What I’ve Learned About Pastoring from the Bench

An injured point guard sees the game differently from the bench. Without a harassing defenseman, crowd noise or game pressure he is able to see more of the floor.  He can see and learn from the bigger picture.  He can finally see what his coach sees and hopefully better understand his decisions.  What seems so clear from half-court isn’t so clear from the sidelines.  When he’s ready to play again he will be better equipped in his own real-time decision making.  He should be a better player and teammate.

After 10 years in full-time vocational ministry I had to get a real job.  I’d had real jobs after college and before seminary but it had been fifteen years since a 9-to-5 life.  While I loved vocational ministry and hope to re-enter some form of it soon, God has taught me some valuable lessons after extended time on the bench.  Lord willing, I might be a better pastor if the coach ever calls my number again.

1.  Church schedules can be too busy.  As I pastor I assumed hard-working men, if they really loved Jesus, should drop everything and rearrange their schedules to participate in a church function.  Church members work hard.  Really hard.  They don’t sit around and read or drink coffee with people all day.  And it’s burdensome to expect folks to cap their difficult 8, 9, 10-hour day with a 2-hour meeting or event two nights a week or the like.  A Sunday School teacher in the choir with an 8-year-old and teenager might well be running around several nights a week for various events.  Obviously, that doesn’t include their civic or other responsibilities in the community.

Churches should simplify their schedules rather than stretch folks as thin as possible in the name of kingdom work.  Churches should facilitate healthy family and neighborly life for the sake of kingdom work.  More being than doing.  If the pastors consider a seasonal study/event beneficial then make them short.  In the meantime, good pastors help their congregants become gospel-sweet employees, neighbors, soccer coaches and school volunteers rather than incessant event attenders.  Church members are not lazy bums who need pastors to get them doing more things.  They are fellow journeymen pastors are privileged by Jesus to travel home with.

2.  Churches can be too building-centric.  Everything need not happen at the church building. Of course, when we overextend ourselves in multi-million dollar facilities we are obliged to use them.  This lends itself to a “four walls” Christianity where gospel work is more important when conducted in/at the church building.  It can misplace sacredness on bricks-and-mortar rather than Christ as the important Meeting Place.  Jesus provides pastors to help us toward (comfort)ability with gospel conversations/work as we go about life.  As much as possible, pastors can encourage and model gospel conversations/gatherings in homes and at work.

3.  Pastors are often too busy planning events and running meetings that they have little time/energy to care for souls.  Many church members consider the modern, American pastorate as the baptized equivalent of a corporate CEO.  Most pastor job descriptions require he be ex-officio member of all committees, resident visionary, marketing genius, supervisor of all staff, financial wizard and program manager.  The pastor is a glorified event planner whose success is based on numbers and dollars.  After all, there is a multi-million dollar plant to keep up.

Like removing a great teacher from a classroom to make him dean, churches can take their soul-shepherds out of the field to become professional “meeters.”  Jesus has provided that deacon(esse)s serve the various practical needs of the church so her pastors can devote themselves to private and public soul care (Acts 6.1-6).  Churches should expect their pastors to be regularly and reasonably accessible, not tied up in committee meetings.  No member should have to wait two weeks for a pastor’s schedule to clear up.

4.  Pastors can get absorbed into a pastoral subculture that neglects the care of souls.  I was guilty of this.  I didn’t realize how disconnected I became to real life.  Pastors need local pastoral networks for encouragement and exhortation. The main men in the pastors’ life, however, should be the men of his church.  The pastors’ time should not be dominated by associational meetings and other pastoral gatherings.

Pastors should know at least as much, if not more, about the folks in his church than the church down the street.  They should know when and where his members work and visit their workplaces, if appropriate.  Pastors need not be experts but should make every effort to understand the various vocations in their churches.  They should pay attention to current events that might interfere or intersect with jobs.  Besides, you never know when someone will need a good mechanic or broker who will radiate Christ to customers and clients.

5.  Churches can be far too segregated.  Strict age and gender-based ministries can do more to divide a church than unite it.  The childrens’ ministry does its thing while the senior adult ministry does its thing.  One could likely live from cradle to grave without ever doing gospel work with people much different than them.

We should encourage as much intergenerational gatherings as possible (cf. Eph 6.1-4; Col 3.18-21; Titus 2.1-5).  The young married couple doesn’t necessarily benefit from always being around other young married couples are who are “going through the same struggles.” Perhaps they should all mingle in with the senior adults who have 30, 40, 50 years of Christian marriage under their belts.  Perhaps our young sons and daughters would learn more about Christian adulthood and vocabulary by hearing their parents talk to and about Jesus with the saints. Perhaps the college kids should get around the middle-age adults who model Christian vocation and service.

6.  Churches must pray more together.  A lot more.  One of the primary marks of the Christian church was congregational prayer (cf. Acts 2.42; Col 4.2).  Yet, the least-attended gathering in any given church will be the prayer meeting.  We can pack fellowships and events but neglect or squeeze out the very thing that defined the early Christian church. As our culture spirals further into wholesale secularism and anti-Christianism, churches will only be as strong as their congregational prayer life.  Rather than ask how many or how big a church is, we must ask how often and well a church prays together?  The church should schedule its congregational prayer regularly at a time when all the church can reasonably attend.

7.  The ministry warriors get easily taken for granted. You know these folks. They’re the ones who always get things done. They show up early to set up what you completely forgot, stay late to clean up what you didn’t even think about, slip out the back and come back next week. Pastors can easily use them as a crutch. Pastors like me can assume them as if they’re employees. Pastors should encourage them and regularly remind them of the fruit of their efforts.

8.  Pastors need encouragement and the freedom to be guys in the sanctification process.  Most every pastor I know wants to quit ministry on Monday, that is if he survives Sunday night. The pressure to “perform” each week gets very heavy.  While pastors appreciate the regular “Good sermon, Preacher” or “Thanks, I really needed that,” those compliments don’t go very far. Sometimes it does the pastor good when some brothers take him out for golf on Monday and let him cuss the ball he just hooked into the woods.  He enjoys the freedom to not be “on” all the time and loved on, forgiven and fumbling like one of the guys. Then, at the turn, let him know how you’re specifically applying a recent sermon point or two.

