Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My Favorite Book of 2013

As I reflect on all that I read in 2013, by far the most helpful book, other than the Bible of course, was D.A. Carson’s The Intolerance of Tolerance. It is such a timely word for us who live in a culture where tolerance has become the highest virtue and is prized above truth. 

In the book, Carson distinguishes between what he calls the old tolerance and the new tolerance. The old tolerance is what gave us the form of religious liberty in America. The old tolerance values objective truth and understands that there will be disagreements between individuals who are seeking the truth. Yet people can tolerate one another with whom they disagree. For example, while I will disagree with a Mormon neighbor over who Jesus Christ is, we can still live peacefully together as neighbors and practice our freedom of religion. We do not have to worry about killing each other over our belief system, yet we can still disagree strongly with each other under the old tolerance. In other words, rivals can tolerate each other. 

The new tolerance, which is the cultural norm today, is much different. To summarize what Carson says about it: the new tolerance argues that no one view is exclusively true; the new tolerance avoids serious engagement over difficult moral issues, and yet most importantly (and inconsistently) it holds that anyone who attempts to arrive at truth and moral conviction is labeled intolerant and will not be tolerated. So those who claim that they are “tolerant” end up being the most intolerant by their own actions. Those who cry for tolerance become very intolerant if one does not agree with their view of the new tolerance, which downplays all truth claims and puts all beliefs on equal playing field.  Carson demonstrates in the book that the new tolerance is largely secular since that is considered the “neutral” position. 

I’ll share two quotes from the book that encourage Christians to engage the new tolerance. 

“So part of our task, whether in scholarly output or casual speech, is to call into question this delusional supposition that ours is the best society because it is becoming the most tolerant society. The petty gain in open-mindedness that we have achieved in recent decades cannot compare with the staggering losses in clarity as to what tolerance is, in understanding the non-negotiability of truth, in the moral blindness that is rocking our world--a blindness we barely detect” (p. 167 italics mine). 

And in the final pages Carson sums up the Christian’s responsibility in this, 

“Evangelize. Evangelize and plant churches. Evangelize and pray. Evangelize and live life in the light of the consummated kingdom for which we wait. Evangelize” (p173).

I love those two quotes because they capture the nature of Carson’s writing (for the record, I have probably read more from D.A. Carson than any other author in the past decade of my life): he is a well thought philosopher, yet also applies truth very practically and clearly as a lover of God’s Word. 

And he helps us think through the Christian's response to the new tolerance. It is not retreat of fear, nor buying into it full-throttle, but challenging it with obedience to the very command of our Savior, “Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:19-20 ESV). 

Monday, December 23, 2013

Most Helpful Ministry Book of 2013: Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome

These final blog posts of 2013 I want to reflect on my reading this past year and share the most helpful books that have shaped my thinking. This post is specifically geared towards those in ministry. The next post will be about a book that I’ve found very helpful for all evangelical Christians.

I read several books on pastoral ministry this year, but by far the most helpful one was Liberating Ministry From the Success Syndrome by Kent and Barbra Hughes. The book was birthed from the their “failed” ministry experience. Decades ago, Kent planted a church that had all the elements of success on the outside. But attendance and zeal soon began to decline from the hundreds down to around 20. This left Kent in a state of depression and despair, even doubts of his call to ministry. 

God was gracious to Kent and Barbra during this time and “liberated” them from their misunderstanding of success. As Kent and Barbra began to study the Scripture about how God evaluates success, they found a different picture than the one they had bought into. 

The book emphasizes what success looks like from a biblical perspective: faithfulness, serving, loving, believing, prayer, holiness and a positive attitude. Sadly, this runs contrary to how churches and pastors are viewed. Success is usually seen in the numbers. 

I want to mention a few things about the book personally. First, I wish this was required at some point during my training for ministry. How many men enter ministry with the wrong model and aspiration of success? Statistically around half of the men who finish seminary will be out of the ministry within 5 years. Is this, in some way, tied to a wrong mentality of success? The attendance in our church has remained roughly the same over the past couple of years since I have been pastor.  We have gained some great families and also lost some. Certainly I could do things better as a leader. But without a biblical perspective of success, in a few more years I could feel like a great ministerial failure if the numbers do not increase. This book was helpful to evaluate true success. 

Second, I wanted to share my favorite part of the book. It is found on pages 102-103. Kent describes a conversation he had with a child of a retired pastor, who on the outside had all the elements of success, yet he was miserable. The son described his dad like this: 

“My father is retired now, but he’s just as resentful and unhappy as he has always been.....he literally married himself to the church, all the while disliking the people he served, and envious of his colleagues who had it ‘better’ than he.” 

