Thursday, August 30, 2007

Surprising Sources of Joy in Pastoral Ministry, 8

All of the world seems aimed at the pursuit of possession. When we're children we want toys. When we're teenagers we want the coolest clothes and a car. Soon we're off to college, hopefully one of the "better" institutions for our selected major. Not long after college we want the dream job and, of course, a better car to suit our "status." Then we purchase our first home. That "starter" home gives way to the "upgrade" or the "dream home." We fill that box with all kinds of furnishings and things to make it suit our tastes. Sea-Doos, boats, plasma TVs and the like become the grown-up version of the toys we played with as kids. A "mid-life crisis" may change everything. Time for the sportier car, the trendier clothes, and sometimes a new "trophy" spouse.

The philosophy seems to be "Get all you can, can all you get, then sit on your can.
Increasingly, large television ministries and pastors tell us that the pastor and Christians should live this way. Of course, they tell us, "it's okay to have possessions, just don't let possessions have you." But the gist is that the good life consists of the abundance of possessions. Success and joy in the ministry is defined by affluence, possessions, and jet-setting with the elites.

Enter the Apostle Paul...
Whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ--the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow to attain to the resurrection from the dead.

Mega-watt bishop says, "God wants you rich and to enjoy the finer things in life."

Spirit inspired Apostle Paul says, "Whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. I consider everything loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Jesus Christ my Lord."

We would do well if we would resist the siren song of success and materialism sung by bishop worldly wise man and wife, and heed the great profit and loss statement the apostle writes of in Phil. 3:7-11.

The formula is simple:

Everything in the world = loss, rubbish, dung, trash.

Knowing Jesus Christ = Infinite Treasure, wonder, and joy.

Therefore, Christ > everything in the world.

Amass everything in the world... all its currency, minerals and natural resources, people, ideas, pleasures and everything else that's good and joyous... calculate its present net value... choose any multiple and multiply it with present net value... and compare the total worth in monetary, social, and emotional terms and all of it is surpassed by the glorious joy of knowing Christ.

The pastor (and every Christian) may uniquely know the joys of Christ if he would learn this calculus. Gain the world without Christ and lose everything. Gain Christ and forsake the world and gain everything. "Christ is gain!"

And that is the source of tremendous, indescribable joy in pastoral ministry. Man, I'm constantly surprised at how long and sucky the tentacles of the world are. They keep suctioning onto our souls, winding around our affections, and drawing us into the world and the murky depths of false joy.

And thus far in my short life, I've not found anything that helps me to war against the pull of worldliness and temporal joy quite like the unique privilege of serving full time in pastoral ministry. It's a great privilege to rise each day knowing that I may count everything as loss for the sake of Christ and not lose one thing of eternal worth! It's a great privilege to have a vocation that focuses me on that specific truth and the application of it in my life and the lives of my people. "Not that I've already obtained all this"--not by a long shot! But I find great encouragement in the fact that the Lord has seen fit to bless my soul in this way through the ministry itself, through the call to 'let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also' and to live for Christ.

I once heard someone say they were not holy enough to not be in the pastorate. They commented that if they were in secular employment without the strictures, structure and privileges of pastoral ministry, their lives would drift toward worldliness, or at least the battle against it would be more pitched with perhaps more setbacks. I think I know what they mean. It's not as though work outside full-time Christian ministry is "less spiritual" or something, or doesn't afford helps and advantages in the pursuit of Christ, but there is a sweet grace poured out on the minister as he labors faithfully for Christ, hungering and thirsting after him, panting and longing for a glimpse of His glory, searching the Scripture for the merest sighting of His face. As the world recedes, the Savior looms larger and larger in our view. Even "the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death" is but a foretaste of glorious joy at being counted worthy to suffer for the Name (Acts 5:41).

I wonder how much of our unhappiness and stress in the ministry is connected with our worldliness, our love for this life, where there should be an adoring abandon for Christ. How often do we pierce ourselves through with sorrows because we cry "Christ is loss and the world is gain"?

The surprising thing, the non-conventional wisdom is that "if we gain Christ and [are] found in Him," counting everything else loss, then we have great gain and "a surpassingly great knowledge" that leads to all joy. I wonder what, by God's grace, I'll have the joy of counting as loss today?

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

9Marks on Race and the Church

The latest edition of 9News ejournal is available. It's an issue focusing on the thorny issue of race and the church. There are a number of provocative pieces in the issue, and Jonathan Leeman is to be commended for working so hard (as usual) on giving us much to think about. And personally, it's been fun to have the privilege to contribute to this issue. I pray it's edifying for the Lord's Church.


Starting the Conversation with Earth, Wind, and Fire
An exchange between Thabiti Anyabwile and Jonathan Leeman

Pastors’ and Theologians’ Forum on Race

Nine Lessons I Learned From Yellow (And One More) By Sam Lam

Did Moses Marry a Black Woman? By John Piper

Book Review: On Being Black and Reformed By Anthony J. Carter
Reviewed By Rickey Armstrong

Book Review: From Every People and Nation By J. Daniel Hays
Reviewed by Anthony J. Carter

Book Review: The Faithful Preacher By Thabiti Anyabwile
Reviewed by Ken Jones

Book Review: Reconciliation Blues By Edward Gilbreath
Reviewed by Eric C. Redmond

Book Review: Being Latino in Christ By Orlando Crespo
Reviewed by Juan R. Sanchez Jr.

Book Reviews: Growing Healthy Asian American Churches Edited by Peter Cha, S. Steve Kang, and Helen Lee
Reviews by Jeremy Yong & Geoffrey Chang

Five Steps for Racial Reconciliation on Sunday at 11 a.m.
By D. A. Carson

Pastoring a Multi-Ethnic Church By John Folmar

Many Ethnicities, One Race By Thabiti Anyabwile

Surprising Sources of Joy in Pastoral Ministry, 7

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed--not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence--continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life--in order that I may boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor for nothing. But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. So you too should be glad and rejoice with me.
What are those things that rob a pastor of joy in his labors?

There are many things, I suppose. But surely high on the list are a people who take their salvation and progress in Christ for granted, who think that growth occurs by merely sitting and waiting. These are often times the same folks who lift their voices in the whiniest complaints. They want everything on the proverbial silver platter. They want life "cushy" and cozy, warm and fuzzy, with no fuss. Every inconvenience is too inconvenient. A good patch of western Christianity suffers from this distorted understanding of the Christian life. We find easy believism and cheap grace almost everywhere, and seemingly constant bickering and backbiting among Christians can almost completely drain a man of joy in the ministry. It's amazing how an inadequate understanding of the use of ordinary means in sanctification, perseverance and the like can eat away at joy in the Christian life.

Interestingly, Philippians 2:12 follows right on the heels of the famous hymn celebrating the humility and subsequent exaltation of Christ. The "therefore" beginning the section signals the practical application of Paul's recitation of that hymn. Before the hymn, the apostle indicated that his joy would be complete if the Philippian church were like-minded, sharing the same love and purpose (2:2). Now, he turns to the surprising source of joy he receives as the Philippians live out the incarnation-, atonement- and exaltation-centered humility of Christ.

First, they are to work out their salvation with fear and trembling. They are to continue on in obedience, as they started in Paul's presence and now in his absence. The basis for continuing in obedience to Christ is the realization that it is actually God working on their wills and their actions in accord with His good pleasure (2:13; see Carson, Basics for Believers, 62-63). The option of resting on their laurels is removed; their wills and actions must be exercised. But also removed is the notion that it all depends on them, on their heroic effort and energy. For it is God working on their wills and actions. Human responsibility and divine sovereignty meet in the outworking of their redemption. Christian growth is not by osmosis but by work--God's and ours.

