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Contingent Contentment or Contentment in Christ?

Max Lucado, in the Anxious for Nothing Bible Study, offers two words that served as the inspiration for the message I’m posting today. “Contingent Contentment” is the kind of thinking that starts with the “I’ll be happy when…,” “I’ll be happy if…” I’ll be content when I marry. I’ll be happy when I have a child. I’ll be content when I get a new job. I’ll be content when I move to a new community. I’ll be happy when I get a new car. In every instance, contentment is based on circumstances.

Psalm 42 was composed by someone who is longing for the good ole days and lamenting his current circumstances. He is filled with discontentment. The writer, is a worship leader as well as a member of the Korahite choir. The Sons of Korah were the descendants of Levi who sang in the temple. The psalmist is now in exile in the land of the Jordan River. That river lies north of the Sea of Galilee and contains many waterfalls as it cascades southward. The psalmist tells us that he is feeling overwhelmed by the spiritual “waves and breakers” that have “swept over” him.

He recalls leading groups of people to worship, singing songs of thanks! Those were special times—but the psalmist is singing a different song today. Today, his heart is broken and he can’t seem to locate God. With this background, hear the beginning words of the psalm:

“As the deer pants for streams of water, so I long for you, O God. I thirst for God, the living God. When can I go and meet with Him? Day and night, I have only tears for food, while my enemies continually taunt me, saying, “Where is this God of yours? My heart is breaking as I remember how it used to be: I walked among the crowds of worshipers, leading a great procession to the house of God, singing for joy and giving thanks—it was the sound of a great celebration! Why am I discouraged? Why so sad?”

Can you remember a mountain-top moment of worship? I can remember many. I remember a retreat on the Maryland shore with some Stephen Ministers I’d trained. We’d gathered around the Lord’s Supper, and all of us were taken to a place of deep emotion in worship that moved us to tears, bonded us together, and warmed us to our cores. I remember a Maundy Thursday service and the depth of intimacy and overwhelming love I felt for the Lord and for members of the congregation as I knelt to wash their feet. I remember blessed times when folks have come forward in services to receive Christ as Savior; I remember sacred moments in a baptismal pool. I remember my great joy and relief when I went forward to proclaim my own belief in Jesus as Savior at a Billy Graham Crusade in Boston, Massachusetts. I remember the moment I received spiritual assurance and tangible confirmation of my call to pastoral ministry.

There are moments while praying from the pulpit when the presence of the Holy Spirit has been so palpable that I’ve felt transported. There are moments even in nature when I’ve heard the Lord in the whisper of the wind.

All of these mountain top experiences have something in common: I could feel in every fiber of my being the presence of God. The moment, the time in worship, was good not because it was entertaining or emotional but because the Spirit of the Living God—His grace, His mercy, His mysterious majesty—surrounded me and often surrounded the assembly.

You may remember, as well, moments in worship, communion with God, like this. Perhaps you also remember days you didn’t bother to worship because you just didn’t have it in you. Not that you were lazy or wanted to do something else—no, you just felt numb and cold inside. No matter how loud you sang or how catchy the songs—even if the preaching was right on target—something was missing. Think of a deer in a desert, panting for water, crying as it looks for water, unable to find even a trickle of a stream to quench its thirst.

That’s the way the psalmist describes his spiritual state. He is dry and parched. He’s not thirsty for water but for God. His soul is thirsty. He longs to be near God—to experience a refreshing stream but instead he’s in the desert. Tears, salty tears, are the only drink he can find, but saltwater only increases one’s thirst.

No songs of praise come from his parched lips. His swollen, red eyes see no sign of God’s face. He is only blinded by the sun. And there isn’t even an edifying voice of a fellow worshipper speaking a psalm, hymn, or spiritual song to spur him on to love and good deeds. In the desert, his tragedies are instead exploited by an unbelieving world that taunts with sneering questions, “Well, where’s your wonderful God now?! Can’t you see how hollow all religion is? Give it up!”

But even more troubling questions can come from those who profess to be Christians: “Why do you think God abandoned you like this? Maybe it’s something you did? Maybe there is some unresolved sin or pride in your life? How is it that you’ve fallen out of favor with God?”

And then there’s another question that we sometimes hear: “If you don’t feel close to God, who do you suppose moved?” That last one is actually a good question. If you were to ask that of our Psalmist he might surprise you and say—well it seems to me that God did!

The psalmist feels abandoned and forgotten. Being forgotten is one of the worst feelings. Being forgotten means being alone and defenseless before enemies and the forces of nature. Being forgotten means losing stability and security— nowhere is safe, darkness surrounds.

