Responding Redemptively to Ruining Sin

With reports of a local pastor’s resignation from his ministry for reasons of infidelity, those of us fortunate enough to escape the same pitfall by the grace of God experience a wide range of emotions and an avalanche of thoughts.

My default response whenever I hear of such unfortunate and grievous turns of events is 1 Corinthians 10:12 – Let anyone who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.

No one is immune. Everyone is vulnerable. The moment you think you’re morally invincible then the enemy comes in like a flood and plunders your pastoral stewardship.

So in sad circumstances such as these, men of God must take stock of their own lives and redouble their efforts to fight sin and pursue righteousness.

There are so many other things that could be said about this. The obvious are pray for the man, his family, and his church for God to take what Satan has meant for evil and somehow turn it to good. Pray that the gospel so grips those dealing with the fallout that casualties from the debacle will be kept at a minimum. Avoid gossiping about the situation and contributing to rumor or judgment. And no doubt, a great deal more. I resist going too far for the distrust of my own heart in unnecessary commenting about another man’s demise or another church’s misfortune.

But I would be remiss if I didn’t plead for this redemptive response to such a painful development in our community.

Pray for me, Greg, the elders, deacons and any other man of God you know for his relentless ability to watch and pray that he might not fall into temptation knowing the spirit is willing and the flesh is weak (Matt. 26:41).

For a super-redemptive list of ten things to pray for your pastor, church leader, favorite preacher, etc. in light of these things, I commend to you this message by John Piper called Avoiding Sexual Sin. His original title for the talk was Ten Steps to Sexual Sin for Christian Leaders and How Not to Take Them.

It is well worth the read and this pastor would be most grateful for such specific prayers on his behalf.  I suspect any of my brethren would.

Every Pastor’s Priority Pursuit

My entrepreneurial son, Joel, calls me “old school,” but nevertheless I still conduct my ministry by means of a “to do” list. Any given week my legal pad version accumulates a lot of items. With a myriad of responsibilities on the pastor’s plate, how does a man triage them to keep the main thing the main thing, first things first? In 1 Timothy 4:11-16, Paul leaves no question in our minds as to what should be every pastor’s priority pursuit, regardless of what else may constrain his efforts.

Before we get to that remember that 1 Tim. 3:14-15 provides the controlling purpose to this first of the Pastoral Epistles. Paul wants Timothy to know how one ought to behave in the church. At the outset of chapter four, in the first five verses, he addresses the principal threat in Ephesus to that concern, namely the presence of false teaching. In v. 6ff Paul turns his attention as to how to counter that threat. In v. 11-16 he continues with that trajectory.

The main thought, I think, is this: To ensure right conduct in the church, pastors must give themselves to a fanatical concentration on the didactic dimension of their ministry with all its functions. As one writer has put it: The best antidote for error is a positive presentation of the truth.

Paul buries Timothy under an avalanche of imperatives in this paragraph – eleven in all. Command, teach, let none despise, set an example, devote, don’t neglect, practice, devote (again), keep a close watch, persist. Every single one of them without exception is framed in the present tense. This conveys continuous action. These things must represent Timothy’s perpetual focused concentration. And all have everything to do with his principal function – pastor-teacher. Three times, we find same root word – didaske – v. 11 – teach these things, v. 13 – devote yourself to . . . teaching, v. 16 – keep a close watch on  . . . the teaching.

Whatever pastors do they must be Acts 6:4 men above all else – we will devote ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the word. We must fight, claw, struggle, strain, hemorrhage to give adequate time to study, meditation, and the formulation of our sermons. While other components make up our worship services, to be sure, we must get this straight from this text: public reading of the Scripture, exhortation, and teaching — the sermon and its accouterments matter above all else and should command the lion’s share of time and attention in our corporate gatherings.

By way of overview, notice Paul’s concern that in this focused fanatical attention on his teaching ministry, he would have Timothy give attention to three emphases: authoritative confidence, exemplary conduct, and accurate content.