Second, there is to be no complaining and arguing. Why? So that their purity would brilliantly shine like stars against the dark backdrop of a depraved society. So that they would be seen for what they really are, children of God possessing the word of life.

Now Paul concludes that if they were to pursue conformity to Christ in this way, to live pure lives without murmuring and grumbling, not only would they shine, they would be his boast and evidence of the fruitfulness of his ministry (v. 16). To see them live that way would bring him joy. To see them progressing in sanctification, delighting in obedience, would be cause for happiness in the ministry. He says that even if he, through persecution, hardship, imprisonment, and perhaps martyrdom is "poured out like a drink offering" on top of their "sacrifice and service" of faith, he would be glad and rejoice (2:17). In other words, the joy of seeing our people's progress is greater than the misery of persecution. A pastor may rejoice at every sling and arrow he takes when his people are his boast due to their progress in Christ, their working out their salvation.

I love C.J. Mahaney's sermon "The Transforming Effect of a Divine Perspective." It's a meditation on 1 Corinthians and how it is that the Apostle Paul, with all that church's problems, could say that they were "the seal of his apostleship." C.J. expands on the notion of a divine perspective by emphasizing the need to "look for evidences of grace" in one another. It's a good exhortation and well worth the listen if you haven't heard it before.

I suspect that, hardships and unpleasant people aside, joy in pastoral ministry might be significantly increased if pastors relentlessly focused on the evidences of God's grace among the people. We'd be happier if we spent more time with and listening to people who were not arguing or complaining in some way. We'd be more encouraged if we plotted and probed to identify in every member some way in which they by God's gracious action were working out their salvation in fear in trembling. How encouraging would it be to turn through our church's directories and be able to say for each person, "Here are 2-3 ways in which I've seen this person pressing toward the mark in the past 6 months"?

How much easier it would be to extend a rebuke where necessary if the overarching view of our people focused on the commendable ways in which they are progressing. If a pastor can note in his directory evident and subtle ways in which his people are progressing, correction would be more joyous. It would more often be seen for the loving course adjustment in the context of Christward progress that we all sometimes need, rather than the embattled and beleaguered lashing of wayward sheep that often lies next to anger, bitterness, unkindness, and the fear of man.

I think we might be surprised at how much joy there is available to us by a careful examination of the lives of our people, an examination not for fault and failure (for there will be plenty of that) but for progress in the faith and the work of Christ on their wills and actions. I suspect there is a wellspring of joy available to us if we look for it. And as men committed to having our people arrive before Christ prepared for eternity, I can't think of a greater source of encouragement and joy in the ministry than to actually see evidence of their preparation for that glorious Day. Forget about numbers and programs and the like. Is there any joy comparable to the joy of noticing heaven in your people before your people are in heaven?

It's not surprising, then, that Paul would happily offer himself as a libation atop the sacrifice and service of the Philippian's faith. It's worth it when we know the joy of our people's progress in Christ.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Husband-Wife Co-Pastors?

It was once a rising trend. It's now a model for ministry for significant numbers of churches and pastors. It simultaneously offers itself as an example of deep partnership between husbands and wives, and dismisses biblical instruction. What am I talking about? The widespread approach to pastoral ministry where a husband and a wife "co-pastor" a local church.

Among that branch of "evangelicalism" (I'm using the term loosely) typically associated with Word of Faith, prosperity "gospel," charismatic believers, this approach to ministry appears to be dominant.

The trend grew slowly. Generally a man pastoring a church would achieve a certain status. After a few years, his wife, typically called the "first lady" of the church, would be noted for some teaching gifts and call to ministry. She would make occasional appearances in the pulpit to improve her gift, but not too many appearances to upset those discerning some problem with the practice. Over time, she'd appear more and more in the pulpit, relieving the husband while he was away and shepherding the people as a "pastor."

It's been a silent revolution. Not many shots have been fired at all really. It has occurred like so many other errors in that camp of contemporary Christianity--while auditoriums are filled with people, Bibles open, taking notes, and swallowing the camel.

Kenneth, then Gloria, Copeland. Creflo, then Taffy, Dollar. Randy, then Paula, White. To a lesser extent, T.D., then Serita, Jakes. These high-profile preachers have spawned a practice of ministry that now replicates itself in strip malls and megachurches around the country.

Recently, one couple, Paula and Randy White, announced before their 23,000 member church in Florida that they are seeking a divorce (HT: Sharper Iron). Paula and Randy have pastored the church since its founding. Understandably, the news of their divorce shocked and hurt a lot of the church's members.But in recent years, Paula has well eclipsed her husband in popularity and ministry. She is a frequent conference speaker and hosts regular shows on BET and TBN. Emulating in many respects the ethos of black women preachers, and preaching "health and wealth," Paula is something of a rock star in some circles.

The sad announcement of their divorce prompts a number of questions about the nature of gender roles in the church and marriage, and the effect of such ministry models on the local church.

1. Can such a practice be consistent with complementarian gender roles at church and home? Most everyone I know who thinks this is not only an acceptable but a good model would say "yes." In other words, most of the folks I know in this camp and ministers who adopt this practice intend to be complementarians. They preach a great deal on the home and family, the necessity of male headship, and female submission in the home. They would argue that a woman should only have a ministry of this sort with her husband "as her covering," exercising headship by granting approval/support; otherwise, a wife should not have such a ministry. Leaving aside for a moment the myriad of theological difficulties with the position, can it even work practically? I have my doubts. In the case of the Whites, Paula is continuing on with her ministries, establishing a home in another city, and with her husband dissolving the marriage. It would seem that at essence the model is egalitarian and models a "partnership" model of marriage that distorts biblical gender roles. And the families of the church have, whether knowingly or not, been imbibing from their "pastors" a model for family life ill-fitted to the biblical design and their joy.

2. Can such a practice be consistent with a high view of biblical authority in the church and the home? Again, most people in these camps would say "yes." They would appeal to examples of women prophets in the Scriptures and reason that Paul's prohibition against women in authority was cultural, time and circumstance-bound. It was a woman who brought news of Jesus resurrection to men and so women ought be able to preach, especially under the "covering" of their husbands. But that clearly contradicts Paul's instructions in 1 Tim. 2. And the attempt to justify the practice is little more than setting aside the authority of Scripture. And not surprisingly, the church suffers great confusion.

3. Can there be any genuine biblical accountability of such couples? Given that the authority of the scriptures is set aside on so basic a matter as who God appoints to lead in the home and the church, it's difficult to imagine that there can be any real accountability for "co-pastors" in these situations. Most of these churches are set up like corporations, not like NT churches. So, typically, husband and wife are founding board members along with a couple other trusted friends. Nothing appears to be governed in either a congregational or a connectional manner. So, there is no higher "court" than the co-pastors themselves. When trouble hits, appeal is made to "life coaches" and trusted friends as accountability partners. It's really an unloving, unscriptural and dangerous position for the "pastors" and the church. Paula will continue with her ministry pursuits. Randy will continue as pastor of Without Walls. This is the second divorce for them both, a divorce proceeding without any biblical grounds according to the article. The model appears closed to any loving, biblical accountability that would help the couple fight for their marriage, submit to the counsel and discipline of the church, and model grace during real difficulty for the congregation.

This approach to ministry is bankrupt because it's so consistently contrary to God's blueprint. The couples approaching the ministry this way are placing themselves in spiritually precarious situations, and the churches they "pastor" are toeing a cliff as well. It's obvious, but it bears stating: we desperately need churches reformed according to the word of God.

Friday, August 24, 2007

John Calvin on the "Prosperity Gospel"

Okay... that's an anachronistic title for this post. But reading through Calvin's sermons on the beatitudes, I came across this section which seemed so prophetically to apply to our day. It's a long quote, but worth it.

