Somebody’s Praying For Me

People say it all the time, “I’m praying for you, pastor.”

I suppose they are.

My question to you, as a minister of the gospel, is: Can you tell?

I think I can. And I’m guessing you can also. Particularly if you have ever been the focus of genuine, heart-felt intercessions.

One president of the Southern Baptist Convention said the next day after he turned over the leadership of the denomination to the preacher who succeeded him he felt the difference–people were no longer praying for him. It was a sad day for him, he said.

My friend Bill Hardy tells of the farewelll reception Woodland Hills Baptist Church of Jackson, Mississippi, was giving him and his family as they prepared to move an hour up the state to the First Baptist Church of Kosciusko. An elderly lady went through the line to greet them and said, “Brother Bill, I have kept you at the top of my prayer list all these years.” Bill thanked her and said, “I hope you will keep me there.” “Oh no,” she said. “I’ll be praying for our new minister. Let the people in your new church pray for you.”

Little dose of reality there for my friend Bill.

Over the last few months, I have noticed the difference prayer makes in my own life.

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How to Frighten a Preacher

“Pastor, some of our members are concerned.”

That gets his attention, believe me.

You can say all you want about how the minister is God-called and God-protected and that sort of thing, but he would not be human if he did not want the people he’s serving to be supportive and responsive. After all, since he’s sent to help them, he will want some kind of evidence he’s accomplishing his purpose, otherwise, he feels that he has either failed them or God. Or both.

He is vulnerable as a result.

What makes him more vulnerable to negative influences from the congregation is that he has a family to feed and look after the same way you do if you work at the post office, drive a delivery truck, teach school, or extract teeth. The fact that he needs this job means he opens himself up to pressure from his constituents.

As a result, he reacts–at least emotionally–when he hears some of these lines that have been used on preachers since the beginning of the church.

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Three from Saturday’s Newspaper

I’m a little irked with the younger generation of preachers who get all their news from the internet…or from the Jon Stewart show! Buy a newspaper, friend! You’ll find a hundred things a week that will fascinate you, instruct you, inspire you, and mortify you.

Here are three from Saturday’s “Times-Picayune” which are great preaching values.

“Transocean failures called systemic”

This refers to the explosion a year ago of an offshore rig operation for British Petroleum by Transocean. “The rig was finishing up its work drilling the Macondo deep-sea well for BP when oil and natural gas blew out from the ocean floor a mile down and ignited in fireballs.”

A Coast Guard report has just been issued (Friday) that lowers the boom on Transocean. “Unlike previous reports on the catastrophe that killed 11 rig workers and polluted the Gulf of Mexico, the Coast Guard’s report says almost nothing about the raft of decisions and mistakes by BP personnel that led to the blowout.”

“Instead, it looks at actions and systemic failures after the Deepwater Horizon had already lost control of the well–all in the realm of Transocean and its crew.”

Notice the word “systemic.” It is the key.

The report faults that company, not for a few mistakes or errors in judgements, but for an entire culture of bungling, corner-cutting, safety-negligence. The problems were throughout the system, from top management down to the lowliest hand.

Pastors and teachers, take note of this please. That’s the problem with humans these days. That’s what original sin is all about. Sin is “systemic” within us.

Sin is not a misstatement. Not misspeaking. Not a lapse in good judgment. Sin is not a slipup, not an error, a failure to adhere to otherwise good principles.

Sin is throughout our hearts and lives. It is not a small segment of our lives that needs to be salvaged, healed, redeemed, helped, bandaged, treated. It’s all of us. Throughout.

“Why should you be stricken again? …The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faints. From the sole of the foot even to the head, there is no soundness in it, but wounds and bruises and putrefying sores; They have not been closed or bound up, or soothed with ointment.” (Isaiah 1:5-6)

Second thing from the newspaper.

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More Willing? So What?

It is said that every sermon has two parts: What? and So What?

This is the “So What?” to the article below in which we said “The Lord is More Willing to Bless than We are To Be Blessed.”

Last week I sent that article/message to a friend and said, “This sermon is incomplete. Help me out.”

Why send it to her? Seven reasons. One: She is a deep thinker. Two: She is a solid, incredible Christian. Three: She will tell you what she thinks. Four: She sees things that elude most of us. Five: She knows the Word. Six, and critically: She has suffered a great deal in her life. Seven: I trust her.

I’m about to reproduce the entire response she sent.

What I had omitted from my sermon was the “so what” element. Like many preachers, I can take a biblical text and preach an abstract message from it that never touches anyone where they live and then walk away thinking I have been used of God. My impression is that most people in the pews know differently.

The preacher is the last to know.

