Church Outlaws

            My wife’s family loves Westerns.  In fact, the first time I went to Mary’s house the first thing I noticed was the rather large print of John Wayne above the TV.  So, as you can imagine, I’ve watched my share of gun-slinging cinema.  Probably the classic Western is one in which the band of outlaws comes into town every so often and shoots it up, drinking and carousing and having their way.  The town sheriff might have the authority as the law, but he can’t face the outlaws by himself.  In typical Western movie build-up, the final shoot-out of the film has the town folk convinced to quit hiding in their homes and businesses.  The outlaws come into town thinking they will have their way again, but this time the people are ready with rifles on their roof tops, and a plan to bring them down to size.  It works, and the town once again restores law and order, having found their courage to not only survive in the Old West, but to thrive.
            Christian pastors are some of the loneliest people on earth.  They’re that way because far too many congregations are like the old Western town folk.  They don’t have the gumption to stand up to the church outlaws.  So, they let their sheriff get shot in the street by the bad guys while they cower in fear behind the bar.
            No pastor can stand alone.  He/she needs the strong support of church members who will stand with that pastor when the outlaws ride into church on their high horse.  When individual church members have had their way with a congregation for too long, they use every trick in the book (even trying to use the Bible for their backup) to keep the status quo because the way things are keeps them in power.
            Make no mistake about it, keeping power is what the outlaws want.  They will appeal to the fact that:  they are charter members; they give more money than anybody else; they did a certain ministry for decades; they know what the congregation is really thinking and feeling; and, they’ve seen pastors come and go and they’re still there.  Therefore, you should always listen to them and do what they say.
            Never mind that the church outlaws have never led another person to Jesus Christ (even though they’ll tell you how to do it).  Never mind that they don’t read their Bibles (even though they’ll let you know how many thousands of sermons they’ve heard over the years).  Never mind that they don’t worship God as a lifestyle (even though they’ll fight to the end over what a worship service is supposed to be like).
            If you’re reading this right now, chances are that you are not one of the church outlaws.  That’s because church outlaws are never learners and growers in Christ – they are only power-brokers in the church system.  This is precisely why you need to support your local sheriff and get that rifle out and head for the roof top.  If you don’t, the outlaws will keep throwing their bluster and weight around to get what they want.  And what will get lost in it all is God’s kingdom getting extended to the people who need it the most, and God’s will done on earth, as it is done in heaven.
            What’s at stake is not only your church’s reputation, but your community’s need for Jesus Christ.  Church outlaws don’t need to hold your congregation hostage.  Conflict in and of itself is not bad – it’s how you go about it.  But leaving a pastor out in the street to be hung by the outlaw mob in the name of keeping the peace is very bad and is not at all becoming of a faithful follower of Christ.  Not to mention that God himself will take notice of it if we refuse to act.

 

            Seek out your pastor.  Listen well to him/her.  Hear their heart for the church, and for the community.  Ask them how you can help.  And determine to stand with them when the outlaws ride into town.

Pray for Your Pastor

 
 
 Obey your leaders and do what they say. They are watching over you, and they must answer to God. So don’t make them sad as they do their work. Make them happy. Otherwise, they won’t be able to help you at all” (Hebrews 13:17, Contemporary English Version).
 
“Obey your spiritual leaders, and do what they say. Their work is to watch over your souls, and they are accountable to God.Give them reason to do this with joy and not with sorrow. That would certainly not be for your benefit” (Hebrews 13:17, New Living Translation).
 
“Be responsive to your pastoral leaders. Listen to their counsel. They are alert to the condition of your lives and work under the strict supervision of God. Contribute to the joy of their leadership, not its drudgery. Why would you want to make things harder for them?” (Hebrews 13:17, The Message)
 
A survey on American clergy by the Schaeffer Institute found some of the following information:
·         90% of pastors report working between 55-75 hours per week.
·         70% of pastors constantly fight depression.
·         50% of pastors feel so discouraged that they would leave the ministry if they had another job lined-up right away.
·         80% of pastors believe church ministry has negatively affected their families.
·         80% of pastoral spouses feel lonely and underappreciated by church members.
·         40% of pastors report serious conflict with a parishioner at least once a month.
·         50% of pastors starting out will not last five years.
·         Only 10% of pastors will actually retire as pastors.
·         Over 1,700 pastors leave the ministry every month in the United States; 1,300 of them are fired by their churches.
·         The number one reason pastors leave the ministry is that church people are not willing to go the same direction and support the goal of the pastor; pastors believe God wants them to go in one direction but the people are not willing to follow.
 
