Bye, Bye, Bye! Thoughts on 2022

If you know the song, you’re probably humming or singing it. That short segment is how I feel about 2022. It hasn’t been a horrible year, but it has had its challenges. In saying bye to 2022, I’m ready to say hello to several things.

In saying bye to financial difficulty, I’m saying hello to better stewardship. The financial challenges of 2022 prepared me for a lot of things I did not foresee, but I would not have chosen it.

In wanting to say bye to church challenges, I want to say hello to greater wisdom and endurance because ministry cannot be without challenges.

I want to say bye to a lack of diligence in some areas and say hello to doing the hard things when I don’t want to do them.

Did you notice how my wording changed for each one? Sometimes we want an ideal, but our flesh resists the effort we must put forth to put bad habits to death and form good ones.

Many of you will face that crossroads in the new year. What will you do when you get there? Will you say bye, or will say hello? Make sure you say bye and hello to the right things…My 2023 challenge to you!

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year?

Christmas has always considered magical by children and adults alike. Between the Hallmark movies and other means of commercialization (not to mention the song whose title is the same at this blog post), we have idealized this season into becoming something that isn’t always true. For some, this isn’t the most wonderful time of the year.

That was the case for me 9 years ago. I resigned my first pastorate on the Sunday before Thanksgiving (not what I had planned to do that day after only being 11 months in), and all hell bombarded me within 24 hours. Part of the reason I resigned was that my marriage of 13 years was coming to a close. My “most wonderful time of the year” turned into me packing up my wife at that time to move out of the parsonage, me a few weeks later packing my personal belongings to return to South Carolina, me quickly transitioning from pastor to nobody, our family becoming the talk of the town of 117 people, and me to returning to the lonely parsonage on Christmas night, wishing either the Rapture or death would take me that night. It took many years of healing before I would no longer hate this season. I didn’t hate Christ and the true meaning of Christmas, but the dates on the calendar reminded me of things in my life that died. I still shed tears during this season, but they are now tears from a grateful heart that I survived.

You may be reading this, and you can identify with the holiday pain. Maybe this season reminds you of loved ones who won’t be at the table for Christmas. Maybe it’s the pain of divorce or an estrangement from a family member. I would like to say some cliche things like “it gets easier” or “you’ll get over it”, but you won’t. It will become part of your story, and you will be able to help others and empathize with them in their pain.

I pray that you will share the sentiment I share – that Jesus is sweeter to you now than He has ever been. Even if this time isn’t so wonderful, God can give you grace in this journey. Please know that I am available to pray for you. You don’t have to walk this road along. Feel free to drop a comment below so I can be praying for you during this difficult time. That’s what the body of Christ is for!

General Christian Anesthesia

For anyone who is reading this and has had surgery, you have probably been under general anesthesia. It certainly beats the alternative – feeling the pain as the scalpel cuts into your skin and moves to cut more. Then come the feelings of the area being stapled or sewn back together. And I didn’t mention the pain that lingers after the surgery. Either you have an extremely high pain tolerance, or you need general anesthesia.

What about emotional pain? While surgery has a specific type of medication that is used for general anesthesia, we use a plethora of things to anesthetize emotional pain. Alcohol, toxic relationships, pornography, and gambling are among the many things we use to dull emotional pain. In medicine, general anesthesia is a temporary thing that is used while a root cause of a medical problem is being removed. The aforementioned things to dull emotional pain don’t get close to touching the root. In fact, these things cause more problems.

I believe many of you can relate to this. Maybe you used some “general anesthesia” to deal with the pain of divorce. Maybe you used it because you were struggling with the after effects of trauma related to sexual abuse, the loss of a loved one, or the devastating loss of a career. You wanted some relief – a distraction from the emotional pain of something you couldn’t control. These things will only provide temporary relief when we avoid the painful work of addressing the root cause.

I have found in my life that there is such a thing as “Christian anesthesia”. You may ask, “Matthew, what is that?” It can be in the forms of listening to worship music to drown out the noise caused by your root problem, which could be a “root of bitterness” as described in Hebrews 12 that grew from unaddressed emotional pain. Maybe your Christian anesthesia is in the form of listening to sermons or hanging out with other Christians who will help you avoid rather than address your problem. We often use Christian noise because we are afraid of what God will reveal to us in the silence.

