A Shepherd’s Dilemma

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Frankly, it’s hard for any pastor, I suspect, to zero in on only one. Lots of things perplex, challenge, disturb, perhaps even dismay a shepherd of God’s sheep. The one I feel the most more than not is trying to shepherd those with whom I can’t seem to make contact.

Proverbs 27:23 exhorts, “Know well the condition of your flocks and give attention to your herds.” The writer’s main application may well pertain to literal diligence on the farm, but I dare say any pastor worth his salt will make the connection that he should familiarize himself as well as he can with the sheep of his pasture for their welfare. Add Hebrews 13:17 to the equation, the sobering truth that undershepherds ultimately will give an account to the Chief Shepherd (1 Pet. 5:4) for those entrusted to their charge, then you have a pretty good idea how distressing it can be for someone who takes such a thing seriously to lose touch with the lambs in his fold, many or few.

As self-serving as it may seem, here is my plea to sheep everywhere to help ease this dilemma of shepherds everywhere when it comes to their obligation to feed, tend, know, and care.

One, become a member of your local church. Without your informed consent, your willing submission to the pastoral authority in your church, your shepherd has no ecclesiastical ground upon which to move into your life with the array of responsibilities with which he is charged, especially your discipline if necessary. This is why Hebrews 13:17 exhorts believers to submit and obey. You acknowledge that some ecclesiastical authority, somewhere, has your permission to keep watch and even intervene with discipline if you stray and that they are indeed responsible before God to do that. Remember, you cannot be put out of that to which you don’t belong (see 1 Cor. 5).

Two, don’t forsake the assembling of the saints together on the Lord’s Day (Heb. 10:24-25). It’s not the only way shepherds track sheep, but it’s a primary and significant way. We look to see who is hanging around the ordinary means of grace each Sunday that is the preached word and the Table. By the way, you can help your shepherd a lot if you will communicate with him in advance when you are going to be on vacation or away from the assembly for any other reason so that he need not be concerned about whether or not your absence means you have fallen into the ditch somewhere and that he needs to come with his crook to help yank you out of there.

Three, if you become discontent with your church and decide to go searching for a different sheep pen, do your present shepherd who cares about your welfare the favor of letting him know. Give him a heads up. I get that this is hard. You don’t want to hurt his feelings. You just want to slip quietly away. All I can tell you is that my default response when anyone extends to me the courtesy to communicate in this fashion is this: “Thank you for loving me well by cluing me in. You just made my mission-impossible job a bit easier.”

Four, don’s stay in limbo too long and as soon as you can take the church you are leaving off the hook for your care by resigning your membership and/or preferably transferring it to your next place of community. I’m not saying every church cares about this kind of record keeping, though I believe it should. But it helps your shepherd and it protects your soul if you make a clean and appropriately timely and sooner-rather-than later shift and inform the necessary parties affected.

My personal philosophy of people moving from church-to-church boils down to this: bless and release – EXCEPT if someone is running from sin or conflict. In those cases the same sin and the same conflict is waiting for you in greener pastures just in different garb. Deal with your stuff where you are and then if still lead, get a move on, little lamb.

And if you don’t know how to do that, ask your shepherd for help. If he can’t or won’t, you should probably leave that pen anyway.

A Church “Do Your Best”

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This week I am doing sermon prep in Ephesians 4:1-6 for a message in September, Lord willing. In the text the apostle exhorts believers who desire to live out a worthy walk in Jesus to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” The word for “eager” is variously translated “make every effort” (2 Pet. 1:5) or “do your best” (2 Tim. 2:15). In other words, there are some things about life in gospel community that demand our all. Paul argues in Ephesians 4 for those called of Jesus to His glorious salvation and made part of His glorious church that virtuous (see v. 2) peacemaking ranks right up there at the top of responsibilities in which we will want to excel.

That commitment will work itself out in various forms, but I want to talk about just one with the help of Jonathan Edwards from his work, Charity and Its Fruits:

220px-Jonathan_EdwardsAll undue anger indisposes us for the pious exercises and the active duties of religion. It puts the soul far from that sweet and excellent frame of spirit in which we most enjoy communion with God, and which makes truth and ordinances most profitable to us. And hence it is that God commands us not to approach his altars while we are at enmity with others, but “first to be reconciled to our brother, and then come and offer our gift” (Mat. 5:24); and that by the apostle it is said, “I will, therefore, that men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting” (1 Tim. 2:8).

So what does this mean?

If we take seriously an eagerness to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace such that we do our best in this regard, then peacemaking will take priority even over corporate worship. If we cannot overlook an offense, then we will make every diligent effort to meet with the necessary party to reconcile and not pretend to lift so-called hands in holy worship when we have avoided our responsibility to do so.

