How To Be the Church When the Pastor Can’t Be the Pastor

 

Just Jawful

Ever since my jaw fracture forced me to the pastoral sidelines, I’ve given some thought to this question. How can a pastor’s extended absence from his church result in their greater good? In hopes the saints at OGC might actually thrive, not just survive, my health hiatus, I offer these Scripture verses as essential principles for being the church when the pastor can’t be the pastor:

  1. Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases (Psalm 115:3). Stay anchored in the sovereignty of God. My mandible misery is no accident. His plan for His church to soldier on for the time being without me is precisely that–His plan.
  2. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28). This season–8 hour surgery, week-long hospital stay, and all the rest of it–abounds with good in it for me, my bride, as well as my church. For example, some things God can only do in his servant by laying him out. He can get your attention on the bench in ways you never realize in the game. The benefits of the trial accumulate by the day for me. Keep your eyes open similarly for yourself.
  3. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls (1 Pet. 2:25). Just like I remind everybody on day one of each Discover OGC membership class–I am NOT the senior pastor; Jesus is. Only one pastor holds the title “Chief Shepherd.” And He has promised never to leave us or forsake us. Church, you always have Jesus.
  4. So I exhort the elders among you (1 Pet. 5:1a, emphasis added). This balances number 3. God does give to His church pastors and teachers to shepherd them (1 Pet. 5:2-3). Sometimes we need Jesus with skin on. But in wisdom He rests the pastoral load on a plurality of elders. You almost always find the word in the plural form in the New Testament. No church benefits by relying excessively on one leader. God has plans through my leave both to grow our other elders in their ministries and increase your legitimate reliance on their pastoral role in your life.
  5. And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ (Eph. 4:11-12). This piggybacks on number 4. Pastors don’t exist just to tend the saints’ spiritual needs; they have a calling to equip the saints for spiritual ministry. Church, the body of OGC needs every single one of you more than ever! Are you in the game or riding the pines on the sideline (assuming you have a choice)? Where are you bringing your spiritual gift(s) to bear on others in community (1 Pet. 4:10-11)? When you see a need in the body, are you asking the Lord how you possibly might be the one to meet it?
  6. For I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance (Phil. 1:19). I can think of no better place to end. My circumstances differ from Paul’s to be sure. But my need for your prayers and Jesus’ help doesn’t. May our heightened sense of need in this hard providence at the outset of 2016 cause us to seek His face like never before.

Lord willing, Jesus plans to restore me to the work at Orlando Grace before too long.

I look forward to coming back with a better-than-ever jaw and church to go with it. And that largely because you have been the church when this pastor could not be your pastor.

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.

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.

Birthday Burnings and Pleas for Mercy

Josh and Me (2)

Josh,

You would have turned 37 today. Mom and I may not have necessarily enjoyed the pleasure of your company this very day. You would likely have pulled a double at the restaurant. But we would have caught up with you on your day off, maybe even watched the Super Bowl this Sunday, played perhaps with properly inflated balls.

I would grill you a ribeye, medium rare, just as you liked it. Mom would have baked you one of those killer “Black Magic” cakes – a Heff birthday tradition. We would have sipped a Zin brought by you purchased inevitably above my pastoral price point. And the preacher in Ecclesiastes 2:24-25 would have smiled upon us: “There is nothing better for a person than he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?”

But you are gone. I miss you.

Love,

Dad

Those horrible words sink in yet another heart-stabbingly relentless time. Just when I thought I survived January 18, the 28th brings another of grief”s battering waves.

Once again, where does a grieving father turn? He goes to His father above. And He never disappoints.

There this miserable-memory morning I read these words from another familiar-with-suffering servant:

Job gives utterance to a mood which is not foreign to us when he says, “Am I a sea, or a whale, that You set a guard over me?” In certain moods of anguish the human heart says to God, “I wish You would leave me alone; why should I be used for things which have no appeal to me?” In the Christian life we are not being used for our own designs at all, but for the fulfillment of the prayer of Jesus Christ. He has prayed that we baffled-to-fight-bettermight be “one with Him as He is one with the Father”; consequently God is concerned only about that one thing, and He never says “By your leave.” Whether we like it or not, God will burn us in His fire until we are as pure as He is, and it is during the process that we cry, as Job did, “I wish You would leave me alone.” God is the only Being who can afford to be misunderstood; we cannot, Job could not, but God can. If we are misunderstood we “get about” the man as soon as we can. St. Augustine prayed, “O Lord, deliver me from this lust of always vindicating myself.” God never vindicates Himself, He deliberately stands aside and lets all sorts of slanders heap on Him, yet He is not in any hurry. We have the idea that prosperity, or happiness, or morality, is the end of a man’s existence; according to the Bible it is something else, “to glorify God and enjoy Him for ever.” When a man is right with God, God puts His honor in that man’s keeping. Job was one of those in whom God staked His honor, and it was during the process of His inexplicable ways that Job makes his appeal for mercy, and yet all through there comes out his implicit confidence in God. “And blessed is he, who is not offended because of Me,” said Our Lord (Oswald Chambers, Baffled to Fight Better: Job and the Problem of Suffering, Discovery House, 1990, p. 41-42, emphasis added).

