Category: Pastoral Pondering

I asked the Lord

March 20th, 2014 — 11:51am

“I asked the Lord that I might grow”
by John Newton

I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith, and love, and every grace;
Might more of His salvation know,
And seek, more earnestly, His face.

‘Twas He who taught me thus to pray,
And He, I trust, has answered prayer!
But it has been in such a way,
As almost drove me to despair.

I hoped that in some favored hour,
At once He’d answer my request;
And by His love’s constraining pow’r,
Subdue my sins, and give me rest.

Instead of this, He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart;
And let the angry pow’rs of hell
Assault my soul in every part.

Yea more, with His own hand He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe;
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Blasted my gourds, and laid me low.

Lord, why is this, I trembling cried,
Wilt thou pursue thy worm to death?
“ ‘Tis in this way,” the Lord replied,
“I answer prayer for grace and faith.

“These inward trials I employ,
From self, and pride, to set thee free;
And break thy schemes of earthly joy,
That thou may’st find thy all in Me.”

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Good things badly

October 16th, 2013 — 11:22am

I don’t usually write about personal pet peeves, but recently one of mine got triggered, and I’m inspired to write about it, so . . . there.

I’m from the neck of the ecclesiastical woods known as “conservative” and “Reformed.” We’re known for small churches that keep to the old paths. I love the old paths; I can’t say I’m crazy about the smallness – I certainly don’t regard it as a virtue – but it depends on why we’re small. Which brings me to my pet peeve.

I hear all the time from leaders of small churches that are struggling in various ways: “Well, we don’t need to concern ourselves with results or numbers; we just need to be faithful doing what God has told us to do, and leave the outcomes to Him.”

This sounds really good. It has a nice pure ring to it. Do your duty. Be faithful at it. Let God be God. I’m down with all of that.

But one thing I almost never hear in conjunction with this is the possibility – just the possibility, mind you – that we’re doing all the right stuff, but doing it really badly. We’re preaching the Word every Sunday. That’s a good thing, but what if our preaching is just plain boring? We’re maintaining tried-and-true traditions in worship, but what if our liturgy is desultory or plodding? What if the whole atmosphere of our worship is stale, yea, even funereal? We’re not out there “peddling” the gospel with gimmicks and glamor, but what if our outreach (and our inreach, for that matter) is dull, unimaginative, uninspired, and pretty darn pessimistic (not that we expect bad things to happen; we just don’t expect much of anything to happen)? We’re Christ-centered, but what if we talk about Christ in a way that leaves Him apparently disconnected not only from the everyday life of the guy who walks in off the street, but even from the lives of most of the people nodding (take it as you will) in the pew?

I’ve sat through “faithful” Reformed sermons that were simply horrible; you didn’t have to be a communications major to figure it out. I’ve listened to sermons full of true sayings about God and the gospel that were so badly constructed, so hard to follow, so freighted with in-house jargon, so gloomy, so emotionally manipulative, so interminable, and/ or so out of touch with the real world, that all I wanted was to go stretch my legs – and I’m a pastor, for crying out loud. I’m supposed to like sermons.

Don’t even get me started on the stuff that happens before and after the sermon. I’ve been trotted at breakneck pace through liturgies without a moment to get my emotional bearings. I’ve puzzled my way through liturgies without any discernible theme or logical order. I’ve sat through good liturgies led by people who, to all appearances, couldn’t wait for it to be over. I’ve heard prayers that droned on for twenty minutes, followed by sharp admonitions about failure to stay focused. I’ve been subjected to song selections and congregational singing that would soothe the dead. It’s all “faithful.” It’s all doing our duty. It’s all – in principle – good stuff. And I think we ought to be ashamed of ourselves.

