PastorJohnsBlog.com

A Stroll At Leisure With God

The Long View

“All the way my Savior leads me,
What have I to ask beside?
Can I doubt His tender mercy,
Who through life has been my guide?” (“All the Way My Savior Leads Me,” BH 2008, 474).

This hymn came to mind as I read the sixteenth chapter of Ezekiel today. All I can say is, “Wow.” If you want a God perspective of the history of Israel and every man, read this chapter.

This is a prequel of the parable of the lost son, but it carries that story even further. This is the story of a Father who becomes a Husband! This would be considered perversion in the human realm, but it is called REDEMPTION in God’s.

Let me explain. The story in Ezekiel begins with the Lord find an abandoned baby in a field, its umbilical cord not cut. He commanded the baby to live, and the child did. And she grew up.

Then, as the Lord passed by again, He saw that child who had matured into a woman still in the field, abandoned and naked—STILL. So, the Lord married her! He took her into His home, giving her the best of clothing and food. And the couple goes off into the sunset, happily ever after, right?

Wrong.

This same woman turned into a prostitute and followed every god who came down the pike! And she used what her Husband had given her, including children, in the worship of these false gods! Outrageous!

Here is the broken heart of God: "In all your years of adultery and detestable sin, you have not once remembered the days long ago when you lay naked in a field, kicking about in your own blood" (Ezekiel 16:22 NLT).

This is a very graphic and moving section. I just can’t get over it.

I wonder how I do this very thing in my relationship with the Lord. The Lord blesses me with something and I turn it around and worship it OR use it in the worship of a false god.

I need to spend some time with the Lord on this today.

"My child, don’t lose sight of common sense and discernment. Hang on to them, for they will refresh your soul. They are like jewels on a necklace. They keep you safe on your way, and your feet will not stumble" (Proverbs 3:21-23 NLT).

Lord, sitting here right now on a Sunday morning, getting ready for another busy day, I just want to pause to sit at your feet and WORSHIP. First of all, I thank you for being my heavenly Father who rescued me from abandonment. This is the true picture of what sin does. It leaves us lying on the ground in a field literally all by ourselves.

Thank you also that you are my Husband. You married me and took me off the street. Everything I am and have is a result of my marriage to you, Glorious Groom.

Give me common sense and discernment. Help me never to lose track of the long view, not only of my life but also of human history. Amen.
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Another "Take" on John 15

I have to laugh when I use that word “take” in this way. Everyone has a “take” (which I guess is defined as an opinion or a perspective) on just about everything.

For example, Denver Bronco wide receiver Eric Decker is a spokesman for a jeweler here in town. In a commercial, he states, “Here is my take on jewelers: you don’t need one until you need one.” Ha. What on earth does THAT really mean?

Well, as I read the very short fifteenth chapter of Ezekiel, my mind jumped immediately to what Jesus said about the vine and the branches in John 15.

But the truth is (and of course, Jesus came up with this analogy from the beginning since He inspired scripture): John 15 is really a “take” on a very common Old Testament metaphor. A very prominent place where it comes out is Isaiah five—where Israel is depicted as a vineyard. And God is the caretaker. And after doing everything He can do, it still did not produce fruit, so He asks this poignant question: “What more could I have done for my vineyard that I have not already done?” (Isaiah 5:4, NLT)

What a tragedy!

The passage for today is equally tragic. At the beginning of the chapter, the Lord asks a question about the relative usefulness of vines as compared to trees. The latter makes good material for household items like pegs to hang up pots and pans; the former does not. It is only good for fuel, but even then, it burns too quickly.

Then, the Lord goes on to extend the comparison: "And this is what the Sovereign LORD says: The people of Jerusalem are like grapevines growing among the trees of the forest. Since they are useless, I have thrown them on the fire to be burned. And I will see to it that if they escape from one fire, they will fall into another. When I turn against them, you will know that I am the LORD. And I will make the land desolate because my people have been unfaithful to me. I, the Sovereign LORD, have spoken!” (Ezekiel 15:6-8 NLT)

Once again, in one way or another, Israel the vine has failed to produce. God calls them “useless.”

Could there be any more stinging indictment than that? Is there anything more pointless that vines taking up space in a forest? Because they are useless, God says that He is going to turn His back.

In other words (and I don’t want to get into the whole God’s sovereignty/human responsibility debate at this point), when we reject the Lord we demonstrate that the Lord rejects us. Of course, this is NEVER final until God says it is. We have multiple chances to repent, and if we do, it is all well and good. If not, …

Back to John 15—again, what an amazing passage. With Isaiah 5 and Ezekiel 15 among many other passages as a background, Jesus tells His disciples that He is the vine! Jesus stepped in to take over a history of failure and usefulness to be what neither Israel nor we could become on our own—a fruit-bearing branch is God’s garden.

We make very poor vines; but we have the potential when we are attached to THE VINE to make very good branches. But we can’t even take credit for THAT, of course. He does it.

This morning, I identify that I want to be fruitful and useful to the Master as long as He gives me breath—even on my deathbed, I want to be a witness for Him.

I was so encouraged yesterday to get a good example of fruitfulness. I know people in our church care about what goes on. I know that, but sometimes, I think that no one really ever gives much thought to what goes on in the way of ministry.

Yesterday, I was at the doctor with my mom and sister. We had taken my mom in for a routine appointment. I’m so thankful that she seems to be doing better and better, by the way. The appointment got a little elongated because the doctor had to give her a tetanus shot. One of our cats bit her the other day and as it turns out, the wound has become infected. It is actually a pretty big deal. Please pray for her in this regard.

Anyway, as I was waiting, my phone rang. It was Lettie. She said, “Pastor John, I just have a couple of thoughts about our preschool ministry I wanted to share with you.” Huh? Here it is a Friday afternoon. I’m certainly not thinking about ministry or at least trying not to on my day off. But Lettie is.

We visited a bit. I thanked her for her very good ideas. She told me that they had been on her heart for a while and that she was glad finally to be able to share them. I thanked her.

I needed that call.

I think it is fairly easy for me to believe that people in congregational life, for the most part, only think about the ministry of the church as it affects their own age group and comfort level.

Yesterday proved me wrong. It won’t be the last time.

Lord, I’m thankful that You are vine; I am a part of a branch; and God, You are in charge of the garden. Thank you for stepping in to turn a history of failure into stunning success. This is the story of my life as well. Thank you for taking a failure like me and for using me.

Thank you for Lettie and her phone call yesterday. Encourage her, Lord. Give her a good trip to Colorado Springs this weekend. We will miss her, but I’m glad she can get away.

Father, fill me today with the Holy Spirit so that this branch can produce fruit in your kingdom for your glory.

All in light of the fact that someday, oh! Someday—“The sky shall unfold, preparing His entrance …” (“We Shall Behold Him,” BH 2008, 292). I’m always deeply moved when I hear Sandy Patti sing this song. Amen.
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Noah, Daniel, and Job

In the latter half of Ezekiel fourteen, the Lord outlines his judgment against Israel. There are four aspects to it.

The first is famine. The second is desolation. The third is war. The fourth is a plague.

Now, let me stop right there. Take any one of those phenomena and things would be difficult, but all four? Wow. This amounts to nothing less than what I would call a “quadruple whammy.”

Is God’s purpose to wipe out the entire nation? Nope. The Lord says as much at the end of the chapter. He indicates that there will be survivors and when the Lord allows this occur, then, the Lord says, people will learn about God’s compassion and why He allowed all those disasters.