Remember, this describes a man who throughout his life, on the outside, looked very successful as a minister. But listen to the next minister Kent described who had a genuine joy: 

“What a contrast with the pastor I met in a remote little western town. His church met in rented facilities and his car had seen better days, as had his trailer-house home. But as he walked down Main Street, stepping around the tumble weeds, he remarked, ‘I can’t believe how good God is to me. I have a wonderful wife, a church to serve, and sunshine 365 days a year!” 

The lesson: “success” from an outside perspective is not always better for the soul. True joy comes not as a result of the outward circumstances but from the Spirit working in the heart. 

After finding myself more “liberated” from the success syndrome, I find myself more echoing the second pastor. I too can’t believe how good God has been to me. I have an amazing wife who loves our church,  four fantastic children who are fun to be around, a church to serve with people who Christ died for, and sunshine probably 90% of the year!

So my suggestion is that all pastors should read this book at least once in their ministries. It is never to late to be liberated from the success syndrome. Thank you Kent and Barbra Hughes!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

John Calvin on How to Read the Bible

My parents bought me the set of John Calvin’s Commentary on the Bible for a graduation present years ago. It is a gift that I value and use regularly in Bible study and sermon preparation. As I was preparing my message on Galatians this week, I appreciated what Calvin said about Gal 4:23 (which is where Paul uses the word allegory to interpret Isaac and Ishmael, you know one of the easier parts in Galatians!)
Here are Calvin’s words:
“Let us know, then, that the true meaning of Scripture is the natural and obvious meaning; and let us embrace and abide by it resolutely. Let us not only neglect as doubtful, but boldly set aside as deadly corruptions, those pretended expositions, which lead us away from the natural meaning.”
I found this really helpful advice for general Bible study and also for those who prepare messages for preaching and teaching. The gist of it is that our goal is to find the plain and literal meaning of a text, what Calvin refers to as the “natural and obvious meaning.”   In other words we are to try to discern, as best as possible, the author’s intent and avoid reading our own hidden meaning into the biblical text.   
Thinking about this brought me back to my early experiences of studying the Bible and also being in small group Bible studies. How often I hear it said “This verse means to me….” That approach is highly subjective and often gets far removed from the “natural and obvious meaning” that the Holy Spirit inspired.
So this is extremely helpful in how we approach the Bible as Christians in order to be faithful readers and obedient followers of God’s Holy Word. Instead of asking what it means to me, or trying to find some hidden meaning, we pray for God the Holy Spirit to speak the Word clearly, so we can embrace it and abide by it faithfully.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Happy Reformation Day 2013!

Today Protestant Christians celebrate what has been labeled as Reformation Day. A good summary of it can be found here

Currently, I am preaching through Galatians in my congregation, which was a book so instrumental in Martin Luther’s theology of the Reformation. To honor his work, I wanted to share a quote from him as he reflects on Galatians 3:27 and the phrase “have put on Christ” (the quote was found in his Second Lectures in Galatians):  

“To put on Christ is not a matter of imitation but of new birth and new creation. We have not just changed our clothes in the outward sense but become entirely new people”

I am thankful for how Christ-centered the Reformation was and how Luther encourages Christians to consider their new identity in Christ. God brought about something new in the year 1517 by his Spirit in the church. The same Spirit is at work today to bring about newness in Christ and reformation in our lives.

Happy Reformation Day 2013!

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Pastor's Wife Appreciation Month

The month of October has been traditionally designated as Pastor Appreciation Month. This is a time when churches somehow thank their pastor for his service. It is a nice idea, and I appreciate the words of encouragement that come from my congregation. But I would gladly trade it for a Pastor’s Wife Appreciation Month.

I’ve heard that John D. Rockefeller once said that without his wife he would have been a poor man. The honest pastor will have similar words about his wife. Without her he would be a “poor man” in a pastoral sense or may not be a pastor at all.

Here are a few things that I realize about my wife, that without her I would be a “poor man” when it comes to ministry.

1. My wife helped me get through schooling so I could serve the church. She agreed to the Ph.T. program (putting husband through). In college she worked full-time so I could go to class full-time. In seminary she took care of our three children while I worked two jobs and chipped away at my M.Div. These degrees were for the purpose of serving the church in the future and my wife did all she could to help me get through. This does not even count in all of the financial sacrifice we had to make during those days, which she never complained about.  Pastors and churches should appreciate the sacrifice that many wives made in the days of preparation.

2. My wife helped me take my first call. My first full-time pastorate call was over 1,000 miles from our family and in a small town that can have some harsh winters.  My wife has always demonstrated the “go wherever” mentality when it comes to ministry. Without her support, I would never have made it to northwest Iowa to serve my first church. Pastors and churches should appreciate the sacrifice that many wives made to be serving in a certain locality.

