The Sin That Worries Me Most: Sloth

Some of the laziest people I know are workaholics. But most aren’t.

The lazy-overachievers push themselves night and day in a vain effort to convince themselves they are not lazy, not sloths or couch potatoes or blights on humanity. But most lazy people are under-achievers of the first order.

The workaholic has his own demons to tame, so we will leave him to them.

The rest of us are just cotton-pickin’ lazy.

Who would have thought that the ancients would have identified sloth as one of the deadly sins? It looks so tame, so benign. It doesn’t hurt anyone, but just lies there on the couch doing nothing. How could that be a sin?

The sloth rises from the bed at 10 am and whiles away the day, then rises from the couch at 10 pm wondering where the time went. Where the time went is into the trash bin, into deletion, never to be recaptured.

The sinfulness of sloth is that it wastes life. It denies that “this is the day the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24). It takes what is God’s and buries it. Sloth is life-denying, and thus rebellion against the purposeful Creating God.

I know about laziness. You too?

Now, I’m known as the guy who rises early and works late, who gets up in the night to tweak something and stays at it for hours.

As a young minister, I went for years without a vacation or taking an off day. From the outside, it looked noble to everyone except my longsuffering family. On the inside, I was living in fear. I was afraid of being accused of laziness, of not doing enough, of not earning my pay.

From the outside, that does not look like sloth. But my heart is where sloth resides.

In the same way that some part of me is an unbeliever, a thief, a liar, and an adulterer, I am lazy. The urge is ever-present, the all-too human tendency toward rebellion and indulgence. Staving it off is a never-ending chore.

Now, one reason we know laziness is so prevalent across humanity is that Scripture–particularly Proverbs–has so much to say on this subject, none of it good.

Go to the ant, you sluggard! Consider her ways and be wise (Proverbs 6:6). The ant, says Solomon, is worthy of our study. Unlike the ancient philosopher-king, we have seen nature films depicting colonies of ants working and cooperating and fighting. We stand in awe of this little critter.

Now, Solomon clearly knew nothing approaching what today’s scientists have learned about ants. And yet, what he said is exactly on target. The ant, as well as the squirrel in my back yard, puts us to shame.

The lazy man is wiser in his own eyes than seven men who can answer sensibly (Proverbs 26:16). The person who does not get up off the couch to run the vacuum or wash the dishes or to earn his pay in the office always has reasons and excuses.

For the record, here are the Proverb references to sloth and laziness: 10:4,26; 12:24; 13:4; 15:19; 19:15; 20:4; 26:14-16.

First, let’s say what laziness and sloth are not.

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The Biggest Problem About Prayer

This is one that almost never gets addressed. It was put to me this week by my friend Nancy. Her note, almost verbatim:

Someday I need you to help me understand why we are told when we pray and believe our prayers will be answered. Then people die in spite of our pleas for health. I know it is within God’s will but why ask if His will is what is going to occur anyway? I know thousands of prayers were said for (a friend who died some years back) and for my friend I saw buried today. Thousands are being said for (a friend with cancer) yet she is in a battle for her life.

We are told “you have not because you ask not.” Maybe this would be a good blog topic. I can’t be the only one who struggles with these thoughts.

If you only knew, Nancy.

On this blog, I probably have fifty articles dealing with prayer in one way or the other. And–truth be known–most of them skirt around the edges of this subject.

So, let’s try to meet it head on.

Let’s start by this upfront admission: Things are not as simple as they seem at first.

Frankly, as one who likes things simple and cut-and-dried, this is painful to admit.

The Bible actually does say things like: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives….” (Matthew 6:7-8) And this: “Whatever you ask in my name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:13-14).

There are plenty more, but those two are sufficient to establish that the blanket promises are out there.

What are serious disciples of the Lord Jesus to make of such prayer promises?

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Penetrating Your Culture: How to Get Started II

You move to Miami Beach from Sand Mountain, Alabama, in order to start a church.

Big assignment. Not because there aren’t zillions of needy people there and not because you are not committed and zealous.

The first problem is you don’t know these people, do not speak their language–actual or cultural–and have no idea how to connect with them.

