A friend asked me to critique his writing. Uh oh.

“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Write this in a book as a memorial….” (Exodus 17:14).

Asking me to critique your writing and advise you on improving it is not unlike seeking my advice for your cooking.

I know good eating when I taste it, but don’t ask me how to get from a recipe to the dinner table.  I’m completely out of my element.

But, okay, with “writing,” whatever that is and however we define it, I’m somewhat more experienced. And I am eager to learn this business of print communication and get it right.

I have been working at learning how to write since I was a teenager. Literally.

As Paul said about spiritual things, I do not consider myself to have attained (Philippians 3:12).  So, please do not interpret any of what follows as Joe bragging on himself. Rather, it’s more like “here are some things I’m learning” about the craft of writing.

Maybe someone will benefit from it.  I would have forty years ago if I’d come across it.

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Defend the faith, but without quarrels. Is that doable?

“But refuse foolish and ignorant speculations, knowing that they produce quarrels” (2 Timothy 2:23).

In Second Timothy 4, Paul’s final charge to his young protege’ is to “preach the word, be ready in season and out, reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction” (4:2).  After all, he says, in the end times people are going to be clamoring for false teachers who will say what they want to hear, who will spread myths and will shape doctrine for their own purposes.

So, God’s people–and particularly His preachers–must hang tough and “endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (4:5).

However, no quarreling please.

That’s what he said. “The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition….” (2:24-25).

Tough assignment, to be sure.

Stand firm, preach the word, rebuke error, and be nice about it.

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What the pastor needs from his wife (and it has nothing to do with ego)

What qualifies me to write this piece, if anything, is that I am a pastor who has been married most of my life.  My wife Margaret and I did this entire ministry thing together, having married the same year I started pastoring, and that was 52 years back. Every church I served as pastor, she was there and deeply involved. She has heard more of my sermons than anyone else, and knows me in ways I do not know myself.  Therefore, her assessment of me is probably more dead-on than anyone else’s, including my own.

And that’s what frightens me.

They asked Dwight L. Moody if a certain man were a Christian. “I don’t know,” he said. “I haven’t talked to his wife.”

If anyone knows, she does.

(Note: I write–as is obvious–from the standpoint of the pastor being a man. There are godly and faithful women leading churches across the world, and we thank God for them. I have no experience with their situation or knowledge on how their ministries are different from mine. It would be presumptuous for me to pontificate on what they need.)

The pastor’s wife can hurt or help him “better” than anyone else.

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Who has walked this ground before us

Recently, while giving some Atlanta friends a brief tour of New Orleans, I asked the teenagers in the back seat, “Did you know Abraham Lincoln came to our city?”  They didn’t.

Most people don’t.

The teacher in me kicked into overdrive.  I love telling people things about our city they didn’t know. And if it involves a celebrity–modern or ancient–so much the better.

Lincoln came twice, once in 1828 when he was 19 and again in 1831, at the age of 22.

In those days, people would built flatboats upriver and float down the Mississippi bringing crafts or produce to our city.  Once here, they would peddle their cargo, tear up the boat and sell it for firewood, then walk around for a couple of days and “see the elephant,” as they called it. Eventually, people from Illinois would book passage back to St. Louis on a paddlewheeler and walk the rest of the distance back home.

The first time, Lincoln came as a helper for his boss’ son, and the second time he may have been in charge himself.

Professor Richard Campanella of Tulane University has written “Lincoln in New Orleans,” published in 2010 by the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press.  It’s the best and most complete thing ever written on the subject, I feel confident in saying.  Subtitle: “The 1828-1831 flatboat voyages and their place in history.”

This is not a review of the book, even though I’m fascinated by it.  (In truth, the book is so dense, with tons of interesting insights on every page, reading it is a slow process.)  What I find most fascinating, however, is that Campanella tells us where the flatboat probably docked, where Lincoln and his friend may have stayed, which slave auction they may have watched.

I walked today where Lincoln walked.  Sort of.

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Jesus is always looking for faith (and finding it in the unlikeliest of places)

“When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8)

Jesus was always on the lookout for faith.

Like a geiger counter in search of uranium or a metal detector on the beach, His heart seems to have started pinging when someone in His presence got the faith-thing right.

Our Lord was busy teaching in a crowded little house in Capernaum one day when the ceiling began falling on him.  Four local men had brought their paralyzed buddy for Jesus to heal, and unable to get him in the house because of the crowd, they carried him onto the rooftop and tore open the tiles. (They couldn’t wait? we wonder.)  As the opening grew bigger, the crowd moved back and some of those inside helped to lower the man into the room. What a moment that must have been.

Scripture says, “When Jesus saw their faith,” He forgave the paralytic of his sin, then healed him of his paralysis. (Mark 2:1-12).

He could spot faith a mile off.

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7 questions from a bi-vocational pastor

“And because (Paul) was of the same trade, he stayed with them and they were working; for by trade they were tentmakers. And he was reasoning in the synagogue every Sabbath and trying to persuade Jews and Greeks” (Acts 18:3-4).

