STAYING PUT: Lessons from Long-Term Ministry

“Thank you,” seems inadequate for all of the honors I received from Faith Community Church  last Sunday. The church took the morning to celebrate my twentieth anniversary as its pastor, taking me by surprise in the process.

Some themes stood out in the comments, and others came to mind later, which might prove helpful to you someday. Call them Leadership Lessons from Long -Term Ministry, but many will apply even if you are not a preacher.

Preach the Word. Expository preaching, interpreting and explaining a passage of scripture in its historical, grammatical, literary, cultural, and biblical context, demonstrating how it applies to the listener and points them to Christ, is key to the vitality of any church or believer. It is a time-consuming endeavor that preachers either have to fight for against other demands, or are gifted with by a congregation. FCC made the decision long before I arrived to give its pastor, and by proxy itself, that gift. All of us benefit from it. Find a church that values this and you will usually find a healthy church.

Decide to stay. If you want to have a deep impact on a community you have to commit to the long term. Randy Pope, Eugene Peterson, Rick Warren, and many others advocated for this in their writings as I was preparing for ministry, and I believed them then. But now I’ve seen the generational effects of hoeing one row for two decades and the fruit is sweet. Warning: You cannot do long-term work without short-term rests. Build Sabbath into your lifestyle and vacations into your years.

Speak hard truth with soft words. Speak with grace and gospel faithfulness to the difficult cultural trends of the day and do not flinch. It will force you to examine yourself, be fair to others, and rely more on Christ. It will also stiffen the spines of your listeners.

Be with people one-on-one. Love them for who they are, where they are, as they are. Grieve with them, celebrate with them, honor them, and respect them. They will do the same for you.

Make sure you have a Paul, a Barnabas, and a Timothy; a mentor, a brother, and a disciple, or trainee into whom you can pour your life. They will coach you when you are clueless, strengthen you when you are weak, and challenge you to keep growing.

Believe in people and don’t micro-manage them. Find good people, give them the goal and the support they need, and then get out of their way. Look for and expect their best, and they will usually give it to you. Related: recruit people to your team who are strong where you are weak. I learned long ago that I was too emotional and empathetic for my own good. That’s one reason I try to surround myself what I call “concrete rational” personality types who can help me stay grounded in biblical objectivity.

Pray more than you politic. Consensus building and deal-making have their place in life. But no amount of politicking can accomplish what prayer can do.

Plan ahead and then give your plans to God.  Every leader needs to be at least five months, and preferably five years, ahead of his organization. But as in war, so in ministry, no plan survives combat. Keep the goal clearly in mind, pay attention to the dynamics of the situation, listen to His Spirit and be flexible with the details.

Offend early and often. I’m a recovering co-dependent people-pleaser. It took years to realize that people come into churches and other organizations with all kinds of expectations of the leadership, some conscious, some not; some reasonable, some silly, and some outrageous. Trying to keep them all happy was suicidal. I learned to make sure they knew what to expect, and what not to expect, as soon as possible. It felt offensive to my empathetic soul to do this, to disappoint some people up front, and anger others. Thus the motto, but the proof — the stability and harmony generated by uniform expectations — has indeed been in the pudding. FCC’s Handbook has been a great tool for this. If your organization doesn’t have a handbook, you should write one, and then require everyone to read it.

Finally, hold everything loosely. Any entity you lead is a stewardship from God, including your family. It doesn’t belong to you and he can take it from you whenever it suits his purposes. Live with gratitude and open, up-raised palms.

Phil 1:3 I thank my God every time I remember you. 4 In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, 6 being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. [1]

[1] The Holy Bible: New International Version. 1984 (Php 1:3–6). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

LISTEN TO YOUR SQUEAKERS: Preventive Maintenance for the Spiritual Life

“Dad,” my daughter sounded worried over the phone, “I hate to tell you this, because I know you just checked, but my brake pedal just went to the floor when I was on the expressway.”

