Some people sound heavenly; others sound like hell.

“In thy presence there is fullness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11).

“Cast out the worthless slave into the outer darkness; in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 25:30).

If the atmosphere of heaven is joy and praise, then the noxious fumes of hell must be composed of equal parts anger, complaining, bitterness and blaming.

If your heart is in heaven, your head should be in the clouds.

Okay, I’m playing with metaphors here and admit it. But I am overwhelmed by all the scriptures which keep telling us that the atmosphere around the throne of Heaven is praise and joy and gratitude. Worship, in other words.

There is Psalm 16:11 (above) which is just about as good as you could ask for.

In John’s vision of Heaven which we call Revelation (or more often “Revelations”), he tells us that near the throne stood “four living creatures, each having six wings…. Day and night they do not cease to say, ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God, The Almighty, who was and who is and who is to come’” (Revelation 4:8).  Around the throne, the praise is continuous.

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Why the Lord is so rough on some of His choice servants

“O you of little faith!  Why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31).

The teacher is hardest on the best pupils.

The Master Teacher is hardest on the Star Pupil.

The coach is in the face of the player with the greatest potential, on his back, never letting up.

Check out these words from the Lord Jesus.  “Get behind me, Satan.  You are a stumbling block to me;  for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s” (Matthew 16:23).

He said those harsh, cutting words, not to the Pharisees, but to Simon Peter, His “star apostle.”

Simon Peter–the disciple with the most potential, the one Jesus renamed as “Rock.”  He called Peter a “satan” (adversary) soon after commending him for his confession that “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16).  When Peter said that, the Lord said, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”

Called him blessed one moment and turns right around and calls him a devil.

What’s going on here?

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The scars tell the story on us

My son was trying to find a good used car for his daughters. Since their big brother had just graduated, Abby and Erin would be driving themselves to school in the fall.  Twice Neil found possibilities, but wisely took the cars to a trusted mechanic for his appraisal.

It fell to me to drive the second of these cars to the repair shop. Our mechanic friend studied the car, drove it a bit, then recommended we not buy it for a number of reasons. Then, he said, “Come here, Reverend. I want to show you something.”

“See those dirty stains on the seats?”

Each seat carried rust-colored stains in wavy lines.

“This car has been flooded,” said Rick.  “And here is something else.”

There were scratches–horizontal, odd-looking lines–on the hood and the trunk. “This is where things scraped over the car,” he said.

I thought of the 100,000 automobiles that were ruined in 2005 Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters. In many cases, the water was six to ten feet deep, and lingered for weeks. I’ve seen photos and heard stories from friends who drove boats over parking lots where all you could see were the tops of cars. It’s easy to imagine something being dragged across a flooded car.

Eventually, the cars were towed and left under bridges and interstates for months before being disposed of.

Later, we learned that some people were doing hasty repair jobs on the flooded cars and passing them off as normal. “Buyer beware” became the mantra.

I said, “Thank you, Rick. I would not have known what to look for.”

Our mechanic friend saved us a lot of headaches and heartaches, and doubtless a good deal of money in repair jobs.

People who go through storms in this life, like that car often carry the scars and stains for the rest of their days.

Some of those stains and scars are visible, if you know what you are looking for….

anger that seems to have no basis in reality. A floating hostility will attach itself to whatever target (or victim) is handy.

I once pastored a church following a huge split where people had fought verbal battles and took no prisoners. Years later, a few members still carried deep anger over what had been done or said. The stains of that church storm were imbedded so deeply inside them only the cleansing power of the blood of Jesus Christ was sufficient to remove it.

–a sense of entitlement, the feeling that “the world owes me big time after all I’ve been through.”

Such a church member can be a major pain to everyone around him. Pity the new pastor who walks into a congregation without knowing the human traps laying in wait. For members who feel they are owed a great deal in life, nothing the pastor does will ever be enough. They are chronically dissatisfied and will spread their poisonous infection to the rest of the church.

–an all-encompassing fear of conflict and trouble.  After the nightmares they have been through, they will do anything to avoid similar crises in the future.

I experienced this syndrome personally. The church I left had been embattled from the first day I arrived, and the one to which I came was trying to recover from a stormy pastorate which had decimated the congregation. If it had been up to me, I would never have led a church business meeting or attended a deacons meeting again.  A few of the really ragged ones were enough for a lifetime. And yet, every church deserves a healthy pastor and a solid program. So, I had to face my fear of conflict. Eventually, I recovered and was later able to assist other churches going through their own storms.

–a distrust of the Almighty.  “Where was God when my house was destroyed?” “If Jesus loves the church, why did He let them run off our wonderful pastor?” “If God is good, then why did my mother die in that flood?” “Why did God let that church mistreat my father the way they did?”