"Someone might ask whether it is right for God's children to be rich, to employ the good things which God so generously gives and to derive pleasure from them. After all, our text says "Woe to you who laugh. Woe to you rich. Woe to you when men speak well of you." "What's this?" you say. "Is it wrong to lead a good and virtuous life and to be well spoken of? Doesn't St. Paul urge us to do good in the sight of all? Don't we read somewhere else that every mouth should be stopped and that men should glorify God when they see us walking in his fear?" We might, then, think it harsh and puzzling that the rich, the comfortably off, and the happy should be condemned.

"Now that is not what our Lord is saying here. What he is condemning is the attitude of those who, intent on living well in this world, as so stupid and senseless as to forget there is a heavenly kingdom. This will be clearer if we think of how believers behave when times are good. If God sends them peace and prosperity, they will give him the praise; they will use his gifts soberly, endeavouring always to live an upright life. They will not want to squander such gifts, but they will recognize them as blessings from God. Or again, if someone possesses a rare gift of God's Spirit, he will not pretend he doesn't have it, for that would be mere hypocrisy. So whether believers are rich, or in robust health, or wonderfully endowed with the Spirit's gifts, they acknowledge that God's favour is its only source. Their joy is real, and so is their thanksgiving. That is how they will use the good tings of this present life.

"Nevertheless, while life for believers may be easy today, they will be ready tomorrow to endure whatever afflictions God may send them. He may, perhaps, take from them the goods he has given. They are prepared to surrender them, since they know they received them on one condition--that they should hand them back whenever God should choose. The believer reasons this way: "Rich today, poor tomorrow. If God should change my circumstances so that ease gives way to suffering and laughter to tears, it is enough to know that I am still his child. He has promised to acknowledge me always as his, and in that I rest content."

"That, I repeat, is how believers will behave. They will live soberly, tightening their belts if that is necessary; they will be self-controlled, telling themselves that though they may rise to eminent rank and enjoy untold pleasure, they must set their sights on higher things. The good things given by God are but a path to lead us to him, a ladder to ascend on high, not a tomb in which to bury ourselves. We should not cling to happiness or greet its passing with a hollow laugh, for it is fleeting. Nor should we exult when men applaud us, as if we had already attained our reward for a virtuous life on earth. No, we are determined to press on through good report and bad. Such is the measured and moderate path pursued by the believer. We do not get drowsy, still less intoxicated, when times are good. And we are always willing to abandon everything if God requires. This is not how it is with unbelievers. Prosperity goes immediately to their heads, fills them to bursting; they are so befuddled that not once do they spare a thought for God or the spiritual life. In time they grow hard, and when misfortune comes they grind their teeth and blaspheme against God.

"This is how we are to interpret the woes spoken against the rich, the satisfied, those who laugh and are glad. Remember Job, who amidst his suffering proclaimed: "If we have received good things from God's hand, why should we not also receive the bad?" There is no doubt that this was something which Job had thought hard about--a treasure, so to speak, to be disclosed at the right time and place. We see then that although God may spare us and give us reason to rejoice, we should expect to receive both good and bad from his hand. Not reluctantly or because we are compelled, but meekly and cheerfully, obedient to his will. For he must rule us, not according to our own likes but according to what he knows is best and most expedient for us. We are confident that all things will work for our salvation: that is our motive for rejoicing.

"That is the sense of Jesus' teaching in this passage. To be rich, to be glad, to be satisfied is to be drunk on prosperity and to live the life of senseless beasts. If we are comfortably off, it is not so that we may cover ourselves with gold and silver, or boast of owning fields and meadows, like those whose goal in life is to have everything they want. Those kinds of people are as good as dead: they bury themselves in their perishable possessions and are incapable of seeing heaven above. As for us, we must take heed to ourselves lest the Son of God condemn us with his own lips: only by looking to him for continual blessing can we escape the misfortune promised here. We are taught, then, to pass through this world as strangers, convinced, as St. Paul says, that those who have should be as those who have not. No one would deny that those who have plenty to live on meet many more temptations and run more risk of falling. They need, therefore, to turn constantly to God, and to learn that his gifts are meant to draw them closer to him, to quicken their love and to encourage their obedience. The good things they receive must never bewitch them to the point that they become captives to the world.

"In the midst of plenty we must guard against greedy excess, lest we choke ourselves and bring this curse upon us: Woe to you who are filled. If we are to be filled, it is in a different way--by contemplating God's face, as we read in Psalm 16. We should regard material possessions simply as props to help us, until we see the Father face to face. He is our bliss and happiness. By all means let us laugh, but in the manner of those who are ready to weep should that be God's will. Our joy should be joined with sadness, and with compassion for those who suffer. No one should live apart from others, and all should rejoice whenever God's name is honored. Yes, rejoice, even when we have reason to feel sad and gloomy. Conversely, it may be that we are fine, in the best of spirits. But supposing there is some dire trouble in the church, or God's name is blasphemed, held up to shame or ridicule--that should give us cause for grief, grief deeper even than the joy we felt. At such a time we ought to moderate the happiness which earthly blessings bring. We ought, as the proverb says, to mix water with our wine."
John Calvin, Sermons on the Beatitudes (Banner of Truth), pp. 77-80.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Surprising Sources of Joy in Pastoral Ministry, 6

If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose (Phil. 2:1-2).

Theology is tremendously practical. Never let anyone drive a wedge between good theology and "practical" information. The Apostle Paul (one of the writers of Scripture) never falls into that trap. He never writes as though some lofty statement about God is really merely a frill, a lace doily on an otherwise useless idea. He writes in such a way as to maintain profound and necessary connections between theology and practice. And sometimes surprising things emerge.

For example, in Phil. 2:1-2, the Apostle begins as he often does with good theology... reminders really of astounding truths:

1. Christians are united with Christ; our lives are joined with His through faith. We are accepted in Him; He is our Head and we His body. We are one new man in Christ.

2. Christians draw comfort from Christ's love. And who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Can anything in this life or the next, in this world or the one to come? What comfort is offered by the knowledge of God's unchanging, unshakeable love in Christ!

3. Christians "fellowship with the Spirit." We commune together with the Third Person of the Godhead, the Spirit through whom the love of God is poured into our hearts, by Whom the Father and the Son come to us and take up residence, and by Whom we cry out, "Abba, Father!"

4. Christians have new hearts. Where a stone once filled the cavity of our souls, now there beats a heart of flesh, a heart of Christlike compassion and tenderness. Christians are now free and empowered to love like God loves as the new heart of the new covenant throbs in our breasts.

That's all theology. And then the Apostle shows the practical implications of that theology. Christians, then:

1. Should be like-minded. With Christ as head, with the same mind or attitude of Christ (v. 5), Christians can and should experience a great deal of unity of thought and sentiment.

2. Have the same love. No longer are there variations in our love according to natural affiliations (ethnicity, class, etc), but now Christians love their brethren as Christ has loved them, not regarding one another according to the flesh but according to the shared life and love of Christ in us all.

3. Should be one in spirit and purpose. Where does unity in the church come from? It springs, it seems, from the application of good theology. Right thoughts about God lead to right living. Properly understanding our fellowship with the Spirit of God leads to oneness in spirit and purpose with His people.

Paul beseeches the Christians to remember the truth about God they've been taught and then to live that truth out in their relationship with one another.

And this, he tells us, will "make [his] joy complete." Whatever is lacking in the Apostle's joy is supplied by the Philippian Christians walking in the knowledge of God. The Apostle John says the same thing: "It gave me great joy to have some brothers come and tell about your faithfulness to the truth and how you continue to walk in the truth. I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth" (3 John 3-4).

