Putting a spoke in the wheel

When the Church has a Responsibility to Challenge the State

My summer reading began with Bonhoeffer – Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.  It is a masterpiece by Eric Metaxas and won many book awards.  Now I see why.   Most know something about the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his resistance to Hitler and the Nazi regime and final execution, only weeks before the Allied invasion.  But few know of his incredible courage and passion for truth and justice in the face of monstrous evil.  If he was alive today, I believe this man would not allow the church of the West to remain in the sleepy state that is currently in, but would be calling it to repentance and moral action.

Which brings me to a particular part of the book that I would like to draw your attention to.  It concerns the responsibility of the church to the challenge the state, when it is not acting as the state should be.  In Romans chapter 13 verse 1 Paul says,

“Let everyone submit to the governing authorities, since there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are instituted by God.” (Romans 13:1)

The governing authority at this time, was the Third Reich, which had just come into power.  They were implementing policy after policy restricting civil liberties and granting to themselves greater and greater power.  One policy that was particularly disturbing was called “The Aryan Paragraph” which stated that Government employees must be of “Aryan” stock, anyone of Jewish descent would lose his job.  If the German church (essentially a state church), went along then all pastors with Jewish blood would be excluded from ministry.  Many were confused as to how to respond.  Bonhoeffer instinctively knew something had to be done and that needed to be thought through very carefully.  The result was his essay, “The Church and the Jewish Question.”

Bonhoeffer argued that the church does play a vital role for the state.  What is that role?  The church he said, must “continually ask the state whether its action can be justified as legitimate action of the state, i.e., as action which leads to law and order and not to lawlessness and disorder.”  In other words, it is the church’s role to help the state be the state – both in terms of creating an atmosphere of law and order and not creating an atmosphere of excessive law and order.  If the state is responsible for encouraging excessive law and order (as the Nazi’s were doing), then the church has a responsibility to correct that, because that is a condition which will limit freedom of speech, civil liberties and particularly – gospel proclamation.

Bonhoeffer then outlined (and this is where it gets interesting) three possible ways in which the church can act toward the state.

1. The first, was for the church to question the state regarding its actions – to help the state be what God ordained it to be.

2. The second way (and here is where he gets bold), was “to aid the victims of state action.”  Bonhoeffer stated, “The church has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society, even if the do not belong to the Christian community.”  He was referring of course, to the Jews.  He then quoted Galatians 6:10: “Do good to all men.”

3. The third way the church can act toward the state he said, “is not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to put a spoke in the wheel itself.”  It is sometimes not enough to simply help those crushed by the evil actions of the state; at some point the church must take direct action against the state to prevent it perpetrating evil.

In the spring in 1933, Bonhoeffer made himself very clear: he was declaring that it was the duty to stand up for the Jews.  This was long before the Jews began to suffer the horrors they would suffer in a few years.  As far as Bonhoeffer was concerned, the writing was on the wall.  Metaxas then writes,

“Bonhoeffer’s three conclusions – that the church must question the state, help the state’s victims, and work against the state, if necessary – were too much for almost everyone.  But for him they were inescapable.  In time, he would do all three.” (p.155)

I personally found all this to be very provoking.  I had always taken the view that Christians should submit to the government in an almost passive manner and any protest must only be done by petitions and letters.  Well after reading Bonhoeffer’s response, I’m thinking differently.

To be sure, we don’t have a Nazi State here in quiet, little New Zealand.  But we are seeing some changes in policy coming down the pipe that are alarming and in my estimation, coming very close to points number 2 and 3.  I’m speaking of euthanasia and the deadly effect that could have on our aging and mentally ill as well as physically challenged.  If life could be snuffed out quickly with the help of a relative or physician, many people could become helpless victims.  Human life – life made in the image and likeness of God, will no longer be seen as precious in our society, but something to be eradicated when it interferes with the progress and improvement of society.

Will the time come when Christians in our small nation will have to take a stand?  Will they be bold and courageous enough, as Bonhoeffer was, to take on the state?  Will I?  Would I put my life on the line for the cause of truth and the protection of the helpless?

I very much hope that I will.

