Monday, July 31, 2006
The slogan brought to mind something I've heard C.J. Mahaney say often. C.J.'s favorite day is Sunday. And his favorite place to be on Sunday is Covenant Life Church. For C.J., the happiest place on earth is gathered together with the Lord's people on the Lord's day at the Lord's church known as Covenant Life.
Several hundred dollars later, for my money, I'm with C.J. Of course, I already knew that before going to see the mouse and all his friends. But, this really came home to me over the past couple of weekends we've been away from CHBC. We've been unable to attend church due to sickness and traveling, and we've missed gathering with the Lord's people on the Lord's day. So, it seems fitting to end this series of posts with a reflection on the Lord's day.
In short, here's what I learned at CHBC: Sundays are the most exciting days of all.
Tozer once remarked that God's people really seem to be bored with God, hence low participation and low interest in the things of God. He's probably correct. I've observed as much in some churches I've attended or been a part of. And honestly, my heart is sometimes dull and my ears sometimes filled with wax when it comes to spiritual things.
But I observed an uncommon vitality in the corporate Lord's day gatherings at CHBC that leads me to believe that Sundays not only should be but can be the happiest times we experience in our local churches. And hey, if you've been to CHBC you know I'm not staking this claim on some notion of "exciting, dynamic" praise and worship services (which too often means a fair amount of emotionalism and entertainment over substantive, reflective engagement). Nope, the hymns are old, the musical accompaniment is mere, and all of the singing is congregational.
And if you've been to CHBC you know I'm not staking this claim on a posh new facility with superb parking and a Starbucks lounge somewhere on the premises. Nope. The main building and meeting area is nearly 100 years old, replete with stain glass windows and stiff wooden pews, and the parking (located as it is in the inner city) is limited to about 100 spaces with over 700 attending on a Sunday. We do provide juice, cookies, and coffee afterward, but you'll have to enjoy them while standing with 300 other people in a space that holds about 100 folks comfortably.
What makes Sundays such a happy time at CHBC (and I'd wager any church that has this experience) is the Godward longing that brings people there, and the fulfillment that follows so regularly. I've learned that the local church gathering can be the place where we most frequently "taste and see that the Lord is good."
We taste the goodness of the Lord in our shared times of prayer and singing. We savor the word of the Lord and see that He is good as we hear the Scriptures read and as the preached word goes out with power. And these are but the appetizers.
Then there is the fellowship that happens before, during and after the services. The exchange between the saints tends to center on the things of God rather than the Sunday afternoon football game or the week's politics (no small temptation in DC). What began as a meal offered through preaching becomes a feast that is lingered over and enjoyed well into the dinner hour at a fellow members home.
There is eagerness to delight in the day with God's people. Five hundred members show up for the morning service and some 300 or so return for the evening service where we again sing praises to our God, hear about and pray for a number of matters relevant to our life together as a church, and hear a short devotion/message from the opposite text of scripture preached in the morning. We rejoice together over marriage engagements, new marriages, good reports from ministry endeavors, births, and baptisms. We mourn together those who have left this life for the next and the occasional case of unrepentant sin leading to discipline. And we pray for all these things and especially for more opportunities to proclaim the gospel at home and abroad through missions. Our hearts are joined together more tightly as we call down heaven.
And you'd be hard pressed to find someone who would joyfully choose to miss either service. Miss a Lord's day at CHBC and you feel as though you've been in stasis in some time capsule only to be awakened a generation later. You wake with the pain of loss, and you ask the next several folks you see, "What did I miss?! What did I miss?!"
Most amazingly, this expectation to hear God speak and to witness the impact of His speaking in the lives of others is created with the most mere of approaches. It's created by preaching God's word, uncovering and applying its truth to the hearers who faithfully gather each Lord's day. I started this paragraph with "most amazingly." I suppose it's most amazing to me that God's word should excite and satisfy this way because I struggle at times to relax and let His word do His work. I believe, but I need the Lord to help my unbelief. And, I guess I started with "most amazingly" because so few others seem to trust that God's word is His normal means of administering grace to the hearers and effecting change. Such faith seems rare to me.
But I've learned that such faith is warranted. I've learned to not only believe in Jesus but to believe Jesus. To take Him at His word. "Those who hunger and thirst after righteousness shall be filled." He will "build His church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." And the result of His word and work is that Sundays in the local church are the happiest day and happiest place on earth... until the Lord returns and everyday shall be Sunday!
Sunday, July 30, 2006
Yesterday, I asked whether the American church was sufficiently prepared to suffer for the sake of Jesus' name. John MacArthur at PulpitLive is thinking about suffering and persecution. Dan Edelen at Cerulean Sanctum asks these questions: Have you ever wondered if you've naturally (through cultural osmosis) fallen into a lifestyle that is antithetical to real, vibrant Christianity? And worse, you're not sure how to change or you don't grasp what a more godly lifestyle looks like in America 2006?
Mel Duncan contends that, "Postmodernity has created the same problems in Christianity that the fall of the Berlin Wall did for western Europe and Industrialized Civilization." And Russ Moore warns "Don't drink the Kool-Aid!"
Saturday, July 29, 2006
"The Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas stands for the proposition that the government has no business regulating relationships between two consenting adults in the privacy of their own home," Jennifer Rudinger, executive director of the ACLU of North Carolina, said in a statement.As a churchman, this caught my eye because of the explicit condemnation of moral and biblical reasoning. If, as Ms. Rudinger put it, such laws "in this day and age defies logic and common sense" then the great mass of moral and religious people are by definition relics and misfits to say the least. This dismissive disdain for religious reasoning in the public square appeared prominently in the Vermont and Massachussets court rulings that established so-called domestic partnerships and gay marriage, respectively. Barack Obama's approach is certainly more "respectful" and smooth sounding, but it is essentially the same position.
She added that "the idea that the government would criminalize people's choice to live together out of wedlock in this day and age defies logic and common sense."
Preaching against certain sins falls under hate speech bans in a handful of countries that disdain biblical morality. I wonder how long before that's the explicit effort in this country, which prides itself on free speech (except when it topples the personal and "private" baals of sexual immorality)? Given a recent statement by a group of 250 radical pro-homosexual activists, the attempt may be just around the corner.
But this post isn't meant to be a lament of political and judicial current events. I'm interested in the state of the church--not so much in terms of its mobilization against the ruling in NC or others like it. Rather, I'm interested to know whether the American church is sufficiently prepared to suffer for righteousness' sake.
Perhaps the greatest defect in American theology is its rather anemic understanding of suffering. The church is comfortable materially and generally on easy terms with the world. She will count suffering for doing something stupid a real cross, but will she rejoice at being counted worthy to suffer for the name of Jesus, for doing good, for living godly in Christ Jesus? Will she preach the truth even when the tide of public opinion and jurisprudence turns swiftly against her?
For now, such a turn seems a remote possibility. But when the prophets of our age say "peace, peace," perhaps we should beware of the sudden travail likely to befall us. Jennifer Rudinger, like many people these days, justifies her position with one vague reason: "this day and age." Well, that's not really a reason. It's an ad hominem paint ball designed to splatter all those who aren't cool enough to get with the times. To enter the era with the rest of the enlightened.
Insert the phrase "this day and age" into any argument against the Scriptures, Jesus and the church and voila! Most of us in most of our churches find ourselves on the dark side of a rhetorical mountain, exiled to the land of antiquated ideas with people who have no real societal contribution to make even if we could somehow scale the linguistic cliff the phrase is used to erect. We're contained, marginalized, and dismissed with one meager phrase.
We could use better apologetic skills in the public square. We certainly need more godly men and women serving in positions of public stewardship and influence. And we should exercise every appropriate right of citizenship. But should those things fail and Christians are branded public enemy #1, will we stand and suffer whatever befalls us?
Peter boasted that he would not deny the Lord even if it meant his death. He denied the Lord three times before the rooster crowed. Peter's life is recorded for our instruction. We should not think more highly of ourselves than is warranted. We're far more like Peter than we think. Wouldn't it be wise for us to pray now, before we're in a pinch, that the Lord would give us grace to stand even when its unpopular, illegal, and deadly?
Friday, July 28, 2006
So, one must be watchful. You have to observe what you're taking into the body and how your body is reacting. You can't assume all foods are equal in nutritional content. And you can't assume that because "Johnny" or "Susie" can eat something and be perfectly fine that you can too. Discernment, carefulness, discipline... watchfulness is critical to becoming and remaining healthy physically. And so it is with the local church.