3. My wife helps me to love the church. A wife will either be a help or hindrance in ministry. My wife is a great help. She has a positive outlook on the church even on the worse days. She eagerly serves where God has gifted her. She avoids bitterness when things are sour and does not repay evil for evil. These are all essential character traits. She demonstrates a love and commitment to our church.

The ministry is one of the few vocations where having a supportive wife is essential. If a plumber or investor has a wife who is not too crazy about his job, he can still get by and earn a living. This is not true in the pastorate. An unsupportive wife will kill the husband’s ministry and possibly the church.

The takeaway from this is for both pastors and churches. As pastors, we need to be sure our wives know how much we appreciate their sacrifice and love for the church. They need to know how essential their positive role is in our lives and how we deeply appreciate it.

Churches also need to realize how much of a sacrifice that the pastor’s wife makes. The wife has often agreed to go wherever her husband has been called to. The wife often has agreed with her husband to voluntarily take a low-paying job in the non-profit world for the rest of their lives to serve Christ. The wife stands by her husband during times of deep discouragement and often helps support his faith so he can persevere. The truth is, without the support of the wife, many churches would not have their pastor today.

So as I said earlier, I would gladly trade this month for a Pastor’s Wife Appreciation Month.  

Monday, October 7, 2013

Tornados and Teachable Moments

On Friday about a dozen tornados ripped through parts of Nebraska and Iowa close to us.  We were having our Friday family fun night—on Friday evening our family routine is to have homemade pizza, play games, and watch a movie as a family. Nothing, except for an extreme emergency, is supposed to interrupt our Friday family fun night. We agree to regularly fight to guard this time. So the Ipad and cell phones go into another room and we enjoy the relationships that God has given us as family. As it turns out, a tornado warning falls under the “extreme emergency” category and our evening got interrupted briefly this this past Friday.  

What stood out to me was the way my older children responded to the situation. At about 7:20pm the tornado sirens went off in our town.  The kids asked if it was real and we told them yes, we need to get to the basement fast. This was a warning which means that a tornado has touched down and is imminent.  

There was initial panic at first, but after things settled down (at this point I broke the Ipad rule and grabbed it to check the Doppler radar and updates from the Sheriff) my kids, led by my oldest son, suggested that we pray. What I found remarkable is that they knew, almost instinctively, that when there is a crisis, as a family we pray to God who is bigger than the crisis.  They were communicating that God is greater than the tornado. So here was a moment in real life where they were affirming the truth that God is sovereign and we can trust him in any and every circumstance.

Now I hope for my children that prayer becomes a very real and vital part of their lives as they mature. I hope prayer goes far beyond the moment of a crisis. Far too many people only look to God in a moment of crisis. When things are good, they go on living independent of him. I hope that this is not what we model in our family. We have tried as a family to model prayer both in times of crisis and during times of happiness so they get a balanced picture of what it looks like to pray daily.

But this was a good teachable moment for my kids and they did well. I encouraged them with that as we retuned back upstairs to finish our movie. But before the movie began, we gave God thanks for his protection and hearing our prayers. All glory to him. Tornados can be teachable moments.



Thursday, September 12, 2013

Duck Dynasty and the Idol of Consumerism

First, I want to say that I have enjoyed watching the show Duck Dynasty recently. You could call me a fan since I purchased the first two seasons on DVD. It is family-centered outdoor fun that ends with prayer each episode. My son Elijah loves watching Jase catch bullfrogs and has attempted it in our local pond. The Robertson’s appear to have a clear testimony of Christ from what I have heard. All this is good.

But I do have some concerns that the whole fascination with Duck Dynasty may not be helping American Christians with certain idols of the heart (cf. Ezek 14:3). The main idol I am referring to is the materialism in our culture.  This hit me the other day when I visited a Christian bookstore. There were two product displays: one was full of Duck Dynasty trinkets. The other was a child sponsorship display for World Vision and some other orphan care ministry. They were at opposite ends of the store.  They reveal opposite mentalities I believe: the consumerism and wastefulness that characterizes our culture that will soon be forgotten on the one end of the store and the sacrificial, generous giving that has eternal rewards on the other end.  

Now I’m not anti-capitalist and I am genuinely happy for the Robertson’s who have worked hard to build a business. And they may give their wealth away very generously to missions and the poor. But how often do we Christians pour out our money on things that in a few years are almost forgotten and sold at a garage sale? That is my prediction of what will happen with Duck Dynasty t-shirts and bobble heads that are being bought right now. In five years they will be hawked for a couple of bucks, lost or thrown away.  I once volunteered to work a booth at a Christian music concert in the Deep South. The well-known group sold over $13,000 in merchandise that night. That was ten years ago. I wonder where that $13,000 in merchandise is today.

