Awed by Favor

This past week I had the joy of speaking at our state association’s campground for a Family Camp. I was the morning speaker which means my time was supposed to be more teaching and applicational than preaching. Besides my wife and I experiencing some fun activities like jet skiing, zip-lining, slip-n-sliding, etc., it was an immense privilege to share God’s truth with people. Sometimes I feel like pinching myself to see if it’s real. Why would God allow me or really, anyone, to share his eternal truth with others? How come I get paid to be a conduit of God’s instruction for his people? I can empathize with the Apostle Paul’s thoughts.

I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service…. 1 Timothy 1:12 (ESV)

Pastor, Christian worker, godly layperson, there are lots of disappointments in serving other members of the family of God, but don’t forget that you are also immeasurable blessed. That God would allow us… would entrust us with the perfect, trustworthy Word of God is an awesome stewardship and amazing privilege. Whether you are teaching 2s&3s, the senior saints, or anyone in between, you have the joy of sharing truth that came from God! We can say with the Old Testament prophets, “thus sayeth the Lord.” How incredible!

I’ve had people come up to me and thank me for teaching them God’s Word. I’ve had them tell me that it was exactly what they needed at that moment. This has happened many times in group settings, but also individually. It’s been senior saints, teens, college students, young parents, and others. Why would God let me have that privilege? It’s too much to fathom.

Marriages have been healed by the truth of God’s Word. Straying teens have come to Christ through the preaching of God’s Word. Relationships have been reconciled by believers that finally understand what Scripture says. And I get to be part of all of that. A tiny part—it’s always God’s grace that changes someone—but God uses willing instruments.

Do you get the favor that God has bestowed on you? You know you’re not giving financial advice like a broker, right? You’re not teaching the three Rs like an elementary teacher. You’re not teaching CPR like a first-responder. All of those are important, but none match the majesty and glory of telling people what God has said in his Word. I’m stunned by the glory of our God as Scripture describes him, and I get to share that same astonishment with others.

I’m awed by the privilege and responsibility. I hope you are too. Never forget the grace bestowed on you.

Showing Up Mattered

Every Christian who serves sometimes wonders if his or her efforts are having any effect. With some people it’s not obvious that God is working. Am I really helping this person change? Does my faithfulness really matter?

I added a Youth Ministry Concentration to my M.Div. while in seminary and the primary faculty member suggested that I teach a Youth Sunday School class at my church. He warned me, however, that this particular group of 7th grade boys was notorious. Several teachers had quit over the past year, and he didn’t want me to be another one–these boys didn’t need that. He related to me that the teacher just before me was another seminary student who naively promised the guys on his first Sunday that he wasn’t going to quit on them—he lasted about a month.

The youth pastor at my church was a friend of mine; we had worked at the same Christian camp one summer and were now in seminary together, so I wanted to help him out while also investigating if youth ministry was for me.

While my wife attended an adult S.S. class, coincidentally taught by the father of one of the 7th grade boys in my class, I made my way to my class on that first Sunday. It’s not my default to be optimistic, but I was certainly naïve. I wondered how bad could they really be? I was a little late finding my way to the classroom—this church had famously labyrinthine hallways, and by the time I got there, the boys had arrived and had locked me out of the classroom. They saw me and heard my knocking, but wouldn’t open the door. I had to get my youth pastor friend so he could unlock the classroom for me! He gave them a talking to that morning before I could even get into the day’s lesson.

On one of the next Sundays they stole my curriculum and hid it. For a while they wouldn’t tell me where it was. They were a rambunctious lot: interrupting me, not listening, intentionally creating distractions, speaking out of turn, trying to sidetrack me—it seemed they were purposely trying to annoy me. I continued to invest in them primarily on Sunday mornings, but I also went to Winter Retreat Camp with them as their counselor (they loved shooting me with paintballs!). We did work days and other teen activities together. I was their teacher for 7th, 8th, and one half of 9th grade. By that time I was done with seminary and was moving away to my first ministry. This isn’t a Hallmark story. They didn’t come up and hug me on my last day, and there are a few whose lives since then have proved they were never believers. But they knew that I didn’t quit. I was their longest serving teacher.

Picture taken on my last day teaching them.

About ten years later one of those boys that was married and on the road representing a Christian college stayed at our house. He confessed that all the boys decided that first day of class to see if they could make me quit. They literally plotted this together! It wasn’t personal; they really didn’t even know me until that first day. It’s just that others had quit, and they suspected they could make me quit too. They were, as my wife said at the time, “naughty little boys.” They were hoping to set a record for how fast I would quit; they actually discussed that. I’ve had others in that class confirm that story since then. It’s funny now, but it was certainly difficult at the time.

