Category Archives: Church

Living in the “Afters” of Life

It is difficult living in the “after.” Those most common moments that punctuate our lives seem to dominate our story-telling. We remember the moments and seldom revel in the “after.” Sometimes its tragedy like a death, sometimes it’s a climax like a championship, and sometimes it is a simple moment like a realization on a Tuesday over coffee. We remember the moments. We remember peaks and valleys. It is why men and women speak so openly about days gone by. There is something comforting in the nostalgia of history. A soft blanket of remembrance that allows us to push off whatever troubles we may persist in at this moment. We can be paralyzed by the weight of the past. We can revel in victories of yesteryear. Or, we can push forward and learn to live in the “after.” It is more difficult to learn to live in the after.

Some of our “afters” are filled with despair. Perhaps that is the reason many of us do not strive to live in the after of tragedy? I can remember the months that followed my own father’s passing. I was in high school and I struggled to process. Each day I’d wake with the anticipation that perhaps it was all just a bad dream. Reality would set in quickly and I’d be left again missing my dad. I’d slowly come to grips with the reality that he was gone. Living in the after meant living without the man who had taught me how to live well. It meant accepting the loss, no… it meant embracing the loss. Acceptance merely means that I understood what had happened as a real event. I needed to embrace that event. To move past simple acknowledgment. I needed to learn to live. It took some time to learn to live in the after of death. I accepted it pretty quickly, but it has taken years to learn to embrace it – to derive some semblance of definition from the tragedy. The loss of my dad needed to shape me into something more than I once was… indeed, it has. Living well in the after requires that we embrace the change that has been wrought.

Some of our “afters” come in the wake of success. We win a contest, or graduate a program, or reach a milestone of some sort. Then we stand in the after. The applause has died down, we have a sense of accomplishment, and we return to the mundane. Only now, something has changed. We have become something else, yet we remain the same as we once were. In this “after” we must learn to keep going. No greater picture of this exists than middle-aged men talking about high school sports. That championship they won back in their youth. They remember it like it was yesterday! The sad truth is, often these men have not learned to live in the after. Living in the after means embracing what has happened and then moving on to something greater. The people who live well move on from their successes. Each day presents a new opportunity to grow and learn. Living in the after means we strive to do that. We celebrate successes passed and press forward to future goals. Living in the after means we acknowledge our success, give sufficient time for celebration, then move on to other things.

There will be times when the after seems like too much. Recognizing the truth is difficult and sometimes unbearable. Still, we must learn to live well in the after and that takes legitimate emotional and psychological effort. To live in the after does not mean that you forget the past. Rather, having embraced what has occurred and moved forward, living well requires us to process what has happened and that sometimes takes a great deal more work. In order to accomplish this, we need to seek help in three ways. First, we need a confidant – someone who can listen to us. A person who can offer an ear to our meandering with the occasional comment. Second, we need a community that knows our past and will walk with us into our future. This needs to be a community that will overlook failures and celebrate success. Third, we need someone to push us. No one likes to be pushed, though everyone likes the result. We all need someone who can encourage us to run further or faster and, in the afters of life, we need just that. Living well in the after is accomplished best in community.

At my church, we are a congregation striving to live in afters. We struggle together and press forward. It is difficult but worth it. If you don’t have a community that will walk through your afters with you, come join us as we all struggle together. For more information about the church go here: sgfbrazoria.org

Difficult Passages? 3 Questions to Ask

Can we agree that the Bible has some weird stories? Is that fair to say? I mean really… there is a story of an ax head that falls into a river and the prophet of God makes it float by throwing a stick into the water (2 Kings 6:1-7). There is another about a patriarch who refuses to give his youngest son in marriage to his widowed daughter-in-law… she pretends to be a prostitute and the patriarch impregnates her (Genesis 38). Yet another, the prophet Elisha is mocked by some teenagers because he is bald… so he calls bears from the wilderness to EAT THEM (2 Kings 2:23-25). There are tons more weird stories in the Bible. Each story bears its own unique difficulties. Sometimes theological, sometimes pragmatic, always frustrating.

As I grew in the Lord and began to read my Bible with greater regularity I began to ask the question, “Why is this in the Bible?” I would find myself reading a story like the aforementioned ax head story and laugh saying to myself, “well, that’s interesting?” I’d struggle to answer the question of, “why does this story matter?” I know that every story has a purpose. God preserved these particular stories to tell us something. Indeed, in the words of the Storybook Bible, I read to my kids, “Every story whispers His name.” Sometimes those are obvious and sometimes they are not so obvious.

Embracing this struggle to understand is the first step in grasping the text of Scripture. Sometimes God lays the answer before us in “bull-horn moments” and sometimes understanding takes a little work on our behalf. As a simple man who strives to hear the voice of God in the pages of Scripture, I’ve developed some questions that help me to hear Him. Maybe you struggle too? If you do, maybe these will help:

  1. What does God do in this story?

Shortly after graduating from seminary, I remember reading a particular passage and asking this question. I sought the insight of some of my former professors on the matter and found their answers helpful. Though all the professors offered insights that I had missed, the best answer came in the form of a question – “What does God do in this story?” On the surface, this question seems simple and easy to answer. But what about the stories where He is not mentioned or does not speak? Genesis 34? The book of Esther? Multiple Judges? But, the Bible’s main character is God. So, He is the chief actor in the story of the Bible. We must seek to see what God is doing. Even in His silence, He is present and active.