First, his authoritative confidence. Command and teach. Let no one despise you (kataphroneo – to think down). It seems due to his youth and perhaps timidity of character and temperament, Timothy suffered from an inferiority complex of sorts in his pastoral work. Paul charged him to take responsibility for that and teach with authority, even to the point of commanding. Recalling the conditions upon which he was set apart for ministry by the council of elders in the laying on of hands (v. 14) would contribute to that confidence as well and guard him from neglecting his unique calling and pastoral gifts.

Second, his exemplary character. The way to confident authority in ministry is not by throwing one’s ecclesiastical weight around, abusing authority by lording it over the sheep (1 Pet. 5:3), but by setting an example to the flock. Tupos means a pattern to follow. Notice that this must occur on a comprehensive scale — from the words chosen and tones employed in public speech to one’s scrupulous purity, treating all the women of the church as sisters (1 Tim. 5:2). This matters so much that Paul concludes in v. 16 – Keep a close watch on yourself. He echoes his teaching in Acts 20:28 – Pay attention to yourselves and all the flock. Matthew Henry said it well: Those who teach by their doctrine must teach by their lives, else they pull down with one hand what they build up with the other.

Third, his accurate content. Teach these things. The these is emphatic in the text. Some eight times this Greek word tauta shows up. By which I presume he means what immediately came before but indeed the entire emphases of the epistle. Again, v. 16 – keep a close watch on yourself and the teaching. Second Timothy 2:15 must be the pastor’s rally-cry, his MO, his preoccupation, his fanatical obsession – do your best to present yourself approved to God as worker who has not need to be ashamed rightly handling the word of truth.

Why? Because the stakes are inordinately high. Consider the end of v. 16 – for in so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers. The pastor’s is a rescue mission as a preacher and teacher of the gospel. It starts with himself and extends to his hearers. Everything depends upon his faithful communication of the biblical gospel of salvation by grace through faith alone in Christ alone to the glory of God alone.

Who indeed is competent for these things?

Thanks be to God that He makes His shepherds competent as ministers of the new covenant (2 Cor. 3:6).

Why Pastors Leave After a Building Program

Now that we’ve survived the major push to occupy our new facility at 872 Maitland Avenue, it occurred to me that someone out there might have written about what to expect as a church AFTER the completion of a new building.

I did a Google search to that end. About four pages into the search I ran across this intriguing title. The article suggests, for a variety of reasons, that as many as twenty percent of pastors leave their churches within two years of completing a building program.

As I read through the article I found myself grateful for the wisdom to have stayed out of the construction process to focus on my pastoral responsibilities. I said all along that wiser, smarter, and better equipped people than I served on the building committee and sub-committees to put our structure on the map. Pastors doing the opposite apparently position themselves for disaster. The article calls it a recipe for burnout:

Most pastors already have enough work to do. The weekly regimen of preaching, preparation, counseling, visitation and administration take up the bulk of their time. It has been estimated that the pastor of the average church works 48 to 55 hours per week. Add to this the responsibility to get a building built, and you’ve got a recipe for burnout.

Indeed. Praise God for sidestepping that pitfall. You can read the rest of the article here, if it interests you.

I have noticed, however, a shift in my personal involvement with the facility now that we’ve opened. Going to the office day-in and day-out, I am regularly confronted with the variety of matters needing attention both inside and out. Six plus acres and a 21,000 sq. ft. building present a sizable stewardship. How’s that for understatement? Quite frankly, it exceeds the demands of two staff pastors, an assistant, and five elders and five deacons working as hard as they can.

Dear ones, we simply must own this, all of us covenant members, together. The SDA days are gone. We can’t call the landlord anymore. And we simply don’t have the budget to pay for all upkeep, though we have outsourced a good bit of it. We need volunteers willing to serve in the day of His power (Psa. 110:3).

How can you help?

First, if you see something that needs attention, if you possibly can, jump on it. Pull a weed, haul a limb, pick up the trash, dust the shelf, clean the smudge, etc. If you can’t dispatch it yourself for whatever reason, call it to our attention in the office and we will get someone who can.