Paul was a bi-vocational preacher. A self-supporting apostle.

He received occasional help from the churches he had begun, and he taught that the minister of the gospel has a right to be supported by those to whom he is ministering. (Those who insist otherwise would do well to read the Bible before pontificating on it.) But, it would appear that mostly he paid his own way.

A bi-vocational pastor is one who holds down two full-time jobs, the one at church and the other one which pays most of the bills.

Either his church is small and cannot afford to pay him a full salary, or he has started the church himself and it has not grown to the point of self-sufficiency, or he feels called to a bi-vo kind of ministry.

Don’t miss that: “he holds down two full-time jobs.” That’s not a typo.  Ask any pastor trying to do this.  They know.

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What the carnal mind will never “get” about worship

Can we talk about worship?

Here are a few quotes to get us started. I cannot vouch for the authenticity of any of them, having found them in that motherlode of fascinating quotes, real and imagined, solid and made-up-on-the spot, the internet.  Smiley-face goes here….

1) From actor Brad Pitt:  “I didn’t understand this idea of a God who says, ‘You have to acknowledge me. You have to say that I’m the best, and then I’ll give you eternal happiness. If you won’t, then you don’t get it!’ It seemed to be about ego. I can’t see God operating from ego, so it made no sense to me.”

There is a reason this makes no sense to you, Mr. Pitt.  The Apostle Paul put it this way: “A natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him.  Nor can he understand them, for they are spiritually appraised” (I Corinthians 2:14).

Don’t mean to be harsh in that assessment, but it explains why so many on the outside look at Christian worship and shake their heads. They just don’t get it.

Let me repeat that: They. Do. Not. Get. It.

2) From a blog in which this guy talks about religion. Someone asked him why God wants us to worship Him.  He answered,  “Everyone likes being praised. It’s a huge ego bump, after all. But why does God need it? I mean, what kind of egomaniac needs millions of people all over the world praising his name? Isn’t that a little arrogant?

Short answer: Yes.”

He went on to make a case for God being egotistical.  Oh, and he thought he was being pro-God.

He should spare God the compliment.

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The highest accolade

“I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you…. For I have no one else of kindred spirit who will genuinely be concerned for your welfare. For they all seek after their own interests, not those of Christ Jesus…..” (Philippians 2:19ff)

As I write this, I have just come from the office of my E-N-T doctor.  For two decades this good man has looked after our family and has done life-saving surgery on me twice.  I find myself thinking that as I age, he too will make that decision which I made five years ago, and retire.  Anyone else can retire and we’re fine by that. But not our doctor.

He reaches age 65 next month. So I asked the big question.

“I’m not even remotely thinking of retiring,” he said. “I love my work too much for that.”

I’ll tell you how much he loves his work.

Every morning of his life he attends 6:30 am mass to pray for his patients.

Ten years ago, before performing cancer surgery on me, he gathered his team around and said, “Reverend, would it be all right with you if I prayed?” Are you kidding?  That is just about the finest gift anyone has ever given me.  (I reminded him today I am ten years cancer-free.)

You do not need me to tell you–but I will anyway–that his staff and colleagues adore him. When he had stepped away, one of the OR nurses whispered, “He’s my doctor, too.”

Later, after leaving his office, I thought of Paul’s words about young Pastor Timothy: “I have no one else of kindred spirit who will genuinely be concerned for your welfare.”

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Can the Lord trust you?

(Variation of this title: “Has the Lord trusted in you for your salvation?”)

“….for I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that day” (2 Timothy 1:12).  “Guard through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the treasure which has been entrusted to you” (2 Timothy 1:14).

Listen to the typical Christian witnessing and you’ll hear him ask “Are you trusting in Jesus?”  “Have you trusted in Jesus for your salvation?”  Or some variation of that.

It’s a good question. It just doesn’t go far enough.

Even if the witnessee assures that “Yes, I’m putting my trust in the Lord Jesus Christ,” there is still an issue to be settled.

Is He putting His trust in you?

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How tiny churches do things

Not long ago, I was worshiping with friends in a small, rural and very old church not far from our family home in North Alabama.  The building was erected in 1857 and has been used by various congregations over the decades. Presently, it’s a Baptist church. The members, mostly retirees, treasure its quaintness and its unpainted exterior and try to keep things natural.  The building has no electricity, no nursery, no cushioned pews, and no frills of any kind.  A few kerosene lamps can be seen here and there, and out back are the toilets.  Since the church activities consist of one service each Sunday at 8:30 am, I’d be surprised if the facilities are ever used.

The members don’t demand a lot of their church and appreciate what they have found, the fellowship. (Some go on to other churches in town later in the morning.)

The pastor of that little congregation is a retired minister only a couple of years shy of his eightieth birthday. But he’s still sharp and energetic and it seems to be a good union.

While I was there, they did something most unusual.

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