There are answers for these questions. However, just voicing their distrust is for many war-veterans the beginning and end of their theological musings.

On the other hand, many of the stains and scars of life’s storms are not so obvious and can be unearthed only by those willing to look beneath the surface or who are skilled at people-helping….

–A church I pastored had a leader who criticized everything and was satisfied with nothing. Only when I called on him at home did I learn of the daily physical pain the man lived with. Something in his past had scarred him for a lifetime.

–A deacon with enormous influence and leadership skills built a strong following in every church and then fought his pastor for control. His poor pastors were no match for the man’s tactics and were frequently left bleeding in the road.  Someone who had known the deacon most of his life told me his father had been a pastor and he suspects that God had called that deacon to preach early in life, but that he resisted.  Whatever went on inside him back then seemed to be continuing, with his relationships paying a huge price.

I quickly admit that I’m no psychiatrist. I’m not one of these people who can see beneath the surface and tell what’s going on with people. I tend to take them at face value, and often turn out to be wrong about them.

Here is what I know…

–Scars on our bodies tend to fix forever in our minds the history that was occurring at that moment. A V-shaped scar on my left index finger is the result of this 5-year-old reaching up to the hot stove to take hold of a pot. How that melted my skin into a “V,” I’ll never know, but there it is.  About the same time, I received the scar at the corner of an eye, the result of being chased by a big brother and falling onto the broken rim of a galvanized wash tub. And one more. What appear to be frown-marks between my eyebrows are scars from the time I was riding in the funeral home car and a fellow in a pickup truck ran a stop sign. We broad-sided him and my forehead broke the dashboard.

–When law enforcement agencies are seeking a missing person or a criminal, in giving the description they will frequently refer to the identifying scars.  They brand us, you might say.

–Our own scars are records of events and people and times in our lives when something happened.

Marijohn Wilkin wrote an unforgettable gospel song about Heaven that carries this profound line: The only thing there that’s been made by a man are the scars in the hands of Jesus.

 

 

 

Pastors and discipline: Maybe we need a ‘plebe’ year.

You may know the name Jimmy Doolittle.

Doolittle flew those boxy bi-planes in World War I for the United States, and then barn-stormed throughout the 1920’s, giving thrills by taking risks you would not believe. He led the retaliatory bombing of Tokyo in early 1942, a few months after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. He played a major role in the Allied victory over the Axis, eventually becoming a General. His autobiography is titled I Could Never Be So Lucky Again.

Doolittle and his wife Joe (that’s how they spelled her name) had two sons, Jim and John, both of whom served in the Second World War.

The general wrote about the younger son:

John was in his plebe year at West Point and the upperclassmen were harassing him no end…. While the value of demeaning first-year cadets is debatable, I was sure “Peanut” could survive whatever they dreamed up. (p. 284)

Later, General Doolittle analyzes his own strengths and weaknesses and makes a fascinating observation:

(I) have finally come to realize what a good thing the plebe year at West Point is. The principle is that a man must learn to accept discipline before he can dish it out. I have never been properly disciplined. Would have gotten along better with my superiors if I had. (p. 339)

“I have never been properly disciplined.” What an admission. It takes a mature person to say that.

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The question is not “where is God?” but rather, “Where are you?”

In her World War Two novel, His Majesty’s Hope, Susan Elia MacNeal tells of a German nurse, Elise, who learns that a Down syndrome child in her care was abruptly discharged and bused to some distant hospital where she was later reported to have died of pneumonia. Elise decided to look further into this suspicious matter.

Donning her nurse’s uniform, Elise boarded the next bus carting children to the hospital in question. All the children on board, she noticed, were blind, deaf, epileptic, retarded, and similarly handicapped. The nurse in charge seemed callous and uncaring, and administered a sedative to “help the children rest.”

At its destination, the bus was met by authorities who instructed the children to disrobe for a shower. Doctors examined the children, marking those with gold fillings in their mouths with a large X on their bodies. As they entered the shower room, a large metal door slammed behind them and latches were thrown. That’s when Elise realized what was happening.

The children were being gassed. Exterminated.

“You’ll get used to it,” said an orderly to the stunned Elise.

She ran outside the building and vomited on the grass.

Later, on the bus ride back into Berlin, Elisa asked the other nurse, the hardened one, “But what about the fifth commandment? ‘Thou shalt not kill’?”

“That’s no commandment of God’s–just a Jewish lie, meant to keep us weak,” she said. “We don’t need to follow it any more. Besides, it’s not killing, it’s euthanasia.”

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Lord, make me a silken Christian.

“The silk we love for its softness and beauty is also one of the strongest and toughest fibers in the world. It has a strength of around five grams per denier compared with three grams per denier for a drawn wire of soft steel.” (From “The History of Silk,” by Harold Verner, quoted by Liz Trenow in her novel “The Last Telegram.”)