9.  Church members are largely godly, loving people.  I ran my mouth far too much about how everybody needs to be like me: more holy, more devoted, more read.  We’ll never get to “the next level” (whatever that is) with all this dead weight taking up pew space.  All the while, I needed to be like them: more loving, more patient, more, well, Christian.  Most church members are for more like Jesus in their simple faith, hope and love than I am in my convoluted definitions, parsings and abstractions.  I am as much in process as they are.  And if I want them to cut me some slack when I dribble off my foot then I need to give them some room to struggle with Jesus, too.

Well, I’ve done my share of pouting at the end of the bench.  But maybe, just maybe, the coach might catch me out the corner of his eye.  If so, rest assured I won’t waste the opportunity on silly no-look passes into the stands any more.

Don’t Hate Us, But We’re Just Not Halloween People

In the 21st century the holiday season begins when summer ends. Stores capitalize on the Halloween-Thanksgiving-Christmas-New Year’s Eve sales boon.  The summer landscape must be transformed into a graveyard that quickchanges into the North Pole.  Spider webs give way to icicles.  Zombies concede the lawn to reindeer. Strobe lights dim into candles.  Tombstones become nativities.  Ghostly shrills quiet into carols.  Candy corn is replaced by walnuts, cheap suckers by candy canes.  The slide from ghoul to yule begins after summer ends, when darkness, death and fear sells until light, life and peace does.  And each year must outdo the last.

For reasons I cannot sufficiently explain, we’re simply not Halloween people.  We don’t blindfold our kids at Walmart or ignore the neighbor’s inflated skull.  We don’t wag our fingers or lampoon the kid next door’s plastic fangs.  We don’t condemn “Halloweeners” or assume we’re better parents for keeping our kids’ faces free of fake blood.  Or maybe we do.  I don’t know.  I just know we’re not Halloween people.  I only hope prohibiting fake scars doesn’t create real ones.

My wife and I grew up Halloween people.  Whether it was Spider-Man or the Incredible Hulk, that little elastic string that held my mask never lasted past Crazy Ms. Chamberlain’s house.  Breathing in those masks got me all hot and bothered anyway.  But we bagged our fair share of candy so it was worth the trouble.  If the rain pancho KMart peddled as a “Batman costume” didn’t have a rip in it by the time you got home then you didn’t trick-or-treat hard enough.  Mrs. Latham always had old lady gum.  You know, chewing gum rather than bubble gum.  And even though I knew it was coming and despite my vow of courage the year before, Mrs. Wages – that witchy woman – always got me when she sprung from the porch chair.  Please don’t get me started on whoever thought the Chick-O-Stick was legitimate candy.

Though I’ve not been thoroughly psycho-analyzed I don’t know that I suffer any effects from the “horror” of Snob Hill.  Still, now that we’re parents, we’re just not Halloween people.

We could justify our Halloween Scroogeness on how much has changed (for the worse) since we were kids.  While true, we could say the same about a hundred other things to which we’ve adapted. So that argument is a red herring.

Of course, everybody has their own opinion about whose day Halloween really is.  Is it Satan’s day that Christians try to redeem?  Is it a Christian day Satan hijacks to drag children into the deepest recesses of hell?  What combination of Celtic, Gaelic and pagan is it?   I don’t know.  I just know we’re not Halloween people by modern Halloween standards.  The church historically used the day to hallow (hence, the name) dead saints and ridicule death. Now it seems we hallow (living) death and ridicule the saints.

That said, Christians should be on guard of being awash in abject worldliness despite how innocent we assume it is.  We are people of conviction and that includes having some conviction about Halloween.  We do then have some rationale, however unsatisfactory in might be to most, why we’re not Halloween people.

The typical Halloween “observance” falls into one of two extremes, neither of which help cultivate or demonstrate a robust Christian faith.  One extreme is the sensationalism or glorification of evil, darkness and death.  The other is the trivialization of them.

Christians do not glamorize or commend evil, darkness and death.  They are enemies so we don’t enjoy them or consider them a cause for celebration.  I’m not suggesting parents who lead their little Ariel and Captain America down the street are leading them to hell. But they should know that the world of evil, darkness and death is fundamentally at odds with the kingdom of Christ.  While the world may exalt and find entertainment value in evil, darkness and death, the church never popularizes them.  We don’t trade on fear, but faith. Gospel, not ghosts.

Christians do not trivialize evil, darkness and death.  Sure, we all may get a good laugh when a chainsaw-wielding goon jumps out from behind the tree.  But death and darkness are not to be trifled with.  They are very real and far more powerful than The Walking Dead lets on.  We don’t want our children taking death lightly.  It doesn’t have the power modern Halloweenism gives it.  But it is not impotent.  Apart from Christ, we are wards of a wicked enemy who intends far more harm to us than wetting our pants.

We must think soberly about evil, darkness and death.  They are neither happy nor trivial realities.  We want to seem them for what they are: aberrations and squatters in God’s redemptive plan. Because of Jesus we love and portray light and life, not darkness and death.

We don’t hate Halloween.  Really, we don’t.  We just think there’s a far better message to share and a far better way to share it.  God bless any and all Christians who seek to leverage the day for gospel purposes.  Just do them with your eyes open as a matter of conviction rather than convenience.  Your Trunk-or-Treats and Harvest Festivals will reach far more folks than my pouting about it.  Remember though every Sunday we gather and scatter as the church we confront darkness and celebrate Light.  Whatever our efforts we “are not in darkness . . . for you are all sons of light and sons of day.  We are not of night nor of darkness . . . but since we are of the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet, the hope of salvation” (1 Thess 5.4-8).