FOOTNOTE: Many in Bonhoeffer’s day believed Hitler was a Christian. He was anything but. Hitler was a master pragmatist; he made statements in public that made him sound like he was pro-church or pro-Christian, solely for political gain. In private, he made a tirade of comments against Christianity and Christians. According Hitler, Christianity preached “meekness and flabbiness,” and was not useful to the National Socialist ideology, which preached “ruthlessness and strength” (Metaxas, p.166).  In a meeting between Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich, Heydrich said, “Just you wait. You’ll see the day, ten years from now, when Adolf Hitler will occupy precisely the same position in Germany that Jesus Christ has now.”  His words were chillingly accurate.
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A fresh start for the New Year

I always look forward to the New Year, not for the party or celebrations (I’m usually in bed by 10) but for the opportunity to make a fresh start.  No matter how well I begin the year, I seem to accumulate along life’s way habits and practices that turn out to be unhelpful – for myself and others.  I don’t go looking for them; I just pick them up (like a dog picks up fleas.)  The beginning of a New Year is a good opportunity to shed them.

Earlier this month I came across a post called “Nine Questions to Ask Yourself to Prepare for 2018” by Scott Slayton.  In the introduction he writes:

“What I started doing a couple of years ago was to abandon the idea of New Year’s resolutions and instead start thinking about what I wanted to focus on for the next year in early December. Then I started implementing changes that would make progress on my goals before the new year begins. What this allowed me to do was to get out of the habit of thinking the new year would magically change me into a new person.”

Well needless to say, this got my immediate attention.  This was part of my problem: I was starting too late.  And I wasn’t doing any review of what didn’t go so well the year before.  The author then went on to list nine questions to help me think through what I needed to change, what I needed to refocus on and what I needed to plan.  I found it tremendously helpful – so much so in fact, that I led my church staff team through it over the lead up to Christmas.  It prompted some great discussion and sharing of ideas.

Here are the 9 questions, with my responses:

1. What are My Roles?

Our roles lead to our goals.  If you are a Christian, your first role is a follower of Jesus.  If you are married, your next role is husband or wife and then father or mother etc.  My roles, in order of priority are

  1. Follower of Jesus
  2. Husband
  3. Father
  4. Brother (my wider family)
  5. Brother in Christ (the family of God)
  6. Pastor
  7. Friend of Sinners

That’s quite a list isn’t it?  What a complex life I live!  But you see, by carefully considering this, I already know my priorities for 2018.  It is to fulfil my responsibility to God, my wife and family, my wider family, the relationships within my church (and then by extension, the wider church), and then to those in my circles who don’t know Christ.  At any time in the year I can pause and re-evaluate each of these.

2. What Two Changes Will Make the Biggest Difference?

Scott writes:

“I enjoy asking myself this question because it helps me clarify the main things I need to work on for the foreseeable future. When you think about what things would help you the most, picture your life as a series of dominos. What are those few things in your life, that if you were able to change them, it would affect multiple areas of your life?”

He then gives the common examples of debt and losing weight.  Getting out of debt frees up money for saving and giving.  Losing weight helps us to feel better, having more energy and saving money on doctor visits.

By my mind was going elsewhere.  Over two years ago we moved from a bustling city of over 1.5 million to a town of 30,000.  I expected life to slow down and be less busy.  But my life is busier, my role as Lead Pastor more complex and harder.  So, what is going on?  Something needs to change, but what?  I haven’t come up with an obvious solution yet.  But I’m still working on it.

3. What Two Things Do I Need to Stop Doing?

What is taking up too much time in your life or causing you too much stress?  It might be too much time on screens or your phone or time wasted on Netflix or internet shopping.  Or it could be doing tasks in your job you don’t need to be doing.  My mentor often asks this question of me: “What are you currently doing that someone else could do?”  That’s a tough one for me because there’s a lot I do that is important and needs to get done.  There’s just no two ways about it.  But do I have to be the one doing it?  Again, I don’t have a quick answer for that… yet.

4. How am I Going to Grow in God’s Word?

Now this is a great question – for us all.  The author talks about growing in two ways – deep and wide.  We need to grasp the entirety of Scripture (wide) as well as experiencing the transforming power of individual verses (deep).

Last year I followed the Gospel Project Bible Reading Plan which took me all through the OT and into the NT.  The problem was, I wasn’t in the New Testament until half way through the year, which I think is too late.  And although I was getting the wide-sweep of God’s plan in large portions, I wasn’t delving deep into one or two verses, where often the nuggets of gold are found.

This coming year I want to remedy that.  I am going to delve deep into a few verses during my morning devotion and prayer time and then cover the bigger sections of Scripture in another part of the day (or after devotions, which means getting up earlier).  That’s one of my New Year resolutions.

5. What Relationships Do I Need to Prioritize?

This ties directly in with number 1: What are my Roles?  I looked over my roles and turned the question around: what relationships have I been neglecting?  The answer for me was my wider family and non-Christians.  So those two are going to get more attention in 2018.

