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 Often Complicated Ministry of the Apostle Paul

February 22, 2018

2cor4_8-9

The brief New Testament letter of 1 Thessalonians offers us a fascinating glimpse into the often-complicated ministry of the apostle Paul. His transition from hardcore Jewish legalist and Christian persecutor (see Acts 9:1-2 & Philippians 3:5) to special missionary and apostle to the Non-Jews came with baggage. Some in his former community did not appreciate his conversion and new emphasis. They opposed him at almost every stop along his missionary journeys—even seeking once to kill him (Acts 23:12-35). More often this opposition metastasized in the form of fierce criticism within the local church context in an attempt to undermine his credibility and authority. Such was the case in Thessalonica.

Dangerous Duty

Acts 17:1-15 chronicles the story of Paul’s experience in Thessalonica. After initially finding quite the receptive audience in the local Synagogue among a few Jews, some God-fearing Gentiles along with several prominent women, things turned ugly. “Jealous” because of Paul’s success, some Jews in the city rounded up some “bad characters” and created a mob scene by rushing to the house where they assumed Paul would be. This led to false accusations and more chaos before city officials. A man named Jason, who had hosted Paul, caught the brunt of the trouble. Paul, along with his traveling companion, Barnabas, was able to slip away after nightfall and escape to nearby Berea. This should have been the end of the story, but upon hearing that Paul was teaching in the synagogue there, the Thessalonian Jews followed him, “agitating the crowds and stirring them up.” Once again, Paul had to make a hasty departure—this time to Athens.

As a result of this dangerous duty Paul had to abandon his ministry in Thessalonica much sooner than he desired. This is evident when reading the first Thessalonian letter. Also evident is the continued attempts to harass Paul’s name and create doubt within the church about his motives and authenticity.

The Letter

It is a masterpiece of Paul’s writing. He wonderfully lifts up the Thessalonian Christians for their steadfastness in the face of opposition. He expressed his joy over the health and growth of the church in spite of the difficulties. He reminded them they were chosen by God to be his people and upheld them as a model church. He had some teaching to do as well in correcting some eschatological misunderstandings. He also addressed some moral concerns and church matters common to all infant churches, which were not necessarily related to the other circumstances.

He does express his regret in not being able to stay with them longer, but recognizes that in spite of that, his ministry among them was successful. His only agenda while among them was to share Christ and do God’s will. He reminds them that he and his team did not burden them in any way financially, but worked to support themselves. He was proud of their progress in the faith—much like a parent with a child. He wanted to make it clear to them that he and his efforts were above reproach unlike those who opposed him. He longed to be able to return and spend more time with them.

“Hard Pressed on Every Side”

This is how Paul described his ministry in 2 Corinthians 4:8. That too was in a context of heavy criticism and challenge to Paul’s authority in a local church context. Like in Thessalonica, some in Corinth were attempting to undermine his ministry. To defend himself against those critics whom he labeled false teachers, he reluctantly shared his substantial resume and concluded with this:

Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak and I do not feel weak? Who is led to sin and I do not inwardly burn? (See 2 Corinthians 11:1-33 for the full context)

Slammed for leaving Judaism; opposed for introducing the gospel to the Gentiles; criticized for receiving support to spread the gospel and accused of preaching merely for financial gain; made fun of because of his appearance and lack of speaking eloquence; accused of teaching cheap grace; characterized as being a paper tiger—bold to write letters, but timid when face-to-face; and finally arrested for his proclamation of Jesus to all people; Paul’s ministry was indeed often complicated with forces opposing him from both within and without the church. Yet he constantly carried with him the daily  concern for all the churches.

The Thessalonian situation was certainly a part of this concern. Specifically his critics in that city and within that church accused him of exploitation, greed, and deception, of impure and improper agendas. The point of the criticism—like all of it—was to destroy Paul’s influence within the church so a takeover could occur. This happened repeatedly in Paul’s ministry. The motivation for the takeover varied. Sometimes it was monetary gain. Sometimes it was doctrinal. Sometimes it was ego. Envy and hatred were among the driving forces. It was never healthy.

The Jews attempting to cripple Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica were just another group pressing hard against Paul. They were among those making a career out of opposing the gospel; of opposing Jews who expressed faith in Christ; of opposing inviting Gentiles into a relationship with God through Jesus. The idea that they “always heap up their sins to the limit” (1 Thessalonians 2:16) was Paul’s way of saying that they were leaving no stone unturned in their fight against him and the gospel. They were going to use every measure and go to any extreme to stop the spread of Christianity.

Paul was willing to endure it for the sake of the church (see 2 Timothy 2:10). And about all of these complications that were pressing on every side? Here is the rest of that story:

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed but not in despair; persecuted but not abandoned; struck down but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. (2 Corinthians 4:7-10)

Paul was opposed but never defeated. All attempts to short-circuit the gospel failed. God cut through the complications. He still does. There is no time for pity-parties in the kingdom. Capturing the singular passion and purpose of Paul is our challenge. We still have God’s treasures in our jars of clay. Nothing can stand against that all-surpassing power. Paul understood. Do we?


