That urge to run someone else’s life

Some years ago when I was still pastoring, I received a phone call from the principal of a local religious school who wanted me to straighten out one of my members.

The man was head of an independent Christian school, ultra-conservative as you may deduce from what follows.

One of my church members was teaching in their school and her husband often volunteered.  The principal said, “Some of us are concerned that he is not the head of their home. The Lord told me to call this to your attention so you can deal with it.”

I said, “Well, I promise to pray about it. If the Lord tells me to, I’ll do it. But not until then.  After all, this comes close to interfering in something not my business.  My approach would be to pray for them, preach the word and God’s plan from the pulpit, and trust the Holy Spirit to take it from there.”

He said, “That sounds right to me. You pray about it–and I’ll be glad to sit down with you and them if you want me there.”

I said, “Don’t do anything unless I call you.”

You want to know the rest of the story?  This account is taken from my daily journal 16 years ago.  No names were recorded (rather wisely, may I say!) and other than the written account, I have no memory of any of it.

As I came across the story in that journal, I find myself amazed at the presumption of this principal and his co-workers.

Imagine me accosting someone because “I was told” that he is not giving sufficient leadership to his wife and children.

Now, as a pastor who writes for other pastors and church leaders, this little incident gives me the opportunity to say a few things.

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What the kingdom of God looks like: You won’t need a tape measure

“Now having been questioned by the Pharisees as to when the Kingdom of God was coming, He answered them and said, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is.’  For behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst” (Luke 17:20-21).

Those who believe that every human is indwelt by God–and therefore, everyone is divine–love to quote (misquote) this passage.  “The kingdom of God is in you.”

“I have god in me,” they will say, and reference this saying from our Lord.

The clear meaning of this teaching is that rather than God’s kingdom being something earthly, visible, and measurable, it’s spiritual and inner, and therefore invisible and immeasurable.

Now, look at the context.

Staying with the earlier portion of this 17th chapter of Luke, a marvelous collection of teachings, we come out with something like the following:

The Kingdom of God is seen when the strong help the weak (17:1-2), when the faithful minister to the unfaithful with high standards of righteousness and prompt forgiveness to the penitent (17:3-4), when the Lord’s workers serve faithfully and humbly expecting no recognition nor earthly reward (17:7-10), and when we are driven by gratitude to the feet of Jesus (17:11-19).

Or, put another way: Wherever the kingdom of God is, look for faith in the Lord Jesus at work.

Is that visible?  Is it measurable?

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The right to be forgotten

“And their sins and lawless deeds I will remember no more” (Hebrews 10:17).

Something happened this week to remind me of a note I received from a preacher some time back.

On my website, I had reported that the local newspaper was telling of the arrest of this man for incest.  I was appropriately concerned that servants of the Most High God should conduct themselves by higher standards and I probably shamed this fellow for his iniquity.

The man wrote, “All charges against me were dropped.  But every time I try to get a job and the employer googles my name, your article comes up telling of my arrest. That’s the end of that job.”

He needed me to go back into my files, find that article, and delete that story.

It took some doing, but I managed to find the article and erase the story. Then, I sent him an apology.

It was a well-learned lesson, and I’ve been cautious ever since.

It turns out that this is a far-reaching problem with all kinds of legal dimensions.

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“Our pastor is not a good fit for our church.”

The committee could not find any specific reasons they wanted the pastor to leave.  Church attendance was healthy, the congregation was responding well to the minister’s leadership, and finances were in line with expectations.  But there was an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the preacher, and had been since day one.

“You’re just not a good fit for our church” was all the committee could come up with.

They wanted him out. If he refused to go peacefully, a movement would be started to oust him forcibly.

If this sounds unlikely to readers, let me assure you it happens quite often.

The wife of a youth minister texted me recently with a similar story about her husband.  The administrator and personnel chair had visited him that evening to cut him loose upon just this basis–“you’re not a good fit for our church.”  They informed him the pastor would meet with him the next morning to discuss details of his severance.

Just so easily are leaders willing to toy with the lives and ministries of God-called servants as well as with the health, unity, and reputation of His churches.

In many cases, what “you’re not a good fit” means is that certain members simply dislike the minister.  And since they do not like him, clearly, the solution is for him to go back where he came from.

The presumption of some people is truly amazing.

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Truth has this interesting quirk: Only those willing to adapt to it get it.

“If any man is willing to do His will, he shall know of the teaching, whether it is of God or whether I speak from myself” (John 7:17).

Truth is a funny thing: If you want it, you tend to find it.  If you don’t believe it exists, you never come across it.

A generation ago, Professor Allan Bloom wrote a bestseller called “The Closing of the American Mind” in which he said a growing percentage of young Americans considers the mark of the modern man to be an open mind.

By “open mind” they mean an intellect that tolerates everything and considers truth to be relative, that takes no hard and fast positions, and gives  all positions equal footing. To them, a “closed mind” ranks as the epitome of ignorance and backwardness.