Our gospel efforts on Halloween should not be all that different from every other day we mill about in this world.  We bring the sweet message and display of Light to a dark and dying people.  We don’t need axes and pyrotechnics to attract folks to Jesus.  We simply need bread and wine.  Prayer and praise.  Word and worship.

Call me an old fogey.  Call me a puritanical hypocrite.  Call me unevangelistic.  I am all those things, for sure.  I probably am dropping a KJV Family Bible on a Pop Rock.  But whatever your conviction about Halloween just be sure not to hand out Necco wafers. That will indeed scar a person.

Jesus Cannot Be Serious

Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you (1 Pt 5.6-7).

I do a fair bit of worrying.  I worry about long-term, epitaph-related matters like vocation, character and legacy.  I worry about our kids’ futures and my wife’s health. I worry about what might happen and what most likely won’t.  I worry that it’s far too late to become the man I always wanted to be but never was.

I worry about short-term matters like next week’s bills and our strained ability to meet them, the leaky gutter, the missing shingles and oil changes.

I worry about what people think about me or that they don’t.  I worry about worrying and worry what God will do about it.

Like “Martha, Martha” I am “worried and bothered about so many things” (Lk 10.41).

We know worrying is bad for us.  It makes us sick, joyless, short-tempered, small-minded, selfish.  We know it won’t add one more minute to our already vaporous life (Lk 12.25).  We know it will probably do just the opposite: shorten our life and/or stifle our enjoyment of it.  But despite all of that I just can’t help it.

Jesus said quite frankly, “Do not be worried about your life” (Mt 6.25). Or in the king’s English, “Take no thought for your life.”  Jesus cannot be serious.  Did he really expect his followers to just stop worrying about things?  It would be easy for him to say after all.  He is God and an Omniscient God never has need to worry.  Is it that easy, Jesus?  Just stop worrying?

Jesus always means what he says even if we don’t always say it the way he means it.

Jesus did not command a flippant, Pollyannic life that never feels weight.  He knew we traded that life when we wanted to become our own worry-free gods (Gen 3.5).  He knew what he was doing when he entered our world of death, disease, despots and dangers.  He knew the people he would save struggled for food, drink and clothes. Rather than spend life pursuing and enjoying the perfections of God, we chose to spend our lives hustling for basic sustenance.

In commanding us to be done with worry Jesus was not impatiently scolding those nervously biting their fingernails.  He was giving us a gift.  He came to free us from a life unduly concerned with temporary matters so we could concern ourselves with eternal matters.  Jesus was assuring us the time, energy, tears and sleeplessness we expend on temporary matters will be far better spent “seeking first his kingdom and his righteousness” (Mt 6.33).

The same word Jesus used for worry (μεριμνᾶτε) is the verb form of what Paul used to describe his daily preoccupation (ἡ μέριμνα) with “all the churches” (2 Cor 11.29).  There are certainly matters about which we should be gravely concerned and those we should not be.  Jesus corrected those priorities by being tempted in every worrisome way without being overcome by worry (Heb 4.15).  Jesus knows full well what it’s like to be “distressed and troubled” (Mk 14.33)  He knows what is worth sweating over and what is not.  Like Jesus we do not grow anxious about fleeting pressures like food, drink and clothing.  We do concern ourselves with kingdom realities and daily taking up our cross (Lk 9.23).

Peter wrote incessant worrying or anxiety is an outworking of pride, or the opposite of humbling oneself before God (1 Pt 5.6-7).  Worry is an expression of assumed self-dependence and probably idolatry. Something is just out of our reach and we must keep jumping or else. We cannot get rid of something we have or cannot get what we must have.

To humble oneself under God (v6) is to regularly cast “all your anxieties” on him (πᾶσαν τὴν μέριμναν ὑμῶν is emphasized in the verse) (v7). Why?  Because God thinks we’re whiny babies who cannot handle some heat?  No.  Because he cares for us.  Jesus invites us to life of humility, the life of the Spirit where in we shamelessly entrust our lives to the one who is able to guard our eternal joy (2 Tim 1.12).

In Christ, God has relieved us of the incessant pressure of the curse rightly imposed on us.  The command to stop worrying about mere earthly concerns is not a weight Jesus puts on us. He’s commanding weight off of us.  To fight hard against worry is to faithfully trust that God cares for us.  He really cares. We don’t cast our anxieties on him so that he can worry instead of us. We cast our anxieties on him so he can care for us and free up our minds and hearts to pursue what is worth pursuing.

Jesus was serious.  He purchased and gave us a life free from vain worry.  It’s not a carefree life that feels no weight.  It’s a life free from soul-robbing worry about shallow, fleeting concerns so we can dedicate ourselves to eternal matters – his kingdom and his righteousness.  Jesus won’t pay the gas bill for you or change a pathology report.  But he will ensure they don’t dominate your heart and mind.  Jesus told Martha, Martha, “but one thing is necessary” (Lk 10.42).  Let’s choose the good part that cannot be taken away.

Christ’s Victory Means Infinitely More than Healing or Promotion

Victory is a biblical word and an especially exciting word for those in the prosperity “gospel” community.  In their defense, we indeed have victory through and because of Jesus. Scripture is quite clear about that.

“…but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 15.57).

“For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world: our faith” (1 Jn 5.4).

But victory over what?  Some suggest Christ’s victory extends to debt, disease and impending death.  If, so the logic goes, we have victory through Jesus and our faith appropriates that victory then we can (and should) believe our way to victory over school loans, cancer, and dead-end jobs.  The greater the faith, the greater the victory.  In fact, God is quite obliged to give us victory over these things.  As arguably the world’s most popular prosperity preacher says,

“God has already done everything He’s going to do. The ball is now in your court. If you want success, if you want wisdom, if you want to be prosperous and healthy, you’re going to have to do more than meditate and believe; you must boldly declare words of faith and victory over yourself and your family” (Joel Osteen).

Even further, we either appropriate God’s victory or we necessarily invite defeat:

“The more you talk about negative things in your life, the more you call them in. Speak victory not defeat” (Joel Osteen).