A surprising number of them went to seminary and into vocational ministry serving as pastors and at least one as a missionary in a closed country. Others are active in their churches. I don’t live on the East Coast where I went to seminary, but over the years I’ve run into a few of them and now we laugh about their antics. Their spiritual growth had very little to do with me; I don’t remember one lesson that I taught them those 2.5 years. But they had parents that had the patience of Job and the wisdom of Solomon and a youth pastor that loved them. And, most importantly, they had a God that was working in their hearts even when I couldn’t see it.

I thank God for those 7th grade boys. They taught me dependence upon God. I found out that God’s grace could keep me serving even if it were difficult. Sure, probably most people could have endured an hour a week (although several teachers that quit belie that claim) ministering to ungrateful little rascals. It wasn’t that impressive. But it is an example of God’s faithfulness to me. He gave me strength and actually joy (?!) every week as I anticipated serving them.

I was just trying to be faithful as God commands.

Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. 1 Cor 4:2 (ESV)

Faithfulness is not all that is required for effective ministry. Other attributes are important too. However, sometimes that’s what ministry is. Being faithful in the little things and trusting God even when His work seems invisible or impossible. The little things are where we show faithfulness. For those boys and for me, just showing up every Sunday mattered.

You’re So Vain, You Probably Think This Post Is About You

I’m writing you because I’ve always liked you and appreciated your heart for ministry.[1]The blog title is with apologies to Carly Simon. However, I’ve noticed over the years a failing that is more harmful than you might initially realize. It has several symptoms, but one is that you take credit for the little success that God has allowed you to be part of. It’s like Laura Story says in her song, “Grace,”

My heart is so proud
My mind is so unfocused
I see the things You do through me
As great things I have done

It seems to me that you think ministry success is intrinsic to you and not to God’s grace through you. Yes, some have been influenced and blessed by your ministry. Some have enjoyed your preaching and been changed by it. I’ve talked to people that are very appreciative, but you’ve imagined that said something about you and your talents rather than God and his grace. (And I should know since I’m writing this post to myself.)

God says he hates pride (Jam 4:6; 1 Pet 5:5), but you don’t seem to hate it that much. You realize that, right? You express envy of others’ ministry—you know this is true! Rather than rejoicing that God’s Kingdom is advancing through other unworthy servants you wish it was advancing through you. You want to be the nexus of God’s work. Scripture says there is one Mediator between God and man (1 Tim 2:5), and you want it to be you. That attitude dethrones Christ. You need to be dethroned, not Christ.

Actually, envy is very likely one of the chief characteristics of your heart. You look at other Christian families and wish your family was in the same stages of life as they are with the same seeming success. Do you see how unseemly that is? Paul tells us to…

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Romans 12:15 (ESV)

You do weep with those that suffer; however, even that is tainted by your own tendency to think that maybe, maybe God has given them suffering and not you as evidence of his chastisement of them and his joy in you. Do you see how sneaky your pride is?  

But the first half of the verse you rarely obey. You hear of the blessings that others receive, and inside you sound like the child you once heard who screamed, “BUT WHAT ABOUT ME?” You want the blessings of certain milestones with your children, and you’re not satisfied with God’s timing. You long for the acknowledgement that others receive, and you’re not content with how God has used you so far.

Please listen carefully; don’t be defensive. You act a bit like Diotrephes in 3 John.

I have written something to the church, but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. 3 John 9 (ESV)

One of your college professors memorably said of Diotrephes, “The loving of prominence and the longing for preeminence is in all of us.” [2]Doug McLachlan I don’t know if it’s in all of us, but it certainly is in you. You want to be recognized and acknowledged. It’s not a little failing; it’s actually a grotesque distortion of the servant attitude that Christ displays throughout the Gospels and the Apostle Paul so richly described in Phil 2. Do you count others as more significant than yourself (Phil 2:3)? Do you look out for the interests of others or just your own (Phil 2:4)? Not often you don’t.

Listen, I like you. I’m your biggest fan. I’ve known your ministry from the beginning, and you’ve always talked about transparency and vulnerability; your response to this can show how transparent you really are. So far, you’ve talked about it without being very transparent or vulnerable yourself. Wouldn’t it be good for you to admit that pride is more entwined with your service than you have realized? Could that be the first step towards more humble ministry; even a more God-blessed ministry?

Even you writing this post is probably an example of pride in your heart costumed as faux humility. You do realize that, don’t you, don’t you?

