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The Heaviness of My Heart for Spiritual Awakening In America

I’ve probably been reading too much news lately, and it has created a sense of heaviness in my heart. I tweeted yesterday, “For me, today, the world seems ‘scary big.’ And God is infinitely bigger.” A few friends assumed I must be going through some personal pain, but my feeling really flowed out of my observations about the erosion of our national conscience. We have little clue what life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness are really all about anymore.

In America, we ridicule those who ascribe life’s origins to a divine Designer. We demand that even the most general reference to the Creator, whom we say endowed us with our unalienable rights and might have some word to guide us, be stricken from public mention. In America, we are outraged over photos of a dead big game animal in Africa and wink at 50 million aborted babies so that we can protect the reproductive choices of adults.

In America, we see an influx of scared, hungry, and often sick children escaping countries dominated by gangs and drug lords as a threat to our first world way of life rather than as a humanitarian opportunity for non-governmental organizations to give new hope to the young and hopeless. We allow our aging veterans to suffer because of the inconvenience of cutting red tape to provide for their medical needs. Our governments not only sanction but sponsor the oppression of the poor and the addict through what we nicely term “gaming.”

Those who work pay a large percentage of their income into a government that must still borrow trillions in debt from potential enemies, send billions in aid to other potential enemies, and fund bureaucracies and agencies that are often irrelevant and completely inefficient and at times, downright dangerous. When it comes to the pursuit of happiness, we’ve sought fulfillment through a long list of counterfeits and substitutes.

Our sexual ethic places self and pleasure on the throne to the degree that anything goes. We abandon, neglect, and divorce our families to shreds on the altar of what we believe will make us happiest at the moment. And a growing percentage of us who could otherwise work to provide a living for ourselves and our families have chosen instead to rely on a welfare state for our income. I speak in generalities here knowing there are obvious exceptions – people who suffer innocently from hardships beyond their control – but generalities by their nature point to what is more commonly the case.

I’ve found myself searching recently within my own heart for the answers, and specifically for what I can do as one guy – a single citizen, a husband, a Dad, a worker. I see little hope in either major political party, both of which have well-established machinery to maintain and wealthy, powerful people to please. And I certainly see no historical tendency of any government in any age correcting its own abuses of power without being checked and balanced by its people.

All that we see unfolding politically before us is a mere symptom of our deeper spiritual brokenness as a society. Our elections are but the thermometer reflecting the core temperature of our souls. And the answer is not in any sectarian people rising to power over others – the kingdom never works that way. It is more subversive, more servant-hearted. Real change that lasts happens in the mind and heart of a people, not the voting booth or picket line.

So my heart is heavy for the condition of my nation. But I am not hopeless. I hold onto hope because of something other-worldly, future-minded, and invisibly but no less powerfully able to right the ship. W. A. Criswell had similar observations over the years of his ministry as a Pastor, and he preached a sermon at least a half dozen times to his own flock in Dallas, Texas in which he proclaimed these words:

As Isaiah declared, “O Assyrian, the rod of mine anger, and the staff in their hand is mine indignation” (10:5). That is the message of God to America today. We cannot continue in drunkenness, debauchery, blasphemy, and desecration and not face the inevitable judgment of Almighty God… It is hard for us to realize that America could be lost, that our nation could be destroyed, and that we could be confronted by implacable and ruthless enemies, but that is an imponderable in the hands of Almighty God. Whether we live or die lies in the sovereign judgments of the Judge of all the nations.

… Revival will save a nation. It saved Judah in the days of Hezekiah. It saved England in the days of the Wesleys. Revival will save a city. It saved Nineveh in the days of Jonah. It saved Antioch in the days of John Chrysostom. It saved Florence, Italy, in the days of Savonarola. Revival will save a home; it will save a life. It did yesterday; it does today; and it will forever.

And lest you mistake his words as political in their essence, he continues…

Revival is a Christian word. It is a family word. The lost are not revived. They are dead in trespasses and in sin. The lost need to be resurrected. They need to be born again. They need life out of death. It is the Christian people, the family of God who need to be revived.

I hope in the sovereign God of the nations. I hope in His eternal message of redemption for all who will trust Him. I hope in the grace-giving Master of the universe who heals and resurrects the spiritually dead and lifeless. He is the Judge of all the earth, and He will make all things right, and all things new.