6. What Books Am I Going to Read?

Early in my ministry someone gave me a book called Preaching with Freshness.  There was a chapter in called “The Six-Fold Path of Reading.”  Instead of reading one book at a time, you choose five books in five different categories – such as novels, history, biographies, poetry, leadership, TIME magazines etc., plus another of your choice.  I didn’t forget this and have tried implementing it ever since.  It isn’t always easy, especially if you are a one-task-at-a-time man like me, but it’s worth pursuing if you are an educator, pastor or bible-teacher.  You usually are never short of stories, interesting facts or illustrations.

If you find it hard to stay motivated or on track, try Goodreads.  It is a helpful tool.  It’s free to join and you can track the books you’ve read and also have a “want to read” list on hand.  You can even set yourself a target for the year and it will track your progress.

7. What Will I Wish I Had Done When 2019 Begins?

What a great question!  I never would have thought of it.  I know for me what stands out is getting out of my office and spending time with non-Christians, staying in touch weekly with my three adult children at University, and meeting my reading target.

8. When Am I Going to Take a Break?

My staff team laughed at me when I read this one.  And yes, I mean laughed at me.  They know me too well.  I saw the humour, but I also sensed an alert in my conscience which I believe was by the Holy Spirit.  God values rest.  God values margin and time for recuperation and refreshment of mind, body, soul and spirit.  Pastoral Ministry is relentless and requires more than writing sermons, visiting people and ticking off tasks.  At the start of 2017 I decided to take off one paid day a month for reading, prayer and reflection.  But I didn’t act on it.  So, in 2018 I’ll plan one day every three months.  If I can’t keep to that there really is something wrong with me!

9. How Should I Adjust My Daily Rhythms?

Sometimes big goals can’t be accomplished in one day (or even one month).  What is needed is small adjustments that are made on a regular basis every week or every day. So, for example, one of my big goals is to spend more time non-Christians.  That means being intentional and marking out time each week to do that.  Another one of my big goals is to reat 40 books for the year.  Well that means planning small segments each day – to read!

I hope this has been helpful for you as it was for me.  My only regret is I should have posted this earlier, so you had more time to process it like I did.  But you still have January, and starting one month late is better than not starting at all.  In Ephesians 5:16 Paul calls us to make the most of the time (literally, “redeem the time”) because these days are evil.  In a day where distractions and temptations abound, let us press on for God, making the most of the opportunities for godliness and growth he has given us.

 

 

 

 

 

The Christmas Journey (Epilogue)

In my last post I wrote about our new Christmas outreach that we are doing this year at our church.  That was on the day we were about to launch.  Now I can report on how it all went.

Over the 3 nights we had over 840 people through with about half of them having no church connection.  The groups averaged 15 in number on Friday and Saturday and then ballooned to around 25 in number on Sunday night (our biggest crowd).  The International Student group numbered over 40!  That made things a little tricky for the Centurions (our “tour guides” for the night), trying to navigate around some tight spaces.  But we managed it all well in the end.

The responses we got from people ranged from being suitably impressed to being completely overwhelmed.  No one gave us a bad report.  There were plenty of, “Thank you so much for putting this on!”  It was really cool seeing the faces of people as they walked through the archway into the marketplace.  That exceeded all their expectations.

The angel Gabriel announcing to Mary that she will be with child by the Holy Spirit

We had a range of activities to keep people interested during their time in the Marketplace.  Kids could be kept busy making baskets, clay models, Christmas tree ornaments and beads.  There were fresh cherries and berries you could buy in the fruit stall, Turkish delights in the sweet stall or mulled apple “wine” at the tavern.  Basically, we had something to suit all ages and tastes.

What we found interesting however was in the end, it was the final scene with Mary singing and Joseph’s message, that seemed to have the most impact on people, whether they were Christians or not.

Here are some of the comments we got back via Facebook or email:

“Thank you 😊. This was an incredible production. An experience my children and I will never forget and an absolutely beautiful way to ‘experience’ the story of Christmas.”

“What an amazing effort you guys pout in, absolutely loved spending my shekels in the market place, so authentic and busy and so much to see and to the young Mary, what a beautiful voice, very welcoming people, – thank you.”

“Thoroughly enjoyed the performance of all. Even the little ones getting in on the act. I can but imagine all that went on with building the set. Hats off to Mary’s singing. She was delightful to listen to.”

“That was off the chain!! Our teenage boys thought so as well; all 9 of them 😊. Thanks so much for taking us on a journey back to Bethlehem 2000 years ago, such an awesome production well set up and amazing people too ❤.. loved it!”

