Three a.m. and Wide Awake

The mind is a funny thing. It can be creative in the small hours of the morning and solve your problems. As a high school algebra student, I had that happen more than once. I’d go to bed puzzled about a problem, then wake up with the answer.

Great when your mind solves a problem without actually involving you in the process!

The mind can also be anxious in those hours. Half the people I know who wake up between midnight and dawn tell me they are worried about unidentified problems. Anxiety is a sleep-stealer.

Once in a while, I have awakened with a great article that just cried to be written. On one occasion, I got up and wrote it down. Next morning, far from being disappointed, I was impressed. Good stuff, I thought. I worked with it over the next few days and then sent it off to several magazines to see if the editors had a use for it.

InterVarsity Press’ “His” magazine bought the article and ran it in a choice place–the inside back cover. Over the next 15 years, from time to time I would receive small checks in the mail from other magazines that found it and ran it. Several notes from editors in foreign countries like Korea and New Zealand advised me they were running the article.

So, I learned to get up and write it down.

Here’s what I wrote down one morning this week. Strange? A little, maybe. An article for magazines? I seriously doubt it. Nevertheless, here it is.

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What Satan is Up To

We are not ignorant of his devices. (II Corinthians 2:11)

We actually know a good bit about Satan. More than we think, I expect. His history, his driving force, and his game plan are spelled out all through Scripture. We are left with tons of unanswered questions, but we know enough to understand how he works and what to do about him.

His devices. We know his maneuvers, his designs, his schemings, his wiles, and how resourceful he is. (Those are all different ways the Greek for “devices” is translated in various versions.)

Look at it this way. Satan is no fool. He has been studying human nature from the early days of the human race. He knows human psychology to a degree that any university in the land can only imagine. If they gave doctorates to serpents, he would have degrees out the kazoo. He is one smart dude.

He knows you.

The question before us, today, though, class, is this: do you know him? Do you pay attention to how he works?

There are two extremes to avoid: going to seed on Satan and seeing him in every thing, everywhere, is one extreme; and completely ignoring him is the other. There’s a balance somewhere in the middle where God’s people should take our stand.

If you are trying to do right, to live for God, to resist the encroaching infiltration of the world, then you are in his crosshairs. He has targeted you.

You’d better learn how he works and how to resist him.

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The Pastor’s Scariest Time

I sit there listening while my pastor friend tells what he’s going through in his church. And sometimes all the alarms go off. I realize he is in a dangerous place in his ministry.

Not always, but sometimes, I can tell him this. If I sense a leading from the Holy Spirit or if he and I already have a close enough relationship, I’ll interrupt him.

“Brother Bob, can we pause the narrative here a moment? I need to point something out to you.”

“My friend, you are exposed. You are a sitting duck. Life has drawn a target on your back. Satan has his gun-sights on you.”

“You’d better do something big in a hurry or you’re going to get in bad trouble.”

He sits there stunned, without a clue.

“What do you mean? I’m doing everything I know to work my way through this.”

I say, “I’m not talking about what you are going through. I’m talking about where you are personally at this moment. You are in a vulnerable spot and you need to move before something bad happens.”

Older, veteran pastors have learned the hard way to tread softly through this dark valley they have entered. They have seen the carcasses of their peers strewn about, brought down by ego or depression or temptation.

It’s the young minister who is more likely to try to brave it out alone. It’s the young pastor who is more prone to end up a victim instead of a victor.

Here are 10 danger zones for the pastor to watch out for.

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God Uses the Ordinary

As a pastor, I sometimes trip over the words coming out my mouth when I try to say that “God uses ‘little people.'” There ought to be a better way of saying that.

Some of us remember how Leona Helmsley offended the world by saying that “only little people pay taxes.” She is now comfortably serving a long sentence for tax evasion in some federal institution. The judge probably added another six months just for the “little people” put-down.

How about “ordinary.” God uses ordinary people. Folks like you and me. He uses ordinary things. Ordinary days.

Look up the definition and you’ll quickly see the word means different things to different people. To some, it implies inferiority and the commonplace. In this article, it simply means: the normal, the usual.

A day like today. A person like you and me. A thing like this on my desk.

God delights in using the non-special.

Here’s a couple of songs on that theme.

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Shooting Each Other

I asked a pastor friend for this story. He was unable to tell me his source. I don’t think that means he made it up; only that he clipped it out of something without noting where he got it.

Two hundred years or more ago, the British Navy arrived in the Canadian waters near what is now Quebec. They were instructed to wait for reinforcements before attacking the city, then held by the French.

When the commanding officer saw his men growing bored with the waiting, he decided it would be worthwhile for them to get in a little target practice. In the distance, he could see numerous statues of saints atop the cathedral. “Let’s see you hit those,” he ordered.

By the time reinforcements arrived, the British had used up most of their ammunition, and they were found to have insufficient military resources to defeat the French.

Two hundred years later, Quebec is still a French city, because the British decided to fire on the saints instead of the enemy.

In military parlance, “friendly fire” is when soldiers fire on their own buddies by mistake.

It happens in churches far too often.

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When the Pastor Speaks on Homosexuality

It is true that the Bible identifies a number of sexual practices as wrong and to be shunned by the Lord’s faithful. It is true that homosexuality is among these. It is likewise true that the New Testament sees homosexuality as no worse than adultery and other kinds of transgressions.

However.

Those other areas do not pose as great a problem for the pastor who wants to address them. He can preach against adultery and lust and pornography all he wishes and he will not enrage anyone.