The words from the Prophet Isaiah are well worth meditating on:
“if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.” (Is 58:10)

Remember, this is coming from a guy who has already spent $20 on Duck Dynasty DVDs. I have a long way to go in pouring myself out for the hungry and afflicted. But I do want to battle the idol of wastefulness and consumerism that rages in my own heart.  

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Solid Gospel Foundation

The house I currently live in was built over 100 years ago. It fits our family well, but structurally has a foundation problem. The foundation is hodgepodge: a mixture of brick, cement and dirt. It looks as if it was put together in phases, using whatever material was available in the late 1800's. So our floors are quite uneven, which I occasionally use for putting practice. 

This phase in my life is foundational. In my early 30's with young preschool/elementary age children, we are building a foundation in our home.  Entering my third year of pastoral ministry, I'm building a foundation in the church. By the grace of God, I want to build a solid foundation of Christ and the gospel. Some of the Christ-centered gospel "material" I'm using is the book of Galatians, which I'm preaching though this fall, and Matt Chandler's book The Explicit Gospel which I'm reading now. Chandler noticed something troubling in his church among those who are in the foundational stage of life:

"What I found was that for a great many young twentysomethings and thirtysomethings, the gospel had been merely assumed, not taught or proclaimed as central. It hadn't been explicit" (p. 13).

It can be easy,convenient and cost effective to build a foundation with hodgepodge materials. But the problems are noticed years later, even a century later, as in the case of our house. The same is true with the foundation we build in our homes and churches now. It can be easy to build a hodgepodge foundation, using only the materials of our culture. A consumer mentality, with extreme self-focus and little thought about Christ is what the average twenty and thirtysomething is building with right now. Sadly, this is true in many of the homes and even churches in our culture. When Christ and the gospel are absent, the foundation will crumble at some point. It may be years down the road, but it will crumble eventually. 

Jesus said this very thing in Matt 7:24-27. A hodgepodge foundation did not work 2000 years ago, or 100 years ago, and it will not work today. Paul also understood the solid foundation was essential to build in life and ministry: 

"But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world" (Gal 6:14).

Monday, August 19, 2013

Reading the Bible Wrong

I remember reading the Bible for the first time as a teenager. It was not the easiest task. The book is big (1,104 pages in my personal copy) with many chapters and verses that are supposed to make it easier to read somehow.

One of the most common problems with the Bible is that people can read it the wrong way. I’m positive that I have done this countless times. Thankfully, the more you read it the better Bible reader you become.

I came across an example this morning where a verse can be read wrongly:

“Cursed is he who does the work of the LORD with slackness…” (Jeremiah 48:10a ESV).

I can almost picture the young man eager to go into ministry. This would sound like a great visionary verse for his calling right? Or maybe it’s a warning for pastors who are prone to take some short cuts or who have lost their zeal? Can we use this verse to encourage any of these situations? No.

This verse has nothing to do with pastoral ministry or church leadership. If you read the rest of the verse you see what the “work of the LORD” really is:

“…and cursed is he who keeps back his sword from bloodshed” (Jeremiah 48:10b ESV).

In this context the work of the Lord is executing judgment on Moab. So it’s probably not the best verse to take and apply to pastoral ministry or any other work that God has called you to…unless it is executing judgment on an idolatrous nation perhaps.

This is simply a reminder that Bible reading and understanding the Bible well take a lot of hard work and effort. It takes reading through books of the Bible over long periods of time, often years again and again.  

D.A. Carson has said it well: “At their best, Christians have saturated themselves in the Bible.” This means more than a verse here and there, and takes real effort and elbow grease over long periods of time.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Back to the Blog Again

I took a couple of months off from the blog since my daughter, Karis, was born in May. Not that I was a consistent blogger by any means but the break was helpful. After returning from vacation I’m back at it again.

Since the fall season marks times of change, like kids going back to school, harvest time approaching, and football season beginning, here are a few changes in my blog.

First, my purpose has been modified a bit. My new purpose behind the blog is to record personal thoughts on gospel living, marriage, parenting and ministry. These themes will guide my posting for the most part. Not that I have much to offer on these topics compared to those much further down the path of Christian maturity. But we are all on this journey by His grace, aren't we?

Second, the blog will have more of a pastoral focus. I know at least a couple of folks in my church check out my blog so I also want to see it as an extension of ministry.  Hopefully it provides a glimpse into what is going on in my heart and mind from time to time, which may be quite scary I admit, like a disengaged dad confessing.