I remember those boys in the last comment.  They were on my tour (I was one of the Centurions).  I sat around their table in the café after we finished.  One of them started asking questions one after another – I couldn’t answer fast enough!  Here is part of the conversation:

“Hey bro – so Jesus was born a baby.  So, he was normal, just like us”
“Yes and No.  He was just like you and me.  But he had no badness – no sin.  You and me – we think and do bad things – right? We do stuff we regret.  Jesus didn’t do any of that – ever.”
“Did he cry when he was a kid?”
“Probably”
“Then he grew into a man and taught about God and did heaps of miracles”
“Then what?”
“He died – early.”
“How did he die?”
“On a cross”
“What’s a cross?”
“It what the Romans used to kill criminals [I made a symbol with my fingers] It’s a horrible death. They nail your hands to the cross beam and your feet to the pole. Before you can take a breath you have to lift yourself up which means putting pressure on the nail holes which makes it even more painful.”
He looks thoughtful at this point.  He was really thinking.
“So that’s it? He just dies?”
“No – he dies for our sin. While he was on that cross he was taking your badness and my badness on him and suffering for it.  Then he rose again from the dead…”

The conversation went on for another 15 minutes or so.  But it gives you some insight into how many people are really open to hearing the gospel – people that have absolutely no idea who Jesus really is or why he came.  This is why it’s so important that Christians are doing what they can to reach them.  Not everyone will be receptive.  But some – like this one, are.  And that makes events like this worth while.

It was a huge effort on the part of our church family.  By Sunday night we were all exhausted – especially those holding main roles the entire production through.  But it wasn’t only the actors.  It was all the behind-the-scenes people that worked so hard to bring things together as well as the families who were there in costume with their children from 5:00-9:00pm each night.

I’ve been involved with a lot of outreach events over the course of my ministry.  This by far outdoes them all.  I simply can’t wait to get my Centurion costume on again and share the good news of Jesus with more people in our community – as well as having a hang a lot fun along the way.  But that will have to wait for next year.

I’ll leave you with a little scene we captured on video on the final night.  The Inn Keeper gave the Centurions a lot of cheek over the course of the event.  They got their own back by arresting him and dragging him through the market.  Now that got us a few laughs!

Many thanks to:
  • Marty who literally spent hours of his own time building sets and arranging lighting and curtains (and who-else-knows-what)
  • The builders, carpenters, electricians, graphic artists and painters in our church who gave much of their time to this
  • Lizette and Liz and Sue and their helpers who hand-made many of the costumes
  • Kathryn, Katrina, Christie and the Eishler family who were there every day in the last two weeks doing finishing touches
  • The elders of our church who also threw themselves into this by way of prayer and support
  • To Rochelle, our church administer, who worked overtime behind the scenes taking calls and arranging bookings and producing handouts and signs
  • To Jada, who had the vision in the very beginning to make this happen.  She still has fond childhood memories of attending this at a church near her home growing up.
And most importantly, many thanks to:
  • Our Heavenly Father, who cared enough for a lost and rebellious humanity that he sent his own Son to redeem them
  • To the Lord Jesus, whose willingness to lay down his life on our behalf made our redemption possible
  • To the Holy Spirit, who empowers God’s redeemed people, and energizes them for such events as this

The Christmas Journey

It’s taken months of preparation.  It’s involved hundreds of hours of work – designing costumes, building stage sets, painting backgrounds, arranging lighting and writing scripts.  It’s been rehearsal after rehearsal for our actors, going over scenes again and again until we got it right.  Now here we are, on the eve of the greatest outreach event our church has put on ever.

It’s called the Christmas Journey, because that best sums up what it is all about. Groups of 15-20 people are given a handful of shekels and then led by a Roman Centurion (in full regalia), on a “journey” of the Christmas story, starting with the prophet Isaiah announcing the coming King and ending with a beautiful stable scene with Joseph and Mary and baby Jesus.

Some of the scenes come straight from the biblical text, such as those wonderful words of promise uttered by the prophet Isaiah (Isiah 9:6-7), the announcement to Mary by the angel Gabriel (Luke chapter 2) and the interaction between Mary and her cousin Elizabeth.

The Inn Keeper (Sean) interacting with a Roman Centurion (Theo)

Others are completely made up, as with the interaction between the Centurion and the Inn Keeper (one of my favourites) and the accosting of the tour group from the tax collector.  But it all adds to the fun and hopefully, something of the reality of what actually took place.

After refreshing themselves at the Inn, where our guests are offered nibbles and treats, they are guided into the marketplace.  This is where much of the “hands on” work has taken place.  It’s an attempt to replicate what a Bethlehem marketplace might have looked like in the beginning of the first Century, complete with the bustle and noise and smells (we even have live sheep) of a middle-Eastern market.  Many our church people are in here, dressed in costume, offering their “trades” and wares, reading stories to children, making crafts and interacting with the visitors.