What is significant to me in this part of the chapter is the refrain that occurs four times. Each time, it is a little different, but basically, the Lord says the same thing, after He enunciates one part of His judgment. I’m going to quote all four refrains.

"Even if Noah, Daniel, and Job were there, their righteousness would save no one but themselves, says the Sovereign LORD.”
“As surely as I live, says the Sovereign LORD, even if those three men were there, they wouldn’t be able to save their own sons or daughters. They alone would be saved, but the land would be made desolate.”
“As surely as I live, says the Sovereign LORD, even if those three men were there, they wouldn’t be able to save their own sons or daughters. They alone would be saved.”
“As surely as I live, says the Sovereign LORD, even if Noah, Daniel, and Job were there, they wouldn’t be able to save their own sons or daughters. They alone would be saved by their righteousness" (Ezekiel 14:14, 16, 18, 20 NLT).

Isn’t that interesting? The Lord names four historical figures—Noah, Daniel, and Job. And He indicates that things are so bad in the land that even intercessory prayer, even prayers coming from all three of these men, would have no effect except to save these men.

And get this: their prayers would not be effective, EVEN IF they prayed for people in their own family!

As I reflect on these statements today, somehow, they are deeply encouraging to me.

My mind gravitates to a verse in the New Testament. I know I have quoted it very often in this blog. Here it is: "Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The urgent request of a righteous person is very powerful in its effect" (James 5:16 HCSB).

Mutual confession in the body of Christ is the context for this awesome statement about the power of intercessory prayer. I believe the two go together hand in hand.

But here is the point: character DOES matter and none of us possesses “righteousness” on our own. So, once we are clothed in the righteousness of Christ (and this involves HIS forgiveness of our sins and OUR confession of sins, not be forgiven, because the blood of Jesus takes care of our sins, past, present, and future, but to keep our relationship with the Lord up to date), then we are in a position to pray to the Lord and prayer has a powerful effect.

These statements about Noah, Daniel, and Job have emboldened me today and encouraged me to amp up my intercession for “issues” in my own life, for the church, and for the nation.

I certainly do not dare compare myself with these three giants in scripture, but, on the other hand, I know the same God they served and Jesus has saved me and I AM the righteousness of God in Christ as 2 Corinthians 5:21 reminds us.

Therefore, I am determined to do more praying and less complaining. My family and I have decided to do the same thing. AND, I’m encouraged about an additional opportunity for prayer that we are starting at church on Sunday mornings. My vision for this is that it will grow into a full-blown service each week. How about that? How about an auditorium filled with folks pouring their hearts out to the Lord on a Sunday morning?

As I dream about this, I am reminded of Andy’s testimony when he went to Brooklyn Tabernacle a few years ago. He had a visit with Pastor Jim Cymbala and then they headed to the service. Now, mind you: this was a Tuesday night! And this huge building was packed out with a standing room only crowd! Was it for some contemporary Christian singer or group? NO! It was for prayer! And it went on for hours!

I can’t imagine how powerful something like that would be, and it would have to be the result of God’s work in the hearts of people.

In our feeble efforts, we try to make prayer as convenient as possible. Something is wrong about that. Some people won’t join others to pray no matter when you have it.

I think we could learn a thing or two from Korean believers. One of my goals is to join them for prayer one morning at 5:00 AM.

Lord, I thank you for the privilege and power of prayer. I thank you for all Jesus did to make it possible for me to pray. “What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer.” Right now, the exact title of the hymn where that quote comes from escapes me. BUT, amen and amen.
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Idols in the Heart, Stumbling Blocks Before the Face

What is dawning on me as I continue to forge ahead in Ezekiel is the pervasive theme of the book. Over and over it surfaces as the prophet confronts every segment of Jewish society: idolatry.

The priests were idol worshipers, even in the temple itself. The “proverbs” the people touted and believed in were idolatrous to the core. The preachers were proclaiming lies. The woman prophets were involved in magic arts and other off-base practices.

Here in chapter fourteen, Zeke has an opportunity to speak with another segment of the population: the elders. They come and sit down before him, ostensibly to hear a word from the Lord, and the Lord blasts them.

"Son of man, these men have set up idols in their hearts and put wicked stumbling blocks before their faces. Should I let them inquire of me at all? Therefore speak to them and tell them, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: When any Israelite sets up idols in his heart and puts a wicked stumbling block before his face and then goes to a prophet, I the LORD will answer him myself in keeping with his great idolatry. I will do this to recapture the hearts of the people of Israel, who have all deserted me for their idols.’ Therefore say to the house of Israel, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Repent! Turn from your idols and renounce all your detestable practices!’” (Ezekiel 14:3-6 NIV84).

Here was their problem: idols in the heart and stumbling blocks before their faces. What specifically was this all about? The Bible is not explicit. Who knows? But I’m glad that the Lord leaves this rather vague.

I think we suffer from exactly the same problem.

Yesterday, I received an email from another pastor in our part of town. His name is Kim. He serves an American Baptist church that is doing some really good work in our community. He referenced the blog of another pastor who serves a Presbyterian church. His name is Ed Black. I went to Ed’s blog and read an entry that concluded with this prayer: “May God give us who are grounded in the grace and truth of God to patiently and lovingly share with others the freedom in Christ that avoids fixation upon the material things of this world” (graced2serve.blogspot.com, accessed September 27, 2012). Ed says it very well.

Like the elders of Israel seated before Ezekiel, we suffer from idols in the heart and our stumbling blocks are our “fixation upon the material things of the world.”

I got to this first-hand yesterday. Okay, I’m going to admit something that puts me right in this camp.

I am an Apple computer freak. I like just about everything that Apple produces—computers (one of which is called an IMac), Ipod, Ipad, and Iphone. First of all, do you see the idolatry even in those names? “I, I, I, and I.” Me, myself, and I.

Second, Apple has become the leading corporation in the United States. I may not be right about this, but I thought I heard that, not long ago, it moved ahead of Exxon to assume that role.

Third, people go crazy for their stuff.

So, yesterday, I had something wrong with my phone. I went to the AT&T store. They told me that they could not fix it. Only Apple can do it. Okay.

So, sitting in my car outside the AT&T store, I tried to make an appointment with the “Genius Bar” at the nearest Apple store. Long story short—all the stores were all booked up in the morning, so I made an appointment at the Flatirons Store in the afternoon, thinking that I could make a visit up that way in the afternoon.

Well, when I got to the Apple store, it was packed out. I mean jammed with people. We are talking the middle of the day on a Wednesday. No one else was in the Flatirons Crossing mall. It seemed as if everyone was in that one store. People were in there buying computers or phones or whatever. Others were receiving training on some device. And still others were there for repairs as I was. It was crazy!

It doesn’t take a genius (no pun intended) to figure out that this is one aspect of our idolatrous culture. In and of themselves, all these gadgets are not morally evil.

But it goes back to how we use them and the place they have in our lives.

As I was sitting there, fully a part of this Apple culture, the Holy Spirit began to speak to me. I wonder if I don’t get just as caught up in all the hysteria as others were in that store yesterday.

I mean, go anywhere where people are, and you see just about everyone who is alone staring into some gadget, mesmerized by what is going on in a gadget, whether it is an Apple product or not. You see people walking along focused on a gadget.

Kelley was telling me the other day about a military base in Texas where her brother goes to give medical treatment. One of the rules at this base is: while walking along, you are not allowed to text people on your phone. Interesting.

I wonder why a military base would make such a rule? I think they have good reason.