If applicable, you have between now and Sunday to do your best. Go for it!

The Keeper and the Kept

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While on sabbatical my wife and I opted to visit the first church I ever served as pastor fresh out of seminary. I had only returned one time since we left in 1985. Nancy had never been back. On our road trip out west we traveled via Southern California for a spiritual blast from the past.

As one can imagine, lots of memories attended the visit. I only spent three short, illness-plagued years at Grace EV Free, but we engaged a lot of people and built some solid relationships. None of those connections proved stronger than the friendship made with Dave and Sheri. We stayed with them during our extended weekend. They showed us extraordinary kindness and hospitality. In the grace of God we simply picked up right where we left off with them. Our experience was at it always has been with them – saints in whom is all our delight (Psalm 16:3).

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That Sunday we accompanied them to the church. So much has changed! Three services now. A thousand people. A new facility. Nancy and I both remarked how much it reminded us of our OGC building. But none of that struck me as much as something else. As we walked toward the entrance, we met a man who served on the board during my pastorate. Jim wears his 90 years amazingly well. He shared about his current ministry – caring for his physically failing wife.

Then, after service, came Sonny and his son, Phillip. Sonny used to preach for me when chronic fatigue sidelined me in those difficult days back in the ‘80s. His son, who attends Dave and Sheri’s community group on Sunday evenings, has adopted his Dad’s love for and proficiency in the Scriptures. Others we heard about who had since gone home to their rewards.

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I found myself thinking about Jude 21 during the service – “Keep yourselves in God’s love.” It struck me as I reflected on our experience that these dear folks we reencountered had done that over the years, just as we have done. You can get that perspective over time when you have walked with Jesus for forty-plus years. The three disciplines contextually describing how to do this keeping in Jude 20 & 21 have been our experience. We have built ourselves up in our most holy faith. We have prayed in the Holy Spirit. We have waited and continue to wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring us eternal life. Oddly enough, the lead worshipper used this Jude text for the service benediction. I have never heard anyone do that in all my years as a pastor. I have never used it. That will change in the future as I return to ministry from this sabbatical, Lord willing.

Another related reflection caused me to praise and worship God that first weekend of our extended break. Believers do keeping things like building, praying, and waiting because God’s people are a kept people. Like fixed bookends to our persevering lives in Jesus, Jude 1 and 24-25 frame the security of our lives – “To those who have been kept” and “To him who is able to keep you from falling and present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy, to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.” Our keeping ourselves in the love of God is subordinate; God’s keeping us in Christ is ultimate. The kept enjoy the keeping of the Keeper as they keep themselves in the love of God.

My thanks to the keeping people of my first church for pointing us so plainly and thoroughly to our great Keeper at the outset of my sabbatical. May the kept of God never stop keeping themselves in the love of God.

Why All the Fuss About an Ordination?

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Call it fuss, call it hype, call it excitement, call it attention, call it what you will, this ordained pastor is jazzed about participating in setting apart another godly man for the ministry of the gospel this Sunday night.

Lord willing, on January 19, 2014, 6 PM at OGC, Kevin Scott Wilhoit will become Rev. Kevin Scott Wilhoit. This, I am convinced, is the biggest of deals deserving all the fuss, hype, attention, and excitement an entire church can give to it. This begs the question, of course, why is that the case?

I can think of at least three important reasons:

First, the ordaining of a man to the pastorate constitutes an answer to a high priority prayer request commanded by Jesus Himself. I refer, of course, to Matthew 9:35-38.

And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

If anything suffers from a scarcity-of-resources dilemma it is the supply of godly ministers on hand for a plentiful spiritual harvest. That God has answered our prayers at OGC in giving us Kevin for these purposes warrants our ecstatic delight for the prospect of less harassed and helpless sheep in God’s church.

Second, the ordaining of a man to the pastorate recognizes the love and goodness of God to His church in gifting us with yet someone else capable of equipping the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ. Here, of course, I refer to Ephesians 4:11-12.

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.

Another ordained man in the pastoral ranks increases the likelihood that more of God’s people will acquire greater knowledge of God’s word and the discipleship training they need to function in such a way as to contribute to the edification of the church.

Third, the ordaining of a man to the pastorate delegates dreadfully serious and desperately necessary responsibilities to someone who acts on God’s behalf to care for those for which Jesus acquired ownership at the ultimate price. Now, of course, I refer to Acts 20:28-30 (a portion of the text selected by our guest speaker for the ordination service).

Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. 29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.

Such things can keep me awake late into the night. Guide the flock. Guard the flock. Care for the church. What a massive responsibility! Who is competent for these things?

