Every Congregation is Made Up of Three Groups

My friend Bob says, “There are three kinds of people in the world: those who can count and those who can’t.”

I suppose there must be a million variations of that joke. However, this is not meant as a joke but a serious commentary on modern church life: There are three kinds of people in every worship service: the browsers, the customers, and the shareholders. Nothing tells the story on us like identifying our group.

Briefly, the browsers say, “Nothing for me, thanks. We’re just looking.”

The customers say, “We come to this church because we like the music/youth/Bible/whatever program.”

And the shareholders say, “This is my church. It depends on my faithfulness.”

Let’s explore these a little deeper and see if we can figure out a way to move people through the labyrinth into the last category.

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So, You are a Perfectionist? Not a Good Thing.

It sounds so good to call ourselves perfectionists. We have higher standards than others. We go for excellence. We don’t tolerate mistakes. Nothing mediocre about us. Nosirree. Only the best is good enough for us and our Lord.

It sounds good but it may be as self-destructive as anything you can do to yourself.

We are not capable of perfection. Maybe in typing a letter or baking a blueberry pie, we are. But not in a single one of the really big issues of life.

Men, you cannot be a perfect son, brother, husband, or father.

Women, you will never be a perfect daughter, sister, wife, or mother.

The pastor cannot be a perfect shepherd of God’s flock. The church member will never fulfill his/her duties perfectly.

A major factor of human existence which you and I must take into consideration in every aspect of life is the flaw in us.  We are flawed.  You are a sinner; I am a sinner. We were, we are, and we will continue to be so long as we live on this earth.

As if that’s not bad enough, we live in a fallen world. Among other things, that means that everyone else is in the same situation as we. “There is none righteous, no not one” (Romans 3:10, quoting Psalm 14:3 and 53:3).

When Isaiah was given a clear glimpse of himself, he saw two things that rocked him to his core: he was a man of “unclean lips,” meaning an unworthy heart; and what must have been infinitely more depressing to him, everyone around him was in the same boat (Isaiah 6:5).

We are all failures in life. Starting with the first couple who arrived on this planet fresh from the Father’s hands, no one has earned all A’s in righteousness on the divine report card. As God said to the Babylonian king, “You have been weighed in the balances and found wanting” (Daniel 5:27).

That’s true of all of us. We have all “sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

So, where did this inner yearning to be perfect come from? And, isn’t it a noble thing to strive for the best we can give, to hit a standard of excellence?

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Anything But Prayer

This kind cannot come out by anything but prayer.(Mark 9:29 NASB)

Anything but prayer.

In my Bible where this verse has been highlighted, I’ve underscored those three words and written in the margin, “Yep. That’s us. Anything but prayer.”

To be sure, I’ve taken those three words right out of their context. That is, I’m using them in ways not intended in the text. But the point is a valid one: We are prone to try everything in the world before we turn to prayer.

Somewhere I read where a fellow was talking with his elderly grandmother about a family problem that was eating at her. “Well, in the final analysis, Grandma,” he said, “All we can do is pray about it.”

“Oh my,” she said. “Has it come to that?”

Yes, and sooner or later it always comes to that.

Let’s talk about that.

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It Takes a Long Time to Become Young

Somewhere in this vast assemblage of articles I’ve written over these years of blogging is one with this same title. The difference is that the earlier one was written before I knew what I was talking about. Only at the age of 70 and above is one legally entitled to speak of “growing old.”

I’m now entitled.

In his book by this title, Garson Kanin, a well-known playwright, told how Pablo Picasso walked into a hall where a massive display of his paintings was being exhibited. The artist strode into the gathering with a beautiful young woman on each arm and a smile on his countenance.

Someone approached him and after the greeting, said, “Sire, I have a question. There is something about your painting that puzzles me.”

The man pointed out that in Picasso’s first paintings, done when he was a young man, the scenes are dark and formal and according to all the standards. But, he said, “The paintings of your latter years are alive and colorful and so youthful! How do you explain that?”

Picasso said, “Oh, it takes a long time to become young.”

