One reason I believe so strongly

“Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, descendant of David, according to my gospel….” (II Timothy 2:8)

Asking thoughtful believers why they are so dadgum confident of the truth of Jesus Christ will result in a hundred different answers.

A pastor friend says for him, it’s the Lord’s resurrection. It’s as historically verifiable as anything in ancient times and perhaps more. And if Jesus rose, then according to His word He’s still alive and how good is that!

To me the scriptures “fit” and just “feel right,” providing a wonderful assurance for this country boy. I recognize the arbitrary and subjective nature of that, but there it is.

Other reasons believers give for their eternal hope range from the archaeological evidence to the miracles they’ve experienced or their grandma’s testimony.

But there’s something else that looms large in my mind, a fact that dominates almost everything else.

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The Bible: in a class by itself

“For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses….”  “For prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:16,21).

I’ve been reading books again.

That explains a lot of things.  It explains where my mind is these days, what’s been bugging me, and where I’ve been searching the Word.

I’ve been reading “The Story of Ain’t.”  This is mostly about what goes into dictionaries, particularly Webster’s Third Edition.  Author David Skinner brings us into the inner offices of G. and C. Merriam Company to show how decisions are made concerning the English language.  If you like that, you’d love watching sausage being made.  (It’s a difficult book to read and only the wordsmiths among us should “rush out and buy this book.”)

I’ve been reading “The Refiner’s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844.”  Author John L. Brooke takes us back into the context of the birth of this American-made religion to show that almost all its doctrines and revelations were the product, not from Heaven, but of ideas floating around when Joseph Smith was a young man.

I’ve been reading the Bible.

The contrast in these three is enlightening.  Reflecting on them resulted in the following observations….

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Heaven is preposterous. One more reason to believe in it.

Imagine this scenario.

Sometime before your birth, you are having a conversation (of some type, in some setting, just use your imagination) with someone about your future life in a place called Earth.

You: “And this Earth, it’s supposed to be beautiful, right?  With glorious landscapes and fresh air and it has seasons?  This planet is situated just the exact right distance from the sun to sustain life?  And there are oceans and mountains, rivers and seashores, farms and villages and cities?  You can spend your days fishing or mountain-climbing or flying a kite? And the food is incredible, every kind imaginable?”

He: “Yes, that’s exactly what I’m telling you.”

You: “You know this is preposterous, don’t you?”

He: “Why?”

You: “Because look around at the rest of the universe.  There is nothing like it.  In the entire Galaxy, do you see another planet just like that? They are all balls of stone or globes of fire or poisonous gases.”

He: “That’s right.”

You: “That’s why I have difficulty believing in earth.  There is nothing like it in the universe, nothing to prepare me for believing in Earth.”

He: “Not only is there an Earth, but it is so perfect, once you get there, you can live in peace and comfort all your days–three score and ten and possibly beyond–without a single thought as to how it’s all happening.  If you like, you can spend your existence studying, say, the life of Abraham Lincoln or even trying to become a leader like him, and never wonder about the air you breathe, the spinning of the Earth on its axis, the orbit it’s taking around the sun, the condition of the sun, or the journey of the Galaxy throughout the universe.”

You: “None of that?  I don’t have to worry about how this is happening? I can just get on with living?”

He: “That’s right.”

You: “That’s preposterous.”

He: “I know. Isn’t it wonderful?”

The word preposterous comes from pre meaning “before” and posterous meaning “to come after” (think “posterior”).   Something that is both “before and after” at the same time might be said to be reversed or backward. In other words, absurd.

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The cure for the common sermon

“Now when they heard the preaching of Peter and John, they were marveling and began to recognize them as having been with Jesus.”  (A free paraphrase of Acts 4:13)

Hey, pastor, next Sunday let’s hit one out of the park.

Let’s preach a sermon that will thrill your own soul, knock the dozing member out of his lethargy and onto his feet, and bless the hearts of your sweetest, finest people.  Let’s have a sermon that will stun your critics, please your mama, gladden the heart of God, and grab the undivided attention of the unsaved.

Let’s put an end to the common sermon.

You know what a common sermon is, I’m sure.

