Ruled By Our Fears? Stop it!

I’ve got fear on the brain these days and not sure why. Maybe it’s because I see so much timidity among Christians today. We tiptoe around, whispering our convictions, hoping not to offend, and in so doing end up betraying the Lord who told us not to fear but to literally shout from the housetops His message.

John Ortberg says the single most repeated command in Scripture is “Fear not.” And he wonders why.

Fear does not seem like the most serious vice in the world. It never made the list of the Seven Deadly Sins. No one ever receives church discipline for being afraid. So why does God tell human beings to stop being afraid more often than he tells them anything else?

He answers his own question: I think God says ‘fear not’ so often because fear is the number one reason humans are tempted to avoid doing what God asks them to do.

Lloyd Ogilvie has said there are 366 “fear not” verses in the Bible, which figures out to one a day and one for Leap Year!

Anxiety, we’re told, is “fear looking for a cause.” And fear, therefore, is our response when in the presence of a danger.

There are two kinds of fear: real and imagined. Real fear preserves life; imagined fear destroys it.

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Your Church is Hurting Financially? Good. (Here’s Why)

See if this scenario sounds like a church you know:

The deacons of our church are really on the pastor’s back. The church is running behind in finances and they’re blaming it on him for lack of leadership. The monthly business meeting turns into a cat-and-dogfight. The treasurer puts a negative spin on everything, the critics of the pastor are unleashed to harass him, and the poor preacher stands there and takes it. What’s wrong with our church?

Having pastored Southern Baptist churches since November of 1962, I need to say something here which I wish every church leader in the SBC (and elsewhere) would heed: It’s okay to be running behind financially sometimes. It’s not the end of the world. In fact, it could even be the best thing that ever happened to you if you handle it well.

Let’s talk about how to turn this sorry state of affairs into a blessing for the Lord’s people.

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Holy Sandpaper, Batman!

A pastor friend sent me a note just now reporting on his church. He has baptized several this year and had twice that number to join in other ways. I replied that God is using him to turn around that old church and, “Good for you, friend!”

He came back: “The curmudgeons are still there, though, still lurking.”

I answered, “They always will be. But let me tell you what I’ve finally learned about that. These detractors are doing you a favor. They motivate you to greater faithfulness, to do your best work, to keep the focus on the Lord.”

He said, “I call them ‘Holy Sandpaper.'”

The Lord uses them to get the rough edges off His servant.

Interesting how the notes I get from pastors–some are questions regarding ministry–turn out to be the very thing the Lord was talking with me about earlier.

Case in point. Yesterday, I was going through some old correspondence files, trying to decide what could be discarded. I ran across the most critical (as in the sense of life-changing) exchange of letters I ever had with a church member in nearly a half-century of ministry.

Here’s the story and our letters….

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Putting Grace Into Stewardship

Somewhere out in cyberspace there are people on the prowl for tithers.

Mention tithing on the internet and it gets red-flagged on their computer. Instantly, they go on the alert and rush to tell you how misguided you are, that tithing is strictly Old Testament, and that believers are not under the Law. Furthermore, you who teach tithing are corrupting God’s people, misleading them about the Scriptures, and probably an idiot to boot.

The funny thing to me is that these vigilantes are half-right and could do a lot of good if they would do so in the spirit of Christ.

It is most definitely true that tithing is not explicitly taught in the New Testament. Nowhere is it written between Matthew and Revelation that “thou shalt bring a tithe.” Those (of us) who get tithing out of the New Testament more or less infer it from several things. (I’m going to list some of them, and then turn around and undo everything I’m saying here. Stay tuned.)

–Tithing was not of the law since it began a long time before the Law was given to Moses. (Genesis 14:20)

–In rebuking the Pharisees for getting tithing all wrong and putting the emphasis backwards, Jesus said, “These things you should have done and not to have omitted the other.” (Matthew 23:23)

–We infer that Jesus was a tither, otherwise His critics would have quickly pointed it out when they were searching for anything to charge against Him.

That sort of thing.