  1. What does this passage tell me about the character of God?

In Sunday school as a child, I was taught to think about the Bible in moral terms. What was the Bible saying that I should or shouldn’t do? Now don’t get me wrong, the Bible has something to say about morality and does guide you to what you should do and should not do. Yet, when we moralize the stories of Scripture before asking this question, we inadvertently neglect the primary purpose of the text. The purpose is to teach us about God and His character. It is not a list of right and wrongs, but a guide to knowing God. So, a good question to ask is, “What does this passage say about God?” Your answer should never be, “nothing.” You may have to think heavy and hard about it but the fruit of that labor will be magnificent.

  1. What do other passages say about this one?

“Scripture interprets Scripture!” the professor almost yelled in fervor. His jaw clenched as he decried people who would interpret Scripture by their own experience. If Jesus says a passage in the Old Testament means something, then that is what it means. If Paul applies a text to the church, then that text is to be applied to the church. It doesn’t matter how you feel about it. It says what it says. If the Gospels say that Jesus is the fulfillment of Isaiah 53, then Israel is NOT the suffering servant, that title is claimed by the Messiah! This question takes some digging. Get yourself a good cross-reference Bible and dig in. Put in the work, you won’t regret it.

Galatians 3:7-9; Brief Thoughts

7Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. 8And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” 9So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

In Scripture, Abraham is counted righteous before he is given the law of circumcision. Effectively, he is granted righteousness through faith before he becomes the patriarch of Israel. In Genesis 12, God promises to be Abraham’s shield, give him reward, and offspring (Gen. 12:1, 5). It is in this moment that the Bible makes the declarative statement that, “Abraham believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 12:6). Following this statement, God makes a covenant with Abraham. This is a covenant based on faith, not law. It is a covenant that guarantees salvation for those who believe! Two chapters later, God gives Abraham the covenant of circumcision. Here is a law, two chapters later. Faith saves in chapter 15, the law is given later. The law does not save, it simply sets God’s people apart from the world. Another way to put it – God’s people believe differently than the world and therefore live by a different morality.

The law cannot save, however beautiful it may be. The law serves to point men to their need for Christ. As a person strives to be righteous by the law, they will inevitably find an inability to save themselves. Thus, it is those who believe the LORD and live in subsequent faith that are recipients of the promise of a better land and offspring of Abraham. Romans 4:13-25 explains that it is not those who strive to be righteous by the law, but those who have faith in Jesus’s righteousness who receive salvation. So here Paul echoes the same truth – that those who believe in Christ are those who are saved. Those that claim some sort of racial or legal right hold no claim to salvation. It is those who trust in Jesus that share in the faith of Abraham.

Paul further explains that Scripture has always testified to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Scripture saw ahead of time that God was going to extend salvation beyond one people group. In His infinite mercy, God has always sought out people who would trust Him for salvation. The message of the Gospel and the forgiveness of God is prevalent from the beginning of the Scriptural record. It has always been the plan to redeem all who have faith through Jesus. How wonderful it is to consider that the faithful have always been in God’s eyes! He has always had in His heart to bless the nations. Indeed, even in choosing a single people group to be His own, God has blessed the nations.

Consider the ramifications of such a truth. God chose a people that would spread His glory, in order that those who were not of that particular group might become chosen. He has set His affections on the faithful from before they could be faithful. His goal has always been to bless the nations through faith. What a tremendous God! He does not depend on your pedigree or your works. Rather, He determines to save those whom He so desires through faith. Faith is the pedigree of salvation. Faith is the identifying mark that allows access. Faith is the entry pass into the Kingdom. By faith, we are called heirs of Abraham’s promise!

Oh Christian, can you see how beautiful this is? God made a way of salvation and then guarded it, keeping it safe for you to access it. He laid down a law that would point to that way of salvation, and He walked in front of you for the glory of His name and the purpose of Salvation. So, when you doubt you are held by the Most High God, remember this great truth – God set forth the promise for you in Abraham. You are a child of God, not because you earned it or have been born into it. You are a child of God because He has chosen you through faith!

Walking with Pain, part 2

(This is part 2 of a 2 part posting about living with chronic pain. A brief description of my own struggle is at the end of this article.)

Recently a dear friend asked again, “you doing ok? Are you in pain?” I thought for a moment and responded softly, “I’m always in pain. Today is just a normal day though, thanks for checking on me.” I am grateful for my brothers and sisters who walk life with me and ask in general concern after my well-being. They are concerned and express that concern with love and compassion. I hope you have friends like mine. I hope you are aware of their struggles. I hope you know believers who will walk with you in an understanding way. My community of faith has loved me in ways unimaginable. IN order to encourage you to love others well, I’d like to share some of those ways below.

