My Testimony (Pleasure, Grace and My Parent’s Oldsmobile)

As I slowly crawled out of the car I realized that it was upside down, the top had been pushed dangerously close to my head, the windows had all been busted out and I was in serious trouble. I clearly needed to redirect my pursuit of pleasure.

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Let’s go back in time for a moment. I was nine years old and was living in Needles, California. I believe it was a Sunday night and my dad was preaching a sermon and it included descriptive information about the realities of hell. We were Baptist after-all. Even at the age of nine I knew that spending eternity with God sounded like a much better deal than an eternity in hell. So, I gave my life to the Lord and was soon baptized. But, like many PKs, my spiritual life during the days of my youth were a bit of a roller-coaster. Things changed dramatically when I turned 18. I developed a friendship with a guy who owned a Camaro and who liked to drink…a lot. (I googled this old friend a few months ago and discovered that there is currently a warrant out for his arrest. Not kidding.)

What I quickly learned about myself is that I loved to party but with 3 times the energy and enthusiasm as everyone else. The picture above is an actual photo of what I did to my parent’s car after a night of “hanging out with friends”, which is code for having way too much to drink.

After leaving the party I vaguely recall driving on I-17 in Phoenix, I think I was falling asleep (passing out) and began to sense that I was about to run into the back of a car in front of me. I pulled the steering wheel sharply to the left, rolled the car off of the interstate and down an embankment. When I eventually stumbled out of the upside down car there were already several police officers waiting for me.

interstate-17

The whole thing leaves me with four thoughts…

The Oldsmobile is a vivid picture of what the evil one wants to do through our pursuit of pleasure.  The devil, I believe, wanted me dead. Isn’t this what sin always does? Kill? I think, we think, that the next drink, job, house, purchase, achievement, relationship, touchdown that our kid scores, vacation will satisfy us but it never does. Is there anything you are pursuing these days that, if you were honest, is slowly killing your soul and leaving you feeling less alive?

God’s grace is written all over my life. How did I get out of that wreck with one small scratch? Without wearing a seat belt? I can only attribute it to the grace and mercy of God. I frequently think back to the accident in the Oldsmobile and thank God for sparing my life. Whatever your struggle might be, God’s grace is always available to you.

I am still a pleasure junky but God is the only One who truly satisfies. Prone to wander, prone to leave the God I love. I would like to say that because of the car accident I have safely concluded that this world and it’s temptations are dead to me. I would like to say it but it would be an enormous lie. All of us are hedonists who end up wasting precious time looking for happiness in the wrong places.

Finding true pleasure is a matter of life or death because the spiritual well-being of our soul is at stake. One sign that we are growing as Christians is that we are living and obeying God based more out of a sense of delight then duty. Which describes your reasons for obedience these days? Delight or duty? This battle of finding pleasure in Christ is going on in my soul every moment of every day. But this I do believe to be true, and this is what I cling to; Jesus is the only One who brings true, lasting pleasure that never disappoints.

Finding pleasure in the things of this world is not wrong in itself. In fact, God has made this world for us to enjoy.  “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving…” -1 Timothy 4:4. The problem is when we seek ultimate satisfaction from the world and fail to remember that God, and not his gifts, are to be worshipped.

You may wonder, why share any of this in the first place? I deeply wrestle with that question. Motives are always a murky thing to sort out. I guess this is my best explanation. I don’t think we help our family, church, friends, or the world when we pretend as if we are not sinners saved by the grace of God. I know for certain that everyone I encounter on a day-to-day basis is fighting a spiritual battle and instead of putting up a false image of “having it all together” one of the best things I can do is to say, “yep, me too.” Perhaps if I, if we all, take down the veneer of super-spirituality it will free others to do likewise. I believe God is honored when we openly admit our weaknesses (2 Corinthians 11:30) and boast in His righteousness, grace and goodness.

Although the pursuit of pleasure is a daily, slug it out, spiritual battle I am glad to know that our God not only wants us to be good and moral but also to be as joyful as possible. A joy that is only possible as we go deeper in our relationship with Jesus Christ.

