Heading Off Social Distancing of a Different Kind 

Social distancing (with a measure)

Our church reopened last Sunday! After six long, challenging weeks of stay-at-home lockdown, we eagerly gathered for worship in stage one of Idaho’s Rebound plan.

Given health risks, we observed safety protocols. Everything got sanitized. Social distancing was employed. We cancelled our regular weekly luncheon together.

Thankfully we survived week one of the new abnormal—but it wasn’t easy. Honestly, last week was the toughest this pastor pushed through thus far in his short tenure at Trinity.

Health issues aside, another threat posed by the pandemic tends to keep me awake at night.

One blogger astutely asked: “What will it matter if we re-assimilate only to end up ‘socially distant’ again not because of a virus, but because of our inability to love others who approach COVID-19 differently than we do?”

Great question!

Consider four ways to minimize the looming relational risks.

One, Pray for Leaders

Someone has to call the ball. Sheep are not stupid; they are dependent on good shepherds to serve them. Wisdom is needed everywhere.

Paul pleads of first importance “that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people–for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way (1 Tim. 2:1-2).”

What might change if we pray more for leaders at every level than we post criticism on social media about their judgments?

Two, Be Patient

I’m in Indiana Jones mode these days—making things up as I go along! They don’t teach “Pastoring in Pandemics” in seminary.

I feel in over my head. This thing seems way above my paygrade. The challenge to get things right grows bigger each day.

Leaders need followers who remember the first mark of love is patience (1 Cor. 13:4).

Three, Do Peacemaking

Opinions on all things COVID abound. With them comes the potential for sharp disagreements. What are we to do?

Of all the conciliatory principles I could cite, I suggest at least these three guidelines for avoiding falling out with others, if at all possible.

“Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Rom. 14:5).

“Let us not pass judgment on one another” (Rom. 14:13).

“Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you” (Rom. 15:7).

We need to give others a wide berth in figuring things out, in the same way we desire for them to treat us (Matt. 7:12).

Four, Keep Perspective 

Days after Nancy, my first wife, died of cancer, a lunatic gunned down 49 souls at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub.

KLTY radio 94.9 in Dallas-Ft. Worth asked me the ultimate question. Why? Among my answers: We live in a sin-broken world. Romans 8:22 explains: “the whole creation has been groaning in the pains of childbirth until now.”

Hardships like COVID shout to us, “This is not the way things are supposed to be. But it is not the way things will always be.” “We wait eagerly for adoption as sons” (Rom. 8:23).

Jesus will come again to make all things new! That’s the big-picture perspective.

Hope for that—but wait for it with patience (Rom. 8:25).

Question: What’s one thing which helps you love others with whom you differ?


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.


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

Eternal Truths to Remember Each Day

In this summer’s issue of Randy Alcorn’s Eternal Perspectives magazine, he lists six biblical principles for living every day in light of eternity.

  1. There are only two eternal destinations—heaven or hell—and I and every person I know will go to one or the other (Matthew 7:13-14).
  2. This world (as it is now) is not my home and everything in it will burn, leaving behind only what’s eternal (2 Pet. 3:10-12).
  3. My choices and actions in this life have a direct influence on the world and the life to come (Rev. 22:12).
  4. My life is being examined by God, the Audience of One, and the only appraisal of my life that will ultimately matter is His (Rom. 14:12).
  5. God is sovereign, and I can trust that He is working all things—including the most difficult things—in my life together for good (Rom. 8:28).
  6. My ultimate home will be the New Earth, where I will see and enjoy God and serve Him as a resurrected being in a resurrected human society (2 Pet. 3:13)

Are you living each day in light of your eternal destiny? Truths like these mediated upon first thing in your day will certainly help.

The VOM Voice Gone Silent

The letter came today.

Voice of the Martyrs (Nancy and I receive their monthly newsletter and give as led to their ministry from time to time), fiercely devoted to serving the persecuted church across the globe since 1967, confirmed what I had already heard via the internet.

Executive Director, Tom White, took his own life last month. This husband, father, grandfather, and articulate voice for the persecuted (I know, I’ve read many an editorial by the man), himself once imprisoned for his faith in Cuba, did what to many, especially Christians, can only be described as the unthinkable. He committed suicide.

Not much is known about the circumstances. But, to VOM’s credit, they revealed that the day before his fatal choice, “allegations were made to authorities that Tom had inappropriate contact with a young girl.” Here’s what the writer of the letter speaking on behalf of VOM gave as his settled-upon explanation: “I personally believe that rather than face those allegations and the resulting fallout for his family and this ministry, Tom chose to end his life.”

What are we to make of this? How are we to respond?

I say let there be compassion. Only days ago I read in 1 Kings 19:4 of the great prophet Elijah’s plea, gripped with fear, for God to take his life as he fled into the wilderness to escape the threats of the evil Jezebel. God’s servants can and do know cavernous depths of depression. William Cowper, poet and hymn writer (he gave us, among others, God Moves in Mysterious Ways His Wonders to Perform) made multiple attempts on his angst-filled life. Believers do not escape the slough of despair.

I say let there be perspective. By that I mean providence perspective. I have no earthly idea if Tom White did anything untoward the girl in question. Of course that is possible. I admit, it doesn’t look good. But what if he didn’t? What if he was entirely innocent? What if the truth lies somewhere in between? Only eternity will tell.