The psalmist wants to know why God has thrown him aside. He is lost in darkness; enemies have taken advantage of his misfortune. And he feels shame—an embarrassment for God. He has praised God like an adoring child praises a Father— confident in the Father’s goodness and boasting that the Father can do anything! And then, in the moment He is needed most, it seems the Father isn’t there. And the child is—abandoned. All the praise and boasting about the Father becomes… embarrassing.

Whose psalm is this? Who are the children of Korah?

Any of us who feel thirsty for God’s presence. Anyone who hears people say, “Where is Your God?” because something terrible has happened. Those who find themselves in oppressive surroundings as family members or co-workers insult them for their faith. And those who feel stressed and disappointed because God hasn’t seemed to do much to help them out of a difficult situation.

“Why am I discouraged? Why is my heart so sad? I will put my hope in God! I will praise Him again—my Savior and my God!…Each day the Lord pours His unfailing love upon me, and through each night I sing His songs, praying to God who gives me life…’O God, my rock,’ I cry, ‘why have you forgotten me? Why must I wander around in grief[?]…I will put my hope in God! I will praise Him again—my Savior and my God!”

This psalm and the song “His Eye is on the Sparrow” is for the thirsty, parched souls who long for God—those who long to be immersed in His mercy and rescuing grace.

Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come,
Why should my heart be lonely, and long for heaven and home,
When Jesus is my portion? My constant friend is He:
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.
“Let not your heart be troubled,” His tender word I hear,
And resting on His goodness, I lose my doubts and fears;
Though by the path He leadeth, but one step I may see;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.
Whenever I am tempted, whenever clouds arise,
When songs give place to sighing, when hope within me dies,
I draw the closer to Him, from care He sets me free;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

Like the psalm, the song starts off with a little self-talk: Why am I discouraged? Why am I so sad?

Despair is a vicious thing. It’s a sort of auto-immune disorder of the soul. It attacks your soul, then turns your soul against you for feeling sad. But the chorus in both the hymn and the psalm yields to hope. The thirsty soul decides to become a pilgrim. Like the deer, the psalmist is going to sniff out the source of water.

I will put my hope in God! I will praise Him, my Savior and my God!

Being a pilgrim means accepting the wilderness, but settling for nothing on the journey except the deep waters of God. That’s why we need this psalm—to send us on our pilgrim journey, to prepare us for the spiritual life. Too many people settle for poison in the wilderness, contentment based on contingencies. “Feeling better has become more important to us than finding God.”

In his autobiography, When You Can’t Come Back, Dave Dravecky (a pitcher for the San Francisco Giants who lost his pitching arm to cancer) says that he “learned that the wilderness is part of the landscape of faith, and every bit as essential as the mountaintop. On the mountaintop, we are overwhelmed by God’s presence. In the wilderness, we are overwhelmed by His absence. Both places should bring us to our knees; the one, in utter awe; the other, in utter dependence.”

Jesus once spoke to a thirsty woman in the wilderness of Samaria (John 4). She felt far from God and so it isn’t strange that she asked, “Where is God?” She had heard from her family—the generations before her—that God was on His holy mountain—Mount Gerazim. But she’d heard from her enemies that God lived in a big house in Jerusalem. “Where is God?” she asked.

Jesus wasn’t surprised by the fact that she’d had five husbands and that the man with whom she was then living wasn’t her husband. Like many of us who long for God, she’d turned to other people, other circumstances, other avenues looking for satisfaction. She was thirsty, and so when Jesus spoke of living water—deep water—that not only satisfies thirst but taps a spring of gushing water in the soul—she wanted it! Like a deer panting for water!

Scott Hoezee recalls having seen a bumper sticker that featured the picture of a telescope along with the words, “If you see God, tell him I’m looking for Him.” This psalmist would appreciate that bumper sticker. But in this psalm, as in so much of our experience, you can’t always find God with the “telescope approach.” Sometimes we try to scrutinize our present circumstances to see if we can locate precisely where God is, hoping we can zero in on Him the way a telescope zeroes in on a star. But it doesn’t always work that way.

To stick with the astronomy analogy for a moment: some of you know that when stargazing, the best way to see some stars is to not look directly at them. Because of the way our eyes are designed, faint objects can be seen best when you look askance from them. Look just to the side of a dim star and you will suddenly see it in your peripheral vision.

Sometimes faith is like that, too. It seems to have been the case for the writer of Psalm 42. Unable to locate God in the present moment of crisis and pain, he instead looks to the past. Not only was the psalmist able then to see God in the past, but somehow it energized his hope in the present moment too. By looking just to the side of his current circumstances God appeared in the “peripheral vision” of his soul once more. A simple act of remembering turns this psalm around and transforms this poem from an ode to despair into a statement of bold faith and audacious hope.