Did you hear about the woman who fell headlong into a fountain at a mall because she was texting and not looking where she was going? I heard she turned around and is suing the mall!

I’m afraid something like that would happen to me. I certainly can’t “walk and chew gum”—me, of all people. I readily admit that I can’t multi-task. I can barely “uni-task!” Ha.

But I do it. I hate to admit it but I do.

Really? Are my games or texts or phone calls THAT urgent that I have to walk along or WORSE drive along and fixate on them? Come on!

Is it just so bad that if I have a chance to walk along, can’t I just enjoy the sunshine? Or, if I am seated at a restaurant by myself (and this occurs a lot for me), can’t I just enjoy my meal or talk with someone?

This seems to be a rather light-hearted subject but the more I think about it, the more I realize that it has the potential to be idolatry. Certainly, again, I am speaking in generalities. Not everyone walking along and texting is an idolater. But many are. The potential is there for all of us.

Our idols are not as blatant as those of biblical times, but they are idols nonetheless.

Lord, I thank you for all the ways you keep bringing this crucial issue to mind.

In this technological age in which we live, keep us from idols. Keep me from them. Today.

The choir at UHills sang this song at my dad’s funeral. “Oh, the King is coming, the King is coming! Praise God, He’s coming for me!” (“The King is Coming,” BH 2008, 291). Amen.
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"Musings," Part 2

I don’t want to belabor a point here or “kick a dead horse,” as the old expression goes, but I did have some further thoughts along the lines of yesterday’s post.

First, I want to make something clear: I have no latent yearnings to be in the spotlight or to be “famous” in religious circles. I cannot begin to tell you what a blessing anonymity is. Oh, man. I love “flying under the radar.” And so, in that sense, I am perfectly at ease with where I am and what I am doing.

Second, and here is my main point for today: the same tendency that causes us to elevate pastors to rock star status when things are going well crops up in the form of BLAME when things don’t go well.

Even though many would concur with Veryl Henderson that churches have lifecycles just like any other living organism and death is a natural part of that process, I don’t think they live out that notion in practice when it boils right down to it.

Pastors and people in churches fight to keep a declining congregation on life support. And, in one sense, I understand that. For many of us, we feel that we have spilled blood, literally in some cases, to keep a church going. This is not some remote “job” or civic “club,” ho, hum. This is highly personal and important and evokes extreme emotion.

What I am saying is that when a church starts to decline, it has been my experience that most folks blame the pastor. I have seen this over and over. And when that happens, there is one of two different reactions. If you are in a Southern Baptist Church in East Texas (and I imagine there are many other places in the south where this occurs), then folks band together and force the pastor out.

I mention East Texas because I have several friends who have served churches in that part of the state. And they speak from personal experience or observation.

That is one response. The typical “Colorado” response is just to leave the church and to go to one down the road.

One of the most distressing and painful aspects of my ministry for the past twenty plus years is the frequency with which I have seen this happen, and most of the time, it has been with folks with whom I have had a deep friendship. Something happens, and they immediately turn, ignore all the good in all the years of our previous relationship, and bail on the church. Poof! In a puff of smoke—gone!

As a friend of mine likes to say, “It takes people three years to decide to join a church and three seconds to decide to leave it.”

Of course, I am making general statements here. I am NOT knocking leaving a church completely. Sometimes, it is absolutely necessary for several reasons, but I am talking about a generalized phenomenon. My pastor friends and I on the north side of Denver talk about it all the time. There are literally folks who have been members of each of our congregations over the years. We all know that it is just a matter of time before these people get crossways for some reason and move on to another church.

But ask these folks why they leave and invariably at some point it will relate to the pastor.

Yesterday, I mentioned some pastor who is the last one to leave a congregation. He locks the door of a building as the final person. All of that sounds well and good, but it rarely happens. In fact, I’ve never heard of it. Why? Well, here is another factor in all of this: declining churches take a huge emotional toll on pastors and their families and the few people paddling harder and harder to keep it afloat.

Eventually (and again I am speaking in generalities here), pastors and people get tired, and for one reason or another, move on.

Well, anyway, you catch my drift.

What is the solution to all of this? I was talking with Bob, the Director of Missions for the Mile High Association, yesterday. We had a good time of fellowship. One of the things that came out of that conversation is the burden that it is my responsibility to teach folks in the church I serve about the role of the pastor. On the surface, this appears to be very self-serving. This is probably one of the reasons I haven’t focused on it more over the years. And this is wrong.

Who else is going to talk about this or care about it (let’s be frank) if I don’t? After all, being a pastor is my profession.

Everyone is going ballistic over a blown call at the end of the Packers/Seahawks game the other night. They are speaking with preaching tones about the integrity of the game. Give me a break! It is all about money. It is a crass reality. The owners, all billionaires, want to keep more of their money. The referees want a bigger piece of the pie. And, more importantly, everyone who is betting on games now has a lot more uncertainty because of the refs. Horror of horrors!

Here is my comment: where is the outrage when the integrity of the church is being compromised? How about THAT?

When I am thinking right, I don’t give a flip if anyone ever acknowledges me and asks me to preach at some convention. What I do care about is being a biblical pastor in the fullest sense of the word.

I now have a passion to teach people what a real pastor is and more importantly live that out before them. This involves no pedestals when things go well (and by the way who is the ultimate judge of THAT and upon what is that judgment made. Maybe “well” is a lot of people who are deadwood leaving a church as God, the Gardener, prunes them off the vine—“blessed subtractions”) and no total blame when things aren’t going “well.”

Oh, well, enough of that. I do know this. God cares about his prophets and the truth they preach. And if they don’t, they are in big trouble. The final verses of Ezekiel 13 have to with women prophets: "Now, son of man, speak out against the women who prophesy from their own imaginations. ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am against all your magic charms, which you use to ensnare my people like birds. I will tear them from your arms, setting my people free like birds set free from a cage. I will tear off the magic veils and save my people from your grasp. They will no longer be your victims. Then you will know that I am the LORD. You have discouraged the righteous with your lies, but I didn’t want them to be sad. And you have encouraged the wicked by promising them life, even though they continue in their sins. Because of all this, you will no longer talk of seeing visions that you never saw, nor will you make predictions. For I will rescue my people from your grasp. Then you will know that I am the LORD’” (Ezekiel 13:17, 20-23 NLT).

My mom has always said, “When the women in a culture turn away from God, that society is in REAL trouble.” Amen.

Lord, I thank you for the church with all its faults and foibles. I thank you for the privilege and calling of pastor. I am humbled and deeply honored for this blessing.

I confess that I am struggling with attitudes and behaviors in the church I serve.

Oh, Lord, help me respond in a loving and biblical way. Give me the grace to teach people and show them what a real pastor is all about. Not for any personal glory, but for the integrity of the church and the ministry and the profession to which you have called me. All for you, Jesus. All for you.

“Jesus is coming to earth again—
What if it were today?” (“What If It Were Today,” BH 2008, 290). Oh, come Lord Jesus! May my hand be on the plow when you do! Amen.
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"Musings"

Several months ago, someone emailed me to say, “I enjoy reading your daily musings.” I appreciated the compliment but the word “musings” is a little curious to me. In my rather warped mind, it conjures up a picture of a monk in a monastery staring off into space for hours on end and then dipping his quill into an ink bottle to scratch his words on a piece of parchment, OR something like that.

Well, come to think of it, that isn’t too far off—remove the Roman Catholic part and the parchment. Ha.