Third, I do hope to be a more regular blogger. I have set out to do this before, only to have other things take over my time, like crying babies and a son who wants to play catch.  These are good things I don’t want to neglect. But since I am viewing the blog now as an extension of ministry, hopefully I will be able to work it into my schedule like other important things I do in ministry, such as prayer and sermon preparation.

Anyhow, I look forward to writing more and appreciate all of you who take time to read my thoughts! 
A child of God living by His grace,

Thursday, July 18, 2013

8 Books for New Pastors in Leadership

Although I’m taking a break from the blog this summer, I wanted to share this. It’s something I did for a friend who may be taking his first full-time leadership position in a church soon.

The following is a list of books that helped me transition into a full-time leadership role as a lead pastor during my first couple years in ministry. The order of the list is the order that I read them, not necessarily the order of helpfulness. All of the books were helpful at some level. Those I gained the most from have an asterisk next to the title.

Hopefully this list can be helpful to a guy staring out in ministry.  From my experience, a seminary degree and pastoral internship did not prepare me enough for the weight of leadership that I would take on. I believe that good books are a God-ordained way of teaching us nuggets of wisdom and skill we lack in certain areas.

1.      Practical Wisdom for Pastors by Curtis C. Thomas.  A godly man sent me this book when he found out I was taking my first church. Great practical advice from a seasoned pastor. Chapters are short and filled with nuggets. The bibliography is also very helpful for further leadership resources.

2.     *Pastor to Pastor by Erwin Lutzer.  The subtitle is “Tackling the Problems of Ministry” and it rings true. I ordered this book about 6 months into ministry when I was facing my first problems in leadership. Lutzer’s book was immensely helpful.

3.     Good to Great by Jim Collins. A standard in leadership. I did not finish the book but the chapter on “Level 5 Leadership” is priceless. Collins suggests that great leaders have a peculiar mix of humility and determination.

4.     *The Conviction to Lead by Albert Mohler. Mohler reminds his readers that great leaders have the right convictions. This was a helpful book after reading Collins. There are 25 principles in the book, though some apply to larger platforms of leadership, the pastor of a small congregation can still benefit from them.

5.     Dangerous Calling by Paul David Tripp. Tripp has seen many pastors fall out of ministry because of sin. The book addresses indwelling sin in the hearts of leaders. He confronts the reality that pastors will numb themselves through endless hours in front of the TV or on Facbook if they are not actively pursuing Christ. You feel as if Tripp is personally counseling you. A good heart-penetrating book for leaders.

6.     *Sensing Jesus by Zack Eswine. Probably my personal favorite so far. Eswine reminds leaders that they are human and not God. The temptation of the leader is to try to be “like God” to those he leads. Eswine reminds us of our humanity and gives the leader a greater love for the locality he serves.

7.      The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership by John Maxwell. Maxwell is considered the expert on leadership among some evangelicals. The fact that his book has sold over 1 million copies and is a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller has something to say. I got my copy for $1 at a thrift store. A treasure and worth coming back to again and again.

8.     What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary by James Emery White. The new pastor knows that seminary hasn’t taught him everything, just like premarital counseling can’t fully prepare a person for everything in marriage. White writes as a seasoned pastor passing on these lessons learned. Well worth the couple of bucks I paid for the eBook version on my Kindle.

I also subscribe to Leadership Journal which I find very helpful for developing leadership skills. Though not every article is great, there are some issues that have been extremely helpful. For example, one issue was on the topic of spiritual warfare and it related to some things I was going through at the time. Or another was on the topic of money. I don’t remember any teaching in seminary on how to lead an organization where money and finances are a big part of everything done or not done.

I read these books over the course of my first two years in pastoral leadership. If you do the math, these 8 books break down to a book every three months, which is quite manageable even for busy pastors. I personally take time on Monday to focus on leadership development, which is when I set time to read these books and listen to stuff online that helps me grow more as a leader.

I also recommend regular visits to Thom Rainer’s blog: thomrainer.com.

“Although it’s true that some people are born with greater natural gifts than others, the ability to lead is really a collection of skills, nearly all of which can be learned and improved. But that process doesn’t happen overnight.”
--John Maxwell

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Four Joys of The Pastor

I read a handful of blogs geared towards pastors and recently I've noticed more of a negative tone from some of them regarding pastoral work. Some of the posts are about the woes and difficulties of pastoral ministry. They can be helpful at some level, especially when you know that others share some of the same difficulties and discouragements. But I wanted to bring a positive perspective, at least in my own thinking. Besides, much of what is written on blog posts that I read are directed towards American pastors. And compared to other parts of the world, pastors in our nation have it pretty good I think. Seldom if ever do I hear of pastors going to jail or facing martyrdom for their witness in United States. And even pastors on meager salaries probably eat very well, especially when it is a potluck fellowship in our baptist circles.