It’s uninspired in its conception, boring in its plan, and dull in its delivery.  In preparing it, you have to force yourself to stay awake.  When you preach it, the congregation takes a holiday. When it’s over, you wonder if you shouldn’t find some other line of work.

When common sermons follow common sermons like wave after wave upon the beach, the preacher is probably in a rut.  And you know what a rut is–a grave with the ends knocked out.

In a “common sermon,” the outline is often uninspired and may look something like this: 1) The Power, 2) The Point, and 3) the Product.  Or, perhaps 1) The Application, 2) the Attraction, and 3) the Adoration. The introduction, the message, the conclusion. You use old, tired stories and expect no one to learn anything worthwhile.  You’re just going through the motions.

Bo-ring.  But then, you knew that.

Pity those poor church members who dutifully copy down sermon outlines with the mistaken notion that this is a spiritual exercise with eternal benefit. They have nothing more when they finish than when they started.

Throw that sermon away, pastor. (Or perhaps, file it away and come back to it a few months from now to see if anything in it is salvageable.)

If it doesn’t excite you the preacher, if it doesn’t convict you or inspire you or motivate you, it’s a safe bet the sermon is not going to touch anyone in your audience.

Junk it and go back to the drawing board.

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Sloppiness in ministry is not allowed

“Whatever you do, do it enthusiastically, as something done for the Lord and not for men, knowing that you will receive the reward of an inheritance from the Lord–you serve the Lord Christ” (Colossians 3:23).

That night, sometime along about 3 or 4 am, unable to sleep, I did something I rarely do: went into the den and turned on the television. After channel-surfing a bit, I ended up watching one of those true-crime re-enactments.

Law enforcement investigators had painstakingly built their case against this fellow in Jacksonville, Florida, who reported his wife missing on a trip to Miami.

The man told investigators they had checked into a Miami hotel and he went to a fast-food place for take-out. Police were able to check that out.  He had indeed bought a sandwich and fries at that restaurant, they found, but only one order.  Nothing for his wife.

His credit card showed he had stopped at a convenience store on his trip south.  Police searched until they found the store’s video of him at the cash register.  They wondered where was the wife? On a long trip, wouldn’t she have gone into the rest room and perhaps bought a drink? Even though the man had testified that his wife had accompanied him on the trip, she was not in the video.

Next, police scanned through hours of video from an interstate toll booth.  Eventually, when they spotted his car, the photograph shows no one in the passenger’s seat.  The man is alone.  So, in the interview room, they asked, “Where does your wife sit when you are driving?” He answered, “In the passenger’s seat.”  “Does she ever sit in the back or lie down back there?”  “No. Never.”

He was a dead duck.

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The worst possible advice for young ministers

“Let no one despise your youth; instead, you should be an example to the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity…” (I Timothy 4:12)

People love to give advice to young adults just entering the ministry.  I’m sure they think they’re helping.

I was a senior in college when the Lord fingered me for the ministry.  When my coal miner Dad got the news, even though his experience with church leadership was minimal, he had advice for his number three son. “Start off pastoring small churches.  That way you learn how to do it before moving on to the bigger places.”

As if I had a choice.

Unity Baptist in Kimberly, Alabama, ran 35 on a good Sunday.  I pastored it in the slivers of time available when not working at a cast iron pipe plant and trying to be husband and father. They paid me $10 a week; my tithe was $12.  I stayed 14 months.  I did them no harm and they did me a lot of good.

When in seminary, the Paradis Baptist Church of the bayou community of Paradis, Louisiana, checked me out as a possible pastor, the fact that I had (ahem) pastoral experience tilting the scales.  That church ran 40, but we lived in the apartment in the back of the educational building and more or less pastored full-time, if you don’t count the four days a week spent at seminary, 25 miles to the east.

My third church ran 140 in attendance when we arrived, and the fourth one over 500.  I was off and running.  (smiley-face here)

Not all advice young ministers get is as basic and solid as what my dad offered.  Some of what follows I heard personally, and some was volunteered by friends. And all of what follows, I repeat, is terrible advice.

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Truths the devil uses to stop us from praying

The forces of hell will do anything to keep us from praying.

Satan tells lies to keep us from praying.  He uses pleasures and misinformation and our laziness to keep us from praying.  He uses false teachers and busy schedules and great television to keep us from praying.