The Curse of the Tree

January 4, 2018

At Levy we are reading the Bible together in 2018. My lessons will flow out from the reading texts. Here is the first one from the first few chapters in Genesis. 

tree-of-knowledge-of-good-and-evil

The creation narrative of the Bible is fascinating on numerous levels. Just the thought of God in six days (or even six eons) bringing about the incredible world in which we live simply by speaking it demonstrates his unfathomable power. The intricacies; the details; how the creation is held together and works is a wonderful topic all its own. The earth and its economy, ecology, and sustaining ability all are a part of the awesome creation story.

So are humans. Central to the narrative of Genesis is God’s relationship with those he created in his own image—man and woman—starting, of course, with Adam and Eve. God created us to have dominion over the rest of his creation (created just a little lower than the angels according to the Psalmist in 8:4-6; also Hebrews 2:6-8). From the beginning God’s ideal was to have a special relationship with us. Adam and Eve experienced the idyllic garden life—innocent and carefree. The garden was fashioned to sustain them and for their enjoyment. It offered them the perfect situation in which to commune closely with the Creator. No one should have asked for more, but they did. Of course, they did. And this then—the consequence of them wanting more—becomes the central narrative of the entire Bible. It is all about the fall and redemption of man. It is the curse of the tree.

Become like a god

This story is just the first of many in human history that demonstrate our tendency to grasp for more and how we can be manipulated and deceived into selling out to possess it. Satan (himself one of God’s creations who fell due to likely wanting more—Isaiah 14:12; Ezekiel 28:11-19) exploits human weakness in the garden for the first, but certainly not last time. Who doesn’t want to become like a god? Once Eve submitted and then Adam by eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil everything immediately changed forever.

In fact, they did become like a god in some ways (Genesis 3:22). By eating the fruit they entered into the tension between good and evil, but unlike God were not adequately prepared to handle it. And since that moment we remain securely within that tension doing battle with the same “devil’s schemes” as we wrestle “not against flesh and blood,” but “against the spiritual forces of evil in heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:11-12). The same desire that was within first Eve and then Adam to become like a god resides in us. After all this time, we still want more, which allows Satan to exploit and manipulate us just as he did them. Sin still is “crouching” at our door, “desiring to have” us (Genesis 4:7) It is the curse of the tree, which remains ever with us.

The Curse’s Effects

Immediately the world felt the effects of Adam and Eve’s actions. Immediately they felt the shame of their nakedness. Innocence was lost. They became fearful, hiding from God. Pain entered the world for the first time. These three alone—shame, fear and pain—continue to do great damage to God’s creation, but there was more.

All of creation was specifically cursed—animals, man, woman and the earth itself. Women were put in a submissive role to man—a consequence that continues to create conflict. Men were sentenced to sweat and hard labor. And the ground itself was cursed—from the beauty of Eden to thorns and thistles (which was still being acknowledged in Noah’s day—Genesis 5:29; and which is still being felt by the creation to this day—Romans 8:18-23).

And then there is death—the ultimate, horrible result of Adam and Eve’s decision. Death came by murder after the garden and death continues to come in all shapes and forms to claim us. The curse of the tree! We wanted more and we got it, but it was more than we ever needed; more than we ever bargained for; and much more than we could ever handle. We were not initially created for this.

The Genesis story quickly reveals it—jealousy, murder, and evil of all sorts followed man’s banishment from the garden. Eventually it reached critical mass, in that, all we thought about continuously was evil. The desire for more totally consumed. The earth went from calling “on the name of the Lord” (Genesis 4:26) to being destroyed by a flood due to completely forgetting the Lord. God had to reset. The effects of the curse were overwhelming.

God’s Covenants

It would not be the last time God reset. That same deceptive serpent would eventually be crushed (as foretold very early—Genesis 3:15) by a God who became like a man on another tree. He lifted the curse with death the last enemy still to be eradicated when he returns to take us back to the beginning—as God will once again dwell with us (Revelation 21:1-4).

Even with the direction of this story showing man moving away from God, he never moved away from us. His covenant with Noah simply foreshadowed the one he made with Abraham, which itself foreshadowed the one we enjoy now in Christ Jesus. This is The Story within the story.

 


Whatever Happened to Wednesday Nights?

December 7, 2017

Wed nights

Remember the old joke. It is Judgment Day. A great roar sweeps through the crowd. Someone asks why. Another responds, “We just heard! They aren’t counting Wednesday nights!”

Wednesday night prayer meeting or Wednesday Bible study or however it is designated used to be more of a thing. It was a time when Christians would gather to study, pray, fellowship, encourage, visit, and bless one another. It was a highlight of the long week between Sunday worship. Something for which disciples of Christ could look forward.

It seems though to have fallen on leaner times. Other priorities have taken precedent. Lifestyles are busier. Wednesday nights down at the church house just aren’t the same anymore. Maybe Wednesday nights are a tradition past its prime?

