Death–I Understand It, But I Don’t

July 7, 2020

If the title may sound a bit confusing, there is a good reason. Often confusion is a consequence of death leaving us with more questions than answers. I have lived it and seen it frequently in others—even the most prepared and informed of others. Death is what it is—an enemy will all shall face.

And that part I do understand on one level. Death is a consequence of sin—the fall of man along with the brokenness of the world. This is how the Bible frames it in the creation narrative (Genesis 3:17-19). Since that fallen moment it has become part of the corrupted earth—an accepted but hardly welcomed part of life. Scripture plainly states that it is coming for everyone (Hebrews 9:27). When it comes it brings separation, heartbreak, and mourning—especially when unexpected. Death is part of Satan’s arsenal. It plays a major role in his desire to kill, steal and destroy (John 10:10). The wonderful heavenly news however, is that death does not have the final say. God has countered death with life. The empty tomb does not just provide the optics for this, but also the guarantee. Death will ultimately and completely be eradicated by Christ (1 Corinthians 15:26). This promise; this reality provides us hope and confidence that death does not have the final victory (1 Corinthians 15:54-56)—that in Christ Jesus it will not “sting” us in its forever form. Perhaps with a most mature understanding of this theology, we could even reach a point in which we consider death differently as it brings us one step closer to being with God (as the apostle Paul discussed in Philippians 1:21-23). Certainly, knowing all of this should lead to an embracing of the apostle John’s urging of remaining faithful unto death (Revelation 2:10). Yes, I do understand how the Bible presents death—the cause, the consequences, the remedy, the theology. From a “head” perspective I get it. It is just with the “heart” I struggle.

I struggle when children die; when young mothers are taken away from their children; when fathers leave far too soon; when murder invades lives and brings destruction far beyond just the act itself; when families are devastated by death. It all seems so unfair; so unjust; so uncalled for. I cry out—how long—to God (I am not the first: Psalm 13; Habakkuk 1:2; Revelation 6:10); how long until Jesus returns; completely defeats death; eliminating all injustice along with the pain that accompanies it?

These are the yearnings and questions of my heart and at times, they override the understanding in my head. So, I understand death, but then again, I do not. Unfortunately, this is the tension in which I will continue to live because I will continue to live—until death comes for me—in this broken-down world. Of course, Jesus understands that, having entered this brokenness with me (Hebrews 4:14-16). So all I can do on those occasions when no theology will sooth my pain is to cling to him; trust; not give up; and double down on the hope found in him. What other choice do I have? What other approach makes any sense? How else can I handle it? If I allow death to defeat me now, it will surely defeat me then.

I think perhaps all of this is what Paul had in mind as he wrote in 1 Corinthians 15: 58 to conclude some of his thoughts on this topic:

So, my dear brothers and sisters, stand strong. Don’t let anything change you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord. You know that your work in the Lord is never wasted. (ERV)

“Never wasted”—above all I do not want the enemy to come only to realize that my life was wasted. This makes death all the more tragic. My head and my heart will likely continue to be in tension over death, but I want both to belong to Jesus even as I deal with the pain and the questions.

Lord come quickly.


Why Get Out of Bed?

May 22, 2020

Is it just me or is anyone else weary of the doom and gloom? Of course, the virus is a real thing—a threat that has done much damage and continues to challenge us all. And according to most news outlets it will never leave us, always plague us, forever change everything. It makes me nervously wonder, is there no small hint of light at the end of this tunnel? Not if you scan the headlines.

But not to worry, if it is not the virus coming for us, it will be the murder hornets—expect some to buzz menacingly by any minute in droves or whatever bunches of murder hornets are called. In case you escape that, I saw today that hurricanes are intensifying and once again we will face one of the worst-ever-in-all-of-history hurricane seasons.  If nature does not doom us, maybe it will be something horrible the president does or congress does (or do to each other) or the meat shortage or the lack of toilet paper. A good friend just wrote an article on why us preacher/pastor types are going to soon come crashing down due to COVID induced pressure.