This is one of those mornings where I feel the need to be brutally honest, and I am always aware of the fact that I must be careful when I am because I know people are reading this. It isn’t as if I am writing these words in a personal journal that no one will ever see.

I was talking with a sister yesterday who asked me how I was doing. I replied, “Great.” She went on, “Well, reading your blog, I can detect some undertones.” As she said that, this thought crossed my mind, “Undertones? Has it been that subtle? I thought it is fairly obvious.”

I’m usually as subtle as a freight train.

I’m going to come right out and say it: I have grave concerns about the church I serve. There, I said it.

Before I get into some of these musings, I want to preface my comments with these words. Am I encouraged about some of the responses to Vision Day? YES! Do I believe that there is room for God to work and therefore always ground for hope? CERTAINLY. As I share these thoughts and burdens, do I see First Southern as some unique situation on the landscape of churches in the United States of America? NO, NO, NO!

I have many pastor friends. We commiserate all the time. I KNOW beyond a shadow of a doubt that the struggles we are going through are not unique to us.

Have I prefaced things enough? I hope so. Because I don’t feel things are hopeless but like many pastors I am deeply perplexed and concerned.

I just can’t get over the very vivid picture in our service this past Sunday: there was only one person who was not a teenager in our church under the age of thirty! And, if this continues and we don’t address it, then the church I serve won’t exist in a few years.

I have this nightmare of driving by the property of the church in a few years and seeing a 7-11 sitting there. I know the church isn’t a building, but still …

And I just wonder—how many folks in the church really care? I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that some do. Please don’t misunderstand, but the question that is on my heart is: do we have enough folks that care to keep this thing moving until the Lord does something dramatic?

What we need is REVIVAL. Pure and simple. I’ve said this multiple times, but all the greatest plans and visions in the world matter nothing if folks’ hearts are not right.

Otherwise, this church is headed toward decline and disbanding. And, it isn’t dramatic right now. We are still plugging along and again, we are doing well in a LOT of ways. But that is where it is headed.

Several years ago, I attended a church planting conference of some sort. Veryl Henderson was leading it. He is a great guy. At the time, he was director of the church planting division of our State Convention. He now serves in Hawaii as the leader of the state convention there.

Anyway, Veryl made a comment about churches that I have never forgotten. He said, “Every church has a lifecycle, just like every other living organism. Churches are born. They go through childhood and adolescence and adulthood, and then they die. And this is normal and natural.”

Those comments have been very heavily on my heart for the past couple of months. It is hard to escape them.

Is this what is going on with the church I serve?

And if it is, what does one do about it? It is one thing to acknowledge this reality in one’s head, but dealing with it in the heart is another matter. I have poured over 23 years of my life into this congregation. I know that those years and that ministry are not wasted.

Believe me, I know that.

But all the effort in the world cannot stop this 54-year old man—me--from getting older every day. And I know at some point, I am going to die.

The church I serve is 52. And if Veryl is right, and I know he is, then we are headed toward “death” as well. And this is normal and natural.

This was Veryl’s emphasis in the seminar I attended. It was not negative. It was very positive. We need to celebrate the life of a church as it dies just as we celebrate at the death of a believer who has loved and followed the Lord his/her whole life. AND, we need to start or birth NEW CONGREGATIONS.

But back to where I am right now and where First Southern is: what does all of this mean? Well, it comes back to revival. That word literally means “re-life.” God can do anything. He can even reverse the aging process for a church.

In our association, Calvary Baptist Church of Englewood is a primo example of that. This is a church my family joined and we served there for years. It was a church in decline, but recently things turned around. I praise God for this.

To what do I attribute this turn-around? I attribute it to a sovereign act of God.

I don’t know the current pastor of Calvary. I’ve seen him at associational meetings and such. He gets the opportunity to speak and that is well and good. I have nothing against him. I say this to preface my next comments.

But our denomination is very bad at elevating pastors to rock star status. If their church starts to have more numbers and gets to a certain point, then we invite them to speak at meetings and we ask them, “Tell us what you are doing.” And pastors love the spotlight. They love to be acknowledged and recognized and lauded. (I know. I am one, and I love those things too). And then, we have someone stand up and try to make his/her experience someone else’s standard.

Invariably, they say things like, “Well, for us, what we do is just preach the Word and love people and focus on prayer” or whatever. And some of us who are sitting in the audience, listening to that, say, “So are we! Are you kidding?” What about that???”

You know what I would like to hear at some convention? I would like to hear from a pastor who has faithfully served through the lifecycle of a church that died! And as the last person in the church, as the one who locked the door and was the last person to leave, he was still faithful all the way to the end.

I wonder what would happen at the Southern Baptist Convention in the pastor’s conference, if some high official in our denomination, asked a pastor to preach who served a congregation of ten in some rural place? I can just see guys looking at the program. Who is Joe Smith? Where is that town in Arkansas? I’ve never heard of this guy or the town or his church!

In our denomination, no one wants to hear from a guy like THAT. He has failed, in the eyes of many.

Or, how about this? How about a pastor who is seeing amazing numerical growth refusing the spotlight? How about someone being humble enough to acknowledge that if he was a part, a small part, or maybe no part of an amazing work of God? How about a guy saying, “Please don’t put me in the spotlight. I don’t want it. I have no idea why God is blessing the church I serve. Don’t put me up on a pedestal or a platform (same thing). Don’t interview me for the state paper. I don’t want to mess up what the Lord is doing by presuming to take credit or diminish the glory of God.”

Here is where I am in all of this. God chooses the times and places where He wants to work. Some people are there when God does it; others are not. That’s it.

For those that are the “not” category, what do they do? All the clichés and platitudes we like to toss out don’t help a whole lot.

I’m just being honest in my musings.

Lord, I need revival. I want to say that first and foremost. But I pray for revival for the church I serve, and I’m asking for that, not so that I can be acknowledged and recognized for the great guy and awesome leader I am. The truth is I’m not. I’m clueless. I know less about you and the real way you work than ever.

In the meantime, as all of us—all the pastors everywhere, all over the world—serving in declining churches--wait on you, give us the grace just to continue on—to love you passionately and to serve you enthusiastically.

For me, Lord, I’m glad to be in an anonymous place. I couldn’t handle the spotlight even if I had it. You know this. I just want to be found, when all is said and done, to be faithful and available.

Faithful and available.

Amen.
Comments

A Flimsy Wall, Whitewashed

Before I talk about the passage I read this morning, I need to say a few words about “Vision Day.”

First, I have to be honest to say that I was a little disappointed with the attendance yesterday. For some reason, we didn’t have as very many people there. And, I know that folks don’t come to church for a variety of reasons, some legitimate and some not. I certainly understand that, but I have been talking about the day for weeks and trying to encourage folks that it was essential that they be there … Oh, well.

Second, for the most part, those who were there were very positive and enthusiastic. That response certainly encouraged me. My point for the day about vision is that no one is smart enough to cast their own vision for a congregation. The Bible gives us God’s vision and certainly, we interpret and apply it to our own setting, but there is no reinvention of the wheel going on here.

I concluded things with a challenge to pray. Of all the things we do, prayer continues to be at the top of the list. The Lord keeps bringing me back to this priority over and over.

We are starting a Sunday morning prayer gathering before Sunday school. I’m hoping that this will allow more folks to be involved who come early anyway.

What I am learning is that folks who are committed to pray with others will do it at 3:00 AM. Convenience is not an issue with them. Therefore, my sense is that this Sunday morning prayer time will not see any more folks involved than any other corporate prayer opportunity we have offered. And, that is fine. As long as folks pray … This is just another time slot where the opportunity is there to pray with others.

