Decisions, Decisions, Decisions – How We Make Good Ones

A two-month-old infant tastes the first spoonful of baby food. His tongue touches the tip of the spoon and his face reports his decision. A one-year-old child meets a grandfather for the first time and again, facial expression and body language show she is deciding whether or not to trust herself to his arms.

Decision-making begins early in life.

All the way from infancy to the end of life, we are daily faced with scores of decisions. Shall I study or surf the web? Is there time to stop for the yellow light or shall I continue through the intersection? Shall I go on with the relationship or ease out of it? Do I blow a whistle or just quietly leave this organization?

Our grandson, Zachary, told me about a talk he heard on this subject at a Christian Medical Fellowship meeting. The speaker’s outline was simple enough: To make good decisions there are two reference points that should always be reckoned with.

The two reference points are righteousness and wisdom.

Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6). If we are true believers we want to honor God by making our decisions demonstrate moral uprightness. We are tested every day.

God actually “guides us in paths of righteousness, for his name’s sake” the psalmist tells us (Psalm 23:3). But we must be concerned that our life-shaping decisions grow out of our openness to and awareness of his directions.

So, where do we discover this core of the righteousness to which God calls us? We visit the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20: 1-17). Commandments one through four tell us how we are to relate to God, and six to ten, how we are to relate in our social settings — family, church, and state.

But we are often confronted by a dilemma that may not have one explicit answer or a particular verse of scripture to hold onto, such as shall I speak my mind on a certain issue or shall I remain quiet?

That calls into play the other reference point: wisdom.

According to the speaker Zach heard, we must depend on the application of common sense in concert with our understanding of righteousness. That is, we apply the two together to the specific decision we must make.

This wisdom may be given to us by God through his Word, or in the form of our prior life experience, or the insights of others, or our own instincts. This righteousness + wisdom formula helps us to choose our friends wisely, to avoid reality-distorting drugs and other harmful activities, to make good vocational decisions, and yes, even to speak or not to speak.

Wisdom helps us to maintain our commitment to righteousness as we wrestle with the uncertainties and perplexities of life. When we face life’s decisions with righteousness and wisdom guiding us to the best of our ability, always asking for God’s blessing, we are saved from the paralysis of second-guessing ourselves.

We believe that the Lord God can take our decisions and bless their outcomes because we have used the best resources at our disposal — righteous standards to which we are clearly committed with the help of his Spirit, and wisdom for which we earnestly pray (James 1:5).

Photo credit: Dennis Hill (via flickr.com)

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How Serious Is Sin in Postmodern Times?

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Raphael, The Death of Ananias (1515)

In 1973, the psychiatrist Karl Menninger published the book, Whatever Became of Sin? He noted that the word was disappearing from our vocabulary. Moral offenses were increasingly labeled by neutralizing words like “mistake” or “slip-up.”

Since Menninger wrote that book, the nature and gravity of sin have been further squeezed from our public understanding. Rarely if ever does one hear the word used to describe a lie, theft, corrupt act, cover-up of wrongdoing, or personal abuse.

The Christian Scriptures have an array of words or expressions to describe acts of sin such as: lawlessness; unrighteousness; depravity; disobedience. Sin will harm its perpetrator and/or another person, but is always first and foremost an offense against a holy God.

Here are two situations, one from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament, that might help us regain our understanding of the terrible consequences of sin.

Joshua had led the people of Israel in a great victory over Jericho (Joshua 6). They had marched around the walled city as the Lord ordered and the city’s walls had collapsed. They were on their way to taking possession of the Promised Land.

There followed the conquest of a much smaller town called Ai. Victory should have been easier here, but 3000 of Joshua’s soldiers were routed, and 36 were slain.

When Joshua heard of the failure he lay face down on the ground. The Lord rebuked him sternly saying the problem was that Israel had sinned. God had ordered that all property of the people of Jericho (the prior battle) be totally destroyed. But God told Joshua that one of his soldiers had greedily seized and hidden a selection of them. The Lord called this “stealing” and “lying.” Thus the sin of one man was behind the failure of the Lord’s soldiers to overcome their enemies at Ai.

After a detailed investigation, Achan confessed that he had buried a beautiful Babylonian garment, two hundred shekels of silver, and a wedge of gold in his tent. Messengers recovered the forbidden booty.

