Wisdom from the Wilderness

March 25, 2020

Do you feel like you may be in the wilderness right now? Quarantines; viruses; isolation; uncertainty–all combined can certainly make us feel like we are on a wilderness wandering.

Of course, there was a group in history that actually was stuck in the wlderness. Scripture uses it as a watershed event–a crucial part of the biblical narrative and not just for Israel. Numerous wilderness lessons abound. Perhaps now is a perfect time to revisit some of them.

  • The Call to Trust is Primary. From the start with their backs to the Red Sea, God called Israel to explicitly trust in him. Theirs was a journey to establish the kind of trust that would accomplish the task of nation-building. Israel was never more Israel when they actually processed, understood and acted in faith on this. Often though, they did not exhibit this kind of trust and suffered as a result. But God delivered them and delivered on his promises anyway. The call to trust is still primary. Christ’s ministry only reinforced this need (John 14:1). If we can learn to fully embrace trust then we can largely eliminate worry, doubt and everything else that robs us of the joy of God’s promises. Especially now–let’s trust God with all we are.
  • God is Always Near. Israel had God in their sights–literally–both day and night (Exodus 13:21). They experienced Sinai first-hand. They witnessed Moses’s makeover after being with God. God was near. They saw it and felt it. We are equally assured that God is an “ever present help in our time of need’ (Psalm 46:1). The apostle Paul told a group of skeptics, that he is not far from any of us (Acts 17:27). This is why we can trust! Even if we are isolated in quarantine, we are never alone. Just as he saw Israel through, he will see us through as well.
  • Always Push Toward the Promise. The wilderness was merely a temporary challenge. The Promise Land made every one of those challenges worth it. Some in Israel lost sight of this promise; lacked trust; forgot that God was near; grew faithless and stopped pushing toward that promise. This is one reason we know their story–why it is embedded in biblical narrative–so we can learn better. No matter what comes let’s “press on toward the goal” to borrow Paul’s phrase (Philippians 3:14). Let’s never allow whatever wilderness we face to defeat trust in us. We have our own promised place to realize (John 14 again).

No one wants to feel lost in a barren wilderness or face uncertain times, dealing with an unknown virus. If there is anything we can gain from the wilderness story, it is that no matter what looms ahead of us–it must be engaged with a ferocious sense of faith and trust. God will see us through.


We Will Understand It All By And By

March 18, 2020

Last Sunday at Levy–for our first live-stream only worship due to COVID-19, I presented a message from Romans 8, centering around verse 18 which states:

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 

Then this week I discovered an old article I had written also based in this text which I had totally forgotten (funny how God works like that). I am not sure when I wrote it, but it does demonstrate how, as long as we are in the world we will have trouble (to paraphrase Christ). In it I reference the old hymn, “Farther Along.” So, I thought I would share that article here.

Tempted and tried we are oft made to wonder why it should be thus all the day long. 

This song lyric echoes the thought many of us are having currently. With all of the world turmoil increasing daily and all of the domestic problems escalating, many do wonder. In some ways it has always been this way and always will be. The early church struggled through persecution and frustration to never-the-less expand the kingdom. Some gave their lives as a result. I am sure they likely wondered why things were so then, only now to understand better. One day we will have a broader understanding as well. As for now we are called to have faith–faith to trust in and rely on the blessings of God. Some of these blessings are shared with us in Romans 8:16-39. Blessings that are guaranteed to help us overcome and understand. If not now then by and by. Here is what we have in Christ:

  • Adoption–“The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” Think of that! We are the sons and daughters of God. He has adopted us (see also Ephesians 1:5) and put us into his family with our brother Christ. No matter how tough our world may get–no one can take this away.
  • Inheritance–“heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ.” We share equally with Christ in all of the vast treasure of heaven. Unfortunately, because of the fallen world, suffering is included, but just for now. This is how we can endure through the suffering because we know one day God has something new and much better in store.
  • Future Glory–“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” That wonderful verse again. It is the by and by part, which enables us to maybe understand a tad bit more. Whatever hardships we face now are minimal compared to this glory (see also 2 Corinthians 4:16-18). Hope is found here–real hope–that should serve as an anchor for us to hold on to and endure. God has something renewing planned for his entire creation–including us and it will be glorious.
  • Victory–“Now in all these things we are more than conquerors.” In Christ we have heavenly resources that nothing can stop–not a war, not a recession, (not a virus!), not anything! Nothing will separate us from the love of God and the glory awaiting us in him.