You can read more HERE about what I am up to these days.

It would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. -CS Lewis

Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him! -Psalm 34:8

17 Of My Favorite Quotes From “The Pastor” By Eugene Peterson

Knowing people and preaching: On one of these evenings he was asked by one of the students something about preaching. Something on the order of “What is the most important thing you do in preparing to preach each Sunday?” I think we were all surprised by the answer, at least I was. His answer, “For two hours every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, I walk through the neighborhood and make some home visits. There is no way that I can preach the gospel to these people if I don’t know how they are living, what they are thinking and talking about. Preaching is proclamation, God’s Word revealed in Jesus, but only when it gets embedded in conversation, in a listening ear and responding tongue, does it become gospel.” P. 86-87

The Pastor by Eugene PetersonThe importance of hospitality: But a serious problem surfaced quite early. From her early adolescence Jan had wanted to be a pastor’s wife. And from an early stage I had wanted nothing to do with pastors. For Jan, “pastor’s wife” was not just being married to a pastor; it was far more vocational than that, a way of life. It meant participation in an intricate web of hospitality, living at the intersection of human need and God’s grace, inhabiting a community where men and women who didn’t fit were welcome, where neglected children were  noticed, where the stories of Jesus were told, and people who had no stories found that they did have stories, stories that were part of the Jesus story. Being a pastor’s wife would place her strategically yet unobtrusively at a heavily trafficked intersection between heaven and earth. P. 95

The Americanization of Congregation: The ink on my ordination papers wasn’t even dry before I was being told by experts, so-called, in the field of church that my main task was to run a church after the manner of my brother and sister Christian who run service stations, grocery stores, corporations, banks, hospitals, and financial services. Many of them wrote books and gave lectures on how to do it. I was astonished to learn in one of these best-selling books that the size of my parking lot had far more to do with how things fared in my congregation than my choice of texts in preaching. I was being lied to and I knew it. This is the Americanization of congregation. It means turning each congregation into a market for religious consumers, an ecclesiastical business run along the lines of advertising techniques, organizational flow charts, and energized by impressive motivational rhetoric. But this was worse. This pragmatic vocational embrace of American technology and consumerism that promised to rescue congregations from ineffective obscurity  violated everything-scriptural, theological, experiential-that had formed my identity as a follower of Jesus and as a pastor. It struck me far worse than the earlier rhetoric and crusader illusions of church. It was a blasphemous desecration of the way of life to which the church had ordained me-something on the order of a vocational abomination of desolation. P.112-113

God does not select people like we do: It became more and more clear that when God forms a church, he starts with the nobodies. That’s the way the Holy Spirit works. Those are the people he started with-Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph, Anna and Simeon-to bring our Savior into the world. Why would he change strategies in bringing the salvation community, church, this congregation into formation? P. 127

Unrealistic expectations about what church is like will kill you: But without this substantial “cleansing” and “shift” that took place in the catacombs, we would not have been able to recognize and participate in the actual church that was being formed among us. Without that, the church that most of us expected and wanted would have become the enemy of the church we were given. P. 129

Becoming a pastor who is not in a hurry: I was in the process of coming to terms with my congregation, just as they were; their less-than-developed emotional life, their lack of intellectual curiosity, the complacent acceptance of a world of consumption and diversion, their seemingly peripheral interest in God. I wasn’t giving up on them. I didn’t intend to leave them where I found them. By now I was prepared to enter a long process of growth in which they would discover for themselves the freshness of the Spirit giving vitality to the way they loved and worked and laughed and played. And I was finding areas of common ground that made us fellow pilgrims, comrades in arms in recognizing unexpected shards of beauty in worship and scripture and one another. I was learning not to impose my expectations of what I hoped for them but rather let them reveal to me, as they were able, who they were. I was becoming a pastor who wasn’t in a hurry. P. 135