Watchfulness is required in so many ways. It's required in how you take in members.
It's necessary for caring for members once they're in the flock (Acts 20:28). I've been an elder in two good churches. But I don't think I realized how deliberate and extensive a ministry of "watching" is necessary to care well for the flock until I became an elder at CHBC. Every elders' meeting includes a couple of hours of prayer for the congregation and updating/discussing the "care list," a simple listing of members who need particular attention from the elders. Nearly every meeting features some time where we walk through a section of the church directory (say the letter "K") asking about and discussing the attendance and well-being of each member. It takes time to consider the diverse needs of individual members in your care. And I've learned that taking that time is essential to faithfully watching over the flock entrusted to our care and preserving the health of the church. Previously, my approach was ad hoc, reactive. Consequently, I had been fairly unfaithful in this charge until I saw how a deliberate plan and discipline was necessary for carrying this out.
It's also important to watch our conduct and our doctrine (1 Tim. 4:16). This is particularly true of pastors, but it's also true for every Christian (see C.J. Mahaney's excellent address from T4G on this issue). And helping the members to watch their lives (everything from career choices, courtship decisions, parenting, spiritual disciplines, etc.) and their doctrine (avoiding errors in their view of church, God, salvation, etc.). I've learned that indifference or neglect in matters of living and belief are slowly but surely poisonous to the life and health of individuals and the church.
Watchfulness in the public gathering improves the health of the church. Even being careful in what you call it ("public gathering" vs. "worship") has implications for how you understand it and how your people practice it. So, we wanted to avoid the wrong connotations that attach to the term "worship" when used of the Sunday morning gathering. We used "public gathering" because we were attempted to stress an "all-of-life" view of worship. This carries over to hymn selection and prayers. We desired to have gatherings filled with reverence and awe, a big view of God. So, we attempted to choose hymns and to compose prayers fitting for the text and theological theme for the service. And that, I learned, takes effort. And it takes a certain purposefulness in planning. It takes watchfulness.
To be sure, watchfulness extends to the preached word. CHBC has the practice of reviewing every segment of the Lord's day service, from Sunday school to hymns sung, to prayers, to the sermon and so on. Those become opportunities for encouragement and for pointing out areas of improvement. From time to time, watchful eyes are able to spot the loose or imprecise or incorrect phrasing or statement that might be problematic. Preachers learn, adjust, and improve through this practice. And the congregation benefits and learns from the practice. They, too, learn to listen differently, more intently.
And the discipline of watching is transferred from the pastors to the flock itself. Our churches are healthy when sheep watch out for other sheep. When there is a culture of meaningful membership that includes a certain openness of life between members. When older women teach the younger, and older men are examples for the younger men. When members disciple, instruct, mourn, and rejoice with one another. When mutual care is established, and when it's combined with grace and love, the church remains healthy.
I've learned a lot about being watchful at CHBC. I've also learned what watchfulness is not. It's not spying on your neighbors, gossipping, being unforgiving, playing gotcha!, or fostering mistrust. These are the opposite of watchfulness. These are the tools of the enemy. And I've learned at CHBC that these need to be watched out for and opposed if we're going to keep off that weight of sin that so easily besets us.
Thursday, July 27, 2006
We met when I drove my wife to an emergency medical clinic to attend to a chronic cough (she's fine). Jamal was our attending nurse and he seized on the opportunity to question me about a book I was reading at the time, The Prophet and the Messiah. Since that initial conversation of about an hour (read about it here), we've met again briefly at his office and for 3.5 hours yesterday over lunch. Thanks to the many of you who told me you would be praying and the many of you who prayed without dropping me a note. I appreciate you all and trust that in eternity we will see the fruit of your faithful and loving prayers!
Our lunch meeting was an exciting time. I purposed that I'd start by sharing my own conversion testimony with him, with a slow explication of the gospel included. The Lord seemed pleased with the thought. When I sat down, Jamal said, "So... tell me about your life from A to Z." Open door.
After sharing my testimony and "unpacking" the gospel, the exchange began. First round: discussions about the reliability of the Qur'an vs. the Bible. A couple days prior, Jamal exclaimed that the Bible had thousands of errors and contradictions. I challenged him to cite just one, which he couldn't do. But that didn't dampen his certainty. He later produced a document with supposed contradictions, verses and parts of verses taken out of context and read with a wooden literalism. In a strange twist of humor, I recognized his errors because they were the same errors some of my hyper-fundamentalist KJO friends would use, assuming the KJV was the "standard" and measuring the "deficiency" of other versions in part by the number of verses "omitted" from the KJV. So, we opened the Bible to each of the passages, read them in context, and tried to lift up the gospel implications of the texts. All the while, I tried to stress to Jamal the several passages from the Qur'an that described the Torah, Gospels and Psalms of David as revelation from God (see, 2:285; 3:93-94; 4:163-165; 5:46-48; 6:91-92; 17:55; and 21:103). My question was: "If the Bible was corrupted at the time of Qur'an's writing (600 years after Christ and the apostles), why does the Qur'an confirm them?"
He evaded with some hypotheticals and dogmatic assertion based on "the Qur'an says so." I tried unsuccessfully to help him see that the problem of a corrupted Bible was a bigger problem for him than he realized. For if Allah is a God of truth, and he means to "reveal" truth to people, and he is omnipotent and can protect his revelation, what must we conclude about the nature and character of God if he allowed the Bible to be corrupted? Either he is not a god of truth because he was powerful enough to stop corruption but didn't, or he is not an all-powerful god having his revelation overthrown by weak men. From that point, we more or less continued in the discussion as though the Bible were true and reliable.
Round two: so who is Jesus? A prophet says Islam. God the Son, the Son of God says Christianity. I like Jamal because he didn't pretend these were reconcilable positions. He expressed his grave fear for my soul because as a former muslim turned Christian I was not only apostate from Islam but guilty of the highest sin in Islam, shirk, or making partners with God. This is Islam's unpardonable sin. You could see him shudder when I said unequivocally that I now "worship Jesus." "You what? You worship him? No please stop. I can't hear that! That... that... do you know how serious that is?" A small fear began to creep in. He and I, locked eye-to-eye, knew what such a confession would mean were we in his home of Jordan, or Saudi Arabia or many other muslim societies. "Jesus is God and so I'm neither making a partner with God nor worshipping a man. If you hear nothing else, hear me when I tell you that Jesus is God and you must give an account to Him at the judgment." I pointed out that the even the Qur'an teaches Jesus' virgin birth, his sinless/faultless perfection, and that eleven times Jesus is called al-Masih, the Messiah. From here we opened the scriptures to John 3 and Eph. 2. I tried to help my friend see his need for a Savior, his need as Stott put it to escape an already pronounced condemnation for his sins.
Round three: how is one saved? Following our discussion of Jesus, it was time to put the peanut on the bottom shelf. We were clearly serious about all that was being said. "Jamal, the real question is whether you or I will be saved, rescued from the wrath of God to come at the day of judgment. You and I both believe that God is holy and just and that His wrath is hot!" Jamal nodded vigorously in agreement. "All that's left is to determine how one is saved."
He began with a typical works-based proposal. "A person must live a good muslim life. I mustn't do any 'big sins' and when I make 'small mistakes' I need to ask Allah for forgiveness and he will forgive." Another opportunity to share the gospel, emphasizing the sinfulness of sin and the impossibility of even approaching God without having our sins covered. He wants to know why Jesus should have to die for other people. Why God would do that. Because our good works will never make us perfect and "because of His great love" (Eph. 2:4). That's lost on him. His face is blank at the mention of God's love, a love that requires the death of "his son." I pray that the Lord would open his eyes.
For the first time, I think maybe Jamal is weakened a bit. He says, "After this conversation, I must go home and take a shower and become muslim again. I must be sure that I am a muslim by confessing that there is only one God and that Muhammad is his messenger. Otherwise, if I die having doubted I will not be a muslim and will be lost." I explain that as a Christian my salvation is secured because of the perfection of Jesus and the sacrifice of Jesus credited to my account. Though I may struggle with doubt, and though I may have questions about some difficult things, the love of God for me is not jeopardized. I'm preserved by the same God who saves me in the first place. I'm saved by His gracious act. "That's too easy. It's too easy," he replied.
It's 3.5 hours later. We're both engaged as though we've just begun, but it's time to head back to our families. Jamal looks at me and says, "You have an advantage. You know what it's like to be muslim and Christian. You see both sides. You're a great asset for Christians. You would be a great asset for muslims. I hope you become muslim again."