Seeing his people walk in the truth was for Paul a complete joy, and for John the greatest joy. And so it is with the pastor and his people. Perhaps there is no sweeter joy than to see your people lay hold to the truth, imbibe it, make it apart of themselves, and walk it out.

I don't know that I've been more encouraged than when I've seen Christians take some teaching of God's word and really accept it as truth (which is in itself a declaration that truth exists and matters), walk in it, and rejoice in it. A pastor may rightfully be surprised by the joy he finds in ministry when amidst difficult situations (the loss of loved ones, persecution, the threat of divorce, debilitating disease, and so on) his people stand and walk in the truth.

And if a pastor frequently and consistently comes close to the sheep, he may not only smell the sheepiness of sheep but also rejoice that they hear the Shepherd's voice and follow Him. And what undershepherd is not pleased that the flock follow the Chief Shepherd? Unique among the joys of ministry is to see the truth of God seep into the hearts of His people and overflow in like-mindedness, mutual love, common cause, humility and service.

This joy, when it's observed, surpasses even the joy the preacher-pastor receives as he studies and prepares to teach. What sweet fellowship with the Spirit and Christ study and preparation is. And how much sweeter to see the fruit of that study in the lives of your people, to see the Spirit at work in the word and the walk. Pastors have no greater joy, no more complete joy, than to see their people walk in the truth.

To experience this joy more fully, we have only to do two things:
1. Keep teaching the truth with patience, clarity, gentleness and joy; and
2. Develop skill at looking for evidence of the truth working itself out in our people, to see them walking in it.

Therein is complete joy in pastoral ministry.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Surprising Sources of Joy in Pastoral Ministry, 5

When is penultimate pleasure a better choice than ultimate pleasure? If given the choice between something far superior and a relatively inferior alternative, when is it good to choose the inferior?

Not many things come to mind for me. It seems we’re wired to always choose the superior thing. After all, it’s “superior.”
The Apostle Paul faced a choice of this nature, a choice between something “better by far” and what might be called an inferior but good alternative. He writes in Philippians 2:18:26—

Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance. I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me.

After telling his readers that he rejoiced whether Christ was preached out of false motives or true as long as Christ was preached, the Apostle then writes that he will continue to rejoice because of the deliverance he expects. Shackled and imprisoned, the Apostle faces the future with confidence that Christ will be exalted whether he lives or dies and that he will not be ashamed. “For to live is Christ and to die is gain.”

And there is the dilemma. Here is where the Apostle is torn and pulled between two poles, one superior and the other a good inferior. Departing to be with Christ “is better by far.”

I wonder how often we meditate on that truth. How often do we consider the “better by far” wonder of being with Christ? Is that Day consistently before us? Is that expectation strong and compelling, or is it stacked in a corner with other Christmas goodies we played with for a day only to abandon and forget when the next toy was unwrapped?

The Apostle finds Christ far better than anything on this earth. And so should we. And yet, he goes on to write that it was necessary for others that he should remain for their “progress and joy in the faith.” Paul expected that his being with the Philippians again would lead to their overflowing joy in Christ Jesus.

Here, then, might be the only time where a good inferior alternative may be desired over the far better, superior choice—when others also will enter into the far better life with Christ.

It’s quite likely that the Apostle found great happiness in seeing the Philippians’ progress and joy in Christ. This is one of the surprising sources of joy in the pastoral ministry—recognizing that the hardships, if we don’t faint, lead to the blessing of God’s people. By God’s grace, we may live through tumultuous and difficult times to see the glorious goodness of it all worked by the hand of God. We have the privilege of working for our people’s joy and growth in Christ, an overflowing joy “on account of” the pastor. That God is pleased to use vessels of dust to work such treasure is a great privilege. And though it would be far better to be with Christ, how tremendous a reunion will it be when we all get to heaven and the pastor and his people acknowledge before Christ that the pastor was used to fit them for that Day.

Are we facing hardships? Imprisonment? Opposition from within and without?

Are we tempted to think it would be better by far if we were to lay down this earthly tabernacle and be clothed with the heavenly one? Without doubt we are correct to think that the heavenly dress is better than the earthly.

And yet, in God’s kindness to his ministers, the good inferior choice of laboring for the joy and progress of His people is rewarded with joy in this life as we see Christian maturity unfold and rewarded eternally when stand with our people before our King and really rejoice!

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Will God Receive the Glory?

The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops (James 5:16-18)
This post is a thank you and a question.

First, THANK YOU so very much to all of those out there who prayed for the Caribbean, Grand Cayman, and First Baptist Church as hurricane Dean twisted its way through our region. We heard from many people and churches that they were or would be praying, and we are greatly humbled and thankful at that tangible expression of love, lifting us up before our Father and yours.

Apparently there is an Elijah in the land... for the Lord heard the prayers of His people and turned the storm south such that we received some tropical storm winds and very little rain or flooding. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief. And many people on the island are grateful to the Lord.

Which brings me to my question: will God receive glory for the great things He has done in this storm?

I know He will eternally. And I know many will exalt Him in the days and weeks ahead. But how many will cover over His work--first in creating the storm, and second in turning the waters whichever way He pleases?

I suspect many will. And I've noticed already the tendency in myself. It's not an outright rejection of God or denial in some hostile way. It's the more subtle, practical atheism that fails to give Him praise or speaks in that empty God-talk that those who don't know Him practice.

So, I've heard folks say, "I'm glad the storm turned," as though by naming the storm "Dean" it takes on personhood and rational ability. Others have commented, "We were spared," as though some disembodied cosmic judge showed mercy. Then there are those who say, "We missed a big one," as if we were somehow steering the island out of the storm's course. There is the idolatrous variety that admits to God, but insists, "We just needed to touch and agree and demand by that God would move the storm."

I think we all mean well with comments like this. But they strike me as missing the mark, that is, missing God himself.

The sentences are economical; they're brief. But I wonder if we ought not be longer-winded in these opportunities to ascribe greatness to God. Or, at least, we should sharpen the point by speaking of Jesus so that our hearers are not left guessing which God we believe has heard our prayers and answered.

So, we might say something like, "Jesus spared us." Then we can go on to say, "You know, though we felt spared by Christ, one day we all will appear before Him to give an account for our lives on earth. Are you taken as many precautions for that Day as you did for the day "Dean" blew by?"

Or, we could say, "God the Father turned this storm away from us. I'm thankful I have a heavenly Father who hears the cries of His people and answers according to His good pleasure."

I'm not sure what to do with our Word-of-Faith friends naming and claiming, demanding and standing on certain promises from God. Perhaps the best thing in that case is to simply be quiet lest we hold up an idol of our making before people who need to see the living God.
In any case, I'm reminded that I need to speak of the wonders of God more frequently and with greater specificity than I have. I need to resist conversational shorthand, perhaps taking a pass on some comments altogether, and speak more carefully of God with the hopes of being sure He gets all the glory.
The island is resuming its pre-storm hum. Things are quickly back to "normal"? Please pray that "normal" life among us is not a life that fails to exalt and exult in the God who saves us.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

What Do You Think About God When Calamity Strikes?

Denny Burk posted a link to Greg Boyd's response to John Piper's reflections on the Minneapolis bridge collapse. I've read both pieces now. And as Burk points out, though Boyd says he is "concerned" with Piper's viewpoint, the two theological positions actually couldn't be farther apart.

Piper, reflecting on Luke 13:1-9 and the bridge collapse, had this to say:

1. In the face of calamity, many people believe that those who perish or experience these things deserved to die or suffer. Jesus doesn't say that, but says that everyone deserves to die.

2. We all deserve to die because we all are sinners and sin. The outrage of sin is 10,000 times the outrage of the collapsed bridge.

