Thursday, January 31, 2019

My Personal Testimony - Next to the last sermon before retirement

Scripture Lesson                                                              Philippians 3:8-12

More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. 10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

12 Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.

This is my next to the last sermon that I will preach before I retire.  I was struggling with what to preach this week.  I’ve already written my last sermon, but that is for next week. 

Which left me wondering for the past few days, what do I preach today?

So I decided to do something a little different today.  I thought I might share my personal testimony. 

I grew up in the faith.  I was baptized as a child and never knew a time when Christ was not part of my life.  Some of my earliest memories involve my Dad reading Bible stories to me and my sisters.  Going to church was always part of my life. 

Which I guess makes my testimony a bit on the dull side.  There was no near death experience for me.  I was not an alcoholic or drug addict who turned his life around to sobriety by finding Christ.  I have always been a Christian.

There was, however, a time in my life when I became more passionate about my faith. 

My high school chemistry teacher and I were meeting after school one day – it was probably related to the time I almost blew up the chemistry lab.  Which by the way, was not my fault.  She was the one who gave me the chemicals and she should have known better.  Besides, the fire was not that big.

But I digress. 

For whatever reason, I was meeting with her after school and she handed me a modern translation of the New Testament and asked me if I wanted it.  I did, and took it home and began to read it. 

I read the Book of Matthew in one sitting.  I was amazed by it.  It was the first time I had a glimpse of the whole Gospel in its entirety.  Up until then, I had read a verse here and there, or a small passage here and there.  But having read the entire book of Matthew was the difference between looking at a single piece of a jigsaw puzzle, and looking at the whole picture on the box.  Everything Jesus said began to make sense in a way that it never had before.

And that was when I became passionate about my faith.

Not long after that, while I was still in high school, I decided to drop by the church and see our pastor and let him know that I felt that God was calling me to enter the ministry.  I knew what he would say.  He would look at me and say, “Praise the Lord, my son.” 

And then he would give me some wonderful advice on what college to go to, what to major in, and how to prepare myself for the ministry.

So I arrived at the church, walked into his office and told him I wanted to be a minister, and waited for him to say, “Praise the Lord, my son.”

Reverend Keith looked at me and said, “What the hell do you want to do something stupid like that for?”

It was not the response I expected.  He then went on to say, “All day long, people come into your office and complain, complain, complain.”  Actually, the word he used was a bit more profane than “complain.”

I left his office stunned that day.  After all, ministers weren’t supposed to use language like that.  I was totally confused by his response. 

Obviously I ignored the advice of my high school pastor and, in his words, did a stupid thing by entering the ministry.  Why did I do that? 

Because I felt called to.

It is a spiritual mystery – this business of discerning God’s call.  And it is a dangerous thing.  I have often heard people say, “God is telling me to do this, or that.”  And as their pastor I sometimes feel that what they are saying is, “This is what I want to do, but I’m going to put God’s name on it so you won’t argue with me.”

Years ago I lived in Miami.  John was an elder in the church and he operated a very successful business.  Mary was a church member and was unemployed.  She made an appointment to see John and told him, “God has told me to come here and that you would give me a job.”

John looked at Mary and said, “That’s strange.  God told me to tell you to go somewhere else and get a job.”

Both John and Mary told me that story from different perspectives.

It is hard to discern God’s will, and to separate it from what we want.
Looking back, I had no great gift for ministry when I was in high school. 

In fact, I hated the thought of speaking in public. 

Last week we had Youth Sunday and I have to tell you the kids did great.  They stood up and led worship with great confidence. 

That was not me at their age.  In fact, I was afraid of speaking in public.  And by speaking in public, I defined that as speaking to any group that included more than 3 people.  I decided I needed to overcome it, so I auditioned for a school play.  Much to my dismay, I got the lead part.

I remember very clearly standing on the stage and I had the first lines.  The whole school was in the audience, my parents my friends!  My heart was pounding.  My legs felt as weak as jelly.  I knew I was about to die.  My heart couldn’t take it, and I would collapse at any moment.  Teachers would gather around me and try to restart my heart, but they would fail.  For generations, high school seniors would greet incoming high school freshmen by saying, “See that corner of the stage, that’s where that kid died.  Dropped dead right there.” 

I mean, how embarrassing would that be?

But I got through the play, and somehow I still felt God was calling me to enter the ministry and to speak in front of people.

God’s will – it is a tough thing to discern.

I finished high school and moved onto college.  Throughout college I felt open to the possibility of being a minister, but I was not totally committed to the idea – I just open to it.  My wife and I met in college and we were married at about the time we were graduating.  Not knowing what to do with my future, I got a job as a counselor with the state prison system in South Carolina.  For two years I continued to pray, and sometimes agonize, over whether to enter the ministry or not. 

