A longing look back
Job 30: How I long for the good old days.
Job’s longest speech comes after his three friends have had their say. His comments range from direct replies to their statements to his view of the world and the inequities he sees in it. A portion of these thoughts are focused on how things have changed for him. There was a time, he remembers, when he was wonderfully blessed by the Lord, and, he says, “Everything was going my way.” Job handled these blessings well. Instead of it all going to his head, he became a friend to those who were going through loss or who needed help along the way. Those were good days, but remembering them isn’t a source of comfort to Job. Instead, the memories add to his pain as he realizes he’s lost more than wealth and health. As I read Job’s story I note that loss comes in a wide variety of forms. Job is unique because he lost it all at once, but it’s painful to have even a small portion stripped away. That includes loss of influence, which often comes with the passing of years. Those who have given their lives in full time ministry aren’t exempt from this. The day comes when our ideas are no longer sought after and younger voices dominate the conversation about what God is doing “now.” Like Job, it’s natural to “long for the good old days.”
Take Away: As time passes so does our influence. It’s possible to graciously accept that and to simply go on, trusting the Lord with that which is beyond our influence.
Talking to rocks
Numbers 20: Speak to the rock…do we have to bring water out of this rock for you…slammed his staff against the rock.
We’re familiar with most of the big events in the life of Moses. We know about the bulrushes, the burning bush, the plagues, the Red Sea crossing, and Mount Sinai. Sadly, when the story of Moses is told his failure at Meribah has to be included. This is the blot on his life and, later on, this is what disqualifies him from entering the Promised Land. On the surface it seems like a minor infraction. God says to him, “Speak to the rock” and, instead, he “hits the rock.” As I read this and see the seriousness of God’s response I immediately think that there has to be more. I think the “more” is what Moses says before he strikes the rock. Moses’ leadership has been challenged before and each time he’s responded by pointing the people to the Lord. Moses’ entire case for leadership, his credentials, is that he’s God’s man. In this case as his leadership is being once again challenged, he takes matters into his own hands. He doesn’t say, “Listen, rebels! Watch what the Lord is going to do for you.” Instead, he says, “Listen, rebels! Do we have to bring water out of this rock for you?” The difference is profound. Instead of God getting the credit, Moses and Aaron are taking it. Remember, this is not the mistake of a young person in their first pastoral assignment. This is an intentional shifting of emphasis by a seasoned man of God who’s had many personal encounters with the Lord. God takes this intentional failure seriously. We see here that God expects gifted leaders to remember the source of their authority, to remember that they are stewards of his, and that they’re expected to always serve with that in mind. To do otherwise mars an otherwise exemplary ministry.
Take Away: The longer we walk with the Lord the more he expects of us.
1Peter 5: I have a special concern for you church leaders.
A church is without a pastor and the search is on to fill that vacancy. The pulpit committee has a list of pastoral qualifications and they’re sifting through applicants. They want an experienced pastor who still has children at home. The new pastor needs to be a good preacher, but who’s also a people person who’ll get along well with the diverse congregation. It’s not a bad idea to have such a list but Peter’s qualifications for church leaders ought to be prominently in the mix. He urges pastors to see themselves as shepherds who are dedicated to caring for God’s flock. He expects them to be servants who aren’t always trying to figure out ways to get more money or leverage over the congregation. He wants them to be tender in spirit and be good examples for God’s people. It would be nice to have a pastor with the right mix of youth and maturity, who is studious in sermon preparation but is also a people person. Still, I can’t help but think Peter’s criteria trumps all the above. A church with such a pastor is blessed indeed.
Take Away: Ultimately the Lord’s list of pastoral qualifications is the one that makes the most sense.
Ultimately only one thing matters
2Timothy 4: But you – keep your eye on what you’re doing.
The Apostle has been around and he knows the score. He’s had people he counted on let him down. Some couldn’t help it. Sickness and other circumstances beyond their control have thrown a monkey wrench into their commitment to him. Others could help it but failed anyway, getting caught up in some religious fad or simply finding the going too hard. Timothy needs to be aware of all this. At times, people who should know better will want him to ease up on proclaiming the “take up your cross daily” aspect of the gospel message. Something else will catch their eye and they’ll want him to focus on that instead. Paul, who knows what he’s talking about urges this young pastor to “keep your eye on what you’re doing.” More than being a pastor who wants to get along with people, he’s “God’s servant.” Ultimately, what the congregation thinks is secondary to what God thinks. Even as Paul looks forward to receiving the Lord’s approval he wants Timothy, and all of us, to keep this ultimate truth in mind. From my point of view, I want to please those who call me “pastor.” I don’t want to disappoint them or to bore them with sermons that are somewhat less than timely. However, in the end, there’s only one word of approval that matters. I know you know that this is true for pastors and for everyone else too.
