A Pastoral Word about Mother’s Day

Pastors have a responsibility to speak truthfully and honestly about all things… especially those things about which we are often far-too-sentimental. Therefore, Mother’s Day can prove to be a somewhat difficult occasion for pastors.

On the one hand, I want to celebrate motherhood and encourage the already lofty spirits of those proud mothers in attendance. On the other hand, I want to remember the experience of those women in attendance who may not have such good feelings about Mother’s Day. In fact, I know some women who avoid church services on Mother’s Day precisely because of their ill feelings.

Mother’s Day is certainly a time for us to thank our own mother, congratulate mothers, and admire motherhood generally. There is much to be admired about motherhood, and all of the women who have given themselves to this role are worthy of thanks.

As with all things in creation, God defines motherhood. God created motherhood before the Fall and curse of sin, commanding the man and his wife to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28); therefore, motherhood is rightly understood as part of God’s good creation.

Motherhood can be a joyful experience. Children are a blessing from God (Gen. 29:31, 30:22; Ps. 127:3), and there is great wonder in watching them grow and learn and become adults… right before our eyes.

And yet, because of the Fall, motherhood is full of pain as well (Gen. 3:16). Some mothers may dread the arrival of Mother’s Day because it is another aching reminder of a child lost or a child aborted or a child estranged from the family they once knew. Maybe some mothers have deep regrets regarding their own past failures.

But isn’t this how things always seem to be in our fallen world? Aren’t we always looking at beautiful pictures through the broken glass of damaged frames?

Aren’t we always looking at beautiful pictures through the broken glass of damaged frames?

May God bless those mothers who are overjoyed by the blessing of motherhood.

May God bless those mothers who are overwhelmed by the pain of motherhood.

May God bless those women who aren’t mothers at all. Your femininity is certainly not incomplete without children, and God is the good heavenly Father who knows what is best for you.

 

Is God frowning at you?

Christians have the great promise of joy and hope, and these are based on God’s grace in Christ. What better promises? And what greater foundation to trust them?

And yet, Christians may and do feel joyless and hopeless at times. When the circumstances of life bite and gnaw, when the sinful desires of our own heart roar and prowl, and when the presence of our beloved Savior seems but a distant memory, it is quite normal for Christians to feel a sense of despair. In Psalm 42, the psalmist gives literary expression to the feelings that sometimes plague us.

Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” (v5).

I say to God… why have You forgotten me?” (v9).

Adversaries taunt me… all day long… [saying], ‘Where is your God?'” (v11).

If you feel some sense of the frown of God today, then consider the Gospel, and invite trusted Christian friends to help you discern whether or not you are truly trusting and following Christ. If their loving counsel is an encouragement that you are, then please, dear brother or sister, remember these things:

1) Remember that you have felt God’s smile before. These times are real, though they may feel distant. If God has ever smiled over you, given you His blessing and not His curse, then you may be certain that He is always smiling over you (Eph. 2:1-10).

2) Remember that God’s promises are absolutely trustworthy and not at all dependent upon feeling or circumstance. Think of Abraham and God’s delayed promise of an offspring and a nation. God doesn’t always do what we might want, but He is always working for the good ends He has prepared for His people (Rom. 8:28-29).

3) Remember that God is glorified, not in your confident self-reliance, but in your simple trust in His power and grace. Putting one foot in front of the other towards Christ is much more glorious than dashing or leaping in any other direction (Gal. 2:20).

May God grant you joy and hope, and especially if these things seem far away from you today. May you behold the glory of Christ and feel His Spirit refreshingly assure you of your glorious and secure adoption into the family of God (Rom. 8:14-17).

Are You Prepared to Suffer?

When tragedy strikes, we usually experience a range of emotions. We feel sorrow and pain, guilt and regret, and sometimes even vulnerable and bitter. At some point we decide, whether consciously or not, how we will cope with our new reality.

In these moments of turmoil, there is little we can do to regain our solid footing. The winds of circumstance and emotion furiously toss us to and fro. And yet, there is solid ground for those who are prepared for these perilous times.