Students enter the university, said Dr. Bloom, “just knowing” that maturity requires that they jettison all those “prejudices” and outdated restrictions from their parents’ repressed generation.  Those wishing to take a strong stand for (insert your favorite value here) patriotism, Americanism, the Bible, the Ten Commandments, or the church are old-fashioned and still bound in chains of ignorance.

In the years since Professor Bloom’s book topped the bestsellers’ lists, nothing has happened to change this sad state. To far too many young Americans, to be educated and sophisticated is to reject hard and fast notions of truth and to welcome relativity in every discipline.

Such is the philosophy of a large section of the up-and-coming generations.

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Sorry. I do not feel your pain.

President Bill Clinton popularized the line: “I feel your pain.”  He could say it with such pathos in his voice, you felt–at first, anyway–that he just might do that.

“I feel your pain.”  I suspect that is said too easily much of the time. And I can almost guarantee that hearing the words does not give comfort to the one hurting.

For the last forty years of his life, my coal-miner dad had silicosis, “black lung” it’s called, the result of breathing coal dust for decades in the depths of the pits.  He started working inside the mines when he was 14–that would be 1926–when child-labor laws were in their infancy and safety for the workers was an afterthought.  As a result, he often had trouble breathing.

There were times when he would look at me with pained eyes and say, “I can’t get my breath. You have no idea how it hurts.”

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Paying your vows, watching your words, and being responsible.

“What shall I render to the Lord for all HIs benefits toward me?…. I shall pay my vows to the Lord…in the presence of all His people” (Psalm 116:12-18)

Scripture says it’s better not to vow anything to the Lord than to make a vow and not keep it (see Deuteronomy 23:21 and Ecclesiastes 5:4).

This happened some 25 years ago….

My wife and I were captivated by the words in Psalm 66 which described the awful time we were enduring in the church where the Lord had sent us to pastor only a couple of years earlier. “You brought us into the net; You laid an oppressive burden upon us. You let men ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water.” And then, we spotted the promise and began claiming it. “Yet You did bring us out into a place of abundance.” (Psalm 66:10-12)

All of that quickly proved to be dead on. We have written on these pages how our reassignment to serve in New Orleans drove us to ask, “Is this the place of abundance?”  It seemed anything but. Then we found Romans 5:20, “Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.”  We had our answer: abundant sin and abundant grace.

From time to time over the next year or so, I would return to Psalm 66 to be refreshed on its contents, to consider the larger context, and to ask whether I had missed anything.

Then one day I noticed something.

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The best time I ever had in the ministry

The only reason that plane ride in the T-38 was so much fun is that I survived it, then looked back and remembered it with pleasure. Columbus AFB Wing Commander Chet Griffin arranged it. He said, “You’ve been ministering to these student pilots all these years; you ought to learn something of what they go through.”  As I say, it was great fun–in retrospect. (smiley-face goes here)

The 1977 trip to Singapore (via Chicago, Anchorage, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Bangkok, and finally my destination) and back was part of a long, long process of drawing an evangelistic comic book for the missionaries there, then coloring each of the many pages (with acrylic and tiny brushes!), and printing up 10,000 copies for their use. It was a job! And fun mainly in retrospect because we did it, it was most unusual, we would never be doing anything like that again, and we survived it.

That deacons meeting that went on for four hours with me as its subject (“to fire or not to fire, that is the question”) was exhilarating only in looking back after we saw how God used it and what He did with it. At the time, no fun.

In fact, I have an admission to make.

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Asleep in Jesus later; Awake and alert in Him right now!

“When I awake, I am still with Thee” (Psalm 139:18).

There is a time for sleeping in Christ, which is one way Scripture describes the death of the Lord’s children.

I love Psalm 17:15, and find myself tying it closely with the verse above, Psalm 139:18.  So it all reads:

“As for me, I shall behold Thy face in righteousness; I will be satisfied with Thy likeness when I awake.” 

And then, “When I awake, I am still with Thee.

One day, at a time set by the Lord Himself, I will go to sleep here and awaken on the other side. When that happens, I will be “still with Thee” and will “behold (His) face in righteousness.”

Whatever that is like, “I will be satisfied.”

Whatever that is like, I will be more awake there than I’ve ever been here.

Whatever that is like, I shall “know even as also I am known” (I Corinthians 13:12).

Whatever that is like, we know that while “it does not (yet) appear what we shall be….we shall be like Jesus, for we shall see Him as He is” (I John 3:3).

Scripture calls it sleep, I think, for two reasons: 1) That’s how it appears to us, and 2) it’s possible that some time transpires between our “going to sleep” here and “awakening” over there.  God knows, He’s in charge, and whatever He does is fine.

Why do we fear death?  I think it’s the unknown part. We shrink from things we know little about.

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Getting tough at the funeral

“And we urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all men” (I Thessalonians 5:14).

At the funeral, as at every other place where you rise to serve the Lord, preacher, tell the truth.

The gospel truth.

You have an obligation to comfort the bereaved, true. But you have an even greater duty to obey your Lord by declaring the whole counsel of God.

The Holy Spirit can guide you on how to do both; the flesh doesn’t have a clue and will lean to one extreme or the other.

My pastor friend R. J. did something rather bold the other day.

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