To assume then that you might not survive cancer or get of of debt or get the promotion is de facto faithless, Godless defeat.  Jesus died to make us indefatigable optimists.

However, consider the apostolic witness.

“Therefore, those also who suffer according to the will of God shall entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right” (1 Pt 4.19; cf. Phil 1.29; 1 Pt 1.6-9).

The prosperity “gospel” has no concept of suffering according to the will of God, only victory.  But Scripture repeatedly forces us to consider otherwise.  If anyone, Peter knew suffering according to God’s will because Jesus prepared him for it some thirty years prior (Jn 21.18-19).

The Paul who celebrated Christ’s victory in 1 Cor 15.54, 55, 57 is the same Paul who wrote:

“And He has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’ Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12.9-10).

This is not to say pessimism is a godly virtue.  The Christian is not to be constantly sullen, downtrodden and hopeless.  But just because you may not be overly optimistic about a given situation does not necessarily mean you are not joyful, hopeful and glad in Christ’s work on your behalf.  Just because you may be content that God use disease rather than heal it does not mean you want to die.  Just because you are willing that God demonstrate his power in more ways than just healing does not mean you live a defeated life or are giving up on temporary remedies.

It simply means you understand “victory” to be of a different sort than earthly comfort.  Nowhere has God guaranteed victory over pain and peril in this life.  In fact, he prepared Christ’s followers for a really tough slog (Jn 16.33).  He has, however, guaranteed worldly trouble will not ultimately strip you from Christ’s hand and send you to hell.

The apostles who gave us the language of victory also gave us the right application of the language.  “Victory” is not a word or concept to be universally applied to every situation we endure in this life.  It is the word/concept that gives us hope in the most important battle.

The victory of which Paul speaks in 1 Cor 15.57 is the resurrection of all Christians.  As Christians were dying by the dozens, the Corinthians wondered what to make of Christ’s work. What exactly had Jesus actually done because it didn’t seem to accomplish much. Paul reminded them, gloriously so, that death was “swallowed up in victory”( v54).  What could Paul possibly mean when death was obviously dominating the church?  Death is swallowed up not because Christians stopped dying, but because they will be raised from the dead (vv42-49). Jesus did not stop his followers from dying any more than he stopped himself.  He has stopped them from staying dead!  That is Christ’s victory.  Those for whom he died will not always suffer even if they must for now.

“I am the resurrection an the life; he who believes in me will live even if he dies” (Jn 11.25).

The victory of which John speaks in 1 Jn 5.4 is that of overcoming the world through faith.  “World” for John is the realm of sin and hostility toward God.  To overcome the world through faith is to persevere in Christ’s love and obedience (v3).  “Victory” is to fend off sin and Satan so that we do not abandon Christ and his sufficiency.  As the world assaults us with temptation to leave Christ, we overcome through faith: believing the gospel that eternal life is found only in the Son (vv5-12).

Overcoming the world through faith is not believing our way to healing, debt relief or promotions.  It is resisting the temptations that ride like barnacles on disease, bills and un(der)employment.  Satan hijacks despair and pain not to strip us from health or wealth, but to strip us from faith and ultimately from Christ.  We are victorious in that we remain in Christ despite all the pain, disappointment and despair.  We still trust.  We still hope.  We still love (cf. 1 Pt 6-9).

We don’t need God’s help wanting to be healed.  He’s hardwired us to want life so he knows we want to live and will be joyful if we do.  We do need God’s help believing his “lovingkindness is better than life” (Ps 63.3).  Victory is wanting Christ more than we want life (Phil 2.21). It’s when death is “gain” that we truly live.  I don’t need rescue from my cancer or my despair.  We all need rescue from a world where cancer or despair is even a reality.

We may or may not get healed or promoted.  Jesus may keep us from cures and corner offices but he will not keep us from himself (Jn 10.27-29; Rom 8.31-39).  That, friends, is victory.  So, we take our medicines and consolidate our loans and apply for better jobs.  But we do so knowing health, solvency and promotion are not the victory Jesus earned for us.  Jesus did not die for temporary fixes but for our eternal happiness.

Christ’s victory doesn’t mean he will cure us of cancer or ALS or Alzheimer’s in this life.  It means he already cured us when he walked out of that Jerusalem grave 2,000 years ago.  And so with feeble arms and failing bodies and frail faith we raise high the victory banner and joyfully announce Christ has won and he is Lord.

Afflicted Saint, to Christ Draw Near

John Fawcett was converted as a 16-year-old in 1755 under the min­is­try of George White­field.  He became the pastor of Wainsgate Baptist Church in Yorkshire in 1764.  In 1772, he initially accepted the invitation to succeed the formidable John Gill at London’s Carter’s Lane Baptist Church and that at a substantially higher salary.  This was no small honor for Fawcett who once wrote prior to 1764:

“To be brief, my dear friends, you may say what you will,
I’ll ne’er be confined to read nothing but Gill.”

He preached his farewell sermon while his packed wagon awaited outside. But he could not bring himself to leave the Wainsgate congregation. He declined the invitation and served them until he died in 1817.  This would inspire his most famous hymn Blest Be the Tie That Binds that many a Baptist have held hands and sung at the end of their services.

In 1782, Fawcett published Hymns Adapted to the Circumstances of Public Worship and Private Devotion.  He prefaced the book humbly:

“I blush to think of these plain verses fall­ing in­to the hands of per­sons of an elevated genius, and re­fined taste. To such, I know, they will appear flat, dull and unentertaining . . . If it may be conducive, under divine bless­ing to warm the heart or assist the devotion of any humble Christian in the closet, the family or the house of God, I shall there­in sincerely rejoice, whatever censure I may in­cur from the polite world.”

Fawcett remains a faithful example to ladder-climbing preachers and performance-driven worship pastors.  He refused a “celebrity” pulpit and its compensation to eke out a living in relative anonymity. He wrote “plain” hymns that might be “unentertaining” to the musical elite (and modern K-Love audience) but would serve “any humble Christian.” They still do.