Despite his confession, Achan and his family were executed and all of their possessions destroyed. The sentence seems severe to our modern sensibilities, but we recall that these were ancient times; God’s longstanding covenant with Israel had been violated; Achan had caused the death of 36 soldiers; 3000 fighting men had been routed; and Israel had been demoralized for a time.

The greed of one man had devastated the whole nation. Yet, his act had not seemed serious until its consequences were brought to light.

Centuries later, in the earliest days of the New Testament church, an act of deception against a holy God and his people again brought severe punishment. In the young church in Jerusalem a spirit of generosity had broken out among the people. Some even sold their houses or lands, bringing the proceeds to the Apostles to provide for the needy.

Ananias and Sapphira, a husband and wife, noticed that open-handed giving had released great joy, and they decided on what they considered a harmless bit of deception to win them recognition as lavish givers.

The two agreed to sell a piece of property but to give only a portion of the proceeds to the church — while allowing it to appear that they were giving the whole. The Holy Spirit revealed this deception to the apostle Peter, who rebuked Ananias for “lying to the Holy Spirit.” The shock was more than Ananias could take and he collapsed and died at the Apostle’s feet.

Three hours later, his wife, Sapphira, having not heard the news, came before Peter, repeated her husband’s lie, and also died on the spot. The Acts of the Apostles records, “Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events” (Acts 5:11).

Each of the two incidents occurs at the outset of a God-directed venture. If the offenses had been ignored or covered, both ventures would have been seriously compromised. In each case, the point had to be made in a way that would speak clearly for the times: however hidden, sin is primarily an offense against God, and thus profoundly serious for that reason alone.

Today, we can find many examples in business and politics of lies, deceptions, broken laws, raunchy talk, and corrupted processes. And nowhere is the word ‘sin’ to be found in news reports even in quotes. That may be partly because today, God’s judgments of sin may not seem so immediate as they were in the cases of Achan or Ananias and Sapphira. Grace restrains judgment for a time and God’s mercy is extended. But situations like the above are included in our Sacred Book to warn us about our peril. These stories counter the notion that God is just nice and he will understand and be indulgent when his holy standards are violated.

The church has everything to offer society today, provided the church, too, keeps its sense of the reality and gravity of sin. After all, our God is holy. With the empowerment of the Spirit, his people must be, too.

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How to Deepen the Spiritual Life of A Congregation

6197577060_b11c9d1ddc_mAt 26 years of age, Richard Baxter was pastor of a church in Kidderminster, England. It was the 17th century. Upon arrival he found himself in a community of well-to-do, respectable townsmen where the church was not well attended and worship services lacked spiritual warmth.

In response to this state of affairs, he wrote: “The way to save this church and the community is to establish religion in the homes of the people and to build the family altar.” Accordingly he spent three years visiting the people in their homes with the determination to establish a family altar in every home in the community.

Family altar is the simple practice of gathering the members of the family together at a set time each day to read the Bible and pray together. Baxter believed this would be the primary way to renew the spiritual life of the congregation.

Family altar is a historic practice for families deeply committed to the worship of the living God. Three centuries after Baxter, I recall, as a young lad in Saskatchewan, experiencing the energy and worth of family altar. My Mother carried the burden faithfully for this exercise. Family altar was held at the close of the evening meal for one older sister, a younger sister and me. Occasionally our father sat in.

We formed our chairs to face each other in an open part of the kitchen. Mother took down her well used Bible and usually read a whole chapter. Then we sang a portion of a hymn. Mother knew about a half dozen “favorite” hymns by heart so we cycled those six again and again. After the hymn, we knelt at our chairs and Mother prayed. At the close of her earnest prayer we recited the Lord’s Prayer together.

As we children developed proficiency in reading we began to take turns at reading a paragraph or so and offering our own prayers. Sometimes what was read in the Scriptures prompted childhood questions about God or about such basic moral issues as telling the truth or getting along with playmates. Occasionally, if things had gone poorly in family relationships they were corrected. In a nutshell this daily exercise helped to develop a God-consciousness which attends us for life.

Family altar has much more competition today than in my childhood. For us there was no television, iPads, smart phones, or electronic games to commandeer our time and isolate us from one another. Today the very pace of modern life might require a simplified version for family altar, but need not choke the exercise out of existence, and will always require parental diligence.

Like Mother, we see its value and my wife and I continue the practice. At 90 years of age, we sit down in our family room after breakfast each morning and read the Bible, one chapter a day. We discuss what we’ve read and then take time for prayers. As a wholesome breakfast nourishes our mortal bodies family altar gives deep sustenance to the spiritual dimension of life.