Moses heard his call when he saw the burning bush.  He literally heard the voice of God.  My call to ministry was like very much like that. 

Except without the fire. 

And without the bush. 

And without actually hearing the voice of God. 

Actually, my call was nothing like that of Moses.

I walking in the neighborhood at night, praying the same prayer I had prayed for years – that God would guide me and give me an answer.  And suddenly ----  I just felt sure.  I just felt a certainty.

So I told my pastor, Rev. Beckham, that I felt called to enter the ministry.  I knew what he would say, because I had heard Rev. Keith say it to me when I was in high school.  “Why do you want to do something stupid like that for?”  Instead, Rev. Beckham said, “Praise the Lord.  The first step is to meet with the Session and they happen to be meeting tomorrow night.”

So the next night I met with the Session.  The voted to sponsor me as a candidate for ministry.  When I asked what the second step might be, one of the elders spoke up and said, “The next step is to meet with a committee of the Presbytery, and I happen to be a member of that committee and they meet tomorrow night.”

So the next night I met with the presbytery committee and they voted approval of me.  They asked me when I might go to seminary and I said that because it was late August, I probably missed the admission deadline and would wait a year.  One of the members of the presbytery committee said that he happened to be on the admissions board of the seminary and that they were having their final meeting tomorrow night.  He thought if I got my application in by the next morning, I might be able to get the last spot.

So I did, and within two weeks, my wife and I were moving to the seminary. 

There is a Presbyterian saying that we discern God’s will with the help of the community, and for me the community helped me to feel a certainty about entering the ministry.

I loved my time in the seminary.  I had great professors and great classes.  Every Sunday I had the opportunity to preach in a different church.  Some of them were huge churches with hundreds of people in attendance.  Most were small, country churches.  Some of you know my wife is a musician, and she learned early on to carry sheet music with her for the prelude, postlude and offering.  Many times we would arrive at the church and the person greeting us would ask me, “Does your wife play the piano,” and I would say she did, and he would say, “Good, we can having signing this Sunday.”  I also learned that when he said “singing,” that often meant I would be signing a solo in front of a tiny congregation.

One of the churches I where I was a guest preacher in my last semester of seminary was in Sumter, South Carolina.  Faith Presbyterian Church.  I knew from the first moment that I walked into that church, God was calling me to be their pastor.

Unfortunately, God did not tell that to the pastor search committee.  They called someone else. 

But -- That person turned them down.  And I knew that it was because he wasn’t called to that church, I was. 

And then the pastor search committee called someone else!  And again, that person turned them down. 

And so it went until one day, the Dean of the Seminary called me into his office and told me that Faith Presbyterian Church was calling Bryant.  The dean said, “Look Maynard, I know you have your heart set on Faith Presbyterian Church but you need to apply elsewhere.  They are inviting Bryant to be their pastor and he is in trouble in his ministry and he has to take anything that comes along.” 

I know the Dean of the Seminary thought I was arrogant when I told him that I was still confident that I was to be the pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church.

A few days later, Bryant turned down the call to serve Faith Presbyterian.  Finally, after scrapping the bottom of the barrel and coming up empty, the pastor search committee agreed to call me - an inexperienced seminary graduate -- to be their pastor.

I have to tell you, it was not an easy pastorate.  There were many times I thought lovingly and fondly of my high school pastor, Reverend Keith, who, when I told him I wanted to be a minister, responded by telling me that was a stupid thing to do. 

My Dad thought it was funny that the name of my clerk of session was Joe Hatfield, and that my church treasurer was named Alice McCoy.  Hatfield and McCoys – like the infamous feuding families from West Virginia and Kentucky in the late 1800s.  I didn’t think it was that funny later, when I found out that even in the church people have feuds and fights.  Sometimes, in the church, people fight dirty.

The first time I was held at gun point was in that first pastorate. 

There have been a few times in my ministry when I have been held at gun point.  I’m not sure I ever expected that when I was ordained, but the first time was there at Faith Presbyterian Church.  Bob came to my office one day.  I knew he was a bit off and I felt a bit uneasy with him.  I was the only one on staff of that little church and we were alone in the office, just me and Bob.  He told me about how his wife had left him.  He then explained that he had tried to kill his wife the week before.  His plan was to take her out for dinner and dancing, and he insisted that she where her best jewelry.  He drove from Sumter to Columbia, a larger city about an hour or so away.  But instead of taking her dancing, he drove to the sleaziest, most crime ridden part of Columbia, opened her car door and pushed her out of the car and drove off.  He left her there, thinking that surely someone would rob and kill her. They didn’t.  People rushed around her, took care of her, and drove her to her parent’s house. 