Second, plan to participate in  at least one or two work parties in the next calendar year. We will call them regularly. We have no choice, especially at this time of the year in the tropics where stuff grows like crazy. If Saturdays don’t suit you due to work or other responsibilities, how about volunteering to come in sometime during the week? Let Greg or me know and we will be happy to put you on assignment at a time that works for you.

Please don’t anybody panic over this post. I not tempted in the least to bail from burnout. I’ve never felt healthier in my adult life. And I am more excited about ministry at OGC than ever now that we have a home. But please count this a gentle reminder that a new day has come. We have a mega-responsibility now to steward. If we spread the weight of that on everyone’s shoulders, no one should collapse under the strain, including me.

Many, many thanks.

One Cure for My Justification By Ministry Syndrome

Truth is I need multiple cures for this disease. Most if not all pastors struggle with it. It evidences itself in a tendency to validate one’s existence by perceived success in the gospel work.

It shows up a lot on Sunday mornings. We can measure it by how we feel about attendance at our services. High numbers in the house, doing OK. Low numbers, not so OK. Strong offering, sweet. Weak offering, bitter. Lots of sermon compliments out the door, flying high. Little to no “at ta boys,” or worse yet, critical comments, laid low.

In the Lord’s faithfulness to contribute further to the eradication of this affliction, He has added a new wrinkle to my life. It’s called your-new-building-won’t-be-ready-for-Easter-opening disappointment. A number of folks have asked me how I am handling the setback of the revised timetable.

My answer remains the same. It’s not wise to complain about answers to prayer. What I mean is this. I/we have prayed since the outset of the project that we wouldn’t allow the building which is a good thing to become a god thing which would make it a bad thing. In other words, we don’t want to turn the whole deal into an idol.

In my experience the most effective way God tests my heart for revealing something I delight in more than Him is to take it away from me or keep me from it. I figure having to wait for this blessing and especially not capitalizing on Easter for outreach purposes that might result in a full building (maybe even two services) and the perception of success are just, among other things, another way that Jesus wants to keep me far afield of the justification by ministry syndrome. He has answered my prayer in not letting the building become an idol. Best not to complain.

So, I am content. I think. Yes, I am pretty sure, it’s OK. God is in control. We’ll get the CO when we are supposed to get it and we’ll open the building when we are supposed to open it. Then I will have a whole bunch of other temptations no doubt to justification by ministry syndrome. Lord, have mercy.

Fortunately I know the one Physician with healing power and His prescription for keeping the perilous condition at bay, the gospel. There is hope even for me and my perpetual idol-making factory of a heart.

Tim Keller, in an interview addressing idolatry in pastors, said it well:

When you find yourself unusually discouraged because things aren’t growing or people aren’t listening to you — you have to catch yourself. You have to realize ‘This is an inordinate amount of discouragement, which reveals the idolatry of justification by ministry.’ Meaning, you say you believe in justification by grace, but you feel like and are acting like you believe in justification by ministry. You have to recognize you are making something of an idol out of ministry. When you do experience inordinate discouragement because things aren’t going well, you need to say, ‘It’s okay to be discouraged but not to be this discouraged. This is discouragement that leads to idolatry,’ and you repent.

To read the rest of what he had to say click here.

Are you trusting in anything or anyone other than Jesus for your justification?

You can bet your life as a child of God He will find ways to pry your fingers loose from whatever it is so that you more thoroughly cling to Jesus for His glory and your joy.

Hallelujah, what a Savior!

59 and ???

It started in ’05 with my 53rd birthday. I attached to September 15 that year and every year since a little rhyming ditty to capture the spirit of another year in my life post-cancer.

Allow me to review:

  • 53 and cancer free
  • 54 and ready for more
  • 55 and staying alive (with apologies to the US government)
  • 56 and up to the same old tricks
  • 57 and not ready for heaven
  • 58 and feeling great

Normally I know well in advance what the next year’s slogan will be, but not so for my 59th. That one didn’t gel until the day before on September 14 at 6 AM in the pantry. Why then and there I have no idea. But it hit me like an all-pro linebacker tackle on a 4th and one.