As I process all of this, I quickly realize—I got no chance! Maybe I just need to pull myself away from binging Netflix, hop in my truck, grab my mask and hand sanitizer and drive off into the sunset (at least gas is cheap right now). I mean, why even get out of bed? It is like we all are having Alexander’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day—every day–without end.

As you may have gathered, I am not the most patient of people. And yes, I do realize my blessings—of health, of family, of home, of friends, of job. But honestly, the gloom, despair and agony (Sa-lute! If you get this reference) is quite enough, thank you.

I Need the Assembly

To top it off, we cannot yet gather for worship. Oh, how I miss the assembly! I will refrain from launching into a theological discourse on its design, significance and firm biblical foundation and just say—I want to hear my brother’s and sister’s voices in praise to God; I so desire the encouragement and strength that comes from being together; I miss the folks that sit near and far from me in the pews; I miss the energy that is generated from our gatherings. I need it. Livestreaming is good and all that, but it is a stream that is getting a tad shallow for me, right now. I keep praying that soon and very soon worship together can happen again.

I do not know when that may be; I know we must be safe and use caution; I realize all of that, but I still miss it. I long for the time when we can reassemble; not be afraid to embrace; to sing with all of our hearts; to be family again. But I keep hearing it may never again be the same. I so pray not. If not, I think I will move to Australia.

Think on These Things

Okay, maybe not. Instead I need to somehow counter the gloom and doom; to detach from whatever screen is numbing me with troublesome headlines and projections of forever depression, recession, oppression, repression, digression, etc. and find a balance—some good news for a change. Thankfully, I have some help here. I am thinking specifically of the apostle Paul’s statement in Philippians 4:8. Instead of fearing hornets and hurricanes, it would help if I dwelt on what is true, what is noble, and what is right and pure. Instead of binging some dystopian TV show, it would lift me to embrace what is lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy. Of course, all flow from the goodness of God—and that is a game-changer even in a pandemic. Maybe that is why Paul also says in this text to “Not be anxious about anything.” (But have you seen the latest numbers on the virus?) Instead, he continues, “but in everything by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (4:6). That is a whole lot of positive to think on. Thank you, Paul! Maybe, just maybe it will drive out the thoughts of hordes of hornets coming to get me. Maybe, just maybe the peace of God, which passes all understanding will define my days and not the doom and gloom.

Why get out of bed? There are all kinds of true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy reasons. I just have to clear my head and heart and remember them. Oh, I also have to remember that I probably won’t find them on the news or on most tik tok videos. I will find them, though, in the God of peace. Nothing can separate me from him, by the way, not even viruses, hornets, or hurricanes.

Soon and very soon Lord! I really do not want to move to Austrailia.

 


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.

 

 


What Healthy Church Leadership Looks Like

October 25, 2018

HCL

What healthy church leadership looks like. This is one way to consider Paul’s first letter to Timothy in the New Testament. Paul’s beloved church at Ephesus—the one he personally spent three years nurturing after its troubled beginning (Acts 19)—was in more trouble. Just as he had foreseen (Acts 20:29-31) “wolves” even from their “own number” had arisen to “distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.”

Unable to go himself, Paul sent young Timothy to counter these false teachers and restore the Ephesian church to health. It was a tough task. In the letter Paul continually urged Timothy to “fight the good fight;” to not “let anyone look down on you because you are young;” to “command, and teach;” and to “set an example” to the church. Paul knew Timothy needed such encouragement. To counter established and embedded leadership within in a church—especially if that leadership is unhealthy—took courage and persistence. Timothy struggled. The task even seemed to make him ill, but Paul prodded him to persevere.

Truth had been distorted by the unhealthy leaders in Ephesus. Their worship time was affected. Certain restrictions were being enforced that were unhealthy and unauthorized. Some women of the congregation had been negatively influenced, exploited and were acting out in unhealthy ways. Benevolence was being mishandled and taken advantage of. People in general were being mistreated. Leadership’s love for money was a driving force in the unhealthy spirit.

Timothy was to avoid all of this, speak soundness into it, while living out a contrasting healthy leadership style before the church. This was Timothy’s task—to teach about and to live out what healthy church leadership looks like.