3. That anyone is alive and breathing is evidence of the great mercy of God who causes it to rain on the just and unjust alike. The church desperately needs to teach this view of reality so that people are appropriately prepared for calamity.

4. "The meaning of the collapse of this bridge is that John Piper is a sinner and should repent or forfeit his life forever. That means I should turn from the silly preoccupations of my life and focus my mind’s attention and my heart’s affection on God and embrace Jesus Christ as my only hope for the forgiveness of my sins and for the hope of eternal life. That is God’s message in the collapse of this bridge. That is his most merciful message: there is still time to turn from sin and unbelief and destruction for those of us who live."

5. Calamities should be occasions for praise, not for blaming God. In accord with His wisdom and goodness, God allows such tragedies that people might reverence Him and turn to Him.

6. Nothing shall separate God's people from His love even as they go through the waters, the persecutions, famines, diseases, etc. (Rom. 8:35-38). He is with His people in the midst of tragedy (Is. 43:2). Though we die, we shall live forever in Christ (John 11:20).

In response, Boyd offered four points:

1. The Gospels "uniformly identify infirmities (sickness, disease, deformities, disabilities) as being directly or indirectly the result not of God’s punishing activity, but of Satan’s oppressive activity. So it is that Peter summarized Jesus’ ministry by saying he was anointed “with the Holy Spirit and power” and “went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil” (Ac 10:38). Boyd rejects the premise that catastrophes are God's "punishing activity" in the world.

2. Second, Boyd sees the sacrifice of Christ as sufficient for turning away God's punishment through catastrophe. The cross ushers in an economy where God has the right to punish by catastrophe but doesn't because Christ's death for sin was sufficient for the whole world (1 John 2:2).

3. The model of God bringing judgment through calamity is Old Testament, and even in those cases there was teaching before the calamity. Something like the bridge collapse doesn't fit even the OT pattern because there was not ample warning, teaching, and time for repentance before the tragedy. "I can make my point this way. How many non-believers in Minneapolis do you think interpreted the bridge collapse as an expression of God’s wrath? And of these, how many were moved to turn to God out of fear? I’m thinking it's probably close to zero. If God was trying to get people to fear him, it simply didn’t work. But it did cost a number of lives and inflicted misery and sorrow on many more. It was a harsh spanking without any helpful instruction, and thus was unhelpful while being costly. Is this the way the God revealed in Jesus Christ operates?"

4. People and angels are morally free agents. You don't need to blame God if you understand that people and demonic powers act against God's will and priorities. There's plenty of blame to spread, but you don't need to blame God. But, "if angels and people don’t have free will that can go against God’s will, then it’s no longer adequate to say God “allowed” a bridge to fall. You have to say God “caused” the bridge to fall. Other agents may have been instrumental in bringing about the collapse of the bridge, but they only did what God’s sovereign plan decreed they do. So one is fudging words to say God “allowed” the bridge to fall and that God is not to blame for the bridge falling."

Denny's summary of the differences between the two men and his critique of Boyd is succinct and helpful. Read that and you'll know what I think as well.

This is a couple weeks old, so why am I bringing it up now?

Right now, the Cayman Islands are preparing for what could be a category-5 hurricane, Dean. Men are at my house boarding up windows and securing the place.

The image below shows the predicted track of the storm (red dots), the location of the Cayman Islands (green dot), and the storms closest point to the islands (yellow dot). Hurricane storm paths are notoriously unpredictable, but around midnight on Sunday the storm is currently predicted to be about 23 miles off our coast. Which means we'll be in hurricane force winds for several hours at that range.
The last storm of this magnitude, Hurricane Ivan (Sept. 11, 2004), essentially destroyed the island. Understandably, people here are filled with fear and questions.

It's clear to me that when moments like the Minneapolis bridge collapse happen, or category 5 hurricanes come your way, you need to have a rock-ribbed theology featuring the massive and awesome God of the Bible, the God who created the worlds with a word and His Son who rebuked the winds with a word. The same God who rules even over the evil causes of Satan and his minions, and the feeble efforts of men to thwart Him. The Bible's picture of God is that nothing is beyond his control, not even the places where we live (Acts 17:24-26). And "God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us" (Acts 17:27).

Seems to me that Piper's post is an elaborate statement of Acts 17:27.

Boyd asks, "Where are God's warnings?" I'm left wondering what Pastor Boyd is preaching Sunday to Sunday. Are we not to be watchmen signaling the dangers from the pulpits across the world? And has not the Lord written in the creation itself and on the conscience of all men indicators and warnings that He exists and He is to be worshipped? (Rom. 1:18-32, for example). "So that men are without excuse."

I have the task tomorrow morning, the privilege really, of telling people tomorrow morning how they should think about their lives right now. And it won't be much of a stretch, by God's grace, because we'll be meditating on what we've been meditating on for the entire year of my service here.

God is big, very big. God is glorious and awesome, far more powerful than hurricanes. Life is precious, preciously short. It's short because we are sinners and we sin. Against that sin and sinners, the big, glorious, and awesome God pledges eternal wrath. We won't escape that wrath to come unless we turn from sin to Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who is the exact representation of God's being and the radiance of His glory, who died to atone for the sins of His people, and through whom believers live eternally. Now, repent and believe and be saved. Flee the allurements of this world with its vain philosophy and purchase the Pearl of Great Price, the Prince of Peace, and set your affections on Christ who rules at the Father's right hand.

Tomorrow, I suspect my task will perhaps be easier than it has been to this point. Men who all their lives have been held in bondage to fear of death will be looking squarely at that fear and the reality of death. I can "protect" God's reputation by saying it's not really His fault; men and fallen angels messed up the world. That's true, but only partially true.

God still rules. I can tell the people that the way men messed the world up through sin provoked God to wrath; the disasters of the world are really only one aspect of the outworking of His holy judgment, and not even the infinite outworking. Though God is not in the hurricane, listen for His voice. Listen for His call to repent. And that's the good news to the lost among us tomorrow.

The even better news to the found is God has not purchased your life with the precious blood of His Son in order to waste it! Whether we perish or survive in this hurricane, God will eternally be glorified. Christ has conquered death and the grave, and He will raise us up victorious. Now let goods and kindred go, this moral life also. There is a far superior one awaiting.

Friday, August 17, 2007

One Man's Journey from Judaism to Islam to Christianity

Here's an interesting story of a Jewish man who became a radical Muslim and then a Christian. It's part of 6-part series CNN is producing called God's Warriors. You can imagine the slant this will take. (HT: Sam)

Surprising Sources of Joy in Pastoral Ministry, 4

Okay, I'm busted. Not only am I busted, but I'm genuinely challenged by the Apostle Paul's joy in this statement:
That important thing is taht in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. (Phil. 1:14)

My first reaction is: Paul didn't have TBN in his day! But then I'm reminded that he saw and confronted false religions, idolatry, and perversions of the gospel that are almost unimaginable to me. Seems TBN has been around a very long time.

So, I'm really surprised and caught off joy by this source of the Apostle's joy: Christ being preached by people preaching the gospel with wrong motives.

I'm inclined to distrust, confrontation, and even anger at false teaching and wrong motives in the ministry. On the one hand, it's a form of self-righteousness I need to crucify. On the other, it's a necessary pastoral reaction that Paul obviously shares (see Gal. 1-2). Here's the tension for me: How to biblically examine wrong motives in the preaching of others, and yet find joy that Christ is preached despite motives.

It's discouraging to see folks who appear to be zealous for themselves and their reputations gathering large crowds to hear platitudes and man-centered self-help talks. And it's even more discouraging when that affects my own people who are drawn after such things. How do you fight for joy in the ministry when that happens?

A few meditations based on Paul's words.