Please take advice from someone who has a Ph.D. in avoiding emotional pain – Talk to someone who will help you process the pain and call you out on your bad habits. Even as a victim of someone else’s sin, we can develop horrible coping strategies post-trauma.

My friend, are you anesthetizing, or are you working through your pain? If your answer is the former, I pray you see where that is going and find the strength to get the help you need. This brother in Christ is cheering you on!

A Stranger in My Own Land

I came to Seneca, SC in August 2009 after a very challenging season of ministry. The initial church I served here called me at a 98 percent vote to be their Minister of Music and Education. After I heard several times at the previous church that they only hired me because they were desperate, it felt good to be called to a place where I was wanted. Not to say that everyone in the previous church didn’t want me, but it was a different feel.

During my first 3 1/4 years in Seneca, I felt like I was at home for the first time in years. It was nice. God blessed the music and discipleship ministries of the church, and I left on a very high note. Little did I know I would return to Seneca a year later, but under the most hellacious circumstances of my life. The first year back in Seneca was what I needed, but things greatly changed.

Over the last several years, I began to feel dislocated in a place that once felt like home. This feeling has increased even more since I work in a different county and pastor a church in another different county. I jokingly tell people I come home to Seneca just to sleep.

As I sat in Seneca Baptist Church for the high school chorus concert on Tuesday, it felt so strange. I saw a few familiar faces. These were people from some of the same circles in which I used to run. We don’t share the commonalities anymore. We are in different seasons of life, and that is okay.

One thing came to mind that night – I’m not a citizen of this world. This is just my temporary residence. Philippians 3 reminds me that my citizenship is in Heaven. I’m just a sojourner passing through a world to which I will not relate because Christ has changed me. Just a little while (which could be another 40+ years), I will take my heavenly flight.

Fellow Christian, do you feel out of place? If yes, that’s normal. You will be a misfit, struggling to find your place. Your place is not here. You are seated with Christ in the heavenly places. Make the most of this temporary assignment until that sweet day when you see Jesus face to face. The tension between the two worlds will be worth it all.

Not the Path I Would Have Chosen (Part 1…Maybe)

I am always blown away by the people who have the “picture perfect life.” They make good grades all through school, go on to college with scholarships, take out little to no student loans, land a high-paying job fresh out of college, get married, buy a nice house, have 1-2 children, and appear to manage everything perfectly. Needless to say, that’s not me. “Not the path I would have chosen” might be a great title for my autobiography.

The path I would have chosen looks something like this – my current degrees (maybe add a doctorate) minus the student loan debt, having the perfect little family with a few kids, and maybe 1-2 pastorates that grew and thrived. While I wish life would have taken these turns, there are days when I struggle accept what is versus the life “I” planned. God didn’t want me to take a few of the turns I took, but He still uses me despite that.

When I started to type, I planned something different than how this will end. I believe God wants me to drive home the reality that He does not throw us away after one or even multiple wrong turns in life. Scripture is full of these stories. Peter, the man who denied Jesus 3 times, was the man God used to preach the gospel in Acts 2 and multitudes were saved. If denying Christ 3 times won’t take you out of the game, what will?

May I remind you that He who began the good work in you will be faithful to complete it (Philippians 1:6)? Life may not have turned out the way you planned, but it’s not over! May this song encourage you!

Pastor Appreciation

Pastor Appreciation Month is about to come to a close. I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge some pastors who have been instrumental in my journey.

When I was growing up in the United Methodist Church, Paul Kube, Bill Clarke, Milford Rollins, and Karen Whitehurst were extremely key in the early years. They gave me opportunities as a young man that most churches would not. I became a paid choir director at age 15 and preached my first church sermon at age 16. While I went a different direction theologically, I will always be grateful for their contribution in my life.

Pastor Lynn Hardaway was the first Baptist pastor that didn’t repulse me. He was my grandparents’ pastor, and he gave me the opportunity to use my musical and preaching ability there at the church. It was the first time I ever saw Baptists happy.