The Character of Healthy Leadership

Since the church in Ephesus had such a distorted and unhealthy leadership structure, they needed clarification on the kind of character God values in his leaders. This is where Paul’s instructions in 3:1-12 are so important. Paul shares character sketches of the kind of people God is calling to lead his church both as shepherds and special servants. Leading God’s people is noble—highly needed and valued, but only for those who feel called and those who have the right heart and character.

Paul first speaks to elders. He outlines how those who desire to shepherd the flock must have a character beyond reproach. This character must be seen not just at church but also at home—in his commitment to his wife and family—and in the community. He must have the right temperament; the ability to discipline himself in all situations; know how to treat and welcome people and know how to teach. He should have healthy motivations; not given to addiction, extremes or flattery. He needs experience and sound judgment. These are the kind of men God needs—healthy and servant-minded—to shepherd God’s flock. Healthy leaders who will produce healthy churches—something not happening at Ephesus.

Next Paul offers a similar description of the healthy character of deacons (and either their wives or deaconesses). Those who serve the church in this way are also to be people who are worthy of respect; self-controlled, honest, clear minded and properly motivated, experienced in serving, trustworthy, not trouble makers—demonstrating their faith at home within their family.

All of this is what healthy church leadership looks like. It is the way leadership “ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth,” Paul remarks.

Again, contextually this is not what leadership looked like in Ephesus. Again, Timothy’s ministry there was to change that. To take Paul’s teaching, live it out, teach it, and bring about the changes needed within that church.

In our context we read and learn; we also are to live it out and teach it. Healthy church leadership is all too vital. As leadership goes, so goes the church. Ephesus is an example of what happens when it all goes bad. We do not ever want to be there. That is why Paul’s teaching remains ever crucial. It remains crucial when churches look to identify and add leadership. It remains crucial for those who are called to leadership. It remains crucial if churches are to be healthy.

Practical Applications

Lived out, this kind of healthy leadership also includes being:

  • Purposeful: Healthy leadership understands their purpose—to shepherd the flock—and intentionally lives that out. They are purposeful in protecting, nurturing, guiding, loving and caring for the sheep.
  • Progressive: In that, they have vision for the sheep and plan for ways to continue the growth of the sheep. They are forward thinking. They do not let the sheep remain in same pasture until there is no more food to sustain them.
  • Present: Shepherds stay with the sheep. The only reason they leave is to go find the one lamb that has wandered away. This is the only way the shepherd will know the sheep and they will recognize his voice.
  • Prayerful: This may be obvious, but it still needs stating. Healthy leaders spend much time in prayer for those they lead.

Healthy leadership like that Timothy was to teach and demonstrate (and what we continue to need in churches now) is to be:

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

This is what healthy church leadership looks like.


Remember These Things

October 18, 2018

Everything

The story of the second epistle of Peter is quite fascinating. Likely written to the same collection of Christians and churches in some provinces of Asia Minor as his first letter, Peter sets out to correct some misunderstandings and expose some false teachers. There is urgency to his writing due to his impending death—foretold to him by Christ (1:14). So, he writes asking his readers to “make every effort to see that after my departure you will always be able to remember these things” (1:15).

God Empowers (1:3-11)

Before he addresses the heresy, character and accusations of the false teachers and their destructive work among these churches, he begins the correspondence by reminding them just how incredible is the power of God at work within them (and us). He does so, no doubt, to provide reminding fortification to these Christians that God empowered them to do his will; provided for them to do his will; and invited them to fully participate in his will. To this end they should get after it, adding the tools God provided for them to get it done—knowledge; self-control; perseverance; godliness, brotherly kindness; and love. These virtues would empower them to overcome evil while producing within them the divine nature. These virtues also stood in stark contrast with the character of the false teachers, who were “nearsighted and blind” having “forgotten that he has been cleansed of his past sin.”

These virtues would also enable these Christians to ensure their “calling and election” even as the false teachers attempted to undermine it. It would also ensure that they would not fall into their traps and snares. The end result would be a welcome—not to the kind of folly represented in the false teaching, but into the very eternal kingdom of God. In order for these churches to withstand the false teaching being pushed upon them and to be able to expose the false teachers for who they were, Peter knew they needed to know they could—that God empowered them with everything they needed, not just for that specific challenge, but for all challenges.