However.

The subject of homosexuality (gay, lesbian, bi-sexuality, however we wish to phrase it) is a minefield for the man of God. Almost anywhere he steps, he takes a chance of stirring up something from one direction or the other.

As the new pastor of a church, I was pleased to get a phone call from a local television station inviting me to speak. New preachers are always glad to get before the community; it helps get their ministries off to a roaring start. But this one I turned down.

“We are putting together a panel to address homosexuality,” the news director said. “We’ll have two gay/lesbian speakers and two ministers. Would you be willing to be one of the ministers?”

No thank you. Not in a hundred years.

There are indeed a few Christian leaders around who can pull that off, but I’m not one of them. This had all the makings of a shouting match or worse, an opportunity to hold the Christian message up to ridicule. Both are to be avoided.

This week, a friend of mine emailed to get my input on a discussion her denomination is conducting on this subject. Here is her note to me and my response.

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Interview a Winner

One day last week, I found myself across the table at a fast food place from a friend who ministers to college students. Before taking this position, he was a student minister in various Southern Baptist churches, and from all reports, was a roaring success in each one. So, for no other reason than curiosity, I posed a situation to him.

“Alvin,” I said, “let’s say I’m the new student minister at a church. And let’s say I have only a handful of young people, maybe ten. Tell me how to build a great program.”

He was ready for me. You’d have thought we’d planned this. I imagine he’s done it so much the response is second nature to him. Like asking me how to drink a glass of iced tea!

Focus on middle-schoolers. If they buy into your vision, they will grow your ministry.

He does not mean to neglect the older high-schoolers. But two realities affect the new student minister coming to a church: the youth often have a hard time changing their allegiance from the former minister to the new one, and soon, these will graduate and move on to college and no longer participate in the work. So, common sense dictates that focusing on the younger teens is right.

Put people around you who are better than you.

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When the Pastor Feels the Sermon Bombed

My friend’s story last Monday could be told by every preacher in the land.

“When I stepped off the platform Sunday morning, I knew I had laid an egg. The sermon seemed to have been still-born. It just didn’t work. I felt awful.”

“But the most amazing thing. People were down at the altar praying, and ever since a number of people have come up to me saying how it ministered to them.”

Just goes to show, I said.

Goes to show what?

I raised that question on Facebook this week. I asked pastors who have felt that they bombed and then heard from church members that the sermon had special meaning to them, what they learned from the experience. The answers were all of one theme: “That God can use anything.” “God can speak through a donkey.” “How unimportant the messenger is.” “Christ is everything.”

Recently a friend and I visited another church. She was visiting in our home and there is a pastor she loves to hear, so I drove her there. That day, the sermon was not up to his usual standards, I felt. He is normally one of the finest expositors anywhere.

In the car, on the way to lunch, my friend said, “That was a wonderful sermon. Just what I needed to hear today.”

Goes to show.

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The Best Kind of Learning

From time to time, as I’m sketching at a church or school, the question arises: “So, have you had training for this?” Or, maybe, “Are you self-taught?”

I don’t answer what I’m thinking.

What I say is usually a variation of, “I’ve had some formal training. But mostly, I’ve just worked at it. And I’m still trying to figure out how to draw better.”

But what I think is, “So, you think my stuff looks so amateurish I could not possibly have learned this from anyone?”

Can you imagine someone saying to Picasso, another artist of some renown (!), “Did you take training for this?” Or to Pavarotti or to Frank Lloyd Wright?

Today, my friend Mary Baronowski Smith told me how she made herself learn to sight-read a hymnal so she could play anything she wished on the piano. Even though she was taking lessons, this skill was self-taught.

Here’s what happened.

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Building Unity Within the Congregation

Those old enough to remember the 1960s do not need a reminder on how divided this country was. The war in Vietnam was tearing us apart as surely as the Civil War had done a century earlier. This time, however, it tended to be a generational thing, with the oldsters defending the government’s handling of the war and the young ones marching in the streets against it. Related to this was the entire generational rift in the culture, with the clothing, the music, the hair styles (beards!), drugs, sex, and the list goes on.

Everything not nailed down was coming loose.

On October 22, 1968, former Vice-President Richard Nixon brought his campaign for the White House to Deshler, Ohio. There, Nixon spotted a 13-year-old girl named Vicki Lynn Cole holding up a sign that read “Bring Us Together.” He mentioned that message and later adopted it as the theme of his administration. The Cole family was even invited to the inauguration. After that, Vicki Lynn faded into obscurity.

Sadly, so did the concern for national unity.

The Nixon administration was one of the most divisive in American history, ending, you will recall, with the president resigning in disgrace, Vice-President Agnew resigning earlier because of kickbacks he had taken as governor, and a number of the highest advisors going to prison. It was a shameful period in our nation’s history.

Unity was a clever idea, Nixon thought. But only that and nothing more.

We’re back at a time when our nation is divided. Hopefully not as severely or as deeply as in the 1960s, but the rift between the “reds” and the “blues” is drastic.

Within religious denominations, division is a constant threat. Doctrinal differences are a constant, social trends inject themselves into church life, and the world exerts its pressures for churches to conform. Personalities complicate negotiations and division often results.

Within your own church membership, the enemy is always at work, looking for wedges to drive between members and the leadership. He walks to and fro, to paraphrase the Apostle Peter, looking for an opening in the wall he can enter to create havoc.

In our never-ending concern for unity within the body of Christ, let’s make a few points here.

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