Speaking as a pastor, the one thing I want every single church member to know about me is this:  Your prayer support is my life support.  Without regular, earnest, sustained, fervent, and constant prayers sent for me and my family, no matter how hard I labor or how much I work the ministry will go nowhere.  But with habitual and spirited prayer, even the most anemic weaknesses can be transcended and the church can grow with thriving health and joy.
 
Lift up prayers for your pastor today and every day, appealing to God concerning these things:
            P rotection from the enemy
            R est
            A nointing of the Spirit
            Y ielded heart to God
            E ffectiveness in ministry

 

            Righteous life of integrity

Christian Soulcraft

 
           The word “soulcraft” might conjure different images in your mind.  I am not talking about a boat or a bike.  I am neither making reference about a video game nor a corporation.  I am not referring to any avant garde religious expression.  Rather, I put the two words “soul” and “craft” together to highlight the importance of what a solid pastoral ministry does for Christians.  Sometimes the metrics we use in the church to determine its effectiveness and impact has more to do with budgets, attendance, and building maintenance than it does with the careful crafting of souls into the image of Jesus.  We must become adept in the church at patiently and tediously constructing souls.  Caring for the spiritual needs of people ought to be high on the list of priorities for every church ministry.  It is a constant work in progress.
 
            Just as the term implies, caring for souls is a special craft that one tries to constantly improve.  Pastors and church leaders never come to the point of ceasing to need continuous training, education, and experience in the business of crafting souls that are bent toward Christ’s kingdom values.  Throughout the history of the church much attention has been given to the care of souls.  Early church fathers such as Gregory the Great took great pains to describe the pastor’s work as offering moral and spiritual guidance to both churched and unchurched persons.  The Reformation teaching of the priesthood of all believers is a special emphasis upon every Christian’s privilege and responsibility to intercede and help others toward spiritual growth and health. 
 
            In 1656, Puritan preacher Richard Baxter wrote a book, The Reformed Pastor,which set the standard of pastoral care for generations.  In his work, Baxter elaborated on seven functions of dealing with the souls of people:  converting the unconverted; giving advice to inquirers; building up the believers; shepherding the families in the parish community; visiting the sick and dying; reproving the impenitent; and, exercising church discipline.  All these functions are designed to do the pedantic work of crafting and forming souls.  It is often not glamorous high impact work; it is humble nitty-gritty ministry which typically goes unnoticed by many because it is a slow process over time.
 
            The many references to “one another” in the New Testament point toward the spiritual dynamic that needs to take place for souls to thrive.  Encouragement, mutual edification, love, forgiveness, and hospitality are just some of the tools of the trade in a careful crafting of souls.  As we look at the example of Jesus, such practices as healing, teaching, guiding, and mending souls were all a part of his mission to bring God’s benevolent kingdom to earth.  As we learn to help people toward peace, sustain them in difficult times, reconcile broken relationships, and guide them in making wise choices, we are doing good spiritual work and fortifying souls.
 
            We ourselves need to continually feed our souls if we want to do the work of soulcraft.  Engaging in the spiritual disciplines such as daily Scripture reading and prayer, practicing Sabbath rests, silence and solitude, fasting, and other spiritual tools can enable us to be built up in Christ so that we might shepherd others toward the ways of Jesus.
 

 

            The Apostle Peter encouraged his fellow leaders:  “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers – not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2-3).  In difficult times, there is no greater need than the presence of God.  That divine presence is often mediated through loving shepherds and believers who take special care to bring grace to hurting people.  May it be so, to the glory of Jesus.

The Good Enough Pastor

            I got into this gig of pastoral ministry because I love the church, wanted to teach and preach God’s Word, desired to make a difference, and to help people move along in their path of discipleship with Jesus.  Sounds noble; yet, if I am honest, behind those words is not just some genuine altruism, but a significant dose of hubris that thinks I can, even ought, to change people’s lives.  Eee gads!  Even as I write that statement I hear the pride that believes church ministry success is up to me.  I have come a long way, but still have a winding and stretching journey ahead.
 
 
 
            I think many of us need to confess that our dreams for the church are this strange gooey mix of godliness and selfishness.  I’ve always thought it weird that many pastors, para-church ministry leaders, and church elders’ aspirations for the Body of Christ line-up so well with God’s will for their lives.  I just want us to entertain the notion that our dreams of lots people in attendance, big budgets, slick programs, and hungry disciples eating up the crumbs that come from our well-dished teaching may not exactly be what is in the mind of God for our ministries.
 