Peter’s Purpose (1:12-21)

Here Peter states why he is writing with urgency and begins to address some of the accusations of the false teachers hurting these churches. One of the methods they used to attempt to destroy Peter’s influence was to claim that he and the other apostles simply made up their teachings about Christ. So Peter reaffirms and restates his case as an eye and ear witness to everything he had shared about Jesus. He was there. His message was not some “cleverly invented stories” as the false teachers propagated. Further the prophets also give witness to Christ. They did not make the stories up either, but spoke from God as the Holy Spirit led them. Listen to them, not the false teachers. Peter’s word and the prophet’s word—a much better and reliable witness than these false teachers—whose character and intent Peter would expose and shred to pieces in the next section.

False Teachers Exposed (2:1-22)

As Peter exposes and takes down the false teachers—“springs without water and mists driven by a storm”—it becomes clear how they operated and what their aim was. Their goal was to destroy any and all of the healthy influence and teaching they had received from Peter and the other apostles and replace it with a self-serving, “freedom” based doctrine that allowed them to exploit these churches in order to achieve their goals—basically stated—money and sex.

These teachers operated smoothly, of course, using familiar terms while twisting them at the same time (it seems likely that one example of such would be the purposeful mishandling of some of Paul’s teaching—perhaps Romans 6 on grace and freedom—since Peter mentions Paul and how some of his teaching is “hard to understand”—3:15-16). The stories of the false teachers were the ones “made up”—not what Peter witnessed to them. He makes it clear that these teachers stand in shameful condemnation

But these teachers had found a standing in these churches through their secretive agendas and accusations. Another such accusation claimed that there really was no real reckoning coming. After all, nothing much had changed over the generations, so God really was not going to bring about any kind of judgment. This accusation coupled with a false understanding of freedom would open the way for the false teachers to justify their actions—a way to reframe their evil agendas in a way to actually put God’s stamp of approval on them. Peter was having none of this. He mentions three Old Testament examples of God’s reckoning (along with God’s rescue for the righteous) and affirms it is coming for the false teachers.

Next Peter exposes their ungodly character. He does not hold back in describing just how depraved they were–arrogant, blasphemers, carousers, blots, blemishes, adulterers, greedy, and accursed. He compares them to Balaam—something no one would ever welcome. Their teaching was useless and destructive—just a means to get what they really wanted—exploiting and deceiving the church to gain money and sexual favors. They boasted in freedom, but yet were truly slaves to their lusts. In a stark illustration, Peter describes them as pigs returning to the mud and dogs returning to their vomit. Once enlightened perhaps by the knowledge of Christ, these teachers now had returned to the vile filth of the world and were attempting to drag these churches down with them.

The Day of the Lord (3:1-18)

In this last section Peter deals with one more accusation, that is, that the return of Christ is not going to happen. This was the claim of the false teachers—the scoffers—who had infiltrated these churches. Not true is Peter’s response calling them to remember the days of Noah. Jesus will return Peter affirms, but is being held back by the Father, who is patient beyond our understanding and desires to give everyone in every generation the opportunity for salvation. God’s patience is not merely measured in days and years. He is not thusly limited, but even so “the day of the Lord” will come—most certainly and unexpectedly.

When he comes the heavens and earth will undergo a fiery transformation—elements laid bare; stripped clean; evil destroyed. What remains will be “a new heaven and new earth, the home of righteousness.” No place here for the false teachers and what they are peddling. So Peter asks in light of this information, “what kind of people ought you to be?” He answers his own question, “You ought to live holy and godly lives.” (Both the question and the answer still vitally pertinent and true today.) Don’t listen to the false teachers. Jesus is coming, but God is patient. Embrace his salvation and live it out in purity and peace. Don’t listen to the false teachers. Listen to the apostles—to Paul—not to the distortion of Paul offered by these “ignorant and unstable” teachers. They are out of control and headed for destruction—don’t follow them! Guard against them. This is what Peter wants them to remember.