Consequently, I hope you read these words more than once and recognize that God could use them to set your life on a trajectory of more pleasing service to Him. It might not be more successful by the temporal measures of ministry success, but it could be more God-glorifying and Christ-exalting. And isn’t that why you claim to serve anyway?

References[+]

References
1 The blog title is with apologies to Carly Simon.
2 Doug McLachlan

3 Encouraging Metaphors of Belongingness

We like to be included, don’t we? In the ’80s there was sitcom called Cheers about a Boston Pub and the characters that regularly came or worked there. Do you remember the song? One line was “You want to go where everybody knows your name.” It was a place you belonged. Granted, a bar is really a terrible place to find this sense of belongingness, but that was their pitch.

Have you ever put something together and had extra bolts? Everything works but you have extra pieces. Have you ever felt like that extra piece? Maybe in some groups you feel like an extra bolt. You don’t think you belong. When I don’t feel like I belong, it’s God’s grace that makes me think of others and not just myself—to stay and please Christ by loving others. It’s hard to feel like an extra part. We shouldn’t give in to that feeling at church because we really do belong.

Our kids are going to be home for Christmas—we’ll see all of them even though we will only be all together for one day. This is a big deal because we have one child in each of the four time zones of the lower 48 states which makes it difficult to get together often. God has been gracious to us, and our family loves being with each other. If your family is close, you have a good start to understanding the three metaphors of belongingness or the three metaphors of inclusion that the Apostle Paul uses to describe the church in Eph 2. They really are remarkable.

You Are Citizens in Christ’s Kingdom (2:19a)

Ephesians 2:19 (ESV) So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,

Paul is using the metaphor of national identity. Specifically here it’s being part of Christ’s kingdom, but it’s a national identity. Our political battles about illegal immigration give us some insight into how Paul is describing us. We’re aware that we have people in our nation that don’t have the full rights of citizenship. Because they’re very concerned about being deported, they are susceptible to being oppressed. They don’t want to draw any attention to themselves, so they won’t contact the police. They feel they don’t quite belong.

In a previous ministry we knew a Canadian woman married to an American man, and she told us that she was always exceptionally careful to follow all traffic laws. In my naivete I didn’t think she could be tossed out of the U.S., but she said she could, and for any reason whatsoever. And this could happen even though she was married with children.

Paul is telling us that we’re no longer illegal immigrants in someone else’s nation. We belong. We’re full members of Christ’s kingdom, not second-rate citizens. There aren’t two classes of residents in Christ’s kingdom: Jews and Gentiles. No, out of the two Christ made one new humanity (2:15).

To use the language of the text, we are fellow citizens—a word only used here in the New Testament. You’re not homeless anymore. You’re not stateless anymore. You belong to Christ’s kingdom. Now you are fellow citizens (Phil 3:20) with people of every race and tongue—saints who have trusted God. You belong. You have an identity in Christ’s kingdom.

You Are Members of God’s Household (2:19b)

Ephesians 2:19b (ESV) So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, …and members of the household of God,

Family is a great metaphor because it speaks of intimacy. It’s possible to be a citizen of a nation and be alone. Yes you have security; you don’t get kicked out of a nation. You’re always a citizen and that brings rights and privileges that cannot be abridged. But it doesn’t bring closeness necessarily. It doesn’t bring intimacy. For that we have the metaphor of God’s household—His family.

Being part of a family means knowing you always belong.

When my kids were younger we celebrated many birthday parties at our house. One particular time we were planning it with the child and one of her siblings wondered if he were invited to the birthday party too. The answer was “Of course. You’re part of the family.” Family members don’t need an invitation; of course they can come to the party.

When you go on vacation, you don’t have to tell each kid individually that they are invited on the family vacation. Family doesn’t have to invite immediate family members to Christmas either. They know they are welcome.

That’s the picture of God’s household. You belong. You’re part of the family. Family in the best sense of that word is a good word to describe the relationships that we have with each other and with God in the church.

This is a metaphor that doesn’t really work if we’re talking about the universal church. A local church can be a family in all the wonderful senses of that metaphor.

You Are the Structure of Christ’s Growing Temple (2:20-22)

Ephesians 2:20–22 (ESV) built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

It’s still a metaphor for the church, but it uses a growing temple as the picture. A temple where the apostles and prophets are the foundation. And the passage goes on to say that Jesus is the Cornerstone—a real person, not His teaching. And saints are the structure—again real people, not our teaching.

What does it mean that Jesus is the Cornerstone of this growing temple? We don’t get the importance of this picture with our modern building methods. Nowadays with an important building, the cornerstone is laid at the building dedication, when construction is completed. It’s normally inscribed with the date, but it’s not really important to the construction of the building. It signifies the end of construction.