Pastor John Pritchard gave me my first church role as a Baptist. He and the people of Calvary were beyond good to me. I was so young and green, but I’ll be forever grateful for the opportunity I had.

Pastor Jim Melton was my next pastor. Although this was an interim role, he modeled humility and steadfastness despite some horrible attacks upon him. His love and kindness remains to this day.

Pastor John Hamilton gave me a chance at a church that was a dream come true. The building was 2 years old when I got there, and was everything a choir director could have wanted. Although he left rather quickly after I got there, I’m thankful he saw some potential in me and was willing to have a hard conversation that brought me out of my shell.

Pastor Ben Glosson…there’s a lot I can say! Anyone who knows him knows he has a rough exterior. I was one among many staff members who didn’t see eye to eye with him, but he entrusted his pulpit to me roughly 75 times over a 6-year period. I don’t take that lightly, and I praise God for the opportunities to grow as a preacher of the gospel.

Pastor John McKnight gave me tremendous liberty and the opportunity to obey the Holy Spirit as a worship leader. He never micromanaged me but often encouraged me. When I was at a low place in my life, John called me to serve and experience some awesome days in music ministry.

Pastors Lynn Hardaway and John Pritchard later became two pastors who helped me navigate the path forward as a divorced and remarried guy in ministry. These guys were fundamental in the early months as I was a deer in headlights. Pastors Steve Roberson and Randy Burbank were among others who cheered me on. These guys are living proof that God doesn’t throw the clay away.

Pastor James Gibson was the first pastor who took a chance on me when I returned to music ministry as a guy headed for divorce. He assured me that I was not “uncalled” and gave me many opportunities to preach. He and the people of Maranatha were just what I needed.

Pastor Jimmy Boggs has been a long time friend. He gave me a second opportunity to serve alongside him, the second time with him as the senior pastor. Jimmy is a high-energy innovator who is all about the second chance. His friendship is also a blessing to this day.

Pastors Josh Ratliff, Mark Wilson, and Tim Engelsman were the best during my days in the Wesleyan church. I never got to serve with Josh, but he was a friend when I needed it most. I did, however, get to serve with Mark and Tim. They all affirmed my call to ministry and let me know that the best is yet to come.

I could go on and on with other names. Some of these have popped in and out over the years. Guys like Andy McDaniel, Tim Tate, and Alan Bagwell who gave me a chance to preach during my lean years when others tossed me to the side. Men like Clarence Dalrymple who will call just to check in and are available for wise counsel. And I definitely can’t leave out Dustin Hutto. He was a choir member and friend before he was ever a pastor. I have never laughed so hard with another pastor in all my life. He has been a friend through thick and thin.

Which pastor(s) has God used in your life? Give a shout-out to God for using these individuals in your growth.

People Are Cray-Cray!

When I first surrendered to the call to ministry as a teenager, I had grand and glorious ideas. I imagined that people would flock to me as I would have all the answers. They would all love me, and everything would be great. It didn’t take long for reality to set in. I quickly discovered people are cray-cray.

The Bible is full of stories where people were at their worst. Moses broke a tablet because he was so angry with those crazy Israelites. Jesus turned tables in the temple because of crazy money changers. Our Lord spoke above the multitudes and their craziness, describing them as sheep having no shepherd. People are going to act crazy, especially when they have no relationship with Christ. Believers, outside the will of God, will even act crazy.

What do we do with this craziness? Jesus was moved with compassion, as recorded in Matthew 9. We should also be moved with compassion, remembering that people most often don’t know better.

While I deal with a fair share of crazy, God, help me see them through Your eyes. May I be patient with them like You are with me. In the mighty name of Jesus, Amen!

Meeting with God on the Side of the Road

Anyone who knows me knows I love to travel on back roads. Over the last few years, back roads have become much more calming. The additional time does not matter to me. I adjust my schedule accordingly so I can enjoy my travel. I spend a good bit of time on the road, but I didn’t think I would meet with God on the side of the road a few days ago.

