Friday, January 16, 2009

In the Name of Jesus

      I have read and heard of a mindset among pastors that disturbs me greatly. This mindset is not new, although I have observed it frequently of recent date, especially during the build up to the Season of Christmas this past year. Yet I have heard it prior to this as well. Two blog entries especially addressed this,
What to Do When You’re Bored with Preaching and On Pastors and Christmas.

      This disturbs me greatly. I wanted to comment earlier, but I considered the timing to be poor. So I waited until now when the anguish described especially in the second blog posting will likely have subsided somewhat.

      But the comments of "bored with preaching" and "burned out" disturb me. In "On Pastors and Christmas" the pastors indicated that this is a recurring thing for them. I asked my wife whether she could ever remember me being burned out with preaching. She could not remember such a time either.

      It disturbs me to hear of this. I have heard about it throughout my life and especially after becoming a pastor myself. Yet it is a foreign thing to me. I understand the what but I do not understand the why or the how.

      It especially disturbs me that these comments come from pastors who are truly good preachers. This is not a comment so much on their delivery or enthusiasm as it is upon the content of their preaching.

      So if their content is solid and generally rich with God’s gracious Word of the Gospel, why do they speak of being bored with preaching and burned out with preaching? Why do they speak of being envious of pastors who get excited about Christmas? Why would the one pastor say: “All I can say is I know no way out of it and I always find myself in the same hole”? Why would another pastor say: “This year really just felt like a lot of work”?

      I don’t relate to these things, but I think that I understand what is happening for those who speak this way. I think that they actually answer themselves with some of their comments. Here are a few quotes that may be helpful:

      First, the closing comments on the blog on Pastors and Christmas:

      Finally, there is the continued spectre for the preacher of coming up with something new on the most familiar of all biblical texts. It is hard work, and I’m not always successful at it.
      The result of all this is that I find myself more stressed out than usual, behind, tired, crabby, and generally not very full of Christmas cheer. I am short and cross with my family. I don’t have patience to deal with all of the very real problems that arise in my congregation. At the very time when I need to be on my “A game” as a pastor, I feel like I am barely passing muster.
      So what do you do when you are strung out as a pastor? Inquiring minds want to know.

      Then from one of the comments:

      I always fantasize about getting everything in order and having luxuriously long amounts of time to ponder texts and the fathers and Luther and ancient hymns and really produce awesome sermons.

      There is no question that writing sermons is hard work. But that is not the cause of being bored with preaching or with being burned out. The busyness of the pastor’s life and work is not the cause either. No, the real reason lies in the comments quoted above.

      The real reason is that pastors can easily forget the motive and joy and basis of preaching. Pastors can forget what it really means to be a preacher of the Gospel. They can forget who the REAL preacher is.

      This is what these comments actually display.

      Where does God’s call to be a preacher ever command that something new is to be come up with from the familiar texts? It is the same message. The text has been preserved by God so that the message is the same forever.

      But I have faced this dilemma myself. I see the text, and sometimes I have preached on it many times, and I begin to say to myself, “What am I to do with this text?”

      This is the mindset that leads to becoming bored with preaching. From this question God calls the preacher to repent. The preacher has already been told what to do with the text. He is to receive it and to proclaim what he himself has received.

      The question that the preacher is to ask is this: “What does this text say?” And then, to ask: Lord, what are You saying and what do You want to say to me?”

      The pastor is not to come up with a message from the text. He is to preach God’s message from the text. This actually makes the task harder. For the truly hard part is learning to stay out of the Lord’s way and to listen to what He has to say.

      Actually this is not hard, it is Impossible! But with God, all things are possible. And when the pastor wrestles with God until God wins, the pastor wins, too.

      For this is the joy of preaching. The pastor only gives what he himself has first received. When the pastor is seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, then the freshness of the text comes forth on its own. For then it is not just a text to which the pastor is going forth as if into a dark and grungy coal mine, but it is the inspired written record of the revelation of God and His grace, mercy, and peace in Christ Jesus. Then it is God the Holy Spirit’s inspired record of the words of God by which the Word speaks to the pastor so that the pastor may then share these joyous treasures with those who have ordained him as their shepherd under Christ.

      The writer of the blog post said: “The result of all this is that I find myself more stressed out than usual, behind, tired, crabby, and generally not very full of Christmas cheer.”

      This statement really says it all. For the Church does not gather to hear or receive Christmas cheer. This is not the language of the communion of the saints. This is the language of the world. No. The Church gathers to receive the Christ Mass and the Christmas Gospel. They come to hear and to receive Jesus! Thankfully, even though the pastor may forget this, the liturgy delivers just what the Church really needs. When the pastor remembers, then he likewise receives what God promises and the peace of God that surpasses all understanding fills his heart and the true joy of God’s mercy and grace overflows.

      The author of the blog post also said: “At the very time when I need to be on my “A game” as a pastor, I feel like I am barely passing muster.” The first commentator said similarly: “I always fantasize about getting everything in order and having luxuriously long amounts of time to ponder texts and the fathers and Luther and ancient hymns and really produce awesome sermons.”

      If any pastor ever has a day where he has his “A game as a pastor” or actually passes muster as a pastor, please make a video recording of it so that the rest of us can see what one looks like!

      Truly the first commentator chose wisely in saying that this is to fantasize.

      Sadly, this is a destructive fantasy, for it directs the pastor’s heart in exactly the wrong direction. It is no wonder that pastors experience burn out with preaching when their ministry is based upon such fantasies.

      It is not really my desire for this to sound so harsh, but it is harsh in reality. It steals away the very joy that preaching is ordained to supply, first to the preacher and then to his hearers.

      Dear pastors, you do not need to write and preach amazing sermons. St. Paul actually preaches against such sermons saying that they empty the cross of its power. No, what we need to preach is the glory of the cross of Christ. We need to preach it first and foremost for ourselves, so that those who come to hear it actually overhear what we preach to and for ourselves.

      Sermon study and preparation truly is a time of struggle. Wrestling with God is serious business. Yet when the outline finally comes together for me so that all that remains is to put the words to it, I am so overwhelmed with the Gospel that I have heard and received that my heart drives me to go to my wife and embrace her. God’s love is too powerful and wonderful to keep to myself. I simply have no choice but to find my wife and embrace her in the love that fills me. Then I return with a joyous heart to complete the final two hours of sermon preparation.

      (If I had no wife to hug, I suppose that I’d have to call someone on the phone, or perhaps I would pull out a hymn to sing or recite a psalm or sing the Nunc Dimittis.)

      When this is what God works through sermon preparation, how can I speak of being bored or burned out? For any pastor who finds himself telling himself that he is bored or burned out, all that you really need is to stand back and remember whose Word you are called to preach. Then you will remember the great privilege and blessing of preaching. Then it will not seem like a laborious obligation, but a cause for rejoicing. The preaching office is Christ’s office, who Himself counted it a joy to suffer and die on the cross to provide this office with its power. This powerful office that opens the very gates of heaven to you and to all whom it rules over has been entrusted to you, dear pastors! Whenever you imagine that your office is boring or that you have become burned out, remember this! Remember what it really means to be a preacher of the Gospel!