Fawcett died July 25, 1817, and was appropriately buried in the graveyard of the church he served over fifty years.  He lived and died with his congregation.

I hope one of his “plain verses” warms your heart and assists your devotion as it has mine:

Afflicted saint, to Christ draw near—
Thy Savior’s gracious promise hear,
His faithful Word declares to thee,
That as thy days thy strength shall be.

Let not thy heart despond and say
“How shall I stand the trying day?”
He has engaged by firm decree,
That as thy days thy strength shall be.

Thy faith is weak, thy foes are strong,
And if the conflict should be long,
The Lord will make the tempter flee,
For as thy days thy strength shall be.

Should persecution rage and flame,
Still trust in thy Redeemer’s Name;
In fiery trials thou shalt see,
That as thy days thy strength shall be.

When called to bear thy weighty cross,
Or sore affliction, pain, or loss,
Or deep distress or poverty,
Still as thy days thy strength shall be.

Don’t Stop Sinning

“…as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 5.21).

Christians use the stock language of “hating sin” and “killing sin.”  Those wanting to sound especially holy and smart speak of “mortifying sin.”  Sin is indeed an interloper in the Christian soul, a squatter in the Spirit-indwelled heart.  Because of Christ sin has no rights, privileges or legal claim on the Christian.  Therefore, it must be rooted out and put to death.  We are strengthened by the Holy Spirit to make progress against particular sins and toward Christlikeness. Though a lifelong process, the mortification of sin is a hopeful process because Jesus has removed its sting (1 Cor 15.55-57).  I’m far more empowered to kill something that cannot kill me back!

As pious as “killing” sin sounds how exactly do we go about it?  Is it enough to merely say we categorically hate sin really, really bad? Is our hatred of sin to be measured by how bad we feel after committing it?  Does killing sin mean spending our livelong days not sinning in certain ways?  Are we to wake up each day trying not to sin as a means of mortifying it?

Jesus taught us to be violently aggressive against sin.  We’re to cut out the wandering eye and cut off the offending hand, as it were (Mt 18.8-9).  Guerrilla warfare has no rules and sin is our fiercest guerrillero; therefore, killing sin is rarely easy and often messy. We’re not merely to hate the category of sin, but to kill “the deeds of the body” in the power of the Holy Spirit (Rom 8.13).  It’s one thing to hate weeds in my yard while staring at them from the kitchen window, but quite another to get dirty pulling up the particular weeds.  We’re called to hate and mortify sin by being done with, or at least making steady progress against, certain sins.

That said, the gospel provides a metric to measure hatred for sin and a corresponding tactic for killing it.  Sin reigns in death, grace reigns through righteousness (Rom 5.21).  The grace that saves is the grace that demonstrates its power (or, reign) in sin-killing righteousness.  In other words, saving grace is not only measured by how much sin we get away with while still remaining God’s children.  Grace is measured also by the amount of righteousness that replaces sin.  Grace doesn’t reign through licentiousness but through righteousness.

How can my hatred of sin be measured?  By the amount of righteousness that demonstrably opposes it in my life.  For example, we show how much we hate greed or theft by how generous we are with our stuff (Eph 4.28).  We show how much we hate sarcasm, gossip and slander by how much of an encouragement we are in everyday conversation (Eph 4.29).  We demonstrate how much we hate bitterness, wrath and anger by how kind, tender-hearted and forgiving we are to others (Eph 4.30; Col 2.8, 12). We demonstrate how much we hate selfishness and conceit by the amount of humble service we offer (Phil 4.3-4).

The tactic, therefore, for killing sin is not simply not sinning.  That’s like trying to overcome the fear of pink elephants by not thinking of pink elephants.  Strangely (or pathologically), in trying so hard to avoid thinking about them you actually cannot help thinking about them. Trying so hard to not sin actually can actually focus undue attention on the sin.  Laying aside entangling sin doesn’t mean focusing on its double knots, but fixing our eyes on Jesus (Heb 12.1-2).  Sin is best defeated by grace-reigning righteousness.  Sin must be evicted by the soul’s rightful resident: the Spirit of Christ putting Christ’s righteousness on display through us (Rom 6.12-19).

Killing sin is also not waiting for God to “zap” the sinful desires out of you.  If I had nickel for every time I’ve prayed, “God, just take the desires away so I can’t be rid of this sin!”? Not wanting to want is not enough to kill sin.  God typically doesn’t mysteriously take sin out of us while we sleep like he did with Adam’s rib.  God has rung sin’s death knell: grace.  And grace reigns through righteousness.

Therefore, if I want to kill anger it will be futile to spend every hour trying not to get angry.  That will lead to a lonely life and shallow love. And trying to avoid anger will probably only make me angrier!  I kill anger with tender-hearted compassion.  Instead of trying not to be angry I’m better suited to exercise compassion and my anger will starve to death.

I don’t kill greed by merely avoiding shopping and cutting up credit cards.  That only suspends greed until it finds seven more greedy friends to provoke a spending spree (Mt 12.43-45).  I kill greed by being generous.  Instead of trying hard not to be greedy, I should give myself away and my greed will slowly shrivel.

Killing gossip will take more than lip-zipping and deactivating a Facebook account.  That only suspends gossip until I boil over in some Godless rant.  Gossip must be evicted by Christ-centered encouragement of others.  Rather than trying hard not to gossip, I must work hard to encourage and gossip will become far less gratifying to my selfish soul.

Grace is freedom.  Liberty.  We don’t wake up each day burdened with killing sin by sneaking around it or ignoring it or “speaking” to it. That’s like trying to evict a squatter by acting like he’s not there or really, really, really not wanting him to be there. No squatter has left by professing to others how much we hate him. We cannot shame a squatter into leaving.  He must be evicted and replaced. We kill sin by replacing it as Christ has already “taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (Col 2.15).

We wake up each day in the power of God’s grace to pursue righteousness.  Christ’s righteousness.  Sin-haters are righteousness-lovers.  We will enjoy far more freedom from sin by pursuing in the power of the Spirit those things that evict sin than we will trying not to sin by our own power.  Let’s stop trying so hard not to sin against Christ that we don’t actually live for him.  Don’t just stop sinning against Jesus. Start living in him.