God says to us, ”Draw near to me and I will draw near to you” and human wisdom tells us “where there’s a will there’s a way.” For newcomers to the practice, to get family altar started a parent or parents may need to gather the family together and seek agreement that at a certain time each day family life would be enriched by giving a few minutes to this spiritual exercise.

If there are young children and the NIV is the family’s favorite translation it should be used. If not, the New Living Translation is a good useable version, both reliable and readable. For small children the Picture Bible is recommended as a good choice. Whatever version is chosen it is good to make the Bible itself the text for family devotions. It’s the book we hope our children will live with for a lifetime.

Were Richard Baxter’s efforts successful? History reports that his project was so successful that in every home of his congregation there was a family altar, church attendance increased to fill the sanctuary, and public worship went from bland to spiritually warm and deeply nurturing.

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Photo credit: Skara kommun (via flickr.com)

I Ponder Jesus’ Call to Discipleship

BibleThis past Sunday I heard a searching sermon on the cost of discipleship, based on Luke 14: 25 – 33.

In that passage, Jesus is traveling toward Jerusalem. Large crowds follow. Along the way he pauses, turns around and teaches the large number following him the rigorous demands of discipleship.

He explains first that a true disciple has to love him more than any other person in their lives, including spouse, children etc. His way of saying this is unusual to our western ears:

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple.

I remember puzzling over that strange-sounding claim when I was a boy in Sunday School. As I recall, the teacher drew out of the Sunday School quarterly that to hate in this case meant to “love less.”

According to that text, discipleship means Jesus must hold first place even over our family loyalties.

During the afternoon this past Sunday I sat down to ponder what the text of the sermon should mean to me, a 21st century western Christian, now a retired pastor. At 90-years-of-age is this kind of radical discipleship still a demand of the Lord? Or do I get to be a bit “retired” from it? And if radical discipleship is a continuing demand, how am I to respond to that demand?

I thought first of my daily use of the Bible. The Bible, and particularly the four Gospels, is the only place we can learn about Jesus with full authority. This Book is the guidebook, validated in us by the Holy Spirit, as followers of Jesus.

For many years, I’ve attempted to meet the Lord in the Scriptures early every morning. Perhaps I must intensify that discipline if discipleship is to remain fresh and current.

I thought then about the attendant practice of daily prayer. It’s hard to think loyalties and love for Christ can remain fresh if I do not take time each morning (along with the practice of flash prayers during the day) to talk to the one who speaks out of that book both instructions for life and precious promises for his followers.

As I pondered further Sunday morning’s sermon the Lord also brought to mind the issue of loyalty to Christ as manifested by loyalty to his church.

I remembered that for many Christians in contemporary society loyalty to the local church is a bit optional. I heard recently that “regular” church attendance now means turning up regularly once a month. For me that can’t be good enough.

The church – the gathered community of believers – is the body of Christ. It is more than an organization; it is a living organism — a body! As a disciple of Christ, I must continue to check in at least once a week to enter into the body’s corporate worship and prayerfully support, with my time, talent, and treasure, its many ministry efforts.

These are the basic disciplines of a disciple of Jesus Christ. They are foundational. With these, today’s discipleship must begin, not end.

But my pondering also made me consider my influence and readiness to speak up when I move about in society. I can’t see myself wearing a sandwich board on a street corner though something like that might be suitable for others.

In my case I will watch more carefully to speak the good word (and sometimes only a word) as the Lord makes opportunity and prompts me. Paul’s letter to the Romans speaks clearly on this matter:

“For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved” (Romans 10:10).

Is discipleship also a lifestyle? I recall that early Christians began to be called “people of the Way.” The unconverted Saul went to Damascus with authority to take captive any who were followers of “the Way” (Acts 9:2). And when Paul, the converted one, later presented the gospel in Ephesus his detractors “publicly maligned the Way.”

Apparently the early disciples became known for their manner of believing, living and serving. Discipleship apparently generates a recognizable character, demeanor, and lifestyle.

The sermon on discipleship will stay with me, I know. And I will pray earnestly that its message will fill itself out more fully. But for the moment, above are the checkpoints for my pondering and practice.

Please, dear reader, will you join me?

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Photo credit: Emuishere Peliculas (via flickr.com)

Discipleship, Anyone?

