DON’T WASTE YOUR PANDEMIC

Prize Tested Genuineness of Faith in the COVID-19 Trial

Coronavirus, covid-19 news headlines on United States of America 100 dollar bills. Concept of financial impact, stock market decline and crash due to worldwide pandemic

Our monthly brokerage account statement arrived by mail today. As suspected, like so many with however modest a financial nest egg, we have taken a hit.

Are you as tempted to despair as I am?

I wonder how well my shield of faith will hold up under the daily barrage of flaming missiles (Eph. 6:16).

Ever increasing reports of confirmed cases. Rising death toll rates. Prolonged stay-at-home orders. Escalating unemployment figures. Plunging financial markets.

Honestly, my attitude fluctuates. At times I stay positive. Other times I turn negative.

My biggest battle has surprised me–a struggle with entitlement. This awareness of my prevailing weakness as a human being and limitations as a spiritual leader sobers me.

What do I mean?

This is not the semi-retirement I signed up for. I eased my way out of full-time ministry in the big city, relocated to my own private Idaho paradise, accepted a small part-time pastorate, and settled in expecting to enjoy the best years ahead.

And I’m due, or so I think. Anyone who has followed this blog over the years knows I’ve seen my share of suffering, loss, trial, and failure.

It’s time to cruise. It’s time to kick back some. It’s time to enjoy the golden years with my bride.

Instead I find myself with a brand new, never-in-my-life-time challenge, pressing me to the limit.

And once again I must weigh anchor in a passage from the Bible that has seen me through countless times of trouble.

I’m talking about Ecclesiastes 7:13-14.

13 Consider the work of God: who can make straight what he has made crooked? 14 In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him.

The most important word in the passage, occurring twice, is the word “consider.” The Hebrew root literally means “see” or “look.” The idea is to inspect, reflect, dwell carefully on something.

On what? On this: God makes both the days of prosperity AND the days of adversity in our lives.

Proverbs 16:4 echoes the same truth: “The Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble.”

But why camp out mentally and carefully consider this wisdom truth about the Maker of both good times and bad?

So that man may not find out anything that will be after him.

Puritan commentator Matthew Henry unpacked that line this way:

that he may not be at any certainty concerning future events or the continuance of the present scene, but may live in a dependence upon Providence and be ready for whatever happens.

There you have it. So much for entitlement. So much for being in control. So much for my best life now, Curt Heffelfinger style.

My best life has always been–since following Jesus at least–one of humble dependence upon the Lord and his control over my circumstances. He desires me to be ready at all times for whatever happens–not whatever I want to happen.

And he even invites me to rejoice in trials like this, grievous though they are, because they can result in the tested genuineness of my faith–more precious than gold (and our investment account) though it is tested by fire (1 Pet. 1:6-7).

IF, IF, IF I don’t waste my pandemic!

IF I keep taking up my shield of faith which can extinguish every fiery dart of the enemy (Eph. 6:16).

IF I let the testing of my faith produce steadfastness (James 1:2).

IF I let suffering produce endurance, and endurance produce character, and character produce hope which does not put to shame (Rom. 5:3-5).

Don’t waste your pandemic bemoaning and stressing what you can’t control!

Consider him who ordains prosperity and adversity alike and learn the prized lesson.

What matters is dependence upon him at every turn and a faith on the other side of COVID-19 tested by fire more precious than gold.

Make that your aim and please pray I/we do the same.

A SHEPHERD’S WORDS FOR HIS FLOCK

Pastoral Perspective for the Pandemic

U.S. naval hospital ship Comfort.

However inadequate we may feel for the responsibility, it remains the task of servants like me to offer comfort and help from the Scriptures for their flocks under duress.

I pray these words might encourage the fainthearted and help the weak (1 Thess. 5:14)–and I count myself among them–in the hard providence that is COVID-19.

Here are six exhortations from the Scripture in hopes that Proverbs 24:10 may not indict us in this challenging season.

Behold Your God

I awoke this morning to snowfall. Welcome to Spring in Idaho!

The Lord reminded me of Psalm 147:16-17–who can stand before his cold?

He reminded me of Job 26:6-14–Coronavirus disease is but the outskirt of his ways.

He reminded me of Isaiah 45:7–he is the Lord who does all these things.

He reminded me of Job 2:10–in all these things Job did not sin with his lips.

