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Monthly Archives: September 2008

The dull ache of change

A friend lives with chronic knee pain. When it gets too bad, he takes some Advil and puts on an ice pack. His doctor told him that at some point, he would need a knee replacement. But until the pain became unbearable or the knee no longer worked, there wasn’t much to be done. He just has to learn how to manage the pain.

How many of us live our lives with that same approach? We know we need to make some changes, but until the pain of our circumstances becomes unbearable, we avoid the “C” word (Change). We know we need to lose some weight, but until our cholesterol gets too high, we avoid the salads and stay away from the gym. We know we need to strengthen our marriage, but until our spouse threatens to file for divorce, we are too busy to work on our communication and listening skills. We know we need to manage our finances and reduce our debt, but until our credit cards are canceled or the bank threatens foreclosure, there’s always time to go shopping for another toy.

In Matthew 19:16-30, Matthew tells the story of the rich young man who came to Jesus to find out how to achieve eternal life. The young man knew the requirements of the law and felt that he had measured up to the expected standard. Jesus replied with the last words the young man expected to hear, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (21). The story does not have a happy ending. “When the young man heard this, he went away said, because he had great wealth” (22).

Perhaps great wealth is not what keeps us from making necessary changes in our lives. Maybe it is a desire to keep our leisure time to ourselves. Perhaps it is an unwillingness to share our possessions with a neighbor. Maybe it is a desire to be the center of attention and have all the information flow through us.

Regardless of what keeps us from changing, the sad reality is that until the pain of our circumstances gets high enough, we won’t be willing to do whatever is necessary to improve our lives. Many of us live with unnecessary pain, simply because we are not willing to change.

 
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Posted by on September 30, 2008 in Personal growth

 

On the field of battle

On a good day, preaching is a battle. People come to church with a myriad of distractions and worries. The pastor is expected to be witty, engaging, capture and hold people’s attention, give them something to think about, encourage them to hang in there, give them a sense of hope in the midst of despair, heal their wounds, and do it all in 25 minutes or less so that they can get home in time for kickoff.

On a bad day, preaching is trench warfare, hand-to-hand combat with the enemy. The pastor throws down the gauntlet by challenging misconceptions, stepping on toes, calling for repentance, pointing out where people have strayed from the truth, and trying to recapture ground lost to the enemy.

On a good day, preaching is hard work. On a bad day, preaching is exhausting.

While I wouldn’t call yesterday a bad day, I did come home fully aware that I had been in a battle. I am preaching a series on the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Yesterday we considered 5:6, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” I asked three questions, What are you hungry for? How hungry are you? and, How can you increase your appetite?

In response to the first question, I explained that in Matthew 5-7, righteousness refers to ethical or moral righteousness. It is a desire to see less sin, and more holiness in our daily lives. In response to the second question, I explained that we should have an intense, continual hunger and thirst for God. In regard to the third question, I suggested some practical ways that we can increase our appetite for spiritual things. (See previous entry, “What’s on the menu?”) The main idea of my message was that those who long for holiness will be rewarded with God’s presence. I wanted people to know that God will answer every prayer where a person wants a deeper relationship with God.

I had been praying that God would use the message as one more building block to help bring revival the congregation. While I knew it was going to be an uphill challenge, I did not know how steep the incline was going to be.

During the first service, the sound system continually acted up . There was feedback and scratchy noises. As I brought people to a point of commitment at the end, someone’s cell phone went off and kept ringing. During the second service, my laptop and the projector were not communicating and my PowerPoint slides could not be shown. As I was preaching, I noticed a few people whose eye lids were at half-mast, and others whose were completely shut. As my wife reminded me later, this was a message that the enemy did not want heard. He was working hard to distract people from hearing and responding.

As hindsight has once again pointed out, preaching is a battle for the minds and hearts of men and women. We must bathe every step of the process with prayer–in the study, in the pulpit, and on the drive home. We need to ask God to use His Word to accomplish His purpose!

 

“The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:4-5, NIV)

 
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Posted by on September 29, 2008 in Preaching, Theology

 

What’s on the menu?

This past week, I ran across an article on the worst breakfasts in America. To my chagrin, I have consumed my fair share of the items on the list . . . and have the waistline and cholesterol to prove it.

Nutritionists have long extolled the importance of diet by telling us that we are what we eat. If we eat too many doughnuts and cream puffs, we’ll become walking models of the Pillsbury Dough Boy. What is true physically is also true morally and spiritually. If we feed on violence, excitement, erotica, and materialism, we will eventually personify them.