Then there’s the whole outward face of the church. We small conservative Reformed folk aren’t known for caring about reaching the lost – if God wants them to come, they’ll come; and if He’s really working in their hearts, they’ll love bad sermons and boring worship as much as we do. (I exaggerate mildly for effect.) Amazingly, this is sometimes true. People do come to worship, and they do sometimes stay. I wonder, though: Why are we so bad at taking the gospel out to where everyday life happens? Why doesn’t our message seem to “connect” outside the walls of the church? Why don’t we work harder at meeting people where they actually live, talking about questions they’re actually asking, using media to which they can actually relate? Why do we think preaching the Word and administering the sacraments inside the four walls of the church is where all the action is, and fail to develop anything approximating excellence in taking the Word out into the world? What’s with all these drab, outdated websites (if we have them at all); church leaders who are social media illiterate; and “outreach” events that consist of handing out church postcards door to door? Are we trying to be ineffective? Worse, are we self-satisfied because, after all, we’re doing our duty behind closed doors every Sunday? Really?

There’s no excuse for doing good things badly. There’s no excuse for poor preaching, deadness in worship, or outreach literature that looks like it was printed twenty years ago. “At Iconium,” writes Luke, the apostles “spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks believed” (Acts 14:1). This isn’t a denial of God’s sovereignty; it’s a simple statement of human responsibility. Preach like Jesus really is the Logos and communication matters. Worship in a way that’s well thought-out, engaging, lively, and participatory. Act like you expect the gospel to do something, in worship and outside the walls of the church. Cultivate good ideas, stuff that will grab people’s attention. Tell great stories that lead naturally to the Great Story. Be creative: think about how to relate the gospel to the real lives of real people out in the real world who have never heard the term “effectual calling.” Speak in such a way, inside and outside the church, that people believe. Who knows? Maybe God will start to fill our small churches, and not only we but also thousands of others will have great cause to glorify His name.

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Marriage letter

June 11th, 2013 — 1:29pm

Dear married friend,

I’m writing this, as you know, after years of counseling you and your spouse. I’m very tired as I write. You’re not the only couple I’m counseling, and sometimes after yet another hour-long talk with someone drowning in a horrific marriage, I sit dazed in my chair, wishing my pastoral days could be full of prayer, silence, and study rather than the noise and churning emotions of conflict resolution. I wish I could come to the end of the day and see my wife and children without lines of care scarring my face. I wish being a peacemaker didn’t require me to see so much of the evil of the world.

But that’s not why I’m writing. My hope isn’t that the conflict in your marriage will stop so I can enjoy more quiet. I want the conflict in your marriage to stop for you. I want peace for you and your spouse. I lie awake for long hours in the night, yearning for this for you before the Lord.

What breaks my heart is that it’s not difficult. You think your marriage is such a mess, and all I can see is how easy it would be for the conflict to stop and for you to live together in peace. All it would require is for you to stop playing God. I know you’re not willing to stop. But I haven’t given up on you, so let me tell you (again) what it would look like for you to stop playing God.

First, it would require you to admit that the war between you and your spouse is still going on because you’re in it. If you weren’t in it, it would stop, because it takes two to fight. What this means is: you’re sinning a lot, God hates your sin, and you need to stop. I’m not talking to your spouse, I’m talking to you – this needs to be said, because all you’re thinking about right now is how much your spouse needs to hear what I’m saying. Which brings me to a second point.

You need to put down your weapons. You need to drop your sense of entitlement, your feeling of being victimized, your checklist of demands, and your filing cabinet full of resentments. You need to shut your mouth and stop sniping; you need to admit to yourself that you enjoy spitting out those zingers that make you feel so powerful and right. You need to look at the walls you’ve built around your heart, your dramatic withdrawals from your spouse, your various schemes of emotional blackmail, and your ever-present jabbing finger of blame – you need to know that this stuff is antichrist, and any attempt to put it in a better light is sheer pride. How dare you hold this garbage up as somehow defensible in the light of the cross of God’s Son?