I’m not a 21st century Job. Not even close. But I do need mercy. Thus I appeal.

Sovereign God, if I belong to that privileged company “Guardians of Your Honor,” and I believe I do, only by grace, then burn away as You please. But have mercy on me for I am but a sinful, grieving man dealing with this birthday’s burnings. I admit it. I sometimes wish you would leave me alone. But not so much that I entertain offense at my Savior and abandon my implicit confidence in You.

Something I’ll Never Say Again

never-again

Never say never. We all know the proverb. I, for one, hereby defy conventional wisdom. I will never say something again as long as I live.

“I can’t imagine anything harder.”

Why? Because every time I do something new comes down the pike that redefines hardness for me.

I said it when I broke free from the authority-cult like church I belonged to as a young follower of Jesus.

Then I had to quit my first church pastoral assignment due to chronic fatigue. That was harder. Couldn’t imagine anything more difficult. Wrong.

For reasons far too complicated to unpack, I resigned from the only church plant I ever founded back in 1998. We left Central Florida for Idaho. No way anything would be tougher than that. Guess again.

Head and neck cancer in 2005. Surgery, radiation, chemo. May I quote my medical oncologist? “We sent you to hell and back to save your life.” Indeed they did. What a miserable year. Hard, harder, hardest. Uh, not so fast.

“Josh is dead.” Six days from now will mark the one year anniversary of our great loss. Every day lately I find myself thinking something like this: one year ago today my son had a week left to live, ___________ days. It’s excruciating counting down the days to remembering the worst possible news. Or was it?

My bride with ovarian cancer. You’re kidding? It’s not possible. I don’t believe is. Oh, yes it it. You’d better believe it.

I give in. This is easily the hardest yet. Hardness to the nth degree. Uncle. I give in. I’ll never say it again. I don’t even want to imagine something harder than this baffling turn of events.

Alright, now that I’ve vented my lament, what is this man, husband, father, pastor, follower of Jesus to do? I have only one answer. It has always been the answer and it will forever remain the answer by God’s grace.

“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1).

How grateful I am today to have come across this Puritan prayer entitled simply “Refuge.” It corrals my runaway thoughts and emotions to send them heavenward:

O Lord, Whose power is infinite and wisdom infallible, order things that they may neither hinder, nor discourage me, nor prove obstacles to the progress of Your cause. Stand between me and all strife, that no evil befall, no sin corrupt my gifts, zeal, attainments. May I follow duty and not any foolish devicegod-is-my-refuge of my own. Permit me not to labour at work which You will not bless, that I may serve You without disgrace or debt. Let me dwell in Your most secret place under Your shadow, where is safe impenetrable protection from the arrow that flies by day, the pestilence that walks in darkness, the strife of tongues, the malice of ill-will, the hurt of unkind talk, the snares of company, the perils of youth, the temptations of middle life, the mournings of old age, the fear of death. I am entirely dependent upon You for support, counsel, consolation. Uphold me by Your free Spirit, and may I not think it enough to be preserved from falling, but may I always go forward, always abounding in the work You give me to do. Strengthen me by Your Spirit in my inner self for every purpose of my Christian life. All my jewels I give to the shadow of the safety that is in You—my name anew in Christ, my body, soul, talents, character, my success, wife, children, friends, work, my present, my future, my end. Take them, they are Yours, and I am Yours, now and for ever.

Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.

Grace Active

My grace is sufficient for you

Tomorrow I have the privilege of speaking at Reformed Seminary Orlando during chapel. My text is 2 Corinthians 12:7-10. The title of the message is “The All-Sufficiency of Christ in the Midst of Trials.” I hope to convince those who listen that Jesus is enough, even through things like head and neck cancer and the loss of your first born.

I hope to conclude with this prayer:

Grace Active

Lord Jesus, Great High Priest,

You have opened a new and living way by which a fallen creature can approach you with acceptance. Help me to contemplate the dignity of your Person, the perfectness of your sacrifice, the effectiveness of your intercession.

O what blessedness accompanies devotion, when under all the trials that weary me, the cares that corrode me, the fears that disturb me, the infirmities that oppress me, I can come to you in my need and feel peace beyond understanding!

The grace that restores is necessary to preserve, lead, guard, supply, help me. And here your saints encourage my hope; they were once poor and are now rich, bound and are now free, tried and now are victorious.

Every new duty calls for more grace than I now possess, but not more than is found in you, the divine Treasury in whom all fullness dwells. To you I repair for grace upon grace, until every void made by sin be replenished and I am filled with all your fullness. May my desires be enlarged and my hopes be emboldened, that I may honor you by my entire dependency and the greatness of my expectation.

Be with me, and prepare me for all the smiles of prosperity, the frowns of adversity, the losses of substance, the death of friends, the days of darkness, the changes of life, and the last great change of all.