Since we will become what we eat, it is vital to our overall health to make wise choices about our diet. We take need to take to heart Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5:6, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” Rather than crave entertainment, we should long for God’s presence. Rather than tease our pallets with pornography, we should ask God to purify our hearts. Rather than feast on the junk food of false teaching, we should fill our minds with the truth of God’s word.

While that part of Jesus’ instruction seems pretty straightforward, the question I wrestle with is, “How do I increase my appetite for righteousness? How can I develop a stronger desire for God and his word?”

As I pondered that question, I began to look at what nutritionists recommend for a person’s physical diet and tried to think of ways to apply the principles to my spiritual diet. Here are some of my ideas:

Nutritional advice

Personal application

Don’t skip meals.

Develop a regular habit of Bible reading, study, and prayer

Don’t eat alone.

Get support and encouragement from others

Eat in a pleasant atmosphere.

Avoid the “ought to” and “have to”. View Bible reading and study as devotion, not duty.

Avoid junk food.

Don’t fill up your life with novels, TV, entertainment – things that take away your appetite for God & spiritual things

Plan a nutritious diet.

Read the Bible – not just devotional books about the Bible. Watch out for cults.

Cleanse your pallet.

Confess your sin.

Eat small meals or snacks frequently.

Think about your Bible study and reading throughout the day

Add seasoning for flavor.

Supplement your Bible study with devotional books, Christian radio, Christian music

Take time to savor each bite.

Taste and see the Lord is good.

Develop an exercise program.

Practice what you learn in prayer, witnessing, service

The exciting part of Matthew 5:6 is the promise that if we long for greater righteousness, we will be filled. God will grant us his presence and cause our appetite to grow. When we hunger, he fills us. We taste and see he is good which causes us to hunger for more, which results in greater blessing. And the cycle continues.

 
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Posted by on September 26, 2008 in Passion, Personal growth, Theology

 

Asleep at the wheel

It certainly was a tough week to be a Metrolink driver in Los Angeles. First came the report of the two trains that collided head-on. Reports indicate that the engineer of the commuter train ran a stop signal because he was texting on his cell-phone rather than driving the train. As a result, the train ran headlong into a freight train, resulting in the deaths of at least 25 people. Less than a week later, an out-of-service bus driven by a mechanic collided with a light rail train near downtown Los Angeles during the morning rush, injuring 15 people.

As I thought about these accidents, I began to consider the parallels between the responsibility of a train engineer and leader in a local church, whether they are paid staff or a volunteer leader.

  • Both are entrusted with the safety and security of their passengers. An engineer focuses on the physical safety of their passengers, while a pastor or elder in a church seeks to protect their people from false teachers (Acts 20:28-30). 
  • Both are responsible to transport their charges from point A to point B. While a train engineer may transport passengers to a geographic destination, a church leader helps move people towards spiritual maturity (Colossians 1:28-29).
  • Both an engineer and a pastor/elder need to stay focused on their primary task rather than be distracted with secondary issues. As recent events have made clear, an engineer’s task is driving the train not sending text messages. The task of a pastor/elder is to serve as a shepherd of the flock of people that God has entrusted to their care (1 Peter 5:2-3).
  • Both an engineer and a pastor/elder are held accountable for how well they do their job and protect their passengers (Hebrews 13:17; 1 Peter 5:4).
 
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Posted by on September 22, 2008 in Church, Culture, Leadership

 

Finding hope in rejection

Having received my share of rejection notices for both my writing and in the pastoral search process, I greatly appreciated Gary Thomas’ words of encouragement in his book Authentic faith: The power of a fire-tested life. He tells the following story to illustrate his point that we often give up too soon. Without the discipline of waiting, he explains, we will not learn to persevere.

“That’s exactly what they needed to hear!”

Parent after parent came up to shake my hand after the commencement address. I knew that 99 percent of the kids wouldn’t remember a thing I said, so I prayed about leaving them with a word picture that would stick with them.

I found it in my rejections box.

My wife and kids helped me staple and tape together over 150 rejection letters that I had received from publishers and editors over the years. The length of that roll was staggering, and each one represented a professional telling me my work wasn’t wanted. When I told the young graduates that God’s calling doesn’t mean the way will be easy–without doubts and without rejections–I nodded to a few students who then began to unroll my rejection letters. Murmurs, laughs, and then gasps were unleashed through the auditorium as the roll grew longer and longer, ultimately stretching across the entire ballroom. I had been invited to speak as the author of numerous books and as one who travels nationally and internationally to speak–but I wanted the students to see the seminary graduate who wondered if anyone would ever want to hear what I believed God had given me to say.