Take Away: We have only one Master and pleasing him is, ultimately, the only thing that really matters.
The social ministry of the church
1Timothy 5: Take care of widows who are destitute.
It’s a different culture and time so I need to be careful to find principles rather than try to apply specifics to passages like this. Paul instructs Timothy, first of all, to differentiate between younger widows, widows with family, and, what he calls “legitimate widows.” He thinks it’s best for younger widows to marry and get on with life. Families of widows are to take care of their own and not expect the church to do their job for them. However, the destitute widow, without means or family, is the responsibility of the church. Again, I need to look for principles here and not get mired down in specifics. For instance, family responsibility trumps church responsibility. Also, if my need can be handled through “more conventional” means, I’m to follow that route first. The church, I understand, has responsibilities to care for its people but it’s not to be the first solution. Paul gives Timothy a written policy to be followed here. If it’s followed, the energies and resources of the church won’t be hijacked by concerns that are best addressed elsewhere. On one hand, then, I have a fairly straightforward principle here. On the other hand, I have to admit that the practical application is quite challenging.
Take Away: The church has a role to play in social issues, but it generally isn’t the primary support organization.
In over my head
Ephesians 3: So here I am, preaching and writing about things that are way over my head.
It was hidden in plain view. Throughout the ages the Lord God has intended to save all people. Some considered to be insiders are no more “inside” than those assumed to be outside the saving work of God. It was always there, easy enough to see, but missed by most. Now, the secret is out and throughout the Gentile world people are responding to the way made clear by the work of Jesus, the Son of God. The Apostle Paul is amazed to find himself in the middle of things. He, more than most anyone, had been blind to God’s intention, at one point actively fighting against it. In fact, Paul has been twice surprised: first, by the fact that all along God intended to save all who will come and second, by the fact that he, Paul, has a role to play in the revelation of this plan. The Apostle considers himself to be, of all people, an especially unlikely candidate. Still he finds himself uniquely equipped for the work, with words and ministry flowing out of his life. He knows that the Source of all this isn’t in him at all, but, rather, is the result of God’s doing through him what he could never do otherwise. Paul’s experience is, of course, extraordinary and a person who wants to lay claim on any similarities had better tread carefully. Still, it’s important for preachers and teachers and professors to get their heads around this. On one hand, believing God has chosen us and uses us in surprising ways lends us a sense of spiritual authority and self-assurance in our service of the Lord. On the other hand, knowing that none of it actually comes from us grounds us in real humility. Otherwise, we end up thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought to think, and the possibility of our ministry being used of God is greatly diluted.
Take Away: When God calls and uses a person that person must never lose sight of the fact that their usefulness is the Lord’s doing and not theirs.
You get what you pay for
1Corinthians 9: We who are on missionary assignments for God have a right to decent accommodations.
Frankly, the church at Corinth is every pastor’s nightmare. There’s sin in the church and the church has a bad reputation in the city. There are factions wrestling for control and leadership that isn’t leading, at least in any positive direction. Some, apparently, are questioning Paul’s authority, pointing out that he was there as a volunteer and in no official capacity. The Apostle claims his authority over them as one who has a personal commission from Christ. He concedes that he never accepted salary from them, but contends that if he had done that, it would have been his right. He reminds them that’s it’s a biblical principle that those who serve ought to be paid for their service. Now, in a strange twist, the fact that Paul served them without pay during his time with them is being used by some as reason to discount his ministry. It’s a no-win situation for Paul. If he had he accepted salary from them they’d have felt they owned him. Now since he didn’t accept salary they question his authority over them. The Apostle makes the best of it, reminding them that at least they can’t accuse him of just being in it for the money. Probably the best take-away here is that those who serve have every reason to expect financial support for doing so. At the same time though, there’s a time and place to just give away our service of the Lord. To some extent this sets us free from the domination and expectations of those we serve.
Take Away: A worker is worth his or her hire – at the same time, sometimes it’s best to just give our work away for the sake of Christ.
The Holy Spirit working through me
Romans 15: The wondrously powerful and transformingly present words and deeds of Christ in me.