I smile and thank him for his compliment. I try to find a way to turn the compliment to Jesus and the work of the Spirit. Unsuccessful. We exchange contact information and agree to stay in touch. I feel that sad pang of seeing another person hear the truth and leave seemingly unaffected. I remember that evangelism is NOT defined by visible results, sinner's prayers, walking through tracts, or forcing decisions. Evangelism is faithfully proclaiming the gospel message of Jesus Christ and praying fervently that the Sovereign Spirit of God would give a new heart and make a creature new. My time with Jamal is past, but I'm still doing the work of an evangelist... praying for his soul.
And, I had two children of my own. Precious girls beyond comparison, I thought. No, I had a fairly high view of children in the particular case of my own and of children abstractly. But I hadn't thought about the ways in which the local church witnesses to the goodness of God by how it cares for its children.
That changed when I met the Smiths. Jim was an elder in the church. In a membership of about 500, a full ninety percent probably benefitted from hospitality in his home! The man knew every member and watched them all like they were his children. Which was a feat in and of itself, because he and his wife Lynnette had six children of their own (ages 1 to about 15) and a niece they cared for as their daughter. Lynnette maintained a busy homeschool schedule while Jim worked a demanding government job. Yet despite all the business of life a large family created, they were fully committed to demonstrating the great blessing of parenting. I watched Jim. And he was for me a model of godly fathering that I never had. I'd never seen an African-American father of six children, all born in marriage, all by the same woman, all benefitting from the full-time presence of a father. Never seen it. And statistically speaking, seventy-percent of African-American children born out of wedlock will not see it in their own lives. But in the Smiths there was this model of faithfulness, chastity, care, sacrifice, and love.
Then there are the Schmuckers. A beautiful family of seven. Poor Jason is the only boy in a cohort of five ranging from 1 to 17 years. To sit at the Schmucker dinner table, or to watch them walk around the block, or to see how they serve together as a family is a thing of beauty. Matt is a masterful father. He'd blush at that and quickly point to his many faults. But he is. He's intentional, careful with the feelings and aspirations of his children, honors his wife -- which is the first and best gift a father can give his children, and he and Eli are Christ-centered in their parenting. What does that look like? It looks like all the things you might expect: attending ball games, changing diapers, making family time a priority, being attentive when at home, talking with his children, etc. And it looks like some things we don't often hear of parents doing: admitting their mistakes, teaching their boy to be a husband (not just a "man" in some abstract sense) and their daughters to be wives (not just women), aiming instruction at their hearts and not merely seeking behavioral conformity, and teaching all their children to value the work of the gospel over careers and education.
The Smiths and the Scmuckers are big families that have big impacts on the way I think about children. Blessed indeed is the man whose quiver is full!!
But there are tons of young couples who are remarkable for their commitment to children as well. I watched a significant number of young professional women opt for the higher calling of motherhood over rather prestigious accomplishments and careers in the world. They left the halls of Congress, law offices, corporate and international development, teaching and other pursuits to dedicate themselves full time to evangelizing and discipling the young lives entrusted to them by the Lord. A lion's courage lives in these women. They despised this world and give themselves to entering the next with their children in tow. And their children will rise up and call them blessed.
Then there was the privilege of serving at CHBC as the Asst. Pastor of Children and Families. In that capacity I worked alongside a team of outstanding staff and volunteers in children's ministry! Here's where my valuation of children was raised immeasurably. These women wrote curriculum worthy of use in every church in the world! And that's no exaggeration. They exposed every child in the church to a systematic theology from ages 4 thru 10. They introduced them in substantive ways to heroes of the Christian faith, great hymns of the faith, and classic Christian literature. With approaches suitable to the ages of the children, they endeavored to feed the children the thick red meat of the Scriptures, to give them iron-enriched sustenance from the Word ofGod! Here, I learned that the capacity of children to grasp something of the majesty and glory of God was far beyond what most adults imagine or ever set out to discover. And I learned that I could give my children a far richer heritage in the Lord than I perhaps thought possible.
All of this--from having lots of babies (last year 32 in a congregation of about 500) to giving yourself to goly parenting to operating the most God-exalting, theologically-rich children's ministry possible--occurred in the context of the local church covenant, where we joined together to "bring up such as may at any time be under our care, in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, and by a pure and loving example to seek the salvation of our family and friends." I learned that his covenant could be lived out in a powerfully fruitful and countercultural way in the local church.
Having 4, 5 or 6 children sets you apart in the city. Guarding your family against the temptations and pressures of a sex-craved, superficial, materialistic, wrecklessly-independent youth culture -- not by clenched-fist dictatorial decrees but by patient, wise instruction -- sets you apart in this authority-despising culture. Dying to the world enough to pour your life into your children testifies to this perishing world that Jesus is worth giving to the next generation and that children are far more valuable than the trinkets of promotions and power deals. And doing these things, not in isolated instances but as a corporate witness, amplifies the value we place on life and children. The church becomes a large-screen projection of what's important and helps a narcissistic convenience society to see something of immense value outside of itself. I'm a better parent with a higher appreciation of children and thelocal church because of my time at CHBC.
Wednesday, July 26, 2006
I like the saying for a number reasons. It's kinda folksy. Demonstrates a cooperative spirit between local churches. Captures a certain "do unto others" ethic I think Jesus would approve of. But probably mostly because it places some emphasis on friendship.
Friendship is really a lost discipline these days. My sense is that we all have our "good friends" or "best friends" from college or high school or even grade school. I just had ice cream with my oldest and one of my dearest friends who (or is it "whom"?) I met around kindergarten. Most all of us have that class of friends who through some powerful providence almost ex nihilo found lasting room and board in our hearts.
But, aside from this category of friends, I wonder how many of us have a rather passive approach to friendship. Friends "happen to us." Sorta like "falling" in love. One day we're walking along and the next we're "insto-presto" joined at the hip with a fellow walker "placed" in our lives for companionship.
I once heard Mark ask in a sermon, "When will you relinquish your passive approach to friendhips?" It was like a flash of cracklin' lightning. You know, the kind of lighning that both lights up the night sky and convinces you for a terrible moment that you actually hear the sound of the heavens rending. Yep, it was like that. I was struck. My approach to frienships was passive and I needed to let it go.
The Lord himelf said of his disciples, "I have called you friends..." (John 15:15). Friendship, it seemed to me, was an essential aspect of the Lord's ministry and of the gospel ministry of His apostles after Him. It was a promotion from "servants." And this friendship, he purchased with three years of teaching, re-teaching, serving, miracles, modeling, correcting, rebuking, and ultimately death and resurrection. My passive approach to friendships looked nothing like his active, life-giving, reconciling work for friendship. Nothing.
Then, the Lord gave me eyes to see that so many fellow saints were not only passive in their approach to friendships but positively starving for friends. And this inside the church, the body of Christ, among brother and sisters in Christ who had covenanted together to "exercise a watchful care over each other."
There were the single men and women struggling with the desire to be married, but in this Christian context somehow de-skilled when it came to interacting with each other and cultivating free, grace-filled, holy friendships. There were the spouses, husbands and wives, who wanted to be closer friends with their mates but found themselves aching for the intimacy of freindship. There were the pastors who needed friends to kick back with without fear of misunderstanding or the guilt of not producing or being super pastor. And there were the occassional folks who met in pairs or small groups experiencing the "accountability" of the group but somehow not fellowship.
When I stopped passively passing by the hundreds of faces and names each Sunday, I saw an immense need--the need for plentiful, deep, encouraging, relaxing, and Jesus-like friendships. We all had the need.
And graciously, the Lord showed us that the existence of the need was evidence of an opportunity. Like a good teacher Mark didn't just ask the question, he also posed some ideas. He encouraged us all to pray through the directory regulary. Using one page per day, pray for each member of the church. It's amazing how that contributed to a "knowing" that made more fertile the ground of friendship. A small band of members took the initiative to organize "MAC meetings" (meals after church) where anyone could join the group at a designated restaurant for a meal after the morning and/or the evening services. It was encouraging to see the 5 or 6 young single men cook a meal for 5 or 6 single women as a gesture of friendship. It was even more fun to hear that those men had no clue that the day they picked for the meal was Valentine's Day! But that little goof created laughter which trends toward friendship. I've seen deeply battered and sawn relationships mended and made whole, friendships restored through Spirit-led difficult work.