We are going to have a men’s group. I’m going to lead this prayer time. Betty will lead a women’s group. We will see what happens.

Something else we started was a 24-hour prayer ministry. I challenged folks in the church to pick a time slot and make the commitment to pray at that particular time every day. It doesn’t have to be for the full hour—just whatever the Spirit leads them to do. We had four individuals/families sign up.

One of them was Lettie. As she was leaving, she said, “Pastor John, are we confining this 24-hour ministry just to our church? Why don’t we get other churches involved?” Okey dokey. What a fantastic idea!

One of my goals this week is just to call some other churches on the north side and see if I can make contact with the prayer network in these churches and challenge them to join us. Excellent, God-inspired idea, Lettie!

Third, I want to share a little about where we are with the organ. After wrestling in prayer about it for a few weeks, I finally decided that we needed to vote as a church about what to do with it. As I said yesterday, I like organ music. I think it adds a lot to worship, but the fact is that for us, we just don’t use it all that often. I finally came to the conclusion that at the root, this is a stewardship issue. If we are going to have an organ, we need to use it. If not, then we need to decide what to do with it.

We do have a man in our church, Jack, who does play the organ. He and I talked yesterday. We will see what can be worked out there.

One challenge we face with it is that I am not sure we can hook it into our current sound system. This is a huge issue in my mind. I’m going to have to have the company who installed our new system come and check on that.

What is the bottom line with all of this? We are still in process. But this decision is up to the church as a whole and we will go from there. Either way, I’m fine. I just said this to the church, “We just need to make a decision one way or the other and MOVE ON.” We have bigger fish to fry than allow ourselves to be mired in a controversy over a musical instrument.

It will be interesting to see how the Lord leads. Stay tuned.

Well, I could say a lot more, but I want to get to the passage for today. In chapter thirteen of Ezekiel, the Lord points to the false prophets of the land. Now, let me stop right there. There seems to be a very logical progression again. It dovetails with the previous chapter about proverbs. The message of false prophets is just another avenue that feeds unbelief and idolatry.

This is why the indictment against it is so strong, not only here in the book of Ezekiel but also throughout scripture. God promises judgment against them. And He goes on to explain why, in very graphic terms: "This will happen because these evil prophets deceive my people by saying, ‘All is peaceful’ when there is no peace at all! It’s as if the people have built a flimsy wall, and these prophets are trying to reinforce it by covering it with whitewash! Tell these whitewashers that their wall will soon fall down. A heavy rainstorm will undermine it; great hailstones and mighty winds will knock it down. And when the wall falls, the people will cry out, ‘What happened to your whitewash?’ Therefore, this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I will sweep away your whitewashed wall with a storm of indignation, with a great flood of anger, and with hailstones of fury. I will break down your wall right to its foundation, and when it falls, it will crush you. Then you will know that I am the LORD" (Ezekiel 13:10-14 NLT).

The people have built a flimsy wall and the false prophets have added a coat of whitewash to it. All the whitewash does is mask how unstable the wall is. That’s it.

This passage brings to mind the words of Jesus at the end of the Sermon on the Mount: "Anyone who listens to my teaching and follows it is wise, like a person who builds a house on solid rock. Though the rain comes in torrents and the floodwaters rise and the winds beat against that house, it won’t collapse because it is built on bedrock. But anyone who hears my teaching and doesn’t obey it is foolish, like a person who builds a house on sand. When the rains and floods come and the winds beat against that house, it will collapse with a mighty crash” (Matthew 7:24-27 NLT).

The contrast is stark: if I listen to God’s Word—the truth—and allow it into my life, essentially what I am doing is laying a wall underground! I don’t know a lot about home construction, but I do know that foundations are absolutely crucial. Jesus is challenging people to lay the proper foundation in life—obedience to the Word of God. Then, when the storms come, the house stands because it is built on a “rock.” The Rock.

If I don’t do that, then I am building my life above ground. It is a flimsy wall, and I am trying to reinforce it by looking for messages that serve only as whitewash. It is smoke and mirrors. It is a cover-up. Someday, when a crisis comes, my little whitewashed, flimsy fantasy world will crumble.

Lord, thank you again for a reminder of the desperate plight of folks who do not know you. Their lives are flimsy walls and the messages of false prophets only mask that flimsiness.

Help me, Lord, to obey you today. Help me to preach and live the truth. Help our church to focus on sharing the truth with a lost and dying world.

Make us, Lord, more than ever before, “a house of prayer for all nations.”

“And though these are days of great trials, of famine and darkness and sword,
Still we are the voice in the desert crying, ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord’” (“Days of Elijah,” BH 2008, 289). Amen.
Comments

Idols and Proverbs; Proverbs and Worship

I’m not talking about the biblical book of Proverbs here. I’m using the word in the way the passage in Ezekiel uses it. This is no formal definition, but I would characterize a proverb as a statement about something that is generally considered to be true.

Every culture has them. We certainly do here in 21st Century America. Are you kidding me?

How about this one? “God helps those who help themselves.” I bet if you polled the average man on the street (and tragically, maybe even the average church goer), and asked him or her, “Is this statement in the Bible?” Most would say, “Yes, of course.”

The other day, the man who was going through treatments for pancreatic cancer—Doug—gave me another proverb, “One day at a time.” Now, I want to hasten to say that this one has some biblical overtones and is the title of a great song, BUT pulled out of its biblical moorings, this statement is just a bit of pop culture drivel.

Here is another one I’ve heard Christians use: “Time heals all wounds.” This certainly isn’t true, and all you have to do is spend some time talking with folks in a pastor’s office to debunk this “proverb.”

But I think you catch my drift. We could probably list dozens more. These statements reflect common beliefs and some of them run deep in the lives of people who don’t know the Lord and Christians who don’t know their Bible.

So, how does one come to realize the folly of a cultural proverb that he or she believes? Well, I would say that these false beliefs are not easily changed. It takes a severe crisis.

“Idols and proverbs die hard.” This might be a statement that summarizes the first twelve chapters of Ezekiel fairly well.

Ha—I’m not trying to give you another proverb!

But doesn’t it make sense that those two things—idol and proverbs—go together. A false god is “supported” (if I can say it that way) through false beliefs. If I have a false belief, then false statements come out of my mouth. Faith and speech go hand in hand. This is true for genuine faith as well. Sounds like Romans 10:9-10, right?

Therefore, it makes sense that as the Lord addressed the idolatrous worship of the people, He also addressed “proverbs.” Notice these statements in the last few verses of chapter twelve: "Tell the people, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I will put an end to this proverb, and you will soon stop quoting it.’ Now give them this new proverb to replace the old one: ‘The time has come for every prophecy to be fulfilled!’ There will be no more false visions and flattering predictions in Israel. For I am the LORD! If I say it, it will happen. There will be no more delays, you rebels of Israel. I will fulfill my threat of destruction in your own lifetime. I, the Sovereign LORD, have spoken! Then this message came to me from the LORD: ‘Son of man, the people of Israel are saying, “He’s talking about the distant future. His visions won’t come true for a long, long time.” Therefore, tell them, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: No more delay! I will now do everything I have threatened. I, the Sovereign LORD, have spoken!’” (Ezekiel 12:23-28 NLT)

Again, as the exiles sat near the River Kebar in Babylon, they had plenty of time to reflect back on what got off track in their lives. The Lord is doing “replacement therapy” here. As far as I know, this is no formal term. I just made it up!

