Nasty Disturbing Uncomfortable Things That Make You Late for Dinner

Through the years, I’ve received more than pleasure from reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s books. He had a deep and keen and helpful insight into life and human nature. Take, for instance, the dialog between Gandalf and Bilbo at the beginning of The Hobbit. Gandalf makes it known that he is looking for someone with whom to share in an adventure. Bilbo’s reply:

We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!

Then there is Bilbo, a scene or two later missing his beloved handkerchief, and Dwalin gives him a dose of life in the real world:

You will have to manage without pocket-handkerchiefs, and a good many other things, before you get to the journey’s end.

Then, that made-famous-by-the-movie scene in The Fellowship of the Ring in which Frodo complains about the times into which he had been thrust (“I wish it need not have happened in my time.”), and Gandalf imparts to him this nugget of gold:

So do I and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.

So.much.insight.

I woke up this morning thinking that I would much rather read an epic historical account than to continue living through one today. Why? Because adventures are nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things that make one late for dinner and forget his pocket-handkerchief. I didn’t choose this epoch. I didn’t choose to be the first pastor in the history of the church I serve to close its public gatherings indefinitely. I didn’t choose this COVID-19 era, full of sickness and lockdowns and fear and financial ruin. Honestly, I am partial to arm chairs and fireplaces and pipes and books – far more than I am to adventures.

But that is not for me to decide. I don’t get to choose my trials or my suffering or my lot in life. God is sovereign and wise and good, and in that goodness and wisdom he has decided that I will live now, through this time (and that is true for you too, by the way). As Isaiah 46:10 says:

I declare the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.’

So, with Frodo, what we need to decide is what we will do with the time that is given to us.

And, frankly, we might have to manage without pocket-handkerchiefs and a good many other things before we get to the journey’s end.

But who cares! Jesus is far better.

Looking Forward to the City

Why do we, with Abraham, look with faith and hope and joy towards the city not made by man, but whose builder and maker is God?

There was a riot today in an overcrowded Indonesian prison. There’s a pandemic virus keeping a bunch of people stuck on a cruise boat that is offering free porn. My mom is in a hospital bed 2000 miles away. She sometimes forgets where she is and why she is there. My wife’s father has cancer, and he is 6000 miles away.

I woke up this morning with a toothache. A friend is going through a divorce. Another friend can’t lift his arm above his shoulder anymore – and never will again. My computer won’t stop updating. Muslims in Nigeria are persecuting Christians. Twitter exists.

I struggle against my own sin – still, after all these years!

My oldest son leaves for college in a few months, and the thought makes me cry. My basement often leaks in the Spring and that is only weeks away. Venezuelan money is almost worthless. Did you catch the Superbowl half-time show? I alternate between burning and under-cooking the food I grill. Human trafficking is still a thing.

Statistically, 8 Christians will be killed today for their faith. 4 others will be imprisoned. Nearly 2000 babies will be aborted. And it is only Wednesday. It is Wednesday! A socialist won another state primary yesterday. A popular Christian leader whom I used to like has gone Catholic.

People call good things bad and bad things good. A few big hotel chains decided not to allow Bibles placed in their rooms anymore. Many people twist the truth, and many more hate God, hate churches, and hate Christians. This world is not our home.

That is why.

In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8:37-39

New Decade: Same Ambition

2020I’m sitting in a cozy leather chair with my laptop, and it is pretty early in the morning on January 1, 2020. A cold wind is howling outside. The warm house sheltering me is in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. My family and I came down to spend the New Year’s holiday with friends. We had a wonderful time, but probably stayed up too late. I think I am the only one awake right now. But people will soon begin to stir.

A decade is over, and a new one has begun. 10 years ago I was a 35 year-old associate pastor in Orlando, Florida. We had 3 children and a 3-legged dog. A decade later, and I am not 35 anymore. We have 4 children and a 4-legged dog. And I am the preaching pastor for a church in North-West Nebraska. A lot has changed in a decade.

But my ambition hasn’t. By God’s grace, I still want to serve Jesus Christ. I still want to live every day for the glory of God in my life and his glory in this world. I still want to be a good husband, a good father, a good pastor and a good friend. I still want the Lord to be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death. It is a new decade, but the ambition I am feeling is the same.

I do have a few resolutions for 2020 (moan and groan away, but I still think resolutions are helpful. Maybe I’ve been reading Jonathan Edwards too much; or maybe Paul?). I intend to read more in 2020 (I’m taking the Christian Reading Challenge by Tim Challies and I plan to read the Bible through again). I plan to write more in 2020 (this blog, and maybe finish a couple of books projects). I want to be more intentional in my conversations with others. I want to love people more and forget myself more in 2020.