How does this work, I wonder? What’s the mechanism that can take a distant memory of something God once did and use it to re-tool the present? It is finally a mystery how God’s Spirit can use the past to give us hope for the future. But it happens.

It seems we sometimes struggle in knowing where to “find” God in certain moments, particularly in moments of great pain or uncertainty. We don’t always know what God is “up to” or why it seems our prayers are going unanswered—only the truly arrogant or impious would ever dare to claim they always know what God is doing and why. Often, we just don’t know. But perhaps the recovery of our hope doesn’t depend on making sense of each moment. Maybe in life’s darker, deeper valleys it is our memories of who God is and what He has done that can pump a little air back into our deflated balloons of hope.

We are on a pilgrim’s journey, and when trekking through the wilderness, aching with thirst, we must continue to trust the Lord is with us and that He will—as we seek Him—bring us to deep waters that will wash over us, soak us, and cleanse us. On the journey, we sing:

Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come?
Why should my heart be lonely, and long for heaven and home?
When Jesus is my portion, my constant friend is He:
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

Why are you so discouraged, the psalmist asks? Why are you so sad? Put your hope in God! We will praise Him again—our Savior and our God!

But, you know, if we will not admit our pain, we can’t deal with its consequences. It’s no wonder that the first step in any twelve-step program is to admit the problem, whether it is alcoholism or drugs or something else. No pastor, therapist, counselor or friend can help those who will not admit their need for help. Folks can’t help if you won’t let them help.
Is there a sense in which you feel isolated from God and God’s purpose today?

Perhaps the problem is your sin, and the first step is honest confession and contrition. Perhaps, like the psalmist, you have been oppressed by others in their sin; now you are innocent of guilt but nonetheless suffering its consequences. Are you dealing with pain or fear that you feel God should have prevented or healed? Are you facing physical or financial setbacks that God has not remedied? Stress in your marriage or family that God has not lifted? In what way do you feel far from God today? Don’t wander off. Cling and pray specifically for what you need.

Cling to the memories of what God has done, cling to the unchanging, always loving nature of God. Cling to the Word of God, cling to other folks of faith, cling to what Jesus did on the cross, cling to hope.

You know, Christians have worshipped God not only in brightly lit sanctuaries, not only in soaring Gothic cathedrals or in the splendor of Saint Peter’s basilica in Rome. Christians have also gathered together in catacombs and prison cells, on the run from Communists in China, and on sinking ships in the Atlantic. Christians have shared the body and blood of Jesus not only while organs played fugues by Bach but also while air raid sirens cut the air outside the church with their shrill warnings of Nazi bombers over London.

Again and again, often in dark circumstances where they could no more see God on the move than could the poet of Psalm 42, Christians have remembered Jesus—they’ve glanced to the side of any present darkness to recall the cross and what that cross has meant throughout their lives. And as they’ve done so, they have again and again discovered that Jesus is no mere memory—He’s here! He’s alive!

And so, stop settling for contingent contentment, being happy only when all the circumstances have lined up according to your desires. Instead, trust God, hope in Him, and know that His is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever.

If you are depressed and feeling all alone, Psalm 42 validates what you’re going through as an experience well-known to all people of the faith, and it can help you express your honest pain to God. It can also remind you that God is with you, God uses all things for the good of His people and—like the apostle Paul—you can learn to be content regardless of your circumstances. You can do all things through Christ who gives you strength.

Keep this psalm and Philippians 4 close by you each day. And, finally, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received, do; and the God of peace be with you. Amen.

Telling Bob About the Pastorate

In preparing for this morning, I struggled for some weeks over what I should present in the way of a candidating sermon. I scoured the Word; I perused articles; I searched online; I sought the advice of pastoral colleagues, family members and friends; and I prayed and prayed and prayed. For whatever reason, the message to be delivered at a neutral pulpit before the church’s search committee had come to me with immediate certainty. Forgiveness. A no-brainer!

But what to offer today? This one didn’t come as easily. Should I offer a sermon on the Word and words? A message on spiritual awakening and revival? The I Am Statements of Jesus? The 23rd Psalm? Or, in the wake of Hurricane Florence? Perhaps a message addressing the question: How Could a Loving and All-Powerful God Allow the Catastrophic to Occur?

A mere 66 books, only about 800,000 God-breathed words to consider!! Narratives. Prophecies. Poems. Gospels. Epistles. Should I offer a topical sermon or a verse-by-verse message, mining each word for its breadth of meanings in the original languages? What to do! What to do!!