Is the call to Christian discipleship with its potential discomforts and dangers passé in modernity? After all, it can be argued that the Gospel has directly and indirectly brought the world better health and a greater material abundance. Perhaps, then, the health and wealth gospel is the more current expression.

For example, a man embraces the gospel seriously and finds deliverance from his addictions that have been robbing him of health and his family of the material necessities of life. As a result, he becomes responsible with his spending and in months the whole family begins to feel the positive material effect of the changes -– to say nothing of the greater material blessings the years may bring.

Or, a woman whose health is being eaten up by bitterness because of a failed marriage turns to the gospel and finds peace in forgiveness and support from a caring Christian community. Soon the symptoms that have been driving her to the doctors begin to ease and her health is gradually restored.

These are not imaginary results. In such situations, the gospel is a pathway toward health and wealth. But, despite these blessings, the gospel is still first of all a call to discipleship.

I read thoughtfully these words of Jesus: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).

This is at the heart of Jesus’ call to discipleship. The New Living Translation says it even more clearly, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must put aside your selfish ambition, shoulder your cross daily, and follow me.”

Put aside your selfish ambition? Is that where discipleship starts? Renounce the ‘me first’ impulse so deeply ingrained within us? Say “no” to self-indulgence, the love of ease, the desire to be pampered? It all seems so grim, so demanding. Where is the promise of health and wealth there?

And to be asked to shoulder your cross? The cross is an instrument that stands for torture, and death. Does our Lord call us to invite suffering? Wouldn’t that mark us as psychologically disordered? Neurotic? No, Jesus made the cross for himself a symbol of redemption through suffering. It’s “the narrow gate” that led to his resurrection.

It all seems so forbidding until we read what follows in Luke’s account, “As (Jesus) was praying the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning” (verse29). This is Luke’s report of the Transfiguration, on Mount Hermon.

In that moment, the disciples saw who Jesus really was, in his hidden glory and splendor. He was indeed God in human flesh. Many years later Simon Peter recalled that moment and wrote, “we were eye-witnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.

Peter added, “We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mount” (2 Peter 1:16b-18).

Catching a glimpse of who Jesus really is changes his call to discipleship from a call to self-abasing, grim duty to one of ever-expanding joy in his kingdom’s service.

The issues of health and wealth must be dealt with separately from his call to discipleship. It’s true that some find purpose in life through the Gospel and this makes life fuller even in the issues of possessions and bodily well being.

But the wealth that all are assured of through the Gospel is that of knowing God in Christ and experiencing fellowship with him. And the health that’s certain is the promise of eternal life – in this life and the next.

This reality of the gospel can only be experienced from the inside. Either we say yes to Christ and discover the true health and wealth of the soul or we say no to him and deprive ourselves of the fullness of life that only he can give.

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10 Tips for Young Pastors

Photo Credit: "Outside the camp" via flicker.comPastoral work is demanding. It has its peculiar stresses. But, it is also deeply satisfying when done with wisdom and care. Here are some suggestions gleaned from 22-years of pastoral ministry and another 19-years as a general church overseer.

1. Ground your ministry in daily Bible reading and prayer. Pray daily for your people. Pray often through the day. Consider that pastoral labors grounded in prayer are the “gold, silver and costly stones” the Apostle Paul speaks of as durable building materials used in pastoral labors (1Cor. 3:10-15).

2. If your study is at the church, be there at a set time each work day. I suggest 8 A.M. God honors a good work ethic.

3. Spend your mornings in sermon preparations, reading, and related study. Be diligent. If you have a secretary, have her guard these hours. Don’t allow legitimate resources to become time-wasters — the Internet, TV, video games, long telephone calls, news papers, news magazines, etc.

“If in the morning you throw moments away,
You’ll not catch them up in the course of the day.”

4. Get an exercise program and stick to it, whether it be jogging or swimming or walking or exercising to a DVD. If you have no better idea, consider, as one possibility, incorporating this routine into an extended noon hour. A jog, then a sandwich, an apple, and a beverage need take no more than an hour-and-a-quarter.

5. Do not have favorites. If your attachment to one person or couple or family becomes obvious — you meet regularly for meals together, even go camping together — this will make other members feel second rate. The pastor must be pastor to all the people all the time. If you need more intimate friendships, form them outside the congregation — with a neighboring minister, for example.