After about 30 minutes in the marketplace, a shofar is blown, and the Centurion calls his tribe together to be led to the final scene, the climax of the entire journey, where our visitors will meet Joseph and Mary.  The scene is dark, with a single light over Mary, who is seated with the baby.  She begins to sing, softly at first, and then bursting into full song of praise to God for the privilege of bringing the Son of God into the world (this scene has the power to make a grown man cry).  Then Joseph speaks, explaining his role in all this, and how this baby is the answer to our deepest longings and needs, if we would only believe and put our personal trust in him.

The whole things has to finely tuned, with the tours leaving every 15 minutes and each tour lasting around 50 minutes.  That’s a lot of singing for Mary (16 times on the first night), so we are hoping she can hold up!  It will be busy in the marketplace, with animals bleating, shofars going off and tours coming and going.

Joseph (Shiloh) and Mary (Katherine) and one of three real babies (they get swapped between tours)

We’re all really excited about this event.  We think that it’s sad that so many in New Zealand know so little about the first Christmas and the wonderful miracle that took place: the Son of God becomes a man so that men and women, in turn, might come to personally know God.  They won’t likely go to church to hear about it.  But they will come to something like this.

Note: if you are a local, the event takes place at the Headingly Centre in Richmond on December 15-17th starting from 5pm each night.  Unfortunately we are fully booked out.  We had no idea there would be this much interest (it even attracted attention from the local press – see below), but we are taking a small number of “walk ins” after 8pm.

 

That they may be one

John 17 is one of the greatest chapters of the Bible, and certainly one of the most treasured.  It is often referred as “The High Priestly Prayer.”  The picture is that of the High Priest entering the innermost sanctuary of the temple, with the names of the 12 tribes of Israel on a breast-piece covering his heart.  Here Jesus enters the very presence of the Father, with our names inscribed on his heart, to intercede for us.  This is Holy ground.  This is sacred terrain.  Here is the Son of God bearing his soul before his Heavenly Father.  And we get to eavesdrop on what he is saying.

He begins by praying for himself in verses 1-5, that he would be glorified in his cross-bearing work.  Then, in verses 6-19 he prays for his disciples.  He prays for two things: (1) their spiritual protection and, (2) their sanctification – that they would be set apart for God, put to proper use, by the truth.  And then, in verses 20-26, he prays for his church – all who will believe in His Name.   The main focus in this part of the prayer is UNITY, but not just any kind of unity.  It is unity with a very clear and vital purpose.

If you ask any military specialist, he will tell you there are three essentials for all military endeavours: an objective, a strategy and tactics.  The objective is the goal, the hilltop you want to take or the city that needs to be captured.  The strategy is the procedure or plan you will follow in order to reach your objective.  The tactics are the specific manoeuvres by which the strategy will be carried out.

In this prayer of Jesus, we find all three.  This is not a feel-good prayer about Christians holding hands with each other and being friends.  This is a highly strategic prayer.  He is leaving behind a small band of followers on whom his entire campaign rests.  The stakes are astronomically high: the eternal destiny of millions hangs in the balance.

The Objective

Twice in six verses, Jesus states the great objective.  We find it in the two “so that” clauses – in verse 21:

“May they all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us, so that the world may believe you sent me.” (17:21)

And then in verse 23:

“I am in them and you are in me, so that they may be made completely one, that the world may know you have sent me….” (17:23)

Here we see the great objective.  God’s whole redemptive plan is aimed at one target: the world.  That’s the ultimate focus of this prayer.

“For God so loved the world,” John 3:16 tell us, “that he gave his one and only Son.”  For what great purpose?  The next part of the verse tells us – “that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”  That is God’s plan.  That is what he is after.  He’s after the world.  It is easy for Christians to forget this isn’t it?  We think it’s all about us.  Jesus loves US, Jesus died for US, Jesus prays for US.  Yes, and Amen to all of that.  But it doesn’t end there.  We are not the end of God’s plans.

The Strategy

Let’s look at those two important verses again, and placing the emphasis somewhere else:

May they all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us, so that the world may believe you sent me.” (John 17:21)

And verse 23:

“I am in them and you are in me, so that they may be made completely one, that the world may know you have sent me….” (John 17:23)

There it is.  “That they may be made completely one.”  That is the strategy by which God intends to accomplish his great objective.  You say, “Well that’s interesting.  If God’s great objective is the salvation of the world, how is Christians being one is going to accomplish that?”  Because the greatest tool of evangelism is true, authentic, unity.  When people see Christians, out of genuine love for each other, putting aside partiality, personal preferences, race, ethnicity and skin colour, status and social standing, and intellectual elitism – they’ll take notice.