May I find your grace sufficient for all my needs.

“Grace Active, in The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers & Devotions, ed. Arthur Bennett (Edingburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust), 214-215.

Can’t say it/pray it any better than that.

Toughest School Ever (5)

Perhaps the most obvious reason why Christ’s school of contentment ranks as the toughest curriculum on the planet is the fact that it is a mysterious school.

Consider these words by Paul in Philippians 4:12 – I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need (emphasis mine).

The Greek verb translated I have learned the secret appears only here in the New Testament. That means we have to go outside the Bible into the literature of the first century to make some sense of what Paul means when he says this. The word is a cultic term that was used for describing the process of being initiated into various spiritual mysteries. Paul may have used it with irony in that frankly he discovered the secret of contentment within the mundane experiences of daily life, as opposed to some super-secret realities, whether plenty or hunger, abundance or need.

So what exactly makes Jesus’ school of contentment mysterious or secretive? I think we can point to at least two factors.

First, true Christian contentment consists of a paradoxical blend of rejoicing and sorrow. Contented believers have learned how to make a mixture of the gracious sweet and gracious sour of life together. This is indeed a mystery. The world doesn’t get it. Paul said it well elsewhere in 2 Corinthians 6:10 – as sorrowful yet always rejoicing.

I learned something about this paradox/mystery in 2005 with my head-and-neck cancer experience. Surgery, radiation, chemo, nausea, vomiting, hospitals, tests, doctors, shots, pain, for the better part of the year, plundered me over and over again with a sorrow unlike anything I ever experienced before. However, beneath the river of sorrow ran a current of joy that I can only chalk up to a consideration of things spiritually that made rejoicing in my blessings in Christ as superior to any physical suffering I endured. And that kind of thinking, if anything, is mysterious indeed.

I like how my Puritan friend put it (big surprise by now):

It may be said of one who is contented in a Christian way that he is the most contented man in the world, and yet the most unsatisfied man in the world; these two together must needs be mysterious. I say, a contented man, just as he is the most contented, so he is the most unsatisfied man in the world. You never learned the mystery of contentment unless it may be said of you that, just as you are the most contented man, so you are also the most unsatisfied man in the world. You will say, ‘How is that?’ A man who has learned the art of contentment is the most contented with any low condition that he has in the world, and yet he cannot be satisfied with the enjoyment of all the world. He is contented if he has but a crust, but bread and water, that is, if God disposes of him, for the things of the world, to have but bread and water for his present condition, he can be satisfied with God’s disposal in that; yet if God should give unto him Kingdoms and Empires, all the world to rule, if he should give it him for his portion, he would not be satisfied with that. Here is the mystery of it: though his heart is so enlarged that the enjoyment of all the world and ten thousand worlds cannot satisfy him for his portion; yet he has a heart quieted under God’s disposal, if he gives him but bread and water. To join these two together must needs be a great art and mystery.

No kidding. I’m not exactly sure what would be the plenty standing opposite to my want of cancer. But either way, abundance or need, I want to learn the secret – to be the most contented person is to be the most unsatisfied.

More on this mysterious school in my next post, Lord willing. And with that I will try to be content.

A Different Kind of Thanksgiving

Several years ago we had Gary Witherall of Operation Mobilization come to OGC and share his testimony of loss in the martyrdom of his wife in Beirut, Lebanon back in 2002. I received this from him earlier last week as a testimony of how the Lord may grace us to be sorrowful yet always rejoicing (2 Cor. 6:10). I offer it as an encouragement to those whose Thanksgiving weekend knows that paradoxical blend of gratitude and grief.

I am sitting at a Starbucks on Hamra Street in West Beirut. A famous little road full of little shops, honking cars, and people making business, sitting, watching, sipping coffee and checking cell phones. It’s a little unknown area of the world. It’s a wonderful place, yet only the bad stuff makes the news, bombing, killing, rocket attacks, or some militant group showing force. It was on this piece of land that I first came in January 2001, and my life would never be the same again. On November 21st 2002 in Sidon, Bonnie’s life was brutally taken by an unknown gunman.

A few weeks ago I went with Bonnie’s parents to the grave. The first time I have returned to a place that has caused me torment. I stood there with her mother and father, quietly, in the cold looking at the ground where her body was laid. I thought for the first time, ‘ok Lord, I’m ok with this.’

When I think about you now reading this, in the deepest place of my soul, I can say, ‘Thou art worthy.’

Is it safe to follow Jesus. The answer is no. Denying self, carrying a cross, laying down your life. No, it’s not safe, that is the daily reality for many who carry the name of Christian. But we have been called to go, to declare the hope of salvation in Jesus. And I stand confident in this. So I ask believers everywhere to join me in prayer, to give and perhaps even go to these nations that are grieving from conflict, suffering and hatred. And may His Kingdom come.

Hebrews 6:19 “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.”

Thank you for investing in us, and for His Kingdom, Gary Witherall

Beirut, Lebanon
November 19th 2012