Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Pastors, Lead Like There’s No Tomorrow

Today as I was rummaging through my hard drive, I stumbled upon an old group photo of the small congregation I helped pastor from 2005-2009. 

There were about 50 of us at church that day, and we all sat on one side of the auditorium for the photo. It looks like the photo was taken early on in that ministry—sometime in 2005.

I smiled as I studied it closely. My children looked so small compared to how they look today. Some of the adults I see regularly today looked so young, including myself.

But as I kept looking at the photo, it went from humorous to haunting as I started to count how many people in the photo are no longer alive. These were not the oldest ones, either.

For one, our daughter, who is sitting in the very front in her wheelchair with a huge smile, would die in her sleep at age 8 in 2008.

Dave, our preaching Pastor, would die of cancer in 2011, just a few months after being diagnosed in his mid 50s.

Joyce, one of our dear older saints, would go to heaven in 2009 after a decades-long battle with infections she contracted after a terrible motorcycle accident in the 60s.

Many of the people in the photo now live in different parts of the country. Pimple-faced kids in the picture are now in college and doing great things.

The photo tells a compelling story about the brevity and transience of our time on earth. But more than that, it is a chilling reminder of the urgency and the weight of what it means to be a Pastor.

How would Pastors preach, teach, counsel and love with more passion if they viewed themselves—and their people—as being on the very brink of eternity?

Far too many of today’s Pastors are out to impress people with their intellect, amuse people with their wit, and shame people with their man-made hobby horses. They have little sense of the urgency or the weightiness of life, death and eternity.

The world needs more Pastors who are dominated by a sense of God’s holiness, their helplessness and Christ’s power alone to awaken the dead. Broken, tearful pastors who have tasted the grace of Christ, and are humbly extending it to those in their care. Pastors who completely give themselves to the Word they teach, and who are themselves being transformed by it week after week. Pastors who passionately study and know the Bible, and who believe in the Holy Spirit's power to change hearts far beyond any great anecdote or illustration can.

I was in the room with some 3,000 other Pastors on April 13, 2006, when Dr. John Piper preached the best sermon I have ever heard about this matter of the urgency and the weight of preaching. I keep this sermon on my iPod, and have listened to it countless times since that night. Tears stream down my face every time I listen to it. I will carry those 52 minutes with me for the rest of my life. I'm telling you, there was something going on in that room that night.

Stories abound of men in that room with me, whose lives were changed permanently when they heard that sermon. Some moved to distant mission fields where Christianity is a crime, and have suffered great loss as a result. It is a sermon that has reverberated with gospel-spreading power in the hearts of countless Pastors.

In lieu of quoting the entire sermon here, I will leave you with this quote:

“God planned for his Son to be crucified, and for hell to be terrible, so that we would have the clearest witnesses possible to what is at stake when we preach. What gives preaching its seriousness is that the mantle of the preacher is soaked with the blood of Jesus and singed with the fire of hell. That’s the mantle that turns mere talkers into preachers.”

Pastors, preach, teach and love your people like there’s no tomorrow. They may not be with you after today.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Deep, Settled Confidence of Christian Hope

1 Peter 1:3-5Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

The other night, I was watching some bonus features on our Lord of the Rings DVD. This particular chapter contained interviews with life-long scholars of J.R.R. Tolkien, who talked about the many hardships and traumatic experiences early on that shaped Tolkien’s writing later on.

Tolkien experienced many dark seasons in his life. Both of his parents died well before he reached adulthood. He experienced the horrors of war first hand when he fought in World War 1. He watched the belching smoke of the industrial revolution choke out the pastoral pasturelands that had once surrounded his neighborhood. The stinging pain of real life and sense of innocence lost pressed hard on Tolkien.

Over the years, many have tried to allegorize Tolkien’s stories based on his life experiences. For example, they try to say that The One Ring has a direct correlation to the atomic bomb, and so on. Yet Tolkien hotly denied these connections. He spoke ill of allegory, and insisted that allegory was a waste of time.

Tolkien preferred the term applicability over allegory. He wrote about universal themes of human existence that every generation experiences in its own way—things like having hope when everything around us seems hopeless.

Knowing from what I have read that Tolkien was a born-again believer, I have a degree of confidence that I can keenly relate to his hermeneutic of hope. Which is why I was bothered by what seemed like one Tolkien scholar’s misrepresentation of the theme of hope in Tolkien’s writing. Patrick Curry said:

“Despair is for people who know, beyond any doubt, what the future is going to bring. Nobody is in that position. So despair is not only a kind of sin, theologically, but also a simple mistake, because nobody actually knows. In that sense there is always hope.”

In other words, you can have hope when things seem hopeless because the future is unknowable, and hope just might be lurking somewhere in those folds of uncertainty.

This is the polar opposite message from 1 Peter, which teaches that my (and Tolkien's) hope is grounded in a sure and certain future that was established in Christ before I was ever born. I must not despair because the future is knowable.

1 Peter 1:3-5 shatters the notion of holding out hope because nobody knows the future. Peter gives me a deep, settled confidence in what the future is going to bring. It's a capital "H" kind of hope based on objective reality.