One of the most poignant moments in my ministry at CHBC occurred when I accompanied another brother to candidate for a senior pastor position at a church in the Middle East. The week went wonderfully well with all the necessary conversations about theology, church, preaching, etc. Then, one afternoon we were eating lunch at Chili's (in the Middle East!) with the lead elder and two other active men in the church. The conversation was buzzing right along when the elder stopped, leaned in, looked my companion squarely in the eye, and with bone deep tenderness said, "And I hope you know, that we offer you our friendship."
At least three things burrowed into my brain right that instant:
1. I had never before seen someone make such an explicit and genuine offer of friendship;
2. This man didn't want the prospect of friendship to be taken for granted or lost in all the many important discussions and so he relinquished any passivity; and
3. I wanted to be more like this man because there was something profoundly Jesus-like in his offer.
I've seen friendship form the nucleus for a wide-reaching ministry called Together for the Gospel. And I've personally benefitted from Mark's unusual giftedness at collecting relationships and sharing them with others. His friends have become my friends. From members there at the church to many co-laborers in the gospel around the globe. Perhaps that's a worthwhile aim for us all -- to not only cultivate friendships for ourselves but to give away ourselves and others in friendship. I leave CHBC with many, many more friends than when I arrived. And I pray I leave better equipped to give myself away to others in friendship.
I am a wealthy man. I have come to treasurely more highly that peculiar kind of love called friendship and to appreciate it enough to work on it more actively. Jesus is surely my model and the Giver of every good gift, and He has seen fit to teach me the importance of godly friendships through Capitol Hill Baptist Church. For that, I am eternally thankful.
Monday, July 24, 2006
But prior to coming to CHBC, evangelism was largely something organized by the church (door knocking, etc.) or something done by people who were "gifted evangelists." I'd hear the occasional exhortation to share the gospel, participate in the Great Commission, etc., but never did I hear a clear call for every Christian to order her/his life around the gospel, to plan your life in such a way that evangelism is increasingly at the center of your life.
At CHBC I saw for the first time what it would look like for pastors to encourage their congregations to live cruciform lives, lives dedicated to and defined by the cross. I saw an attempt to both set an expectation for evangelistic lives and to equip members to live out that expectation. Now, to be clear, I think most everyone there will readily admit that they'd like to be more faithful and fruitful in evangelism. That's a constant prayer among the pastors and the congregation--more faithfulness and fruitfulness in evangelism. But I do think there has been some promising fruit this far in an evident desire, prayerfulness, and intentional plotting for evangelism.
Here are some of the things I've seen encouraged and done:
- Intentionally frequenting the same stores (cleaners, restaurants, etc.) with the aim of building relationships and familiarity with store personnel, and hopefully having gospel conversations.
- Using vacations for short-term mission trips.
- Volunteering in community-based organizations to influence for the gospel.
- Hosting home discussions regarding religion and philosophy. A group of young men in the church have faithfully done this with a number of muslim friends and neighbors.
- A couple of brothers have conducted at the local Starbucks periodic apologetic and evangelistic talks aimed at non-Christians.
- A staple: inviting neighbors over for dinner or for holiday parties and talking with them about Christ.
- Hosting Bible studies in the work place.
- Praying together in the Sunday evening services and at meetings set aside specifically to plot and pray for evangelistic opportunities.
- Joining neighborhood clubs (garden clubs, cycling clubs, etc.) to build relationships and further gospel opportunities.
- Inviting friends to church and special lectures sponsored by the church called Henry Forums where the gospel was sure to be center stage.
Last evening I got a glimpse of what that gospel-saturated life means, the opportunities that are created. I took my wife to an emergency medical clinic. She'd been struggling with a really violent cough for too long. So, we went to get some help with it.
We were escorted to one of the examination rooms by an attendant named Jamal. Jamal spoke with the cadence and emphasis of a Middle Easterner, and indeed he was. He glanced at my book, The Prophet and the Messiah: An Arab Christian's Perspective on Islam and Christianity, and asked, "Do you like to study religion?"
I smiled pleasantly and replied, "Yes, I do." He followed up, "Why?" "Well, in part because I'm a pastor." And before I could elaborate or offer a more compelling answer than "I'm a pastor," my new muslim friend took the floor, venting a little about American foreign policy, media depiction of muslims, religious liberty (strangely he though Saudi Arabia a freer place religiously than the U.S.), and occassionally comparing Christianity and Islam. I nodded here and there (inside kicking myself for the many rebuttals I missed or weak spots I saw but couldn't get at) and tried to ask a question, usually keeping the discussion focused on the central issue: Jesus. He was happy as a muslim apologist to offer his thoughts about the Lord.
But pretty soon he launched into a bit of his own personal story, how he came to believe fervently in Islam. His family is from Jordan; he served in the military; and as an adult studying comparative religion became convinced that Islam was the absolute truth. He asked me if I believed in truth. "Sure." Then out came his ace. "You know, the Bible is full of all kinds of contradictions. Thousands of them. So, it can't be true."
Here, a sinful pride started stirring. But by God's grace, I remained patient, smiled and asked, "Can you name one?" My friend replied "Trust me. There are many. I can't name one off the top of my head, but I have a list at home and I will share it with you." I explained that the Qur'an didn't teach that there were contradictions and errors in the Bible but that, in fact, the Torah, Gospels, and Psalms of David are revelations from God. I referred to the four passages that teach (in 3 of them) that the message of the Torah was obscured or concealed by Jews during Muhammad's day and the one passage that accuses Christians of "forgetting" the message of the Gospels, but that nowhere in the Qur'an does it state that the revelation was changed. I pressed a bit further and told my new friend that if he were to accept the Qur'an's teaching, he would eventually have to reject Islam because it affirms the Bible and the authentic prophethood of Jesus on the one hand but denies what the Bible and Jesus taught, on the other, namely that Jesus is God who died and rose again for the sins of the world and that everyone must repent of their sins and believe in Him.
My new friend paused... then offered his conclusion. "If you can convince me that what you say is true -- and I'm not one of those people who say mockingly, 'Prove God to me' -- then I will convert. I will become a Christian."
I smiled really big then. As he put his hand on the door to leave the examination room, I said, "You know, you're looking at a man who was once a Muslim and has converted to Christianity."
For the first time Jamal fell silent. Eyebrows raised, "Really?" he asked.
"Really," I replied.
"Because of all of the contradictions in Islam and the truth that is found in Jesus Christ."
He reflected on that a bit. We spent the next few minutes putting our schedules together to find some time to talk further about Christianity and Islam. Before we left, he asked, "Why would you want to get together with me if you're a pastor? You're probably not going to change your mind, so why meet with me?" "Because," I responded, "I would like nothing more than to see you come to faith in Jesus Christ, to become a Christian."
That's the invitation we have for the world. And by God's grace, I've learned something more about how to order my life in such a way as to make this "well-meant offer of the Gospel" more frequently to the many people the Lord providentially places in my life. We're scheduled to do many things today as we continue saying our goodbyes to friends and family on the way to Grand Cayman, but nothing is more important than the time I pray the Lord gives me with Jamal. Nothing is more important than sharing the Good News with him. Everything needs to be ordered around that priority. I'm thankful to the Lord for His teaching me this so clearly at CHBC.
Pray that the Lord would show His omnipotence today as I meet with Jamal. Pray that Jamal would be given a new heart and eternal life through repentance from sin and faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, God the Son.
But everywhere, everyone challenged me to run and to run hard! It wasn't an explicit conversation or instruction or panicked yell like "Fire!" or something. It was simply the way everyone gave themselves to as much of the important stuff as they could. Everyone ran hard. And they ran hard for gospel labors.
Many folks probably consider pastoral ministry a "pie job." When I left my former job to join the staff at CHBC, my directors asked me to consider working at both the church and the organization. One of them asked, "Since you only work on Sundays, what will you do the rest of the week?" Just the other day, my sister asked if I would work another job once I move to Grand Cayman. She was shocked when I told her no, as if to say "surely you won't just be laying around the house all day."
I think that's not too far from a lot of people's conception of pastoral ministry. Talk for 30 minutes or so on a Sunday, use an hour or two to prepare that short talk, and take the rest of the week off, from time to time visiting some member in the hospital or at their home to get a free meal. And sadly, while that view is inaccurate, it's not all together misinformed. People like my sister and my co-workers have seen far too many pastors and preachers who are lazy, who don't prepare, who are unfaithful at watching over souls, who are inclined towards a good saunter rather than running hard.