The Grace of a Guilty God

As part of God’s sanctifying providence Christians must endure difficult seasons of frustration. Some will be brief and others lengthy, but they will all test our affections and whittle away our worldliness. Our questions will not always be about God’s power or authority but about his care. Will he indeed mend the wounds he is right to cause?

Answers will be few for most of them or at least selfishly insufficient. Jesus does not require we know why but he does require we follow him (Jn 21.20-23). While Jesus may not provide specific answers now, he did set the context of our discipleship. Following him would be a cruciform life known as daily cross-bearing (Lk 9.23). Jesus initiated his finest into ministry by preparing them for death rather than success (Jn 21.18-19).

God knows this. He is not ignorant of the fact his providence will be confusing to us. That is why we have a humble, suffering, sympathetic High Priest (Heb 2.17-18; 4.14-16). He will not always provide answers (which are cheap) but he will provide grace, mercy and hope. Hope for the resurrected life. God knows we want to know why but he also knows that will be largely unsatisfying. We do not benefit from knowing why frustrating providences happen nearly as much as knowing they are temporary (2 Cor 4.16-5.10).

The last year has been one of those seasons for us. God be praised the gospel is true because I have prayed in ways that took him to task. In fact, I have wondered if we want better things for God than he wanted for himself. Frustrating indeed. God has been infinitely patient as I have asked him some important (and borderline blasphemous) questions.

How could God possibly know what it’s like to feel guilty? He never sinned so how could Jesus sympathize with guilt-ridden people? Jesus never said a rash word so how could he possibly know what it’s like to set forests aflame by his tongue (Jas 3.5)? Jesus never entertained a lustful thought so how could he possibly sympathize who commit adultery in their heart (Mt 5.27-28)? He never uttered a cross word so how could he possibly sympathize with those who murder in their heart (Mt 5.21-22)?

Jesus never reacted in unrighteous anger so how could he possibly sympathize with those enduring the consequences of rage? Jesus never doubted God so how can he sympathize with those struggling to believe? Jesus never feared that God would care for him (1 Pt 2.23) so how can Jesus sympathize with the fearful? Jesus was tempted “in all things yet without sin” (Heb 4.15). While he can sympathize with those who are tempted, how can he do so with those who fail to withstand it? Can he sympathize with those who are yet with sin?

Jesus knows what it like to be sinned against but how can he sympathize with those doing the sinning? How sympathetic can a Sinless Jesus really be with sinners? How can he really know what I’m going through? It is an important question.

And there can only be (and that gloriously) one answer: the cross.

Surely our griefs he himself bore, and our sorrows he carried; yet we ourselves esteemed him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on him (Isa 53.4-6).

About the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “ELI, ELI, LAMA SABACHTHANI?” that is, “MY GOD, MY GOD, WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME?” (Mat 27.46)

He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Cor 5.21).

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us for it is written, “CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO HANGS ON A TREE ” (Gal 3.13).

Jesus does know what it feels like to be guilty. Jesus does know what it’s like to be rageaholic, sexual deviant, a doubter and rebel. Jesus did not endure the cross with a wink, but as one bearing the guilt of all the elect. There was a real transfer of Adamic guilt so there could be the real transfer of Christ’s righteousness (Rom 5.19).

I can barely stand (hopefully!) the guilt of one of my sins. How could one possibly bear the weight of guilt for the sin of ten people? Twelve? Forty? Yet Jesus bore the guilt of all the sins of all the church (Eph 5.25).

The gospel teaches Jesus knows fully well what it’s like to be guilty like us. In reality, the gospel teaches we actually do not know what it’s like to be guilty like Jesus. And we thankfully never will. We might know something of the guilt of our sin but we can hardly know what it’s like to be guilty of all sin.

Jesus is indeed our sympathetic High Priest. He does know we go through. Only he has made sure condemnation is not the end result for us like it was for him (Rom 8.1). He removed death and sin’s sting by having God leave the stinger in him (1 Cor 15.54-57).

Jesus is the only true refuge for guilty people because no one has felt guilt like he has. He can help. He will heal. He is faithful.

Friday Night Tights

Football is king in Texas. Our pastoral stint in the Lone Star state awakened me to the hysteria that is 6A high school football. With its own Jumbotron and state-of-the-art turf field, the local high school had facilities fit for most small college programs. The school also introduced each new season with a preview of the next four months’ of Friday nights. They showcased all the school bands. The various cheerleading/dance squads wowed the crowd with their award-winning routines. At least I think they did. I could hardly watch without becoming adulterous but the crowd seemed impressed.

I did not have to see much in order to be outright appalled, disgusted and burdened. It was near impossible to miss dozens of junior and senior high school adolescent girls parading around in scantily clad, highly suggestive uniforms. What little I did catch of their routines made me wonder if MTV was auditioning for an Eminem video. Parents applauded, boys ogled and drueled, and the girls soaked it all in like celebrities.

The football may be of a different caliber in Tennessee, but the exploitation of young girls in the name of team spirit is all too familiar.

Let’s be honest, the modern dance routines crowds expect from cheerleaders masquerade exotic dancing as halftime entertainment. We tolerate indecency because it will look great on their college applications. The so-called music to which they dance is X-rated entertainment. It cannot be much different that what an aroused sex addict would see in a so-called ‘gentlemen’s’ club. The only thing missing is the pole. But on a football field it’s wholesome and good for the team.

Our young men and women run rampant sexually largely because we’ve removed the fences, boundaries our children want but can’t provide themselves. We applaud sexually-suggestive material, objectify our daughters and encourage shamelessness. And then we wonder why teenagers get pregnant, obsess over vanity and boys treat women like meat in a display case. It’s because we put them on display every Friday night. What else are they to think? True love may wait, but can the parents? In the ironic name of modernity we’re raising cat-calling neanderthals and sex objects. Sadly, the girls do not even know we exploited them until they realize they cannot keep a guy’s attention without dressing or acting the part. These girls do not even know they’re being used until they are used up.