  1. They forgive my stubbornness and, at times, let me sit in my stubbornness. People who live with pain are often stubborn. We will not admit we need help and will frequently make things worse when we are struggling. That is why we need people around us who will overlook our stubbornness and on occasion, just let us be stubborn. I can remember a dear friend watching me struggle to work on a minor construction site. This brother simply told me, “Hey, you can sit down. We got this.” I responded by rolling my eyes and pushing through the pain. My friend chuckled to himself and just kept working alongside me until we finished. No judgment, no confrontation, just patiently waiting for me to recognize the absurdity of the entire scenario. Finally, I recognized my own foolishness and said, “thanks for working alongside me, bro. And thanks for looking out for me.” He didn’t hold my stubbornness against me, though it probably slowed him down. He forgave it and simply let me sit in my stubbornness until I was willing to admit my weakness.
  2. They are silent when it’s obvious that I’m hurting. As I said in part one, no one asks if you’re in pain when you’re curled up in a fetal position. They simply acknowledge the pain they see. However, my community does more than this. They remain silent when I am hurting and sit with me in the pain. As Job’s friends sat with him before speaking, so my community sits with me. They commiserate with me by simply being. A healthy community mourns together in times of despair, rejoices together in times of triumph, and engages in the trial of life together.
  3. They help without asking. As mentioned above, people who live with some sort of chronic pain tend to not ask for help. Pain is normative, so, in some weird way, it seems inappropriate to ask for help. My community simply sees the need and answers it. When members of the church have had difficult weeks our community rallies around them without asking permission. We take meals to one another, offer rides, and sometimes just bring a treat to the afflicted brother or sister. It’s beautiful. I remember one specifically difficult week when a church member, aware of my difficulties, just called and said, “Hey, can I come to get your older two kids and take them out for ice-cream?” The member saw my need, saw I was stressed and hurting, and then answered that need. I hope you have such a family of faith.
  4. They check on me regularly. I meet with several brothers one on one and in group settings each week. We ask one another how we are doing and how we can encourage each other. This is a basic reality of the Christian community. Often these brothers will intentionally ask how my foot, head, or hands have been lately. They want to know so that they can be in prayer for me, but they also want to know because they want to help where they can. They are prepared for me to mention a need or a struggle. They check in regularly because they know I will probably not mention anything. In doing this, they encourage me to be open and honest with my struggles and delight in the community.
  5. They treat me as though I am strong and allow me to be weak. My church family deals with me as though I am strong enough to overcome almost anything… but they understand that I cannot. They respect me as a leader and friend, so they let me lead and they do not challenge my every decision. Yet, when I am struggling they come alongside and offer aid without insisting on it. In this way they show me they believe in me. They inadvertently cheer me on. Their actions proclaim, “We know you can do it!” While simultaneously offering, “We are here if you need us!”
  6. They worship with me and point me to Christ. This is the most important gift my church gives me. They worship with me. They stand alongside me and sing, pray, preach, and disciple each other. They offer grace to one another. They care for one another. My community does not expect me to do all the work of ministry. They work right alongside me to serve others and spread the gospel.

If you struggle with chronic pain, what are some things your community does to help you? Put it in the comments.

A brief description of what I deal with:

I have a disease called “scleroderma.” Before you go googling, my type is called “Crest” and it is not systemic. At least not yet. Right now it is manifested primarily in my left foot and left sinus cavity/nostril.

The normal state of my ailment: On my foot, the skin is cracked, hardened, and dry. The nerve endings are especially sensitive, and I have a constant sense of strain in my foot. It feels a bit like a constant foot cramp in the toes and arch. In my nose/sinus, there is a constant hardened blister that occasionally pops and bleeds. I have a pretty consistent and normative mild head-ache. It feels like I was hit in the face thirty minutes ago. You know… not as bad as when you’re hit right away, but a residual ache. My left-hand doesn’t close like it should, I have difficulty gripping things or opening bottles, and it occassionally (rarely) hurts.

When I have a “flare-up” – in my foot, I limp and have what feels like shooting nerve pain. In my nose/sinus, I will get a severe migraine and won’t be able to focus (I’m told I preach really well when I have one of these! I’m pretty good at hiding when I don’t feel good.)

So that’s me… I wanted to be clear, this is not the same kind of debilitating pain that some struggle with. It is not cancer, I am not near death. It is not as difficult as my friends who struggle with spinal issues, MS, cancers, and the like. They deal with much more pain than I do. So please, encourage them. For me, though this thing hurts, I am not crushed by it as some people are by greater afflictions. Thanks for listening. Now, go and encourage the people in your life who struggle with chronic pain.

Walking with Pain, part 1

(This blog is in two parts. The first, below, makes three observations about pain in the life of a believer. The second will comment on how my community encourages me to live and worship well in the midst of my pain. Spoiler, they’re awesome at it!)

