How do You Want to Spend Your Final Years?

I am leading a Monday night men’s group. Right now, I have nine men who are walking with me through some material on how men step up into the different phases of their lives. The final part of last night’s meeting drew our attention to the role of a Patriarch.

While the video did not give much information on the exact dynamics of the Patriarch in a family, the accompanying study guide asked a great question, “How do you want to spend the final years of your life?”

To the best of my study and experience, there are three options for us.

1.Grow Old and Selfish

Several senior adults spend the final years of their life on their own selfish dreams. They travel and enjoy the finer things in life. They play golf all day or another type of hobby. They spend money and accumulate extensive collections of stuff. They justify this behavior by saying, “We have earned it.” They also use the phrase, “We deserve this.” These people spent their earlier life giving all of their time and money to work or family, and now they are going to indulge themselves.

2. Grow Old and Scary

Some people end their lives full of bitterness. They grow angry with their family and friends. They speak of the “people these days” as if they were the enemy on the battlefield of life. Quite often these people complain that no one who cares for them or visits regularly but spends times with their visitors whining more than anything else. As a result, their grandchildren are forced to visit them on holidays to try and keep peace in the family.

3. Grow Old and Spiritual

These people have seen the best and worst of life, and they have grown closer to God through all of their experiences. They speak with kindness and love. They demonstrate faith and perseverance. Many in this group serve at Church until their body gives out on them. They spend their final years making an impact for the kingdom of God wherever life takes them.

So the question remains, “How do you want to spend your final years?” The Patriarchs of the Bible were spiritual leaders of entire families and clans until the day they died. People came to them for wisdom and guidance that only a life of faith can produce. They were a source of blessing to the community through the final stages of their journey.

Here is the deal. You are already headed one of these directions. Your life has a trajectory of movement that will place you squarely in one of these categories. Where you end up is not just the result of the decisions you make when you retire. Instead, they are the culmination of the choices you are making every day. The question for today is simply, “Is my life headed the direction I really want it to go?”

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Suffering in Silence

As a natural-born introvert, my tendency is to withdrawal within myself. When pain and heartache come, I tend to push away from the crowd and spend hours inside my mind. I don’t wear my heart on my sleeve, and I certainly don’t talk about my emotions. I will get through this all alone, no matter how long it takes.

For years I thought I was the only one who felt like this in the world. Then I noticed recurring conversations with people, often within the confines of my offices. They would tell me of deeply personal struggles that I never imagined them going through each day. One would speak of marital troubles, and another would tell me about their children, and still others with addictions of some type.

The idea came clear to me the other day, and I stopped to write it down. The truth is that numerous people are suffering in silence.

Maybe that is you? Maybe that is someone you love? If it is, I would tell you a few things.

1. It is okay to suffering alone. That is not what you might imagine me to say. Honestly, I think it is good for people to process what is going on within their heart and mind. Think about it. Pray about it. As I read the psalms, I often picture David on a hillside alone with a pen and a parchment pouring out his heart to God. I little self-reflection and critical thinking can be good for the soul.

2.God has not left you. Some of Jesus final words to his disciples in Matthew chapter 28 are a challenge. His disciples are to go into all the world making disciples. It will not be an easy job. In fact, it will come with persecution and hardship. There will be nights alone and frequent criticism. Jesus ends his call to service with some comforting words, “I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

No matter how dark life gets, Jesus has not left us alone. He is there in our pain. He hears, and he responds to our suffering. It might not be in the way we imagine with a loud voice and a violent shaking of the earth, instead it might come in the small quiet voice within our soul. Even when you feel alone, you are not. He will never leave you or forsake you.

3. Some people want to help. You do not have to suffer alone. I would tell you as a Pastor that if you have gone for weeks and weeks suffering from the same issues, I would seek help. This help might come from a friend, a family member, a Church member or a professional like a counselor. I would bet money that there is someone in your life who would love to help you. The challenge is not to find someone to listen; the hard part will be opening yourself up.

From personal experience, I know that the suffering in our soul can often be greater than physical pain. It can torment us day and night and slowly drive us crazy. Sometimes silence is golden, and other times it is deadly. Take time to reflect on your pain and know that God is there with you and we are here if you need us.