No matter what trials I encounter in this life, I have a heavenly inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for me. God’s very power is guarding it for me—a power that is beyond all comprehension.

Can life seem hopeless? Yes. Does the ground beneath me shake and shift? Yes. But, praise God, I don’t have to rejoice in the fact that “the great unknown” holds some remote possibility of hope. THIS would drive me to despair like nothing else.

In the movie The Return of the King, Pippin the Hobbit and Gandalf the Wizard are cowering behind a large stone door that is being rammed by the enemy, and are awaiting probable death. Here’s their conversation:

Pippen: I didn't think it would end this way.  
Gandalf: [smiling] End? No, the journey doesn't end here Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain curtain of this world rolls back. And all turns to silver glass. And then you see it.  
Pippen: What, Gandalf? See what?  
Gandalf: White shores. And beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.
Pippen: Well, that isn't so bad.  
Gandalf: No. No, it isn't.

I think that’s the kind of hope Tolkien is bringing to bear in his books. A hope that can weather uncertain times because of a certain future. A hope that can endure temporary affliction in the forward-looking joy of a permanent inheritance.

This is no fool’s hope. It was Tolkien’s hope. It’s the Christian’s hope. And nothing can take it away.

In THAT sense, there is always hope.

Image credit.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Grace to Disobey

Romans 6:12-14 Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.

'The scam truck' photo (c) 2007, Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier - license:
The book of Romans teaches us that being a Christian does not mark the end of the battle against indwelling sin. Rather, it marks the beginning. 

In fact, one of the ways we can be confident we are Christ’s is the strong inner sense that we are engaged in a very real and difficult struggle against indwelling sin—a struggle that didn’t exist before we were saved.

As a new creature in Christ, I still have my sin nature while I’m in this body. This sin nature is like an ousted king that has not been completely banished. It is running haplessly about the courtyard, doing everything it can to convince my members to obey it rather than Christ, who is the new King.

Even though it’s no longer on the throne, sin can still succeed at grassroots efforts to persuade me to obey its passions. Knowing it can no longer work from the top down, it finds ways to work from the bottom up. Still learning and growing in wisdom, I frequently fall for its sordid ponzi schemes.

Romans 6 teaches me about sin’s new mode of operation in my body. It is making every effort to take back its former reign, with the classic lure of short-term satisfaction. It tries to twist good and healthy desires into turncoat desires that betray their rightful and intended use. It makes empty promises about quick and dirty delights that never satisfy, when King Jesus promises fullness of joy in His presence, and pleasures forevermore at His right hand (Psalm 16:11).

Like a caring father, Paul is telling me to hang up on sin. Slam the door in its face. Force Quit the application. Walk another way. Look away. Stiff-arm it. It’s a scam, a very persuasive scam that wants to take me down.

In a word, Scott, disobey. And if it persists past the first attempt (which it most likely will), grab it by the scruff of the neck and drag it out into the light. Sin’s best-kept secret is that it thrives on darkness and secrecy. Ephesians 5:11 says, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.” The power of a secret sin is severely hamstrung when others are aware of it, and can help fuel my resolve to disobey it.

Sin’s power is real, and it is unrelenting. It may win a battle here and there, but it will not win the war. With Christ on the throne of my new heart, I have far deeper delights to behold. I have divine grace to help me withstand sin's whispers. And I have other believers to encourage me in the battle.

Thank you, Lord, for the manifold grace you give. Grace to disobey.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Side of Me You Probably Don't Know About

It's Friday, so I thought I would take a break from meditations to share some of my impersonations. This is video from last Sunday night, where I continued a long-standing tradition that began in the early 2000s.

Impersonating voices and sound effects has always been a part of me. My earliest memory of this was hearing my dad impersonate Paul Harvey's famous, "Good day" at the end of his program. I thought that was cool, so I started doing it. And I've been impersonating nearly everything I hear ever since.

It wasn't until about 2002 that I performed the "12 Days of Christmas" in 12 different voices at my church's Christmas celebration called Cookies & Carols. It was a big hit, and I have been asked to perform it every year since.

So without further ado...

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Asaph's "Occupy" Moment

Psalm 73:12 – Behold, these are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches.

'Building Trades Unemployment Insurance Rally' photo (c) 2009, Bernard Pollack - license: On my way to the bus stop this morning, I heard an NPR story about the latest Occupy protests in California.

It was like I was really there. 

The correspondent was on location, narrating the whole chaotic scene. A group of protesters were dragging shards of sheet metal and wood palettes onto the only access road leading to a main port of entry. The road began to clog with tractor trailers. The correspondent struggled to be heard over the hoots and hollers, car horns and cheers.

Like most, I've been observing the Occupy demonstrations from a distance. I'm also employed, which colors my outlook on what's going on.

It's not productive for me to dissect the inner workings of Occupy, and the chief motives of its organizers. My responsibility is to examine my heart to discern how I would respond if I ever had to walk the path of extended unemployment, or financial ruin, in today's rattled financial climate.

I'm sure that, like them, I would be driven to tearfully ask God in the night watches, "Why does Wall Street wallow in prosperity while the honest, hard-working citizens suffer?"