Third, you need to listen. You don’t listen. You may think you do, but you don’t. You’ve already sized up your spouse and rendered judgment. You don’t really care what’s going on in his heart; you don’t really care about all the hurt and need that lies beneath her sin. You don’t want to touch those needs or heal those hurts. All you see – all you want to see – is the sin; and your way of fighting sin is to sin. That’s insane. You’ve tried a thousand times to fight your spouse’s evil with evil, you’ve seen the devastation it brings to everyone involved, and you still go right back to it like a dog to vomit. I wonder sometimes if you’ll ever shut your mouth and really, really listen with your whole heart. But no, you already know everything you need to know: you’re an expert on your spouse’s motives, intentions, thoughts, and feelings. The gavel has banged, sentence has been rendered, and you’re kind of looking forward to carrying it out.

Fourth, if you would ever really listen, you would see a way to serve. Of course, you’ll have to get over the notion that when you serve, your spouse will suddenly morph into an angel. You don’t want to hear it, but being a servant means you often get treated like one; and it may take a long time, great sacrifice, and great pain to overcome evil with good. You’re afraid of pain; in fact, you’re controlled by your fear of pain more than you’re controlled by the love of God; and so you walk right past opportunities to serve your spouse, opportunities that are cryingly obvious to anyone who’s not as self-protective as you are. Actually – which is far worse – you often do see the opportunities but choose to ignore them. You might stop to ponder what Jesus thinks of this.

The reason for all of this is that you don’t trust God – and that, fifth and fundamentally, is your single biggest need if you’re going to stop playing God. You keep waiting for your spouse to change so you can love without having to leave your comfort zones. Your comfort zones may be the single biggest rivals to God in your life. You need to repent of your comfort zones. They are the enemy of love in your heart. It’s not safe to love. It got Jesus killed. It will get you killed. Then you’ll experience the resurrection life of Christ. God promises it. The question is whether you believe it. Don’t be too quick to think you do. If you did, you would start loving your spouse (the perfect love of God would cast out fear), and the fighting in your marriage would stop.

You know I’ll never stop praying for you, and I’ll never stop making myself available to you when you’re really in need. But I’ll tell you this straight up: Counseling doesn’t heal marriages. Repentance heals marriages. When you repent, things will heal. Dig in, and the war will drag on interminably. How I pray your war will not last much longer, for your sake, and for the sake of Jesus’ name.

I remain your affectionate pastor, etc.

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The danger of pastoral counseling

May 20th, 2013 — 4:07pm

The danger of pastoral counseling is that it can become a way for people to feel better without actually obeying Jesus.

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Deep assumptions, core beliefs

March 28th, 2013 — 2:01pm

Re-posting from awhile back. I see the truth of Myers’ insight more every day.

The structures of our experience, especially the everyday, routine, invisible taken-for-granted structures, have a profound effect in shaping the way we perceive reality. The deep, often unarticulated assumptions that guide each of us are shaped by a matrix of usually unremarkable experiences channeled in specific directions by cultural institutions. Over time, especially as we are part of a community with the same pattern of experiences, a pattern of conviction and affections begins to take shape. Call it a sensibility or a consciousness or a prejudice or a mentality or a mindset: it is deeply ingrained, usually unconscious, and extremely powerful.

While we may hold explicitly to certain core beliefs, it is possible (and I would argue likely, in our time and place) for explicitly held core beliefs to be out of synch with deep assumptions, so that, when we have to react quickly or [in] a new situation, we often fall back on the deep-set assumptions rather [than] on what we actually profess. This is why, I believe, in our own time, the affinity between what Christians profess and how they act is increasingly vague and weak. (Ken Myers, “Cultural Discernment, Christian Faithfulness, and the Postmodern Multiversity”)

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Ye fight and war, yet ye have not

September 26th, 2012 — 2:27pm

If Paul could say to a church that it “completed” his joy when they were likeminded (Philippians 2:2), I think one could say it completes a pastor’s grief when his sheep are divided by conflict among themselves. Some pastors dread every week the ring of the telephone: “X and Y are fighting again.” It makes the pastor’s heart sink.

Why do we humans fight with each other? Why do some of us seem to thrive on it? Why can we not seem to disentangle ourselves from conflict even when it’s killing us? Why does the Cain and Abel story play itself out (albeit not always, thank God, with the full extent of violence) again and again and again?