This kind of thing did not used to be a problem. As a formerly ASE certified service technician I had always been able to repair the family cars, usually cheaper and faster than a local shop. But now my girl’s life was in danger because I had missed a critical diagnosis on her last visit. Not only that, but she was five hours away in a big city. What would have been a $300 job at home became a $750 repair bill. It stung my ego, because I had missed the warning signs, but I was happy to pay it to make sure she was safe.

That mistake reminded me of a spiritual lesson from King Solomon that might save us all a lot of heartache, if we are able to hear it.

Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it spring the issues of life. (Proverbs 4:23 NKJ).

For as long as I can remember General Motors products with disc brakes have been equipped with what I call “squeakers.” Squeakers are small flat wear indicators made of flimsy spring steel that are attached to one end of each inner disc brake pad in a set. When the pad wears down to within a few hundredths of an inch of the backing plate the squeaker contacts the rotating disc, emitting a high pitched squeal that will get the attention of any driver who isn’t making an audio assault on the neighbors with his stereo. When you hear the squeak you know it’s time to replace the brake pads. If you don’t you’ll soon have the stopping power of a greased bowling ball and a simple $150 repair can rapidly become a $750 repair or worse, a car wreck.

King Solomon’s admonition, along with many other verses in Scripture,[1] is a reminder to pay attention to the state of our hearts, to listen to our spiritual squeakers. They’re warning us of little problems that can become big ones in a hurry. But they aren’t quite as noticeable as the ones GM uses so I’ve listed a few below.

You know your heart is squeaking:

  • When gossip is easy and prayer is hard.
  • When you’re spouse is annoying but your colleague is alluring.
  • When wrath makes more sense than reconciliation.
  • When vengeance seems more logical than forbearance.
  • When fear and foreboding replace faith and courage.
  • When lust looks lovely and purity looks pathetic.
  • When devotions are dull but distractions are dynamic.

We could go on but I’m sure you get the picture.

Listen to your spiritual squeakers. Put the brakes on runaway desires and ask God, “What’s missing? Where do I need a little soul maintenance? What has dulled my relationship with Jesus Christ and made me insensitive to his warnings?” He’ll help you replace the worn out parts and keep your spirit strong for the long haul.

[1] 1 Timothy 4:16a; 1 Thessalonians 5:6; 1 Peter 5:8;

FOG ON THE MOUNTAIN: Staying Upright in Zero Visibility

“Uh oh,” I said out loud inside my helmet, “not good.”

Post rainstorm fog had descended on Route 8 south of Floyd, Virginia, skirting the edge of the Rocky Knob Recreation area through which we now rode, some three thousand feet above sea level. We had avoided most of the wet that day, the return leg of our two-day spring motorcycle ride, and prospects were good for a fairly dry trip home, but visibility was fading fast.

Fifty feet, I thought, now thirty, now twenty, now … who cares! I can’t see! Get the face-shield up! Forget the distance, just stay on that white line!

I was experiencing, or right on the edge of experiencing, spatial disorientation–that unnerving feeling that happens to pilots, divers, and sometimes motorcyclists in fog, when the visual cues don’t match up with the little motion detectors in your head and body–making up seem like down, and down seem like up.

Those God-given motion detectors, called kinesthetic sensory receptors, are one of the reasons I love to ride, especially in the mountains. Carving the climbing curves with my old Beemer, swooping down switchbacks, soaring up the slopes, beveling my boot heels on the asphalt just before the foot pegs scrrrape! Pushing opposite bar, weight-shifting to the inside of the curve, down-shifting, grabbing some brake to preload the suspension, focusing everything on nailing the next apex. Then throttle on coming out, letting the physics of acceleration on uncoiling springs stand you up, ready now to fling it into the next turn going the other way.

If you can identify with that, you can understand why my friend Jamie and I love motorcycling so much. The wind in your face and bugs in your teeth are fun, too, but not nearly so much as the sensation of flying. I thank God every time I ride for the sheer joy of it.

Except when I run into fog; then I pray for deliverance, I slow down, and I concentrate on one critical thing: that bright white line along the edge of the road. Visibility may be ten feet. It may be less, but I know that line will lead me out of the fog.