Anyone who has ever been on a CHBC weekender, or spent any time in any setting around Mark Dever, knows that you won't be lolligagging toward eternity with him! The man is a model of running hard for the gospel. The staff runs hard, too. Sometimes to keep up with Mark, but most of the time in a hungry pursuit of the Savior. Everywhere you look, people are running hard. Some in sprints, some in marathons. But they're running to do the work of an evangelist, to preach, to pray, and to engage co-workers and neighbors.
And I've learned that I can run harder for the gospel than I ever thought. It's not a matter of overwork, or neglecting other priorities for the ministry. But, it is a matter of focusing on things that make an eternal difference and doing those things with zeal. Of making sure you're not burying your talents in the earth. It's a matter of being productive in gospel labors and not neglecting to discipline your mind and body to serve the kingdom instead of itself. It's a matter of setting and keeping a schedule that matches your priorities, not slavishly but with the joyous anticipation of hearing the Savior say, "Well done my good and faithful servant." It's a matter of recognizing that the fields are plenteous and white and prayerfully desiring to see more laborers reap--indeed desiring to be a laborer.
I learned at CHBC that the Lord has given me far more opportunities and resources than I thought I had. And, he's given me the ability to use those for His glory in more ways than I'd imagined. And surprisingly (though it shouldn't be), those opportunities and resources and abilities are multiplied when I run hard by being faithful in the small things. I've learned that ministerial effectiveness is soooo daily. It's the small things you do faithfully every day that amounts faithfully running hard after Jesus. 9 Marks of a Healthy Church started out as a letter written in response to a friend who wanted to know how to think through a particular church situation. Similarly, The Deliberate Church grew out of repeatedly answering questions frequently raised by pastors and church leaders in the most everyday circumstances.
I've also learned that running hard in gospel ministry is not the same as running hard to maintain a gabillion church programs. It means equipping the saints for the work of the ministry rather than equipping them with theater seats so that they can be spectators to the pastoral gladiator games where the staff are expected to joust, shoot, ride and wrestle lions to everyone's satisfaction. The congregation was made all the more fruitful by the staff's wise decision not to professionalize everything but to equip the members. So, an outreach to internationals thrives because staff stayed out of the way except to encourage several volunteers who organize that effort. Rather than professionalize counseling, a cadre of members are being exposed to the fine work at CCEF and trained to be the "frontlines" of slightly more difficult care situations. There are the several members who carry on an active ministry in juvenile detention facilites, reach out to children with incarcerated parents through an Angel Tree ministry, and serve in crisis pregnancy centers or with teen mothers who visit the church once a week for Bible study and parent training.
Without a plethora of church-sponsored programs, which are the enemy of evangelism, members are actually free to build relationships with their neighbors with the hopes of gospel fruit. To serve one another and serve their communities. And all of this ministry activity and more, organized by the body and not the pastors, frees the pastors to run that much harder in the things we're called to do: preach, teach, pray. And the multiplied fruit of it all makes you want to run harder still for the Lord.
I'm thankful for this lesson. I've learned that fatigue is not the enemy of good ministry but fatness. The kind of fatness that comes from grazing on the "conveniences and comforts" affored by an unfaithful, lazy approach to ministry. I pray that all the Lord's men would exhaust themselves in the ministry for His glory. Run hard!
Sunday, July 23, 2006
The first is Dan Edelen at Cerulean Sanctum. He's consistently insightful, chooses good topics, and is a good writer, a precious combination of qualities. I'd suggest you start with two posts from the last couple of weeks: Spiritainment, a critique of the individualistic, commercialized, and entertainment-focused culture of the church today; and "Chapter, Verse, Blog," a winsome lament of the tendency among too many Christians to turn the Scripture into a jigsaw puzzle of favorite verses and prooftexts. Good, edifying reading.
The second is Nathan Finn's blog The Fullness of Time. It's a blog devoted to Baptist history. Helpful resources and insights from a historical Baptist perspective. For a wider perspective, see the bloggers at Reformation Theology who come from various traditions with solidarity in Reformed theolgoy. For a broader historical perspective still, I've also added Historia Ecclesiastica.
Also, I enjoy the usually insightful and timely comments of Russell Moore over at the Carl F. H. Henry Instute for Evangelical Engagement. Russ and co. are thoughtful observors of our culture and helpful on a range of things from apologetics to political commentary to theology to... well, go check them out and see.
Perhaps one day I'll get around to categorizing some of these links for ease.
Saturday, July 22, 2006
Mark Lauterbach of GospelDrivenLife shares some helpful thoughts on Gospel Freedom.
Ben Wright at Paleoevangelical reflects on a recent CT interview ("Experiencing Life at the Margins") with an African Bishop of the Episcopal church and asks this question, "Is America the Center of God's Activitiy in the World?"
Nathan Finn at The Fullness of Time directs us to a helpful primer/reflection on "What Makes Baptism Valid?"
Russell Moore at the Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement helps us to pray about the Middle East conflict and the kingdom of God where true peace is found.
J. Ligon Duncan on Sinclair Ferguson on John Owen on the two basic tasks of pastoral ministry.
Thursday, July 20, 2006
We affirm that God calls his people to display his glory in the reconciliation of the nations within the Church, and that God's pleasure in this reconciliation is evident in the gathering of believers from every tongue and tribe and people and nation. We acknowledge that the staggering magnitude of injustice against African-Americans in the name of the Gospel presents a special opportunity for displaying the repentance, forgiveness, and restoration promised in the Gospel. We further affirm that evangelical Christianity in America bears a unique responsibility to demonstrate this reconciliation with our African-American brothers and sisters.
We deny that any church can accept racial prejudice, discrimination, or division without betraying the Gospel.
That's an article from the "Affirmations and Denials" documented circulated at the Together for the Gospel '06 conference in Louisville. The statement was signed by Mark Dever, Ligon Duncan, Al Mohler, C.J. Mahaney, John Piper, R.C. Sproul, and John MacArthur.
That's a statement of boldness. Gospel boldness. Boldness in the truth. Exclusive, excluding boldness. Sweeping boldness. Boldness with integrity. Boldness with implications and applications. Targeted boldness. Big-chested, loins-girded, bare-knuckled, man-up boldness!
You don't see statements like these everyday... much less from national leaders of this stature... less still from "conservative, white, fundamentalist, evangelical" (choose your favorite label) leaders with apparently everything to lose and nothing to gain from such statements.
Let's face it... race is still a much-feared topic in the church and especially among many Reformed types. And the charge of "racism" is downright terrifying to many of our brothers and as unshakeable as a skunk's stink once attached.
Here's what I learned at CHBC... follow the truth wherever it leads you and stand on it! I saw that modeled at CHBC and I praise my God daily for blessing me with the ineffable joy and privilege of serving there.
While I was there, truth-based, gospel-motivated boldness displayed itself in the leaders and the congregation on everything from courtship and dating to race and racism. And it was far more than a verbal declaration.
Just a couple of examples:
- It's now policy that each class of pastoral interns read and discuss Francis J. Grimke's Christianity and Race Prejudice, a scathing but insightful condemnation of racism in the white church and its incompatibility with the gospel. That's 12 men per year now thinking in an intensive way about an issue they might otherwise have avoided altogether.
- I had the privilege of periodically introducing on Wednesday nights the congregation to important African-American pastors and church leaders with Reformed convictions... men like Lemuel Haynes and Jupiter Hammon and women like poetess Phillis Wheatley. That's a local congregation broadening its view of "the Church" to include and appreciate men and women of different hues that have made significant contributions to the gospel cause in this country.
- I sat through hours of discussions where pastors deliberated thoughtfully, prayerfully, and sometimes agonizingly over how to cultivate, protect, and add to the racial unity the Lord has wrought in the church. That's a changed pastorate, committed to loving people well by not being "color blind" (as if that were possible or encouraging) but by acknowledging that the varieties of humanity existing in our churches and in the world are not an after-thought of God but a purposeful decision to display His wisdom and glory.
- And oh! to witness the growing conversations among so many in the congregation that are desirous for the local church to look more and more like Eph. 2:11-3:12 and Rev 5:9. How I rejoice when the 22 year old brother from Ohio says, "I'm free to think about race in a responsible way for the first time." And I could multiply comments like these because of the holy boldness the church has shown in this area.