As I shared in a recent post, life has been a bit hectic for me as I started a new job in August. In addition to that, I pastor a small church and am husband and dad to a good sized family. Overwhelmed is an understatement. As I was returning home on Sunday evening, I decided to pull over on the side of Highway 11 near Pickens, South Carolina to talk to the Lord while I gave upon His majestic creation. They created a nice little place for about 5 cars to park. I sat on one of the two benches and just quieted my heart.

As I wrap up this post, I want to end with the lyrics to stanza 2 of “How Great Thou Art” along with a picture of the beauty I saw as I poured my heart out to the Lord. I pray that you will take some time out this week to “behold the beauty of the Lord”.

When thru the woods and forest glades I wander
And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees,
When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur
And hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze,

Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee;
How great Thou art, how great Thou art!
Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee;
How great Thou art, how great Thou art!

The Spiritual Gas Station

Since I have been back in the pastorate, I have been reminded of how important it is to go to the spiritual gas station. You may ask, “What do you mean by that, Matthew?” As one who is always dispensing ministry, I have to have my tank filled. So I have a spiritual gas station routine.

I began this Sunday morning spiritual gas station routine about 2 months ago. A rather intense season of life landed me sick in bed for about a week. I had to take the Sunday off because I was too sick to preach. During that time, the Spirit of God led me to watch a church I have not watched in years. There are three perks to watching this: they still have a choir (the kind that actually knows how to lead in worship rather than entertain or fill up service time), the preaching is biblical and lively, and they have an 8:30 am service I can listen to live on the way to church every Sunday.

This morning, I was able to catch most of the sermon. This afternoon, I decided to get a second helping of the service and catch the entire sermon. Good thing my daughter was in the car because she picked up on 3 important points. I would like to share those with you: Don’t compete! Don’t compare! Don’t complain!

As a pastor, I needed to hear don’t compete! I’m not the competitive type, but it’s easy to get discouraged by all the pastors I see who make everything a competition. It can be simultaneously discouraging and annoying.

I also needed to hear the words “Don’t compare!” This is the most discouraging part. I see the highlight reels of all these pastors. Some days, I just want to remove them all from my social media or delete my own social media. The enemy loves to use that against me, whispering into my ear that I’m a washed up bivocational pastor who isn’t successful like these others. I definitely don’t have the time and energy these other guys do who don’t have a full-time job to worry about nor a large family. They have the means to live near their church and work their own schedule without feeling guilty for having to scrap up what time they have left to minister to others after working 40 hours somewhere else. God knows I’m giving it my best shot, and thankfully I’m not called to be like these others. While I wish I had the results they have, it is what it is! God is speaking loudly, “Matthew, quit comparing!”

Don’t complain! I needed this reminder too. It’s easy to have a pity party of one. No one else wants to attend and hear it. I tend to complain after I compare. It’s no fun! I have always said that complaining make the complainer and the one who has to endure listening to it miserable.

I’m glad I fueled up again today. I don’t just need it on Sundays. I need it daily. The truth is you need daily refuelings at the spiritual gas station. Make spiritual nourishment a priority! You can’t afford to skip it!

I Can’t Believe People Still Read This Thing

I have been on somewhat of a writing hiatus. This has not been on purpose, but circumstances have necessitated it. Between a new job I started in August and the challenges of ministry and family, my writing creativity has been dry. The thing that blows my mind is that people still read this blog.

It’s crazy how often we feel forgotten. We get out of touch with those we love because life circumstances don’t allow us to cross paths anymore. We feel like we are off the map to everyone, and it sometimes feels like God has even forgotten us.

Dear friend, people will forget you, but God won’t! Just when you think you’re down here doing your best and trying to make a difference in the world to no avail, let this verse of Scripture bring you back to reality –“For God is not unjust to forget your work and labor of love which you have shown toward His name, in that you have ministered to the saints, and do minister” (Hebrews‬ ‭6‬:‭10‬).

Times are getting crazier, and the world seems to feel a lot more lonely. If you are a follower of Christ, this is not your home. You have something to look forward to! If you have yet to trust Christ, eternity is not a toy with which to play. Follow Christ today!