Remember what the Psalmist said? “I gain understanding from your precepts; therefore I hate every wrong path. Your word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path. I have taken an oath and confirmed it, that I will follow your righteous laws.”[1]

Life is like a long ride through the mountains and valleys, sometimes in sunshine, and sometimes in rain and fog. It is easy to stay upright when the sky is clear and the roads are dry. But some days the visibility will drop to almost zero and spiritual disorientation will make you wonder which way is up. That’s when you need to slow down, keep your eyes fixed on the bright white line of God’s word, and follow it out of the fog.

[1] Psalm 119:104-106, NIV.

EASTER: ALL ABOUT GRACE

We are uncomfortable with grace. We cannot get our minds around it, or adjust our feelings to it. It upends our inner scale of justice because most of us live under the merit system.

A murderer gets the death penalty and we’re okay with that. It makes sense to us. We resonate with reward, and punishment. Do good, work hard, keep your nose clean, and you will be rewarded. Be selfish, be mean, be slack, be criminal, and you get what you deserve.

But deserve and reward are words that have no meaning under grace. That is the scandal –- even a Timothy McVeigh can receive a full pardon from God.

“For the wages of sin is death. But the free gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord.” Death is something we earn. Life is a gift.

If you have trouble absorbing that, consider these three thoughts.

Grace Is Costly

Justice was done. Sin was paid for but not by us. “He made him who knew no sin to be sin for us.” (2 Cor. 5:21).

In the film The Last Emperor, a young child anointed as the last emperor of China lives a magical life of luxury with a thousand eunuch servants at his command.

“What happens when you do wrong?” asks his brother.

“When I do wrong, someone else is punished,” the boy king answers. To demonstrate, he shatters a jar, and one of his servants is beaten.

God reversed that pattern. When the servants sinned, the king was punished. Grace is free only because the giver has born all the cost.

Grace Is Extravagant 

Think of the parable Jesus told about the lost sheep (See Luke15). The shepherd leaves the ninety-nine in the open country, vulnerable to theft, wolves, and wandering, to find the one, and then celebrates with friends.

That’s extravagant.

I would say, “Miserable little ingrate sheep. Let him wander. Wolves would do me a favor if they ate him.” But not God. God’s grace is extravagant.

Grace is Overwhelming

Some of us have done things that we are ashamed to admit, and some of us have done things–violent things, cruel things, and heartless things–that, in the clear light of day, horrify us. Not only would we never tell someone else about them, we can hardly tell ourselves. Some of us still find ourselves, long after putting faith in Christ, doing things we regret deeply and cannot explain.

The Apostle Paul was like that. He confessed, “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst,” and “ … I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do — this I keep on doing … What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!”[1]

That same grace — God’s Amazing Grace — is here, now, offered to us. The resurrection proved that it is true. That is why we celebrate Easter.

[1] 1 Timothy 1:15; Romans 7:18-19, 24-25.

PREPARING YOUR SPIRIT TO GROW

Every summer we enjoy another of the benefits of living in a rural community: garden fresh fruits and vegetables! I thought I knew what a fresh tomato was before I moved to the country. But I didn’t know beans (or tomatoes)! I thought I knew what sweet was before I moved here. But then I tasted a Turbeville cantaloupe.

One of those gardens used to be across the street from our house. But none of the fruit from that garden would’ve been possible without the gift of another man who lived down the street, Mr. Rice. He didn’t water the ground. He didn’t plant the seed. He didn’t even help in the harvest. He just appeared on his tractor every spring with that most important thing every garden needs — the plow.

The plow is hard. The plow is sharp. It rips through the weeds. It punctures the hard surface. It breaks up the clotted dirt. It prepares the ground for everything that comes later. The plow makes possible the beginning of powerful things in the life of the soil.

There is a parallel for the plow in the spiritual life: repentance. Repentance penetrates hardened hearts, breaking up the clods that clog our souls. Repentance opens the way for the Word of God to work down into the soil of personality and bring forth the sweet fruit of a life empowered by the Spirit. Repentance is the first step in “putting off the old life” and “putting on the new.” Nothing happens without it.

The Bible talks a lot about repentance. One of the best examples of how to do it is found in Nehemiah, Chapter One.