It happened again. Another dear friend or family member asked if I was in pain. It always perplexes me how to respond to this. You see, I have a disease (scleroderma) that comes with some odd side-effects. The side-effects are not debilitating, just mildly painful and irritating. They’re simple. A lack of mobility in my limbs, pretty regular sinus blisters on the inside of my nose and sinuses, and a pretty constant sense of dry, tight, and cracked skin on my left foot. So… in one sense, I’m always in pain… but that’s normal. Is that what this compassionate friend is asking? Maybe. Then there are days when a sinus blister pops and bleeds, or my foot flares up in severe pain and I can’t walk without a limp, or I can’t grip anything in my hands and keep dropping things, or I’m laid up with a massive migraine and feel as though I can’t move. Those days are painful and the answer would most certainly be, “wha? Can you turn off the lights? Can I just cease to exist until this passes?” Typically, people don’t ask if you’re in pain when they see you writhing on the floor or wincing in pain. They ask if you’re in pain when your left eye doesn’t open quite as far as your right one. They ask if you’re in pain when you struggle to keep up in a conversation. They ask when they feel as though you’re not yourself… I am often not myself.

Having dealt with a kind of chronic pain for the last 8 years, I’ve come to some simple realizations I’d like to share. These are by no means exhaustive. They are generalizations and might not ALWAYS fit the circumstantial suffering of everyone. But, here goes:

  1. For the believer, pain is good.
  2. For the cripple, pain is normal.
  3. Pain is annoying, but not defeating.

1. For the believer, pain is a good thing. I have heard many preachers cry out that God does not intend for believers to go through pain or painful circumstances. These declarations seem grounded in Scripture as they often follow a verse like Jeremiah 29:11. However, verses such as this can be misconstrued as saying that there will be no suffering for those who live right or those who simply have enough faith. Yet, this interpretation rips these powerful statements from their context and avoids the equally prevalent promises of Jesus such as John 16:33, which promises “tribulation” or “suffering.” The reality is not that we are removed from pain and suffering. Rather, we are placed above it. 2 Corinthians 4:8-9 explains that though we suffer, we are not overcome by that suffering. Indeed, pain is natural and Christians are to use it to our benefit. There are many benefits to suffering/pain… below are three of them.

  1. Suffering drives us to community. In Galatians, Paul reminds us to cling to community during our suffering (Gal. 6:2).
  2. Suffering makes us long for glory. (Romans 8:18-25)
  3. Suffering matures us. (Romans 5:3-5)

2. For the Cripple, pain is normal. I once sat with a godly man who has cerebral palsy. He told me about how often people will apologize to him for his condition and attempt to sympathize with his struggle. He tilted his head and said, “I don’t understand, this is just normal for me.” People who struggle with chronic pain and disease often are simply living in a new normal. While they may occasionally lament the pain, they are existing in a new normal. For the cripple, this is just life. Thus, it is a difficult question to answer when someone asks about pain. Do we say that we are always in pain? Do we suggest that we are not in pain? Are they asking if we are normal right now, or are we especially different at this moment or are they asking about our normal state?

3. Pain is annoying, but not defeating. Chronic pain is annoying but it does not defeat the Christian. While the first point in suffering may lead to our maturity, do not assume that all pain is somehow purposeful. We live in a sin-filled world and sometimes pain just is. Pain is simply a reality of life. It does not require a purpose to exist… It needs no permission from you… Sin exists and therefore suffering exists. Annoying and present, but not victorious. One of the most profound sentiments about suffering was articulated best when a man said, “God does not always take you out of suffering. Often, He places you on a rock ABOVE it!” You see, the suffering is still present. The circumstances are still there, but you have been made to live above the circumstances. Consider Job, who sat in ashes suffering for a great deal of time while waiting on the Lord. Consider the New Testament saints who endured suffering with much rejoicing in the “sharing of Christ’s suffering” (2 Cor. 1:5). Consider further the saints who came after the New Testament, the faithful martyrs of the faith and even the pastors in your own life experience. Pain is not ALWAYS purposeful, but the Christian will always strive to grow through pain.

Why I Love Children in Worship

I was editing the church podcast this morning and I heard the joyful coo of a baby in the background of the sermon. (If you’re a regular listener, sorry I’m a bit behind on getting those uploaded). I laughed, remembering another time when this sweet boy threw his arms in the air and shouted “tough-down!” while another baby screeched at a pivotally emotional moment in the sermon. It was a sweet, albeit distracting, moment. I love it! (Someday I’ll compile a book of “children in church” moments.)

I love the sound of children in the service! When they cry, I’ve tried to incorporate it into illustrations. I’ve held children that were walking around the front during the service. I’ve simply pressed through and ignored the cries. I often try to remind everyone, “it’s ok, we all love children here.” Sometimes they distract, sometimes they don’t. Always, they are a joy! Here are a few reasons why I love children in the service.