Now with all of this in mind we can begin to view world events and domestic problems differently. God is still in control (vs 28). In him we have steadfast hope. And while things may not be as we like, don’t worry. We will understand it all by and by.

When we see Jesus coming in glory. When he comes from his home in the sky. Then we shall meet him in that bright mansion. We’ll understand it all by and by. 

 

 

 


“I Am A Child of God, Yes I Am”

November 18, 2019

Yesterday I had the opportunity to accompany a few brothers to visit John 3:16 Ministries in North Central Arkansas. This is a ministry to men whose brokenness and addiction has led them to seek the intense and focused six-month program offered there. Currently they have 160 men working to overcome their demons; seeking to restore relationships damaged by what addiction brings; and to anchor it all in the love and presence of Christ. It was quite an amazing experience.

As we gathered in worship I shared in both the celebration of those who have found redemption and the desperation of those just beginning that journey. I witnessed families clinging to one another; husbands and wives with renewed hope; and folks kneeling together with arms wrapped around each other in prayer. It was quite powerful. God was moving in that place to bring healing to broken lives.

Then the song, “I am a Child of God” was led. I always thought this was such an incredible song by Hillsong. The lyrics from the first time I heard them spoke to me, but in this setting–listening to and singing, “Who am I that the Highest King would welcome me?”–It pierced my heart. I understood why the song would resonate with this audience. For these guys to sing, “Who the Son sets free, Oh is free indeed,” there is an additional layer and meaning. But the words were also penetrating my own layers.

One thing on evident display yesterday was transparent humility. It made me look deep within me to expose my own pride and pretense. Who am I? My mind went to Isaiah’s comment about our righteousness just being a “filthy rag” in the presence of God (Isaiah 64:6). I felt a sense of my own desperation as I stood and sang with those around me. Again Isaiah’s words from that text echoing in my thoughts; “all of us have become like the one who is unclean.” It was a moment of clarity for me.

Who am I? That could be answered in numerous ways–spinning the words to portray me in the best possible way. I could shine up my resume; boast of my accomplishments; and seek to impress. I could posture, maneuver and even pander–all to prop myself up so that you would realize just how significantly important I am. But in that moment, surrounded by such honest humility driven by filthy rag realizations, that all was revealed as the empty pretense that it is.

Who am I really? Or who do I need to be completely to make any definite, lasting difference for my family, for my church and for my community?

I am chosen, not forsaken. I am who you say I am. You are for me, not against me. I am who you say I am. In my Father’s house there is a place for me. I am a child of God, yes I am.


To the Preacher

November 14, 2019

In my preaching journey I have made numerous mistakes, but I have also learned a few things though along the way. Call it growth or survival, but I have managed by God’s generous grace to make it so far. I would encourage anyone who has the giftedness and passion to pursue a life of ministry. The church needs to continue to develop and produce solid preachers.

If preaching is your call; if serving God and his people through ministry is your passion–God bless you! We can use you, but please give all diligence to make sure your life and approach to preaching is healthy. Some of the best advice I ever received was simple and biblical–just continue to read the Pastoral Epistles (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus) and allow the Holy Spirit to guide and speak to you through these letters. They contain sound, divine instruction for the preacher of God.

In addition here are a few things I have discovered as essential for healthy ministry. I have at times failed in all of these. That is one reason why I share–maybe you can avoid my mistakes:

  • Preach Christ first and foremost. The Corinthian church had assorted and competing agendas at work within it. The apostle Paul’s solution was to focus primarily on the cross and simply “preach Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). We will never go wrong following that example. Lifting up Christ in our ministry and preaching will create the kind of atmosphere in which churches will be healthy, will grow, and will represent the kind of kingdom community God desires. Preachers should avoid the snares of other agendas–they can be divisive and counterproductive to the work of God and the church. We all need to make sure our preaching is anchored in Jesus as we speak truth in love.
  • Don’t Bash the Church. All too often I hear a negative focus when it concerns the church–even from among the ranks of preachers. Sure we have all been there–our church is not where we think it should be; we are frustrated by lack of passion, growth and involvement; maybe the church has even hurt us, but bashing the Bride of Christ accomplishes nothing constructive. Certainly we are to–as Scripture teaches–reprove, rebuke, exhort, but nowhere on this list is to tear down and harm. Just because our church is not exactly what we want it to be, there is no reason to attack it and those in it. God sees his church–even with all of our faults–as radiant. So should we. I get that we all need to vent–preaching is fascinatingly frustrating, but guard against the kind of bitterness which can lead to tearing down instead of building up. God detests that (see Proverbs 6:16-19).
  • Love the Brotherhood. This is a biblical mandate (1 Peter 2:17). It speaks of the broader love for God’s people everywhere–not just those in your church. Once I asked a brother preacher about another congregation in his city. He replied in what I considered to be a demeaning tone, “We are not like them.” I understood. His church had a more progressive outlook. He considered the other congregation too restrictive and old school, but aren’t we all saved by the grace of God? Shouldn’t we love the entire brotherhood of believers and lift up one another in Christ? Too often I sense a spirit of competition between churches and even between preachers. As Paul taught the Corinthians, we are all “of Christ” (See I Corinthians 3:23). We may not always agree on all things but in love we should do our best to accept each other in Jesus (Romans 15:7). This should be the kind of welcoming, healthy spirit we desire in our churches.
  • Do not disqualify yourself (I Corinthians 9:27). Paul spoke in this text about personal integrity–about living the lifestyle to back up the calling. While we do not claim perfection, own up to mistakes, and rejoice in the grace of God, we as preachers must be careful to “watch our life and doctrine closely” (1 Timothy 4:16). All kinds of minefields exist to undermine our credibility as ministers of the gospel. From sexual sins to being irresponsible with words, money and time–we must be on guard. Lazy preparation and preaching is never a good look. We must be alert to allowing some unhealthy agenda to overtake us. It is true that on occasion we may be unfairly held to a higher standard than the rest of the church, but to a degree it does come with the calling. Perhaps this is why Scripture says it is not for everyone (James 3:1).
  • Be Patient. One of the very most difficult challenges in ministry for me personally. I want it done yesterday, but the church simply does not operate like that–and usually for the best. Impatience in ministry can do damage to people and churches. So we have to learn how to operate in our church setting to implement ideas, build consensus, seek input and council, inform and share while bringing folks along with us. That takes work and time, of course, but it is well worth it. Typically the outcome is far better than imagined. Learn to be longsuffering and your ministry will be strengthened as a result.
  • Don’t Grow Stagnant. Just like in other professions–there are peaks and valleys in preaching. Our challenge is to never tarry too long in the valley. We must strive to stay fresh in our spirit; in our preparation; and in our outlook. Make sure to make time to read, to consider the scholarship of others; to find places of encouragement. We cannot preach from an empty well.
  • Be magnanimous (see Philippians 4:5)*. Ministry and conflict; ministry and disappointment; ministry and failure; ministry and hurt all do happen together. It is just a given that in ministry, you will take some lumps–sometimes fairly and sometimes not. All of us in ministry know preachers who have been unjustly treated and have a few stories of our own. However the natural way to react to these is not usually the best way. Rather we should learn to be magnanimous–to forgive and, at least from our perspective, do our best within those situations to be led by the spirit of Christ. It is always better to be generous with God’s grace than to be vindictive, return hurt for hurt or to allow bitterness to take root. Being magnanimous gives God the glory and defines our ministry as being led by him.

I love preaching and preachers! To us all I say–don’t lose heart while we do our best to “discharge all the duties” of our ministry.

I will conclude with a text from 1 Timothy that I referenced earlier. I think it is a fitting way to conclude:

Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress.  Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers. (4:15-16)

May God bless our ministry for him.

 

 

*Thanks to Cecil May III for helping me see this text in a better way.