And then, while preparing my opening remarks for last night’s dinner and this afternoon’s luncheon, I felt led to Bob. Now, most of you who are here this morning likely know that I have served as a professor of evangelism and renewal and directed a doctoral program centered on the Renewal of the Church for Mission. In those capacities, I often served as a pastor to pastors or as a pastor to those preparing to enter the pastorate. And, over the years, many dear ones have asked me to speak at their ordination services and installations. As I am here this morning praying that you might call me to serve as your pastor, I thought it appropriate to return to a message I delivered at a service for one of my Master of Divinity students.

Now, Bob was one who’d been in several of my classes, and I’d even invited him to participate in a doctoral level course that I taught in Washington, D.C. Some years ago, he accepted a call to lead a church in upstate New York, and I was called upon to share key lessons from the Word on the responsibilities of the pastor; I was charged to bring a charge to him on the day of his installation.

I took a three-part approach. First, I looked to the passage in the Bible that has been called “the handbook for ministers.” Then I considered the temptations that face the pastor, and I concluded with an examination of what it means to be a servant leader, an under-shepherd of Christ leading according to the example set by Jesus. In creating the message, I built upon the reflections of other writers on these themes and passages that have ministered to me and have taken up residence in my heart.

One last bit of introduction, before we turn to the Word. . . a question that was once posed to me that still prompts a shake of the head, a moan and a good laugh: “I know pastors work on Sunday mornings but what do they do the rest of the week?” In the next few moments, I’ll convey a bit about what we do the rest of the week as I speak to Bob, to Bob’s congregation, to you and to myself.

MATTHEW 4:1-11 AND 2 TIMOTHY 4:1-5

First Timothy 4 (and that’s not a mistake, I do mean First Timothy 4) has been referred to and has served as a “handbook for ministers.” The chapter provides practical instruction for the one called to pastor the local church. The task: preach the Word, practice the Word, progress in the Word.

This passage, as rendered into contemporary language in The Message by Eugene Peterson, reads this way:

The Spirit makes it clear that as time goes on, some are going to give up on the faith and chase after demonic illusions put forth by professional liars . . . [But] you’ve been raised on the Message of the faith and have followed sound teaching. Now pass on this counsel to the Christians here, and you’ll be a good servant of Jesus. Stay clear of silly stories that get dressed up as religion. Exercise daily in God— no spiritual flabbiness, please! Workouts in the gymnasium are useful, but a disciplined life in God is far more so, making you fit both today and forever. You can count on this. Take it to heart. This is why we’ve thrown ourselves into this venture so totally. We’re banking on the living God, the Savior.

Get the word out. Teach believers with your life: by word, by demeanor, by love, by faith, by integrity. Stay at your post reading Scripture, giving counsel, teaching. And that special gift of ministry you were given when the leaders of the church laid hands on you and prayed—keep that dusted off and in use.

Cultivate these things. Immerse yourself in them. The people will all see you mature right before their eyes! Keep a firm grasp on both your character and your teaching. Don’t be diverted. Just keep at it. Both you and those who hear you will experience salvation.

Now, let’s bring alongside of this a portion of Paul’s message in 2nd Timothy 4 where he writes: “I can’t impress this on you too strongly. God is looking over your shoulder . . . so proclaim the Message with intensity, keep on your watch. Challenge, warn and urge your people. Don’t give up. Just keep it simple. You’re going to find that there will be times when people will have no stomach for solid teaching but will fill up on spiritual junk food—catchy opinions that tickle their fancy. They’ll turn their backs on truth and chase mirages. But you— keep your eye on what you’re doing; accept the hard times along with the good; keep the message alive; do a thorough job as God’s servant.”

In both passages—1st Timothy 4 and 2nd Timothy 4—Paul addresses two of the great dangers within the church today: apathy and apostasy. Apathy might be defined, in the context of the faith, as unfaithfulness to the faith, a lack of concern, a lack of interest in the faith. Apostasy is an abandonment of the faith, a turning from the faith to a lie.

Both are all too commonly found in many who profess to be Christians today, and there is a great need for preachers who will boldly and unashamedly preach the Word without compromise. I hear too often today of folks who are in churches where the Bible is held in the hand and used as a prop, or where entertainment is the word of the day, or where messages are preached each week that are all fluff and no substance, barely milk and certainly not meat. Paul was instructing Timothy to set forth a banquet, and this is a word for all of us who preach today.