People are not a problem to be fixed: Congregation is a company of people who are defined by their creation in the image of God, living souls, whether they know it or not. They are not problems to be fixed, but mysteries to be honored and revered. Who else in the community other than the pastor has the assigned task of greeting men and women and welcoming them into a congregation in which they are known not by what is wrong with them, but by who they are, just as they are? P. 137

Embracing slow sanctification: Would I trade my pastoral birthright for the mess of pottage that provided the immediate satisfaction of affirmation and discernible results? Or would I be willing to live in the ambiguities of congregation in which growth was mostly slow and mostly, at least for long stretches of time, invisible? Would I embrace the emotional gratification of solving a problem that could be diagnosed and dealt with head-on rather than give myself as a companion in searching out the sacred mysteries of salvation and holiness? P. 140

The ecstasy of crowds: Classically, there are three ways in which humans try to find transcendence-religious meaning, God meaning-apart from God as revealed in the cross of Jesus: through the ecstasy of alcohol and drugs, through the ecstasy of recreational sex, through the ecstasy of crowds. Church leaders frequently warn against the drugs and sex, but, at least in America, almost never against the crowds. Probably because they get so much ego benefit from the crowds. P. 157

Church growth or church cancer? Meanwhile, the momentum of what was being termed church growth was gathering. All of us in the company agreed that it was misnamed. It was more like church cancer-growth that was a deadly illness, the explosion of runaway cells that attack the health and equilibrium of the body. A year or so later, another of our company left us. We hadn’t realized the rapid spread of the lust for size that was spreading through the American church and was now penetrating our own Company. P. 158

Seminary: My seminary professors had no idea what pastors were or did. P. 162

Not a strategy, just being a good neighbor: She didn’t have a strategy (Eugene talking about his wife). She didn’t have a “business plan,” or a “vision statement.” She just went about being what she has always been, a neighbor, a friend. P. 189

What do we do about our broken and hurting world? Is it possible to live in this increasingly inhospitable world in a hospitable way? Is is possible to do something focused and intentional about what is wrong in our society without turning the wrongdoers into the enemy? Gathering friends and family to the table for a meal is our most frequent act of hospitality.  P. 192

Spiritual dormancy: Did I think that being a pastor in the workplace of a congregation was all fertile farmland and and rolling green hills, grand horizons and majestic mountains? I was a pastor in a place and with a people in an American culture and an American church that seemed more like the badlands and Wall Drug than the continental kingdom of God fertility and horizon and peaks in which God’s throne is established and over which God reigns. Annually on pilgrimage to the sacred ground of Montana, my vocation was renewed in the company of my family. I was a pastor: I would stay with these people for as long as necessary to acquire an imagination and develop a faith to follow Christ right here, in this congregation, in this place, with this family, in this workplace. Didn’t I know by now that growth, any growth-but especially character growth, spiritual growth, church growth, body-of-Christ growth, soul growth-had periods of dormancy? Did I want to be a nonpastor who by diversions and novelties and distractions-“challenges”-perpetuated a kind of sub-Christian adolescence? I remembered a line from the English Novelist E. F. Forster: Ecstasy doesn’t last. But it can but a channel for something lasting.”  P. 207-208

Addicted to adrenaline: I was addicted to adrenaline. And now I was realizing how my already well-honed competitive instincts were exacerbated by the competitive and consumerist church culture that surrounded me. P. 210

Suburbia souls: Suburbia souls. I needed to renew my conversations with Newman, cultivate a way of understanding these men and women in my congregation in terms of who they were, not in terms of how they either interested  or bored me, not in terms of what I could make of them-but souls. Which I did. P. 225