And then we come to II Corinthians chapter 9:6-7, a jam-packed and fascinating teaching on giving.

But this I say: He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver.

The Apostle Paul sure blew it, didn’t he? This would have been the ideal place to insert a great line about tithing. Instead, he says, “Give as you purpose in your heart.” In other words, “Make up your own mind a to what you will give.”

Uh oh. He’s moving stewardship into a new realm for all us sheriff-wannabes. (A sheriff is an enforcer of the law.)

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The Egotism of Doubt

A friend and I have been trying to work our way through the 73rd Psalm. Doing it on-line slows down the process, but it also achieves something else which I’ve discovered as an unexpected blessing. Taking one’s time results in your seeing things in the Word you would have ordinarily missed.

That psalm–there’s nothing else like it in the Bible–gives the account of the writer (listed as Asaph) who had been envying the wealthy wicked for their long lives, contented circumstances, and trouble-free existence. “What’s the point in my doing good and suffering for it?” he wondered.

Then, just about the time he was thinking about sharing his discontent with others, he went to church, had a life-changing worship experience, and saw things in a vastly different light. Basically, what God showed him was the “end” of those people. That is, he saw what becomes of them after this life, and it was not a thing to be admired.

The psalm ends with a song of praise to God, made up of outstanding lessons learned through this experience.

What struck me today, though, was verse 15:

If I had said, ‘I will speak thus,’ behold, I should have betrayed the generation of thy children.

Looking back and writing about his time of doubt and misery, the psalmist sees this as a near-miss. He thinks, “Whew! I almost blew it. Had I told people what was going on in my mind–how I was doubting God and envying evil-doers–I could have really upset a lot of people and done a great deal of damage.”

That’s what he thought. And maybe he’s right.

But I’m thinking, maybe not. Had he gone before other believers and told them what he was thinking, how his faith was wavering, I’m betting that instead of upsetting them, the response would have been more like:

“(yawn) Man, you just now working on this? Where have you been? Pull up a chair, son.”

The simple fact is that every thoughtful believer at one time or other goes through such a crisis of faith. It’s part of the journey toward maturity.

However, the person in the midst of the crisis seems not to know it. Instead, he/she is afflicted by a syndrome that seems to accompany doubt: egotism.

When we doubt and question God, we seem to always do it alone. The reason is that something inside us insists that we are the first to think such thoughts. We have found the fatal flaw to the Christian faith. We are smarter than the other yokels around us who never dare look up and question what we’ve been taught.

Faith is humble. But doubt is egotistical.

Let’s look at this a little more closely.

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My Seven Worst Mistakes as a Pastor

In the August 5, 2010, edition of the Baptist Message (our Louisiana state weekly), Lifeway President Thom Rainer talked about 7 mistakes he had made in his ministry. Give him credit, he admitted that if he wrote about all the mistakes he’d made in the Lord’s work, “it would have to be a multi-volume series!”

Before getting into my list, Thom’s deserves a look-see.

He wishes he had spent more time in prayer…given his family more time…spent more time sharing his faith….had loved his community more…had led his church to focus more on the nations…he wishes he had focused on critics less…and last: he wishes he had accepted the reality that he cannot be everywhere and meet every need.

My hunch is that almost everyone who has spent a few years in the Lord’s work can say ‘amen’ to everything on that list. My second hunch is that there is no one among us without regrets we did not do more of this and less of that. In fact, the more years you log in this work, the more scars you accumulate, the more experiences you pile up, and the more regrets hound your attempts to sleep.

“A pastor lives in a world of unfinished jobs.” That’s one of my foundational truths. If the preacher cannot learn to turn it off at night, he’ll never get any sleep and not last. There’s always someone else who needed a call, a meeting that needed planning, a sermon going neglected. There’s always something.

“Regrets? I’ve had a few….” I’m hearing Reverend Frank Sinatra’s voice in my head now.

Want my list? Pull up a chair; this may take a while. I have 10 mistakes as a preacher, 10 as a pastor, 10 as a visionary leader for my church, 10 as a leader of the church ministerial staff, 10 as a denominational worker….