- Or this denial broadcast to the entire church world: "We deny that any church can accept racial prejudice, discrimination, or division without betraying the Gospel." That's the kind of boldness that puts the world on notice about where you stand and where those who oppose the truth stand.
And in all of this, I've seen boldness tempered by thoughtfulness, the kind of thoughtfulness that denies any place to guilt trips, culture-idolizing, and gospel-blurring or denying gimmicks but seeks to repent of genuine wrongs. I've learned that such boldness takes discipline and character, and it takes the kind of courage that's willing to break a few eggs in the attempt at an omelette. That says to a predominantly white, Southern Baptist church, "perhaps the greatest blight on the gospel in this country is the grotesquely sinful treatment African Americans have suffered at the hands of professing white Christians."
What I value about CHBC's effort at addressing race is that it's undertaken in a theologically informed, pastorally careful, personally challenging, and publicly accountable way. They've avoided programmatic fads and have sought to bet their chips... get this... on Christians loving each other in a gospel-centered, gospel-motivated, gospel-defined way. They're betting that the gospel actually changes people, that it renews minds (and hearts), even on profoundly difficult topics like race. That's bold, too. It would be easiser to start a program or some other mostly outward display. But, they're betting that Jesus will work in Christians in such a way as to display His glory through a supernatural unity across "natural divides" that mystifies and sometimes attracts an unbelieving world that, on the one hand, yearns for an end to its sin-induced alienation from God and man but, on the otherhand, has no reconciling solution outside of Christ.
Now, we're not in heaven yet, so the work there is still incomplete. They're much to be learned still; there are errors ahead of them to be sure. But, with God's leading and omnipotent aid, they've at least begun the work. How many of us in our churches and in our personal lives are unable to say we've even begun? Too many of us I'm afraid. Can we say we're true churches or true Christians apart from evidence of grace that trends toward this kind of boldness?
I've learned at CHBC something more about being bold. It's betting my all and the church in my charge on the Gospel, on the Truth, on Jesus Christ. It's following the Truth wherever He leads me and trusting in Him in all things. Jim Elliot seems appropriate here: "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose." That's posted on the entry to the CHBC parking lot; I want it to be posted over my life. I'm praying for more boldness... and faith. What about you?
My first Sunday at CHBC was wonderful! My wife and I walked into a service not knowing what to expect. We were first struck -- almost physically it seemed -- by the "white space" in the service. There was solemnity there. Quiet. Reflection. We hadn't experienced that in any of the churches we'd visited prior to CHBC. It was reverent, and we were fed by it.
The prayers were rich... a prayer of praise, a prayer of confession (who does that any more?!), and a pastoral prayer of intercession. Long portions of scripture were read. But then there were the hymns. And not just the favorite hymns I'd grown accustomed to, hymns written in the last 50-75 years or so.
Some of these songs were ancient by modern standards! And the theology was outstanding. But to hear the congregation singing these gems "lustily" (as Luther put it) was amazing! Who knew that really old music and lyrics could sound so good?! And not only sound good, but engage the head and the heart so effectively.
I'd been a victim of the prevailing notion that "worship" is a pretty much emotional experience that needs to be "lead" by people good at strumming other people's sentiments. Christian "emo" I suppose. But what I found at CHBC was an approach to singing God's praises that was mere and solid, thoughtful and subsequently emotionally engaging. Now, at times I had to work hard to cross the cultural chasm between my small-town, hip-hop heyday generation, African American, social scientist trained background to connect with the melody or the words (usually the melody). But when I did, it was well worth it. It brought me into contact with a stream of Christian musicology and praise that was outside of my experience. And that was a good thing.
I don't think I was alone in this experience. The congregation is perhaps 30-40% twenty-somethings working on the Hill as interns or attending one of the area universities. They sang as capably and engagedly as anyone. It wasn't just a thing for people with blue hair. It was a thing for Asian, African, European, Latinas and Latinos, and African Americans. It was an experience for us all.
I was instructed by the music at CHBC. Every Wednesday the pastoral staff met for 1/2 hour to review the coming Lord's day service. We inevitably sampled, discussed, and debated the merits of the proposed hymns. Were they theologically sound? Were they melocially interesting? Was there an alternative version that would edify more? Did they fit with the theological theme and text for the morning's sermon?
Those discussions and debates taught me a lot about the care that should be put into planning a service and thinking through selections. I was reminded weekly that we want what we sing to express true and lofty thoughts about God. I learned to read music (a little) and to sing (tolerably, I think). I was taught that as a pastor I need to be a student of hymns and music more generally so that I might avoid and help the people to avoid offering strange fire to our Holy God.
Many battered, bruised and buried bodies exist because of music wars in churches. Perhaps there will be others added to the body count before the Lord returns. I'm not necessarily advocating that we should strike up old and often-times unhelpful battles. But, I've learned that a return to the theologically rich treasure trove of hymnody is a beautiful and spiritually helpful thing.
Wednesday, July 19, 2006
History is an incredibly powerful thing. It defines, steers, provokes, unsettles, inspires, enrages, persuades, and sometimes even predicts.
I think most of us are aware of the importance of history when it comes to things we care about... like the church. But perhaps too few of us are skilled at calling on history to lead in a local church. I certainly am among that number. I've maintained an active interest in history--particularly African-American, African, and church history. Yet, I've had to learn how to get that interest out of my head and into the heads and hearts of my people so that we might all benefit in our time from the marvelous works of God in days and eras gone by.
The elders and congregation at CHBC have taught me how to better do this. Beyond the obvious uses of history (sermon illustrations, confessing the creeds, etc.), they've taught me that the history of the faith and the local church is a rich faith-building source.
Capitol Hill Baptist Church was started some 130 years ago as a children's Sunday school by a Mrs. Celestia Ferris. A couple years after the Sunday school started, some of the participating neighborhood children visited a number of the contractors and builders then actively erecting Washington, D.C. to "request" donated bricks for the erection of a church. The builders complied and the first edifice was erected in a couple short years. I only know that because it's taught during one of the new members' classes on church history. But it makes a difference in my ministry because I've witnessed how recalling Mrs. Ferris' faithful ministry today inspires others to serve in children's ministry, consider an expanded outreach to unchurched children on the Hill, and to do the work of evangelism. Most of the members of the church have heard this story a few times in various settings and in various ways and now it's a living story that stimulates service.
A couple generations later, another group of church members invested their meager resources to build a larger facility to accomodate the church's growth. Their investment those many decades ago still serves hundreds of people who call CHBC home. Their faithfulness continues to bless the Kingdom, and I've seen how knowledge of that inheritance encourages acts of faith in the congregation today.
Then there is the history of the men who have pastored the church. It's an awesome testimony of how God has preserved the preaching of His gospel through successive ministries and generations despite the loss of the gospel in so many surrounding churches as theological liberalism and flights to the suburbs stripped the urban church. Though we wouldn't necessarily share every point of belief with some of these men, and some had serious failures, we rejoice to see the unbroken gospel proclamation and concern preserved by our faithful God in that place. And seeing that in the church's history helps to keep us focused on what is primary: faithful proclamation of the good news.
It also helps us to avoid the fads and trends that crop up from time to time. As a local church, we were taught to remember the pastor who wanted to take the church "seeker sensitive." We remember the "resistance" put up by a number of members who were there because, in part, they saw the threat these ideas were to a healthy and high view of the church and the gospel. And we remember the painful split that followed when the pastor lead the younger members away to start another church, a church that soon thereafter closed its doors. And so we learned another lesson illustrated in history, true unity must be built upon eternal truth--not methodological pragmatism.
And we've seen that history is predictive. "There's nothing new under the sun." The heresies that afflict the church today are old. Knowing church history and teaching it to our people helps them to spot the counterfeits and avoid "new" errors. History repeats itself, but not among those who are careful to observe and learn from it. I've learned how to press history into the service of theological orthodoxy and carefulness as we've seen Bunyan's view of baptism surface again; modalism gain prominence in the teaching of popular televangelists like T.D. Jakes; New Age gnosticism capture the popular religious mind; and Pelagian, semi-Pelagian and synergistic views of salvation erode Reformational bulwarks. All of these challenges have been seen before and they've all been responded to by the church inher history. It is a grand hubris that keeps us from learning from those who have gone before and from applying that treasure of knowledge to our present circumstances.
History is a wonderful teacher; it is a powerful teacher. If we would be better servants of God, we should be historians.