I will never be the President and will likely never serve in any kind of political office. I don’t have the millions and billions that many philanthropic activists have at their disposal. But I do have knees and feet and hands and a voice. And on my knees I can repent of my sin and the darkness that lurks in my own heart. From my knees I can pray prayers that move the arm the moves the world. With my hands I can serve. On my feet I can go and carry the story of Jesus to those searching for hope. And with my voice I can proclaim God’s absolute, unchanging and unalterable truth from His Word to my own generation.

I hope to live out the legacy of a young shepherd-boy turned king from centuries ago. “Now David, after he had served God’s purpose in his own generation, died…” (Acts 13:36 NIV).

To Every Pastor Who Is Ready to Give Up

Feet

The article I wrote just a couple of days ago called From the Hear of One Pastor, I’m Sorry I Let You Down touched a nerve. It was viewed by thousands the first day it ran on pastors.com. I think this is partly because pastoral burnout and discouragement have reached epidemic levels. There are all kinds of factors behind this, but regardless of the causes, my heart breaks every time I talk to another disheartened ministry leader.

Just today, a young Pastor named Roger left a public comment on an article on pastors.com, and it weighed on my soul.

I’m leaving my church because I am tired of being the problem as the pastor. If something is wrong in the church, I am blamed by the congregation. On the other hand, my pastor friends and denominational consultants say I am the solution to turning the church around. But I realize that I can’t do it. Only Jesus can rescue this church. Meanwhile I am going broke and we have no friends here after living here 3 years. I moved 2000 miles to be here and sacrificed greatly to do so. As the pastor, I am one of the youngest in my church and I am scared I will end up being a caretaker of seniors in this church rather than obeying the Great Commission. Our church has had lots of problems and as a result the task of making disciples has fallen by the wayside. I have struggled to put out fires ever since I arrived here and I am so tired. As a result, I have accepted a teaching job in a public school back in my home state and will be moving there at the end of the summer.

I honestly don’t blame Roger for feeling what he feels. I’ve been there. And back again. Here was my response to Roger:

Roger,

I wanted to reach out and thank you for the courage to post your comment on pastors.com. I completely understand. When I say that, I’m not just putting on. I pastored a church for five months and watched it nearly die (it did close a couple years after I left). Then I served the next church for seven months, same story (and yes, it closed within a couple of years too).

I was done. I never wanted to pastor again. I really thought I’d just serve part-time on a church staff and work a secular job forever. Three months into that decision, I was asked to be a Pastor again and with great reluctance gave it one more shot. I wound up spending 8 really great years there. The church grew. It doubled, in fact, from about 45 to just over 100 (so not a megachurch, just a healthy small church).

What I want to say to you is, don’t give up. Don’t write off the possibility that your current experience could very well be the fire God has allowed you to walk through to shape you into the mighty servant He desires you to be. I’m convinced that God is just as concerned about your growth than the growth of the church you’re a part of.

And also, I never had a true “friend” in the trenches in either of those experiences – at least not the kind you go on to do life with. But God has now surrounded us with quite a few people with whom we feel quite close.

Don’t give up! As Pastor Rick (Warren) always says, “the tide goes out, but it always comes back in.”

I love you brother, and I’m praying for you as I post this reply!

I can now reflect on those earliest experiences without feeling any sense of pain, but it took me years to get to that place. I feel the liberty to tell you what I think led up to those painful experiences. I wanted to voice my reflections to the church-at-large so that whether you’re in the role of a pastoral leader or a member of a local church, you might glean lessons from my own pain to apply.

Before you read, please understand that the two churches to which I am referring were filled with good people who, collectively, “did” church the way they knew how without a good understanding of the theology or psychology of pastoral leadership, so I make these statements for the benefit of the whole body.