God and the workplace: Most of what Jesus said and did took place in a secular workplace in a farmer’s field, in a fishing boat, at a wedding feast, in a cemetery, at a public well asking a woman he didn’t know for a drink of water, on a country hillside that he turned into a huge picnic, in a court room, having supper in homes with acquaintances or friends. In our gospels, Jesus occasionally shows up in a synagogue or temple, but for the most part he spends his time in the workplace. Twenty-seven times in John’s Gospel Jesus is identified as worker: “My Father is still working, and I am also working” (Jn. 5:17). Work doesn’t take us away from God; it continues the work of God. God comes into view on the first page of our scriptures as a worker. Once we identify God in his workplace working, it isn’t long before we find ourselves in our workplaces working in the name of God. P. 281

The Apostle Paul As A Nursing Mother

Paul is one of my favorite guys in Scripture. What’s not to like? Apostle, church planter, wrote most of the New Testament, courageously faced persecution in nearly every town he visited. Paul is the man.

I know that I have read the following passage many times before, but I was blown away when I read Paul’s description of himself in 1 Thessalonians 2:6-8…

“Nor did we seek glory from people, whether from you or from others, though we could have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.”

Did Paul really just refer to himself as a “nursing mother”? There are lots of interesting names that leaders come up with for themselves these days, but “nursing mother” is not one I have heard before. I’m kinda doubtful if “How To Lead Your Church Like A Nursing Mother” is hitting the Christian bookstores anytime soon. No conferences or even break out sessions with that kind of theme. That’s a shame.

When I think of a nursing mother I come up with words like loving, patient, kind, and selfless all for the sake of feeding and nourishing their precious child. This is how Paul thinks and feels about the church at Thessalonica!

We find this same type of sentiment in other places in 1 Thessalonians.

“But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face…” 1 Thessalonians 2:17

“For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy.” 1 Thessalonians 2:19

“For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord. For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before God, as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith?” 1 Thessalonians 3: 8-10

As a pastor I love to think about the future, make strategic plans, vision cast and work with others to achieve goals and objectives. Visionary, catalytic leadership is important for the spiritual health of the church, but without love it will all sound (and feel) like a clanging cymbal.

How does this metaphor of a nursing mother challenge the way we are doing ministry? How should this inform and shape our ministry philosophy? Do we feel the same about our church family?

Through Paul’s life and ministry we get a glimpse of Jesus and how he relentlessly, passionately loves each one of us. No matter what our role in the church might be, Paul reminds us in 1 Thessalonians that deeply caring for and loving others is always priority number one.

Stop waiting for your “call” into ministry

I have resigned as a pastor in New Jersey and I am looking forward to what God has in store for me next. Here is one of the issues that I have begun working through mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. I have always allowed the church where I serve to give me my sense of “call”. When I say “call” I mean a sense of purpose, belonging, rootedness, misssional intensity, etc…

Alas, I am thinking that the word “call” is loaded with all kinds of unbiblical baggage. For example:

  • We mistakenly believe that some people are called to ministry, others are not.
  • Unfortunately, those who don’t feel called fail to center their life, their family, around the imperative of “seeking first the kingdom of God.”
  • We tend to regard those who are called as the Navy Seals of the Christian world. One look at the disciples in the New Testament should dispel this myth.
  • The lion’s share of kingdom work is placed on the shoulders of those who are called.
  • We (unintentionally) postpone meaningful ministry until we receive our call. Life begins to feel like it is in a holding pattern.
  • If we conclude that we have not been called we may begin to doubt God, his love for us, our value, gifts, talents, etc…

The point I am making is really quite simple. No matter what arena God places us to work we are all “called” to live out the gospel to our family, neighbors, church family, colleagues. As someone else has once written (paraphrasing), “we are all called into full-time ministry, God just chooses to route our paychecks through different sources.”

People Over Vision

About year four into my pastorate everything changed. I was hit like a Mack truck by the fact that the the church has been sent into our culture as ambassadors of Jesus Christ.

Before my “conversion” I was satisfied with doing Sunday the best I could and trying to get people to come to church. It’s what I knew.

Once I began to see more clearly from Scripture that the role of leadership is to equip people (Ephesians 4) to live out the gospel (John 17:18) in the context of everyday life I became increasingly excited about this new/old (think Acts) vision.