But, how does one prepare for such times? And, how does one brave such perils?

The Bible proves itself to be divine wisdom in so many ways, but in my experience, its usefulness is most precious in the midst of the stormiest calamities. God knows His creation well, and He is sovereign over everything, so He is not surprised by suffering. In fact, He has ordained it. Furthermore, He has given us counsel and even His own example in an effort to prepare us and shelter us from all kinds of distress.

First, consider the reality and expectation of suffering. Since Genesis 3, this mortal life has been full of suffering. In our modern western culture, we are often insulated from some of the painful realities of life, but our illusions of safety are ripped away when the sting of this world wounds us too (James 5:10-11).

Second, consider the biblical teaching that God ordains suffering. The Bible knows nothing of a god who merely watches human events and activities. The God of the Bible is sovereign over whatever happens, and He is at work through suffering. God not only allows suffering; He brings it to pass according to His will (1 Pet. 4:19; Lamentations 3:37-38) and for His purposes (Eph. 1:11; Rom. 8:28-29).

Third, consider Christ’s example of suffering. Not only may we take heart in the fact that God is sovereign over our suffering, but we may also be encouraged to see God Himself endure suffering through Christ. As followers of Jesus, we are not surprised to experience suffering because our Master and Lord experienced it long ago (Heb. 2:10; Phil. 3:8-10; 1 Pet. 2:19-21).

Last, consider the hope of what is to come for those who trust Christ through their suffering. One can hardly say it better than the Bible already has:

“Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen” (1 Pet. 5:6–11).

May God spare us all from too many harsh and painful experiences. More importantly, however, may He help us to be sober-minded about what to expect in this fallen world, and may He grant us grace to trust Him in the midst of our stormy days.

For we know that He who reigns supreme will gloriously strengthen all who lean upon Him, and we know that God Himself will exalt those who cast their anxieties on Him.

4 Encouragements for Pastors doing Evangelism

Last week, I was toddling down the sidewalk, enjoying the scenic passage between my pastoral study and a local coffee shop. As I approached the counter, the barista and I exchanged knowing smiles, and the clerk handed me a warm cup of extra-bitter espresso (everyone knows lesser men drink that sugary stuff).

Finishing my afternoon energy shot and folding away my tattered copy of Augustine’s ancient book, Confessions, I noticed that a man sitting next to me was reading a Bible. I stroked my beard and wondered, “Is he reading an acceptable translation?” Thankfully, I observed the ESV impression on the binding when he raised the volume in order to give himself a closer look at the text. 

The man realized I was eyeing his Bible, and, with an inquisitive look, he longingly asked, “Sir, can you help me know what this means?” Sliding his Bible over to me, he put his finger on the page, indicating his concern with the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. He was particularly vexed by chapter 2, verses 1-10, so I made use of the passage.

Starting with verse 1, I scourged him for being a terrible wretch. The pitiable man tearfully agreed, and even admitted that he was worse than I knew. Resisting his emotional attempt to derail my exposition by provoking my sympathies, I simply continued. But when I read verses 4 and 5, he rudely interjected, “Who is this ‘Jesus’?! And what does it mean to be ‘saved’ by ‘grace’?!”

As you probably figured, this story is entirely made up (except for the bitter coffee part… seriously, be a man). Evangelistic encounters may never happen like this. In fact, I am a pastor of a relatively small church in rural East Texas, and evangelism can be tricky in my neck of the woods. I only remember meeting one conscious non-Christian in the last four years. My hometown evangelistic conversations usually focus on inconsistencies between the professions of faith I hear and the unfaithful practices I see. I often feel like quoting Inigo Montoya. “You keep using the word, ‘Christian.’ I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Pastors can and should be exemplary evangelists, but sometimes the task can feel intimidating and exhausting. Here are four things I try to remember about evangelism so that I might be more faithful to the task.

One, evangelism is teaching the gospel with the aim to persuade.