1. Distinguish between false teaching and wrong motives. I don't do that well. I lump them together. However, Paul makes a distinction. In one case, the message itself is fatally flawed, the gospel is corrupted. In the other case, the gospel is accurately proclaimed but the messenger is flawed. When the message goes forth clearly and Christ is exalted, I need to rejoice. The Savior is being proclaimed and that is always cause for joy. Certainly the Lord uses men of imperfect ability and imperfect hearts. He is gracious and powerful that way. So, Thabiti, rejoice.

2. Don't think of myself more highly than I ought or more highly than others. Pride is always lurking. And I'm tempted to find all the soft spots in another man's life and conclude (wrongly!) that those are not my errors. "I've got that under control," I tell myself, "and he's ruining everything because of his attitude." That's just naked pride. I need to rejoice that I am that man with the corrupted motives, and nevertheless the Lord has given me the privilege and grace of preaching Christ. And I need to pray that despite my mixed motives the Lord would grant grace to preach Christ clearly and powerfully. (I can't shake the chorus, "I'm lookin' at the man in the mirror. I'm asking him to change his ways." Hee-hee. Sorry).

3. Take joy in the ability to direct people to the essential things that may be present in the teaching of people with wrong motives. Like a trial attorney, the pastor gets to redirect. There may be many things about a preacher's motives that would seem to disqualify him. But I want the sheep focused on the message, not the man (not the man to the obscuring of the message). If the man preached the gospel of Jesus Christ, I have the joyful privilege despite the man's imperfections of focusing folks on Christ. And in the end, that's my only task anyway--pointing to the Savior wherever He is proclaimed. I think Paul understood this and could rejoice even amidst insincerity. He could say in passing, "some men teach Chrsit with false motives," and then move on to major on Christ himself. That's a good strategy to adopt.

Here's an almost pragmatic, Machiavellian approach to the advancement of the gospel. Paul almost seems happy that some people are "doing what works" even though their hearts aren't sound. And he almost suggests that the "end justifies the means." And he rejoices.

Surely this would be a wrong attitude in the gospel ministry. But Paul is discussing the preaching of Christ in the gospel. The gospel is the power of God unto salvation. If pragmatic means preaching this gospel correctly because it is that power... perhaps we should rejoice at such pragmatists. If preaching the gospel despite the wrong motives is a bit Machiavellian, the gospel end justifiying the imperfect means, perhaps we should rejoice more when it happens and complain less.

I'm not free from the impulse to critique preachers. I'm not free from pride. But the word of God surprises me. I can find cause to rejoice in the ministry even when someone appears to preach out of a wrong motive. This gospel is glorious--more glorious than the petty motives that move us. Though they fill stadiums with teaching that is not what it ought to be... rejoice when Christ is lifted up.

That's surprising for me. But I'll be working on it.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Surprising Sources of Joy in Pastoral Ministry, 3

Does my suffering produce joy? Or, am I prepared to endure suffering with joy? Can I send the end of my suffering and joyfully recognize the glory of God in, through, and by it?

I'm not sure how to put these questions... but I'm trying to recognize something that Paul recognized about suffering and joy. It's in many places in his letters, but this morning I'm considering Philippians 1:12-14:

Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.

Few will deny that gospel ministry has its perils. Its taxing even on the stoutest of men. Broad shoulders is not guarantee of effortless lifting. If you carry a gospel burden for souls, you will face not only the weight of the load but the obstacles of spiritual and earthly opposition. This life is no crystal stair (to borrow from one poet).

And yet, Paul, in chains, celebrates the gospel advancing result of his imprisonment and persecution. It's a surprising source of joy in the ministry for him.

The blows of God are efficient. They're not wasted on the superficial effect of widespread carnage and damage as in some "action movie." But see how His blows work wondrous kingdom results. One man's imprisonment: (a) advances the gospel, (b) makes it clear to those who imprison him and everyone else that Christ is worth being chained for, (c) leads to courage in others, and (d) produces more preaching with Spirit-filled boldness. God's economy takes one man's chains and leads to all of this.

The questions for me and perhaps other pastors are:
1. Have I recognized the efficiency of God in my persecution, suffering, and hardship?

2. Can I trace the workings of God from my situation to evidence of grace in others to gospel joy over the work of God in my hardship?

3. Have I grown near-sighted, seeing only the hardship, the "chains"?

4. Have I considered the fruit in others a basis for joy in ministry?

5. How would I need to change my focus in order to bring these things into view?

6. Am I denying some real hardship in favor of fantasy gains, instead of accurately assessing real challenges in favor of real spiritual fruit the Lord is producing?

We are to endure hardship like a good soldier. But we are also to "count it all joy" when various trials come our way. Paul's rejoicing helps us to see why we should have this perspective.

Too often I err on the side of be a good soldier. "Buck up little soldier. Chin up. Shoulders back. Stand up straight. Keep marching. Big boys don't cry." Not surprisingly, I grow wearier in the labor. And not surprisingly, some men grow weary of the labor... joyless and resigned.

But we may find that it's precisely in the trials of ministry that a surprising source of joy awaits... if we can see things from the divine perspective that Paul models for us. Philippians makes it clear that the Sovereign Lord is up to far more in my suffering than I am accustomed to seeing or acknowledging. And for that, I can rejoice even in the difficulty. For first comes suffering, then comes glory.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Surprising Sources of Joy in Pastoral Ministry, 2

It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart; for whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God's grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus (Phil. 1:7-8).

The Apostle Paul penned these words just after telling the Philippians that he prayed with joy because of their partnership with him in the gospel, and that he expected God to complete the work He had begun in them. The thought of their partnership inspired joy in the apostle. And now he insists that feeling joyous was "right".

Should a pastor feel and know joy concerning the people placed in his charge? According to the apostle, of course! And why?

Well, it's because the Philippians were "in [Paul's] heart". And so should our people be in our hearts. It's a striking phrase really. We tend to hear the word "heart" with a kind of sentimentality that the biblical writers didn't intend. They were not merely in his head or on his mind. They were not merely the objects of syrupy affection. They were in his bosom, in his breast, the seat of his soul, lodged in the center of who he was. As Carson put it, his "whole life and thought are bound up with [the Philippians]" (D.A. Carson, Basics for Believers: An Exposition of Philippians, p. 18). So dear to him were the Philippian Christians that he could speak of them as part of him. And are not the pastor and his people to be similarly joined in one body?

Notice that his assessment wasn't fair-weather, like some vane spinning in the wind. "Whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God's grace with me." Imprisonment didn't confine his love for the church. Neither did apologetic and preaching freedom distract his affections. Hardship didn't quench the concern for them. And prosperity didn't turn his heart.

So strong was his love for the Philippians that he could take an oath before God: "God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus." How would God testify of my love for the church?

Paul is no hireling, and his love for the people is not prompted or limited by convenience.

Here, then, is a surprising source of joy in pastoral ministry: love for God's people has a way of becoming very much a part of you, working its way into the soul and stubbornly resisting dilution and distraction.

Pastoral ministry is filled with the surprising joy of love. We look out on God's people, those who "share in God's grace with us," and we can sometimes be positively startled at the intensity of affection and care.

I remember the first time my oldest daughter was hurt in my presence. She was a toddler. And as is the case with toddlers, she "toddled" and bumped her mouth against a cart. She let out this piercing shriek. It was all very minor, but I felt things I'd never felt before with an intensity that scared me. We were in Best Buy at the time. I had to leave her with her mother and walk to the opposite corner of the store with the big screens and A/V equipment to get myself together.

Sometimes, a pastor's love for his people, like Paul's, is as strong as a parent's love for their children. Perhaps that should be all the time. But we're fallen men with imperfect affections and vulnerabilities. But when it is like that, there is unquestionably a great joy that wells up in the heart.

