Our Friendship Conundrum

As a young minister many years ago, I remember hearing an old pastor say that ministers have few friends. Then he said that he himself had no friends, save for his wife. It was the cost, he said, of serving Jesus.

My reaction at the time was a little mixed. I felt sad for that pastor for the feelings of loneliness that must have prompted that comment. I was saddened, also, for those in the congregation who considered him a friend – as I knew there were many.

His comment also made me wonder if I could be happy serving Christ with no friends in this world.

That same pastor showed himself to be increasingly cynical about relationships, and so I likely didn’t take his comment to heart as much as I should have.

Here I am many years later, finding myself relating to him more than ever. I do feel a dearth of friendship on the one hand and a longing for deep friendships on the other. I want to push back against cynicism too, having seen the damage that caused in his heart and ministry. And, of course… I don’t want to sadden those who consider me a friend.

Few value friendship, because few experience it.

C.S. Lewis

I preached a sermon last summer on what the Proverbs teach about friendship. While preparing, I ran across what C.S. Lewis wrote about friendships, and one remark stood out in particular. Lewis said that few value friendship because few experience it. Is Lewis right? Do very few of us experience friendship?

My own experience tells me that men struggle with friendships far more than women do. I’m sure there are exceptions, but through the years, that has been my observation. So men struggle with friendships more than women. And, sadly, most pastors struggle more than most other men.

So, here I am, a man and a pastor and I am often lonely and longing for real, Christ-centered friendships. What am I to do? What are you to do, pastor/Christian/friend, if this is how you are feeling? Here are four suggestions.

1. Resist making friendship your idol. Friendship is a kindness from the Lord. It is a good gift for which we should give thanks. God gives good things to his people! Friendship is one of those good things.

Yet, while friendship is a wonderful gift it makes a terrible god. The god of friendship will never satisfy the longing you feel or calm the restlessness of your heart. Only God can do that.

Making friendship an idol is a great way to push your friends away and strain your relationships, as you get clingy or jealous or demanding, or allow drama to creep into the relationship in other ways.

The answer is to press hard after Jesus Christ first, not friendship. You cannot allow your desire for friendships – or your loneliness – to grow into an idol in your heart, robbing your joy and leaving you empty.

Jesus never leaves us empty. Keep that in mind.

2. Nurture the friendships that you do have. While I was writing this post, I ran upstairs from my basement to make a quick cup of tea. While en route, my 15-year-old playfully tried to box my ear, my wife hugged me, and my 9-year-old asked if I would sit with her while my tea steeped. I also spent a minute figuring out my plans to drive to a neighboring town tonight with a young man for an archery competition.

It is easy to not put those kinds of relationships within our “friendship category” (my son, my wife, my daughter and a guy about 30 years younger than me), but that is exactly what they are – friends! My wife is my best friend on the planet, and I have never enjoyed a deeper relationship with anyone than the one I enjoy with her.

My son is growing up and we almost look eye to eye (if I am being honest, he’s a bit taller). We will be friends, I hope, for a long time. That little girl of mine who likes to sit close is my little buddy, which is another word for friend. And friendships don’t have to be squarely within our age demographic (I know this from the other end. One of my closest friends in life passed away two years ago from Covid19, and he was about 30 years older than me).

All that to say that we often lament not having deep and meaningful friendships, while at the same time not considering the friends we have and nurturing those into deep and meaningful friendships.

That longing for deep friendship should prod us to nurture every friendship we have. Those feelings should not cause us to merely long for friendships we don’t have.

3. Seek after new friendships, and decide that you will “fail falling forward”. There is a tendency in me to withdraw the moment I don’t feel the warmth of friendship from someone, or suspect that a person does not like something about me (or just me in general). My very counter-productive tendency is to retreat and give up on the friendship. It would be better for me to press in all the same. Who knows what the Lord may do?

Many times, it is just the surface awkwardness that we have to overcome, not deep issues making real friendships impossible.

So work at this! Friendships are hard work. Work at them!

4. Don’t buy the world’s lie that men can’t have deep friendships (or that pastors do not have friends). It is not true. There are plenty of biblical examples of real men nurturing deep, lasting friendships with other men while loving God supremely, and keeping everything healthy.

Men, think hard about friendship, and press into real, God-glorifying, brother-edifying friendships with those God has placed in your life. Don’t take one single friend for granted. Friendship is too precious, and too good a gift.

And remember, there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother (Proverbs 18:24b).

3 Reasons to Pray for Ukraine

You probably have heard by now that the President of the Russian Federation has declared war on its smaller and peaceful neighbor, Ukraine. What has been building for months – cloaked in sinister euphemisms and deceit – has given way to open war as Russian missiles and artillery bombard cities, and invading troops pour across the border.