The Lord is replacing two cultural proverbs (that are in fact WRONG) with truthful proverbs.

I believe that this whole process works in reverse as well. Once I start speaking truth and believing it, then I am on the track to getting right in my worship of the One and Only God. This is what happens when I memorize and quote scripture.

But, back to my statements: I’ve discovered that the Lord does hold me accountable for offhand statements and comments I make about Him. Have you had this experience yet?

It is deeply convicting. I’ll tell you one right here and now. I was talking to Doug about this one the other day. After my dad died of cancer, I developed a personal proverb: “If I ever get cancer, I will refuse to take chemotherapy. Nope not going to do it. It won’t help anyway.”

Well, once I was diagnosed, heard about the treatment procedure, and consented to do it (readily and willingly), those words came back to me.

And I tell you, there is no way I was NOT going to do anything and everything the doctor asked me to do, including stand on my head in a bucket of water. Thankfully, I haven’t had to do that YET, but mark it down, I will if asked!

Lord, I’m thankful that you are in the business of changing false belief and statements into true beliefs and statements.

May everything I say and everything I believe line up with you as the One and Only God.

I pray that I would genuine believe everything I read in your Word, everything I sing (as long as it lines up with your Word), and everything you say in your Word always. Always.

I give you this Vision Day service today. Again, I pray that all of us would line up in worship, beliefs, and statements with you. Today is NOT about my vision. Heaven help us! Make it all about YOUR VISION.

“Living He loved me; dying, He saved me;
Buried, He carried my sins far away;
Rising, He justified freely forever;
One day He’s coming—O glorious day!” (“One Day,” BH 2008, 288). Amen.
Comments

Live What You Preach

The first verse of chapter twelve gives a rather clear indication that this is another sermon, another message. The first eleven chapters formed a very vivid introduction. They culminated with the vision of the glory leaving the temple and the city of Jerusalem.

In chapter twelve, the Lord gives Zeke further instructions. He is to pack his bags and leave them out in front of his house. Then, at night, the Lord tells him to take those packed bags, dig a hole in the wall of the city, exit the city with a blindfold on, and walk away into the night.

This would be a visible, tangible, and observable message, lived out in front of the people.

Therefore, Zeke did this, and sure enough, the people had questions, and the Lord instructed his prophet: "Explain that your actions are a sign to show what will soon happen to them, for they will be driven into exile as captives" (Ezekiel 12:11 NLT).

In other words, Zeke had to live out his sermon BEFORE he actually preached it.

This little story resonates with me in many ways. Here is what I’ve learned after preaching in the same church for over twenty-three years.

Preaching is more than words. Much, much more.

Not long after I started, I was working on a sermon, and the Holy Spirit stopped me mid-stream. I could not continue my work. “What is it, Lord?” The reply came back. It was one of those messages that was louder than someone speaking to me. “Are you doing what you are telling the congregation to do? Are you living this yourself?”

Gulp.

It is easy to preach to others, of course, but it is much more difficult to live what you preach before and/or after. I’m almost ashamed to say that there are weeks that I go through my preparation and preach the message—I’m on autopilot. And THEN, a couple of days AFTER Sunday, I get a tap on the shoulder, “Ah, John?”

Oh, yes, I need to take heed myself. Right, Lord?

The Lord does not let me get away with an easy oral message until it goes through my heart and life. So, I have no choice, but even if I did, I would still prefer it to a recited, vanilla message.

Anyone can read a script and play the role of “preacher.”

But the best kind of preaching gets filtered. Until then, it sits like coffee grounds in a container, but when you put them in the heart and let God turn on the coffee maker, things begin to percolate and brew and what comes out is something that is useful in life—not just to a congregation, but to a preacher.

Here is the other thing: after all these years of preaching in the same church, I recognize that people can’t possibly remember everything I have said. I DON’T REMEMBER EVERYTHING I HAVE SAID! What makes the lasting impact is the life you lived before folks. THAT is what gets remembered.

The Lord is helping me with this in a rather strange way. I have a ton of sermon tapes in my basement. I worked really hard at making sure all my messages were recorded. My mom helped me with this. She was in charge of the tape ministry in our church for years. She kept meticulous records and filed each one of those cassette tapes. I really appreciated her doing this.

It was important to me because somehow, I felt that if I didn’t keep all those sermons and all those tapes that the message would be lost. I mean, think about it. You stand up to preach. You say some words. The service ends and that is it. That message is “out there” and somehow one wonders, “Did anyone hear or anyone care?” It seems it is gone forever, but at least I have the tape.

Well, as we began to migrate beyond the cassette tape era, ironically, we have been much more haphazard when it comes to recording messages. We even have the capability to video services, and I discovered a whole bunch of these videos on the computer in our sound room, but when I tried to access them, I realized that for one reason or another, there was no audio to these videos! Therefore, many of them are worthless.

Are those messages lost forever? Absolutely not. The Lord led me to preach them. They went out—this is past tense—but they are not lost. Why? Well, the Word is seed and to the extent that people heard and received the Word, it bears fruit in people’s lives, often many years down the road. I may never see that but the Lord knows about it. It is up to Him and those who hear.

That is one thing, but here is another: that message is not past tense. It is not gone because, by God’s grace, I am still around. The Lord still calls me to live out the Word and that obedience confirms the Word.

Ezekiel was asked to live out the message of judgment, to demonstrate it before the people, but when the demonstration was over and he had preached the sermon, he was not done. Even if the Lord had never given him another oral message. He was responsible to live out that sermon the rest of his days.

When a very popular pastor in Waco who served a church all three of my roommates sophomore year at Baylor attended had a moral failure, one of my roommates threw away all the notes he had taken of every sermon he heard. This pastor’s lifestyle had negated his oral messages.

Tomorrow is Vision Day at First Southern. I’m praying that everyone in the congregation, including and especially me, gets a hold of GOD’S vision for our church. The Lord has been pouring this message into my life for years.

Yesterday, I met a man named Doug who is battling pancreatic cancer. One of the first things he said to me was, “The doctors tell me I’m not going to make it.” Duane’s brother Randy just passed away from pancreatic cancer. It is terrible cancer. What makes it worse is that I don’t think Doug knows the Lord like Randy did.

But meeting him yesterday brought back my cancer experiences. I haven’t said this or thought about it for a few weeks, but I need to say it again: I am NOT the same person I was before I was diagnosed. I’m never going to be. This is a huge part of what I am going to share with the church tomorrow. And the main way I hope to share is NOT with words.

Huge. I only pray that people receive the message AND see the life, not for my benefit or glory, but for the Lord.

Lord, I thank you for the LIFE you call me to live and the grace you pour in to enable me to live it. Turn on the coffee maker—let me percolate. Let your message flow out in words but more than that—deeds. And not just deeds—a lifetime.

I pray for Doug. I pray that he comes to know you as His personal Savior and Lord. And, I pray for all the other cancer patients like me on the “list” at church.

Lord, I place Vision Day in your hands. It won’t be just a sermon or words I will be sharing tomorrow. I will be life and blood and sweat and tears and chemo treatments and so much more. But it is all up to you.

“I am not skilled to understand what God has willed, what God has planned;
I only know at His right hand stands One who is my Savior” (“My Savior, My God,” BH 2008, 287). Amen.
Comments

Ralph and June

The first people I saw last night at our annual associational meeting were Ralph and June.