  1. They make me a better worshiper. Worship is a skill that is developed with practice. I want to learn to do it well! As a fellow worshiper, the cries and grunts of little ones push me to work harder to worship well. Just as when standing next to someone who can’t seem to sing on key or keep the rhythm, I am pressed to focus on Christ and press through distraction. Similar to sitting next to one who can’t stop fidgeting, so a child squirming forces me to work harder to focus. Often I’m convicted that the little one that is laughing or crying and the person who cannot seem to stay on key are both worshiping with greater abandon than I am able to muster. So, I have to press harder into Christ and I am grateful for the “joyful noise” that I must learn to worship through.
  2. Children remind me that worship is a corporate activity. Their sweet noises inspire me to love God with greater abandon and remind me that worship is corporate, not simply individual. We are a body of believers gathered together to worship. We are to work for the good of one another. So children are part of that body. I have an obligation to figure out how to worship with the hand and the feet of Christ! I cannot simply expect the feet to not dance while I am exercising the mouth. We are a body together, we worship together. Sometimes that worship looks like a peaceful pasture, sometimes it looks like a thunderstorm, always it is worship. So my goal must be to work in worship WITH the entire body.
  3. A child’s need to cry reminds me of my own need to cry out to God! I can often be too intellectual. I forget that my heart and Spirit groan with words un-utterable. A baby has a way of jarring me from my emotionally detached state and reminding me of my need. As a pastor, their cries remind me that Jesus answers my own cries. Their laughter delights my soul and I see the delight of God in the joy of children. It’s no wonder that Jesus says, “let the little children come to me!” When I hear the cry of a child, I am reminded of the gospel given to me, a child. I am held in my Father’s arms as His greatness is proclaimed!
  4. Children remind me that I am only one voice in the body. Their noises challenge me to remember that I am not the most important person in the room and the voice of the Lord extends to all ages! Preachers get this twisted on occasion. We start to think that what we have to say is more important than anything else. But, the Spirit sometimes wants to work in the voice of the baby, not the scholar. My voice is not the only voice proclaiming the greatness of God today. If a church begins to think that the pastor is the sole voice proclaiming worship, then that church needs to learn more about worship.
  5. Finally, children inspire admiration in me for the parents. What a joy it is for me to preach and worship with parents who work so hard to train their children in the Lord! If you struggle with children being in worship, I get it… it’s hard and it is OK for you to have difficulty. If you are a parent striving to raise even your babies in the corporate worship setting, you’re amazing! Thank you. Thank you for allowing me to see your struggle and help when I am able. Thank you for pressing into the community despite the awkwardness. Thank you for coming, even though it is hard to manage. I appreciate you. We know it is difficult. We know you are tired. We want to help and lift you up.

Full disclosure: At SGF we have a nursery for 3 and under during the sermon only. We ask that parents keep their kids in the service for the music, scripture reading, and prayer. We recognize this is difficult for some, but at SGF we are all in this together. So, if you come to visit, we will embrace your children being in the service. Occasionally we will not have nursery and just press through the difficulties children sometimes present, because we love them and we love you. We all love children… we’ll help as best we can… Thanks for reading.

8 Qualities to Develop Before Going into Ministry.

I am a young pastor. As a result, other young men look at me and ask about going into pastoral ministry. One of the common things people will ask is what they need to be good at before they start training to go into ministry. In my 17 years of ministry, I would say these are things that one needs to be good at before start training for church ministry. They are necessary disciplines BEFORE one starts trying to lead others. They are things God can teach you along the way, but they are best as disciplines you implement before the pressures of ministry are added. So, if you want to be in ministry, here’s my list. Every pastor has a list of things they look for in younger ministers… Take mine with a grain of salt… before I went into ministry I was pretty solid on 5 of these… the other three I have grown in. It might be that you follow the Lord and He grows you in these places as you work. But, when I am asked what qualities need to be in a young man before ministry, these are the ones that come to mind.