As I write this, Ukraine is feeling the full brunt of the Russian armed forces. With this post, I’d like to call on American Christians to pray.

Here are three reasons.

First, this war will surely bring about massive destruction and human suffering for the people of Ukraine. In a war like this, it is not only soldiers who will die. Cities will be destroyed and villages will be wiped from the earth and law and order in this normally peaceful country will be massively disrupted. Refugees and displaced persons will flee across the borders of the countries that neighbor to the West, and we are seeing this even now. Homelessness will abound, and many will likely freeze. As I preached in a sermon a few weeks ago, Christians care about this kind of suffering, so we should pray for Ukraine.

Second, pray because the world is much smaller than it sometimes feels. Ukraine is a long way away from Nebraska and many of us have never been there. Some would have difficulty finding it on a map. But history teaches us that wars like this in Europe seldom stay a long way away. Pray to the Lord, the one who is Sovereign over nations, that this war does not lead to a much greater war, involving many more countries, and bringing about catastrophic suffering and loss of life in the world.

Third, pray for Ukraine because our brothers and sisters are there. The church in Ukraine will surely suffer during this war. Pray for the believers and for their families. Pray for ex-pat missionaries who have decided to remain (I know a few personally!), and for the witness of Christ in the region. Pray for those who will soon enter a season of persecution, that they might have the strength and that they remain faithful to Jesus, and that many others will “become much more bold to speak the word without fear. (Phil 1:14)” on account of their faithfulness.

My brothers and sisters, I urge you to pray for Ukraine.

Don’t Waste Your Pandemic

Nearly 10 years ago, a famous pastor from Minnesota was diagnosed with cancer. On the eve of his surgery, John Piper wrote an essay called, “Don’t Waste Your Cancer.” It has helped thousands of people walk through cancer with a determination to glorify God with and through and in their trial. You can read that here. I’m shamelessly coopting the title to encourage you, my brothers and sisters in Christ, not to waste our pandemic. I want to focus my heart and mind on glorifying God through this, and I want to encourage others to do the same. So with that, here are some thoughts about not wasting our pandemic.

You will waste your pandemic if you fail to set your hope in our sovereign God. This, of all things, ought to humble the world and help us see how fragile we are, and how little control over things we actually have. A tiny, nearly invisible agent has shut down the most powerful countries on earth – nearly shut down all of the world! That’s humbling, and it ought to focus our hope in God.

Our ultimate hope can never be in preventative measures or in science or in medicine, as important as all these things are. We have to trust in God. He is God over all, big and small. From the mightiest nations to the tiniest microbes – he is Lord.

You will waste your pandemic if you spend all your time worrying about the future or complaining about the present. By all means, do what you can to secure your business, or find other employment, or whatever you can do today to keep food on the table. But doing things is different than worrying. You have no idea what tomorrow will bring (James 4:14), so leave tomorrow’s concerns to tomorrow and focus your efforts on today. Meditate on Philippians 4:4-7 (memorize it) and preach the truths of those verses to your soul until they stick there.

And complaining is about as helpful as worrying. Which is to say, it is not at all helpful. In fact, there is little in this world that is more faith-killing than a complaining or grumbling heart. So don’t give in to that. Start a journal and write down, every day, all the things for which you are thankful. Share the things for which you are thankful with those around you. Post evidence of thankfulness on your social media. Let the world know that we are thankful to the Lord, for he is good and his steadfast love endures forever. Read 1 Corinthians 10:10 to sober up from the stupor of complaint, and then drink deeply from passages like Psalm 136:1-26.

You will waste your pandemic if you spend all your time browsing or ranting on social media. Social media can be a wonderful thing during an event like this – an unprecedented means of communication while we are sheltered in place. Many thousands of Christians will be watching live-streamed sermons and services this Sunday from the safety of their own homes. We can easily check in on one another. We should be thankful for social media (and related technology). I’m thankful.

Yet, these things can also be a great means of discouragement. Christians would do well to stop Facebook shouting at their neighbors for either over or under-reacting (according to their superior, better-informed judgment). Please remember that the bridges you burn during this pandemic will likely stay burned after this is over. And people need love right now, especially from the children of God. So use this time to show love to your neighbors. And maybe turn the phone off and go read a book.

You will waste your pandemic if you focus only on your own needs. The world is reeling from this. Fear is everywhere. Use this time to show the love of Jesus to those around you. Call an elderly person and tell them you are praying for them and ask them what they need. Gather a list of needs and people and pray for them, every day. Seek for ways to serve others.

And do good things for your soul. If you have extra time off from work, spend that time with your family. Start up some online prayer groups (Zoom is an excellent tool for that). Read good books, go for a [socially-distanced] walk. Play a board game. Get on the floor and build a castle with your six-year old.