 

 


Meet The Preacher

November 6, 2019

You may know us, but then again you may not. Preachers have a way of hiding behind the pulpit. We can easily be stereotyped. Through experience we often learn to become very guarded and protective of our hearts and homes. Paradoxically though we often feel obligated to give even more of ourselves into our ministry. We come in all shapes, sizes and giftedness–and you may be surprised to learn:

  • The church is our life. For better or worse it is difficult for this not to be true. We pour all of ourselves into our ministry in the church. Preaching is not simply a vocation–it is essentially our identity. As a result the church becomes our life. We become consumed with its health and growth. Remember that old joke about preachers only working four hours a week? We may force a smile as it is told, but trust me we are not laughing. Actually–honestly most of us would consider it condescending. This is also why we tend to take it personally when someone leaves our church. We process it as a rejection of us and our ministry efforts within the church. No, that is not a healthy approach or necessarily an accurate assessment, but one almost impossible to avoid. This also explains the tortured look on your preacher’s face when he hears that you decided to go to the lake/ball game/whatever rather than attend the big, special, highly promoted Sunday at church. He has spent weeks planning that Sunday. Hours spent in prayer. His hope is that Sunday will spark a spiritual renewal in someone. It is a huge deal to him and for it to be so easily dismissed by others is disappointing. I am not saying it is fair to hold everyone to our expectations–just explaining who we are. The best way I can describe how the church becomes our life is a quote attributed to Cecil May, Jr. (as told by his son Cecil III). Someone once commented to Cecil, Jr., “I wish I had a job that I never had to clock into.” Cecil, Jr. replied, “I wish I had a job I could clock out of.” I do not make this point as either complaint or as some outstanding virtue–only as informative. To understand your preacher, understand that the church is his life (his family certainly knows it).
  • We are an insecure bunch. This is a layered discussion. The first layer is within us. I think God calls some of the most naturally insecure folks to preach. It could be his way of demonstrating his strength within our weak vessels (see 2 Corinthians 12:10). Of course, we have a job in which it is difficult to quantify results. We work with volunteers with varying commitment levels–some of whom occasionally find it necessary to remind us of our insecurities. We wonder regularly if our preaching is connecting and effective. Then there is the church layer. Most churches encourage and support their preachers well, but some don’t. Almost every preacher I know has a horror story or three about mistreatment by good brothers and sisters. Financially, churches as-a-whole do better than previous generations. Yet the overwhelming majority of preachers continue to not have the benefits that those hiring them take for granted–health insurance, retirement, etc. All of this breeds insecurity. I was once told (by someone not a preacher) that this is the way it is supposed to be; that preachers are supposed to live off the gospel. While I do not disagree that we are to walk by faith, I am not sure how an atmosphere of insecurity is helpful or healthy for any preacher or any church.
  • We may resist close friendships. I mentioned that we are good at hiding behind pulpits, which can be challenging in making long-term, close connections. There are reasons behind this, of course. First we fight against stereotyping. Often people have fairly strong preconceptions about preachers–making various assumptions about us because we preach. Once at a church workday, a church member expressed surprise that I could use a hammer. Such stereotyping can prevent folks from ever getting beyond that in order to develop a deeper relationship outside of the church walls. Another factor here is betrayal–having trusted someone with intimate information or personal challenges only to have that information shared and even used against us. It does happen. Preachers can be extremely vulnerable within certain church settings. There is no such thing as tenure (part of the overall insecurities) and especially if a preacher has been burned, it can be a challenge to be open to close friendships within the congregation. This is not always the case, of course, but there is a reason that for many preachers–their best friends are other preachers. So if you have ever wondered why your preacher may resist developing a deeper friendship with you–it likely has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with some past unpleasant experience.
  • We can be our own worst enemies. I like to say that preachers are people too. We deal with the same temptations, tendencies, and trepidations as everyone else. We make mistakes–plenty of them. Ego can get in our way and we can lose perspective along with the ability to listen to sound advice. We can hurt and betray others. We can develop bitterness and cynicism. Our preaching can become imbalanced with agendas other than “Christ and him crucified” creeping in. All of this is on us and we have to be vigilant in protecting ourselves against such. Most of us understand this and strive to not disqualify ourselves (see 1 Corinthians 9:27) or our ministry through harmful behavior and lazy preaching. It is also a matter of maturity. Just like others in their professions, we learn as we grow with sometimes-painful lessons being the best schoolteacher. Looking back in my ministry I have been my own worst enemy on numerous occasions, which makes me even more overwhelmingly grateful for good churches and godly elders who were more than patient with me.