And he reminded me of 1 Peter 5:6-7–casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.

And so I ask you, dear saint, sheep of his pasture, how big is your God–even in the face of global calamity? “Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it (Amos 3:6)?”

Stand in awe of your sovereign God.

Strengthen Your Hand

Check out 1 Samuel 30:1-6. Take this text to the bank of your soul for fighting distress.

When hemmed in by seemingly insurmountable troubles, what did King David do?

He strengthened himself in the Lord his God.

Little flock, in these days when providence has robbed us of the regular means of grace which are corporate worship, the preached word, the Lord’s Table, and one-another community, perhaps more than ever we must press on to know the Lord (Hosea 6:3).

Read your Bible. Anchor your thoughts in texts like Luke 12:32.

Pray alone and with the members of your household. Trade time in anxiety for precious minutes of intercession in pursuit of God’s peace (Phil. 4:6-7).

Stream redemptive resources which abound on the internet.

Dear ones, move toward your God, not away from him.

Remember Your Examples

We have need of patience which forges in us the enviable virtue of steadfastness.

James 5:7-11 aims for this reality of genuine faith. “We consider those blessed who remained steadfast” (11).

Take your cue from the farmers, the prophets, Job, and the archetype of patient suffering reaping all its rewards, Jesus Christ (Heb. 5:7-10).

Read biographies. I highly commend John Piper’s 7-volume series The Swans Are Not Silent for readable, accessible, and profitable use of sheltered-in-place time.

Remember those who spoke the word to us and imitate their faith (Heb. 13:7).

Love Your Neighbor

Oh, how we need one another within the family of God and without (Gal. 6:10)!

Pray for one another. Text one another. Email one another. Call  one another. Message one another.

And long for one another! 

Do you not miss as I do taken-for-granted Sunday-together delights like warm embraces, robust hymn singing, earnest praying, hearing God’s word preached, feasting at the Lord’s Table, fellowshipping over lunch, and more?

It is a form of sharing in Jesus’s suffering to be deprived of such things. Identify with your persecuted brothers and sisters around the globe who regularly take their lives in their hands to enjoy such privileges (Heb. 13:3). They know better than we.

Consider Your Ways

Church, exploit, don’t waste, the severe mercy of a stay-at-home order. You have time to ponder and examine your ways which normal busyness wars against.

To whom or what do you turn for comfort in these challenging times?

“Little children, keep yourself from idols” (1 John 5:21). There are places on the internet you must not go. There are things on the TV you best not watch.

There are pursuits–good pursuits of which you are robbed for a season–that you may choose to pursue Mary’s better part (Luke 10:38-42).

Drink from the fountain of living waters, not broken wells that hold none (Jer. 2:12-13).

Temper Your Judgments

Resist the temptation to take God’s place on the throne. Jesus warned of this (Luke 13:1-5). God alone knows his ultimate purposes (Deut. 29:29). And he always judges perfectly. We do not.

The peoples of China, Italy, Spain, New York, Louisiana, California and other hard-hit COVID-19 hotspots have nothing on me as an offending sinner deserving judgment.

I, like Paul, am the worst (1 Tim. 1:15).

What to do? “Unless you repent, you will all like wise perish” (Luke 13:3-5).

Dear flock, examine yourself (2 Cor. 13:5). Believe the gospel again (1 Cor. 15:1-2). And hope in God–our refuge, strength, and very present help in trouble (Psalm 46:1). 

LEADING FROM LOSS

When God Scripts a Different Plan

As I suffered through the post-op discomfort of a fifth and final jaw reconstruction surgery in February, it dawned on me.

God’s designs for my last years as my church’s lead pastor differed greatly from my deepest desires.

Who longs for a stewardship of loss, suffering, and pain? Nobody in his right mind.

Ernie Johnson didn’t. A friend of mine sent me his video story suggesting we share a lot in common. He was right. See for yourself.

For a more detailed version, watch here.

My hope for the end game was to lead from growth, gain, and mission. Instead providence scripted the opposite.

I’ve buried a son and a wife.

I’ve endured a pathological fracture of the right mandible due to osteonecrosis from radiation for head and neck cancer.

Jaw reconstruction has involved a total of five surgeries in Miami, a bout with osteomyelitis (bone infection), speech therapy, loss of all my bottom front and right side teeth, chronic drooling, impaired swallowing, and thousands of dollars of medical and travel bills not covered by insurance.