With that said, here is my take on the joys of being a pastor. Psalm 23 sets the tone for my thoughts.

1. Providing for the sheep.
It is a joy to provide. I see this provision primarily through prayer for the people and ministering the Word of God every week to them. This work brings great joy to my heart. I realize that each week it is part of my responsibility to provide the sheep with an accurate picture of who God is and the gospel. And by the power of the Spirit this changes people for eternity. Nothing should bring a pastor more joy than seeing real lives that are being transformed by the living and active Word of God.

2. Protecting the sheep
Though not all may appreciate my analogy, I am a gun owner. This means that each night when I go to bed there is a sense of peace that comes to me knowing that if someone attempts to break into our house, I can attempt to defend my family from harm and violence. Part of the shepherd's role is to defend the sheep. Sometimes the shepherd needs to take some rocks and throw them at wolves. There is a great sense of joy a pastor should have in protecting the sheep from error. So much garbage floats around in the sea of American Christianity. From the prosperity gospel to watered down liberal interpretations of the Bible to big entertainment based productions in churches that are completely void of the gospel message. Thus, it is a joyful thing to faithfully proclaim the whole counsel of God regularly in the local church (Acts 20:27).

3. Walking though the valley of death with the sheep
I have not had to go through funerals in our church because we are small and mostly a younger congregation. But I have been at the hospital bed on occasions with our people. And I have ministered to the dying outside of our church. It is a joy to visit the nursing home and see how someone's day has changed because they felt your love. Only in eternity will we know the true weight of this. But there is a particular sense of joy when a pastor walks with someone in their darkest hour nearing death.

4. Feasting with the sheep
As far as my gifts for ministry, I feel the most useful in the pulpit and find tons of joy in the labors there. There are many things I'm not so good at but I'm growing and learning. But there is one thing I love doing. If I were only allowed to do one thing in the church other than preaching, this would be it: administering the Lord's Supper. Our church comes to the table once a month. I love the sense of unity and community this creates and it is one time where we are so particularly Christ-focused. It is a time when we remember why we exist, that we were bought with a price and have eternal assurance through the atoning work of Christ. We reflect on the incarnation, how the eternal Son of God took on literal flesh and blood. His body was broken and His blood dripped down from the cross to give us life. And we will enjoy this feast for eternity with our Good Shepherd and all His sheep from every tribe, tongue and nation.

If this does not light your fire as a pastor and give you joy, then your wood is probably wet!

Well, these are my thoughts about some of the joys of being a pastor. Next week our baby is due so I will be taking a break from blogging for this summer. Thanks to the handful of you who read my thoughts. I hope to be some sort of encouragement to others who are seeking to live ordinarily by His grace.

*special thanks to my son, Elijah, for posing as the shepherd-boy in this photo and the Schuller farm for the sheep.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Justice Demands Hatred: thinking about evil and justice beyond Mr. Rogers

As I was watching the coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing this morning, NBC showed a quote from Mr. Rogers. I have seen this quote going around on Facebook also. To paraphrase Mr. Rogers, he talks about seeing scary things on the news and looking for the good people who help. This is probably appropriate for small kids who live in the Neighborhood of Make Believe. But thoughtful adults, especially those who hold to the teachings of Scripture about evil and justice, need to think beyond what Mr. Rogers has to offer children.

Ecclesiastes 3:8 talks about there being "a time to love, and a time to hate." I remember growing up and my parents warning me about how I used the word hate because it was such a strong word. They were probably telling me that I should not hate things like school or broccoli. But when I look at the senseless evil in the world, there are some good reasons to hate.

I hate that people use explosives to injure people and kill children (Boston Marathon).

I hate that elementary school children are innocently gunned down (Sandy Hook).

I hate that millions of Jews were killed simply because of their race (Holocaust).

I hate that over 50 million innocent human lives have been lost in the US since 1973 (Abortion).

These are just a few. I also hate that kids die from starvation every day; that people are wrongly imprisoned; that others are addicted to drugs and pornography...and the list could go on. But the shedding of innocent blood requires a unique justice. The first murder in human history reminds us of that,

"The voice of your brother's blood is crying out to me from the ground" (Gen 4:10).