            Allow me, instead, to introduce an alternative thought for us:  being a good enough pastor.  Yep, I said it.  Just be good enough for the people in your charge.  And if you are a parishioner, allow your pastor to be good enough without having to be the next Tim Keller or Billy Graham (or whomever your favorite celebrity preacher is).  If we dwell with this fantasy of attaining some sort of great and impactful ministry long enough, we will inevitably be disappointed.  And when that happens, the next prideful step is the belief that if I just do things perfectly, everything will turn out the way I, uh-hem, I mean God, planned all along.  Oh, I certainly believe in the God of miracles and that Jesus is Lord over all.  But I don’t always believe that God is into the dramatic.  He seems more likely to show up, like with Moses in the cleft of the rock, in a still small voice in the quite ordinary and mundane quiet of the daily grind.
 
            Not every sermon has to be a home run.  Every conversation does not need to be a powerful encounter.  Not every meeting and decision really has to be researched and prepared to death so that there is some sort of wow factor that impresses everyone with my superior skills… that is, God’s mighty power.  You and I can do a good enough job in order to be faithful stewards of the gifts God has given, and obedient followers in the way of Jesus.  Give everyone a break and let the Holy Spirit show up and do his job; we don’t have to do it for him – he is competent to accomplish what he wants to do whether we are awesome or not.
 
            If this makes you worry, then you are not alone.  But we all do have a choice.  We can lay aside the anxiety and perfectionism and simply ask God for help to change what needs changing, especially in our own hearts.  God cares a whole lot more about our humility; he can work with that.  But if we hold onto our stubborn pride, God might end up breaking our wills, maybe even destroying our “godly” dreams before he will finally use us.
 

 

            Can you be a good enough church worker?  Can you live your life without everything having to be at the highest level of performance?  Will you invite the work of God into your life so that he can bring the deep change he wants to bring?  For this next year, let’s agree to drop the resolutions and sheer willpower, and allow God to make us into the leaders he wants us to be.

Leading with a Limp

 
 
Confrontation and struggle were a way of life for me in my first pastorate.  In just the first six weeks of being in the church I faced every kind of sin imaginable, to the point that my mentor in the faith recommended I take some time off having not even been there for two months!  Although that was a difficult time, the greatest struggle was with God himself and feeling like my prayers were doing nothing but bouncing off the ceiling.  In fact, I spent several years of my life in an extended wrestling match with God.  He touched me and crippled me by his grace, reminding me how much he is in control.  Since that time, I lead with a limp that is not visible – a limp that reminds me that I am a different person who knows Jesus better and is much more at peace with life.
 
            After I left that pastorate I needed to take some time off from ministry and I took a job in a factory believing that this was a brief sojourn of maybe a year before I would return to pastoral ministry.  I ended up being in that factory for seven years laboring in obscurity wondering if God knew what he was doing.  The short story to this is that I discovered that being a pastor was who I was, and not a position that I held.  So, I began shepherding my factory flock – literally spending my working days doing more than supervising others and doing repetitive activity, but leading others to Jesus. 
 
            If we do not wrestle with God in the stressful times of our lives, we will not learn what genuine humility is, how much we need the Holy Spirit, and the grace that can be ours to face the rest of our lives.  Nearly five hundred years ago Thomas a Kempis wrote to new priests entering ministry with this advice:  “We should so firmly establish ourselves in God that we have no need to seek much human encouragement.  It is when a man of good will is distressed or tempted, or afflicted with evil thoughts, that he best understands the overwhelming need he has for God, without whom he can do nothing.  While enduring these afflictions he takes himself to prayer with sighs and groans; he grows tired of this life and wished to die so that he could be undone in order to live with Christ.  It is in such times of trial that he realizes that perfect security and full peace are not to be found in this world.”
 
            In the Old Testament, the patriarch Jacob was worried and stressed.  He knew he had deceived his brother Esau many years earlier to gain their father’s blessing.  Now Jacob is about to meet Esau after all these years, and he is downright afraid for himself and his now large family.  So, he divided them up into two groups, thinking that if Esau was going to attack, the other group could escape.  The night before the big stressful meeting, Jacob sent his wives and family across a tributary of the Jordan River, the Jabbok, and spent the night alone wrestling with God.  Jacob came away from that encounter with a permanent limp that forever changed his life (Genesis 32:22-32).
 