The meeting started with a meal in the gymnasium of Mississippi Avenue Baptist Church. There were three or four long tables that filled the room. Up at the front, two or three more tables contained stacks of Chick Fil-A boxes.

Ralph and June noticed me right off. After grabbing one of the boxes, I made my way over to them.

They each shook my hand and looked me in the eye, “How are you doing?”

I said, “Great. Better than ever. How are you guys?”

Ralph’s expression changed, “Well, I’ve got cancer in one eye.”

What?

After we sat down, I asked him to tell me more. “Well, John, I’ve been getting chemo for my eye about a year. The doctor has said that I am going to take about a three-month break and then they will look at it again. They just want to make sure that it is contained and doesn’t spread any further.”

Whoa. Please pray for Ralph.

I have to give you some background about this brother and his wife. One could say that Ralph is the dean of pastors in Denver. Last night, the Association honored June and him for their service.

Ralph started serving his first church—Central Baptist of Aurora—in 1954. Let me stop right there. That has to be one of the very first SBC churches in the Denver metro area. 1954 isn’t old in some parts of the country when it comes to SBC work. Are you kidding me? But it is for Denver.

He started in 1954 as a bi-vocational pastor who never received a salary from his congregation because he was a schoolteacher in the Denver public schools. I think he was bi-vocational through most, if not all, of his years in the ministry. (I will have to ask him about this).

If my memory serves me correctly from the presentation last night, he led Central to build their first church building for $20,000 and served the church for many years. He was also pastor of First Baptist Church of Aurora on two separate occasions as well as Interim Pastor in a bunch of church in Denver (mainly) but in other parts of Colorado as well.

This is where my connection with Ralph begins. He was interim pastor of First Southern when I started in 1989. He served with distinction. He got our church through some very rough times and prepared the congregation for a new pastor—me. He celebrated with folks in our church when they called me. I can still see the expression on his face that night in the summer of 1989—exuberant joy! He and June have been supporters and encouragers ever since.

Not long after I started, Ralph said something like, “John, I hope that you will look at this church as a place where you can stay a long time.” He spoke with authority and more importantly, with experience. To a greenhorn like me, that meant a lot.

I can’t begin to say how much I respect this brother and his wife. Oh, and one more thing: he and June have been married for sixty-two years!

Ralph and June are polar opposites of the tragedy that was temple worship in Jerusalem prior to the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B. C. The historical books of Kings and Chronicles as well as the prophecy of Jeremiah describe the “outward and visible” stuff that occurred when that city fell to the Babylonians.

Ezekiel, on the other hand, portrays the “invisible (to the unspiritual eye) and spiritual” events. These verses tell the simple and tragic story: "Then the cherubim lifted their wings and rose into the air with their wheels beside them, and the glory of the God of Israel hovered above them. Then the glory of the LORD went up from the city and stopped above the mountain to the east. Afterward the Spirit of God carried me back again to Babylonia, to the people in exile there. And so ended the vision of my visit to Jerusalem. And I told the exiles everything the LORD had shown me" (Ezekiel 11:22-25 NLT).

The glory of God left the temple and the city—how tragic! This was the message Zeke preached to the exiles. So, that is why they were sitting beside a river in Babylon, hundreds of miles from home, wondering what hit them. Humm.

This is what happens when people turn from God to serve idols. This is what happens when people exchange the Glory for false worship.

Back to Ralph and June. When you serve the Lord and follow Him faithfully, the glory is on your face and all over your life—“we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18, NIV84).

Lord, I praise you and thank you for the way you use faithful servants. From the bottom of my heart, I thank for Ralph and June Quisenberry.

I lift Ralph up to you. Heal his eye. Encourage June and him as they continue to follow you.

Lord, may I do the same and may my life be a reflection of your glory.

“For each tomorrow,
For yesterday,
There is a Savior
Who lights our way” (“There is a Savior,” BH 2008, 286). Amen.
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Remember the Bike Ride?

A couple of weeks ago, Calla asked me if I could help her with transportation of the kids on Wednesday night. I was glad to help out.

When I bought my used truck a few years ago, I noticed that it had a couple of removable seats in the back. At first, I thought, “Who needs those?” But, as it turns out, I have needed them on occasion over the years. Last night was a case in point.

Susan and Jay went along with Calla and me. I had the boys in my truck. Calla had the girls in her car. We took them to the Dollar Store so that they could buy some items to put in their Operation Christmas Child boxes. It was a great time. Afterwards, we took the kids over to Krispy Kreme donuts because they had a special give-away: it was Pirate day. They gave a donut to anyone who either wore a Pirate costume or made the Pirate sound, “Argh.”

Well, of course, the kids ate that up—no pun intended. All in all, it was a great evening.

Afterwards, I headed back to my house to remove the back row of seats. As I was doing this, someone pulled up in a car. It was my neighbor, Kay.

I honestly have not seen her for months. Because I have been spending more time at my mom’s helping my mother and sister out, I have not been at my house as much. It is rare for me to see any of my neighbors.

But she pulled up and got out of her car. We had a good, long conversation. I got to know Kay as we worked together on the HOA Board of our townhouse community. She did a great job in that group. She is on the lookout. She sees what is going on and cares about the community.

One of the things she does is make sure that light bulbs are replaced when they burnout. We have light posts at all the entrances to the community. In addition, everyone has light on either side of his/her garage door. These just come on and go off automatically. There is no switch. Kay makes sure everyone’s bulbs are lit and working. This is just one example of how she serves.

Anyway, I have been praying for her over the years. And I continue to do so.

Last night, at one point in the conversation, Kay said, “You know that one of the last things I remember you and I talking about two years ago—before your cancer diagnosis—was the fact that we were going to take a bike ride along with that couple in your church, remember?”

Oh, yes.

What she said hit me like a ton of bricks. And it all came back.

Back in the summer of 2010, the Lord gave me this idea—again, just to network the relationship with her without it being awkward for me to ask this Single woman to go on a bike ride with me.

Several months before the summer of 2010, I had taken a bike ride with James and Anne—a couple in our church. We had a blast. I had the “brainstorm” to ask them to go along. I’m sure they would do it.

Back to the point here: I had totally forgotten about this, but Kay didn’t!

She went on to say that something like that would really help her out. She has a lot on her plate right now and she admitted that a bike ride would be a good outlet.

Okay. What else do I need to hear? This is a wide-open opportunity for the gospel to be shared. Please pray that I take advantage of it. I know James and Anne would be glad to help out.

I guess the conclusion in all of this is that two years ago was not the right time for this. The next few weekends, before the snow flies, are.

Once again, I am reminded that our God is totally in charge of time. He knows the right time and He lets us in on those opportunities. This fact is confirmed as one reads chapter eleven of Ezekiel. The Lord tells His prophet that He is going to send his rebel people into exile because of their idolatry. But then, he makes these statements:

"Therefore, tell the exiles, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Although I have scattered you in the countries of the world, I will be a sanctuary to you during your time in exile. I, the Sovereign LORD, will gather you back from the nations where you have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel once again. When the people return to their homeland, they will remove every trace of their vile images and detestable idols. And I will give them singleness of heart and put a new spirit within them. I will take away their stony, stubborn heart and give them a tender, responsive heart, so they will obey my decrees and regulations. Then they will truly be my people, and I will be their God’” (Ezekiel 11:16-20 NLT).

Even in exile, the Lord promises to be a sanctuary for His people, even as they experience the consequences of their idolatry, the Lord loves them still.

He doesn’t forget people even though they forget about Him.