I am stealing this definition of evangelism from Mack Stiles. His little book Evangelism is fantastic. Among numerous gems in this book, Stiles defines evangelism by writing, “Evangelism is teaching (heralding, proclaiming, preaching) the gospel (the message from God that leads us to salvation) with the aim (hope, desire, goal) to persuade (convince, convert).”[1]

Each part of this definition is worth our time, and Stiles dissects it in the book, but let me stress the content of evangelism here. Don’t assume the gospel. The gospel is the power of God, but only if we convey the message from God that leads sinners to salvation in Christ (Romans 1:16). I try to remember that evangelism is happening when I articulate, explain, and apply the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Two, preaching and teaching are the pastor’s primary work of evangelism.

There are several passages in Scripture which make me involuntarily shudder when I read them. The Apostle Paul’s charge to Timothy “in the presence of God and Christ” is one of those passages (2 Timothy 4:1-5). What a thrilling and serious charge! The responsibility given to Timothy is “preach the word” (v2). Paul describes that task by writing, “be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (v2). After Paul warns Timothy of the resistance he is sure to encounter, Paul urges him again, “do the work of an evangelist” (v5).

These charges – “preach the word” and “do the work of an evangelist” – are not separate from each another. In other words, to be a preacher of the Scriptures is to do evangelistic work. I try to remember that the primary and profound work of every pastor is to teach the gospel among his own congregation by preaching good expositional sermons regularly. 

Three, evangelism is life to some and death to others.

While every pastor is responsible for teaching and preaching among his own congregation, he is also responsible to do so outside of the community of faith. And yet, the experienced Christian will know that not everyone hears the message of the gospel with gladness. In fact, some will not respond well at all.

The Bible reminds us that the “aroma of Christ” is a “fragrance of death to death” for some (2 Corinthians 2:15-16). Of course, some will breathe in the gospel with pleasure, as a “fragrance from life to life” (v16), but this is not always so. I try to remember that some people will love the gospel and others will actually hate it.

Four, the results of evangelism are God’s alone.

If the aim of evangelism is to persuade, then we measure success by rate and frequency of conversion, right? Well, not exactly. Obviously, our deep longing is for the lost to be found, the dead to be raised, the unregenerate to be born again. Therefore, we do celebrate when someone responds to our evangelistic efforts by repenting from sin and trusting in Christ.

However, we are unwise to think that evangelistic encounters are only worthwhile if we can record a positive response. The Bible buttresses our faltering confidence in the face of an undesirable reaction by reminding us that we may “plant” and “water” the seeds of the gospel, but “only God gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:7). I try to remember that faithful gospel conversations are always worthwhile, and I ask God to produce growth.

In pastoral ministry, there are plenty of expectations. If you are like me, then you may regularly leave the office with things left undone. But, we can both take heart. If we are faithfully teaching and talking about the gospel of Christ with fellow Christians and non-Christians, then we are doing the work God has called us to do. If we are lovingly and prayerfully conveying this exceptionally powerful message, then some will love Christ and others will hate us. In all of this, we may be sure that our Chief Shepherd sees all, and He shall reward His servants with an unfading crown (1 Pet. 5:4).

Now, let’s go get a manly cup of joe and talk with someone about Jesus.


[1]Stiles, J. Mack. Evangelism: How the Whole Church Speaks of Jesus (9marks: Building Healthy Churches) (p. 27). Crossway. Kindle Edition.

7 Reasons Not to “Move Your Letter”

I’d like to move my letter.”

This phrase and others like it are probably unfamiliar to you unless you are a Baptist who has spent some significant time on the membership roster of a church in the American south. This phrase is referencing the transfer of one’s church membership from one local church to another. However, it seems to me that such a phrase exposes a common but unbiblical understanding of church membership.

Let me outline 7 reasons I think you should stop trying to “move your letter” or anyone else’s.