The Bible describes the feet of those who proclaim God’s message as “beautiful” (Isaiah 52:7; Romans 10:15). I am not sure how many of us who preach see ourselves that way. We get the thought, but we also live with ourselves and are more than acquainted with our failures and weaknesses. But we would not have it any other way. Preaching–well that is just who we are.


The Learning Curve

October 31, 2019

In the previous post I referred to the ministry learning curve as frustratingly fascinating. I think that description nails it. Fascination and frustration seem to partner up frequently in ministry.

I entered full-time ministry with a great deal of idealism (which I have never completely shaken). I possessed noble ideas about how as Christians we would all be united in passion and purpose; together in commitment and dedication; that the church would always be striving to be better, to grow, and mature; and if we simply followed Scripture that this would be the happy outcome. Couple that with the fact that I was also convinced that I possessed the answers on how to make this happen and as you can guess, my idealism quickly collided with realism. So began the learning curve.

And so I present some of the twists in the curve I have discovered:

  • I gotta be me. As a young preacher I had my preaching heroes. After hearing these brothers fire me up at workshops, meetings, and lectureships–I would return to my church with my best impersonations. Then I waited for the expected tremendous response–and usually got crickets. How I wanted to be those guys in those keynote moments enthusiastically charging up the masses! Except it just never happened quite like that. Eventually I learned to simply be me–to allow God to use my personality and giftedness–not me attempting to channel someone else. I think it has worked out okay so far. I have never keynoted the masses at a nation-wide event (once I was told that I needed to “specialize” in something other than local preaching–write a book–in order to catapult myself into well-known keynote status), but God has rewarded me richly with wonderful relationships with several churches–that accepted me for me.
  • Change happens slowly. This, for me, falls under the frustrating category–even now as I realize its merits (well usually anyway). I recall once storming out of a men’s meeting overwhelmed with impatience. The topic was building maintenance, no one was making a decision, and I had world-altering evangelistic plans to propose! As I dramatically exited I think I uttered something like, “You will have the best building in town, but no one in it!” (Talk about grace. Somehow I kept my job.) So while it will always be my personality to move quickly, most churches cannot and remain healthy. Rash, quick, forced change generally brings trouble and often explosive division–which is usually counterproductive to the kingdom. Healthy churches do change, but over time– an evolution rather than a revolution–all being led and guided by the Holy Spirit of God. Realizing this I have had to make sure that my agenda as the preacher is also shaped by God’s will and fits squarely into the personality and goals of the church I serve–while at the same time encouraging the church not to settle for status quo but rather to continue to mature and grow. Often it is not an easy balance, especially with my impatient personality, but typically it is for the best. The church is like a big ship. It does not turn on a dime, but it does turn. The challenge is to make sure the changes bring health and growth for the church and glory to God.
  • Everyone will not always be happy. Yea, I figured this one out fairly quickly. Folks have been unhappy with me for years! At one point my sermons were too targeted to youth; then before I knew it my sermons were not reaching the younger generation. I have been called “liberal;” was criticized for teaching too much on love; and was once told I was making things up–that what I preached was not in the Bible (even as I turned to the text in question). I have seen unhappiness with elders; with song selection for worship; with youth ministers; with how much time I spend (or do not spend) in the office; with the color of paint; with how to use the church budget; with Bible class topic selection; once even over the type of car I purchased; and with–well the list could literally be exhaustive. And unhappy people leave–feeling frustrated, betrayed, hurt, angry and letdown. (Note–almost all preachers take it personally when someone leaves the church. It is a reflexive reaction–even if it has been handled corectly and even if needed to happen for the sake of those leaving–it always stings. If you cannot understand that check out my next post in which I will try to open the window into what it is like being a preacher). Some of my worst and most personally painful ministry experiences have been people unhappy. With all of my heart I wish this could be different. My idealism kicks in still and I wonder why we can’t work through our unhappiness together as iron sharpening iron to emerge even better and stronger? I don’t like this twist in the learning curve, but it is there.
  • God blesses sincere effort. In my preaching ministry I have always tried to be sincere, if not smart. And looking back I realized God blessed that. It really is the only way to explain my journey. Usually calling an idea presented by an elder, “the stupidest thing I have ever heard,” would not go very well or engender good relationship, but God protected me through that due to his grace living within that eldership. Almost always living out the nightmare of a divorce would not be something a church would endure with their preacher, but the Skyway Hills church in Pearl, MS did–and saved my life in more ways then one. Then later another church, Gateway in Pensacola, FL, was the first to invite this divorced preacher in after another church rejected me, stating, “we cannot see a divorced man in this role.” And now God has blessed me to be a part of this wonderful family at Levy. The only way I can explain it is: I have just tried to do my best through it all–my own immaturity; frustrations; brashness; ignorance; sin; arrogance; insecurities; divorce; hurt; stubbornness; weakness; ego and pride–to sincerely share a message from the Lord. And I have been blessed beyond measure by God and his marvelous people.