And what joy it is to discover longing for the people of God "with the affection of Christ Jesus" in our hearts. What an assurance of God's grace and work in our lives. In a peculiar sort of way, pastoral ministry affords a man an opportunity to love in a way and scale otherwise unavailable to him. I don't mean that all Christians shouldn't love this way. I'm only suggesting that one surprising source of joy for the pastor is this opportunity to love "with the affection of Christ Jesus" that comes with shepherding responsibility.

There are the older members who become parents and grandparents to you. The pastor's care for them can sometimes become akin to a son's care for his aging parents. There is the love that develops for the children of the congregation as you watch them grow and play some part with their parents in shaping them. There are the teenagers who need another loving mentor, and the young adults transitioning through career, marriage, and first children. There are the bruised and hurting sheep struggling with weakness or wickedness and needing care. The pastoral privilege of "being there" as providence unfolds plants the congregation in a man's heart. At various times and in various ways we have the privilege of sharing the affection of Christ Jesus.

Surely that's a costly love, for Christ in His love poured out His blood. But it was also for the joy set before Him that He endured the agony of the cross. In a similar way, it's for the joy set before the pastor that he endures in loving his people in chains or in proclaiming the gospel.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Surprising Sources of Joy in Pastoral Ministry, 1

Joylessness in pastoral ministry is not by God's design.

And yet, thousands of men leave the ministry every year having shriveled into joyless shells of their former selves. Burnout is high. So is frustration for many men. Fatigue is chronic, almost a syndrome in pastoral ministry. Why? If Heb. 13:17 suggests that the pastoral work should be a joy, why are their seasons and entire tenures that are so joyless?

Well, the answers are legion I suppose. For every pastor there is a story and a set of reasons. Some involve failures in the man, others failures in the people.

But just as there are challenges, there are also suprising sources of joy in pastoral ministry. When the family packed up and began the trek to Grand Cayman, one mentor said, "You'll be surprised at the friendships and the joys the Lord gives you that you didn't anticipate." One year in, he's absolutely correct.

I've began meditating on Paul's letter to the Philippians, a letter filled with references to joy. Last night I started thinking of how some of the things that brought the apostle joy in his ministry are probably unlikely sources of joy for men in ministry today.

For example, Paul writes, "In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on until the day of Christ" (Phil. 1:4-6).

Paul's prayer life is filled with joy because of the partnership he had with this church in the gospel. It's a partnership they've enjoyed from the first day of their mutual acquaintance.

But do we often think of pastoral ministry as a partnership with the congregation? Models stressing leadership and shepherding are more plentiful. But the notion of "partnership in the gospel" provided Paul joy and may be a fruitful way for pastors to also think of their relationship with their people.

When we think of pastoral ministry as a partnership in the gospel some unexpected reasons to be joyful in the labor begin to emerge.

The saints at FBC have been tremendous partners in the gospel with me and a source of great joy. When I think about their contribution, the greater contribution by any measure, like Paul, I'm thankful to God and joful in prayer for them.

First, their partnership in the gospel is evidenced by their prayers for me, the family, and the ministry. People frequently tell me that they're praying for me. And when I hear that, knowing that God is faithful to answer the prayers of His people, I'm encouraged. I'm strengthened and helped. On Sunday evenings, usually a couple weeks before going off somewhere to speak, I inform my partners in the gospel of upcoming outside engagements. We pray in those services for those opportunities. But I also know that when I'm away preaching in other places folks back home continue praying, interceding, asking the Lord for great fruit in the lives of those I'm serving and in my life. It's a tremendous and humbling partnership in this way.

Second, their partnership is seen in their giving. That's a no-brainer. But it needs to be said because the gift/grace of giving is often under-emphasized or emphasized in all the wrong ways. But when the people of FBC or any local church give, they are expressing their partnership in the gospel. They aren't giving fundamentally to me or the church staff or the building (though those things are included), but to the furtherance of the gospel in the lives of people near and far away from FBC. It's a vote of confidence/support, a tangible expression of joining in Christ-exalting labor.

Third, there are the multitude of ministries and acts of service that reflect this partnership. From the rather anonymous women who prepare the communion elements, to those doing the hard and rewarding work of children's ministry, to folks recording sermons and keeping the website updated, to men and women leading Bible study at their workplace, to men and women who work to apply the sermon to their daily lives... the partnership and influence of the gospel ministry is really extended, lived, and made effective by the congregation. I get to preach a sermon, lead a mid-week Bible study, and so forth. But the joy is to see the saints walk in the truth and carry Christ to places that I never could reach. It's a partnership from firist to last.

Fourth, the partnership is lived out in the local congregation itself. It's a great joy to see gospel-centered hospitality shared between the members. It's a joy to see humble concern and correction and instruction shared as people live the faith together. That partnership in sanctification, stirring one another to love and good deeds, is a source of rejoicing and thanksgiving. What a tremendous burden it is to labor in a place where the people of God show little concern for one another and for living out the faith together.

Certainly there are other ways this partnership is expressed and leads to joy in the ministry. Maybe some can be listed in the comments section. But it is a gret thing to realize we are not alone in the ministry; the weight of ministry doesn't fall on the pastor's shoulders alone. And perhaps more reasons for rejoicing ease into view when we add to the shepherding lense the bi-focal of partnership. Not only do I see the sheep who are wandering, bruised, and attacked by wolves... but I also see the sheep who remain in the fold, who make the flock possible by being there, who help keep the other sheep in line and bleat at the sight of wolves. I can see those who are in their own giftings and callings laboring as (if not more) aggressively and faithfully as I am. And I may take heart that the Lord has not placed me on a deserted island, but one filled with His people who desire to see the gospel advanced from these shores. It's a great joy to be in partnership with our people.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

The Swing of Things

For almost a month, we've had a dear brother here at FBC holding down the pulpit. He's a young man we've sent off to Bible college. While here on his summer break, he kindly and ably gave me a break from regular preaching duties.

But now here's the rub: I'm having to figure out what I was doing before, to "get back in the swing of things" as the saying goes. So far, I'm pressing through and trying to re-establish my routines... but I'm distracted.

So, my post for today is a question to pastors. What kinds of practical things do you do to get back in the swing of preparing and preaching when you've been out of the pulpit for a while?

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Around the Blog in 80 Seconds

Against Heresies has a good interview with Conrad Mbewe. It's a short part 1 of a series and is well worth reading. (HT: Challies)

Justin Taylor is back from vacation and connecting us to resources like a man starved of blog activity! This list of Piper audio seminars and course notes is an excellent help.

Baptism services are easily my favorite Lord's Day services at FBC. Bob Kaughlin has some excellent reflections on baptism and corporate worship. His list of remarkable things during a baptism service is a good summary of why I love them:
As we watched baptisms right in the middle of the Sunday meeting, I was struck by several things. First, you couldn't miss the connection between a person being baptized into Christ and being baptized into his body. This wasn't a bunch friends baptizing each other in a pool. This was a serious commitment, made possible by the grace of God, to live life together with the church of Jesus Christ. Second, it reinforced the importance of water baptism to everyone present. Third, it was a biblical way to preach the Gospel. Fourth, there was an almost palpable joy that filled the room as we were reminded that Jesus Christ continues to reconcile men and women to God through his substitutionary death and triumphant resurrection.

Scott Kay is working through a series attempting to get inside the mind of the legalist. I'm a recovering legalist serving in a setting where a couple legalistic churches are strong, so this was helpful for me. (HT: Steve Weaver)

Monday, August 06, 2007

Around the Blog in 80 Seconds

Sovereign Grace Ministries has added a page to its website featuring its church planting philosophy and some materials. Should be well worth the read (HT: SoloFemininity).