And do you know why?  Because they don’t experience that in the world.  They don’t see that happening in their community or workplace.  What they see is racism, elitism, sexism, snobbery, conflict and strife.  There’s strife in families, strife in communities, and there’s strife in the workplace.  What people need – in order to believe the gospel, to believe supernatural transformation is possible, is to see people – very different people, not just tolerating each other, but genuinely caring for one another.

That’s what Jesus intends for his church.  But how will that happen?

The Tactics

His tactics are revealed to us in verses 24 of John 17:

“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, so that they will see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the world’s foundation.” (17:24)

And now look at verse 26:

“I made your name known to them and will continue to make it known, so that the love you have loved me with may be in them and I may be in them.” (17:26)

Jesus says in verse 24 – “I want those you have given me to be with me where I am so that they will see my glory which you have given me” and he says in verse 26 – “the love you have loved me with may be in them and I may be in them”.   Obviously, there is a special connection between God’s glory and love.  So, what is it?  I believe it is this:

The “glory” Jesus speaks of here is the glorious, harmonious union between the Father and the Son – a relationship of love, mutual respect and self-sacrifice.  That love was supremely demonstrated when the Son, in full submission to the Father, went obediently to cross in order to atone for our sin.  That very love of the Father and the Son is now experienced in the hearts of believers all over the world – through the indwelling Spirit, and results in a profound, supernatural unity.

God’s tactics then – the method he will use for his strategy (making his people one) to fulfil his great objective (bringing the world to himself) is divine, supernatural love operating in the hearts of believers. 

Remember Jesus’ words in John 13:34?

“I give you a new command: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you are also to love one another.” (John 13:34)

Conclusion

You see now what is at stake.  Church unity is no small issue.  It is a major issue.  It affects everything.  The eternal destiny of people’s souls in our communities – on your street and my street, depend on it.

We must pursue it.  We must, like our Saviour, pray for it.  We must be on guard against selfish attitudes and petty arguments.  We must put aside personal desires and preferences.  We must work through problems, humbly confessing sin to one another and asking for forgiveness.  We must, as leaders, deal swiftly and firmly with all dissention and power-positioning or sexism or any kind of elitism in our midst, knowing that such activity is the work of the enemy, who seeks to destroy the beauty that God is creating amidst his people.  And we must all resolve, without hesitation, to love every single person – especially fellow Christians, unconditionally.

“How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in harmony! It is like fine oil on the head, running down on the beard, running down Aaron’s beard onto his robes. It is like the dew of Hermon falling on the mountains of Zion. For there the Lord has appointed the blessing— life forevermore.” (Psalm 133)

Note: this post is based on a message I preached at our Church called “Jesus prays for his church.”  You can listen to it on our website here

 

 

 

Warning Lights for Highly Vulnerable Leaders (part 3)

Over the past couple of weeks, we have considered a number of warning signs that our spiritual life might not be as healthy as what we thought.  These came to my attention while at a pastor’s retreat some weeks back led by Rowland Forman.  So far we have covered six of them: pride, prayerlessness, oversensitivity, joylessness, fatigue and disillusionment.  Today we cover the last three – insensitivity, immorality and impatience.

WARNING LIGHT #7: INSENSITIVITY

Are you neglecting those that are closest to you?  Rowland writes:

“Thankfully, after attending a parenting seminar, early in our ministry life, my wife Elaine and I adopted a value that we come back to often: “No amount of success in God’s service is worth failure at home.”  We apply that to our marriage and to our family.  I’m aware that ‘success’ at home base is all of God’s grace, but we do need to take 1 Timothy 3:4-5 seriously.  How can we manage God’s household if we are making a mess of our own?”

The question posed to us was:

  • What would your spouse say if someone asked how you are navigating ministry and family?

Well, I decided to ask Francelle this.  Her answer was, “Do you want the honest truth?” (I always struggle with that question).  She did, and I don’t have to repeat that here.  The point is, this is an area I need to constantly guard.  When things are going smoothly at home, there is the potential to neglect quality time with my wife and my children.  Then there is a small crisis, the pendulum swings, and I over-compensate – for a week or two.  Then I fall back into my old habits.