  • I was too young. I started pastoring at 19 years old. The church was gracious to call me and I was dumb to say yes, but pastoring was all I could think of doing and I wanted a pulpit badly, so I jumped in way too green to handle the deep relational dysfunction I encountered.
  • The churches were deeply dysfunctional. In one, some leaders were angry that I brought a weekly bulletin in that pictured children from the African mission field on the front. The reply was, “They have their churches and we have ours.” I’m not saying for sure that a tornado destroyed the church building two years later because of racism… I’m just saying it might have been a factor. In the other, I was once called late at night to sort out a yelling match. It seemed a 17 year old guy in the church was mad about a church issue so he was standing in the street calling our 82 year old Deacon out to a fist fight while the Deacon pointed a shotgun out the window at him. I was 20 by this time, though, so plenty of experience under my belt for such dilemmas.
  • I was legalistic and prideful. I was trapped in behavioralism at the time and immature in my understanding of the gospel of grace, so I picked arguments over external issues rather than allowing room for people to mature over time.
  • The churches were unbiblically governed. I always get some arguments when I make this point, but I don’t believe churches should vote on anything except the absolute essential legal matters necessary – land ownership, major indebtedness, and the calling of a senior Pastor. In one of those churches I was once scolded because someone moved an old military-style metal desk out of the auditorium and into a side room without the decision being voted on first. Laugh, but there are still churches that vote on almost everything in the name of a democratic, congregational form of government. What it really amounts to is a church body that is either unwilling or has never been taught to trust its leaders and release control of the details to the undershepherds and overseers – the elders/pastors.
  • I was isolated. I preferred being the authoritative teacher, preacher, and head theologian rather than the guy who needed friends. While I still believe the pastoral office is one that carries with it some dignity and high standards of integrity, I also realize now that at the end of the day, I’m still a broken human being who needs friends.
  • The churches had a history of throwing away pastors. Both had experienced high turnover rates with pastors. I either didn’t know that or didn’t care, but rather than welcoming a pastor and loving him and his family in a biblical sense, there was instead an initial burst of flattery followed by rejection when the honeymoon was over.
  • I wanted to reach lost people. Therefore, I didn’t give as much attention to internal matters or congregational pastoral care as was expected. I disrespected the unwritten rules of small church culture and decorum.
  • The churches only thought they wanted to reach lost people. Every church thinks they want to see people saved, but few will embrace the pain of change for the win of actually seeing it happen. Reaching the lost and fulfilling the Great Commission requires an unselfish sacrifice of personal preferences, a genuinely loving embrace of broken and messy people, and a renewed focus on influencing the surrounding culture with eternal truth. Any existing church that will reach the lost will absolutely endure pain in the process.

Having observed the landscape of evangelical Christianity in America first-hand as well as through relationships with thousands of pastors, I’m convinced I didn’t find the only two churches in America that displayed these tendencies. I think it’s apparent that there are thousands of churches that resemble these observations. That’s why we’re going to see so many churches close in the next decade and so many pastors hurt in the crossfire.

My hope rests on the fact that Jesus Christ loves the church and gave Himself for her on the cross. He started the church, is the Chief Builder and Shepherd of the church, and will see to the church’s survival and success until He comes again. But until that day comes, we we see eras of painful pruning.

Whether you’re a pastor or a member in the pew (or theater seat), focus on Jesus, on eternity, on lost people, and on empowering leaders rather than on your personal preferences. And may God’s Holy Spirit revive us again!

photo credit: profzucker

Ranting on Facebook versus Doing the Hard Stuff

Soup Line

My ten-year-old, making an actual difference, without even having a Facebook account even though she’s begging for one.

Ranting and raving on Facebook about how the immoral, evil, liberal, leftist, socialists have taken over and will be the demise of our country doesn’t equate to you “standing up for what is right” or “making a difference.” It means you can type. Congrats.

I understand posting about issues you feel strongly about and have no problem with anyone who expresses their beliefs publicly. But when you get hateful, think about how your tone reflects on what you say you believe (or WHOM you say you believe in).

It’s easier to curse welfare than to help serve a meal at a local homeless shelter or mentor a young person toward success. It’s easier to hold up a sign about abortion being murder than to befriend someone experiencing the panic of an unexpected pregnancy with no one there offering to help if they choose life over death. It’s easier to shout about liberal fiscal spending than to curtail our own out-of-control consumer materialism and credit card craziness.

Maybe we need less ranting, which is easy, and more of the hard stuff. Then again, stooping to serve doesn’t feed my need to feel powerful nearly as well.

Was the Grinch a Christian? Exposing the Real Grumps of Christmas

How the Grinch Stole Christmas - Cindy Lou WhoOne of my favorite holiday movies is How the Grinch Stole Christmas, especially the new Jim Carrey version. Dr. Seuss invented a character that became so wildly popular, he’s now a cliche (i.e. “Don’t be such a grinch!”). Anyone who puts a damper on the holidays falls into the grinch category.

As a Pastor, I’m immersed (often beyond my own comfort level) in what I’ve come to think of as the Christian subculture. This is the realm in which Christian believers live. We have our own music, our own bookstores, and our own schools. None of this is bad. I read “Christian” books, listen to “Christian” music, and send my kiddo’s to a “Christian” school. The problem comes when we begin to assume that, based on America’s Judeo-Christian heritage, our Christian subculture is actually THE one and only acceptable culture for all.