But one thing is for sure. In interpreting the hard providence of dreadfully incriminating accusation, Tom White, who, from what I can tell, no one believes was a false professor of Christianity but rather a true believer, failed to count Romans 8:31 ultimately true for him – If God is for us, who can be against us?

Who knows how God was plotting for the man’s good through a Romans 8:28 kind of working out of things? And this cancer survivor and pastor of four churches over time does not say such a thing flippantly.

Naomi made the same mistake, an incomplete and inadequate interpreting of providence in her crushing circumstances in the book of Ruth. That is the subject of my Mother’s Day message this Sunday. I wish I didn’t have such a pertinent and recent illustration with which to work. But the truth is I do.

I trust the Lord will use it, the text, and my words somewhat to serve us all on the journey from bitter to blessed that will keep us from such a fate and oh so much more – deep, abiding, exquisite, even-in-the-hard-providences joy in Him.

What’s a FL Pastor Doing in the ID Wilderness?

Do you mean besides plugging leaks in plumbing piping?

Do you mean besides patching holes from woodpecker pecking?

Do you mean besides catching rest after capital campaign campaigning?

Short answer? He’s looking for help. Divine help. And lots of it.

I never tire of the view of the Clearwater Mountain range from our place. It regularly reminds me of Psalm 121:1-2.

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.

Nancy and I come to our place each spring for a week of R & R along with two weeks of P & P & P (prayer, perspective, & planning).

The wilderness affords us the opportunity to step back from the demands of every day ministry so that I might attempt get the Lord’s view of the big picture back home. More than ever I sense the need for His help in knowing how to serve our church in moving into the future.

I felt led to bring these tools with me to aid in the process.

I sorted them from right to left into the three categories of my two-week, work-related pursuit here: pastoral, missional, and intellectual.

Sometimes I end emails with “You make me want to be a better pastor!” Do your best passages like 2 Tim. 2:15 persuade me that shepherds must seek God regularly to make them better servants of His flock. Piper’s Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, I have read twice before. I assigned it to our summer pastoral intern for our discussion. I read a chapter a day here and journal my thoughts.

Here’s a sample from chapter 9 – Brothers, Beware of Sacred Substitutes.

Ministry is its own worst enemy. It is not destroyed by the big, bad wolf of the world. It destroys itself. One survey of pastors asked, “What are the most common obstacles to spiritual growth?” The top three were busyness (83 percent), lack of discipline (73 percent), and interruptions (47 percent). Most of these interruptions and most of our busyness is ministry–related, not “worldly.” The great threat to our prayer and meditation on the Word of God is good ministry activity (pp. 59-60).

A passage like that makes me think reading Piper’s book again needs to happen more for my sake’s than Kevin’s.

That’s volume two of Ian Murray’s biography of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, arguably one of the best preachers of the 20th century. Alistair Begg called this work the most significant thing he has ever read. I finished part one last spring. Time to tackle part two this year. Witmer’s book is brand new to me. Our elders all possess a copy. The subtitle, Achieving Effective Shepherding in Your Church, intrigues me in light of our desire as leaders to shepherd well the flock of God entrusted to our care.

The manuals to the left came along with a recent upgrade to my Logos 4 Bible study software. I simply don’t have time to master thent components of this amazing program while going about my regular ministry. I hope to work through both these manuals while here so I can make better use of its resources to enhance my study of God’s word. I’ve finished volume one and have pressed on into volume two.

The stack in the middle possesses the greatest challenge for me. I call it the missional collection. All these titles possess similar content. They aim to help church leaders shape their ministries for effective outreach. Crouch’s book, Culture Making, comes highly recommended by our lead worshipper intern. I offered to read it along with Greg so we might discuss, among other things, how the arts might work as a medium for building bridges for the gospel.

The others all have their story as to how they got into my hands. I’ll close this post with some thoughts on just one more, Comeback Churches.

As soon as I saw that book with its particular title I jumped on it. After all, that’s what we’ve tried to make of OGC since 2002 – a comeback church. I’ve picked it up twice in the past only to stall in chapter two. Now seems to be the time. I’ve actually finished it at this writing. I found it gave me some helpful tracks to run on in evaluating how well we’ve done at OGC in becoming a “comeback church.” Stetzer and Dodson admit they start with a fundamental presupposition:

The wrong question is whether your church is “traditional” or “contemporary” and which is better. The real issue is whether your church is biblically faithful, acting as the presence of Christ in the community at large, able to relate Christ to people in culture, and is on mission. In short, is your church “missional” (p. 4)?

I pushed back in my reading at those places that smelled a bit overly pragmatic and church-growth-movement oriented, but all in all I sensed the Lord spoke to me through it. Some concrete ideas for planning, particularly related to outreach to our community, developed as a result.

I have often said that 2010 would mark the point at which I would step back and take a hard look at how we’ve done with Operation Nehemiah – Rebuilding the Walls at OGC. I find myself grateful to God here in Idaho for many ways God has worked over the last seven years in Orlando. But I sense no release at all from the Lord in terms of the rebuilding process until we accomplish, by His grace, two more things: building a facility and getting more thoroughly on mission.

Only one in ten churches in the US grows due to conversion. That makes this second remaining objective more daunting to me than the first. God must give the growth, but we must get better at sowing and watering the seed and I need to help lead us there.

May God give us grace and help to turn our eyes outward more consistently to the lost while remaining devoted to building up one another in our most holy faith.

And that’s what this citified FL pastor is doing in an Idaho wilderness place like this.