Over time, you must work out an entire Biblical menu, drawing from the Old Testament and the New. Doing book studies; character studies; thematic studies; offering sermons that address specific theological questions; messages that focus on special occasions or times of the year. You must make certain the messages preached are drawn out of the Word, are faithful to the Word, and offer practical applications to contemporary realities.

But it is not enough simply to preach. As Paul reminds us, we must also practice what we preach. Practice the Word. Your first call is to faithfulness to the Lord and to His Word. Immersion in the Word will spill out in faithful living and teaching. Commitment to the work of the Holy Spirit will be seen in your concern for the spread of the Gospel. It will be demonstrated in your concern not only for the welfare of your local community but for your region, your country, your continent, your world. Always keep your ministry of prayer and ministry in the Word first. Listen to the Lord and the rest of your responsibilities will be clearly laid out for you.

You are also called to progress in the Word, to mature in it, to be cultivated in it, to grow in it, to live in it, to move forward in and through and for it. Know that there will be temptations along the way to be diverted from your call. We draw lessons about what these temptations might entail from what Jesus experienced when He was taken into the wild for the Test. There were three parts to the test as we see set forth in Matthew, chapter 4.

These temptations of Christ speak to the temptations that face the pastor and, really, for that matter, all of us.

First there is the Maturity Test—The Test of Pain and Pleasure. When you are empty, hurting or confused, will you trust God to meet your needs or will you rush to satisfy them yourself?

Will you be as those who look to the fountain of living water or as those who dig for themselves cracked cisterns that cannot hold water? Will you trust in the Lord and walk in His light or will you try to live by your own light, try to warm yourself by your own fire?

Remember, your Heavenly Father knows all your needs and He will give you all you need from day to day if you live for Him and make the Kingdom of God your primary concern. This we are promised in Matthew, chapter 6.

Then there is the Integrity Test—The Test of Popularity and Praise

Will you use your abilities to serve God and others or to gain praise for yourself? Keep in mind the lesson from the story of Rehoboam from 2nd Chronicles 12. At the height of his popularity and power, he abandoned the Lord, the people followed him in that sin, and the Lord then abandoned them to their enemies. Remember also Proverbs 27:21: “A person is tested by the praise he or she receives.”

To resist this temptation, we are told to follow the Holy Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives. If we do, we’re told in Galatians 5, we won’t need to look for honors or popularity and when the Lord blesses, we won’t be tempted to think we achieved everything under own power. Keep in mind that you will never please all the people all the time and you’re not meant to. We’re to focus on Jesus. In 1 Peter 5, we are told to humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God and, in His good time, He will lift us up.

The third test is the Priorities Test—The Test of Prosperity and Possessions. Do you, will you, value possessions on earth more than treasures in heaven?

In Matthew 16:26, the question is asked: “What good will it be for a person if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” And in 1st Timothy 6:18 to 19, we are instructed to use our money to do good, to give generously to those in need, always being ready to share with others whatever God has given us. By doing this, we are storing up real treasure for ourselves in heaven and living a fruitful Christian life here as well.

Trust in the Lord. Humble yourself before Him. Keep your priorities straight. And then lead like Jesus. Bosses boss. Dictators dictate. Servants serve. The pastor is called to servant leadership. In Luke 22, verse 26, we read: “The one who serves you best will be your leader.”

If you wish to pastor like Jesus, you will need to set an example, following the example that Jesus set. In John 13, we read the words of Jesus: “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” In 1st Peter 5:3, the one called to lead is told not to lord it over others. Instead, to come alongside and lead by good example in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity.

If you wish to pastor like Jesus, you will need to challenge folks with a greater purpose. The popularity of Rick Warren’s book on the purpose-driven life drives home the great desire in peoples’ hearts for purpose, for meaning. We only grow when we’re challenged. God is at work in His people to will and to act according to His good purpose. We have each been made for His purpose. We have each been called according to His purpose. We must work according to God’s agenda and beware of substituting our own agendas for the Lord’s.

If you wish to pastor like Jesus, you will need to affirm folks for their potential and you’ll need to be patient as each will grow as the Lord brings the increase. Remember Proverbs 12:25: A word of encouragement does wonders.

If you wish to pastor like Jesus, you will need to trust folks with responsibility. Luke 16:10 reads: “Whoever can be trusted with a little, can also be trusted with a lot” and in 1st Corinthians 13:7 we’re told that if you love folks, you’ll believe in them and expect the best of them. If you wish to pastor like Jesus, you will offer folks honest feedback, helpful correction, using only helpful words for the building up of others according to their needs.