So, we come back to our question on penetrating a culture: “Where would you get started?”

Our initial answer was: “Ask Questions.”

But questioning is useless without this: “Be very quiet and listen.”

If you are not there to learn, no surface respect for their traditions and no superficial asking of questions will make a bit of difference.

Nearly a year ago, Chris and Kassy brought their two small children from Kansas to New Orleans to start a church.

They did it right.

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Ministering to Your Culture: How to Get Started

I had just returned home from England where our youth choir had given concerts in churches and schools, and I’d preached several times. The phone rang in the office of my Mississippi church. It was a fellow in the next town over.

“We’re beginning an amazing ministry to England,” he said, without any idea that I had just returned from there.

“What we’re going to do,” the young man said, “is to invade that country with the gospel of Jesus. We’re going door-to-door and show those dead churches how to do evangelism, how to build great churches. We’re going to bring the dead back to life again.”

I said, “Uh, my brother, have you ever been to England?”

The fact that he had not did not seem to bother him. He was sure that the approach to Kingdom-building that had worked for him in rural small-town Mississippi provided a template workable anywhere, in any culture.

The conversation went downhill from there. I recall telling him that several ministers in the London area had told us how they resent know-it-all American evangelists arriving in their country with all the answers. One said, “We do not mind their coming to help us. What we hate is that they are not interested in anything we have to say, not in learning the customs or traditions. And if we don’t get behind them and support them, we’re opposing Jesus.”

Arrogance is not the exclusive property of young ministers, although I can tell you from personal experience, it seems to find the ideal elements for incubation in those who are uninformed but zealous, untrained but certain. I will spare you the numerous stories of my own presumption and foolishness in judging faithful workers in the Lord’s vineyard for not producing more fruit when I had very little idea what I was talking about.

There is a way to make an impact on any culture, thankfully.

And there is a way to begin. May I suggest that way is: Begin by enrolling as a learner.

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Engage the Culture, Pastor. If You Dare.

Now, I am no longer in the world, but these are in the world… They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them by Your truth. (John 17:11,16-17)

A half-century ago, Theologian Langdon Gilkey wrote a book titled “How the Church Can Minister to the World Without Losing Itself.”

It’s worth buying just for the title.

That’s the challenge. God’s people are sent to be in the world but not of it, to relate to the world without loving it, to bring the gospel to the world without succumbing to its enticements.

And yet, many of us love the culture where we find ourselves. Is this wrong?

Adrian Rogers used to say, “We are like a fellow in a boat. As long as the boat is in the water, he’s fine. But as soon as the water gets in the boat, he’s in trouble.”

At what point does the culture threaten to swamp our lifeboats? I’m a football fan, and love cheering on the New Orleans Saints. Am I succumbing to the world?

Seminarians discuss these matters in classrooms. They study books in which philosophers and theologians bring up the ramifications of engaging culture. Eventually, the young minister develops a set of principles for future ministry. In time, he graduates and goes forth to pastor a church with real people.

Suddenly, all bets are off.

In the urban setting where his seminary was located, the culture was one thing. In rural redneck America where he has gone to pastor, it’s something else entirely.

One of his classmates has started an innovative church in the artsy section of Chicago where the culture is unlike anything he has ever known.

A classmate is now serving a mission in smalltown Ohio, a community dominated by labor unions and factory life. The highpoint of the social season, he says, is the tractor pull at the local arena.

Another friend has been appointed missionary to the bush country of West Africa where the culture is pagan, primitive, and powerful.

Lastly, a colleague has taken a county seat ministry in the heart of the Bible Belt, where four churches stand on the corners of the major intersection and every community leader belongs to one of them.

Nothing to it, right? Just “preach the gospel, servant of God.”

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5 Things I Want For My Church

Last Sunday, January 1, my friends Mike and Karen, who pastor a church in Mobile, invited their married daughter and her family home with them after worship for a traditional New Year’s meal.