Years ago, 7-year-old Holly Martin gave me a line that has stood me in good stead ever since. I was preaching about something, laboriously trying to get across some obscure point from the text, and apparently failing. Sometime in the middle of the sermon, this child turned to her mom Lydia and said, “Mother, why does Dr. Joe think we need this information?”

Is that a great question or what? In her own way, this child saw what I was missing, that a sermon has to be relevant to the hearers, otherwise the preacher is just taking a lonely trek through Scripture.

So, I sent the message to my friend and asked, “What am I missing here? I know the sermon needs to come together in some focus point, but am not sure where or how.”

Her name is Lynn and she gave her permission to share the letter:

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Jesus Christ: More Willing to Bless Than We Are to Be Blessed

(After reading this, read the sequel in the article that precedes it in this blog but followed it time-wise.)

Where did the idea arise that we have to coerce or persuade or coax the Lord into helping us?

Now, a leper came to Him, imploring Him, kneeling down to Him and saying to Him, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”

Jesus, moved with compassion, stretched out His hand and touched him, and said to him, “I am willing; be cleansed.” As soon as He had spoken, immediately the leprosy left him, and he was cleansed. And He strictly warned him and sent him away at once, and said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go your way, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing those things which Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”

However, he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the matter so that Jesus could no longer openly enter the city, but was outside in deserted places; and they came to Him from every direction. (Mark 1:40-45)

A strangeness runs all through that story from beginning to end….

1) It was strange that the leper came TOWARD Jesus. The Law forbade that, and ordered lepers to stay away from citizens and to call out “Unclean.” (Leviticus 13:11)

2) It was strange that the Lord reached out and TOUCHED the man. Lepers were untouchable. What this says about our Lord is precious.

3) It was odd that Jesus did the greatest thing in this fellow’s life, then commanded him to keep the news to himself. He was, of course, trying to do a little advance crowd control. As you see, it didn’t work.

4) The man proceeded to disobey the Lord, yet without the slightest rebellion in his heart. He simply had great news to share and no idea how to keep from telling it.

But the most encouraging aspect of this story comes in the exchange between the Lord and the leper: “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” “I am willing; be clean.”

Jesus is not only able to help, but He is willing. Able and willing. Pretty good combination.

Write that in large letters across your heart and mind, friend: Jesus Christ is willing to bless us. It is His very identity. Nothing sums Him up more than that one word: Willing.

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21 Things Not to Say to a Hurting Friend

“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God” (Isaiah 40:1).

This may be the most unbelievable article we’ve ever posted on this website.

You will not believe what some people say to a bereaved parent or the family member of someone tragically injured.

Recently, while talking to Holly and her mother, I began to pick up on some truly bizarre things people said to them after Holly’s young-adult brother Seth’s tragic automobile accident that left him severely disabled, completely helpless, and almost totally without the ability to communicate. Holly describes his condition as “a low level of consciousness due to a profound brain injury.”

Frankly, I was overwhelmed by some of the things people have said to this family. I had no idea people could be so thoughtless, so clueless, so heartless–all in the name of the Lord and ostensibly, with the best of intentions.

After our visit, I asked if Holly and Mary–the sister and mother of Seth–could write down some of the things people have said to them over the several years Seth has been in this sad condition. (Our discussion centered around the strange comments–that’s where our greatest teaching for this blog focuses–but at the end of this article, Holly shares some of the helpful words that were spoken.)

My single contribution to the discussion was something our family pastor back in Alabama told me. When his teenage son was killed in a motorcycle accident, the family and community were stunned and heartbroken. Everyone was genuinely concerned. Most people said kind and supportive things. However, a few comments shocked even the pastor.

One lady told the bereaved pastor, “I know exactly how you feel. When my son went off to college, I thought my heart would break.” The pastor smiled and thanked her, but the thought that filled his mind was, “Well, did your son come back from college? Because my son is never coming back!”

Holly wanted me to emphasize that all the Christian folks who have said these things to us have good intentions. Everyone genuinely thinks they’re offering something helpful. Holly is probably more charitable than I am. Not everyone who deigns to speak for God has the best interests of others at heart.

Here they are, in the order in which she sent them along….

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Glory Discoveries Believers Make

Did I not say to you that if you would believe, you would see the glory of God? (John 11:40)

We say with Moses of old, “Lord, show us your glory” (Exodus 33:18).

Something within the heart of every believer wants to see evidence that God is among us, that He is with us, blessing and working and using us.

At times we are like the Psalmist who kept hearing the voice of the heathen ringing in his ears as they taunted, “Where is thy God?” (Ps. 42:3,10; 79:10; 115:2)

Where indeed, we wonder.

We long to see God at work, in this place, doing the kind of life-transforming things Jesus excelled at. We tire of reading about them in other places, of hearing reports of revivals in big cities, in huge churches or denominations.

“Do it here, Lord,” we pray. “Use me. Show me. Here am I, my Lord.”