These aren’t new ambitions, just resolutions in keeping with the same old ambition – the one that has driven my life and ministry for the last two decades. It is a new decade, but the same ambition.

Hello 2020. Soli Deo gloria!

 

The Art of Double-Speak

double-tongue-paulDeacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued… 1 Timothy 3:8

I don’t want to speak badly about so and so but let me tell you how bad he is. I’m not complaining, but here is my complaint. I don’t want to gossip but let me tell you this juicy and defaming bit of information about so and so, just so that you would know (or maybe so that you can pray). I won’t slander, but this person said this, and I want you to think as badly as possible about them even though in context the thing was more understandable than I will share.

No one is as forthright as the above about his or her double-speaking ways. And that is the problem, isn’t it? We might be so given to the double-tongue that we are double-tongued even about our double-tongued-ness. It might be such a pattern in our lives that we don’t even see it as wrong.

Sadly, this might be true of us even in the church. Even as professing Christians.

In our church, the new deacon team and I are working through what the Bible teaches about deacon qualifications (mainly from 1 Timothy 3:8-13). We had to pause on this gem of a word: double-tongued. It is translated from the Greek word δίλογος. The word is constructed by the prefix di, which means two or double, and the root logos which means word. So double-tongued or double-worded or insincere seems to capture the meaning well. Ironically, the word is employed exactly once in the New Testament, and only once in the Greek Apostolic Fathers. The Bible and the Fathers didn’t doubly use di-word. 🙂

Why do we say one thing and mean another, or say one thing to one person and a different thing to another? Why do we often give a disclaimer that is completely out of step with the thing being disclaimed (i.e., I don’t want to gossip or be hurtful but here is some hurtful gossip.)?

Maybe it is because we really want to act ugly while still appearing pure or righteous? Maybe it is because our Christianity is a mere pretense, and we don’t want to let that show through? Maybe it is because life (or church) is a game to us, and it is okay to hurt people in games?

I’m sure there are many reasons. But the Bible makes it clear: being double-tongued is not befitting for a Christian. Sincerity and love ought to be the marks of a people who have been transformed by God’s grace. We should be the one demographic that actually says what we mean (and not mean mean things!).

Christians – all Christians, but especially those who are in church leadership – are called to be sincere and loving in the way that we talk. So much hurt and division can spring up from the insincere speech of one double-tongued person. May it not be so among us!

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. – Ephesians 4:29

What I’m Still Learning After 10 Years of Pastoral Ministry

It is hard for me to believe that I’ve been a pastor now for over a decade. It feels like only a year ago that a congregation in Florida gathered on a Sunday night and voted to call me as their associate pastor. But that was the summer of 2008. And I still feel like the new guy on the block here in Nebraska, though now I’ve been the pastor for preaching at Ridgeview for over 5 years.

So what am I learning now after more than 10 years? Lots. Way more than 10 things. But 10 is a nice round number and so here are the 10 bigger lessons that I am still learning after 10 years of pastoral work.

  1. I’m still learning that the three main elements of good pastoral ministry are: 1) loving God, 2) loving God’s people, and 3) preaching God’s Word. Way back in my seminary days, a prof asked his students to boil down pastoral ministry into one sentence, and these three things made up my sentence. Ten years later they still do. In fact, more than ever. Since I’m still learning to be a good pastor, I am still learning these three things.
  2. I am still learning that loving God means being the real deal. It means seeking to make much of God with my life and ministry, and not to make much of myself. It is the opposite of platforming. It also means making war on my sin. It means loving my wife and children well. It means running from idols. For me, it means getting up early each morning to be in his Word.
  3. I am still learning that loving God’s people means way more than just trying to be a nice guy. Loving others often means saying really hard things for their good. It means serving God’s people for their eternal joy in Christ. It also means walking with people through hard times and deep suffering. It means knowing more about the struggles of others than one would normally want to know. It means bearing the burdens of others. I’m still learning how to love God’s people well.
  4. I am still learning that faithfully preaching God’s Word is one of the most significant ways that a pastor can love God’s people well. Why? Because preaching God’s Word helps people to see and cherish God, and what can be more important than that? That is why preaching has been the great labor of my life these last 10 years. And the greatest joy has been seeing God work in his people through his Word.
  5. I am still learning that the effectiveness of one’s ministry cannot be measured by “the numbers.” Ever. No exceptions, nuance or caveats. It is easy to see a big crowd and do a quick pat on the back, or see empty seats and wonder where you’ve missed the boat. But numbers are a poor measure of pastoral ministry. Terrible pastors can draw crowds and faithful pastors can serve few (and vice versa!). Pastors, stop doing the headcount on Sunday mornings!
  6. I am still learning that it takes God’s grace to save a person. As passionately as I try to persuade and win people, both in private and in preaching, at the end of the day it is God who opens blind eyes to the saving beauty of the gospel.
  7. I am still learning that pastors need friends and that healthy pastors pursue deeper friendships with a few people. We shouldn’t buy into the lie that pastors cannot have meaningful friendships. I’m so thankful to God that that is, in fact, a lie. Even so, I’m still learning what it means to be a good friend.
  8. I am still learning that the church is not about the pastor. This should be a one-and-done lesson, but the reality is that there is the ever-present danger for pastors to think more highly of themselves than they ought (just as there is for everyone else!). The church is about God, his people, and his Word.
  9. I am still learning that good leadership is largely good listening. When I assume to know someone’s position or motive or whatever, I am hardly ever right. I need to hear them. I am better at this than I was 10 years ago, but I still have a lot to learn.
  10. I am still learning that pastoral work is one of the sweetest, greatest, most joy-filled, most tear-filled, most disappointing and most satisfying paths that a man could ever take.