Adventures, Paul’s had some! He’s pioneered the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the region. He’s been at the forefront of a tidal wave of the work of the Holy Spirit and, because of that, he’s not only taken plenty of hits, he’s also seen first-hand just what God can do. Paul, though, is quite humble about all that. He doesn’t glorify himself. Rather, he gives glory to the Lord for it all. At times, even though he’s in the middle of it all he’s found himself more bystander than participant as something “wondrously powerful” happens. Paul understands that it isn’t his cleverness or winning personality that’s “triggered a believing response.” The message about Christ is actually delivered by Christ, through Paul. I wish I had a better handle on this. So often I find myself behaving as though it’s all about my performance. I let myself become so focused on how I’m doing that I forget that, actually, I’m not required to do much at all. The Lord wants me to place my full weight of trust on him and allow him to minister through me. My cooperation is required and the Lord will use my personality, education, etc. along the way, but it’s all powered by his Holy Spirit and not by me. There are times when Paul is amazed at the response to his ministry. As I cooperate with the Lord, I, too, will be surprised as lives are touched as the Lord ministers to people through me. Let’s not be guilty of underestimating the ability of the Lord to minister through us.
Take Away: As we cooperate with the Lord he does amazing things through us that surprise us as much as anyone else.
Taking care of God’s people
Acts 20: God’s people they are…God himself thought they were worth dying for.
As did Jesus several years earlier, now Paul “sets his face toward Jerusalem” knowing that his arrival there will result in hardship. To speed his journey the Apostle doesn’t go back into Ephesus but, instead, sends word to the church leaders to meet him in Miletus, located about fifty miles south of Ephesus. Here he has an emotional meeting with his dear friends and co-workers. He charges them to guard and protect God’s people in Ephesus, reminding them that “God himself thought they were worth dying for.” Even as this great Apostle is going to go through trials so will this great church. As I study this passage I can’t help but think of the role of the ministry. Paul, I see, isn’t worried about the organization and program of the church. He doesn’t urge the leaders to focus on current worship trends or new technology. Rather, he reminds them that they’re to guard and protect the “sheep” placed under their watch care. They’re to value God’s people as God, himself, values them. Happily, Paul has good news for these leaders of Ephesus and for church leaders across the ages. He tells them that God “can make you into what he wants you to be and give you everything you could possibly need in this community of holy friends.” The work of the ministry includes guarding and protecting God’s people from false teaching. The power for accomplishing that task comes from a gracious God who works in our lives, giving us everything we need to successfully do the work to which we’re called.
Take Away: The Lord not only calls people to spiritual leadership, he also empowers them for that task.
Pastors and their congregations
Acts 6: Choose seven men from among you whom everyone trusts.
One of the growth pains of the infant church has to do with the distribution of resources among the church’s own needy. Some women, apparently due to a language barrier, aren’t getting a fair share of the food the church is providing. The disciples realize that this is an important concern and willingly share the leadership responsibilities with seven non-apostles. The result is that the disciples are able to focus on their role in the church while sharing some responsibilities with those who have gifts for that purpose. The needs of the people are met and the church continues to advance. As a pastor I’ve read this account again and again trying to understand it in light of the current pastor/congregation scheme that’s generally in place. I’ve tried to translate it into the 21st century average Protestant church with an average attendance of 70 to 100. On one hand, I realize that the church of Acts now numbers in the thousands. Even if the disciples try to handle it all it simply can’t be. The question that comes to mind is, is that the only reason for the addition of non-clergy leadership? I think that a lot of church people think so. In their smaller situations they’re very pastor-centric. They want the pastor to be the one who visits them when they’re sick and who makes regular nursing home visits. They expect the pastor to attend every committee meeting and to pray every public prayer. Then, if the church grows, they’ll take care of things by hiring an assistant pastor. I can’t help but think this is mistaken because I have the idea that the division of leadership in the Acts church isn’t all about size and work load. Rather, I believe the leadership and ministry opportunities need to be shared because it’s healthier for the church. Had the disciples been perfectly capable of caring for the widows while handling the preaching and teaching responsibilities, I still think they would have done, under the Spirit’s leadership, just what they did. Some church people need to find a place of ministry and plug in, not always looking to the pastor to do it all. Some pastors need to quit hogging all the ministry opportunities and give others a chance.
Take Away: The Lord didn’t come to be served, but to serve and we aren’t his followers unless we follow him into lives of service of others.