I cannot see any reasonable justification for Christian parents allowing their daughters to participate on school ‘dance’ teams. And I realize that is a broad generalization. There are undoubtedly exceptions that maintain tasteful team spirit. But I suspect what we see most Friday nights are more the rule than the exception. In what universe does bare skin, provocative poses and glorified pole-dancing foster education, discipline, excellence, chivalry or femininity?  I assure you no one is thinking about football at the time.

Would any father who loves his daughter want her so easily debased? Would any father give a crowd of testosterone-juiced men free reign to fantasize about his daughter? Would any father indifferently want to see his daughter tantalizing other men in any context? Even the very fathers who sit next to them in the bleachers?

Fathers, let’s be honest with ourselves, our wives and daughter(s). You know full well what those flat-billed, skinny jeans-wearing punks are thinking and fantasizing when your daughter takes the stage, sorry, field. You know what they’re saying about her behind their chuckles, pimple-faced grunts, and gutter slang. You know they are naturally bent towards vulgarity and even moreso when there’s nothing left to the imagination.  You know because you and I were those punks at one time.

Most fathers I know would just as soon get arrested as to knowingly allow that little twit another ogle at his princess. Fathers should be careful then of putting their daughters in the compromising position of being so humiliatingly objectified in the name of entertainment.

Consider the Scriptures.

I want you to be wise in what is good and innocent in what is evil (Rom 16.19b).

Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; yet in evil be infants, but in your thinking be mature (1 Cor 14.20).

Should Christian parents encourage and invest in what lends itself to obvious evil? Should Christian parents applaud what opposes godly virtue, gospel fruit and biblical modesty? Do we grossly underestimate the extent of our sin that we blindly entrust to adolescent/pubescent audiences with what requires the most mature of adult discernment?  It’s not cute and innocent any more than a Kermit the Frog bong is cute and innocent.

The church can no longer play fast-and-loose with the next generation as though God condemns on Sunday morning what he winks at Friday night. There is no amount of baptizing worldliness we can do to justify our neglect and indifference. We praise girls when they’ve pranced around like showgirls. We chuckle when boys give the new girl the once-over. All the while we’re selling them out for another W on the schedule. Yet, when it comes to gospel instruction and biblical virtue we have little to say and little to commend. God help us from compromising the Kingdom another Friday night.  Let’s encourage, expect and celebrate far more the Holy Spirit than team spirit.

Relax, Your Church is a Mess (For Now)

If you are a Christian then you love the church because you love what Jesus loves.  Jesus died for her (Eph 5.2, 25) and it’s Christian to love those for whom Jesus died.  But Christ’s bride is one messed-up group of people because you and I are some messed-up folk.

Jesus did not give himself up for the church because of who she was but because of who he would make her to be.  Jesus knew full well his church would never be perfect in this life.  He would sanctify her until the last day when he raises her anew as a gift to his Father (Eph 5.26-27).  We serve an illusion if we think our churches will be spotless, wrinkle-free, holy and blameless before the day Jesus presents her on that day.  Jesus never intended to create the perfect church in this age. He would preserve a faithful people who ride together the ups-and-downs of sin, pain, sorrow and joy by faith until he comes again.

Meanwhile, we are one motley group of weak people running a very difficult race of faith.

The true marks of a church, according to the Reformers, are the right preaching of God’s word, the right administration of the sacraments/ordinances and the exercise of church discipline.  Any church aiming at those marks will go through some very painful circumstances.  It’s nosy business we welcomed when we were baptized.  When Jesus came on the Galilean scene demons came out of nowhere to go toe-to-toe with the one they knew would destroy them.  Likewise, striving for and maintaining healthy churches means meeting sin and Satan in the dark alleys of human hearts.  And no one comes away without scars in that fight.

Have you considered the reason why we have thirteen New Testament letters?  They’re all, in one sense or another, responses to church conflicts.  Be it sneaky false teachers or plain old infighting, local churches suffered grievous internal conflict. There were no perfect churches in the NT.  In fact, we’re surprised to see some groups of believers still considered part of the church!  Jesus’ seven letters in Revelation 2-3 were to confront imperfect churches.  Until the end of time, Christ’s church will not be what she will be when Christ gets done with her on the last day.

The ministry of Jesus invited conflict.  Therefore, true gospel ministry invites conflict in the “best” of churches.  We don’t relish the conflict, but we’re not surprised or excessively despaired by it. Conflict is often the means of testing faithfulness (2 Cor 2.9) and reminding us that we’re not There yet and therefore must keep each other’s eyes fixed on Christ.

We can ignore conflict by avoiding the hard work of communal accountability to the gospel.  Offenders and offended simply slip out the side-door so as to avoid any confrontation and stain of scandal.

We can exaggerate conflict by assuming Satan is successfully destroying the church.  Satan only has as much leash as God allows, though.  Let’s be careful of ascribing to Satan what are really our own selfish, prideful desires.  No offense is unresolvable. Either by humble reconciliation or loving church discipline, Jesus has made a way to deal with church conflict.

We can understate conflict by publicly ignoring it but privately gossiping about it until the cancer takes over major organs.  Jesus gives courage to elders to confront conflict early so no bitter fruit blossoms (Heb 12.14).  Otherwise, what are probably minor offenses explode into major rifts.

We can fear conflict by running from it so we soon have a church with people exactly like us.

Or, we can consider conflict biblically.  Conflict will happen in the best of churches.  That’s why we have most of the New Testament. Therefore, we should be honest about conflict.  The world doesn’t need to see a billboard of superficial, smiling suburbanites.  The world needs to see a community of sinners who have found Living Hope in the gospel and pursue peace with each other.

We should consider conflict as a means by which God exposes our own sin. He tests our love so we will enjoy even more of Christ’s power and provision.  He will allow conflict to show the world the precious value of Jesus over indwelling sin and personal hatred.