Be Careful with How You Handle Your Pastor

Everyone loves to be appreciated. There is something deep in the human psyche that feeds on the kind words of others. This is true of everyone, but it can be a dangerous trap for a preacher. It can be a source of pride and arrogance. It can lead us away from God and not draw us into a deeper relationship with him.

I always enjoy hearing kind words, but let’s be clear on a few things.

1. Your pastor may work hard, but God gives the results. The Apostle Paul told the Church at Corinth that he planted the seed of the gospel, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow (1 Cor. 3:6). You may be a part of a Church that is growing, and new people are following Jesus, but it is not because of your pastor. Your pastor may be planting and watering as much as possible, but God is responsible for the growth of his Church. There is a temptation in ministry to give the preacher credit for what God is doing.

2. Your pastor may speak the truth, but his words are from God. Anything you hear that touches your heart and soul are the results of God’s Holy Spirit working in you and on you. The preacher is just a conduit to move God’s word from the written page into your life. Then God takes over and uses those words for his good. There is this temptation in ministry to give the preacher credit for what God is saying to you.

3. Your pastor may care about you, but God loves you unconditionally. Every preacher I know tries to care for the people in his Church and show them the love of Jesus. They visit, they go to the hospital, preach funerals, and they do everything in their power to care for the people God has given them to lead. These men are doing this as a reflection of the love God has shown to them. Pastors are trying to demonstrate the love God has for everyone. There is a temptation in ministry to equate the care of the pastor with the love of God.

4. You may like your pastor, but don’t build your faith on him. The most painful part of my life as a minister is watching what happens after I leave a Church. Some people stand firm in their faith, but other fall apart and quit. Usually, it is because they have come to see their preacher as the only person who could build their faith. There is this temptation in ministry to love the man of God you see every week and miss the God who holds it all together.

Temptation lies around every corner when you are a pastor. There is a temptation for a congregation to feed into the false views of religion that fuel a preacher’s ego. No Church leader in the world should be elevated above the calling God has placed on his life. He is just a pastor doing the work of God.

If you feel your pastor or preacher is a blessing to you, then thank God. Thank God for what he is doing through your preacher and ask God to keep using him. Ask God to keep the preacher firmly grounded in reality and to help us all to avoid the temptations of ministry.

I am glad to be a pastor, but I am more thankful for a God who loves us and died for us. He is the reason for you to have hope, peace, and love.

Having the Right Set of Beliefs

What you believe is extremely important.

This is true for everyone. It doesn’t matter whether you follow Jesus or claim to be an agnostic. The truths you are building your life upon are intimately wrapped up in everything you do.

1. Actions are the Result of Beliefs. You are behaving precisely as you believe. If you believe your marriage is essential, you will devote time to it. If you believe your children are your most significant work, then you will devote all your time to them. If you believe in God’s grace, you will accept forgiveness and have a clean conscience. If you believe in eternal judgment, you will spend your life preparing for it.

You are living out what you genuinely believe, even if you are not making a conscious effort to do it.

2. Wrong Actions are the Result of Wrong Believing. If you had believed that neglecting your marriage would end in divorce, you might have handled it differently. If you believed that your children would grow up far from God by your actions, you would have treated them differently. If you had believed Jesus was the eternal judge, you would have taken him more seriously. If you had truly believed that walking down that path would lead to destruction, you never would have walked down it. If you believed correctly, you would not have made that mistake, but you believed wrongly.

Your actions can be the result of wrong beliefs too. Just because you feel you are right, doesn’t mean you are correct. The Bible warns us that the heart is deceitful above all things.

The Church is a place dedicated to teaching what is right. We have a sermon on Sunday morning from the Bible; we have Sunday schools, we offer small groups and Bible studies. The Church is a place where we teach and teach and teach and then teach some more. This is not because we are a bunch of boring individuals who like to sit around and do nothing but learn. It is because we want to make sure our thoughts and behaviors align with God.