            God will put us in positions of life that create encounters with him so that we will walk away changed.  Those encounters usually come in the form of engaging God with all the questions and difficulties of a very stressful situation.  The inner change that occurs comes in the form of a new identity, a new limp, and a renewed understanding of God’s grace that through disability and weakness we are able to lead.  Leadership is not so much about being strong and having all the answers; instead, it is shepherding in weakness; it is being mindful of our limitations; it is being comfortable with mystery; and, it is leading from the invisible places that no one sees.
 
            Has God left a permanent mark on you?  Do you carry a limp from him?  What is your name?  How does God identify you?  Our great need is not in being more clever, or smart, or working harder; it is God’s grace that we all need.  As a kid, when my parents left the house, my brother and I would rearrange the furniture so that we could have a good-solid-knock-down-drag-out wrestling match.  Since my brother was older, it usually ended badly for me with a pile-driver that left me incapacitated.  It is seriously a miracle that I am still alive after being dropped on my head so many times.
 

 

            Whenever we come to the Table, we are reminded of the Son who wrestled with the Father in prayer in the garden of Gethsemane and came away confident of facing a cruel cross so that we might have life.  The Lord Jesus carries with him even now the reminders of his suffering – the marks on his hands and his feet from a crucifixion that accomplished deliverance from sin on our behalf.  The elements of bread and cup are deeply symbolic reminders of what Jesus did as the cost for our salvation.  And they are further reminders that just as we eat the bread and drink the cup we will drink again with Jesus at the end of the age.  It is faith in Jesus alone that creates and secures for us a transformed life so that we can share in a crippling grace from him forever.

"What Do I Say?"

 
 
            So far this year I have had an unusual amount of persons within my congregation who have and are experiencing significant health issues, especially cancer.  The church, of course, has a wonderful opportunity in such occasions to offer prayer, comfort, and encouragement.  However, oftentimes church members struggle with knowing what to say to persons going through such physical trials.  They may feel unable to truly say something helpful, so they do not say anything at all.  They might avoid going to visit someone in the hospital because they are too intimidated about the situation.  Even pastors and church leaders may feel so inadequate and small in dealing with some parishioners’ overwhelming pain and disease that they fail to say anything substantive.  This is a problem that does not really need to be a problem because we possess the words of God contained in Holy Scripture.
 
            Here’s the deal:  it is not really our words that bring health and healing to a person in need; it is God’s words.  Much more important than believing our speech is going to make or break a patient or victim’s health or happiness is our very presence.  Taking the time to be with someone in need and simply hold their hand and sit for a while can communicate more comfort and care than a bevy of forced words out of our mouths.  So, then, when we visit someone either at home or in the hospital our presence coupled with God’s Word are the vital tools of building encouragement into a patient’s heart. 
 
            Knowing the Bible is crucial to knowing what to say to a person in need.  Even the most shy among us does not need to put pressure on ourselves to come up with something to say when we are equipped with the Book of Psalms.  Whether it is reading Psalm 23 with its comforting promise of God’s provision, protection, and presence, or Psalm 91 with its grand vision of a God who shelters His people in a time of upheaval, the psalms offer us words to say that transcend anything we might come up with on our own.  More than once I have gone into a hospital room or a bedroom at home and simply spent my time reading Scripture after Scripture and allowing the Spirit of God to seep down into the fearful recesses of a person or a family’s innermost soul, bringing a sliver of light into the clouds of doubt and darkness that loom within.
 
            Another great fear of the one who would like to comfort another is whether they will be able to answer the difficult questions brought forth by the afflicted.  And, yes, they do often have questions of life and death on their lips, like an impetuous four year old peppering his mother with inquisitions for which she becomes exhausted over.  Yet, as human beings, we are not so grandiose as to have the answers to questions that only God glories to know.  “I don’t know” is a phrase that is not only perfectly acceptable to say, it may even be the best response to a large query.  Trying to drain all the mystery out of life by claiming to know the hidden places of the universe strikes me as, at best, hubris, and, at worst, leaves a person feeling more awful than they did before their inquiry.
 
            The only obstacles that stand in the way of our ministering care and compassion to a hurting person is our own self-made walls of excuses and fears.  If our presence and God’s Word are truly the best companions, then we can walk with confidence into the life of another and know that we are being conduits of grace to those who need it most. 
 