One thing I would change If I could go back would be to lighten up on the vision and just enjoy spending time with people. I wrote statement papers about vision. I blogged about vision. Took our leaders on retreats and discussed our vision. It was vision 24/7.

Vision is important. Some level of holy dissatisfaction with the status quo is  healthy. Yet, if we are not careful, we can become impatient and forget to love people whether or not they are embracing the vision.

One lesson I have learned is people over vision.

Complexity Makes An Organization Dumber

I was reading, “STRANGE LEADERSHIP: 40 Ways to Lead An Innovative Organization” by Greg Atkinson when I found this quote…

strange leadershipOn the podcast Andy Stanley said, “Everything drifts towards complexity. Complexity makes an organization dumber. Complexity is so distracting that nothing gets done as well as it could get done were fewer things being done. For some reason in church life we add and we add and we add, and we chase the new fad, and we chase the new program, and we never subtract and things become so incredibly complex that we often times just fold under the pressure.” Reggie Joiner continued by saying, “A lot of churches get distracted from their vision and become ADD. It dilutes your potential to make an impact. It takes all of your energy, budget, staff, and resources and divides it in a hundred different ways instead of it being focused and excellent.” Andy agreed and added, “Competition for resources, competition for rooms, competition within the organization. Ultimately what gets squeezed out is not ministry to believers but evangelism. Complexity kills the spirit of evangelism in the church…(this last sentence is most troubling of all) All the resources are consumed trying to make insiders happy.” p.103

Above pic is taken from laurelofleavesdotcom

The Pastor’s Justification (Pastoral Swagger)

“The Pastor’s Justification”. Chapter 3-The Humble Pastor

Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to your elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’ Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you. (1 Pet.5:5-6)

John Stott writes this about pride and the pastor

Pride is without doubt the chief occupational hazard of the preacher. It has ruined many, and deprived their ministry of power…In some it is blatantly obvious. They are exhibitionists by temperament and use the pulpit as a stage on which they show off…Other preachers are not like Nebuchadnezzars, however, for their pride does not take the form of blatant boastfulness. It is more subtle, more insidious, and even more perverse. For it is possible to adopt an outward demeanor of great meekness, while inside our appetite for applause is insatiable. 

As you can see from the above tweet, I fully recognize what Stott is saying about the more subtle form of pride. It is alive and well in me!

Wilson goes on to write about four ways that pastors can be humbled (willingly or unwillingly)

  1. Humbled in suffering. It is sometimes easy to pick out the pastor who has never gone through any serious affliction. He has a swagger. It is not always the case that the proud pastor has never suffered anything, but we are then left to wonder what his suffering taught him and if he is even a Christian at all.
  2. Humbled in messy ministry. For a pastor to become a man who seeks humility, he will need to stay on the front lines of messy ministry. He will continually seek to get in over his head with people in need. Humility will be hard for the pastor who locks himself away in his office and does not get involved in the daily affairs of his people.
  3. Humbled in prayer. When we cease praying for ourselves, it is because we think we are the captians of our destinies. When we cease praying for our church, it is because we think we can manage it quite well. When we cease praying in our sermon preparation, it is because we think our words are the power of salvation to all who believe.
  4. Humbled in the Word. Do we know the Bible or have we been captured by it? John Piper writes, In essence it happened like this: I was 33 years old. I had two children and a third on the way. As I studied Romans 9 day after day, I began to see God so majestic and so free and so absolutely sovereign that my analysis merged into worship and the Lord said in effect, “I will not simply be analyzed, I will be adored. I will not simply be pondered, I will be proclaimed. My soveriegnty is not simply to be scrutinized, it is to be heralded. It is not the grist for the mill of controversy, it is the gospel for sinners who know that their only hope is the sovereign triumph of God’s grace over their rebellious will.” This is when Bethlehem contacted me near the end of 1979. And I do not hesitate to say that because of Romans 9 I left teaching and became a pastor.