59 and gospel primed.

Let me explain. Not too long ago someone came to me after I embarrassed myself in one of our services with a tirade in our announcements. This brother confessed that he walked away from that Sunday suffering from an ecclesiastical identity crisis. It took a lot of guts for this person to confront me. To be honest I reacted at first rather defensively. The more I thought about it the more the Lord convicted me that he was right! I determined then and there that I would never let that happen again if I had any say in it. Since that time I have enjoyed something of a gospel renaissance in my personal and pastoral life that I never want to lose a grip on.

Ergo this year’s saying. At every turn I want to be primed for gospel-action, preaching, counseling, obedience and to commend the same to everyone with which I come into contact.

My prayer is very much that of Scotty Smith’s:

Lord Jesus, one of the many things I cherish about the Bible is the way it robs me of my penchant for hero worship. Who but God would write a book documenting the foibles and failures of so many of his sons and daughters? Who but God would chronicle the ways his chosen leaders, like Peter, limp along and prove themselves to be in constant need of mercy and grace?

This gives me great encouragement and hope. It also gives me freedom to acknowledge that I need the gospel today just as much as the first day I believed it. This will be just as true tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. Keep me convinced, Jesus, because I’m much like Peter.

It’s one thing for me to get irritated and angry about the ways this generation is downplaying your work on the cross. But it’s quite another to see the subtle ways I try to keep you from the cross. Deal with me as you dealt with Peter.

When I mute my heart to the insult of grace, I deny your cross. When I think, even for one moment, that my obedience merits anything, I deny your cross. When I put others under the microscope and measure of performance-based living, I deny your cross. When I wallow in self-contempt and shame, I deny your cross. When I’d rather do penance than repent, I deny your cross.

When I gossip juicy tidbits more than I gossip the gospel, I deny your cross. When I pout more than I praise; when I show more fear than faith; when I want to be right more than I want to be righteous, I deny your cross. When I talk about people more than I pray for the same people, I deny your cross. When my grip on grudges is tighter than my grasp of the gospel, I deny your cross.

By the gospel, help me to mind the things of God more than the things of men. May your cross get bigger, and may my boast in it grow louder. Jesus, you’re the main hero in the Bible. The rest of us are totally dependent on you. That’s never going to change. I need fresh grace today. So very Amen I pray, in your patient and persistent name.

What he prayed.

Only 361 days until I turn sixty. For every day God gives me may they know fresh grace and gospel power for God’s glory, my joy, and the joy of those who attach themselves to my so often flesh-compromised ministry.

The Powerful Life of the Praying Pastor

Greetings from the Desiring God 2011 conference for pastors. This year, thanks to a most generous OGC benefactor, I traveled with a friend, Jack Jenkins, pastor of Faith Baptist, Orlando. Thank God for a peer to compare notes on such a strategic theme as prayer in the life of God’s man.

God as done so much already. Consider this sample of quotes:

We’re a room full of ordinary jars of clay. Sam Storms

One of the ways we will be most relevant to the world is by not being like it. Mark Dever

If some sermons had the small pox, the text would never catch it. Mark Dever (Think about it.)

All the things we care about the most are impossible. John Piper (Ain’t that the truth?)

Whenever you lack the impulse to pray, then pray. Joel Beeke (keynote)

American culture is the hardest in the history of humanity for praying. Paul Miller

Helplessness is one of the biggest secrets to prayer. You can’t live life on your own. Paul Miller

You can be so focused on the work of God that you neglect the person of God. Francis Chan

Prayer differentiates us from the rest of the world. Our God listens to us. Francis Chan

Do people see you as someone who just can’t get enough of God? Francis Chan

My peoples’ greatest need is my personal holiness. Robert Murray M’cheyne (biography by John Piper)

Tomorrow we hear from Jerry Rankin on prayer and missions (buckle your seat belt) and then the panel Q&A. The Lord and weather permitting we fly out of MSP at 3 PM, local time.