This is the prayer I wrote after contemplating these things:

“Lord Jesus, I know I neglect those closest to me – my wife, my daughters and my sons.  I think this is due to my working too hard (question to myself – for what? What’s driving that?).  Or it may be due to selfishness and lack of real care.  Please work in me a deep, caring love for my family Lord, for your glory and their joy.” 

WARNING LIGHT #8: IMMORALITY

Are you spying greener grass?  Rowland writes:

“Have you been taking liberties – becoming more intimate with members of the opposite sex?  Like King David, have you begun to feel indestructible?  It’s as if everything was on the rise for David up to the affair with Bathsheba in 2 Samuel Chapter 11, and everything was on the decline after that.  Joy disappeared from his life (Psalm 51:12), fatigue became the norm (Psalm 32:4), and his family disintegrated (2 Samuel 12-24).”

Just this past week I was alerted to another incident with a high-profile Christian leader: Ravi Zacharias.  If you are unaware of the detail you can read his statement that he wrote for his lawsuit here: www.rzim.org/global-blog/ravi-zacharias-statement-on-my-federal-lawsuit/

Going on everything I have read, and especially this statement from him, I believe he has being truthful.  This was an innocent exchange (on Ravi’s end) of correspondence in order to help someone that he thought was genuine.  It all came back on his head.  This was a very close call for him.  It could have ended his ministry.

I wrote to my elders asking them to read the report and to pray for Sean (our Youth Pastor) and myself, as well as our whole staff team.  I asked them to pray that Sean and I would be vigilant and wise and careful whenever we correspond to, or meet with women – especially outside of our church family.

The world’s a minefield for this kind of thing.  Pornography, sensuality, sexual exploitation of women and children, immorality and unfaithfulness and the list goes on.  Pastors and Christian workers are not exempt.  In fact, if anything, they are MORE vulnerable.  They are direct targets for the enemy, who seeks nothing more than their total spiritual ruin and disqualification from ministry.  If you are a pastor like me, you need to be extra vigilant.  You need to have people who will get in your face and ask you the hard questions.  And if you are married, you need a jealous wife (the more suspicious, the better).

The question asked of us was:

  • How are you doing in the crucial area of purity of mind and body?

Here was my prayer:

“Lord, thank you for alerting me once again to this danger.  I know how easy it is for me to become lax in this area, thinking that as long I am the Word and in prayer each day, and I’m not looking at lewd or sensual images, I’m all-OK.  Lord, how foolish I am to think that.  Lord, the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked (Jeremiah 17:9).  I cannot trust it.  How quickly I can rationalize some foolish action – “it’s fine to meet with so-and-so alone; nothing will happen” or “there’s only a couple of sexually explicit scenes in this movie; the rest is OK.”  Lord Jesus, help to guard what I do, what I watch, what I read and where I go.  Keep me close to my wife, so that I will cherish her and love her and remain faithful to her to the end of my days.”

WARNING LIGHT #9: IMPATIENCE

Rowland shared with us the story in Numbers chapter 20, where God instructed Moses to take his staff, gather the assembly of Israel, and speak to the rock.  He did the first two and then he lost it.  He struck the rock and spoke roughly to it.  He didn’t obey God’s instruction, nor did he trust him with the outcome.

Rowland writes:

“Are you patient with your people?  Are you tired of trying to do the right things, of applying church growth, then church health principles and then apparently failing? Craig Brian Larson in Pastoral Grit tells of one-step-forward, three-steps-back experiences in several small churches he pastored.  Then he says, “I must have patience.  I cannot be intimidated by the expectations of others but must have a sense of security about who God has made me.  And I must have faith in God’s Word despite what I see now.  In short, I must follow in the steps of Abraham.”

The question we then had to contemplate was:

  • To what extent are you impatient with people and progress in ministry?

Well this one really hit home.  I am, by nature, a very impatient person who rushes from one thing to another.  I have a hard time staying with God’s timetable, which typically operates a lot slower pace than my own.

Here’s my prayer in response:

“Lord Jesus, you know how impatient I can be with you and with your people.  I want things to happen in my time, not your time.  I am often unwilling to wait on you and let you build your church your way and in your timing.  Forgive my impatience Lord.  Expose every sinful frustration and annoyance and every ounce of resentment.  Cause me to love your people the way they are, and not what I want them to be. Amen.”

CONCLUSION

If you were the sole driver in a car and saw warning lights come on the dashboard but took no notice, that would be very sad.  But if you were a pilot of a 777, responsible for hundreds of people, or an air traffic controller accountable for thousands of passengers as well as flight crews, and you ignored flashing lights, the result would be catastrophic.

Keep a record of these warning lights somewhere.  Tuck them in the flyleaf of your bible or put them somewhere where you can quickly retrieve them.  They may one day save your life.  Really.