These are hard times. Let’s not waste them! Soli Deo gloria.

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

Why Keep Harping on Grumbling? I mean, seriously…

rainIn the church where I serve as pastor, we’ve been talking quite a bit lately about grumbling. Not so much because there is a lot of grumbling (though I am sure we have our fair share) but because we preached through Exodus during the summer, and a few weeks ago we hit 1 Corinthians 10:10. And in those Scriptures, we encounter the sin of grumbling. And big-time warnings against it!

So what is grumbling and why all the fuss? BDAG defines the Greek word translated grumble as speaking in low tones of disapprobation or to complain against someone or to murmur. Merriam-Webster says it is a mutter of discontent.

Grumbling can be the natural and sinful response to pretty much anything we do not like or agree with.

Grumbling can be audible, or it can be an attitude in the heart. When it is vocalized, it is spoken in low, muted tones (literally or metaphorically) because grumblers don’t want everyone to know they are grumbling. It can be directed against a person, such as a spouse; or a group of people like a church. Grumbling is often against a situation or circumstance. We even grumble against God (honestly, I think all grumbling is ultimately against God, but I’ll leave that deep thought for another post)! Grumbling can be the natural and sinful response to pretty much anything we do not like or agree with.

The word comes up in the New Testament 11 times, and every time it is in a negative light. Here is a sample:

Philippians 2:14, “Do all things without grumbling or disputing…”

1 Corinthians 10:10, “nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer.”

James 5:9, “do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged…”

1 Peter 4:9, “Show hospitality to one another without grumbling.”

What, pray tell, is the big deal? Can’t we complain a little once in a while? Why such a sweeping – and repeated – prohibition against grumbling?

Here are three brief reasons for why we should view grumbling as the serious sin that it is, and run from it.

First, grumbling poses a real threat to the unity of a church. Of the 11 times the word grumbling occurs in the New Testament, at least 4 of them have to do, at least indirectly, with church unity (all the ones quoted above). Of course, maintaining unity has always been an issue in the church for many reasons. But one really quick method to directly harm unity is simply to grumble against one another and/or against the leadership.

Second, grumbling dims the light we are called to shine in this “crooked and perverse generation”. That is an implication from Philippians 2:14. Since doing all things without grumbling leads to shining as a light, it follows that grumbling dims that light. To put that another way: grumbling mutes the gospel. It is a very serious thing!

Third, grumbling demonstrates a lack of faith in God. In 1 Corinthians 10:10, the context points to Israel in the Wilderness “putting Christ to the test” by complaining against Moses and grumbling against God because of their situation, and the way God was providing for Israel. Instead of trusting God in their trails, they complained and muttered their discontent. Grumbling is the opposite of faith. In fact, it demonstrates a heart-level belief that God is doing something wrong in your life.

So, brothers and sisters, let us resolve to not be grumblers. For the unity of the church, for her testimony to this lost world and to show that we believe that God is good, let’s do all things without grumbling or disputing. 

3 Benefits of a Seminary Education

BookI had coffee this morning with a person getting ready to leave for seminary, and we discussed the pros and cons of his new undertaking. I shared three things in favor of obtaining a seminary education. I am sure there are more, but I am putting these out there for others who are thinking through whether they should go to seminary.

Of course, I should quickly disclaim that I don’t think that everyone in ministry must go to seminary or that one is necessarily at a disadvantage for not having a formal theological education. I know many faithful self-taught brothers and sisters serving Jesus all over the world just as they should. Some of my pastor-heroes were self-taught. So seminary isn’t a hard prerequisite for all vocational ministry.

With that out of the way, here are three benefits I can see of a seminary education.

First, seminary helps a person become better acquainted with the theological conversation in the wider church. Seminary isn’t the only way to do this, but it sure helps and it is quicker too. One gets a birdseye view of the many issues, debates, and theological questions with which Christians have wrestled. One also becomes better equipped to discern the proper weight of the various theological issues that the church is dealing with, or has already.

Second, seminary helps a person become more precise in study. Of course, learning the biblical languages and hermeneutics and exegesis all greatly aid in the precision of Bible study (I think increased precision is the reason to study Greek and Hebrew). Also, in a general way, learning to weigh sources is super helpful to sharpen one’s theological study. Seminary pushes students in that direction.

Third, seminary helps a student understand how much he doesn’t know. We don’t realize how deep a lake is until we go swimming. Theology is more like an ocean than a lake, and seminary, if done rightly, helps us see how small and how close to the surface we are and how deep and vast the ocean really is. This is immensely helpful for one’s life-long pursuit of learning. It is also very humbling, which is a good thing.

