPC and the kingdom of God? 
I read the book Halftime, by Bob Buford. I also read From Success to Significance, by Lloyd Reeb. These books gave me more questions to consider. I filled out the Strengths Finder assessment and took the Birkman Method. I reviewed my Myers-Briggs profile. These things were very helpful in my journey. And of course I prayed and talked with people whose counsel I value. I sensed that God was encouraging me to make adjustments in my life so as to finish well. I don't mean to sound morbid, but the fact is I don't have tons of time left. I certainly don't want to wait another five or ten years before I figure out what "finishing well" looks like. I need to be proactive.

So last summer I came to several key conclusions. Among them were the following:

  1. I'm a relational guy. I enjoy working directly with people and helping them grow.
  2. The role that brings me the greatest satisfaction and, I think, the greatest blessing to others is that of shepherd. Shepherding includes teaching and preaching, but also spending unhurried time with people, counseling, visiting, practicing hospitality, ministering to the grieving, leading small groups, working with children, leading task teams, training leaders, and the like. 
  3. Less energizing are the tasks associated with top-level, organizational leadership: i.e., leading on the “macro” level, motivating, analyzing problems, coming up with new and visionary plans, managing staff, leading the elders, etc. Those are things I've done for over twenty-five years. I'm ready for something different.
I didn't know quite what to do with these thoughts until I attended a seminar at the PCA General Assembly in July, 2012. It was a seminar for senior pastors my age. The speaker encouraged us to explore alternatives to retiring or switching churches. He said something like this: "If your people trust you, and if you have an associate pastor who respects you and whom you love, you ought to think about making a 'lateral move' instead of simply leaving. You ought to hand the baton off to that younger colleague, and stay in your church in a new role."

That's the kind of direction I was looking for. I spoke with my associate pastor and he was immediately captured by the idea. I spoke with my elders and they voiced support as well. Then it became a matter of figuring out how best to present the concept to the congregation.

I wrote a letter to the church and read it aloud in a meeting last November. I told the people what I'm writing here. Many members voiced their support. But as expected, others had questions and reservations. We formed an Advisory Team to lead the transition process, always aware that the decision to change pastoral calls rests finally with the congregation. We created means of getting people's input and had several meetings. Finally, in late February of this year, the congregation voted in favor of the pastoral transition. My younger colleague would take the helm as senior pastor of UPC, and I would become an associate pastor focusing on discipleship and shepherding.

I'm truly excited about my new role, especially the opportunity to rethink our small groups program. But I'm excited not just because I will be doing the things I love most. Above I said that I had a second motivating desire -- to see God glorified at UPC.

I have an obligation to help younger leaders reach their full potential. That’s what other people did for me thirty years ago. It is vital (not to mention Biblical) that we who are older pass the baton to those who are younger. (See this excellent article by George Barna.) Not only that -- we HAVE to change if we are going to stay ahead of the game and be culturally relevant to new generations of men and women. You may have seen the statistics. Vast numbers of young people are leaving the church during their college years, and many never come back. Thirty percent of American adults under the age of 30 have no religious affiliation. The US church is aging. In many places it is dying. Today, of about 350,000 churches in America, four out of five are either plateaued or declining. It is time for creative risk and a new venture if we are going to reverse these trends.

"Always reforming" needs to be more than just a slogan. As churches make necessary adjustments in order to be contextually relevant -- while never compromising the gospel -- the kingdom advances. My decision to "trade places" was not an effort to work less (frankly I'll be working just as much as ever!). Nor was it a response to stress or disappointment or ministry burn-out. It was, I hope, a way of letting God surprise us with all sorts of new and unexpected gifts of grace. I'm also hoping my church can provide a model of succession for other pastors and other churches.

Leo Tolstoy said, "Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself." If change was going to happen at UPC, I knew it needed to start with me.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

When praying, words matter

In previous posts, I railed about some common grammatical errors people (including me) make. The following is not really a grammar thing, but it does have to do with words improperly used.

It's very common for people, when they pray in public especially, to say, "Lord, we pray that you would... (you fill in the blank)." I'll never forget what one of my seminary professors (the venerable and late Dr. Robert G. Rayburn) did one time. He asked a student to pray at the start of class. And so this student started praying a very nice prayer. He used the well-known and very proper A-C-T-S pattern that every Christian knows we're supposed to use. And when he got to the S part of the prayer ("supplication"), he said something like, "And Lord, we pray that you would use this class in our lives to make us more like Jesus." But before he could finish that sentence the professor interrupted him (gasp!).

Dr. Rayburn said, "You must not pray that way. Don't say, 'Father would you do this or that,' say 'Father, will you do this or that'!"

What Professor Rayburn was getting at was that the word "would" is not the language of a child speaking confidently and shamelessly to his Father. A little child does not usually say to her father, "Daddy, would you read a book to me?" If she does, she apparently is none too confident that daddy wants to read her a book. Instead she says, "Daddy, Daddy! Will you read a book to me?" She expects to be heard and she expects to be gratified. Similarly, God wants to know what we want. He wants us to ask for what we want, not tentatively but confidently.  When we pray, we should talk as though we believe what Jesus said one time: "Ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you" (John 15:7). Sure, God can, and often does, say "No" to our requests. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't ask for what we want.

So the way that student should have prayed is, "Lord, we pray that you will use this class in our lives to make us more like Jesus."

Ever since Dr. Rayburn shared that little secret, I have tried to pray, "Lord, I pray that you WILL...(whatever)." Try it and see if using the word "will" instead of "would" helps you pray with more boldness and childlike honesty.