A Christian is a person who is dedicated to learning the right things to believe so that our actions will be done in a way that pleases God.

Some days are not about making a significant impact; they are about learning God’s way so that my life will be in tune with its creator. I want to know what is right and true so that I can live the life God wants me to live.

Living in the Shadow of Your Parents

Most of the people I have conversations with at Church love their parents. Sure, there are a few cases of ugliness and neglect, but most people love their parents. They speak highly of them and their influence on their life. All parents cast a long shadow over the lives of their children. Recently I noticed two reactions in the lives of people as I discussed their parents.

1.There is a tendency to embrace some issues without question. Because our parents love us, then what they taught us must have been correct. The way they disciplined us becomes the way we deal with our children. The way they handled spiritual matters becomes the way we treat spiritual issues. The list goes on and on.

This is not always easy for us to see. Sometimes it can be an attitude that gets repeated. Dad was always angry, so that is my first reaction. Mom was a loving spirit to the whole neighborhood, so I see all the people around me as friends, some of whom I just haven’t met yet. Our actions can be directly influenced by our parents but so can our attitudes.

2. There is another tendency to reject my parent’s behavior entirely. In one conversation a man told me that his father loved him but was always busy by himself. His response is to include his family, especially his kids, in everything he does. Still, another spoke of his parents’ divorce, and he vowed to never walk away from his marriage, no matter what happens.

This also can be reflected in our attitudes. My parents were this way so I will be the exact opposite. My parents made me feel this emotionally so I will make sure my children never feel this way.

Why do I tell you all of this? If this is true, there are three things you should do:

1. Do a self-examination. It will be worth your time to sit down and totally evaluate your life. Are you influenced more by God and his word than you are by your parents? That is a profoundly penetrating question. I have come to learn that many people’s treasured beliefs about issues are the result of being like their parents or being the exact opposite of them.

2. Do a spouse evaluation. If you are married, ask questions about what your spouse learned from their parents. Then compare that to what you learned from your parents. Many of the marital conflicts I see are the result of issues from the family of origin. In other words, what I learned from my parents is different from what you learned, and neither of us wants to change our views. How did your spouse’ childhood shape both his attitudes and actions?
*Note – If you are not married, you need to be sure and include this type of discussion into the process of finding a mate. (You can thank me later)

3. Keep this in mind with every person. I know this is difficult, but every person you contact is carrying their own baggage from their childhood. Their reactions may be less based on facts than personal experiences. Be sure to ask big questions and leave room for there to be differences of opinion. Some convictions have been ingrained since childhood.

As a Church leader, I am beginning to see that God shapes our lives in many ways. One significant way is through our family of origin. We need to think these issues through in our marriages, but also in all our relationships. It is possible that your experience could be different from mine and we could both be right.

Some Things I Would Tell My 8-Year-Old Self

Two months shy of my ninth birthday on the last Sunday in November 1980, I stepped up during the invitation hymn and walked down the aisle of the Church. At the front was my preacher Jack Austin and he led me through a confession of faith, prayed, and then baptized me. My brother came forward with me that day, and we both stepped into our new life at the same time. Dad met us in a little upper room the Church had behind the baptistery, and he offered us communion and prayed over us before we walked down the back hallway of the Church building into the lobby where everyone waited to greet us.

It has been almost 37 years since that day, and I still think about it regularly. It was the single most significant decision of my life. That day would propel me to Bible college where I would meet my wife who would become the mother of my children. That day led to a career in ministry where I still work today. That day changed everything and sent me down a path with Jesus.

Many of steps on this journey were expected. I knew I would spend a significant amount of time reading the Bible, attending Church and praying. I knew I would one day be a Church leader. I knew that moment would shape my family and my future. There are a few things I wish I had known back then. If I had the opportunity to go back, there are a few things I would like to tell myself to help prepare me for my life of faith.

1. Christianity is More Difficult Than You Imagine. In many ways, I thought his life would be easy. There is one book to read and one set of beliefs to understand. How hard could it possibly be? It didn’t know it would mean clinging to faith with the death of my best friend. I could not imagine the pain of leaving my parents and family behind to serve a Church full of people I didn’t know. Each new chapter of faith has ripped my soul apart while I learned what it truly meant to follow Christ alone.