Seeing the pictures of innocent blood splattered across the Boston sidewalks is just plain sickening. It reminds us that justice demands our hatred of these evil acts.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Sad But True Words From R.C. Sproul

In preparation for Good Friday tomorrow, I'm reading a small book on the atonement by R.C. Sproul. He has a paragraph where he observes the sad truth of our culture,

"...I came to the conclusion that people are not concerned about an atonement. They are basically convinced they have no need for it. They aren't asking 'How can I be reconciled to God? How can I escape the judgment of God?' If anything has been lost from our culture, it is the idea that human beings are privately, personally, individually, ultimately, inexorably accountable to God for their lives" (The Truth of the Cross, p 8).

So the sad truth is that relatively few people in our culture believe they will give an account to God. And thus, they have no need for the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53, who goes to the cross, who goes through the great judgment of God so they can escape the great judgment.

I'm still hoping and believing for a great outpouring of God's Spirit to reverse this. I'm hoping that there will be a widespread work of God where people see the depths their sin before a holy God, and they run to Christ and cling to the cross.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

God's Value of Weakness

I hate admitting that I am weak.  I'll go to great lengths before I admit to myself, or someone else, that I don't have the ability to do something. It is common for us all.  It is part of our sin nature to function in a sort of self-sufficient way, proving our own ability and strength to do things. But is this the way God intended us to live?
The more I learn about prayer and the more I live in God's Word, the more I see his value in weakness. Recently our church has been looking at Gideon in the book of Judges.  God calls Gideon in a moment of great weakness (Judges 6). Sadly, it does not appear Gideon finished his life in weakness and his downward spiral of character proves it.

But God's Word places a great value on our weakness. It seems to appear as a virtue in the New Testament. Here are two reminders that God values weakness in the lives of his children.

Christ's power in my weakness: "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor 12:9)

I find my identity in Christ through weakness: "For we are also weak in him" (2 Cor 13:4) 

During a season of feeling great weakness I prayed this morning: "Father, meet me in my weakness." I'm not sure how he will answer this but I trust that he will. My Father is always good and he values my weakness.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

5 Reasons To Live Missional

It is easy to get stuck in a rut. I predict that is what will happen to my golf game come spring--I'll begin and gain some initial improvement, only to get stuck in a rut by mid-summer. I don't like it, but it happens. This also happens with living on mission: it seems that getting stuck in a rut becomes more common than I would like.

I'm not sure if the apostle Paul had seasons where he got stuck in a rut. His letters don't give that impression, yet he was human. The way he writes in 2 Corinthians 5 reminds us that getting stuck in a rut is not the norm, rather living on mission is. There are five reasons he gives to live on mission that hopefully will break us free from the rut of missionless living.

1. We live on mission because people are eternal (5:1-5). It helps to shape the way we see each day and each individual person when we step back and take an eternal perspective on things.

2. We live on mission because we are persuasive by design (5:11). Salesmen know that their livelihood depends on their persuasiveness. I believe that only God can open a person's heart by the Holy Spirit, yet God has also created us to be persuasive by the way we live and communicate the gospel.

3. We live on mission because of the love of Christ (5:14). I interpret this to be Christ's love for us. His love is always primary. The fact that the Son of God came to this earth, lived perfectly and died on a cross under a brutal execution for sin is the message that we carry and the world needs to hear.

4. We live on mission because of new creation reality (5:17). This verse was the first one that really gripped me when I was converted to Christ as a teenager--I am a new creation! This is the message of hope that many long for and is what we bring them in Christ!

5. We live on mission because we are ambassadors of reconciliation and substitution (5:20-21). The message we bring is not just new creation but even greater: people can be reconciled to God because Jesus went to the cross to die the death they deserve. This is the most important truth in the universe. It is more important than anything congress will pass today. It is more important than anything that makes the headlines on your favorite news channel or website. This is truly good news, the gospel. And the world needs to hear. We are the ambassadors.

The common thread in all of this is the gospel. This can all be boiled down to the power of the gospel. The reality of the gospel is enough reason to live on mission daily.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Seminary in Hindsight

It is coming up on two years since I finished my degree at Southern Seminary. I am thankful to be done and now be in full-time vocational ministry. It is nice not to have the continual pressure of papers and Hebrew vocab. On top of that, it is nice not working two jobs while being a full-time student and trying to keep my wife and kids a priority. It seemed that my life went from 110mph to a normal speed of 65mph since I graduated. I can actually work a 45 hour week and have energy left over. I love what I do and the church I serve in Iowa.

Recently I've asked myself if there is anything I regret in seminary? If I went back would I do anything different? Take different classes? Be involved in different ministry?

I don't believe that on an academic level I would do anything much different. SBTS is a fantastic place to be and I recall almost daily the encouragement from my classes. If I searched deep inside my soul, I suppose I would find that I did have some slight joy in memorizing Greek paradigms.