And that, as I say, was the title of Kanin’s book (which incidentally, I heartily recommend. It’s been around for some years so can be bought online for a pittance at any used book source. My favorite is www.alibris.com.)

What started me thinking of this today was that an online friend said, “You seem to be 30 or 40 years old,” and not the proverbial three-score-and-ten.

Now, I know flattery when I hear it and eat it up with gusto! But still. I look back at my life and realize that in many respects I have become younger than when I was in my 20s and 30s.

How does that happen?

The 92nd Psalm has the answer.

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Wishing Everyone Were Like Me

I would to God that whether in a short or long time, not only you, but also all who hear me this day, might become such as I am, except for these chains. (Acts 26:29)

Lately, I’ve caught myself saying something similar.

“How are you feeling?” people ask me. I suppose they expect that at my seriously advanced age–I turned 70 last March, something that snuck up on me and took me totally by surprise; I had expected to be 30 again!–that I’m down in my back with the lumbago or something appropriate to the elderly. Rheumatiz?

What is lumbago? Anyway, I’m glad to say I don’t have it.

In fact, as well as I can figure, I don’t have anything. I feel great.

I’m certain it’s meant as a blessing and not as bragging, but periodically I hear myself saying, “I wish everyone in the world felt as good as I do.”

That’s true. I cannot remember the last ache or pain I had.

My wife lives with constant pain. Her arthritis and fibromyalgia keep her in constant pain. My 94-year-old mother says she hardly has a pain-free day. All around me friends of every age struggle with various ailments.

I wish they all felt good. I sincerely wish they were as painfree as I am and have been for year.

But Paul had something more in mind that just the absence of aches and pains when he told King Agrippa in his Caesarean court that except for the chains, he wished all people to be such as he was.

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Pastors and Deacons: Herding the Flock

Even though I have logged several decades of ministering to the Lord’s people through His church, there’s still so much I have yet to figure out. One of them is the proper, biblical and healthy relationship of pastors and deacons.

What exactly does the Lord have in mind here?

Since gracious (or too-trusting) leaders keep inviting me to address their assemblies of pastors-and-deacons, it seems obvious that the Lord is giving me ample opportunity and motivation to figure it out.

Here’s where I am at the moment.

The image of cowhands moving the herd from the ranch to the railhead is my metaphor du jour for the key roles in church leadership.

Often the trail-drive was an ordeal of several days or even weeks duration. In the process of herding the animals, the ranchhands illustrate the key roles of leadership of the Lord’s people.

Someone has to ride POINT. In the church as it’s set up in my part of the Kingdom, that person is the pastor. The one riding point sets the direction for all who come behind him. Jesus said, “When the shepherd puts forth his sheep, he goes before them” (John 10:4). It’s impossible to direct the herd from a safe spot in the rear.

Someone has to ride FLANK. The other members of the ministerial staff and key lay leadership assist the point-rider, the pastor. Flank-riders keep the herd together, see that they do not stray too far to the right or left, and rescue any in trouble.

And, someone has to ride DRAG. This may be the toughest job of all.

Riding drag becomes the chief role of the deacons. The drag-rider makes sure there are no stragglers, that no one is left behind. He rescues the animals in trouble and prods those that want to drop out. Since this worker eats the dust of the herd, the job usually goes to the youngest or newest member of the team or the poor guy who is in trouble with the ranch foreman. Sorry, deacons. You get the hardest assignment.

It will interest you to know that these positions are found in Scripture, in one way or the other.

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Katrina 5 Years Later: New Orleans and the Baptist Work

(This was written for Baptist Press recently.)

New Orleans artist Sherry Francalancia has been making the rounds asking local artists for their handprints on a work she is producing. The painting symbolizes this city, Sherry says. So many people have left permanent imprints on our lives for the better.

Think of that painting as a metaphor for New Orleans in its post-Katrina existence. Over the five years since that hurricane made landfall causing the poorly constructed levees to flood the city, untold thousands of God’s people have come from the ends of the earth to bless New Orleans.

A recent ad for a law firm seeking clients in a class action suit against BP began: “When Hurricane Katrina devastated our part of the world, Louisiana stood alone.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. We were inundated with friends from every direction.