2. Christians Will Greatly Disappoint You. In my childish naiveté, I only saw the good in people. I never dreamed that most of the people with whom I attend youth group would quit the faith. I could not comprehend that other Christians would one day love me and hate me the next day. Throughout my life, I have seen more people walk away from the Lord and his Church than I have seen join it. Many will want to leave with loud shouts and angry words. Prepare yourself for people to disappoint you.

3. There Will Be No Greater Joy than Christian Joy. There are no words to adequately describe the feeling of seeing your father baptize your son. One cannot put into words the moment you lead someone to the Lord. You will think your heart is going to explode when a person sees you are struggling and offers kindness and love. The journey of faith is full of heartache, but it sets us up for the overwhelming joy of experiencing life as God intended it.

4. You Will Need Grace More than You Can Know. Many times I have been on the receiving end of stressful situations, and yet more frequently I have been on the giving end. I have said the wrong thing, done the wrong thing and reacted in a godless way. I have done things in my life that I would never believe I could stoop to do. I have been ugly, mean, thoughtless, and heartless as I have sinned, failed and made enormous mistakes. The grace I accepted at 8 was far bigger than I knew I needed for my future. Cling to it for dear life.

I understand that my journey of faith is unique and I have had my own unique set of struggles. Personally, I would have wanted to know these things. It would have kept me from feeling so low in times of difficulty and eagerly awaiting the next good thing God would do. Knowing these would have helped me back then, I know that because they help me in my faith even now.

How I Come Up with Sermon Ideas

Yesterday I started a new sermon series entitled “Attack of the Giant Leeches.” I really didn’t know how to feel when some of my friends and colleagues posted their sermons series for the weekend. Many of them had titles like Philippians, 2 Thessalonians, Acts of the Church and Exodus. Frequently I feel like my approach to preaching and ministry is less spiritual than most pastors would choose. At moments like these, I want to give a little explanation of why and how I arrive at the material I preach.

1. Focusing on Needs. I start my sermon planning process by discovering the needs of the people in this world, this community, and this Church at this moment. These needs may be deeply spiritual to very practical. Once I arrive at a list of possible needs then I ask myself, “If someone were to walk into my office wanting to know more about one of these subjects, what would I tell them?” For example, I might pick a single passage to explain to them, or I might pick three various scriptures that help us to understand the issue and some action steps.

2. The Lord’s Leading. After I have developed a list of the needs I see that need addressed, then I ask God to guide me into the 10-12 primary needs that need to be developed into sermons this year. Many times, a topic may be placed in the file and not used until a year or two down the road. This process includes prayer, web searching, and just good old-fashioned thinking. I feel the Lord leading me in numerous ways through this process to make a plan for the year.

3. Creative Ingredients. This is where I start to take a right turn from many guys. I could just preach a sermon on relationships or marriage, but I want to add a little creativity. This year I have preached on “My Crazy Family” and “Attack of the Giant Leeches.” To me, these add a little bit of fun and intrigue. I usually do not pick a title like “Mark,” but call it “Encounters with Christ.” I rarely chose the plain or a creative spin in a title.

4. Making On-Ramps. I like to keep all series under ten weeks. This creates an opportunity for Church members to invite new people on a regular basis. Next year I am going to preach on Jesus and follow that with a series on Acts. I am making them two entirely separate series so that with each new start there is an “on-ramp” for people to join the Church. More and shorter series help people to bring their friends to Church and for anyone else to join us too.

5. Personal Preference. This is pretty basic, but I only preach sermon series that I would want to attend. If a title or topic holds no interest to me, then I imagine it will not generate excitement in other people. I know this might seem shallow, but it is a final question I keep in mind.

These are the pieces of the process it takes for me to come up with a sermon series. It might not be like a lot of other Churches or ministers, and that is okay. I am in no way saying that my approach is the best. Each preacher and Church needs to find what works for them and this is the method that works for me.

I hope you learn and grow from what I do each week, even if it seems a little weird at times.