John Donne is one of the least-known saints in history. The 17th century poet and preacher endured a life of persecution, pain, unfair imprisonment, and lengthy suffering.
It was during his term as Dean of the great St. Paul’s Cathedral – London’s largest church – that three waves of the Great Plague swept through the city. The last epidemic alone killed 40,000 people. In all, a third of London’s population perished, while a third more fled to the countryside, turning entire residential districts into ghost towns.
Donne’s life had been no picnic. Released from prison and now blackballed, he couldn’t find work. He and his wife Anne lived in grinding poverty, and Anne nearly died from childbirth more than once. Donne himself suffered intense headaches, intestinal cramps, and gout. His longest literary work during this excruciating period of his life was an extended essay on the advantages of suicide.
He decided at the late age of forty-two to seek ordination as an Anglican priest. The year after Donne took his first Anglican church, his beloved Anne died, after having borne him twelve children in all (five of whom died in infancy).
Amazingly, this was the man appointed to St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1621. With all his trials, he hardly seemed a likely candidate to lift his nation’s spirits during that era of the plague. He stayed near his beleaguered parishioners—arising every morning at 4 a.m. and studying until ten at night. He delivered sermons of such power, the vast cathedral remained crowded with worshipers despite London’s declining population.
It was then—at the zenith of his public ministry—his dread disease was diagnosed along with his death sentence. What is noteworthy is that he never “retired” from his calling—and he refused to become a passive recluse. While surviving those dark months, he stayed engaged with people. His life modeled the priceless value of enduring companionships.
Among his best-known writings are lines from his work, Devotions, written only a few years before his death. You may remember some of them:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent … if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less … any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
The importance of our staying engaged in the lives of others cannot be overestimated. Isolation is not only unbiblical and unwise, it is, in fact, unhealthy. You get weird.
Finding and nurturing a few very close companions throughout your years in ministry is a key ingredient to surviving. If you are one of those in that category—you are miles ahead of those who think they can survive on their own.
I must add — you are also rare.
Sarcastic infighting. Negative putdowns. Stinging stares. Volatile explosions of anger. Doors slamming. Desperate feelings of loneliness. Awkward silence. Those descriptions portray the marriages in many homes and families.
And also, in many parsonages.
We are not immune, are we? It is possible that you have gotten to the place where you look for excuses not to be home. Or to be there as little as possible. It’s easy in the ministry to justify our absence, isn’t it? Even in our own minds.
For more years than I care to remember, I was so insecure and fearful it wasn’t uncommon for me to drill Cynthia with questions—petty, probing questions that were little more than veiled accusations. It is amazing she endured it. Finally, we had one of those famous showdown confrontations every married couple has had. (Yes, even pastors.) No need to repeat it, but she made it painfully clear that I was smothering her, I was imagining things she never even thought of doing . . . and it had to stop. Her words hurt, but she did the right thing. Thankfully, I took her seriously.
I went to work on this ugly side of my life. I confessed my jealousy to Cynthia. I assured her I would never again treat her with such a lack of trust. I asked God for grace to help, for relief from the destructive habit I had formed, and for the ability to love and give myself to this woman without all the choking conditions.
I distinctly recall how much an understanding of grace helped me. It was as if grace was finally awake in my life, and I could appropriate its power for the first time. It seemed to free me; first in small ways, and finally in major areas. I can honestly say today that I do not entertain a single jealous thought. Grace literally wiped that slate clean.
I’ve said for years now that my favorite place on earth is just inside the door of my home. I absolutely love being home. It is there I find maximum security and acceptance, fulfillment and accountability, responsibility and harmony, and honesty and love. Why? Because we are committed to the same common denominator: Grace.
- Grace releases and affirms. It doesn’t smother.
- Grace values the dignity of individuals. It doesn’t destroy.
- Grace supports and encourages. It isn’t jealous or suspicious.
What does it take for us as pastors to be just as thoughtful and encouraging and creative with our wives as with those who sit in front of us on Sundays?
I have the answer: it takes grace.
We’re living in a day when most people are focused on one thing: economic survival. While that is certainly an important pursuit, it’s easy for that single objective to make us ignore something far more valuable.
Hard times often lead to lonely times—when we bear down on simply making ends meet . . . at the expense of no longer spending meaningful times with others. What good is simply surviving if it leads us into the barren flats of isolationism? Furthermore, by keeping the goal of getting more money in the crosshairs of our scope, what often gets shot down are those we once enjoyed as our close friends. It’s time we openly admitted that such collateral damage is too great a price to pay.
My words today are meant to sound an alarm. As important as it is for us to endure these uncertain times, we dare not diminish the value of cultivating enduring companions. No matter how bad the times may get, we need friends. Close friends. Enduring companions. They are the secret of our making it through dark and desperate times without our becoming dark and desperate people.