(You can read Part 1 of this series here and Part 2 here)

 

Warning Lights for Highly Vulnerable Leaders (part 2)

We all know about warning lights – we come across them every day, whether it’s a flashing light telling us not to cross the road or an engine light warning us something isn’t right under the bonnet of our car.

There are also warning lights in our spiritual lives.  If we don’t take heed to them there will be consequences not only for ourselves, but also those we lead.  These warning lights were brought to my attention at a recent retreat with fellow-pastors led by Rowland Forman.  I covered three of them in my last post: Pride, Prayerlessness and Oversensitivity.  Today I will cover three more.

WARNING LIGHT #4: JOYLESSNESS

Rowland writes:

“The recurring refrain in the book of Ecclesiastes argues that enjoyment of life is a gift from God.  Charles Swindoll picks up that them in the opening line of his book Laugh Again.  He says, “I know of no greater need today than the need for joy.  Unexplainable, contagious joy.  Outrageous joy (p.19)”  Do you hate the very things in ministry (like preaching the Word) that you cone loved?  Were you once full of vitality but are now dull and drab?”

Two questions were posed to us:

  • To what extent has ministry robbed you of joy?  Why?
  • What steps do you need to take to experience “unexplainable, contagious, outrageous joy?

This might be a timing word for you.  Perhaps you are missing that thrill, that inner delight you once experienced when you first knew you were a child of God.  Now all you feel is weariness and heaviness of heart.  That’s a warning light for you.  The yoke of Jesus is not heavy, but light.  Ministry done in his strength is not a burden, but a delight.  Something needs correcting.

This is the prayer I wrote after contemplating these things:

“Lord Jesus, fill my heart with your joy, so that I might be an example of a truly joyful Christian – loving life, laughing with others (as well as myself!)  Help me see the lighter side of life.  Keep me from being overwhelmed with sorrow and grief in living in a fallen, broken and sad world.”

WARNING LIGHT #5: FATIGUE

Rowland writes:

“I once read about an amazing plant called, “Iverillea Sonorae.”  Apparently, it can exist for indefinite periods without attention.  Once was placed in a display case in the New York Botanical Garden for seven years without water and soil.  Even the plant had its limits.  In the eighth year it died.  Too many of us are like that plant.”

He then shares an experience in his own life:

“I’ve experienced two near flameouts in ministry – one just before God threw me a lifeline and the two and a half years He gave me at Dallas Seminary.  In both cases, I became worn-out to the point I could no longer care.  The thing that frightens me is that to my Christian friends, I appeared successful, productive and sanctimoniously busy.”

Here were the questions for us:

  • How often do you use the word, “tired” in the last few months to describe how you feel?
  • To what extent are you currently on overload?

Well this one really hit home for me.  I feel tired most days.  The low-fuel light blinks on my spiritual and emotional dashboard fairly regularly.  My wife continues to alert me to this matter and I continue to ignore her!  So, what is it that causes me to push so hard?

Here was my prayer:

“Lord, you know I have a propensity to over-work.  I am like a machine, going a t full throttle, sometimes over-heating or running out of fuel.  Every machine needs maintenance and rest.  Otherwise it blows up or seizes and must be thrown away and replaced.  Help me to slow down Lord Jesus, to regularly rest and be replenished.” 

WARNING LIGHT #6: DISILLUSIONMENT

Do you hear yourself say things like, “I love the church; it’s the people I can’t stand”?  I’ve heard pastors say that.  I myself have even been guilty.  It might sound humorous, but it reveals a darker cynicism in our hearts.  That statement, when you think about it, is tragic.

Rowland shared with us the story in 1 Kings 19 about Elijah’s disillusionment with his situation. He was fed up with life, his ministry and even with God.  At one point he sits under a tree and prays that he might die (1 Kings 19:4).

I think that must have been a warning light on Elijah’s spiritual dashboard.  What about you?  To what extent is this warning light appearing on your dash?

Here’s my prayer in response:

“Lord Jesus, I know that whenever I am feeling disillusioned, that is a warning sign that ministry has become all about me. I have taken my eyes off you.  It also means I am trying to do ministry in my own strength and not in the strength that you supply.  Help me to see I that on my own I am utterly inadequate, and that all efforts to further the gospel and the kingdom devoid of your Spirit and power are in vain.  Help me also to go at a pace that I can truly handle, and not one that is impossible and will end up in exhaustion and defeat.  Amen.”

In my next (and final) post we will look at three more warning lights:  insensitivity, immorality and impatience.

(You can read Part 1 of this series here)