As I said, seminary isn’t for everyone and it shouldn’t be required in all cases and for every context. What would my pastor-brothers in remote Asia do if it were? Seminary isn’t even an option for them. But here are three good reasons to consider seminary if you believe God is leading you into a life of vocational ministry.

Movie Review – American Gospel: Christ Alone

I’m usually not a fan of “Christian” movies. I am usually the opposite of a fan. So I’m surprising myself here. But after a few people recommended the movie, American Gospel: Christ Alone I decided to take 2 hours and give it a watch-see.

The trailer made me wonder if it was a “hit piece” on the prosperity gospel. I don’t think I would be too against something like that since I also abominate the prosperity gospel (borrowing some language from John Piper’s famous sermon clip). On more than one continent, I have witnessed the very real harm that that false teaching does to people.

However, a hit piece has some limitations. For one, those kinds of things usually preach only to the choir, as it were. They aren’t designed to convince the unconvinced. And only those who already agree will actually watch it. And, it would make it less crucial to me; why spend 2 hours of your life being said choir?

That was probably more than you wanted to know about my hesitation with this movie before watching it. But I am happy to say that this movie was nothing like I thought it might be. It was so well done! So good.

A few of the merits of this movie are:

  1.  A clear, powerful, biblically-saturated affirmation of the true gospel. This part made my heart sing!
  2. A gracious, clear, truthful, also biblically-saturated calling out of “other gospels”.
  3. A good word about how the Roman Catholic Church is wrong on the gospel, and why the call for a unity of sorts between Evangelicals and Catholics is short-sighted.
  4. A generous use of video clips of false teachers while they are teaching “other gospels” and false ideas.
  5. A helpful explanation of the dangers of these false gospels, loaded with rich personal testimony (e.g., from guys like Costi Hinn).
  6.  A helpful naming of names.

That last point causes a lot of well-meaning Christians to bristle. Every time I have dropped names of false teachers during a sermon I have received negative feedback (usually in the form of emails and text messages on the Monday after). And I understand: to some, it feels unkind to do that.

However, as a pastor, I think it is far more unkind to not warn people about false teachers. And besides, I can rest on the example of Scripture, where names were definitely named (see 1 Timothy 1:19-20 for e.g.). You can name a name in love.

This is a very good and helpful movie, and I hope many Christians will take the time to watch it. Watch it if you agree with the prosperity gospel. Watch it if you disagree. Watch it, even if you feel you have benefitted from some of the teachers it calls out. You will learn something, and I think you will be edified in the true gospel.

Rent it here from Amazon Prime.

Ingredients: Just Add Love & Respect

Pastors (whether they like it or not) regularly have the privilege of helping people walk through difficult seasons in their marriages. Often, by the time a couple decides to see a pastor, things are quite bad. So I think I have heard and seen everything. In fact, I am considering writing a book on marriage called, “Creative Yet Totally Proven Ways to Quickly Wreck Your Marriage“. 🙂 I think it would sell well.

Of course, problems in marriages come in all shapes and sizes, and so do the needed behavioral changes to right a marriage. However, it is not an overstatement to say that most marital issues can be traced to a deficiency of two things: love and respect.

In Ephesians 5:22-33, the Apostle Paul gives clear guidelines for a healthy marriage. Verse 33 is the summary: “…Let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.” For a marriage to thrive, it must have love and respect.

Of course, men and women both need love and respect. And all of us should show both love and respect to our spouses. But the Apostle Paul indicates that there is a special significance in the husband’s responsibility to love his wife, and also the wife’s responsibility to respect her husband. I think that’s because men need, more than anything else, respect from their wives. And women need to be loved by their husbands above all.

A lot needs to be said, more than I can say here, about what real love is, and also how a wife can genuinely respect her husband. The point I want to make with this post is that those are the two main ingredients in a thriving marriage: love and respect. Husbands, love your wives. And wives, respect your husbands. In my experience, when both parties apply themselves to their respective responsibilities, their marriage begins to drastically improve.

A common mistake we make is to become concerned primarily with how our spouses fail at their responsibilities. But we are not responsible for how well or how poorly our spouses do at this. As we often tell our children: we are responsible for our own actions.

Thus, the solution to your marital issues, if you are going through a difficult season right now, probably has to do with love and respect. A great question to ask as you try to diagnose your problems is this: Am I doing what God requires of me in this marriage? How can I love my wife better and show her that I love her in ways that she will see and appreciate? Or, how can I respect my husband so that he knows that I am for him?

God created marriage, so it stands to reason that he knows exactly what is needed for a marriage to thrive. And, thankfully, he has shared that information with us. A healthy marriage, more than anything, needs love and respect.

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