  1. Attend church. If you will not be disciplined to attend church before you are in leadership, then you probably are not ready to be in leadership. The fortitude to attend church when you’re not in leadership is the same fortitude that will enable you to persist among dry seasons and difficulties. Many young men think that they will be good leaders in church ministry, but then they refuse to discipline themselves to attend church with any regularity. If one will not discipline themselves to attend church when they are not in leadership, then it is highly unlikely that they will have the discipline to lead a congregation.
  2. Read your Bible. Ministry is the work of the study and teaching of the Word. So, you need to read the Bible. You don’t need to know the original languages before starting in ministry, though it is helpful. You don’t need to be able to preach wonderfully, though that is an advantage. You don’t even need to have large portions memorized! But, you do need a love for the Word of God. If you cannot discipline yourself to study and read the Word, then you will not discipline yourself to teach it. So, read it… every day.
  3. Worship well privately. Part of leading in ministry is leading other people to have a deep personal relationship with the Living God! As a manifestation of that relationship, there ought to be some sort of private worship that you regularly engage in. This private worship is what will save you in moments of despair in the ministry. It will be the balm necessary for you to press through difficult situations. This private worship is a pre-requisite for survival in your training. Every church has dry spells. We cannot always depend on the community to fuel our worship. We must learn to fuel our Spirits. Only then will we be able to lead others.
  4. Worship well corporately. One of the marks of Christianity is corporate worship. In Acts 2, the first church begins in corporate worship. Church History records corporate worship as an act that EVERY church engaged in regularly. Preaching, singing, prayer, and feasting all were weekly and normative in the church. The best people to worship with are those who are totally absorbed in worshiping the living God. I stood next to a young man who couldn’t sing well and was constantly bumping into the person next to him (me). At first, I was bothered and considered his zeal an impediment to my ability to worship. I grumbled quietly and moved a few inches. Suddenly I was bumped again. Slightly irritated I turned to look at him, determined to say something. As I turned I felt his arm wrap around my shoulders, eyes filled with tears, he was singing at the top of his lungs and I was drawn into the presence of the Living God! This young man worshiped with abandon and it was contagious. Immediately I forgot my shame and joined in the worship. Be like that before you try to lead others to be that way.
  5. Learn to be wrong. I am wrong often and I know it. I am comfortable with being wrong. I learned early to accept when I am wrong and move forward. I will seek to see the truth and, if someone presents a better case, I’ll gladly say I was wrong. As a pastor, you need to be able to be wrong. Churches will often prove you wrong. You’ll be wrong about people, passages, policy, and even Jesus. A good leader will recognize when they are wrong, apologize, and figure out how to move forward. If a pastor cannot admit when he is wrong, then he will not be able to lead people.
  6. Learn to be wrong, when you’re probably right. I distinctly remember being scolded by a person about something I said in a sermon. I was young and their statement was false. They accused me of something I had not said and misunderstood something I had said in the message. I apologized for what they heard me say and simply said, “That was not right of me, please forgive me.” I was pretty certain I hadn’t said what they accused me of so, afterward, I went back and listened to the sermon. Indeed, they were wrong. I had never said what they accused me of saying. However, they heard what they heard and as a leader, it is not mine to correct perception. My job is to help people move beyond perceived offense and model granting grace. If I had to be known as right or gracious, I’ll choose gracious. So, I’ll be happy to be wrong if it means I can model grace to those who believe themselves to be right even if they are wrong.
  7. Learn to listen. It is difficult to listen when you know things. Perhaps the first step in listening is recognizing that we don’t know everything. I have a dear brother who always says, “Better to stay silent and thought a fool than to open your mouth and prove it.” The Proverbs put it this way, “Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent” (Proverbs 17:28). Being silent and listen. Prove that you can learn before you start trying to teach.
  8. Learn grace extended. This is perhaps the chief and most helpful perspective I had before training for ministry. To read more about it go here.

Again, take these with a grain of salt, I learned many of these growing up. Some I still grow in. If you’re a pastor, what’s your list to give to young men who ask what they need to be before they go into ministry? Leave it in comments.

How we Address Error: 3 problems, 5 requests

In recent days famous Christians (particularly in the SBC) have been arguing about various issues within the church. Issues range from the nature of the atonement to the role of women in the church to how much poetic license we should allow in worship music. Before you read any further, I have no intention of solving those issues in this blog post. I only want to address the manner in which we are discussing these things. To be clear, I do not always do these things well.

Necessary disclosure: Sovereign Grace Fellowship of Brazoria (the church I serve) is a member of our local SBC Association (the GCBA) and we are a part of the Southern Baptist of Texas Convention (the state convention.) We associated when we planted in 2016 with the confidence that God was leading us to do so and we have not regretted that association. As a church that strives to be a healthy gospel-centered church, we believe this to be a valuable association to enable us to do more Kingdom work than we could accomplish on our own.

But, as of late, I have personally been disappointed by our famous representatives. They have given into snippy argumentation rather than loving engagement with one another. So, in this post, I intend to line out some bad habits we have developed as a Christian culture in America (this is not exhaustive, I promise I’ll keep it brief). Then I’d like to lay out a few ways I hope people would approach me when I write something or preach something that people believe is in error. You can feel free to skim as I put stuff in bold for easy reading. Ready: let’s go!

PROBLEMS:

  1. We lack charity: In response to each other, there has been little charity. Sadly, it has become a rare occasion to grant someone the benefit of the doubt. Rather than asking for clarification, we lash out in twitter-storms at our accusers or post passive-aggressive comments on our social media platforms. This is not helpful. In this way, we are behaving much like junior high students who have yet to learn how to engage in honest, thoughtful dialogue. 1 Corinthians 16:13-14 admonishes us to “stand firm as men” AND to “let all be done in love!” The mark of a Christian is love, or charity, (John 13:35) particularly “agape” love – love that is self-sacrificing. We must consider what we say and do in the context of this defining marker.
  2. We’ve embraced sound bites: Much of what has been spoken is based on hearsay and short comments captured in sound bite formats. This should not surprise us as our culture thrives on the sound bite. Our news is boiled down to 145 characters and much of our opinions are formulated on the basis of short pithy phrases caught on cell phone video. The problem with this is that sound-bites lack clarity. 1 Peter 3:15 admonishes us to “be ready to give an answer for the hope that is in us!” The word here for “answer” can be rendered defense or the classical definition – apology. It implies a well thought out response. Sound-bites are rarely well thought out.
  3. We don’t finish books: One of the most troubling realities I have witnessed in my work as a pastor is that most leaders do not finish the books they start. This is troubling in the sense that it indicates a lack of full engagement with the author’s ideas. Most pastors I know have copious books on their shelves and seldom finish or read all of them. In the same way, our Christian culture seldom investigates the sound bites in a thorough manner. Yet Paul exhorts Timothy to “consider all that I am saying, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything” (2 Tim 2:7). The exhortation to “consider ALL” seems to indicate that you should listen to the full argument before formulating your response. In our culture, however, the sound bite is accepted as if it is the complete and authoritative response of the speaker. This leads to tragic misunderstandings and demonization of ideas. Finish the book!