I’ve been in and out of the pulpit so often and so fast I’ve got chronic whiplash.

While recovering from the latest surgery, something else hit me. This year likely brings yet another loss–the end of nearly a two-decade investment in ministry at my church.

It’s time to pass the baton to a younger man. I have no doubt. It’s my idea and God may well have a successor on the immediate horizon.

Talking about succession the last couple of years didn’t faze me much. Theory is like that; reality is not.

I didn’t feel the loss coming. But now I do. I hope to navigate this loss like the others–with the help of God’s grace–as I have often blogged about in the past.

A few days after news of the transition went public, I received an email from a relative newcomer to our church. These words encouraged my perspective greatly:

I read about the big succession announcement in the E-news and heard about it last night at community group. Woah! I am selfishly so sad that you all are phasing out, but I feel like I can resonate on some level . . . and that I should be unselfish and rejoice with what God seems to be doing. Praying for you guys as this next year sounds like it will be filled with many changes and mixed emotions. Last night in community group, and the last few times, people have mentioned in conversation how much your sufferings have impacted their spiritual walks and worship of Jesus as they have watched the grace of God as you have walked through such hard providences. It makes me wonder if your lives as a living sermon illustration are the most powerful, though the most painful, sermon you could give. I have heard it said in community group multiple times how much power of the Spirit has come in your preaching over the past few very hard years. I think it all has been and is doing more than we could ever know this side of eternity. Praying that God encourages your hearts in this season.

That note goes in my “Why I Became a Pastor File.” A great reminder to say “yes” to the unscripted.

SDG

Question: How has God used the unscripted in your life to advance His purposes and grow you spiritually?

Chronic Pain & Deeper Healing

I dealt with considerable pain from my tongue cancer and its treatment back in 2005. But it doesn’t compare with my experience these days enduring a pathological fracture of the jaw. Pain which never lets up brings a whole new series of challenges to redeeming suffering as a follower of Jesus.

Knowing I would have hours of windshield time to and from Miami last week for the consult with the surgeon there, I did a search online the day before I left. I wanted to download some resources/messages on the subject of pain. The Lord reminded me of Joni Eareckson Tada along the way. If anyone would have words of wisdom about dealing with chronic pain, she most certainly would. I had no idea just how right that impression from the Lord would prove to be.

Of the half-a-dozen or so talks to which I listened on the road last Monday and Tuesday, this one struck home with the most Holy Spirit force. Nancy and I just finished watching it together prior to my writing this post. Whether your story involves protracted suffering or not, I cannot commend more strongly this teaching from a woman who testifies authentically with the poet, “My suffering was good for me, for it taught me to pay attention to your decrees” (Psalm 119:71, NLT).

Please, I plead with you, do your soul a mega-good. As soon as you possibly can, invest the mere thirty minutes it will take to view Joni’s message. My prayer is that every one of our covenant members at Orlando Grace would do so. Beyond that, of course, all the better.

The Creed According to “Creed”

I told Nancy all I wanted for Christmas–other than a new jaw, of course–was to see the movie “Creed.” Hailing from the Philly area and long a fan of the “Rocky” films, regardless of their relative quality, I wanted to see this latest edition in the saga, even if it hadn’t gotten such a good review. For Flikster’s take on the film click here.

The point of this post isn’t for me to review the film, although my bride and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Sylvester Stallone delivers a surprisingly nuanced performance as Adonis Creed’s trainer. Michael  B. Jordan is riveting in his portrayal of the conflicted son of one time heavyweight champion Apollo Creed. Be advised if you do see it, that there is one scene of PG-13 sensuality which did not seem necessary to me, but Hollywood will be Hollywood.

Oops, I slipped into review mode after all. Enough of that.

castaway

I felt led to do this post because I sensed the Lord speaking to me rather distinctly through the movie. OK, some of you are thinking, pastor’s painkillers have taken their toll. I’m not talking about any kind of audible voice. It’s hard to describe. I’ve only ever had it happen to me one other time that I can recall. That was back in 2001 with the movie “Castaway.” So this is rare. But just as the Lord had a word of encouragement for me with Tom’s Hanks’ port-o-potty washed ashore his island prison, He clearly used this film in a common grace timely way to help prepare me for what looms around the corner in 2016.

Take a look at the trailer, if you like, and I will explain what I mean.