The meal finished and the dishes cleared away, Mike and Karen were settled in the living room and Mike had found the football game du jour on television. Oldest grandchild Jayda, nearly 10, I think, sat nearby doing something. The daughter, her husband, and their young son were in the kitchen gathering the dishes they had brought to take back home. The three of them were laughing it up and having a good time.

Suddenly, as Jayda jumped up and started toward the kitchen, she called out, “Are y’all being a family in there without me?!”

Grandmother Karen told me that story and said, “I love what it says about her concept of family.” Indeed.

God wants us to be a family.

He wants our family to be a “real” family–that’s the reason for the numerous proscriptions in Scripture regarding this smallest and tightest of all communities. We are to honor parents and obey them, to love one another, to provide food and shelter for them, not to engage in sexual relations outside marriage, and so forth.

God wants His people to be family, also.

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10 Ways Church People Fail Their Pastors

Pray for us, brethren, that the Lord’s message may spread rapidly and be honored…and that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men, for not all have faith. (II Thessalonians 3:1-2)

Don’t read this article without the preceding one. That one led to this one.

What happened was this.

I put on Facebook this question: “What are 10 things you wish pastors would stop doing?”

I was unprepared for the answers. They poured in. Within a few minutes, we had 35 or 40 comments. Most were helpful, but a few showed real pain or even anger.

By the time we had racked up 75 or 80 comments, several pastors who read the contributions sent up white flags, calling for help. One said, “Joe, this really hurts.”

When someone suggested we turn the question around and ask, “How do church members fail their pastors,” the comments multiplied just as quickly.

As several noted, there seems to be a lot of pain out there in the pastor/member relationship. It would be great if we could do something, however small, toward healing that breach and lessening the anger.

Here, then, are my Top 10 Ways Church Members Fail Their Pastors. It’s sent forth not to add kindling to a raging fire, but balm to some sore places.

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10 Ways Pastors Fail Their People

Or, we could turn this around and call it “10 positive things some pastors do to build healthy churches.”

But we won’t.

I know what it takes to get people to read this stuff. (smiley-face goes here.)

The God who called us into His service and sent us into the pastoral ministry has a vested interest in seeing that we do it right and well. The fact that we are all over the map–as opposed to the strait and narrow–and disorganized in our approach–as opposed to a sharp focus–lies at our doorstep and not His.

That God would deign to use flawed and faltering creatures like us says volumes about His grace and mercy.

We are burdened for the younger generation of pastors coming along who are still trying to find their proper role, still trying to nail down their identity as pastors, and still trying to fine-tune the focus of their life-work.

This list of “10 ways pastors fail their people” is all about how my generation got it wrong. Not entirely, of course. But way too much.

In no particular order, they are:

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There’s No Love Like a Mother’s

An article in the most recent issue of The New Yorker proved to be a conversation stopper. You read it and think, “What?” and walk away thoughtful and speechless.

Joel Klein, the former chancellor of New York City’s public schools, tells how he encountered Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg and her young son Jack at a social function. The boy approached him and said, “They tell me you run the city schools? And that you are the one who declares snow days.”

Now, little Jack attended a private school–it will not surprise readers to know–but he knew that if the public schools closed the private schools followed suit. Jack said, “When I have a birthday, I’d like the schools to be closed.”

I don’t recall the superintendent’s answer

As it turned out, it was Caroline who called in that favor. The snow was coming down in buckets and she called the superintendent’s house. “Tomorrow is not Jack’s birthday,” she said, “but he has a big paper coming due and he’s not ready for it. This would be a great time for you to declare a snow day.”

The superintendent, now retired, admits that that was one of the days he closed the schools for snow.

Fascinating. More than a little strange.

One wonders just how many of the high level decisions being made every day are prompted not by economic or other realities but as personal favors to people of influence.

In my most recent article for this blog–“Greed: The Favorite Sin of the Free Enterprise”–I started to tell that story and make the point that, for most of us, it’s not money we’re grasping and groping for, but the things money can buy. Like influence with people in high places.

Caroline Schlossberg has such influence. And money too, we presume. Enough to shut down the city schools for a day for her young son. How he must admire his mom. The things she does for him.

So, what has your mom done for you lately?

Here’s what my mother did for me recently.

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