How I would like people to respond to me (take note- each of these assume that I have communicated poorly or I am actually wrong. I am placing myself as the errant brother in these examples.) –

  1. Assume that I am simply not clear enough or that I did not mean to express heresy. I have yet to meet a Christian teacher who purposely accepts heresy. The genuine believers that I know are trying their best to teach well. More often than not, if they are shown in Scripture where the error of their teaching is, they often do a 180. If you ever catch me in error, please assume that I did not intentionally venture into error. I may be utterly convinced that I am right, but I also may have just failed to communicate clearly.
  2. Ask for clarification: As a pastor, clarity is something that is extremely important and I am sad to say that I am not always clear. Sometimes that is because I don’t have the grasp that I should on linguistic nuance. Sometimes it is because I have not been able to crystallize the concept in my head. Sometimes it is because I am wrong. But, it is NEVER because I am intentionally trying to be false. Ask me to clarify the position I am taking and then go from there.
  3. Grant that I can be a Christ-follower and be wrong. Christians don’t always get everything right. Peter had to be confronted by Paul in Galatians 2, Paul had to be confronted by Barnabas in Acts 15, and even Timothy required some admonition from Paul! Christians do not always do what is right and they do not always get everything correct. I can be devoted to Jesus and still get some things wrong. Please consider this before condemning me as anathema.
  4. Present to me a thorough argument from Scripture and trust the Spirit to open my eyes if I’m wrong. Being a pastor invites critique from theologically minded brothers. Indeed, often people who have started to study at a deep level are quick to critique the pastor’s work and sermons. When you need to challenge something I say, please do so thoroughly. Many people ask a question with a larger/underlying question hidden behind the first. (Example: one man asks, “what do you think about famous Christian X?” Famous Christian X just wrote an article endorsing avocados. What they really want to know is what you think about avocados. But they didn’t ask about avocados, they asked about famous person X, who just endorsed Avocados… their real question is about avocados but I have no way of knowing that.) Give the entire context of your argument and grant me the privilege of struggling with a complete discussion.
  5. Be willing to accept that I may not be ready to go where you are yet. I may be the weaker brother in this discussion (as I have assumed I am for all these examples). Please grant me grace and recognize that I am still growing in Christ. I may not be ready to accept your position as viable or Biblical. If your view is correct, then the Spirit will work in me (potentially through your discussions) to correct my error. Be patient, I may not be where you are, but we’re following the same King and He will lead us.

Are there anythings you would add? How would you want someone to confront you if you were errant?

Photo by Frida Bredesen on Unsplash

Galatians 2:11-15; brief thoughts

11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. 13 And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”

Conformity is a common unspoken demand of any society. When someone joins a community that community has a defining set of social norms. Sometimes those norms are explained and clearly articulated. More often those expectations are unspoken and are not so clearly defined. In order to truly integrate into the community, the adherent must submit to these demands in order to be considered a legitimate member.

As in any group, Christianity demands a conformity of sorts. The problem is that sin often corrupts our ability to discern the difference between what Christ demands and what we demand. As a result of sin, we demand that people conform to us. We have an unwritten expectation that people who come to share in Christ must behave and look as we do. They must submit to the same societal norms in which we have been immersed. When we insist on such an ethnocentric legalistic expression of Christianity, we miss the Gospel. The Gospel reaches across cultural and societal norms to establish life through the pursuit of God and His life! Indeed, Jesus does not require the Pharisees to surrender their religious customs of hand and foot washing when he goes to have a meal with them. Neither does Jesus require his fishing buddies and tax collecting friends behave as the Pharisees. He opens His arms to both groups and rescues any who will believe. He lays no additional law upon His followers.

In obedience to the Gospel, the early church opened her arms to anyone who would trust in Christ for righteousness. Peter and the disciples spoke a variety of tongues at Pentecost. They did not demand everyone learn Hebrew. God showed Peter that the Gentile, Cornelius, was admitted to the Kingdom, giving Peter a vision that defied the dietary restrictions of the Jew. He did not demand Cornelius become a Jew. Further, the model we have from Paul and the apostles at the Jerusalem counsel is one of reasoning together to understand overt Scriptural commands and exercising freedom where Scripture is silent.