Get the idea? Anyone who does anything for the Lord and mankind in this life is going to do a less than perfect job.

No one wants to grovel in regrets. I assure you I don’t. (Even though I’m still going to give you my list.)

But there is a huge reason for not going into a litany of our failures and mistakes: God works even in our mistakes and can make good emerge from them. As a result, even though we look back and see the times we dropped the ball, we give thanks for what He accomplished through it all.

If you plotted on a graph the “advancement of my ministerial career”–as Paul said, “I speak as a fool”–you might conclude that I made a serious boo-boo in moving from Charlotte NC in 1990 to suburban New Orleans. Until then I had progressively moved upward. Suddenly, I’m taking a nosedive and assuming the leadership of a church one-half the size of my previous congregation. The new church was still smarting from a massive blowup 18 months prior. Money was tight, feelings were raw, leadership was fleeing.

In terms of the will of God, coming here was no mistake. Only humanly speaking might it be seen that way. However, God is sovereign and He did some mightly wonderful things as a result of this faith decision: gave us a precious daughter-in-law here and then three super grandchildren, a church with a world of great friends, and then after 14 years He moved me into the leadership of the local Baptist churches just in time for Hurricane Katrina!

The point is God can bring good out of little. He knows what he is about.

Okay. On to my list of worst mistakes as a pastor.

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Ten Impossible Things God Requires of Us

The old saying goes, “Christianity has not been tried and found not to work; it has been tried and found to be hard.”

And we don’t like difficult things.

I was reflecting on that this week and began making a list of “impossible” or “unnatural” acts the Lord requires of all who would be disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Let’s make this very plain: The Lord delights in putting His children in spots too much for them to handle. He loves to ask more from us than we have to give. He does not mind at all throwing us into the deep part of the pool just to teach us a few things about His presence and power.

here is my list. They’re in no particular order. Add yours at the end.

1. We are to love our enemies.

The natural thing to do is to hate our enemies and work to undermine them. Jesus Christ will have none of that. Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who despitefully use you. (Matthew 5:44)

We protest, “Lord, I don’t even like them! So how can I love them?” Answer: He doesn’t require us to like them. Just love them. And that means doing loving things toward them–like blessing them, doing good to them, and praying for them.

On the cross, Jesus called out, “Father, forgive them. They do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). He demonstrated what He was demanding in us.

2. We are to serve the lowest, the least, the last.

The natural thing to do is look around for the most deserving and most appreciative and center all our efforts there. Jesus would have none of that. He said, “When you give a dinner…invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind” (Luke 14:12-13).

I’ve pastored churches where leaders did not want to do this. “Preacher, all those deadbeats come into the office asking for a handout. Why don’t they get jobs. You know they could if they really wanted to.”

My response was always to say, “Jesus told us to give to anyone who asked of us. This is not optional. He didn’t say we had to give what they are asking for or as much as they want. But we are to be in the business of giving.” Whether they deserve it or not is irrelevant.

After all, what if the Lord restricted Heaven’s blessings to the deserving? We’d all be in the cold.

3. We are to submit to one another in the church.

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How to Get People Invested in the Kingdom

Recently, while watching my favorite morning television news program–that would be “Morning Joe” on MSNBC–I was struck by a statement a host made about the war in Afghanistan.

“Less than 1 percent of our (military) people are in that country fighting. The American people are not invested in this war.”

All the bells went off inside me. I’ve learned to recognize when the Lord is getting my attention.

Now, America itself is “invested” in the struggle against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. We’re sending billions of dollars, the latest equipment, and the finest young men and women this country produces.

Plenty of American families are “invested” in Afghanistan. Parents of our troops have that country at the top of their prayer list and devour every bit of news coming from the struggle there.

It’s the American people across the board who are not invested in this war.

What exactly does that mean? and is there a message here for those of us in the ministry?

The statement means the American public is not aware of what’s going on in that Middle-Eastern country, and the struggle there feels remote and distant.