It is a shame. Teachers still put in their time to prepare. The idea of gathering midweek to encourage one another in Christ is still valid and needed. Those who do attend receive a blessing.

So whatever happened to Wednesday nights? If it no longer is filling a need, what replaces it? What are we Christians doing to fill that void?

I still enjoy gathering with my church family on Wednesday nights. Call me “old school,” but it gives my faith a boost.

Maybe I will see you there!


Revolutionary Action!

November 21, 2017

The Kingdom Revolution #10

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:1-2)

Contextually Paul wastes little time getting directly to the heart of the matter within the Roman churches—literally. It is the practical stage of the transformation. It is what the makeover really looks like. He is calling for revolutionary action—what living the revolution is all about.

Redirected Passion (12:8-16)

Or perhaps even better stated—redeemed passion. He begins with a makeover of what drives us—our passions—what we love and hate. Could it start otherwise? For things to change in Rome; for the Jew and Non-Jew alike to get on with the kingdom revolution; the “inward man” needed a makeover. Genuinely and transparently they needed to love each other. Unless and until they sincerely did no transformation could take place. Period.

Driving this change would be a decided distaste for anything evil coupled with an overarching desire for the good, holy and righteous. Don’t fail to make the connections Paul is working for here. Revolutions change everything remember? Change here involves a Jew and non-Jew seeing each other through the kingdom perspective. The layers involved in this include how good and evil are viewed. No longer would the Jew view the non-Jew through a hate/evil lens and visa-versa. Instead sincere love replaces hatred and racism. In Christ it is all good! Cling to that! Cling to your brothers. Christ’s values become preeminent in relationships, not worldly values.

Therefore be devoted to each other as family—regardless of race. Part of the revolution is creating a new family and a new identity in Christ that trumps all others. It is a family not based on heritage, but on “no condemnation” in Christ Jesus. The bloodline that we all have in common is what Christ shed on the cross. Love each other deeply, transparently and sincerely in this family—without reservation—even to the point of honoring the other above yourself. In Christ we are all elevated! Live that out. That is indeed a revolution—not seen nor heard anywhere else outside of the kingdom of God. Be passionate about that—not about hating. Frame it all in Christ. It all flows from serving him.

Redirect all that negative emotion; all that passion twisted by evil values and transform them to reflect the values of Christ. What a difference that would make! Transforming—not conforming. This is the way revolutions spread! It is not business as usual. It is the revolution of the kingdom of God. Wonderful. Amazing. Different. Redeeming. Beautiful. Welcoming. Eternal. Cling to this!

Never Be Lacking!

Allow this positive passion to go deep within to create the kind of hope that endures even when challenged. The kind of hope that can even find joy when the pushback comes—and rest assured it will come. All revolutions face resistance. Pushback comes from being different; from doing things differently (such as Jew sitting down to a meal with a non-Jew); so be ready. Never be lacking in the kind of zeal that enables hope and joy to reset the challenges (this is a common New Testament encouragement—Hebrews 12:2: James 1:2; 1 Peter 1:6-9). No longer is the pushback—the persecution—crippling and disheartening. It can be processed as a “light and momentary” trouble. Our joy in Jesus outweighs it. Prayer is a significant part of this process too. It is how we express it all directly to God. It is the language of the revolution.

So much so that in the kingdom we can even redefine persecution itself. Incredibly it can be made over into an opportunity to bless the persecutors! (Notice the echoes of the Sermon on the Mount throughout Paul’s teaching here?) Talk about a revolutionary idea—this is it! Don’t speak curses back into the pushback—speak blessings! (How are we at this practice?) Find the losers around you—not the winners to identify with and associate with! Incredible! That is just not the American way (nor was it the first-century way), but it is the kingdom way. (If we have paid any attention to Christ, this should not be surprising however. It is exactly what he did—Matthew 11:4-6.) So the weak, the poor, the timid, the mournful, the outcast, the sick, the homeless, the meek, the hurting, the lost, the friendless, the sinner, those on the fringe—go bless them; go hang out with them. Intentionally befriend them. Do not care what anyone else thinks. Care what God thinks. Do it all together too—in harmony with one another and with the same goal in mind. Revolutionaries must be united in their pursuit of the revolution or it will not happen.

And for it to happen, Paul includes another bit of advice—get over yourself. He doubles back to verse 3 because he knew this needed to be reiterated. No one ever said revolutions were easy. As long as a Jew allowed any old prejudice to linger; who kept even a small portion of Jewish pride within; or the non-Jew hung on to similar attitudes—nothing would change. Not a chance any of this would happen. Therefore—let go of conceit. Forget who you once were. That was all meaningless and counterproductive to the kingdom. Transformation is transformation! The result is nothing looks like it once did and that includes the person looking back in the mirror.

God’s calls for revolutionary action! Action intentionally driven by the values of the kingdom of God. Action designed to further the kingdom. Action that is not unnoticed. Action that makes sense only through a kingdom perspective. Action that will continue to change the world. So, how about it? Are we up to it? Are we passionate about it? Are we a part of the revolution?