But there is one thing I know I would do differently if I could sneak into Doc Brown's time machine and go back to 2006: I would be more intentional to apply the gospel to my own heart first. Now I do believe I grew in my love for Christ during seminary. It was not the typical "cemetery" experience that some told me it would be. I saw my sin on many occasions and by God's grace repented. I sincerely believe I left with a greater love for Christ.

But the main focus for me during seminary was preparing for future ministry and not as much applying the gospel to my own life. I was getting the necessary tools so I could enter this thing called pastoral ministry when I got my M.Div. This is a noble pursuit but can still be lacking something significant--what Christ wants most from us is our heart's devotion to Him. He wants us to pursue Him first. He wants us to be applying the gospel promises to our lives wherever we are. Being a seminary student (or a pastor) is no exception. This should have consumed me all the time but I confess it didn't. Maybe some eager 26year old getting ready for his first semester at seminary will stumble on this post someday and it will help him pursue Christ and the gospel first as he prepares for ministry.

At the end of the day, the only degrees that the Bible calls us to are degrees of glory (2 Cor 3:18). We are not to seek a Master of Divinity more than we seek to be mastered by Divinity.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Where are our priorities?

This morning I finished Acts in my Bible reading plan. As I reflect back on Acts, there are obviously many themes that emerge. But if I were to boil it down to one main theme that dominates Acts, it would be summed up into one word: conversion.

Conversion, i.e. the new birth, is central to Acts. The apostles preached with the goal of conversion. Paul's conversion is a major hinge in the book and it is mentioned three times. Whether Paul is preaching to straight-laced Jews or godless pagans, his preaching is aimed at their conversion (compare the accounts in Acts 17).

The beauty of the conversion stories are diverse: the great numbers early in Acts (ch 2), a man who persecuted Christians (Paul in ch 9), a Gentile (Cornelius in ch 10) and a business woman and suicidal prison guard (both in ch 16) just to name a few.

So finishing Acts today has pricked me by asking: where are your priorities Ryan? Do you labor in prayer for true conversions? Do you share the gospel regularly, clearly and compellingly? Are you praying and trusting the Holy Spirit to bring about genuine, even radical conversions in the lives of people you have an influence on?

These are some good questions to ask ourselves. Quite possibly, if I were to have coffee today with the Apostle Paul, he would ask me some of the same ones.

"But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God."
--Paul the Apostle in Acts 20:24

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Treasuring the gift of life in 2013

I want to begin a habit of blogging more regularly in 2013. Most will be shorter posts and the content may be centered around what I am preaching in church or some other aspect of life or ministry. Here is the first of my more "regular postings."

Today marks 40 years of legalized on demand abortion in our land. This is very horrific when we consider that well over 50 million innocent lives have been lost and dreams shattered in less than half of a century. As a pastor I was compelled to preach on the sanctity of human life this past Sunday. My text was from Proverbs 24:11,

"Rescue those who are being taken away to death; hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter."

I believe that the principle behind this verse is a call to stand up for those who are victims of injustice. In our context in the United States, that includes the 1.5 million each year who are innocently led to the slaughter through abortion.

It hit me last week how inconsistent our laws are in America. We adopted a dog last week through the humane society. In the process I signed a paper that warned me that if I do no treat my new pet humanely, I will face criminal charges. In the meantime, I can legally take my wife to an abortion clinic and end the life of our 22week old child, who is uniquely made in the image of God.

That is a horrific injustice: today my dog has more legal protection than the human being living inside of my wife. This must change and I trust that it will someday. I hope that more will join with me in treasuring human life in 2013.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

What makes a great leader?

This year I am using the M’Cheyne Bible reading plan for my devotions. For today’s meditation, the texts are Acts 15 and Nehemiah 5. Both have great pictures of leadership and yet both are vastly different. These accounts are centuries apart and during times of different biblical covenants. The Nehemiah account is more focused on one individual leader (Nehemiah), while the Acts account is led by a council and a church. The Nehemiah account addresses concern for the oppressed poor.  The Acts account addresses a theological & gospel problem.  Both are vastly different.

But there is something that unites them together and shows us what is at the heart of great leadership:

Both model a leadership that exists for the good and welfare of the people who are being led. In Acts 15 the apostles and elders are deeply concerned for the Gentiles that they be included in the community of God’s redeemed people. In Nehemiah 5 he is deeply concerned for the poor who are being oppressed. Both accounts also model sacrifice that is involved.

The challenge to leaders is this: how much are you truly concerned for the good and welfare of the people under your leadership?  This obviously looks different within the different contexts of leadership. But I do believe that having a genuine concern for the good and welfare of the people under your leadership is the distinguishing mark of a truly great leader.  The greatest example of this is Jesus (Phil 2:4-5).