Thanking God for the pain

One morning, as we were sitting at the breakfast table discussing memories good and bad, Bertha said something so profound that I wrote it down just so I’d get it just right.

We have a wagonload of memories of God’s people who have loved us and cared for us. But we also have painful memories that we wish we could edit out of our lives.  But the Holy Spirit has shown me that if He took out the pain and strife, He would also be removing the lovely things that happened during that same time. Or, that happened as a direct result of the bad event. 

The teacher who scarred a kid 

It brought up a painful memory from my junior high days. I was new in that school, surrounded by a hundred fellow seventh-graders. We had been herded into the gymnasium where the band director, Mr. Keating, was in charge.  He called everyone to order and announced that today we would be electing class officers.

Now, bear in mind that I was new there.  For the previous four years I’d gone to school in rural West Virginia and then we moved back to Alabama in time for my sixth grade in a two-room rural (really really rural!) school.  So, now, junior high and all the kids in our part of the world ride the bus to the county seat of Double Springs, AL for the rest of our schooling.  The junior and senior high classes all met in the same building.

Now, perhaps half of our class had gone to elementary school right there in town. The others of us were from small schools out in the county.  This means only the town kids knew each other.  So, when class officers were nominated, naturally they nominated the people they knew.  As a result, the town kids were raising their hands and nominating one another. Only they were being elected.

So, seeing an injustice–I thought–I raised my hand.

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The room in your house no one knows about

“I’ve got a secret!”  –Popular television game show of the 1960s and 1970s.

A fellow I know wrote of the secrets his family was harboring as they struggled to deal with an addictive, out-of-control relative.

“You know how the family gets ready to host a guest and the house is clean and in order and nothing out of place?  The guest is impressed.  He wishes his house could be this neat and organized with nothing out of place.”

“But what he doesn’t know is that there is one room where you have stored all the junk and clutter.  If he were to open the door to that room, he would be amazed.”

That, he said, is how things are for a family that tries to keep up an image when they are about to come apart.

They push things back into that private room, whose door they dare not open.

It’s about family secrets.

Everyone has them, he said.

One of our deacon families was hosting a gathering of church members.  I was amazed at the lack of clutter.  They ought to see my house, I thought.  But they had no stack of newspapers, no unread or partially read magazines lying around, no pile of books to be donated to the library or returned there.

When I asked our hostess how she did this, she surprised me.

“Brother Joe, there is one room you dare not look into.  That’s where we dumped all the clutter!” And she laughed.

Do we do this with the human heart, I wonder. Have one room that holds all the family trash, all the clutter, all the stuff we dare not show the world?

It is true that everyone has their secrets, things they dare not tell the world. And, I will go so far as to say that’s normal.  It’s even probably healthy.

I do not want to know that you and your spouse had an argument last night.  Neither do I need to know about your private lives, the intimacies (or lack thereof) between you.

Keep it to yourself. It’s all right.

For months, Fran had cared for her ailing husband before death finally claimed him. She was literally worn to a frazzle. Their long marriage had been difficult, but she had been faithful and had kept the family secrets. And now that was all gone.  That’s why she did something highly questionable.

Within hours after the funeral, the widow told her children: “No more secrets.”  What followed was her announcement that she felt strongly that she and a family friend had grown close and would someday marry.  “I wanted you to know,” she said. “I’m so tired of keeping secrets.”

That was one bit of news the family wished she had kept to herself. They were not ready for this and could not handle it.

Some things should be kept secret: What a couple does in the bedroom does not need to be told.  What the husband or wife did before marriage (or before coming to Christ) should be left behind.  If the couple went through counseling and the garbage came out in the safety of the sessions, they should forgive and forget and go forward.

So, let no one who reads this think Joe is calling for complete openness about every detail of our lives.  You do not need to know everything I’ve done and I have no use for that information from you.

But many of us maintain secret rooms in our spiritual houses which need to be cleaned and disinfected and aired out.  We’re talking about repentance of sin, and healing and a new holiness.

A bizarre little incident took place in the days when Nehemiah was leading God’s people to rebuild the walls around Jerusalem.  Throughout their long, hard ordeal, the Israelites were harassed and undermined by their pagan neighbors, led by a wicked trio known as Sanballat the Samarian, Tobiah the Ammonite, and Geshem the Arab.  (These brutes are active throughout the book of Nehemiah, and receive an ‘A’ for persistence!)  Finally, the wall is completed around the city and things are moving forward. That’s when Nehemiah the governor makes a discovery.

Eliashib, the high priest, who was in charge of the various storerooms in the temple, turned out to be a relative of Tobiah the Ammonite due to the forbidden practice of intermarriage with the pagans.  On one occasion, when Nehemiah returned from conferring with his boss, the king of Persia, he “discovered the evil that Eliashib had done on behalf of Tobiah.”  And what was that?

He had provided the enemy Tobiah “a room in the courts of God’s house.” (Nehemiah 13:7).

Got that?