Repentance Reviews the Offense

Repentance calls sin, sin. Nehemiah said, “I confess the sins … we have committed, including myself.” Neh.1: 6b-7.

There goes that plow blade, right into the hardest part of the ground! In order to have any power at all, repentance has to puncture the hardened surface of self. We have to be able to come before God and say, “Lord, I did it. It wasn’t just my school environment, it wasn’t just where I work, it wasn’t even my family environment; I did something wrong and I’m responsible for it.”

The concept of personal repentance, like an unused plow in an abandoned field, has rusted away in our “self-esteem is everything” culture.

Repentance Is Specific

Nehemiah confessed to sins of commission, doing what we know is wrong. “We have acted very wickedly toward you,” he said. We might say it this way: “God, I have been corrupt in my dealings with you. I’ve played the religious pretend game. On the outside I look fine. On the inside my heart is far from you.”

Corruption is a heart-hardening thing. It needs a sharp plow.

Nehemiah also confessed to sins of omission, failing to do what we know is right. We have not obeyed the commands … you gave to Moses.” James repeated this idea in the New Testament. “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.” James 4:17.

Finally, Nehemiah confessed group sins. He used the plural pronoun “We.” We don’t imagine ourselves as responsible for what our culture is doing around us. But when we fail to speak, or write, or vote for just policies, are we not giving the nod to the unjust ones? When we align ourselves with political movements that perpetrate evil, are we not participating in cultural sin?

Yes, we are.

Repentance reviews the offense and takes responsibility. It gets everything out on the table between us and God. That is essential if we really want a response from God when we pray.

It has been a long time now since we ate the fruit of the garden across the street. The neighbors who tended it died or moved away; grass and trees now fill the lot. I chatted with the neighbor with the tractor and plow about that. He told me something sad, “I’ve been plowing gardens for folks in town here for decades. At one time there were thirty-five that I plowed every spring. Now there are fewer than five.”

When I look at our culture today and see the poison it is producing, I wonder if the reason is that we have stopped tending the garden of the soul, if we have stopped turning over the soil of the spirit with the plow of repentance.

 

THE PHISHING SCAMS OF LIFE

The emails look like they are from my daughter, because her name, which is unusual, is spelled correctly. They come to my personal email address, not the office. They say something innocuous like, “you might be interested in this,” and include a link. I almost clicked on the first one, but paused because something didn’t feel right, and looked at the return address. Not my daughter’s address!

I marked it as phishing and deleted it, grateful that I caught it before it infected my computer.

Something similar happened, long ago on a moonless night that changed the outcome of World War II.

Major William Martin, a British subject, was the bait in the greatest phishing expedition of the war. Martin had recently died of pneumonia, and never saw battle. But the Allies, who had just invaded North Africa, thought they could use him, even in death, to great effect.

The Germans thought the next logical attack was coming in Sicily, but needed more accurate intelligence before they could deploy their defenses. Thus: Operation Mincemeat commenced.

One dark night, an Allied submarine came to the surface off the coast of Spain and put Martin’s body out to sea in a rubber raft with an oar. In his pocket were secret documents indicating the Allied forces would strike, not in Sicily, but in Greece and Sardinia. The Allies had calculated the tides and currents in the area and knew within reason where the raft would land.

Major Martin’s body washed ashore, and Axis intelligence operatives found him, thinking he had crashed at sea. They passed the secret documents through Axis hands all the way to Hitler’s headquarters. Thus, while Allied forces moved toward Sicily, thousands and thousands of German troops moved to Greece and Sardinia. Hitler fell for one of the biggest phishing scams of the war.

But phishing scams aren’t limited to wars and computers; they happen in everyday life: in marriages, in jobs, in government, and churches. Jesus called them “temptation,” and we need to know how to avoid them.

Temptation is sophisticated. It presents itself as what we think we want or need. It comes to us in a crisis of desire, or danger, when necessity is upon us, and the stress is overwhelming. We’re looking for the solution, the release, or the fulfillment, all at the same time. The Axis needed inside information. The Allies gave it to them. Temptation gives us what we think we need.