I can think of no other compliment I can pay to a man or credit I can give to God than this: if I myself were not a pastor entrusted with similar privileges and responsibilities at my own church, I would put myself and my family under the servant-shepherding authority of someone like the soon-to-be Rev. Kevin Wilhoit. And I would definitely count myself blessed to do so.

I wouldn’t miss the opportunity this Sunday night to celebrate with him what God has done in calling Him to serve Christ’s church even for a chance to spend an evening picking John Piper’s pastoral/theological brain. And some of you know just how big a deal that would be for me!

My prayer is you will share with me in the ordination fuss, hype, excitement, and attention this weekend.

And please don’t forget to bring a finger food to share for the reception.

January 12, 2014 at OGC

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Big day tomorrow!

Note: it’s a name tag Sunday. Grab one on your way in and help make community easier for all.

8:30 AM – Prayer time in the conference room. Always up for newcomers to help us with intercession.

9:30 AM – Equipping Hour for all ages. Adult discipleship classes include Reformed Theology, New Testament, and Biblical Finances.

10:45 AM – Worship Service. I’m preaching on 1 Thess. 5:16-18, a message called “The Jewelry of Grace.” I plan to focus on v. 17 and what it means to pray without ceasing. Here’s how Charles Spurge0n tied joy, prayer, and giving thanks together:

When joy and prayer are married their first born child is gratitude. When we joy in God for what we have, and believingly pray to him for more, then our souls thank him both in the enjoyment of what we have, and in the prospect of what is yet to come. Those three texts are three companion pictures, representing the life of a true Christian, the central sketch is the connecting link between those on either side. These three precepts are an ornament of grace to every believer’s neck, wear them every one of you, for glory and for beauty; “Rejoice evermore;” “Pray without ceasing;” “in everything give thanks.”

At the end of the service we will receive twelve new members into the body. Be sure to greet them in the receiving line after the service and join us for a reception in the fellowship hall.

6:00 PM – Concert of Prayer in the conference room. We will resume our monthly times of intercession. Special emphasis on Japan given the Homestay ministry coming up next month.

Looking forward to a great Lord’s Day with God’s people!

The Church & Infertility

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I don’t pretend to get this. Nancy and I never suffered the trial of infertility. We have known and know even now dear brothers and sisters humbling themselves under the mighty hand in this journey (1 Peter 5:6-7). We see the hurt. We feel the pain. We ache with the longings that go unfulfilled. Still, without walking a mile in those shoes, it makes it tough to identify as well as one might wish.

Jeff Cavanaugh has written a helpful blog post on this subject for the Gospel Coalition. He speaks from his own agonizing experience. It opened my eyes as to how the church can powerfully comfort but also unwittingly afflict folks bearing up under their inability to conceive. He explains:

I’m painting a bleak picture of infertility here, I know. There is no way to ignore how painful it is. It’s certainly the biggest trial my wife and I have ever faced, individually or together. But God has used this trial to grow us spiritually and demonstrate his love for us in ways we couldn’t have anticipated. And the church—that network of loving, supportive, prayerful relationships we have in Christ’s body—has been used by God to comfort and sustain us and others like us.

That’s not to say relationships in the church are easy when you’re struggling with infertility. Those aforementioned feelings of isolation and alienation are real. Friends in the church have seemed thoughtless at times, not considering how things they say might be hurtful; at other times they’ve been awkward, aware of our struggles but at a loss for what to say. Often the strain has been entirely our own fault—we’ve promised in our church covenant to “rejoice at each other’s happiness and endeavor with tenderness and sympathy to bear each other’s burdens and sorrows,” but sometimes jealousy and bitterness sap our motivation to do any rejoicing or accept any comfort.

Naturally I long for my church and all gospel-grounded ministries to act like the comforting network described in paragraph one. However, I realize too readily how easily we can miss the boat messing up as in paragraph two.

I encourage an entire reading of “How the Church Makes the Trial of Infertility Better (Or Worse).”

May Jesus and His gospel enlarge our hearts to enter the struggles of saints battling this hard providence as well as a host of others as we have opportunity.

Whatever Happened to Prayer Meeting?

Today at lunch I met for the first time with my new men’s ministry partner for this quarter. Right out of the chute my brother asked me, “What makes you feel alive?” And off we went!

We agreed to get together again. So much to learn about a fellow member of the body of Christ. I planted a seed with a question for our next lunch. “What puzzles you?”

I admit much puzzles me, particularly in the pastoral ministry. Among the things that baffle me most is the difficulty believers have, including me, with prayer. We often think of that only in terms of individual prayer. This truly is a dilemma. But equally puzzling to me is the challenge to motivate God’s church to participate in corporate prayer. No meeting of the church presents bigger issues in terms of ownership by its people than the corporate prayer meeting.