However, in the first century and before, the cornerstone was the very first stone laid. It wasn’t haphazard. It took time to lay the cornerstone because every other stone in the foundation and superstructure was measured by the cornerstone. The position of all the other stones was determined by the Cornerstone. All other stones adjust themselves to the Cornerstone.

The Apostles and prophets and the saints mentioned above all adjust themselves to Christ. Christ gives the church its direction.

We have a structure that fits together but also grows. It’s like a building in that it fits together and is built, but it’s like a plant in that it actually grows. It’s not a static building. And every Christian is part of the structure of this building (cf. 1 Peter 2:5).

Verse 21 tells us that in Christ the entire structure becomes a holy temple “in the Lord”—in Christ. Our union with Christ makes us part of this temple.

The unity and growth of the church are joined in these verses and Jesus is the secret of both. And the growth here is not individual growth; it’s corporate. This metaphor reminds us why we need the church. We cannot grow without it.

You belong; you have an identity. You are a citizen of Christ’s kingdom. You are a member of God’s family. You are part of Christ’s growing temple. All of these metaphors should find their best definition in your local church. That’s where a sense of belongingness is most felt.

I hope you are there on Sunday. I will be.

Message to Garcia

All four of my children spent a week at the United States Naval Academy the summer before their senior year for the USNA Summer Seminar. It’s an opportunity for students to experience a little of the Naval Academy to help them decide if they want to pursue a nomination and appointment. While there, they heard a story that the Navy has used for almost 100 years. It’s summarized as “Message to Garcia.”

It was a published essay that claims that just before the beginning of the Spanish-American War, President McKinley needed to get a message to the head of the Cuban insurgency, Calixto Garcia. Unfortunately, no one knew where he was in the interior of Cuba. But, he was told, a man named Rowan could find him if anyone could. So the President dispatched Lt. Andrew S. Rowan to find Garcia and deliver the message, and Rowan didn’t ask any questions. He just did it.

One part of the essay summarizes Rowan’s task this way.

How “the fellow by the name of Rowan” took the letter, sealed it up in an oilskin pouch, strapped it over his heart, in four days landed by night off the coast of Cuba from an open boat, disappeared into the jungle, and in three weeks came out on the other side of the Island, having traversed a hostile country on foot, and delivered his letter to Garcia—are things I have no special desire now to tell in detail. The point that I wish to make is this: McKinley gave Rowan a letter to be delivered to Garcia; Rowan took the letter and did not ask, “Where is he at?” By the Eternal! there is a man whose form should be cast in deathless bronze and the statue placed in every college of the land. It is not book-learning young men need, nor instruction about this and that, but a stiffening of the vertebrae which will cause them to be loyal to a trust, to act promptly, concentrate their energies: do the thing—“Carry a message to Garcia.” [1]Elbert Hubbard, A Message to Garcia (East Aurora, NY: Roycrofters, 1914) https://www.gutenberg.org/files/17195/17195-h/17195-h.htm, Accessed on May 11, 2021.

The essay encourages initiative, determination, and independent action to solve problems. The author took quite a bit of historical liberty with it and that and being told “Message to Garcia” when you ask any questions about a task you’ve been given have contributed to the cynicism with which many regard it today. Sometimes it’s a way to cut off discussion and accuse the questioner of lacking initiative.

But “Message to Garcia” is probably what some of us need to hear in our ministries. The average pastor, the average volunteer, and the average servant find it too easy to quit whenever they face any opposition. Christian ministry is not without hazards and difficulties. Probably some of us do need a stiffening of the vertebrae.

A friend of mine used to humorously claim that “Real men quit.” He based that assertion off the KJV translation of 1 Cor 16:13. Watch ye, stand fast in the faith, quit you like men, be strong.” “See,” he would say, “Real men quit. We’re commanded to quit like men” he would say with a wink. Of course the Apostle Paul is saying the opposite—he wants us to act like men. And real men don’t quit. Or at least they don’t quit easily, right?

I don’t know what opposition your ministry is experiencing. There are a lot of difficult situations that pastors can experience. Not every person you serve acts like Jesus. But don’t give up just because it’s hard. Hard is not bad, hard is just hard. Embrace a little of the “Message to Garcia” and fight through the obstacles. God will give you daily sustaining grace.

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:9–10 (ESV)

References[+]

References
1 Elbert Hubbard, A Message to Garcia (East Aurora, NY: Roycrofters, 1914) https://www.gutenberg.org/files/17195/17195-h/17195-h.htm, Accessed on May 11, 2021.
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