He also has been known to use truth.

As odd as it seems, the dark prince does not hesitate to speak the truth if it will make us think we shouldn’t pray.

Here are ten true statements Satan uses to put a stop to the most powerful force in the world, the prayers of God’s people…

1–God already knows what you need. (So, no point in asking, he says.)

2–You are unworthy.

3–You are weak.

4–Your faith is small.

5–You have no idea whether God will answer your prayers or not.

6–You’re only one person. (True, says Satan, and so what good will your prayers be?)

7–You don’t know how to pray.

8–Your sins can block your prayers.

9.–When all is said and done, you still cannot prove that what happened was an answer from God.

10.–Faith is hard and difficult to identify.

He’s right, of course. But those statements–while biblical and completely accurate–don’t tell the whole story.

Let’s take a quick look at each of those ten “true” statements….

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It’s the little things about pastoring that drive ministers to early graves.

…there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches (2 Corinthians 11:28).

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. They don’t like the way you comb your hair, your wife did not speak to them in the grocery, your children are just too perfect.

Such members are the exceptions, true. I say that to those who wonder why we overlook the 98 percent of healthy members and focus on the two percent who drive us batty.  It’s the two percent of drivers who are the crazies on the highways and ruin the experience for everyone else.  It’s the two percent of society who require us to maintain a standing police force to protect the citizenry.  Rat poison, they say, is 98 percent corn meal.  But that two percent will kill you.

I 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 pastoring journal that stand out…

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10 lessons on leading God’s church, all learned the hard way

Anyone who begins to pastor a church should recognize two big things:  There are lessons to be learned if you are ever to do this well, and most of them are learned the hard way.  Your scars will attest to your education.

Most of this is counter-intuitive; that is, not what one might expect.

One. Bigness is overrated.

“It doesn’t matter to the Lord whether He saves by the few or the many” (I Samuel 14:6).

Most pastors, it would appear, want to lead big churches, want to grow their church to be huge, or wish to move to a large church.  Their motives may be pure; judging motives is outside my skill set. But pastoring a big church can be the hardest thing you will ever try, and far less satisfying than one would ever think.

Small bodies can be healthy too; behold the hummingbird or the honeybee.

A friend says, “At judgement, a lot of pastors are going to wish they’d led smaller congregations.”

Two. The pastor’s lack of formal education is no excuse.

The pastor of the small church will often have less formal training and education than he would like. Not surprisingly, he sometimes feels inferior to his colleagues with their seminary degrees. I have two thoughts on that…

–It’s a mistake.  He can be as learned as they are and more if he applies himself.  Let the Lord’s preachers not be overly impressed by certificates on the wall or titles before their name.  Better the preacher who’s got it on the ball than one who’s got it on the wall!

–He can get more formal education if he decides it’s God’s will and if he is willing.  Seminaries and Bible colleges have online programs that make advanced education practical and affordable.

My dad, a coal miner and the oldest of a dozen children, had to leave school after the 7th grade and entered the mines at age 14. But he never quit learning.  He took correspondence courses and read constantly. When God took him to Heaven at almost 96 years of age, Mom had to cancel four or five magazine subscriptions he was still taking and reading.

Some of the finest preachers of God’s word had little formal theological education.

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The absolute worst kind of Christian faith

I know what it is to bore myself with my own preaching.

It’s not putting words into His mouth to say that one thing the Living God utterly despises is limp, weak-as-tea ministry rendered by insipid, bored disciples who would rather be doing anything in the world than that.

I have been guilty of this. And if you have been in the ministry for any length of time, my guess is you know about this kind of failure also.

You possess endurance and have tolerated many things because of My Name, and have not grown weary. But I have this against you: you have abandoned the love you had at first. (Revelation 2:3-4)

The church at Ephesus was doing a hundred things right and one big thing wrong: they had lost the heart for God they had at first. They preached and taught, they ministered and served, they prayed and witnessed. But their heart was not in it any longer.

And to God, that negated the entire thing.

Remember how far you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. Otherwise I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. (Revelation 2:5)

If you think that sounds like what the Lord said to another church down the road a few miles, you would be correct.

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