It means that most of us have no personal stake in this war. When we’re unsure of the issues and uncertain of our goal, when we do not know anyone who is putting his/her life on the line there, and when we have no personal ties to anything, we are “uninvested.”

Have you ever watched a World War II movie, one made when that worldwide struggle was actually taking place? You might have found yourself wondering why similar movies were not made in subsequent wars. When America fought in Korea and later in Viet Nam, a few movies were turned out by Hollywood, but nothing that caught the American fancy.

The American people were “invested” in the Second World War. That’s the difference. And they’ve not been in the others since.

In the 1940s, every town in America sent the cream of its youth to the fight. Every radio was tuned to the latest news. Gold stars shone from windows to say this family had lost a son in the service of his country. Dads followed developments with maps on the wall. Drives for metal, rubber, paper and even fats and grease were conducted in every community. Schoolchildren bought savings stamps and housewives contended with ration books.

Every citizen of this country was enlisted to fight that war. That’s what it means to be invested. You are involved, you have made a sacrificial contribution, you have a personal stake in what’s going on and you care how it turns out. Nothing is too remote, too distant for you not to care about. Day and night your prayers ascend that this fight would soon end.

Now, here are two churches. The congregation of the first is not invested in the Lord’s work. In the other, they are. The difference is staggering.

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Inside Information

I’m not sure I’m ready to stake my life on this–it probably needs more thought and discussion–but it seems to be that we in the church would do well to cut back on our public pronouncements about our intentions. That is, some discussions need to be kept within the family and would never be understood by an outsider.

A few years ago, the Southern Baptist Convention announced that it would urge members of our churches to boycott Disney parks. The press covered it, we became the butt of every bad joke in the country, and untold reams of paper were wasted as columnists weighed in with their views on the matter. If we had any lasting effect, it escaped my notice.

These things are better off left “in house,” I’m thinking.

I recall years ago, Dr. Bill O’Brien, a missionary and pioneer innovator for missions in our denomination, saying that even the term “missionary” should be kept in-house. Outside, it’s a controversial subject. Well, it took a couple of decades, but eventually our people came around to see his point. Nowadays, denominations’ send out consultants, workers, engineers, teachers, and strategists. The same people, just different titles.

I wonder if we have learned this lesson yet.

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The “As For Me” Element in Preaching

Several times lately, while reading my way through the Psalms, I was tripped by a little comment I’d read right past the previous hundred times I’ve traveled this landscape. Right in the middle of a discussion of some theological point, the Psalmist will say, “But as for me.”

When he does that, you know you’re getting something personal. This is not theoretical, not philosophical, and not “out there” somewhere. If you are like the rest of us, you perk up at this and get ready for something you can identify with.

Case in point. In the remarkable 73rd Psalm (there’s nothing else like it in all the Bible; if you’re unfamiliar with it, we encourage you to check it out), the writer brackets his discussion with that phrase.

After declaring that “God is good to Israel, to such as are pure in heart,” the psalmist says, “But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled.” What follows is a testimony of how he envied the wealthy wicked. He noticed that they seem to live long healthy lives, they enjoy their families, and nothing seems to bother them. This went completely against the grain of the typical Old Testament believer who, for the most part, believed that faithfulness to God resulted in material blessings, and material blessings were a sign of faithfulness to God. But this did not compute.

He struggled with that a while. Then he went to church. “Until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I understood their end” (73:17). Once he saw the final outcome (not just earthly, but after this life) of their wicked behavior, everything fell into place for him. He ends with a wonderful song of praise, and ends the psalm with:

But as for me, the nearness of God is my good. I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all thy works. (Ps. 73:28)

That personal touch is found throughout the psalms. (See Ps. 17:15; 59:16; and 75:9 for starters.)

Bible students will recall Joshua’s excellent testimony along the same line:

Now therefore, fear the Lord and serve Him in sincerity and truth; and put away the gods which your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt and serve the Lord. And if it is disagreeable in your sight to serve the Lord, choose for yourselves today whom you will serve….but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord (Joshua 24:14-15).

It’s when the preacher makes it personal like this that he does his best work.

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