Soft and beautiful; strong and tough. What a combination.

Some in our day call this “a velvet-brick” or “a steel magnolia.” Soft and beautiful on the outside, strong and tough on the inside.

A pretty apt description of our Lord Jesus Christ, isn’t it?  We see His softness and beauty in a hundred things He did: the time He took to receive the little children and bless them, respond to the cries of the leper who had touched him, restore a dead son to his grieving mother, forgive an adulterous woman who had been publicly humiliated by religious bullies, and save a five-times married woman of Samaria.  He invited the dying thief on the cross to spend eternity with Him in Paradise, and prayed for His executioners.

Our Lord said, Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30).

No wonder people have been so enamored by this Lord Jesus Christ from day one.

He was a beautiful man.

But the Lord’s strength and toughness are also visible–on full display, even–throughout the Gospels. 

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Creativity in ministry: Try to find some!

I see by my notes that TIME for May 20, 2013, devoted an entire page to “assessing the creative spark,” a rarity in newsmagazines.

Now, I’m no authority on creativity or anything else, but have long been fascinated by the subject and attuned to writings dealing with it.

Creativity is that ineffable match-strike, that flash in the dark that comes to you from, well, it’s hard to say where. You can’t summon it on demand, though inclining your mind to a task does help. –TIME. (Jeffrey Kluger, writer)

I know a little about this right-brain activity, being a preacher, a writer, a cartoonist, and a story-teller.

Here are a few things of what I have learned about creativity:

 

1) The creative act can be nurtured.

Some people seem to be born with that spark, while others have to start from scratch. Either way, everyone can be creative. It’s just harder for some than others.

I used to have a staff member who was so creative that, after he left and moved to another state, sometimes I would phone him with a situation and ask for anything and everything that came to his mind. On the other hand, most of my colleagues on the church staff seemed clueless when the same question was tossed their way.

2) Creativity can be energized by outside input.

 

You’ve racked your brain and come up empty. You’ve lain awake at night worrying about the issue and nothing comes. It’s time to call in outside help.

Let’s say you are a minister looking for a theme for your next year’s church program. You know what your church will be doing, so all you are looking for is a combination of words that will express it, will be catchy, and perhaps even memorable.  You can call in a few friends, you can go online and research it there, or you can drive down to the public library. The last is my choice.

At the library, you pull out a chair in the periodicals section. For the next hour, you peruse a dozen magazines you’ve never heard of before, or at least rarely ever read. You scan ads and articles in publications dealing with rock music, fashions, politics, and electronics. You jot down phrases that jump out at you, expressions that intrigue you, and statements you find puzzling.  As you leave, you carry with you a dozen or twenty pithy slogans and phrases, any one of which may be exactly what you are looking for.

Or not. (Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s still a favorite method of mine.)

3) To be creative takes time.

You’re driving to a meeting where you need a new idea in a hurry.  Your mind is abuzz with panic. “I need it now!”  Too bad. Unless you are the one person in a million who can do the impossible, you can forget about finding a great idea when panic has grabbed you by the throat and won’t let go.

A better way is to clear off a day on your calendar for quiet walks, relaxation, something light and refreshing to eat and drink, and some inspirational reading.  Do something fun, get some exercise, then sit at the table with pen in hand (or laptop) with the question du jour in mind. Jot down ideas that occur.  A half hour later, get up and do other things. Go for a walk, read something funny, take a nap, and then come back.

4) Creativity requires quiet.

“Creativity must be nurtured by a circumference of silence.”

When we are rushed, creativity is the first casualty. Only when the body is rested and our spirit is quiet will the mind venture into those uncharted regions where new ideas lie waiting to be discovered.

5) Creativity loves indirection.

You’re looking for the answer to B when the solution to A pops up.  You are trying to find a great outreach program that will work in your church and in the midst of your search, you come across something a church in Iowa is doing that suggests the ideal way of handling benevolence.

Sometimes the subconscious works on a problem long after the conscious has moved on.

6) Creativity is usually tied to the volume of output.

If your goal is to write the great American novel, you will want to write a dozen books in the hope that one may qualify.  With the remarkable exceptions of Harper Lee and Margaret Mitchell (To Kill a Mockingbird and Gone With the Wind), authors do not write one book and achieve instant legendary status and never write another.

The website for Baptist Press carries thousands of my cartoons. My hunch is that a hundred of them might be really good. The others had to be thought up and drawn in order to produce the hundred. (The frustrating thing is that no one will agree on which 100 are good.) Likewise, this blog contains thousands of my articles, of which the same thing can be said.

The obvious question–perhaps the one we should have raised at the beginning–is: Why does a minister need to be creative?