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The Fatal Mistake of the Casually Religious

One of a thousand reasons the Psalms are so well-loved is that once in a while, we will be reading along and come to a place where that psalm nails a truth so dead-on, we sit there gasping for breath. Case in point, Psalm 50.

You hate instruction and cast my words behind you. When you saw a thief, you consented with him, and have been a partaker with adulterers. You give your mouth to evil, and your tongue frames deceit. You sit and speak against your brother; you slander your own mother’s son.

And then, the clincher:

These things you have done, and I kept silent; you thought that I was just like you.(Ps. 50:17-21)

Thinking that the Eternal God is like us is an ancient tradition with a noble heritage. Every culture has done it, every generation has adapted the art to its own idiosyncracies, every worshiper struggles with the temptation to pull it off.

It’s been said, “In the beginning, God made man in His image. Ever since, man has been returning the favor.”

A couple of decades ago country music legend Johnny Cash paid to have a Hollywood movie made on the life of Christ. In the film, Jesus was depicted as a blue-eyed blonde. I’ve been to the Middle East and the only blue-eyed blondes I spotted were in our tour group. Everyone else, all the natives, seemed to be of a sun-dried dark color with jet black hair.

As prevalent as that is–the way we picture Jesus as looking like someone who would easily blend in with our group–a far worse thing it is to think of God as carrying our own prejudices, hemmed in by our narrow-mindednesses, burdened by our brand of negativities, and limited by our own personal convictions.

The Bible’s favorite word to describe God is needed here. He is holy.

The word “holy,” scholars tell us, means “other than.” God is something else, in the vernacular. He is above us and outside our limitations, far more than we can ever imagine. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.(Isaiah 55:9)

We have been made in the image of God. But we are not like God. Not much. To our everlasting shame.

Let’s talk about this.

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The Highest Accolade

…therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God… (Hebrews 11:16)

God is proud of you.

That has to be as good as it gets.

That 11th chapter of Hebrews presents a fascinating list of Old Testament believers who did things by faith and ended up pleasing God in the process. It’s an eclectic group and sometimes we find names that stun us. Why in the world is Samson listed there? and Jephthah?

It’s God’s list, not mine. He has His reasons.

What blows me away, though, is the accolade it accords to those who lived and died in faith, without a Bible or the indwelling Holy Spirit or an affirming Christian community, and paid a huge cost for their faithfulness. It’s this group, summarized in Hebrews 11:13-16, that receives this incredible honor: “God is not ashamed to be called their God.”

While inspecting my own life to see what there is which might make God proud, I think of biblical characters who got it right and received the highest praise. Here is my list; you’ll think of others to add.

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How God Captured a Samurai

In the summer of 1964, I arrived on campus at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary to work on a degree that would train me to pastor a church. Among the unexpected delights of that multifaceted experience (which would last three years, with another 2 years in the early 70s) was the chapel services. The seminary brought in various outstanding (and a few average) speakers to address the faculty and student body.

That’s where I first heard H. L. Hunt of the oil fortune. Pastor R. G. Lee. Evangelist Eddie Lieberman. Missionary statesman Baker James Cauthen.

And Mitsuo Fuchida.

For these forty-plus years, that name has held an honored place in my mind, even though I remember absolutely nothing he said that day. It was who he was that carved out a special spot inside this young preacher’s heart.

Mitsuo Fuchida was a bomber pilot for Japan in the Second World War. In fact, he led the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Once the planes were off the aircraft carriers and in the air headed for their destination, Fuchida was in charge.

He became a great hero to his people and was active in practically every phase of that conflict.

Not long ago, while reading about Fuchida online (thank you, Wikipedia), I discovered several books tell his story and are available. I ordered “God’s Samurai” by Gordon Prange (published in 1990, so it can be bought used for a pittance) for one reason: I wanted to see what God did to capture such a prize convert for His glory.

Brother, did I find out. The story of how this warrior and Shinto-worshiper came to Jesus Christ is one for the ages. It may be one of the best testimonies of God at work in a man’s life I have ever read.

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