Tuesday, July 18, 2006
Recently I was in a department store with my pregnant wife, sitting outside the dressing room while she tried on a number of outfits. Another expectant mom, probably in her mid- to late-20s came out of the dressing room to model an outfit for her eager and doting mother. After a couple of spins for her mother, I congratulated the young woman on her pregnancy. "First child?" I asked. With glee she promptly told me yes... and then as if embarrassed to have overlooked my own impending blessing, she turned and said, "Congratulations to you, too. Is this your first grandchild?"
She looked for a hole to disappear into when I explained, "No, this is our third child." Instinctively she stole a glance at my white, snowy dome, smiled an awkward smile, and muttered an embarrassed apology having something to do with her young husband graying prematurely too.
I'm something of a 'tweener I suppose. Not really "old" despite first appearances, and not too young either. This has been an advantage in ministry. But, it also makes me a dangerous man! I feel age setting in as I approach and so I'm in a hurry to do something productive and lasting for the kingdom. But also, I'm young enough to lack A LOT of wisdom about things, to make "freshman mistakes," and to think that things depend on my efforts more than they actually do.
During my time at CHBC, I've learned a great deal about being patient. This fruit of the Spirit is essential in so many ways when it comes to life together in a local church and leading a church.
Certainly, patience has been explicitly taught. Boice has been quoted a lot: "People tend to overestimate how much they can accomplish in five years, and underestimate how much they can achieve in twenty." One of Mark's favorite quips to young pastors (or for that matter older men going into new situations) is "Teach and pray, love and stay." Teach the people; pray faithfully for the people; love the people; and stay with the people. I think there is great wisdom in this phrase. And it's laced with the kind of patience that believes teaching God's word is effective, that prayer is necessary, and that a loving and long-term relationship between pastors and congregations tends to produce far more fruit, lasting fruit, when men stay in a pastorate rather than flitting between churches every few years.
But that kind of patience isn't just talked about; it's also possible to live it out.
I have benefitted from the fruit of a number of now older members (70, 80, and 90 years old) who patiently endured some lean seasons in the life of the church, holding fast to the gospel, and believing that faithfulness is rewarded of God. Herb Carlson, Jeannette Devlin, Charlie Trainum, Mildred Burnham, Helen Young, Homer Gill... these are but a few of the names that will not be recorded in the Evangelical Who's Who. But they are inscribed in the hall of fame of faith and faithfulness for their patient endurance. Now, partly on the back of their patience, the church is thriving by God's grace. A mere eleven years into Mark's tenure, the church is filled with life and signs of God's activity in evangelism, missions, training pastors, discipleship, and on and on. If he had moved on five years ago, perhaps CHBC wouldn't be what it is today. If those older members had moved on when things got tough, perhaps the church wouldn't even be around. But their patience has borne the fruit of gospel longevity.
I've watched the elders of CHBC deliberate for months over not just important theological issues but also how to teach and apply the issue to the life of the congregation. We would spend 2 hours working our way to a particular solution but twice that time across several meetings deciding how to make the issue understandable to the congregation who hadn't been in the room with us for the deliberation. My impatient self would have rushed in with the verdict and pronouncement and likely left a lot of people confused and hurt.
In my time at CHBC, I've seen staff and elders "do nothing" about a situation but pray... and then witnessed awesome moves of God in resolving the difficulty or issue. They've been patient when marriages were in trouble; patient when some members were upset with the church; patient when the developing baptism policy ruffled a few collars; patient when some members felt uncomfortable or unsettled as members; patient when trying to restore a saint from sin and, failing restoration, during agonizing cases of church discipline; and patient in grooming young men for leadership.
The patience of the church is built upon her trust in the sufficiency and the power of God's word to lead and galvanize His people. It's built on a confidence in the God of the word, who watches over and protects His Church, purchased as She is with the blood of His own Son. The patience I saw at CHBC, the patience that tutored me, stems from a deeply charismatic view of the Church. The Lord has placed in the Body sufficient gifting to accomplish His ends. He will make those gifts known when necessary and will bring to pass a deeper and more wonderful work in the lives of His people in His own time. We need only labor patiently and prayerfully and faithfully as stewards of God. He will perform His perfect work.
As I head toward Grand Cayman, I pray the Lord would mark me and First Baptist Church of Grand Cayman with such patience. As I head out, I'm more acutely aware of how necessary it is that I pray that all of God's under-shepherds and churches be marked by a patient faith for the glory of His name and the purity of the church.
Monday, July 17, 2006
I'm on my way to join the saints at First Baptist Church of Grand Cayman where I'll have the privilege of loving them as their senior pastor. They're a sweet, humble, gospel-loving, missions-minded congregation and I'm humbled and excited to serve among them. But there's about two weeks before the family and I land in Grand Cayman. In the meantime, I want to use this opportunity to daily reflect on some things I've learned while at CHBC as a member, elder, and staff pastor.
Today I want to praise God and thank CHBC for teaching me how good and right it is for Christians and congregations to be generous.
The Spirit-wrought generosity of CHBC is beyond measure. I've never been a part of a body quite as giving as this church. Nearly every Sunday evening at CHBC features some request for practical help in some form or another. Perhaps it's a couple recently married that needs help moving into their new home. Perhaps it's the deacon of member care soliciting help with a Saturday of yardwork at an elderly member's home. Perhaps we need more child care volunteers (with about 30 births a year in a congregation of just over 500, we always need more child care volunteers! It's a fruitful and multiplying bunch!). Or, there is a countless number of times the appeal has gone out for someone to host a missionary or visiting friends in their home for some period of time. The list of requests is enormous.
And yet, I don't think I've ever seen a time when members did not respond in spades. Twenty strapping young lads turn out to make moving into a new home a joy. Legions of volunteers often make a wedding (about 15 per year most years) a truly corporate event--arranging decorations, cooking meals, housing guest, and on and on. Not only do folks go out to clean the yards of senior members, but very often the interior as well, and regularly groups go out to sing hymns to senior members at their homes (and did I mention that all this is coordinated by a couple young twenty-somethings that could be wasting their life in the lust and quest for status and power in the nation's capitol?). Visitors to the church never have to worry about a place to lay their head. It's usually in the home of some pastor or hospitable church member. Keys are given out, cars are loaned, and I've even seen one brother give up his place for a couple of months to allow a missionary family to live there while he crashed on a sofa or something at a friends. Generosity. Ubiquitous. Lavish. Loving. Eager. Godly generosity.
I've benefitted from that generosity. I don't know a pastoral staff more exemplary in their generosity than the small staff at CHBC. Mark Dever is unrivaled. From the moment he introduced himself, he has poured himself into me. Time, books, conversation, instruction, relationships, and on and on... he has proven himself to be the largest-hearted man I've ever met.
But it's not just Mark. Michael Lawrence, the Associate Pastor, is extremely generous. I've watched him and his wife Adrienne give so much to the people of the church. They are gifted counselors, filled with a Spirit produced patience, and it shows in the hours they spend with hurting, questioning, searching members of the church. It shows in how they invite people to jazz concerts, and swim meets, and soccer games, and most importantly to their home. You know, the pastors at this church, who live just across the parking lot from the church, almost never lock their doors. People just stream in and out at most any time to "sit a spell" or enjoy a meal. It's amazing generosity, when so often what a pastor and his family would like to do (probably need to do) is retreat and get away for a while. Michael and the other pastors and their families keep giving of themselves.
And then there is Matt Schmucker. You probably know Matt as director of 9Marks Ministries and one of the staff organizers of Together for the Gospel. Matt is an extraordinary father and husband. He is committed and attentive to his family in a way I've never seen before. And his generosity is seen in the perhaps hundreds of men and women who have been allowed a window into his life and home. Matt and Eli are "father and mother" in this church. It's not uncommon to see one of them walking their dog with a church member tagging along receiving from their years of marriage and walking with the Lord.
And "generous" fails to describe the pastors' wives. They have given their husbands to the ministry of this local church and to the Church wherever she exists! All these men spend inordinate amounts of time caring for shepherds in other congregations--visiting with them, counseling them, and walking with them. They love the Church--not just CHBC--and that shows in the way they never tire of doing good for the Church. And they've taught the congregation to love the Church and it shows in how the congregation gives its resources, time and pastors (John Folmar, Mike McKinly, and me) to other bodies for the spread of the gospel.