The invariable answer, were one to ask one of the combatants, is that it’s the other person’s fault. Cain the murderer sprang from Adam and Eve, who blamed others in the presence of the Lord.

Focus on the other combatant is the reason why conflicts cannot be resolved. This isn’t hard to explain. Each combatant comes to the relationship with a certain degree of emptiness. (In Cain’s case, apparently, it was emptiness resulting from wounded pride.) To be quite clear, emptiness is always something that originates in the heart of the one who experiences it. Put another way, emptiness is always something for which the empty soul must take full responsibility. It is true, however, that experiences in relationships can aggravate feelings of emptiness, and it is sorely tempting to view such aggravations as the source of the problem. It’s natural, then, to think that a change in the other person would be the solution (in extreme cases one might even wish the other person dead – Cain carried through on just such a wish).

No amount of change in other people, however – even their ceasing to exist – can ever fill an emptiness they didn’t cause in the first place. It is refusal to accept this simple truth from which human conflict derives its interminability. We fight and war because we lust for something our combat partner is incapable of giving (James 4:1–2). We will not face the fact that we ourselves, our own hearts, are the root of the problem.

Pastors sometimes despair of getting this through the heads of certain sheep. If ever they could, they might well be out of the conflict resolution business. You cannot live as a victor while you still think like a victim. Victory over self is the key to peace; only One can give this, and it is not the other person in the ring.

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Broken instruments

August 23rd, 2012 — 3:00pm

A nonnegotiable part of biblical change is to acknowledge that all your instruments for calibrating your own life are fundamentally broken.

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A simple sentence

August 14th, 2012 — 4:05pm

“We have already concluded that, for purposes of preaching, the fruit of interpretation (of text, of listeners, and negotiating the distances between) is the statement of the message in a simple, affirmative sentence. . . . It has already been said that the message is best stated in the affirmative rather than the imperative lest the sermon be too hortatory and scolding, and in the positive rather than the negative lest the sermon be too much an indictment without the announcement of good news. What now needs to be emphasized is that the message statement be a simple rather than a compound or complex sentence in order to maintain unity and singularity of direction. Permit a few conjunctions into that sentence, a semicolon or two, perhaps an et cetera, and what happens? Fuzziness replaces focus and through the cracks between the poorly joined and disparate units of that overextended statement will creep every cause crying out for a little pulpit publicity and every announcement with its hand in the air insisting on a few lines in the sermon. We have all heard such sermons: they touch upon many topics, make some good comments, promote God and all worthy causes, intend for everyone the benefits of heaven, honor the Scriptures, and revere the saints, but they have an uncertain Alpha and no Omega at all.” (Craddock, p. 155)

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A real irony

August 14th, 2012 — 3:31pm

“One of the ironies in the history of the church is the fact that the person who is expected to speak every week on issues of ultimate importance – God’s will and human freedom, evil and suffering, grace and judgment, peace and covenant – has been in many quarters begrudged the study time necessary to prepare. Not everywhere, of course, but in many parishes there is strong resistance to granting a pastor any study leave. ‘If the minister wants to go study somewhere, why not use a week of vacation time?’ ‘What do you mean, study? I thought you had already graduated.’ It would be comforting  if such comments were rare, and exaggerated, but the one room in the house of God which, judging by its size, furnishings, and location, is an afterthought, is not the parlor but the pastor’s study.” (Craddock, p. 71)

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The life of study

August 14th, 2012 — 3:27pm

“When the [minister’s] life of study is confined to ‘getting up sermons,’ very likely those sermons are undernourished. They are the sermons of a preacher with the mind of a consumer, not a producer, the mind that looks upon life in and out of books in terms of usefulness for next Sunday. The last day of such a ministry is as the first, having enjoyed no real lasting or cumulative value in terms of the minister’s own growth of mind, understanding, or sympathy.” (Fred B. Craddock, Preaching, p. 69)

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