In the film, Creed has his fight and Rocky has his. “It’s just another fight,” Adonis pleads. They got me with the two of them standing before the mirror. So in the ring, also in life. One’s biggest opponent is oneself. “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). As for this jaw replacement challenge, it’s just like any other fight. “One step, one punch, one round at a time.” Oh I wish that oft repeated line in the movie had made its way into the trailer! That, dear ones, is the creed according to “Creed.”

What heavyweight bout looms on your fight card in 2016?

So maybe God won’t speak to you from a movie, but what about these jewels from His word as you enter the New Year fray?

“Fight the good fight of the faith” (1 Tim. 6:12).

“If God is for us, who can be against us” (Rom. 8:31)?

“We are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom. 8:37).

It’s just another fight.

Sorrows and Preaching

If the good people of Orlando Grace Church can possibly summon the patience to wait AGAIN for this pastor to struggle through what feels like his thousandth sorrow, I hope eventually to return to them a better preacher and pastor. Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.

For my readers not enamored by the likes of D.A. Carson or Tim Keller or even my beloved John Piper, I ask your indulgence through viewing this video. I wept and prayed as I watched.

On Asking Why

why

For some reason I don’t usually. Ask the Lord why He lets me suffer like I am right now with my jaw, that is. Well, there was that time in 2005. I had finished cancer treatment with all its nausea and vomiting. My expectation that those symptoms would cease soon after the last chemo blast proved to be wishful thinking. One particularly violent episode turned into a flood of tears and a very loud “Why, Lord?” in my family room.

But for the most part, I’m not inclined to go there. Perhaps one reason lies in what I know the Bible teaches about God’s purposes in the trials He ordains for us. There’s a world of instruction in various texts to that end. For example, that we might grow in steadfastness which would have its perfect result—complete, lacking in nothing (Jas. 1:2-4). Or that we would be able to comfort others with the same comfort whereby we have been comforted by Jesus (2 Cor. 1:3-5). And that we get to identify with the Master in His sufferings because the servant is certainly no greater than He is (1 Pet. 2:21). I could go on.

Another reason for trials in our lives dawned on me recently with comforting intensity. In the middle of HBO2 dive #10, one of the nurse/techs engaged me about what kind if church I pastor. The Lord opened a door for the gospel so big, even I could drive a summary presentation of the good news through it! For once I had the presence of mind to make the most of the opportunity. I laid the truth in love on the man. It almost made my sentencing to hyperbaric oxygen prison palatable. Almost.

And then I thought of Paul’s attitude in Phil. 1:12-13. Writing from prison, here is how he framed his difficult circumstances:

 I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ.

Now I can’t say that it has become known throughout the whole of Florida Hospital that my treatment is for Christ, but to some extent it is becoming known in the deep wound unit that this is the case. Frankly, that took a good bit of the pain out of this preacher’s jaw that day. Have you considered the possibility that, among other reasons, one why for your trial involves God’s plan for your beautiful feet to bring the gospel of peace to someone in need?

Nearest When Most Needed

mighty-fortress-a_t_nv

Yesterday some of us from Orlando Grace stood watch at the hospital. One of our own waited in suspense while her husband, a much treasured servant in our church, underwent a heart catheterization procedure. She got “bad” news. Even as I write this, her man faces bypass surgery in a matter of minutes.

After the shock subsided some, we prayed together. We thanked God for watching over our brother, who does strenuous work as part of his job, that his condition came to light before the worst may have happened. We asked God for His mercy in the procedure to circumvent the triple blockage. Finally we believed God together that our sister and her family would experience the all-sufficient grace of God as never before. He has pledged to be our helper.

So says Psalm 46:1. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble (emphasis added).” Charles Spurgeon commented about this massive promise in God’s word:

All creatures have their places of refuge. “ As for the stork, the fir trees are her house. The high hills are a refuge for the Spurgeonwild goats; and the rocks for the conies.” All men also have their places of refuge, though some are “refuges of lies.” But God is our refuge and strength,” the omnipotence of Jehovah is pledged for the defense and support of his people. “A very present help in trouble,”- one who is near at hand; always near, but nearest when he is most needed. Not much entreaty is required to bring him to the aid of his people, for he is close at hand and close at heart, “a very present help in trouble.”

What need, extreme or otherwise, prompts you to say “Help!” Make God your refuge in it. Always near, but nearest when most needed.