That is the universal cry of the faithful child.

We should never get away from the Lord’s promise to the two distraught sisters of Bethany in John 11.

Martha, the take-charge sister, began to protest when Jesus instructed that the stone was to be removed from the cave where Lazarus’ dead body lay.

“Lord, it’s been four days. By now the body is decomposing and the stench is terrific. Lord, are you sure?”

Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” The Philippians translation reads: “You would see the wonder of what God can do.”

Martha did indeed see God at work that day. She experienced it in a way none of us ever have. Her life changed forever in those few minutes. For the rest of her days, she must have relived these few minutes when she saw the glory of God.

That was a microcosm of the Lord showing Himself among us.

Let’s reflect on the Glory Discoveries we make when we believe Jesus and start living like it.

A. The first thing we notice is that the Lord is pushing us.

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Experts: Listen to Them Skeptically

What started this for me was a fascination with the fourth of Jesus’ seven parables found in Matthew 13. As I often do when faced with a 7 or 8 hour drive from my hometown in north Alabama back to New Orleans, I picked a scripture that intrigued me and thought of it from every angle.

This may be the most neglected parable from all those taught by Jesus, methinks.

The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till it was all leavened. (Matthew 13:33)

I had been working on a message–now posted on my blog–on how Christians hide themselves inside their church buildings when the Lord wants us permeating the community with the gospel. This parable seemed a natural.

The way I was interpreting it was with an emphasis on “a woman took and hid” the leaven in the dough. She had some leaven and wondered where to hide it. “I know,” she thought. “I’ll hide it in this dough.” But a few hours later or the next morning, the world knew where she had put it. The power of the leaven to affect everything around it changed the dough and thus gave the presence of the leaven away.

That speaks to Christians wanting to remain secret disciples of Jesus, I was thinking. A quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer has stuck with me for decades and works here: Secret discipleship is a contradiction in terms. For either the secrecy will kill the discipleship or the discipleship will kill the secrecy.

Then, I called a friend on my cell phone (yep, I was on the interstate and making a cell phone call; sorry for the bad example!). Mike knows his Greek. I wanted to know what the Greek New Testament could contribute to my understanding of that fourth parable.

He called me back. “The word in the Greek is ‘hid,’ all right,” he said. “But the commentary I checked said we should not make too much of the fact that she hid the leaven. She just put it inside the dough. The emphasis is not on her hiding it but on the way the leaven influences everything it touches.”

Well, all right, I thought, reluctantly. I had thought I was on to something with the emphasis on the “hid” word.

Then, next morning, with my office next door to the church library, I started pulling out commentaries.

Not a good thing.

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The Self-Defeating Thing God’s Best Workers Do

Churches build these great ministries and put on outstanding programs, then fail in one critical area: they hide them inside the walls of their buildings.

Then a leper came to Him, and on his knees, begged Him: “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”

Moved with compassion, Jesus reached out HIs hand and touched him. “I am willing,” He told him. “Be made clean.” Immediately the disease left him, and he was healed.

Then He sternly warned him and sent him away at once, telling him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go and show yourself to the priest, and offer what Moses prescribed for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.”

Yet he went out and began to proclaim it widely and to spread the news, with the result that Jesus could no longer enter a town openly. But He was out in deserted places, and they would come to Him from everywhere. (Mark 1:40-45)

I’m always struck by the incongruities–the oddities–in people’s behavior, particularly in biblical stories. Consider these unexpected aspects of our Lord’s encounter with the leper:

–The leper felt free to come to Jesus. The law specifically forbade that (Leviticus 13:45-46). Lepers were to shy away from others and to call out “unclean,” lest they be accidentally touched and therefore unclean.

–Jesus reached out and touched him. Our wonderful Lord did the unthinkable and touched the untouchable. As always, He was driven by compassion.

–Then, after the man was healed, the Lord told him to keep it to himself. These were the early days of the Lord’s ministry and the last thing He needed was crowds mobbing Him as a cult hero.

–The man disobeyed Jesus and told everyone he met. We can hardly blame him. I’ve sometimes felt half-seriously that the only unfair command our Lord ever gave was telling this fellow to keep the news to himself. Like he could! And like no one would notice.

Those are four strange aspects to this wonderful little story. But they suggest an even greater oddity about the Lord’s people today: Jesus told that man to be quiet, but he went out and told everyone he met. He tells us to tell the world and we go home and sit down.

We keep the most wonderful news in the world to ourselves.

Something bad wrong with that.

Even the finest Christian workers in today’s churches have a tendency to clam up rather than share their faith with the outside world. We love the Lord, we’ve been saved, we are grateful for His grace and power and mercy, and we love to worship Him and sing and talk about Him.

To one another.

What we are not doing is telling the world.

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