We shouldn’t be surprised by conflict if we’re striving to be healthy churches.  Satan has declared war on the church (Rev 12.17) and when we poke him he snarls.

We should see conflict in light of the big picture rather than our infinitesimally small world.  Christ is sanctifying a global community and we’re barely a sliver of it.  Whatever conflict we face in the American church should be seen in light of the persecution of Christians in most of the rest of the world.

We should consider conflict part of God’s means of sanctifying his people.  We still need Christ to redeem, repent and restore.

We shouldn’t consider a healthy church the one without any conflict. There is such a thing as false peace.  The healthy church is one who deals with conflict in a Christ-exalting, saint-loving, purity-protecting way.

While conflict shouldn’t dominate a church’s life, it will be a regular condition in the life of the church.  Such is life in the age of groaning (Rom 8.22-24).  There will always be someone(s) giving into temptation, incubating wicked thoughts, hiding secret sins, etc.  The joy of Christian ministry is not making sure everyone looks perfect but in making sure everyone is hoping in Christ and his perfections.

We live in the age of the hope of glory (Rom 5.2; Col 1.27), knowing the day is coming soon when we will finally, and in reality, be the glorious people for whom Christ died.  Until then “with perseverance we wait eagerly for it” (Rom 8.25).  So, relax, your church is a mess.  But not for too much longer.

The Sacrament of Sunrise

20140828_064255The sun rose beautifully on Memphis today.  And when the sun rose the gospel rose with it.

I wonder if we might overplay our hand when we make the creation accounts in Gen 1-2 merely about, well, creation.  Is God merely trying to explain how things came to be, the science of origins? Or is God weaving in the created order the very fabric of the gospel he will work out in Christ for all the world to see?  Is Gen 1-2 simply about creationism or ultimately about the gospel of Jesus Christ?

Creation is certainly about more than chronology and cosmology. Creation is primarily about theology in general and Christology in particular.  After all,

…by [the beloved Son] all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things have been created through him and for him” (Col 1.16).

For the Christian, “general revelation” (creation and conscience) becomes Christological revelation as everything “in the heavens and on earth” display Christ’s excellencies.  In that sense, all of creation is sacramental as much as it is elemental.

Each morning the sun “is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber; it rejoices as a strong man to run its course.  Its rising is from one end of the heavens, and its circuit to the other end of them; and there is nothing hidden from its heat” (Ps 19.5-6).

Jesus said the Psalms prepare us for he is and what he does (Lk 24.44).  The New Testament and Jesus in particular repeatedly use the Psalms to explain who he is (Mt 22.41-46), what he’s doing (Mk 14.20f.; Lk 23.46) and what is happening to him (cf. Mk 14.34; Jn 19.24).  The apostles used the Psalms to ground the early church in a robust Christology (Acts 2.25-31, 34-36; 13.32-37).

Therefore, we should expect Psalm 19 to do more than fill our hearts at a seaside sunrise.  It should compel us toward thoughts and worship of Jesus.  Risking an allegorical hermeneutic, it’s no accident Jesus was known as the “bridegroom” (Mt 9.14f.; 25.1-13; Rev 19.7) and an unstoppable “strong man” (Mt 12.29) from whose “heat” no one can escape (Heb 4.13). The sunrise David described in Ps 19 shows the Christian more than its “intelligent design.”  It is as much created for Christ as it is by him.

As early as Gen 1.2-3 we learn each sunrise proclaims the good news that light, God’s light, always overcomes darkness.  God wove into the very fabric of the created order the reality that light will always overcome darkness.  And that prepares us for the reality Paul described in 2 Cor 4.6:

For God, who said, “Light shall shine out of darkness,” is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the of Christ.”

God’s light-creating power at creation paved the way for his gospel-giving power at our redemption.  The light that overcame darkness at creation echoes the Light that overcomes the darkness of our hearts in new creation.  And no matter how dark the night is, the sun will soon rise and dispel it.  Every day, everywhere.

Just as marriage serves an earthly, parabolic and Christological function (Eph 5.22-33) that will one day end (Mt 22.23-33), so too the sunrise:

And there will no longer be any night; and they will not have need of the light of a lamp nor the light of the sun, because the Lord God will illumine them; and they will reign forever and ever” (Rev 22.5).

With every sunrise God declares the triumph of light over darkness (Ps 19.4).  And that feeds our hope for today, a day that will soon end in darkness.  Indeed, a life that ends in darkness.  The day is coming, though, when the sun rises for the last time and the Light of the world (Jn 1.4-5; 8.12) will no longer be veiled by clouds and shadows nor will it burn those who see it.  The night of weeping will be overcome by the morning’s joy (Ps 30.5) when the “Sunrise from on high will visit us” (Lk 1.78).  Every sunrise since Gen 1 has been building that eternal hope in us.  Night is temporary.  Light wins every time until He wins forever.

The God who “is Light, and in [whom] there is no darkness at all” (1 Jn 1.5) will allow for no night in the new creation.  Jesus will at last have overcome the darkness of our own hearts once and for all.

Dayspring of eternity!
Hide no more Thy radiant dawning!
Light from light’s exhaustless sea,
Shine on us afresh this morning!
And dispel with glorious might
All our night.

Let the glow of love destroy
Cold obedience faintly given,
Wake our hearts to love and joy
With the flushing eastern heaven;
Let us truly rise ere yet
Life hath set.

Through this dark and tearful place
Never be Thy light denied us.
O Thou glorious Sun of grace,
To yon world of gladness guide us,
When to joys that never end
We ascend!

Ah! Thou Dayspring from on high
Grant that at Thy next appearing
We who in the graves do lie
May arise, Thy summons hearing,
And rejoice in our new life,
Far from strife.

Light us to those heavenly spheres,
Sun of grace, in glory shrouded;
Lead us through this vale of tears
To the land whose days unclouded,
Purest joy, and perfect peace
Never cease.
(Christian von Rosenroth, 1664)

Post tenebras lux.