The enemy of God’s people was given an apartment in the Temple.  It would be hard to think of anything worse.

Nehemiah says, “I was greatly displeased and threw all of Tobiah’s household possessions out of the room!”  But he did not stop there.

“I ordered that the rooms be purified.” And he did not stop there.

“I had the articles (instruments of worship) of the house of God restored there, along with the grain offering and frankincense.”

He threw out the offensive material, had the place fumigated and washed down, and then furnished the room with holiness.

Sounds like a plan, doesn’t it?

Nehemiah adds, “Therefore, I rebuked the officials, saying, ‘Why has the house of God been neglected?’” (Neh. 13:11)

There are fewer joys in this life more satisfying than knowing your entire life is open to the Lord, that all the rooms are His, that you are completely clean and pure, and you are fully free in Christ.  Jesus once said, “The ruler of this world is coming and he has nothing in me” (John 14:30).

We must not stop until this is the case with each of us.

“…to You our hearts are open; nothing here is hidden. You are our heart’s desire….”  (“Here for You” by Matt Redman)






Perfectionism: The cruel burden we place on each other

“Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in Heaven is perfect….” (Matthew 5:48)

First, let’s get the theological argument out of the way.

Let’s make this perfectly clear: God knows you are not perfect and will never be this side of Glory.

And even clearer: “God does not expect sinlessness out of you and me. He is under no illusion about us.”  See Psalm 103:14 “He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust.” And Romans 3:10 “There is none righteous, no, not one.”

Got that?  The illusion of sinless perfection is all ours, my friend.

We read Matthew 5:48 and come away with the erroneous conclusion that God ordered us to be perfect, that perfect means sinlessness, and therefore we can be sinless.  But since we cannot achieve perfection–no one you know has ever pulled it off–then He has given us an impossible standard to live by, one that crushes us and frustrates us and forever disappoints Him.

The result would be that we forever live with a disgusted God and in fear of the celestial woodshed, the destiny of children who bring in failing grades.

Yuck. What kind of theology is this?  And yet, you and I know people who believe this and call themselves Bible students, serious disciples of Jesus, and even evangelists (“sharers of the good news”)..

Now, let’s drop the other shoe here… Continue reading

What you do best: Be yourself

He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust.  (Psalm 103:14)

Pastor, you have not been called by the Lord to be Abraham or Moses, David or Jeremiah.

And not David Jeremiah, either.

Not Charles Stanley, or Warren Wiersbe.  Not Mark Driscoll, Stephen Furtick, Andy Stanley, or Louie Giglio–and not their clone.

Speaking of Louie, he says, “You are not a reprint or a lithograph. You’re a one-of-a-kind, original creation of God.”

What a marvelous creative inventive (someone get Roget’s Thesaurus down and finish this list!) God we have.  Billions and billions of human beings, no two alike, each one an original! Each one known by Him, and each loved, with a unique place in His divine plan.

Mull on that a while.

God has called you to be you.

God has a place for you, a plan for you, and hope for you.  In order to fill that role and fulfil that purpose in the universe, you must be the “you” He created you to be.  And if you are not, something in the universe is never quite right.

Be yourself. That’s His plan.

It sounds so simple. But that, I submit, is what drives you to distraction.

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Church staffs: Rules to live by

I asked some of my minister friends for their advice concerning church staff relationships.  Here in no particular order are their responses.

1. Jim says, “Be very careful whom you trust completely.”

In over 3 decades of ministry, Jim says he has been brutally betrayed at least 3 times. It has made him wary about trusting anyone with anything confidential.

I’m recalling a time two churches ago when the personnel committee and I were dealing with a sensitive issue, long since forgotten. I said, “Can I say something in here and it not go any further?” The chairman said, “Pastor, I wouldn’t say anything in here you do not want to get out.”

That was a courageous thing for him to do. As subtly as he knew how, the chairman was warning me off from trusting some of the people in that room. In time, I learned he knew whereof he was speaking.

2. Andy says, “First, pastor the staff. Be their shepherd.”

Something inside us wants to protest, that, well, the staff are all ministers and they don’t need pastoring. They do. In fact, preacher, so do you.

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How Christians may insult the Lord Jesus

Sally had been a teenager in a church I once pastored, and her parents were dear friends. Her father, a former Marine, is in Heaven now, and her mother, now in the care of Hospice, is having a little trouble coming to terms with her own impending departure.

I sent the mom a note by Sally, suggesting that she read it to her.

The note to her mother and my Facebook note said: “If we could interview a baby in the mother’s womb about to be born, we might find that he/she is frightened by what lies ahead. It’s about to leave the only world it has known–warm, soft, safe–and emerge into a strange unfamiliar world with people it doesn’t know, who all speak an unintelligible language. To the baby, it would be death. But to everyone else, it’s a birth. When you get to Heaven, you will look back and say, ‘I was afraid of THAT?!’”