I love being a pastor.

Final Sermon Prep Checklist

As a pastor, I have the joy of preparing sermons to preach every week. That means 15-20 hours for each sermon, studying a passage of Scripture, thinking through how to communicate it, and finally writing a sermon. When I near the finish line of this process, I do one final check. I call it, uncreatively, the Final Sermon Prep Checklist. I basically go through the sermon, point by point and line by line asking the following questions:

  1. Is the main idea of the sermon the main idea of the text?
  2. How does the sermon demonstrate that this is the main idea of the text?
  3. How does the sermon show people how to know that this is the main idea?
  4. In what ways does this sermon exult in Christ and show ties to Christ?
  5. How clear is the gospel in this sermon?
  6. Is there material in the sermon that isn’t necessary? Cut this material.
  7. Is there material in the sermon that points more to the speaker than the Author? Cut this material.
  8. Does the sermon show the congregation how to apply this passage?
  9. Is the application specific enough?
  10. Is the application general enough?

This process has been great for me and has probably saved many sermons from being ineffective and a waste of the hearers’ time.  One of the huge benefits of expository preaching is that the preacher is ALWAYS aiming (or should always be aiming) to put the text before the congregation, and preaching in such a way that the text can be understood, cherished, and applied by God’s people.

To that end, this step has been crucial to my sermon prep process.

The Good & Bad of Cultural Christianity

As a follower of Christ, one of the things I do every week is go with my family to church. The other day, as we were on our way to church, my wife noted the many other people that we were passing who were doing the same thing – heading to various churches. We live in a place where most people go to church and call themselves Christians. We are surrounded by a culture of Christianity.

It’s not that way everywhere. In Russia, for example, the opposite is true. 70+ years of having a secular worldview taught and imposed by the government has all but snuffed out the influence of Christianity. But not so here (for now, at least). Most people in this town still consider themselves Christians, even as they demonstrate varying levels of real commitment to Christ.

So is cultural Christianity a good thing or a bad thing? I think it’s both.

Christianity has significantly influenced our worldview which, in turn, has enhanced our social well-being. The reason Chadron has a low crime-rate and the reason that a stranded driver on the highway will likely find help from a kind passerby (who doesn’t just pass by), is due to the historic influence of Christianity in forming the western worldview. In a very real way, the values and moral standards of Christianity create human flourishing. So a culture of Christianity is good for a society.

But it can be perilous for one’s soul. That is because only genuine faith in Jesus reconciles us to God. The forms and values and culture of Christianity cannot do this. If our Christianity is only cultural, then it is empty. And worse, it breeds a profession of faith that is profoundly unhelpful: a person might look to his heritage and culture and say, “I’m a Christian.” but never actually follow Christ by faith.

Cultural Christianity is good for society because its values lead to human flourishing. We should be thankful that we live in this culture (it might not always be this way!). Even so, it can be dangerous for our souls, because our cultural environment could lead us to think that we are right with God by default – or that the Christian faith is merely a set of values. Yet, the only way for sinners (and that’s all of us) to be made right with God is through personal faith in Jesus, the one who paid our sin-debt on the cross. Christianity is more than culture – it is a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

I pray that your faith is more than culture.

On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord’… And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you…’” – Jesus