God’s faithfulness during difficult times

Just once I want to read where someone says, “I lost my job. God is good.”  Or, “The doctor said it’s cancer.  God is good.”  Or, “My loved one died. God is good.”  

His faithfulness is everlasting.  He is good no matter what.

A pastor friend sent me a note reporting on his church. He had baptized several that year and had twice that number to join in other ways. I replied that God is using him to turn around that old church and, “Good for you, friend!”

He came back: “The curmudgeons are still there, though, still lurking.”

I answered, “They always will be. But let me tell you what I’ve finally learned about that. These detractors are doing you a favor. They motivate you to greater faithfulness, to do your best work, to keep the focus on the Lord.”

He said, “I call them ‘Holy Sandpaper.’”

The Lord uses them to get the rough edges off His servant.

Interesting how the notes I get from pastors–some are questions regarding ministry–turn out to be the very thing the Lord was talking with me about earlier.

Case in point. I was going through some old correspondence files, trying to decide what could be discarded. I ran across the most critical (i.e., life-changing) exchange of letters I ever had with a church member in a long lifetime of ministry.

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The noise of wolves in the night can be frightening. Right, pastor?

Preacher, a lot of people in the church are concerned.  I’m not at liberty to use names.  Even some who love you are not happy with the way things are going.  I think you’d be surprised to know how widespread the unrest is.  If you are the wise person I think you are, you will not want to jeopardize your family by risking a church vote and suddenly find yourself unemployed.  If I were you–and I’m just saying this as a friend–I think I’d be looking for another church to go to. 

The baying of wolves in the night can be disconcerting.  But it’s also misleading.  As this story from President U. S. Grant’s autobiography makes clear….

In the mid-1840s, Ulysses S. Grant was a Second Lieutenant in the war between the U.S. and Mexico, with the prize being Texas.  Grant’s Memoirs make fascinating reading.  The first former president to write his memoirs, Grant’s are generally conceded to be the best of the lot.  (Note: Before reading Memoirs, I read Grant’s Final Victory, an account of the last year of his life when he penned his story to earn enough money to provide for his wife after his impending death from cancer.  Great story.  He was a far better man than he is often given credit for. )

At one point, Grant and some troopers were in west Texas, which was sparsely settled except by the Indians and plenty of varmints. One night, they heard “the most unearthly howling of wolves, directly in our front.”  The tall grass hid the wolves but they were definitely close by.  “To my ear, it appeared that there must have been enough of them to devour our party, horses and all at a single meal.”

The part of Ohio where Grant had been brought up had no wolves, but his friend Lt. Calvin Benjamin came from rural Indiana where they were still in abundance.  He understood the nature of the animal and the capacity of a few to make believe there was an unlimited number of them.

Benjamin began moving straight toward the wolves, seemingly unafraid.  I followed in his trail, lacking moral courage to turn back….

After a bit, Benjamin spoke. ‘Grant, how many wolves do you think are in that pack?’

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The single most encouraging thing you can do for your pastor

First a disclaimer: I’m a retired pastor, I have no deacons (and no church members), I love deacons, and I’m loving the continuing ministry God gives me as a retiree. However, there was a time when life was tough, demands seemed never-ending, encouragement was rare, and each day brought a crisis of one kind or the other.

That’s what this is about.

I was having trouble with a few deacons. From the day I became their pastor, these men and their families had dedicated themselves to not liking me and being non-supportive in anything I suggested. In the church fellowship, they were toxic.

Eight years later, we did something.

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Three gifts for the new pastor

When our church was about to welcome a new pastor, I contacted him to ask what we could do for him.  “Tell me the top three things you want from this church.”  He had an immediate answer, as though he’d been expecting the call.

“I would love to come to a unified, loving, praying church,” he said.   As a retired pastor of six churches, I knew exactly how he felt.  So, let’s look at those three gifts the new pastor would love to receive.

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Things we must get right in church otherwise it’s all over

In the Lord’s work as in anything else in life, there are essentials and non-essentials. There are the loadbearing features and cosmetic for-appearance-only aspects.

If we don’t know which is which, we’re in big trouble.

In the late 16th century, the City of Windsor engaged architect Sir Christopher Wren to design and oversee the building of a town hall. When it was completed, the mayor refused to pay the bill, insisting that it needed more than the few columns Wren had designed. No matter that the columns were holding up the building just fine. He wanted more columns and would not pay until they were installed.

Christopher Wren had four more columns added to the building, each identical to the first but with one exception: they lacked one inch reaching the ceiling.  They were not holding up anything!