I hope the answer to this is obvious. But, stating the obvious is a spiritual gift of mine, so here goes:

–You would like to find new ways to present wonderful old truths to your congregation.

–You want to find new and fascinating ways to say the same things to your people.  (Each year you have a stewardship, evangelism, or other kind of campaign. Your sermons may be basically the same each year, but the dressing and forms are different. That “difference” is where the creativity comes in.)

–You will be faced with insoluble problems. There seems to be no way out of this situation. And then someone gets creative. Love it.

–You will be planning a revival, a banquet, a senior emphasis, or a party.  Put on your creative hat now, friend, because you need this big time.

–Your wife wants to know why you forgot the date you and she made for today.  You need a quick answer and it had better be good.  Creative spark, I need you! 🙂

That’s the idea, at any rate. Well, other than the last. I just stuck that in for those who have stayed with us to the end. You get a star by your name.

 

 

 

 

When a pastor is called to an ignorant church

“But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (II Peter 3:18).

“By this time you ought to be teachers, but you need someone to teach you again the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and have come to need milk and not solid food” (Hebrews 5:12).

The pastor had been called from his rural church to another part of the country. He was excited about the new challenge, as he well should have been. In a parting comment to a friend, he assessed the state of spirituality of the church members he was leaving behind:

“There is enough ignorance in this county to ignorantize the whole country.”

What happens when a pastor gets called to a church like that? A church where the members and leaders alike do not know the Word of God and have no idea of how things should be done (what Paul called “how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God”–I Timothy 3:15), or why it all matters.

A church that exists to condemn sin and sinners, that knows only slivers of Scripture, that sees ministers as slaves of the whims of the congregation, and that is ready to reject as a liberal any minister who wants the church to feed the hungry in the community, take a stand for justice, or invite in the minority neighbors–the ignorance takes all kinds of forms.

We wish we could say such congregations are few and rare, but they aren’t.  Veteran preachers have stories of those churches, tales of run-ins with those leaders, and scars from the battles they have waged to set matters right.

–One pastor told the group of ministers meeting in his fellowship hall, “This building is actually owned by a member of the KKK. We rent it from him.”  The rest of us were naive and thought the Ku Klux Klan had died out ages ago. Here they were living among us in our own southern town.

–One lady visible in church leadership told her pastor, “I don’t know what the Bible says but I know what I believe.”

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The number one failure of 90 percent of pastors

The four-year-old who says, “I can do it by myself” has a lot in common with many a pastor.

Pastors are notorious for their lone ranger approach to ministry. I call that the number one failure of 90 percent of pastors. They prefer to go it alone.

Even Jesus needed a buddy. “He came to the disciples and found them sleeping, and said to Peter, ‘So, you men could not keep watch with me for one hour?’” (Matthew 26:40)

Sometimes it helps to have someone nearby, praying, loving, caring, even hurting with you.

The word paracletos from John 16:7 is translated “Comforter” and “Helper” in most Bible versions. The literal meaning is “one called alongside,” the usual idea being that the Holy Spirit is our Comforting Companion, a true Friend in need. And each time that word is found in the New Testament–John 14:16,20; 15:26; 16:7; and I John 2:1–it always refers to the Lord.

However, here’s something important.

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I’ve been forgiven? How could I have forgotten??

If you had nearly died from a strange illness and the doctors had given up hope, then suddenly you recovered and were able to get on with your life, could you ever ever forget that?

If you had suffered on death’s row at Angola Prison, and the prison chaplain was preparing a final prayer and the chef had laid out your last meal, when suddenly the governor pardoned you and you walked outside a free man, and then got on with your life, could you ever forget it?

Apparently some people can forget the most momentuous events in their lives.

Consider this line: For he who lacks these qualities is blind or short-sighted, having forgotten that he was forgiven from his past sins. (II Peter 1:9)

It appears that some calling themselves Christians no longer remember that they have been forgiven of their sins. How strange is that? And how does it happen?

I think we know.


The Apostle Peter saw professing Christians around him living as though they had no past, as though they had dropped full-grown into the Christian life out of heaven.

It was a bizarre thought to him, as it is to us.

Peter identifies qualities which make for fruitfulness and usefulness in a believer’s life: Applying all diligence, add to your faith moral excellence, and to your moral excellence knowledge, and to your knowledge, self-control….perseverance….godliness….brotherly kindness….love. (II Peter 1:5-7)

Believers exhibiting such godly traits have great influence for the Lord in this world. However, some who call themselves believers show no evidence of moral excellence (virtue), have no knowledge, little or no self-control, a complete lack of perseverance, and so forth (vs. 8). That is, they are living in sin, are ignorant of God’s word, indulge every passion, cannot stay with anything they start, show no signs of Christlikeness or simple kindness or a love for other believers. And yet they call themselves Christians. How could this be?

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