This is indeed puzzling when you consider, among other things, the testimony of the New Testament church. For example, we have Acts 1:14 – All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers. And then in response to persecution, the church gathered for prayer with Acts 4:31 noting this outcome: And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness. Acts 13:1-3 tell us that the first missionaries, Barnabas and Saul, got commissioned and sent out from Antioch during a time of corporate prayer and fasting.

Ben Patterson wrestled with this puzzle in an article I discovered recently. He places the blame for the woeful lack of corporate prayer in the local church in a couple of strategic places including this one:

American individualism has taken its toll. If churches fancy themselves self-sufficient, it’s because their members share the same conceit. We like our lives to be self-contained. For many, the prayer meeting is unnecessary as long as individuals are praying in their own homes on their own time. What is missed is that most of what the Bible says about prayer is addressed to groups, people meeting together, to pray. The Bible’s great book of prayer, Psalms, was written largely for use in the congregation of Israel.

You can read the rest of the article, including other reasons for the malaise of the missing prayer meeting here.

I fear we have become far too conformed to the world in our individualism when we consider how many of us take corporate prayer so lightly. It seems we treat it as an optional accessory to our lives rather then the vital necessity it truly is.

I don’t write this post out of a desire to motivate from guilt. That won’t cut it. I appeal to all of us at OGC, especially with another monthly concert of prayer coming up this Sunday night at 6 PM at the church in the conference room, to take our cue from Jesus in John 17. There, before He did His saving work of atonement on the cross, He poured out His heart in prayer that was corporate. He prayed with His disciples on so many fronts before His passion. Let us be imitators of Jesus, loving one another well by praying with one another.

Hope to have to move the meeting Sunday night from the conference room to a bigger venue.

The Finer Art of How to Walk Into Church

What better time to consider this concept than having opened a new building?

As we all attempt to carve out our particular spots in the auditorium, perhaps we could take a g0spel-shaped tack in determining our seats from week to week.

How so? Here’s a thought.

Pray about where you sit. This is called the “Pew Prayer’ or in our case the “Seat Prayer,” since we don’t have any pews.

The idea is not original with me. I came across it recently while reading through a great little book on ministry called The Trellis & the Vine. Copies, by the way, are available in our resource center for only $8.

I borrowed it from an article referenced in the footnotes for chapter four entitled The Ministry of the Pew.

Here is the thrust of the idea from the article:

Church is a gathering of God’s people to hear his word and respond in faith and obedience. In this gathering, we are in fellowship with each other, through the blood of Jesus, and, because of our fellowship, we seek to serve each other. We use our gifts and abilities to strengthen one another and build Christ’s Church—‘edification’ is the word often used to describe what goes on in church. All believers are involved in building the church, not just clergy or preachers. The New Testament consistently teaches that in the growth of the body of Christ each part must do its work (see Eph 4; 1 Cor 12-14). Because of this, we aren’t to see ourselves merely as part of an organization called ‘St Hubert’s Church’, but as servants of God’s people, eager to meet the needs of others even if it means sacrificing our own. . . . If at church we are working to strengthen our fellow believers, where we sit becomes important since part of our work will be talking to our neighbor in the pew, welcoming people, helping each other understand God’s word and praying with each other. The ‘Pew Prayer’ was a significant turning point in my understanding of what church is all about. It changed my reasons for going to church. The shift was made from being the ‘helpee’ to the helper, the served to the servant (emphasis added). Church is where we seek spiritual food and encouragement in order to become more godly; but church is also where we go in order to feed other people and encourage them. In God’s mercy, we become more Christ-like in the process, as like him we deny ourselves for the sake of others. But our purpose in gathering with God’s people is to strengthen them and build the body of Christ. We look for opportunities to assist the growth of the church in practical ways.

Good stuff. I commend the notion to us all.

Beginning this Sunday why not walk into church (on time, sorry, couldn’t resist) praying the pew prayer: “Lord, where would you have me sit and help me engage with the word in the power of the Spirit as led?”

A Biblical Vision for the Church

Pastor Mark Dever has a message from 1 Corinthians up on the audio portion of the 9Marks site. I listened to it last week.

He entitled it A Biblical Vision for the Church. Essentially he argues that the church exists for God and that the thing that should constrain us more than anything else in terms of our participation in a local church is that perspective.

From that starting point he goes on to articulate from various places in the epistle how the local church is to be three things: holy, unified, and loving. He reasons that because God Himself is these things, which he shows from the text as well, we should reflect these things in our churches.

It means we can’t afford to overlook things like church discipline.

It means we can’t fragment into divisions that center on various personalities.

It means we ought to bend over backwards in deferring to one another in showing love.

He finishes with how the gospel informs all those things. He pleads with the listener to evaluate his church in these terms.

It’s a worthwhile investment of about fifty minutes.

Check it out. You can listen to the audio here.