Are you cultivating some close friends? Even one?
For this post, I want to share with you why I’ve written my book, The Church Awakening: An Urgent Call for Renewal. Truth be told, part of the reason I wrote the book is because of you, my fellow pastors.
Ours is a whole new world, and nothing has been more adversely affected by postmodernism than the church and its relationship to God’s Word. When the Bible loses its central place in the church’s worship—even if good things replace it—the fallout is biblical ignorance. The longer substitutes replace the preaching of the Word as the centerpiece of Christian worship, the more we will witness the intensifying drift into ignorance. Over time, a congregation that is distant from the Word of God seeks more entertainment and less biblical truth.
The slumbering evangelical church has now bought into this way of thinking. I have worked hard to explain why and how in this book. But let me add that I have not written this volume just to point out all that’s wrong. That is not my intention. My writing has always had an emphasis on grace, which is God’s emphasis in the Bible. Each chapter addresses solutions—not just problems—and points to the hope that God offers in His Word.
I have written The Church Awakening primarily to two groups of people. First, to serious-thinking churchgoers, who know there is a better way. In the Bible there was a group of clear-thinking, tough-minded men called the “sons of Issachar” (1 Chron. 12:32). They were those who “understood the times and knew what Israel should do.” We need that same clear-headed discernment today in the church. And along with discernment, we need an equal supply of courage. My aim is to ignite that passion within those who are willing to think seriously.
I am also writing to you pastors, especially to those who are on the fence, who need a voice of permission to buck the tide and to put the preaching of the Word of God back in its central place of the church’s worship.
In my over fifty years in ministry, I have never been more passionate, or hopeful, for The Church Awakening—that is, for the church to wake up, to see how far it has drifted, to begin walking with God, and to engage the culture for Jesus Christ.
It is my hope that God will use this volume in a powerful way to contribute to the master plan Jesus is building. He was the One who promised: “I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it” (Matt. 16:18).
P. S. If you want to pick up a copy of the book, it’s available in The Book Shoppe. You might also enjoy watching the video below.
Did you feel the tightening squeeze this time of year brings? On top of an already demanding schedule of preaching, teaching, counseling, and calling, you had to add Christmas parties and programs, a creative Christmas series that you’ve never preached before—and still another eloquent sermon for the Christmas Eve service.
Image from Pixabay
Such a schedule has a tendency to turn us into Scrooge-like characters, doesn’t it? (We secretly think: Humbug!) Work, work, work . . . nothing and no one will get in our way.
May I assume the role of one of old Scrooge’s ghosts for you? Let me escort you to your home. Peer into the window. Look closely. Is your chair empty at the dinner table?
If I may borrow from Charles Dickens’s famous opening line, Christmas can be “the best of times, and the worst of times.” As pastors, we have them both, don’t we?
Who hasn’t cringed in September as stores drag out and display the artificial Christmas trees? Who hasn’t felt uneasy about the obligatory exchange of gifts with individuals you hardly know?
Something about those annual experiences can make them seem like “the worst of times.”
But they don’t need to be.
Eli participated in his sons’ godless behavior. We know this because Eli got fat on the food his boys had stolen from the altar (1 Samuel 3:19–21).
(Image from Unsplash)
As for Samuel, the boy who heard God’s voice, the closing words of this episode tell us that the sleepy, spiritual indifference that had lulled Israel into complacency was about to come to a screeching halt.
A man of action was on the scene, and Israel’s spiritual drift was about to end. Even as a little boy, he not only heard the Lord, but he obeyed His voice.
I don’t think the Lord gives mates to us pastors to frustrate us. God gives a pastor a wife for life, knowing full well that it will take time to cultivate that relationship.
(Image from Unsplash)
In fact, when we give our time to our spouse, we are demonstrating devotion to Christ. I don’t think we’re missing out on anything God has for us to do at the church.
The temptation of any child of vocational Christian ministers is to see the work of the ministry as just another thing, just another religious occupation.
(Image from Unsplash)
Breaking through the wall of “public religion” must be the intense responsibility of the parent-minister if his or her children are to understand that this isn’t big business, a slick profession, or an entertainment arena where Mommy or Daddy puts on a performance.
The key word is authenticity. Not perfection, for no one gets it right all the time.
As I scan the lives of those I most admire in Scripture, I quickly discover that very few of them were loners. Not long ago, I spent almost a year studying the aging apostle John—a man who was still active in his mid-nineties!
(Image from Pixabay)
I’ve logged numerous hours perusing his first letter, which is filled with terms of endearment, like “little children” and “beloved” and his most-frequent exhortation, “love one another.”
John’s life remained intertwined with others. He never “outgrew” his need for people.
And believe it or not, when we get into that major work we call Revelation, which he wrote while all alone on the rugged island of Patmos, John isn’t halfway into chapter one before he identifies himself to his readers as,