The Pastor’s Justification (2-The Holy Pastor)

“Not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. (1 Pet 5:3)

Holiness is much more than not drinking alcohol or smoking tobacco. In 1 Peter 5 we learn that the elder is not to be domineering. The exhortation for pastors/elders not to be domineering is rooted in the nature of Jesus Christ. Jesus humbled himself and became man in order to bring about redemption to all creation. As pastors/leaders we must take the same posture of Jesus to those we serve in the local church.

I have been under leadership before that was domineering and it slowly poisons the entire church family.  I like lists and in this chapter Wilson gives us “Five Signs You’ve Moved from Shepherding to Domineering”

1. You insulate yourself from criticism and/or interpret any criticism as attacks or insubordination…Pastor, make sure you have honest friends around you, not sycophants. Stay in the company of truth-tellers and do not punish people for sharing with you inconvenient truths. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, ” but “profuse are the kisses of an enemy” (Prov.27:6).

2. You have a paranoia about who is and who isn’t in line…If a leader is constantly worried about who’s on his side and who’s not, who’s saying or thinking about him behind his back, who can be trusted and who can’t, who are allies and who are obstacles, he is entering a world of insecurity that is hostile to the confidence of Christ’s righteousness.

3. You have a need to micromanage or hold others back from leadership opportunities or other responsibilities…Pastor, you can’t and shouldn’t do it all yourself. It’s not healthy for you, and it’s not good leadership of your church to attempt shepherding it as a one-man show. Nobody wins in that situation…

4. You have an impulse to hoard credit or shift blame...Leaders who claim all the credit and clout successes and deny any responsibility for failures aren’t leaders but self-righteous glory hogs.

5. Your progression has regressed to reaction…you talk more about what you are against then what you are for. Criticize and debate more than is needed.

-Taken from chapter two, The Holy Pastor

Known Deeply. Loved Deeply.

Following excerpt is taken from “Tempted and Tried” by Russell Moore.

Felix told me that he battled against the pull to do stuff, awful stuff. When I pressed Felix about the gospel, he seemed to evidence credible faith and repentance. But he wanted me to know just how dark his demons were inside. “If you could prove to me that Jesus’ bones were in the ground in the Middle East,” he said, “I’d leave here right now and get as drunk as I could get, take every drug I could find, and sleep with every woman who would let me.” I think he was a little surprised when I chimed back, “Me too.”

I told Felix that if the bones of Jesus were in the ground, it seems to me his response is exactly what we ought to do: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Cor 15:32). The question rather than that is this: “Do you, in fact, believe the bones of Jesus are in the ground?” Felix’s eyes welled up with tears that he manfully blinked away. “No, I believe he’s alive,” he said. “And that’s why I fight this stuff all the time.” Let me give you a formal theological term for what Felix is experiencing: the normal Christian life.

This quote from Russell Moore leads me to a few conclusions…

  • Normal Christianity is not feeling as if you have reached such a level of sanctification that you no longer wrestle with your sin nature. In order for that to be the case there is one prerequisite, death.
  • After 15 years of pastoral ministry one thing I know for an absolute certainty is that each and every one of us is broken. We all have our closets. And perhaps our deepest longing is to be known for who we truly are and loved all the same.
  • Leaders cultivate shallow Christian community when they act like they have it all together. Which means that the church does not feel like a safe enough environment to let others see who we truly are.
  • Don’t believe the lie that you are the only one who has a monster inside of them that is being kept under control by a very thin leash. Everyone is fighting some kind of battle whether you can see it or not. You are not alone.

Pic taken from therealiferealtalkdotcom

Grace Means We Don’t Have To Hide (Imagine Dragons-Demons)

No doubt in our culture we want to front the best image possible; it’s no different in the church. So we end up hiding parts of our true self. But the emotional and spiritual cost of hiding is astronomical. No one gets to know us for who we are.  Always posing. Keeping up the illusion. Inside we are screaming that there has to be a better way. We need a safe place so that when people see us for who we truly are we know they won’t run away. Instead they stay, listen, love and extend grace.