If you wish to pastor like Jesus, you will be open with folks, honest with them. You’ll look to folks as friends, you’ll love them and you’ll pray for them. You will let folks minister to you. If all goes as it should, you will become pastor of your church one person at a time. And when you find yourself introduced by one in your family of faith not as simply the pastor of the church I attend but rather— with a special inflection and tone—as “my pastor”—that precious gift will fill your soul with a joy that you will treasure always. The pastor has the honor of being present in the most intimate moments of people’s lives: at births, at marriages, at crucial turning points, as an individual breathes a last breath. What a privilege it is to be admitted to such moments! These are the treasures of the pastor.

What tears down the pastor, weighs down the pastor, and can ultimately burn out, chew up and kill the pastor are manufactured crises, perpetuated dramas, pettiness, nitpicking, infighting, behind-the-scenes maneuvering, the stirring up of dissension, discouraging words, negativity and impatience. Warnings and chastisements against these are found throughout scripture. Beware of these, walk carefully through them, pray for wisdom and the strength of the Lord to use them for forward (rather than backward) movement, and pray that you will behave honorably when you encounter them.

One of the burdens of the pastorate is the guilt we can carry because we’re not given the gift of omnipresence. In any given week, there will be personal and family crises needing your attention, folks in the hospital or recuperating at home, homebound or folks in nursing homes urging you to visit. You’ll have a sermon to research and craft and Sunday services to prepare; committee and board meetings to attend; materials to select; short term and long range planning to do. You’ll have a budget line to watch; stewardship to promote. You’ll have dedications, baptisms, weddings, funerals and other events at which you will officiate.

There’ll be a website to update, advertising to consider, staff to nurture, a building to maintain, community and regional contacts to make and keep, classes to teach, phone calls to make, emails to write, a community to reach; mediation to perform. You will be a prophetic voice against the evils of the day. You will need to discern which causes to champion. And there will be seemingly endless adminis-trivia calling for your attention every day of every week.

In the midst of all of this, you must make the effort to maintain a healthy home life, paying attention to your family. You must make time for fun. You must rest. You must keep a Sabbath.

And, in the midst of all of this, there will always be folks who are certain they know far better than you how you should do your work. Some of these will not approach you directly but will attempt to make end runs around you. You will need the patience of Job! At times, you may become so enmeshed, so all-encompassed by the doing of the work that you may begin to lose sight of your first priority:  the being, the being in a deep and ever deepening relationship with the Lord. Put the brakes on when that happens and get yourself back on track.

Several years ago, Vernon Grounds addressed a gathering of pastors at a conference in Massachusetts. In his message, he looked to 1st Samuel 12:23 where these words are written: “As for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by failing to pray for you.”

When he finished his presentation, I looked around the room and every pastor—myself included—appeared to have been cut to the heart by his message. If you remember nothing else from what I’ve shared today, remember this: Prayerlessness is a sin. It is disobedience to the will of God. Luke 18, verse 1, records that Jesus told His disciples that they should pray and not give up. Throughout the scriptures, we are told that prayer ought to be the habit, the rule, the discipline of our lives.

Prayerlessness is contempt for the fellowship of God. If we don’t have time for fellowship with God, we’re serving something wrong. In Rev. 3:20, we’re told that the Lord stands at the door and knocks and comes to anyone who will invite Him in. Sometimes we behave towards God as though we believe Him to be at our beck and call. We expect to press a button and have Him do our will. That’s disrespectful.

Prayerlessness is indifference to the purpose of God. We say we want to be molded in the image of Jesus. Well, Jesus, during His time on earth, prayed. And what is He doing now? Interceding on our behalf.

Prayer is a struggle, a battle on three fronts. Prayer is not always a matter of pure delight. It is a struggle with the physical. With our restlessness, our drowsiness. It is a struggle with the mental. Lack of concentration, a truant imagination. It is a struggle with the spiritual. Remember Ephesians 6. We are not engaged in a struggle with just flesh and blood but are wrestling with the powers of darkness. The enemy uses emotional, physical and spiritual weapons to battle against us. But Satan trembles when he sees the weakest saint on his or her knees. So get on your knees. If you’ve got bad knees, then get on your knees in your heart.

Be concerned about your prayer life. Pray about your prayerlessness and ask the Holy Spirit to revive you in prayer. Give a thought to when you are able to give your undivided attention to God. The times may vary. Perhaps you’ll pray while you walk or when you’re in the car. Perhaps you’ll pray on your knees or prone before God. Perhaps you’ll get up earlier or stay up later when the house is quiet. Do whatever helps.