Still, Peter and the apostles were just men and, even they, fall to hypocrisy at times. When Peter was worshiping with the gentile brothers at Antioch, there came a moment of such weakness. The “Circumcision party” came to join in the worship and Paul witnessed the shaming of the gospel message. Peter, desiring to be approved by these brothers, withdrew from the gentile believers.

Why did Peter withdraw? It is not common to see this particular apostle seek to accommodate the whims of men. He has a reputation as headstrong and often taking the leadership role. Perhaps Peter thought he could win over these Jews to the Gospel by showing himself to be disciplined in religious affection as they. Perhaps he was simply afraid that he would lose his prestige among the Jews, maybe even rationalizing that a loss of prestige for him would be the same as a loss for the gospel. Whatever his reasoning, Peter shows favoritism and Paul addresses him directly.

Paul’s response to Peter seems brazen and very confrontational. Indeed, Paul addresses Peter “to his face,” but he does so only because “he stood condemned!” Paul’s response to Peter was bold and forward for three obvious reasons. First, Peter was obviously in contradiction to the gospel and was in danger of God’s discipline. Paul states that Peter “stood condemned.” In saying this, Paul is framing the scene as one in which Peter is in danger of God’s intervention. He is guilty of wrongdoing and it is an act of mercy to confront him. Confronting Peter as an errant brother spares him from being disciplined as a disobedient son. Second, Peter was leading others away from gospel community. Gospel community includes ALL tribes, tongues, and nations. It is not restricted to Jewish people alone but includes gentiles as well. When Peter showed favoritism to the Jewish brothers, he was acting in contradiction to the gospel message itself. So Paul publically addressed Peter in an effort to clarify and defend the gospel witness as he states, “their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel.” Third, Paul is concerned with defending the reputation of his brothers in Christ. When Paul saw that Peter and the brothers were living in hypocrisy, he recognized a need to preserve them through a minor error that could have massive implications. Hypocrisy is a dangerous poison that can damage the testimony of even the most devout believer.

Through Paul’s example, we can see the proper way to confront one another in gospel community. As we strive to walk in gospel obedience together we must first check our motives. Paul confronts Peter because of a gospel motivation. He does not desire power, he seeks to honor the gospel and preserve his brother’s integrity. We must consider the implications of what is being confronted. Paul addresses Peter publically because multiple people were actually being addressed. He recognized that his true target was a large group of believing brothers who needed to be corrected. Finally, when we approach each other we must strive to pose the question, and not simply demand correction. Questions allow for introspection and self-examination. Paul challenges Peter and poses the question, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” His point is well made. Yet, in posing it as a question he leaves room for rebuttal. Pose your confrontation in the form of a question and you are offering grace to the person you are challenging.

Oh, that we would always confront one another with such grace!

Where Are You?

At first, the question “where are you?” seems a mere geographical inquiry. As though the only value in the question relates to a compass and a map. Yet, the question bears some deeper, nuanced consideration. It begs a sort of self-examination. Not unlike, “How are you?” or “Who are you?” These simple introductory questions can often be overlooked, but ought to give us pause.

Where are you?

To be fair, I’ll answer first: Where am I?

I am in that place where I wouldn’t be surprised if the glorious blazing ball of fury that seems so determined to destroy Texas in the summer, was revealed to be nothing more than a large light bulb. I have been exposed to the majestic reality of the Omnipotent Being, thus the great sky candle serves only to stand as a dwarfed microcosm of His greatness. The more I learn of my King’s glory, the less I am impressed by the things I am given to compare to Him.

I am settled in the mud, ever pressing up-hill. Life may not always be wonderful or grandiose, but it is life, and it is real… and it is great! I have discovered an abundance from which I can draw freely in Jesus. A well-spring of full-life with unimaginable graces. I’m in the place where life is real and delightfully full.

I am on the cusp of fame, resting securely and peacefully in my obscurity. That place where my voice is heard by any I impose it upon, while simultaneously remaining in the confident silence of a shadow in a world of searchlights. I am spinning round the mountain of God laughing freely with my King over the spoken voice of self-proclaimed rulers who have no power over my soul.

I am in the hands of a mighty King who declares love for me in spite of myself. A place where I can be “not ok” and know that I am not going to remain in such a state forever. Walking with the King of Glory through bramble patches and clear pastures only rarely needing Him to carry me (though I am sure it is more often than I imagine.)

I am in a community of faith that exalts our Lord and faithfully pursues the mission of God. We labor side by side, though imperfect in our expressions, exalting the King and advancing the gospel. We care little for the trivial concerns of this life and are consumed with the next. We are here, but we are not here. We build our castles in the eternal sky where no rules of architecture constrain! We are in the heavens with our feet planted firmly in the promises of God.

I am in that place where music is sweet and full. Where melody fills my days and evenings as songs of grateful praise echo in the throats of my children and flow from my own heart as well. Where every morning brings beautiful songs of creation and creativity as each new day brings more reason to sing. In that place, I feel overwhelmed by the song of my Creator. The song that is changing my soul to be more like Him and more like who I was created to be.

So, that is where I am… where are you?