I am listening to this story wondering if Bob is confessing his sin to his pastor, or if he is looking for advice from his pastor about how he could come up with a more effective plan on how to kill his wife. 

Now as it happened the church was right next door to a country store where all sorts of criminal activity took place.  The police would raid the place from time to time and they chose that moment for their latest raid.  Several police cars rushed to the store next door, and my office window gave us a great view of the police lights and the armed police officers rushing the building.

Bob stood up and pulled a gun on me and said, “I can’t believe it, you called the police on me.”

Knowing that Bob was more than a little unstable, I didn’t try to reason with him.  Instead I said, “I didn’t call the cops.  Hey, I bet your wife did.  Quick, you go out the back door and I’ll hold off the cops at the front door.”

Bob went out the back door, I went out the front door, and I went home for the day. 

That first church was a challenging church.  I lacked experience.  There were always new challenges.  The church never had enough money – and believe me, no church ever does.  Many times, the church treasurer had to call me and tell me that the church couldn’t pay my full salary for the month, and I had to settle with what they could come up with. 

Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthians, reviewed his ministry.  He rattled off a list of intense experiences.

Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters”…  and on and on.

Now obviously, I’ve not had those experiences.  But every pastor has experienced challenges that have been difficult and demanding.

We do funerals, and they are sometimes very difficult.  I remember years ago a husband killed his wife, and then committed suicide.  I had to do both funerals.  But they were not the most difficult.  I recall doing the funeral for a 3 year old child.  At the time, my own son was only 3 years old.  The sight of that tiny casket will stay with me forever.

All pastors have experiences in which a church suffers a crisis – whether it is a hurricane devasting the community or a terrible crime in the neighborhood such as a mass killing. 

The greatest challenge facing the pastor is always Alexander, the Metal Worker. 

When Paul wrote his second letter to Timothy, he wrote, “Alexander the metal worker did me great harm; the Lord will pay him back for his deeds. 15 You also must beware of him, for he strongly opposed our message.” 

Every church has an Alexander the Metal worker.  These are people who stir up trouble in the congregation.  They undermine the pastor and slander him or her with untrue gossip. 

The Apostle Paul had them.  So did the Apostle John.  In John’s third letter in the New Testament, he wrote, “I have written something to the church; but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. 10 So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing in spreading false charges against us.”

In another letter in the New Testament, Paul wrote about two particular contentious people.  “their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus... They are upsetting the faith of some.”

And such people do upset the faith of some.

Every church has these people.  Even here at Grace Covenant.  It only takes one, or two.  Such people are the greatest impairment to the church’s growth.  A few months ago, I visited one of the members of our church who no longer attends, and she said she was tired of one person always bad mouthing the pastor, the session and the youth programs. 

My approach has always been to treat such folks with love and respect, and when necessary to share the struggle with the elders. 

But there is always something in the ministry – just like any walk in life that God calls each of you to.

What sustained me in that church and throughout my ministry was the awareness that I was doing what God called me to do.

And that is what sustains all Christians no matter what their walk in life may be.

I have enjoyed being a pastor.  In spite of the warnings that my high school pastor gave me, and in spite of the ever present Alexander the Metal Workers,  I think it is the best job in the world. 

As pastor, I get to stand in front of couples and pronounce that they are married, declaring that they are now husband and wife.  Later, when they have difficulties, they come to me and share their most private struggles.  I take their children and hold them and pour water on their head baptizing them in the name of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  And sometimes I have the honor of being with them and holding a person’s had as he or she takes one last breath. And after death has come, I get to do the funeral and remind everyone of the hope we have in the resurrection, and to be with their loved ones as they grieve for days, months, and years. 

Being a pastor is a marvelous life. And I feel blessed that God called me to this life. 

I often feel I have the most meaningful, worthwhile life.  But all of us who follow God’s call – no matter what that call may be – are blessed to live worthwhile lives.  What better life is there than to live a life in God’s will?


I admitted at the onset of my testimony today that my testimony lacks the drama of someone who had a vision of Christ during a wartime battle, or who overcame alcoholism, or who saw a burning bush.  But the common thread in all good testimonies is that we seek God’s call for our lives, and we live out God’s will. 

I would hope that is your own testimony as well.  Whatever your call has been in life, that you have sought to know and to do God’s will. 

What better life is there than to live a life in God’s will?

And now unto God the Father,
God the Son,
And God the Holy Spirit be ascribed all might, power, dominion and glory, today and forever, Amen.
Copyright 2019. 
Dr. W. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved

Ministers may feel free to use some or all of this sermon in their own ministries as long as they do not publish in print or on the Internet without ascribing credit to the author.the author.