Timmy Brister at Said at Southern reflects on whether it's possible to plant a church on expositional preaching. Great stuff. (HT: Unashamed Workman)

A few of the best lines I've read this week:

there is a world of difference between dependent, humble application of the
Gospel to life and self-sufficient, self-exalting self-help. If people
leave my preaching confident in the rules and principles I have given them, I
have preached a false Gospel. If they leave the room confident in the faithful
grace and power of the Savior to work in them as they seek to obey -- I have
preached the Gospel.

Read the entire post.

A sermon series that looks like it's going to be a great meditation on the greatness of Christ, biblical theology, and engagement with some of the most disastrous sins in world history. I'm looking forward to this series from John Piper, though it's just a plan at this point. (HT: Justin Taylor)

Friday, August 03, 2007

A Prayer for the Next Year

Won't you send your Son today! Much is left unsaid. Many are left unloved. Work is undone. Even so, Lord, come! Your coming is more essential and more glorious than our sermons, our fellowship, our programs, or any other good and worthy thing we find to do. Being with you is more essential than being busy in this life. Come, Lord, come.

None whom you have called are outside of your grace and love. None whom you have purchased have been lost to the world. All things are done according to your good and perfect will. You have not and you cannot fail. You rule. So, Lord, even before this is finished being prayed or read, come. Come, Lord Jesus.

But if in your inscrutable and perfect will you decide to tarry, then Lord hear my cry for this next year of life and ministry at FBC.

Oh Lord, make me to love my wife as Christ loves the church. Grant that I would sacrifice, give, labor, wash, and die for her by the love of Christ in me. More and more make me the husband that portrays to a watching, wasting, bewildered, and dying world what your love looks like. May sinners see us together and bow at the matchless love of your Son displayed at Calvary. For your glory and our blessing, make us to increasingly know the deep mystery of being one flesh.

Father, should you keep hidden the day and the hour of your Son's return, please let this year see the conversion of an innumerable number of souls! Add to your church those that are being saved. Swell the ranks of the redeemed until everywhere the work of Christ is placarded for all to see, until the power of the gospel to save is known in every land among every people. Father, grant that all of my children would be in that number. Grant that the children of First Baptist Church would all be gripped with the saving knowledge of Christ in all His glory and splendor and majesty. Oh, Lord, let this be the generation that rises in shouts of praise and acclamation to your Name.

And Father, we've heard you call us to be holy as you are holy. To be merciful as you are merciful. Grant that we should indeed know the joy of holiness in Christ. Grant that we should walk in your mercy that we might be shown mercy. Quicken us with desire and diligence in being conformed to Jesus our Savior. Oh, Lord, in a land and time where people perish pursuing petty pleasures, make FBC an overwhelming and compelling colony where true pleasure is found...the pleasures of fellowshipping with you, of longing to see your face, where the unsurpassed greatness of knowing you is lived and experienced. Grant, Father, if it pleases you, that those who have been entrapped by sins and snares of various sorts find triumphant liberty in Christ. Grant that those who have been progressing in holiness would run all the more. Make us whole. With one voice and one heart, may it be that we have nothing on earth that we desire besides You, that we proclaim and live knowing that we have nothing in heaven but you! Oh, Lord you are our portion.

And Father, demonstrate your wisdom in this church and all of your churches. Grant that the many here from various nations, one new man in Christ, would reveal to heavenly powers and mere earthlings that you are wise beyond all. Grant that the church would continue in an unceasing period of peace and unity. May a man know his brother as though knowing his own mind. May a woman know her sister as if communing with her own heart. May we all have the mind of Christ, humble, lowly, considering others better than ourselves, serving and making ourselves of no reputation. Oh, let that mind be and continue to be in us. Make us a strong family, open to all you bring, and protecting each other against the assaults of the world, rejoicing in your goodness and wisdom as we live together in your Spirit.

Heavenly Father, just and true, make us faithful. We are your stewards, grant that we would with care and diligence attend to our trust. Supply us with more teachers of your word, men prepared and seasoned and capable of rightly dividing the word of truth. Make the congregation discerning in all it hears, testing the preaching and teaching by your word. Set a plumbline in our midst. Keep us from itching ears and heaping unto ourselves teachers who flatter and speak smooth words and dull the sharp blade of your word. Grant that we would love the truth, that we would rejoice when pierced and cut by your sword, that we delight in the wounds of friends who speak the truth in love. Bless us with ears to hear what you say in your word.

May our love be evident to all, our love for You and for each other. May our hope remain steadfast and anchored in Christ. May we learn Christ and be clothed together in Him.

Lord Jesus, our High Priest and Advocate, intercede for us with the Father. I don't know how to pray as I ought, so I trust in the groanings of the Spirit and your continuing intercession. Ask and do what you will. Grant us humility and joy and faith and love as you do. We are yours, purchased with your blood, preserved by your Spirit, and eagerly awaiting your return. Come, Lord Jesus, come. Amen.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

One Year Ago Today...

My family and I landed at Owen Roberts Int'l Airport in Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands. August 1, 2006 began a radically new and joyous life for us. And the past year has easily been one of the most exciting and rewarding I've ever lived.

Reflecting on the year, I thought I'd list a number of things (ten this time) that have been especially encouraging for me.

1. I have never seen my daughters more outgoing and comfortable than the year we've had in Grand Cayman. Naturally shy (like their dad), they've really blossomed here.

2. I've never seen my girls receive so much love and care from so many people young and old. The way the saints at FBC have loved my children has been tremendously encouraging as we've settled here.

3. There is simply no way to place a value on my wife's constant encouragement, support, and words of wisdom. She has been a phenomenal helpmeet in life and ministry.

4. We've seen the birth of our first son, Titus. What a blessing he has been. And like the girls, the folks here have just loved on him to no end.

5. Someone said to me before we left for Cayman, "Don't be surprised at the friends you'll make... some you expect and many you don't." How true that's been. The Lord has blessed us with new and dear friendships that we're enjoying all the time.

6. I'm heartened by the way many people in the congregation have been growing in response to God's word. The ways are too numerous to list really. But many are fighting sin like Christians, others are soaking up as much of the word as possible, some are trusting the Lord in difficult situations when they had once given up, the Lord is making visible many men with strong teaching gifts, and lots of people are shaping their families and life decisions by the word. I'm sure this was going on before my arrival; I'm not taking credit for any of it. But it's been a rewarding privilege to see the Lord working this fruit.

7. There is a sweet unity in the church.

8. I'm settling down as a preacher and getting to know the body better. That's been fun. Though I enjoy the privilege of laboring in other places from time to time, by far, my favorite place to preach is FBC.

9. The word of God is becoming more and more central in the life of the congregation in terms of how we understand our responsibility to one another and how we care for one another. The most brilliant example of that is the church's recent decision to remove an unrepentant brother from membership. It would not have been my choice to deal with something like this in the first year of service, but with meekness the congregation received the word (James 1:21), submitted to the very loving and able leadership of the elders (Heb. 13:17), and loved our brother the way Jesus would have us love him (Matt. 18:15-17). In my mind, this was a defining moment in the life of the body made possible by the congregation's love for and submission to the word of God as sufficient and authoritative.

10. I feel the significant partnership I have with the congregation in ministry here and outside the church. When I'm away, I know the saints are praying for me. Many pray for and encourage me in writing projects. And sending me off to serve in other places is an investment both in my own development, growth, and refreshment, and we trust an investment in the lives of other congregations and saints. I can't imagine a better congregation with whom to share and labor together in ministry.

There's much more I could list or describe. But suffice it to say that the first year at FBC has been a tremendous joy and the evidence of God's grace appears everywhere. I am thankful to the Lord, my family, and the saints at FBC for the privilege of laboring as a pastor here.