Temptation is rarely hasty. It is, like the sunrise, a gradual reduction of rational arguments against error along with a slow but sure gathering of seemingly sane, balanced, and coherent reasons. Little by little the unthinkable becomes the ordinary, rational answer to our problem. The information planted on Major Martin slowly made its way up the chain of command to Hitler’s headquarters. Each office that passed it on gave it one more stamp of validation. Like my daughter’s name in the address bar, temptation validates itself in order to draw us in.

Above all temptation feels right. It feels like the natural way out of a difficult, intractable situation. It feels like “the answer.” The doors are all open. The path is smooth. We want it to be so. The Nazis wanted Greece secured. They wanted to believe what the information told them. We want to believe what our feelings tell us, even when it is not so.

Finally, temptation makes the alternatives seem harder. There is always another approach, another way to solve the problem, or meet the need. But that way seems unnecessarily inflexible, demanding, and more than our resources can handle. The Nazis knew they could not cover both fronts effectively. They had to choose where to concentrate their resources. Operation Mincemeat made it easier to choose Greece. Temptation always presents the easier path. Why go to the trouble of vetting? Just click the link.

Jesus said, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.”[1]

In other words, pay attention to what’s in that address bar, and pray for the wisdom to spot the phishing scams of life.

[1] Matt 26:41 NIV

EMBRACING YOUR JESUS CRISIS

There is an old story about a gathering of people listening to recitations of the 23rd Psalm. One man everyone wanted to hear was a well-known actor with a deep melodious voice. He wasn’t a particularly spiritual man, but he appreciated the Psalm and was happy to comply. He stood and delivered it beautifully and everyone was duly impressed. Then a very old gentleman, one with no great skill at public speaking, but a man whom everyone respected, was also urged to recite. He slowly rose to his feet and in a quiet voice quoted the Psalm from memory. As he spoke a hush fell over the room, a silence and peace no one wanted to disturb even after he sat down. Finally, the actor spoke the truth everyone knew: “I know the Psalm. He knows the Shepherd.”

Many people are like the actor in the story. They say things like: “I’ve read the Bible. The teachings of Jesus are brilliant. I like the idea of going to heaven when I die. As far as religion is concerned, I check the “Christian” box on official forms. But this whole idea of a relationship with God is beyond me. I know other people experience it. I believe they are genuine. But I don’t seem to be able to have it myself and I don’t know why.”

A story from Luke 5:1-11, the story of the calling of the first disciples, offers a clue. Jesus was seated in Simon’s boat, teaching. He finished, turned to Simon (later called Peter) and said, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.”

Now Simon was an experienced fisherman, a concrete, rational businessman. He was also tired. He and his partners had fished all night without a catch. He had every reason to politely decline. What Jesus was asking wasn’t rational. Peter could have cited a dozen reasons why it wouldn’t work.

But Jesus wasn’t thinking about fish. He was working on Peter’s faith, precipitating a crisis in Peter’s life by purposefully, intentionally, and meaningfully pushing him to choose between Peter’s will, intelligence, experience and knowledge, and Jesus’s command. The question was not: would they catch any fish? The question was: would Peter obey?

Peter did obey and the rest, as they say, is history. They caught so many fish that the boats began to sink. But again, it wasn’t about the fish. It was about what happened inside of Peter. “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” he said. In other words, Peter now knew Jesus on a whole new level, knew Jesus as God’s Son, and his shepherd, because when his “Jesus crisis” came, he obeyed. He chose submission over experience, Jesus’s will over Peter’s. Life was never the same for Peter after that day.

The ability to experience a living relationship with God through his Son Jesus Christ, and by the presence of the Holy Spirit within, does not depend on a blind leap of faith–far from it. It depends on how we respond to our “Jesus crisis” when he calls us to obey against all experience. And call, he will. Perhaps he already has in your life. Perhaps you’ve had many crises with Jesus and, like the rich young ruler in another story, “went away very sad …” without obeying, never knowing the incredible peace and power that comes from obedience. My prayer for you is that the next time he brings you to that moment of crisis you will, like Peter, obey. I promise you, your life will never be the same.