Many Christians don’t fail; they just quit before they get ripe.

 
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Posted by on September 19, 2008 in Books, Personal growth, Quotes

 

Life-born applications

I know that practical, real, personal, life-born messages are the most effective way to preach, but as my friend Dr. Jerry Root used to say, I’d just as soon learn vicariously from someone else once in a while. Yet once again, I find myself having to practice what I preach and live out the message before I deliver it.

This week I am preaching on Matthew 5:5, “Blessed on the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” Since this is a quote from Psalm 37:11, I spent the week studying the psalm in order to understand the background of this Beatitude. As I discovered, Psalm 37 provides a profile of a meek person, or what meekness looks like in real life. Here’s a chart that summarizes what I learned:

Verse

What meek people do

What meek people receive

1-2

Don’t play the comparison game

New perspective

3

Trust in the Lord

Safety and security

4

Find their joy in God

Satisfaction

5-6

Follow God’s plan

Righteous life

7-8

Wait patiently, rather than taking matters into their own hands

Avoid evil

9-11

Wait for God’s timing

God’s promises

I summarized the main idea of my message with this phrase, “Those who ratchet back their anxiety and aggression and trust God to work in his time will receive his promises.” While I can explain and apply the principle to the people in my congregation, it is much harder to put into practice in my own life.

At the same time I was preparing this message, I was wrestling with patience. For the past several weeks, I have waited for an organization to send me some information concerning a certain issue. I had been told I would hear from them “soon.” I had been praying that God would guide me and them regarding the matter. And yet, I was still waiting by the phone (figuratively speaking). Rather than waiting meekly, I found myself worrying and making up my own explanation for the delay. Rather than being patient, I sent my contact a note asking for an update. Rather than trusting God’s plan, I wanted to take matters into my own hands and try to force a decision.

As hard as it may be, I have to take my own medicine and ratchet back my anxiety and aggression and trust God to work in his time. Then, and only then, will I receive what he desires to give me.

 
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Posted by on September 17, 2008 in Personal growth, Preaching

 

The burden of preaching

Reality TV has now ventured into the job market. NBC offers “America’s Toughest Jobs” while the Discovery Channel shows “Dangerous Jobs.” While it would never make the list of scintillating entertainment, preaching certainly qualifies on the basis of difficulty.

Who would volunteer to speak to a church where the people ignore what you say? Who would candidate at a church where the congregational profile described the people as rebellious and callused? That was Isaiah’s job description (Isaiah 6:9-10). Who would sign up to pastor a church that was shrinking and dying before your very eyes? Who would willingly preach a message of doom and gloom week after week, sandwiched among all the funerals you would be called to perform? That was Jeremiah’s job description (Jeremiah 1:9-10). Sounds like worthy candidates for Tough & Dangerous Jobs to me.

There are times when preaching feels like a burden. Perhaps not in the Isaiah or Jeremiah sense, but a weighty responsibility nonetheless. Yesterday was one of those occasions for me.

Last week, I began preaching a sermon series on the Sermon on the Mount. Rather than rush through the Beatitudes, I decided to take one each week and unpack the meaning. Yesterday, in a message entitled, “Good grief!” we considered, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). I approached the message by trying to answer four questions: What is mourning? What are we to mourn? How is mourning beneficial? How are we to mourn?

As I discovered during my study, the key to understanding Matthew 5:3-4, (“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”), is in understanding Isaiah 61:1-3 and 40:1-2.

At the beginning of his ministry (Luke 4:16-20), Jesus stated that he came to fulfill Isaiah 61. The reason Israel was poor, brokenhearted, and mourning was because of the sin of the nation. Because they disobeyed God’s laws, he sent the nation into exile.

Thus, when Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” his listeners would understand he meant spiritually bankruptcy. When he said, “Blessed are those who mourn,” they would know he meant mourning for their sin. When Jesus promised comfort, the people of Israel would immediately think of Isaiah 40:1-2, where the comfort promised meant forgiveness.

As I put the message together, I came to the conclusion that I needed to challenge the congregation that we needed to mourn for our sin–personal sin, corporate sin, and national sin–because we could not truly experience the joy of salvation and forgiveness until we dealt with our sin.

All week long, that message felt like a millstone around my neck. I was antsy and restless on Saturday. I did not want to preach on sin. I did not want to confront those who wink at sin rather than deal with it. And yet I felt like Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:16, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel.” Whether or not I liked the message, that is what God had laid on my heart that this group of people needed to hear that week. And so I did my best to deliver that burden.

 
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Posted by on September 15, 2008 in Ministry, Preaching

 
 
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