  1. It’s not your letter. Your membership in a local church family was never privately owned. It has always been an agreement between you and the local church you call family (or at least used to call family). When you choose to join a local church, you are making a public agreement with a number of other Christians, and this excludes the possibility of you ever being able to make any decision about your membership without their participation (Jn. 13:34-35; Rom. 12:10; 1 Cor. 12:25).
  2. You can’t move your letter; it doesn’t exist. The letter we are referring to here is a letter of commendation. It is not a mere certificate of membership. It is not an administrative document of your past attendance, however frequent or sporadic it may have been. It is not a simple statement that you were on the membership roster of a local church. Therefore, you can’t move your letter; for it does not exist yet. The letter you are requesting is something that the congregation you are leaving must create in response (1 Cor. 12:25; Col. 3:9, 16).
  3. You can’t move your letter; it may not ever exist. The common assumption is that the mere request of a “letter transfer” will necessarily be followed by the action of “moving the letter of membership.” But, this may not be so. As mentioned above, the letter you are requesting does not exist yet. Your request must be heard and answered by the congregation with whom you are currently enjoined. They are responsible to examine your life and beliefs in order to decide whether or not they are willing to commend you to the membership of another congregation. Simply put, your current church family is responsible to inform any other of who you truly are based on their experience with you (James 5:16; Col. 3:16).
  4. Your desire to move from membership in one local church to another should be expressed by a humble and personal request. The “movement of your letter” requires your current church family to communally endorse you as a Christian of good quality to another church family. This is no small matter, and your request is very personal to those of whom you are making such a thing. If your request is requiring such a personal investment from a whole congregation of fellow Christians, shouldn’t your appeal require more than an impersonal and distant statement from you (Phil. 2:3; Eph. 5:21)?
  5. Your movement from one church to another is too important to be done quietly. Do you remember the feeling of joy you had when your current church family accepted you into their membership? Wasn’t it a wonderful occasion to celebrate God’s work in your life and His work in the life of that local church? Why would you think that your entrance into another local church family would be less significant? Your current church family cares deeply about your spiritual growth and health, even if you don’t think they have expressed that care very well up to this point. You respected and cared about what your current church family thought when they took you in; you can respect and care what they think (at least a little) as you make your way out (1 Cor. 12:25; 1 Jn. 4:7-21).
  6. Your church family and pastors will give an account to Christ for every member they take in and every member they commend. Taking members in and putting members out is one of the major functions of every local church. This is, in fact, the primary way that a church family exercises loving discipline in the life of the congregation. Christ, who is ruler and king over all, is the head of every local church. Everything that any local church does in the name of Christ will be to His glory or to their own shame (Matt. 18:15-20; Heb. 13:17).
  7. Your church family is responsible to help you know where you truly stand before God. Only those people who are giving themselves over to belief in and submission to Christ are welcome in a particular church family, joining with that particular group of Christians to communally follow Christ. And, if a person has been in close relationship with a church family for any length of time, that church family is in a great position to either affirm or critique that person’s profession of faith. While everyone loves affirmation, a loving critique is better than flattery any day (Gal. 6:1; Col. 3:16; Heb. 10:24; James 5:16).

The local church is so much more important than we often think, and the individual Christian benefits most when he or she greatly appreciates the value of their local church.

For more information about church membership, joining a local church, and leaving a local church, see the following:

Article: “Pastors, Don’t let you people resign into thin air

Podcast: “On how to receive and dismiss members

Podcast: “How to leave your church well

 

3 Steps to Make the Message Stick

Preachers (if they are faithful) intend to communicate a message from God (from God’s word) to His people. This is a profound and weighty task to be sure, and preachers are often quite aware of the mountain they climb each week. In this post, however, I’d like to emphasize the responsibility of the listener. The preacher must take his responsibility seriously, but he is not the only one responsible to God for what happens after the service dismisses.

You may or may not know that preachers often enjoy hearing good preaching. Like a joy-filled “greese monkey” might watch a skilled mechanic meticulously deconstruct and reconstruct a classic engine, so too preachers are likely to relish the sights and sounds of good preaching. I enjoy the skillfull way a preacher connects his passage with the grand narrative of Scripture, the methodical way a preacher walks through the passage, and the thoughtful way a preacher keeps himself within the melodic line of the context.