Had there been room on Facebook, I would have added something more. So, two hours later, we tacked on the following:

“The Apostle Paul literally taunts death. ‘O death, where is your sting? O grave, where is your victory?’ (I Corinthians 15:55) In college football, he would be flagged for showboating. Followers of Jesus Christ, you are not allowed to fear death. To do so insults the One who went to the cross and experienced the grave for you. Laugh at death. Like a honeybee that has lost its stinger, death still flies around scaring people, but it can’t do you any permanent damage.”

For a Christian to fear death is to insult the Lord Jesus Christ.

I suppose the biblical word for this would be “blasphemy.” But since that word is used almost exclusively in theological realms and associated with falling from grace and incurring God’s wrath, and not something we speak of in our everyday life, I’d just as soon not conjure up images of the Inquisition.

We are not talking about apostasy here. Just poor discipleship.

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How a preacher can know if he’s lazy

This should be a no-brainer, but apparently, it’s not.

I wrote an article for this website called “Things the Lazy Pastor Doesn’t Know–But is About to Find Out,” and was surprised at the reactions.

Several pastors responded that they’re not really lazy but stressed or pressured or unwell, and so the quality of their work has been suffering lately.

I understand, guys, believe me. Been there, done that. Forty-two years of pastoring six churches, three years on the staff of another, and then five years as the director of missions working with over one hundred churches and their pastors. I know about pastors being under stress, dealing with pressure, and being too sick to perform their duties.

That’s not lazy, my brother. Not even close.

So, at the risk of offending another group of sincerely struggling pastors–the last thing I want to do, believe me–let me try another approach.

Let’s look at it this way: Ten Ways a Pastor Can Know He’s Just Plain Lazy. How’s that? (On Facebook, this would merit a smiley-face.)

1. Procrastination. You cannot bring yourself to do the unpleasant tasks, but keep putting off the hard things.

I’ve read that one of the greatest traits of successful people in the business world is that they tackle the hardest, most unpleasant tasks of the day first. That would take a dedication, a commitment, a focus, which many of us lack.

2. Impatience. You will not do any ministry that is not easy or does not have an immediate payoff.

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The best pastor is a broken man

The best kind of pastor is not one who has always had it all together.

The best shepherd of the Lord’s people is one who knows what it is to go astray and be found, to fall and be picked up, to be wounded and to heal, to sin and be forgiven.

If you have ever sat in a congregation where the pastor is without sin, where his sermons show no indication that he knows what it is to be tempted, and where no allowance is given for the human condition, then you know that is no place for a sinner like you.

As a sinner–one whose heart is a rebel, whose mind strays from the paths of righteousness more often than you would like to admit, who constantly needs to repent and receive God’s mercy–you have no business in a church made up of perfect pastors and sinless members. You stand out like an invalid at a body-building contest.

The best pastor is one who has sinned and been taken to the Lord’s woodshed for a time of discipline and chastisement. He will know how to warn the children from straying and to bind them up in love after they have learned life’s lessons the hard way.

The best pastor is one who has been in trouble and doubted and came close to slipping, but at the last minute was rescued by the hand of God. He will value the Lord’s mercy.

The best pastor is probably not the kind your pastor-search-committee is looking for. But it should be.

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People who need to tremble before God

“The devils believe and tremble.”  –James 2:19

The devils shudder, my NASB says.

I know some people who need to be shuddering and shaking in their boots.  They are going to stand before the Lord and give account–as we all are–for the deeds and words they have used as weapons. They’re going to be called to account for the disrupted churches and destroyed lives in their wake.

The odd thing is that these are church members.

The prospect of such a confrontation ought to leave them trembling and shivering in their boots.

I think I know why it doesn’t.

“By God’s Word at last my sin I learned; Then I trembled at the law I’d spurned, Till my guilty soul imploring turned to Calvary.” (Hymn by William Newell, 1895)

Asked for the greatest thought he’d ever had, Andrew Murray is said to have answered, “My accountability to God.”

That’s what is missing in the minds and hearts and lives of some of the fiercest of troublemakers who wreak havoc in the Lord’s churches.

They do not believe in God.

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Those frustrating times with some church members

Pastoring God’s people can be exhausting.

Even when you do your best to serve God by ministering to His people, some are not going to give you the benefit of the doubt on anything nor forgive you for not living up to their impossible expectations.

You didn’t do it their way, weren’t there when they called, didn’t jump at their bark.

Those are the exceptions, I hasten to say to friends who wonder why we overlook the 98 percent of members to focus on the 2 percent who drive us batty.  It’s the 2 percent of drivers who are the crazies on the highways and ruin the experience for everyone else.  It’s the 2 percent of society who require us to maintain a standing army to enforce laws.  Rat poison, they say, is 98 percent corn meal.  But that two percent will kill you.

I say to my own embarrassment and confess it as unworthy of a child of God that I remember these difficult moments with God’s headstrong people more than the precious times with the saints.  Perhaps it’s because the strained connections and harsh words feed into my own insecurities.  Or maybe it’s because there are so many more of the blessed times.

Even so, here are two instances from my journal that stand out….

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