6. Never, discuss church problems in the presence of growing children.  They do not have the wisdom to handle adult problems.
Their trust may be damaged, and eventually their respect for Christ and his church.

7. If division develops over some issue (whether to launch a building program, add a staff member, change the music program, etc.) give leadership through proper channels. But don’t take sides by talking informally with one faction or the other. To do so will deepen the congregational rift and likely shorten your tenure.

8. Develop a clear understanding of your boundaries and observe them — with the opposite sex, the aged, children, young people, church officers, staff members, etc. Strive to keep all pastoral relationships above reproach.

9. However modest your income, set an example of responsible stewardship. Show leadership in tithing your income. If you have debts that are out of hand, seek professional counsel. Your care with money will increase the congregation’s trust in your leadership.

10. Never ask to borrow money from your parishioners. To do so puts parishioners at a disadvantage, may reduce their respect for you, and if not repaid as agreed may create a rift that puts your pastoral tenure at risk.

Pastoral ministry is built on the ability to preach and teach the Bible. But it is also grounded in genuine godliness, basic ethical competence, good interpersonal skills, and beyond these on common sense. These ten points do not tell the whole story but they offer some time-tested suggestions about how to avoid the traps that sometimes spring and limit or even shorten a minister’s usefulness to the Lord and a congregation.

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Just Call Me Pastor

Photo Credit: bpbp Brian Petersen (flickr.com)

I am pleased to be writing this new blog for pastors, church workers, and rank-and-file Christians – to anyone concerned about the great challenge of the pastorate.

Why have I called it “Just Call Me Pastor”? This memory from my days as an active pastor answers that question.

One Sunday morning during announcement time in the worship service I said to my new congregation, “Just call me pastor.”  Then I explained:

  • Call me pastor for my sake — I need to be reminded of the special reason I’m in this town.
  • Call me pastor for your sake, so that you will be aware of the special relationship we have.
  • And call me pastor for your children’s sake so that they will have access to one more person who is special in their lives to help them through the sometimes difficult years of youth into a purposeful Christian adulthood.

For me, “pastor” was an honorable biblical title, meaning shepherd — a title which Jesus himself took when he said, “I am the good shepherd, the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). Back then, the increase of secularism had not yet taken the edge off the term.

The time was 1962. The place was the Free Methodist Church in Greenville, Illinois. I was new to the congregation, having come just a few months earlier into this pastoral appointment in this small midwestern city. Sunday morning attendance ran at about 600 worshipers, half of them students from the Christian college across the street. Culture-wise, it was the beginning of the youth revolution, that upheaval that brought into question all traditional standards in a way that was very destabilizing to society as a whole.

One feature of that revolution was an easy jettisoning of titles. It was an authority issue. One had to be careful about any conscious or intended display of authority. When youth sat on the floor to rap, I sat on the floor with them. It was the era when the use of first names became common regardless of the situation. The sense was that authority figures for sure should keep their heads down.

During that period the word “share” began to take a prominent place in much of public discourse. I recall that in college assemblies even if a renowned authority was to give an address in an area of her proven expertise she was introduced as having come to “share.” The word became tiresome to those of us who understood why it was used as it was, but nevertheless it held unchallenged sway.

Yet there I was, at about 36 years of age, asking a Christian congregation, including many my senior in age or credentials, to call me pastor. Was that audacious? Foolish? Swimming upstream against a raging current? Although 47 years have passed since then, I have never regretted making that invitation. It defined in one word both for me and the congregation what I was there to do.  It described a primary relationship.  It tended to restrain both me and members of the congregation when serious disagreements arose as in church life they often do.

At that time, there seemed to be a growing number of church personnel who were of a different mind-set from mine. They argued that titles, even “pastor,” get in the way of authentic relationships.  I could not agree. I found that under one set of circumstances I could exchange hearty laughter with former schoolmates who were now members of the congregation and under another set participate in soul-searching conversations about issues of life and death. As I see it, being real is not helped or hindered by titles. Being real is a state of being that develops out of the bumps and bruises of life.

Yesterday I received a phone call from that midwestern community. It’s been 35 years since I left. A longstanding member had died and the family wanted me to know. That family now crosses four generations. The phone call was from the married daughter of a couple at whose wedding I had officiated — a mother of three growing children herself. It is not lost on me that, after 35 years of absence from that community, to all four generations I am still given that honorable title, Pastor.

I welcome your thoughts, memories, and dreams about pastoring.

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