Those who listen to good preaching (or even mediocre preaching) know that some messages stick better than others. Some of this is due to the delivery of the preacher, some is due to the effort and discipline of the listener, and all is dependent upon God’s supernatural work by His Spirit. The wise and deliberate listener can make the message have a more meaningful and lasting affect on them if they will do (at least) these three things:

  1. Prepare to listen. Preperation is not just for the preacher, it is a task for the listener too. You should read the primary passage a few times before hearing the preacher explain it. You should also collect some initial thoughts and questions of your own. What is the passage all about? What is the author getting at throughout the book? Is there anything here that is completely new to me? Have I stumbled upon something that excites me, worries me, or pains me? What would I ask the preacher about this passage if I had the opportunity? Preparing thoughts and questions like this before listening to the preacher will stimulate you to hear the preacher better, since you will be anticipating and hoping for readily applicable content.
  2. Intentionally listen. Once you have prepared to listen, bring your thoughts and questions with you. Your preparation will be much more beneficial if you follow through by collaborating with the preacher. Listen for the preacher to answer questions you have. Celebrate when the preacher adds more detail and background to your initial thoughts. Humbly thank God when the preacher lovingly corrects some of your errors. When you play the part of an active listener, you will likely be surprised to find just how much you hear when you listen to good preaching.
  3. Revisit what you heard. Once the preacher finishes his message, and the last song is sung, you are likely to eventually find yourself sitting at the lunch table with family and/or friends. There is great value in catching up on the week’s events and keeping informed about shared life-experiences, but don’t leave the preacher’s message at the church house. You prepared to listen, you listened with intentionality, and now you can discuss how all of that went with others who are hopefully practicing the same “good listening” techniques you are. Did something in the message surprise you? If so, tell your spouse how surprised you were. Did something pain you? If so, share your pain. Did something convict you? If so, your friends and/or family will likely jump at the chance to help you align yourself with God’s instructions.

There is nothing magical about these three steps, but you will most assuredly notice a big difference in how much you get out of your preacher if you will embrace and apply them. Whether your preacher is incredible or simply a faithful expositor of God’s word, good listening will make the message stick over time.

Let us all, preachers and listeners alike, faithfully trust and obey God’s word. May God help us to be faithful hearers and faithful doers of His word (James 1:22).

Mortal Fear & Tranquility

I cannot remember ever thinking of my own mortality before I was 30 years old. If someone had asked me if I believed I would die someday, I would have said, “Yes… sure I will die one day; everybody dies eventually.” However, I think it would not be inaccurate to say that I did not believe such a thing back then. The temporary nature of this mortal life was not a thought I entertained because I am inclined to believe that I am impervious to death.

Even today, it is unusual for me to think much about the end of my time on this earth (though the thought is increasingly recurrent in my mind). However, in the language of the author of Ecclesiastes, “life under the sun” is indeed temporary. My own temporality is the source of exasperating anxiety and the cause of sincere trust. Both of these thoughts and feelings are the result of my concentrated meditation upon my own mortality.

On the one hand, when I think of my demise, I am horrified. My illusions of control or ability or autonomy are ripped from me, and I am left utterly exposed to powers greater than myself. I feel as I imagine I would if I were to find myself standing on the precipice of an unknown world, with the only certain information being that there are countless others within who are exponentially more capable and knowledgeable than I am. The land of eternity is a boundless intimidation for me. I am helpless, weak, and ignorant.

On the other hand, my thoughts of the eternal future turn to peace and tranquility when I remember that Christ is both Lord of eternity and my beloved Savior. Oh, the reversal of emotions I feel when this thought breaks in upon the previous anguish! The turbulent sea immediately becomes serene. Where anxiety reigned, now peace has dethroned and routed the debilitating tyrant. What I shall experience in the unknown world, I still know not; but this I know, the One who created and rules all worlds is He who loves and cares for me.

The temporal nature of this mortal life is indeed a paradoxically painful and joyful reality for me. I know that I am temporal, dependent, and mortal. But Christ, who is my God and Savior, is eternal, self-existent, and lives forevermore.