The Bible is not silent on this kind of complaint. In Psalm 73, Asaph articulates a similar inner turmoil that the 99% are experiencing today. And what's best, he responds to it in a beautiful, God-centered way that serves as a model for how we as Christ's people should respond.

In the first half of the psalm, he describes a very Occupy-esque scene. It's his raw, naked complaint about the inequity he sees between the disproportionate prosperity of the wicked and the tooth-and-nail struggles of the upright.

"They are not in trouble like others are; they are not stricken like the rest of mankind."

"Their eyes swell out through fatness; their hearts overflow with follies."

Then about halfway through, Asaph reaches a stunning turning point. He goes "into sanctuary of God," and it changes his entire outlook. Through communion with God, the scales start to fall from his eyes and, by faith, he sees more clearly.

Communion brought clarity to Asaph's confusion, and moved him to a spontaneous overflow of worship. His concluding words coming out of that communion are some of the most beautiful words in the Bible:

Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, that I may tell of all your works.

None of us are immune to joblessness. Financial woes do not discriminate, and can strike at any moment. I could be out of work tomorrow. We're all one conversation away from this path. Or perhaps one shadow on the X-ray away.

But O God, before I hurl that first shard of sheet metal into oncoming traffic, may I run to your Word and rehearse Asaph's  progression from complaint to communion to clarity to worship. And may I find worship to be the far sweeter alternative to bitter public protest.

I thank God for the priceless gift of Psalm 73. In it, He reminds me that I am not alone, He is still on His throne, and is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

Do you believe this?

Monday, December 12, 2011

Baa, Baa, Baa. I'm a Little Sheep.

Psalm 37:4 – Delight yourself in the Lord,
and He will give you the desires of your heart.

'Sheep Grazing' photo (c) 2008, Martin Pettitt - license:
Have you ever caught yourself subconsciously mapping out mileposts of delight in your future? 

I do. 

Let me explain. Christmas is coming. Then my birthday is next month. Then three weeks later is a 3-day weekend. Then four months later we go on vacation. Then I have a 3-paycheck month in August. Wash, rinse, repeat.

It seems that without having something—even silly things—to look forward to, I seem to have less strength to persevere in the here-and-now. 

I pop empty promises like breath mints, expecting them to be filling.

The irony of “looking out” at life’s little events with deep longing is that it's essentially “looking down.”

Earth-bound delights, no matter how far off, were never meant to provide permanent satisfaction. I know this because when those long-awaited mileposts finally do come, I find that they fall short of quenching my desires the way I thought they would. 

Stomach flus strike on birthdays. Kids bicker in the van on vacations. Leaky roofs rob our discretionary income.

Yet my natural tendency is to desire fickle delights. I am a sheep, fixated on the clump of grass directly in front of me, failing to look past it to the vast horizon beyond the rolling prairie. When the green grass wilts, I bleat in the night. At some level, I lose heart.

In two words, Bennett, look up. That hollow echo in your heart for permanent delight was made for what only God can satisfy. Those clumps of grass in front of you—the birthday, the vacation, the extra paycheck—are mere punctuation points that by themselves cannot tell the whole story. 

Every good and perfect gift comes from above, and should be enjoyed. But they should also point me to the Father of Lights, with whom there is no shadow of turning, who has given it all.

Psalm 37:4 is the opposite of how I tend to think about things. Of first importance, I need to cultivate a superior delight in the Lord. How? By ruminating on the preciousness of the Gospel. By meditating on God’s attributes—His love, his immutability, His mercy, His grace. 

I find that over time, the things of earth gradually grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace. My heart is slowly and stubbornly starting to desire most highly what the Most High wants, and less of what I used to so badly want. 

That’s a kind of delight that doesn't disappoint.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A Prayer to the God of All Comfort

Father, You are good when You give,
You are good when You take away,
When the sun shines upon us,
When night gathers over us, 

You have loved us from before the foundation of the world,
In love you have redeemed our souls;
And You love us still,
In spite of our hard hearts, our ingratitude, our failure to trust You as we should.

Father, Your goodness and Your lovingkindness has been such an ever-present help and comfort to us over the past year,
You have led me and many others among us though a twisted wilderness,
In our deepest sorrows, you have picked us up to rejoice in the morning,
When tempted, You have helped us to overcome in the power of Your might.

Father, we know that Your sovereign hand has been, and will be with us always;
And together we join our hearts together with joyful resolve,
Knowing that You are the blessed pilot of our collective future, just as You have been the pilot of our collective past.

Father, we bless Your Name that You have veiled our eyes to the waters ahead. 
You are so kind in having hidden ways that are infinitely higher than our ways

So Lord, we trust that if You have appointed storms of tribulation to come,
You will be with us in them;
If we have to pass through tempests of persecution and temptation,
We will not drown;
If we are to die,
We will see Your face all the more soon;
If a painful end is in store for any one of us,
Grant us grace that our faith not fail; 

Blessed God of all comfort, glorify Yourself in us whether in comfort or trial,
And as Your chosen vessels, please God, make us fit for Your use.

This we pray in the Name of Your most Holy and perfect and blameless Son Jesus Christ,