 

            If you are not sure about what kind of Scripture to use in a person’s life, every pastor on planet earth enjoys suggesting portions of God’s Word to use.  If you do not want to go alone to encourage another, there is likely a genuine follower of Jesus who would jump at the chance to be with you and assist in any way possible.  Too many hurting people’s pain is compounded by a well-intentioned person who simply says and does nothing out of a misguided belief that they have nothing to offer.  To feel ill or dying is to feel discomfort; to feel ignored is to suffer a terrible agony worse than death.  May God’s people use God’s Word to edify God’s people and transform God’s creation for God’s sake.

A Lifestyle of Grace

            I just want to say straight-up that last week was a very difficult time for me.  My wife, Mary, had surgery two weeks ago.  Praise God that the surgery went as planned with no surprises.  After two nights in the hospital she was released to come home.  However, she ended up having severe complications and landed back into the hospital.  Quite honestly, it was a serious situation and hard for me to deal with.  She literally has no memory of all that transpired in those days.  Mary is now home again and seems on a more normal trajectory of recovery.  But, I have to tell you, that I did not at all like what I saw in myself during those hard days of last week.  I found myself being irritated, frustrated, and even angry instead of caring, nurturing, and loving. 
 
            In the middle of that difficult time God and I ended-up having a spirited come-to-Jesus-meeting together.  In that rather intense prayer meeting, which was more like the Lord’s gracious confrontation to me, God showed me that I was not living according to my highest value in life.  You see, I really do believe that everything in life and ministry ought to, and needs to center completely and totally around the grace of God in Christ.  But what I was doing was extending love and caring for Mary as long as she reciprocated that love.  In other words, my love was conditional and God called me on it. 
 
Mutual love is a beautiful thing.  But what happens when only one person can give love?  What do we do when grace is the only option?  I had to come to the point of giving the very same kind of love that God shows to me in Christ.  I had to decide that grace was going to be my lifestyle.  I decided that it just did not matter what condition Mary was in; it did not matter what she said or did not say; nothing on her part mattered.  What mattered was my loving her deeply from the heart each and every hour I was with her; and, it did not matter if she was able to love me back or not.
 
            Since Christians are redeemed people; since they have acknowledged the truth of Christ’s redemptive events of crucifixion and resurrection; since they are recipients of God’s great love in Jesus, every believer must make the decision to live a life of grace and love no matter what!  It does not matter what others may do or say, or fail to do or say; as God’s redeemed people, purchased by the precious blood of Christ, the church will love one another unconditionally.
 
            I do not often read novels because frankly I am really an egghead who enjoys delving into thick theological and historical books.  But lately I have been reading a novel written by a Swedish Lutheran bishop back in the 1930s.  The book, entitled The Hammer of God, is a story of a pastor in Sweden who got into the ministry as a respectable option for his life’s work.  The problem was that his life and ministry revolved around the Law.  Everything was about being the right kind of person and doing the right things, of preaching what people ought to be doing and what kind of people they ought to be.  But something happened to him, and that something was grace.  The love and grace of God in Christ got ahold of this pastor just at the point when he was removed from his clergy position by no fault of his own, but because of mean-spirited persons who wanted to see him gone.
 
            The pastor’s response to the congregation and his fellow pastors, many of whom were simply awful to him and glad to see him go at the denominational body’s ruling of ousting him was not to blast them all for their lack of love, but this:  “Not until today have I really understood the depth of the message I ought to have preached.  Now I beg you all to forgive everything I have said and done that has been lacking in love.  When it comes to zeal, I regret that I have been too lukewarm in seeking the good of your souls, and that I have made a distinction among people, so that I have loved the little more than the big.  With regard to love, I regret that I have wounded and chastised more than I have bound up and healed.  But most of all I am sorry that I have so seldom preached the full gospel of unmerited grace, which I long for and need more than any of you.  My only prayer now is that God in his grace may wipe away the memories of all that was faulty and wrong and let that grow and increase which has truly been the work of his incorruptible Word.  And I pray also that there may now be peace and that our hearts may be free from all hard feelings, just as I now would thank God that he still, perhaps, may have some use for me, a sinner, in his church.”
 

 

            Although this is not what the people listening to the pastor deserved to hear, he told them what he needed to tell them.  Grace means loving people when they are unlovely, or when they have no ability to love you back.  It is not an overstatement to say that every problem and situation in the church can be effectively and lovingly dealt with by means of grace.  People wrangle and wrestle with each other because their love has limits and conditions to it.  If we would all learn to walk in the ways of Jesus and determine to live a lifestyle of grace no matter what, then, it seems to me, the church would explode with love and there would not be enough room to handle all the people in need of God’s touch.