After all these years I remain firmly on the learning curve–perhaps a bit further down it for sure. But it still can be frustratingly fascinating and I’ll be the first to admit that I have even more to learn. I am just thankful that God and his people have not given up on me yet!


Why Preaching?

October 28, 2019

This is the first in a series of articles in which I will consider the work of preaching and what it means to be a preacher based upon my own life and experiences. 

Occasionally someone will ask me why I am a preacher. Sometimes I am not sure if the question comes from a genuine desire to know and understand what makes me tick or from a “of all things, why in the world would you choose preaching?” point-of-view.

The question does typically make me reflect however. It takes me back years ago to Greenville, MS to a young man floundering with no direction, meeting Christ and doing what just seemed natural in the moment. Once I became a Christian, preaching to me, was the obvious next step. Prior to that it would have never even remotely occured to me, but then Christ happened which upended everything. The preacher at the South Main Church of Christ encouraged me to consider it and as it happens, a new nearby “preacher” school, Magnolia Bible College, was beginning its second year of operation. So I dove in with what little giftedness and knowledge I had and never really looked back.

I never looked back even though many where offering the “you-will-need-something-else-to-fall-back-on” advice (Thankfully I have not heard that in recent memory. I suppose after I reached a certain age, others thought it futile to suggest it). I did not hesitate even as my classwork became increasingly difficult. I never faltered even when my ten pages of notes only produced a seven-minute sermon on my first sad attempt in Belzoni, MS during my freshmen year. I never reconsidered even after a good brother called MBC’s board chairman to encourage him to discourage me from preaching because “he will never make a preacher.”

I just thought preaching was what I was supposed to do. I would have never been mistaken for a visionary. I did not gaze that far down the road; never contemplated earning potential or career arc; never had any kind of existential moment about it. I was honestly convinced this was God’s call for my life and that I could somehow make a kingdom difference by answering that call.

Some would say I was naïve and they would be right. I was blissfully unaware of the inner workings of congregations; of the stubbornness of entrenched traditions, customs and patterns within churches; of how to work within a church culture to get things accomplished; of the fact that good church folk would actually oppose my ideas; of how people would forever treat me slightly differently; of both the disappointments and blessings involved. I was simply ignorant of many aspects of being a “located” preacher. I just wanted to preach!

And preach I did–all throughout the state of Mississippi as the visiting young preacher boy. What a wonderful experience that was! Almost always I was met with support, encouragement and enthusiasm among the churches. It turned out to be a terrific incubator for my desire to preach and only fueled my passion even more.

I finally took that desire full-time to an unsuspecting little church in Delhi, LA who were desperate enough to offer me and my freshly minted B.A. in Bible the chance. I was passionate, brash, self-convinced, and at times unrelenting while simultaneously being undisciplined, nervous, unsure and insecure. Things took off and then they didn’t–and I began the long, slow, adventursome learning curve that I remain on even now–decades later.

But I still have not looked back (maybe even when it would have been easier to do so); I still love preaching and still have that desire to try to make a difference. The learning curve? It has been frustratingly fascinating produing both incredible joys and heartbreaking pain. (Come back for more on that. I will pick that up in articles to follow.)

Why a preacher? Well not much has changed as for an answer. It still seems simple, even with floodwaters having passed under the bridge by now. For better or worse (and there is both, believe me, but you know that already!) I believe it is just who God made me to be.