Somewhere around the Thanksgiving holiday, I start getting emails from alarmed Christian citizens who are outraged at the all out assault on our faith that consists of such brutal persecution tactics as forcing us to be greeted with a friendly “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings” rather than our traditional, more Christocentric “Merry Christmas.” These friendly folks who dare to leave the name of the Savior out of their otherwise friendly greetings are… grinches, as are the retailers who refuse to advance their commercial and materialistic “sales” using the name of Christ, or the lawyers who file for injunctions against public displays of internally-lit plastic statues of the biblical nativity characters.

This bunch of grinches has the gaul to assert that even those who don’t believe that Jesus is the Messiah, sent as the Savior of the world, should not be expected to use His name in spite of their unbelief. After all, 99% of Americans are true, born again believers… right? (Hint: Nobody agrees on the actual percentage because of disagreements over the theological grounds for the label “Christian”, but 99% is waaaayyy off.)

But are we, in our rather demanding viewpoints in our Christian subculture, the actual grinches in this story?

This past weekend, my family picked a movie off of Netflix none of us had ever heard of before: Christmas With a Capital “C”. The acting wasn’t necessarily the greatest, but the storyline was at least slightly unpredictable. And there was a memorable line uttered that resonated with my own feelings about our Christian activism. The city council in the setting of a small Alaskan town was struggling with their response to an injunction against the display of a nativity on city property. Many of the believers in town were outraged that their long-held tradition had been challenged by a liberal, interloping lawyer. But one participant at the table gave voice to a different value… “Maybe we Christians should spend less time demanding our own rights and traditions and more time serving people in the name of Christ.”

I know I’m going against the grain here, as a Christian, but I wholeheartedly agree with that statement. I don’t want stores to feel they have to plaster the name of Christ over every holiday bargain. I don’t want us so focused on defending the display of our nativity scenes (which never, by the way, depict the nativity biblically anyway) that we ultimately shout at our Muslim, Jewish, atheistic, and other non-Christian neighbors to get their noses out of our business and be on their way.

I am a Christian. I believe Jesus Christ is the virgin born, sinless Son of God, sent to die on the cross for our sins, who rose again and is returning someday to establish a reign of peace and justice for all of eternity. He is the One and only Savior of the world, the One and only “way” to the Father (see John 14:6), and the One and only Redeemer who can possibly atone for the sins of mankind against our Creator.

And as His follower, sent to love people outside the faith, I’m going to make room in my Christmas celebration for my Muslim neighbors, my atheist neighbors, my Jewish neighbors, my Hindu neighbors, and anybody else who doesn’t share my traditions.

I’m not arguing that we should in any way compromise our beliefs about Jesus. I simply think that our belief in the biblical Jesus demands that we refuse to become the grinches in the story of our culture. Which is the better way to influence the very people whom Jesus died to save? To take our angry demands to court and the editorial sections, shouting in the faces of our enemies? Or to walk as the Savior Himself might have, loving our neighbors as ourselves, praying for them and being a blessing to them, even when it means making room for unfamiliar traditions alongside our own?

It boils down to two possible goals. If our goal is to preserve our own traditions and protect our Christian subculture while the world goes to hell, then by all means, the fight is on. But if our goal is to balance truth and grace to lovingly influence our surrounding world for Jesus’ sake, perhaps we should strive for a better approach.

Christian… don’t be a grinch.

When We Disagree, We Should Declare…

VictoryThere are a few options here, but typically we fall to either declaring war or declaring love for those with whom we disagree.

Some causes are worth fighting for and many issues demand a debate, but when Christians choose the wrong battles, it gives the distinct impression it’s an “us vs. them” situation. The better alternative is “us FOR them.” That is, us laying down our self-interests and even our very lives for those with whom we disagree, and especially for those who simply have not yet come to believe in Jesus.

Jesus radically flips our values with such declarations as “turn the other cheek” and “pray for your enemies.” I tend to believe that this results from the divinely immutable truth that those of us who believe in Jesus are winners, no matter what. We’re fighting battles in a war that is already won as far as eternity is concerned.

So since we know the outcome of the contest, perhaps instead of continuing to assault the other side, we should spend our time freely and enthusiastically recruiting people over to the winning side.