Be disciplined. With the Holy Spirit’s enablement, keep at it. Pray for the grace to be consistent in prayer. Someone once said that “ruts of routine serve as God’s grooves of grace.” Remember that today you are becoming what you will be the rest of your life. You’re laying the groundwork today for the Christian you’ll be tomorrow. If you have some lack, attend to it today. Teach us to pray, Lord.

Keep before you this prayer: as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by failing to pray for these who make up my family of faith. And if you want your church to grow in every way, encourage your folks to pray.

I ended my message to Bob and his congregation with a prayer that his family of faith might serve as a beacon of light in the place where the Lord had planted them. I prayed that Bob might serve faithfully and well, keeping his priorities straight and the Lord the Lord. I ended with the benediction from Numbers 6:25: May the Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His face shine upon you and be gracious unto you; the Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.

What I’ve presented this morning is that to which I aspire. I want to be a Christ-honoring, Bible-centered, faithful and faith-filled pastor and I pray you will call me to serve as your pastor. And the congregation did…by unanimous vote.

May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you; the Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.

 

An Apparent Defeat May Result in Victory

Golden-Lampstand-Church-pre-demolition-1100
The Golden Lampstand Church, pre-demolition.

In today’s entry in Streams in the Desert, I was reminded of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who were thrown into an enormous fiery furnace when they refused to abandon their allegiance to the living God. Here was an apparent victory for the enemy. It looked as if God’s people were going to suffer a terrible vanquishment, but God saved them in and through the fire. We can imagine what a complete defeat the destruction of the Golden Lampstand Church in Linfen, China must appear to be to many, but as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego emerged from the fire unsinged, so let us pray this apparent defeat will result in a marvelous victory for Christians.
chinese-megachurch-portrait

Defeat may serve as well as victory to shake the soul and let the glory out.

When the great oak is straining in the wind, the boughs drink in new beauty, and the trunk sends down a deeper root on the windward side.

Only the soul that knows the mighty grief can know the mighty rapture. Sorrows come to stretch out spaces in the heart for joy.

 

 

Praying the Church in China will grow ever stronger as Christians are coming under increasing persecution.

Daniel 3

https://www.opendoorsusa.org/christian-persecution/stories/chinese-government-blows-christian-megachurch-warning-local-churches/

Chastising Myself

IMG_2251 (1)I have been chastising myself since last night.

I had been in conversation on Facebook with a Jehovah’s Witness who had set up the straw man of John Shelby Spong as an “authority” on the subject of hell. He was using a video-taped interview with the heretical, now retired, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark as support for his argument against the concept of eternal punishment. In earlier postings, he had made other pointed attacks against non-JWs. In turn, I had been sharing the manifold errors that I believe are clearly evident in the history and theology of the Witnesses. I had been praying that the man might be released from the deluding influence of the organization. In each encounter, he had responded using copious copied-from-JW sources. When in this most recent exchange, he came back with–what I took as–a compounding personal affront, I impetuously, without consulting the Lord, withdrew from the conversation and unfriended him, shaking the dust off my feet as a testimony against him.

Now I have spent most of my professional life studying world religions and new religious movements; I have engaged with many, many individuals walking innumerable paths. I can’t recall ever being the one to withdraw from a conversation, and I’ve been trying to comprehend why I did this time. I think I’m upset with myself because I fear it may have been the wounding to my person that served as the final straw and not the many affronts to Christ.

I woke this morning to find the following as the day’s devotional entry in Streams in the Desert. The line that leapt out from this was this: “Beloved, whenever you are doubtful as to your course, submit your judgment absolutely to the Spirit of God, and ask Him to shut against you every door but the right one.” It is possible that the Lord might have called me to withdraw from the conversation because other work needed to be done in the man’s life before he would be open to hearing what I had to say. The problem is I didn’t wait to hear from the Lord.

The devotional that follows gives a nod to one of my favorite verses (Isaiah 30:21): “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.'” I used to keep a copy of this verse on my desk at the seminary and churches I was serving. As I now sit at a crossroads in my life, I am especially grateful for the call to return to these words today. Sometimes doors are closed. Sometimes God directs our steps to the right. Sometimes we are led to go left. Sometimes, we’re told to stay put. And sometimes…

Here’s the devotional, with its admonition to look to the Lord for clear direction:

Having been kept by the Holy Spirit [at that time] from preaching the Word in Asia (Acts 16:6).

It is interesting to study the methods of His guidance as it was extended towards these early heralds of the Cross. It consisted largely in prohibitions, when they attempted to take another course than the right. When they would turn to the left, to Asia, He stayed them. When they sought to turn to the right, to Bithynia, again He stayed them. In after years Paul would do some of the greatest work of his life in that very region; but just now the door was closed against him by the Holy Spirit. The time was not yet ripe for the attack on these apparently impregnable bastions of the kingdom of Satan. Apollos must come there for pioneer work. Paul and Barnabas are needed yet more urgently elsewhere, and must receive further training before undertaking this responsible task.