What a rich privilege to attend yet another DG conference on this the 25th anniversary of the publishing of John Piper’s seminal work, Desiring God, the book that put me on the road toward a God-entranced vision of all things (if you haven’t read it, what are you waiting for?). I got so excited at one point this afternoon I shouted Hallelujah in the session – from what I could tell the only one out of 1700 hundred  in attendance. Not sure why no one else was similarly moved, but no matter. When I get back home, ask me about it. I’ll be glad to tell you what moved me so.

Oh to experience an abiding with God that amounts to a walk in love that leaves the stamp of God on the work of God through a man of God.

It Is I Who Needs to Ask John Piper for Forgivness

Last evening I posted a link to the full text of Pastor John Piper’s announcement concerning his leave of absence from Bethlehem Baptist Church.

Today, as I thought about this turn of events and the heart of my brother and co-laborer in the gospel, I felt compelled to post a first-ever comment on the Desiring God blog addressed directly to Pastor John.

Here is what I wrote:

My dear brother, as a fellow pastor laboring for my flock’s joy in God, I am sobered by your statement. Thank you for the courage, honesty, humility, and integrity to do the hard thing, but quite obviously the right thing. Who can argue successfully that responding to the Spirit’s reality check, as you put it, and taking seriously the priority of your family, especially your marriage, over your ministry, is somehow misguided and unnecessary. No man’s ministry matters so greatly, even as one as broad and valued as yours by God’s grace, that he should sacrifice the vitality of his marriage for it. To fail to live with your bride in an understanding way, honoring her as a fellow heir of the grace of life as tender of the precious garden of your home would result in hindered prayers leaving all for naught in God’s work anyway (1 Pet. 3:7). So Godspeed to you in this sacred season of redirection in ultimate things. I promise to pray for you as you have asked and I will do it daily. I understand your apology to your flock but assure you owe me no apology. It is I who need to ask your forgiveness for failing to pray more earnestly and regularly for you and your protection from the several species of pride that hunt a man so wonderfully used by God in my life and so many others others. He who thinks he stands, take heed lest he fall (1 Cor. 10:12). May God have mercy on us all who put our hands to the gospel plow that after preaching to others we should not be disqualified (1 Cor. 9:27). I look forward to your restoration to the pulpit according to God’s will and in His time. I love you.

Will you join me in praying for this man, his marriage/family, and ultimate return to his pastoral post? And please, please pray more vigorously than ever for me that I not succumb to the several species of pride and a hundred and one other threats to my fitness for the work at OGC.

After this shocking development in the life and ministry of one I admire so much and desire to emulate, I feel more vulnerable than ever and in need of so much in the way of grace, power, and protection. First Thessalonians 5:25 has never seemed to me a more pertinent and absolutely necessary request.

Update on Pastor John Piper

This morning before my pastoral prayer I mentioned the news regarding Pastor John’s leave of absence from Bethlehem Baptist Church and Desiring God.

Here is a portion of his statement on today’s DG blog:

I asked the elders to consider this leave because of a growing sense that my soul, my marriage, my family, and my ministry-pattern need a reality check from the Holy Spirit. On the one hand, I love my Lord, my wife, my five children and their families first and foremost; and I love my work of preaching and writing and leading Bethlehem. I hope the Lord gives me at least five more years as the pastor for preaching and vision at Bethlehem.

But on the other hand, I see several species of pride in my soul that, while they may not rise to the level of disqualifying me for ministry, grieve me, and have taken a toll on my relationship with Noël and others who are dear to me. How do I apologize to you, not for a specific deed, but for ongoing character flaws, and their effects on everybody? I’ll say it now, and no doubt will say it again, I’m sorry. Since I don’t have just one deed to point to, I simply ask for a spirit of forgiveness; and I give you as much assurance as I can that I am not making peace, but war, with my own sins.

You can read the entire post here.

Please pray along with me for God’s multi-layered purposes to be accomplished in this man of God’s life, family, and ministry.