We say that some of those columns were load-bearing and the others cosmetic.  (The building stands today. It’s called Guild Hall, I read somewhere.)

It’s a wise church leader who knows which structures in the Lord’s work are loadbearing and which are cosmetic and not structural.

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10 things about church conflict you need to know

“It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.” Somewhere in the Psalms. (see note at the end)

Movie-maker Jeffrey Katzenberg was talking about movie-making lessons he learned from Walt Disney:  Walt believed that an animated movie was only as good as its villain. I never forgot that.

Think about that for a second. Villains make movies work. Villains turn ordinary people into heroes.  Villains rivet our attention on the story. Villains keep us fixated on the plot until justice is served.

The greatest drama of the Twentieth Century was the Second World War. Think about its villains–Hitler, Mussolini, Hirohito, and then Joseph Stalin, too. Now, consider that without that war and those villains, we would never have heard of heroes such as Generals Eisenhower, Patton, MacArthur, Montgomery, etc.  That war turned Winston Churchill arguably into the man of the century.

Now, as the leader of a church, you have encountered your own set of villains. You’ve noticed that they fall into two camps. One is the devil himself and all his legion. The other are people who are supposed to be on your side but instead of helping the program, they scheme and plot and maneuver, looking for ways to bring it down.

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The two-faced church. Both sides are accurate.

“…a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:27).

Anyone can criticize the church. It’s the most vulnerable institution in the world, the most victimized, and the most vilified.

Criticizing the church is like clubbing baby seals.  It has no way of fighting back, but just lays there and takes what you dish out. The difference is that, after the beating, the church stands to her feet and goes on about her business, while you the critic walk away beaming as though you have done something heroic.

You haven’t. You have picked on the easiest target in the world.

In this morning’s newspaper, some (ahem) rocket scientist wrote a letter to the editor taking on the church for the Spanish  Inquisition of the Middle Ages and before that the Crusades.  I assume he just discovered these.

No institution on earth has been so targeted for villainy as has the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ.

–Satan and his legions persecute it and when that doesn’t work, they imitate it in order to make people think the wickedness they’re perpetrating is actually done by the people of God.

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Rescuing the sick church: Five Principles

Sometimes we have to enroll the entire school in the first grade and start all over.

Once when I had trouble in one of my ears, the E-N-T doctor prescribed, among other things, a bottle of pills with unusual directions: “Take 6 a day for the first 4 days, 5 on the 5th day, 4 on the 6th day, 3 on the 7th day, 2 on the 8th day, and 1 on the 9th day.”

Apparently, some meds must not be curtailed abruptly.

While some illnesses respond to simple, one-step treatments, others require weeks, months, even years of medications and applications. In those, regular repetition over extended periods is needed for healing.

Now, take the sick church…

The ailing church did not get that way overnight. Often, anemic, struggling churches result from the unhealthy teachings of warped leaders. In many cases, teachers have gone to seed on a pet doctrine and omitted altogether the basic principles of solid Christian living as unworthy of them.

For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the ABCs of the Christian faith…. (Hebrews 5:12 paraphrase).

The elementary principles. Basic Christianity. The kind of stuff we should have been taught in a new members’ class.

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Seven things the pastor cannot do from the pulpit

“…so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God….” (I Timothy 3:15).

You can’t chew gum in the pulpit, smoke a cigarette, or bring your coffee in with you. You can’t preach in your pajamas or lead a worship service in your swimsuit.

But you knew that.

However, sometimes we pastors do things every bit as silly as this, and as counter-productive.

True, a pastor can do anything from the pulpit.  Once.

But we’re talking about things no right-thinking godly pastor should attempt to do from the Lord’s sacred place of leadership in His church.

1. He cannot recommend a book which has questionable material in it nor condemn a book he has not read.

Okay. He can, but he shouldn’t.

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Trouble in the pulpit: The angry pastor

“Now, in the last days, difficult times will come. For men will be lovers of self…boastful, arrogant, revilers…ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited…. Avoid such men as these.” (II Timothy 3:1-5)

Veteran Christian workers get this a lot. People tell you of a conversation with you from years ago in which you spoke words that changed their lives.  You were God’s gift to them that day, or, just as likely you infuriated them and they have not been able to get past it.

The problem is you don’t remember any of it.

My daily e-mail brought two such messages, one of each kind. A young minister was thanking me and an older pastor was venting. The conversations had occurred some ten years earlier.  I remembered neither.

The older pastor told of the time he sat in my office, seeking guidance for entering the ministry. According to him, I had asked what kind of church position he was interested in.  That was the harmless little question that had ticked him off and fueled his anger for a full decade.

“I was morally outraged by the question,” he said.

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