Beloved, whenever you are doubtful as to your course, submit your judgment absolutely to the Spirit of God, and ask Him to shut against you every door but the right one. Say, “Blessed Spirit, I cast on Thee the entire responsibility of closing against my steps any and every course which is not of God. Let me hear Thy voice behind me whenever I turn to the right hand or the left.”

In the meanwhile, continue along the path which you have been already treading. Abide in the calling in which you are called, unless you are clearly told to do something else. The Spirit of Jesus waits to be to you, O pilgrim, what He was to Paul. Only be careful to obey His least prohibition; and where, after believing prayer, there are no apparent hindrances, go forward with enlarged heart. Do not be surprised if the answer comes in closed doors. But when doors are shut right and left, an open road is sure to lead to Troas. There Luke awaits, and visions will point the way, where vast opportunities stand open, and faithful friends are waiting.–Paul, by Meyer

 

International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church

According to the US Department of State, Christians in more than 60 countries face persecution from their governments or surrounding neighbors simply because of their belief in Jesus Christ. A report by Open Doors USA identified 2016 as the “worst year yet” (in the 25 years of its monitoring) for Christian persecution. Each month (an average of) 322 Christians die for their faith; 214 Christian churches and properties are destroyed; 772 forms of violence are committed against Christians, including beatings, abductions, rapes, arrests and forced marriages. The most dangerous place for Christians is North Korea followed by Somalia and Afghanistan. Pakistan rose to No. 4 but had the overall highest level of violence. Sudan was fifth, followed by Syria, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, and Eritrea.

Please pray for those who are being persecuted for the faith, not only on these days especially set aside for remembrance, but each day of the year.

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Linking to and Reflecting upon a Lament about Anti-Intellectualism in the Church

bible-Sunlight-1I’m linking here to a lament over what is true of all too many churches. It begins with the author’s recollection of a pastor who, in the course of his sermon, said he was discussing things he didn’t understand. Worse, he seemed to have made no attempt to get a grip on the Word and just moved on to something else. This disrespect for the Bible, this disrespect for the Lord, this disrespect for the congregation, infuriates me. I’m sick to death of sitting in church buildings where, on a Sunday morning, no meat and barely any milk is being served from the pulpit. I wince each time I hear a preacher say he or she disagrees with a biblical author on a point of scripture. I don’t want to hear a preacher’s opinion in the sermon; I want to hear what the Bible has to say. I long for content-rich messages that will fill me and keep me full through the week. Why are we settling for this anti-intellectualism? Why aren’t we demanding more from our preachers and more from the seminaries where they are being trained? So many churches are empty or emptying. Too few congregations seem to want genuine servant-leaders who will lead them and who will challenge them from the pulpit. Too many pulpits are being filled with preachers who have little to no training and have received no calling from God.

I was baptized in a church that had a teaching pastor. I looked forward to his sermons each week because I knew I would come away with greater knowledge of the Word and a clear sense of how I was to apply that Word to my life.

I was educated in a seminary that established me in the original biblical languages (Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic) and taught me to work from those in constructing the sermon. I was taught to define a word of scripture according to the original intent, distinguishing the meaning from how the sense of the word might have changed over the centuries. I was taught to consider syntax, parallels, and connections throughout scripture. I was charged with making certain that I would engage in exegesis (drawing out the meaning from each text in accordance with the context and the discoverable meaning of its author) rather than eisegesis (reading into the text what I might want it to say). I was taught to review the authorship, the date of writing, the initial audience, the context (historical, cultural, geographical, and literary), the customs, the current events… I was introduced to the most reliable Bible dictionaries, commentaries, concordances, and books on history and more. When called to preach, I would spend hours in research and would then cull the cogent and craft a sermon to deliver to the congregation. Now, I have been in plenty of churches where that level of academic rigor was carried into the pulpit and evidenced in each message. But, sundry reports and my own observations would suggest this erudition is on the decline.

I should note here that I didn’t mean to go on for so long. My initial intent was just to share the following link. But, every day, it seems, I come upon article after article lamenting the failure of our educational institutions and the decline of the Church. The Church mirrors Society, and Society mirrors the Church. Today, emotions are emphasized to the detriment of reason; entertainment, to the detriment of scholarship. Let us expect more. Let us be more.

https://www.equip.org/article/anti-intellectualism-church/