This is a paltry description of a beautiful church. I've learned that bone-deep generosity is a compelling demonstration of the gospel, where the generosity of God fully displayed His love for His people. I've learned that Christians, of all people, should excel in giving--not just their resources or even the gospel, but giving themselves also (1 Thes. 2:8). Such giving is a grace of God, a spiritual gift. And I've learned to pray for the generosity of the church the Lord is calling me to pastor, and for all churches.
Thursday, July 13, 2006
In May, the Rev. O'Neal Dozier, pastor of Worldwide Christian Center in Pompano Beach, Fla., told an audience that Jesus had appeared to him in a dream and told him that the next governor of that state would be a Republican.
In March, spiritual guru Neale Donald Walsch published “Home With God” and announced that it would be the final chapter in his best-selling “Conversations With God” trilogy, in which he claims to talk to the Almighty.
Last November, J. Lee Grady, editor of Charisma magazine, wrote a column complaining about pastors taking their revelations too far. He cited one charismatic pastor who told his congregation that a new revelation from the Bible allowed him to have more than one wife. Another said his “anointing” allowed him to have more than one sexual partner.
You know things are bad when a prominent, generally uncritical/undiscerning charismatic magazine chastens people for going too far! One pastor offered an explanation for the phenomenon:
The Rev. Paul Morton, founder of the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship, says he can tell when God is speaking to him. He compares it to knowing the voice of a loved one. Morton's Full Gospel message insists that God communicates with Baptists through the “full' gifts of the Holy Spirit: speaking in tongues, healing and revelations.”It's not a white horse or anything written in the sky, “Morton says about hearing God's voice. "He impresses something in your spirit." Morton says God gives him signs to validate his message. He says God recently told him to expand his New Orleans' megachurch, Greater St. Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church, to Atlanta. He expects God to reward his move with another sign. "There's no vision without provision," he says. "He's not going to let you down midstream."
Just one word: It's a wicked and perverse generation that looks for a sign (Matt. 12:39, 16:4).
Well, a second word: "If what a prophet claims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him." (Deut. 18:22).
My heart breaks for those who give their lives to such deceitful plotting. What must we do to help our people and others see the danger and falsehood in such views of God that portray the Lord of the universe as a chatty chum with a special interest in church buildings, political candidates, and "I'm okay, you're okay" permissiveness toward our favorite sins?
Wednesday, July 12, 2006
Tuesday, July 11, 2006
So... I thought (much to her embarrassment; she doesn't like being out front) I'd introduce you to my wife of almost 15 years. And, I thought I'd do that by sharing with you a recent e-mail she sent to many of the ladies of Capitol Hill Baptist Church (where I serve as an assistant pastor) and to a number of other friends. I think you'll love her as you get to know her through these thoughts....
The past few months have been a whirlwind in a sense, as Thabiti has now accepted the call from First Baptist Church, Grand Cayman to be their senior pastor. We are so grateful to the Lord for answering our prayers and opening this opportunity for ministering alongside a wonderful group of people.
To recap, we left March 24 to spend a month on the island to try and discern the Lord’s will for us to potentially serve with FBC. They were also looking to see if the Lord would be directing them to call Thabiti as their pastor. After much prayer and counsel, we agreed that if FBC called Thabiti as their pastor, we would accept it as the Lord’s call to us to minister in that place.
So here we are, just a few days away from leaving the church that we have called family and home for over 4 years. When we first moved to this area 6 years ago, it took almost a year and a half to find a church so centered on Christ and the Gospel, so hospitable and genuinely caring, so consistent in expounding Scripture. It was all that we had prayed about. But then there was more! Thabiti knew that the Lord had called him to pastoral ministry, but we had no idea how he would be mentored or receive training for that call. We knew nothing about CHBC’s desire see the gospel advanced through healthy churches and missions, we knew nothing about the work of 9Marks in aiding pastors and churches toward healthy church membership and practice. But by God’s grace and providence, He saw fit to bring us to this place and I am continually awed by what we’ve learned and experienced here.
Our devotion time as a family has been enhanced by the loving, biblical teaching of the girls’ Sunday school and Praise Factory teachers. Our private devotions have deepened as we’ve sat under Spirit-led teaching that has made plain to us the Scriptures and its application to our lives, and as we’ve participated in seminars, Bible studies, classes and workshops that remind us of our sinful natures, exalts Christ as our only hope of salvation, and amplifies the character of God. Our concern for the nations has dramatically increased as we’ve prayed for and supported the work of missions around the world. Our love for the Gospel, the local church and the individual people we have ministered with over these years is beyond what I can express in words.
Speaking of the people, I can’t express enough love and appreciation for those we’ve cried and struggled with through difficulties and how the Lord restored their hope and trust in Him and in their loved ones; for those who cared for our daughters through teaching, babysitting, hanging out and playing with them; for those who studied with us in small group and in one-on-one discipling relationships; for those who brought dinners, invited us into their homes, and hung out at our house over dinners, game nights, movie nights, or just keeping me company when Thabiti was away from home; for those who prayed for us, corrected us, encouraged us, and rebuked us with great patience and instruction (2 Tim 4:2). When Paul spoke of his ministry with the Thessalonians he noted, “We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us" (1 Thess 2:8). Our family has experienced this sharing among our fellow church members and we are eager to replicate this love to our new church family at FBC.
With all of the above stated, why would we leave such a place? The answer is simple—it’s the gospel. We’ve heard the gospel preached by our pastors, seen the gospel lived out by our church family, and witnessed the spread of the gospel by the testimony of missionaries and overseas workers. Now we have a unique opportunity to pass on to another all that we’ve learned here. We could stay and continue to reap the bountiful harvest growing here, or we can sow and plant in this place that has been without a shepherd for 3 years. A place where the members love the gospel and are eager to hear and see and witness the spread of the gospel in that part of the world. A place where people can be taught and sent out equipped to carry forward the message of Christ.
I know all of you reading this are not all members of my church, but I wanted to give you a glimpse of the love and care and teaching we’ve experienced in these short years. I love and will miss all of you and pray that the Lord would “fulfill every good purpose of yours and every act prompted by your faith. We pray this so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ" (2 Thess 1:11-12).
Now if you would bear with me a little longer, I do have some matters that I ask you join with me in bringing to the Father. Please pray that:
- Our sadness about leaving our church and family would remind us of good times shared;
- We would be eager to share both the gospel of God and our very lives with the FBC church family;
- I would serve the Lord faithfully in the callings He’s given me as His disciple, a wife, mother, daughter;
- We’d have a joyful time visiting and saying goodbye to family and friends over the next couple of weeks;
- Our final preparations for moving would go well this week;
- All our items would arrive in Grand Cayman in a safe and timely manner;
- Our travels to NC, Miami, and Grand Cayman would be without incident, and for strength as we’ll be on the road a lot;
- We can all settle in quickly and have a healthy family routine;
- I would get to know neighbors quickly (especially our next door neighbor since we’ll be living in a duplex);
- The girls would adjust quickly and well;
- The baby would have a safe and healthy arrival in November;
- I would help and serve Thabiti well as he starts work;
- Thabiti would shepherd with the fruit of the Spirit on full display in his life and teaching;
- I would be a good steward of our time and finances (Grand Cayman is expensive!); and
- I would protect our school time and be consistent in training the girls.
I’m sure there’s more, but please use these as springboards and pray whatever the Lord lays on your heart for our family. And please, take a vacation and come and visit us some time!!
In Christ Alone,
Kristie is a tangible expression of the Lord's active favor in my life (Prov. 18:22). I am rejoicing in the wife of my youth (Prov. 5:18)!
The heart of the matter, I would propose, is this: church discipline is tough because it feels like the opposite of salvation. It feels like anti-salvation. It feels like salvation’s evil twin. Salvation brings ‘em in; discipline kicks ‘em out. And if our job as Christians is to bring sinners into the church—didn’t the resurrected Jesus say something about that right before he ascended to heaven?—why would anyone talk about kicking them out?
Most of us don’t naturally think in precise formulas like the following, but our trouble with church discipline as Christians, I suspect, comes down to an impulse which instinctively recognizes this tension:
- salvation depends on (i) God’s grace (ii) in spite of sin (iii) because of Christ’s work on the cross. Whereas
- church discipline looks like (i) the church’s judgment (ii) because of sin (iii) in spite of Christ’s work on the cross!
So here’s the challenge: Is church discipline really salvation’s evil twin, or is it something else? Is it really the church stepping where angels fear to tread—playing judge; or is it what the Bible commands churches to do? If the Bible does, how important is it? And how do you do it wisely?
Must reading for the pastor and church leader interested in a healthier local church!