And, as if that were not enough, when He brings them back to their land after the exile, he permanently cures them of their idol worship. How? Two things: a single heart and a responsive heart. It all goes back to the heart—first and foremost.

Lord, I praise you for being a sanctuary and a heart-changer. Only you can do these two things.

Thank you for being there for me, even in my sin and rebellion.

I confess my perpetual tendency toward making an idol out of anything and everything. Today, once again, help me turn from idols. Give me a single heart and a tender heart for you, and you alone.

I lift up Kay to you. I pray for another opportunity to share your love with her. I pray that this bike ride can happen soon.

I pray for James and Ann also. Bless this couple in our church.

“I have a witness bright and clear,
Since I have been redeemed.
Dispelling every doubt and fear,
Since I have been redeemed” (“Since I Have Been Redeemed,” BH 2008, 284). Amen.
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The "Edge"

Among other meanings, this is a word that is used in football parlance for a blitzing linebacker or a running back who gets outside the defensive pursuit. I sound as if I am an expert, don’t I? Ha.

It is amazing how these types of terms have become mainstream in our culture, and it is all because of the media.

While I am in that neighborhood, I heard yesterday that Steve Sabol, the head of NFL Films passed away. I still have very vivid memories of watching highlights of games as a child and hearing those songs and John Facenda’s (dubbed “the voice of God”) vivid descriptions of the “frozen tundra at Green Bay.” Back then, it was about the only way you could see what happened in other games the past week.

This was before Monday night football and Howard Cosell’s vivid descriptions. I like those as well.

Now, things are radically different of course. I see highlights and descriptions of games ad infinitum, ad nauseum. I can even see film clips of games on my IPad. It is crazy.

This is a memory from childhood, and the more I read about Steve Sabol and his dad, the more amazed I am about what they accomplished.

Anyway, I think NFL Films has made a huge contribution to bringing the ins and outs of football into contemporary culture.

I think the Lord was doing this same thing in chapter eleven of Ezekiel. He was using a religious parlance to teach a very severe lesson. This is something that twenty-five prominent men blurted out in the city of Jerusalem: "Who say, 'The time is not near to build houses. This city is the cauldron, and we are the meat’” (Ezekiel 11:3, ESV).

This is a very egoistical statement, if you stop and think about it. It reminds me of something Reggie Jackson said in 1977 when he arrived in New York to play for the Yankees, “This team, it all flows from me. I’m the straw that stirs the drink” (en.wikipedia.org, accessed September 19, 2012). Like Reggie, these men had a very inflated opinion of themselves.

Yesterday, I was talking with a brother in our church on the phone. We were discussing some issues in the church, and I made a comment like this, “Why is it that people would rather sit on the sidelines and complain rather than actually getting in there and serving God?” If you think about it, that is a danger all of us face the longer we know the Lord and are involved in a church. We move out of the realm of serving, into the realm of “expert.”

I know I have said this before, but I want to continue to serve the Lord as long as I can still breathe. Even if I can’t be active any longer, I pray that I have the wherewithal to spend time praying. Anyone, anywhere can do THAT.

Back to the passage for today—what was the Lord’s response to these men who saw themselves as being the center of the universe? Here is God’s retort: “You shall fall by the sword. I will judge you at the border of Israel, and you shall know that I am the Lord. This city shall not be your cauldron, nor shall you be the meat in the midst of it. I will judge you at the border of Israel, and you shall know that I am the Lord. For you have not walked in my statutes, nor obeyed my rules, but have acted according to the rules of the nations that are around you” (Ezekiel 11:3, 10-12 ESV).

Did you see it? Twice in this passage, the Lord says, “I will judge you at the border of Israel.” In other words, for folks who are consumed with their own self-importance, they get marginalized. History proves that most of the mighty and the best of the land where exiled to Babylon with the city of Jerusalem fell in 586 B. C.

I guess they really weren’t the meat in the soup or the straw in the drink, after all. Go figure.

God determines those things, anyway. Not us.

The upshot of all of this is that for anyone who wants to be in the center (not my ego center, but the will of God) of what God is doing—he or she must be a humble servant of God.

I saw this all the time at church: we shouldn’t go to church so that people can serve us; we should go to serve the Lord and others.

Lord, I’m thankful for your perspective on things. Right here and right now, I humble myself before you. You are supreme in your Lordship and sovereignty. You are the boss.

Teach me what it means to serve you. I’m glad for another opportunity to do that today.

“Since I have been redeemed,
I will glory in my Savior’s name” (“Since I Have Been Redeemed,” BH 2008, 284). Amen.
Comments

The Glory of the Lord Moves Out The Glory of the Lord Moves Out

Since Sunday night, I have had a growing and nagging feeling, but it is more than just that.

I’m not sure I can explain it adequately, but I am going to try.

There was just something about the Brazilian church. There was a very evident and obvious passion for God. There was also an impetus, a sense that the Lord was at work, and it was a group of people that you wanted to be a part of.

It wasn’t just the outward stuff like music and the friendliness of the people. It was a spiritual dynamic.

Before I go further, I want to be very careful. I don’t believe all is lost in the church I serve. I just have concerns, grave concerns.

A gal in our church has picked up on this in my writings and in this blog. I think I have been fairly straightforward in my comments. I certainly have some concerns about the church I serve. I sense an undercurrent of unrest. And sometimes, especially recently, it is has not been an undercurrent. It has come right out in the open.

But here is my point: whatever “it” (or maybe more accurately, “He” is) in the Brazilian church, it is not in the Anglo congregation. It is very difficult for me to write this and say it. But it just isn’t.

I continue to be burdened as we approach Vision Day this coming Sunday. And I have said this to the church more than once over the past couple of weeks, “The greatest visions and the greatest plans in the world mean nothing if we are not right with the Lord.”

“Not right with the Lord” is a very generic term we as preachers toss around a lot, but specifically, what does it mean?

Well, I want to go back to Ezekiel at this point. Over the first ten chapters, I think the prophecy makes explicitly clear what the problem is: idolatry. And not just anywhere—but people were worshiping false gods in the inner sanctum of the temple!

I think this is EXACTLY the problem for us. And before I start pointing fingers, please know that this is an issue about which the Holy Spirit is dealing with me as well. Idols.

Of course, we all recognize and acknowledge the dangers of idolatry on a personal level. And that is bad enough. But this book demonstrates the dangers on a corporate and national level.

In chapter ten, using very vivid imagery, the Lord gives His prophet a vision of the cherubim and the “whirling wheels.” The Lord commands one of the angels to cast some burning coals on the city of Jerusalem. That is a sign of judgment, for sure. But as I read this chapter this morning, I also noticed the movement.

I’m going to quote a verse at the beginning of the chapter and then two more later on: "And the glory of the Lord went up from the cherub to the threshold of the house, and the house was filled with the cloud, and the court was filled with the brightness of the glory of the Lord…. Then the glory of the Lord went out from the threshold of the house, and stood over the cherubim. And the cherubim lifted up their wings and mounted up from the earth before my eyes as they went out, with the wheels beside them. And they stood at the entrance of the east gate of the house of the Lord, and the glory of the God of Israel was over them" (Ezekiel 10:4, 18, 19 ESV).

Did you catch it? The glory of the Lord is moving OUT! Wings and wheels are entities that MOVE! This is very dramatic and extremely significant!

The glory of the Lord is on the way out, and here is the thing: I wonder if anyone even noticed!

What is it about the ritual worship in the temple and worship services today that they very quickly move to what I call “spiritual autopilot.”? We just keep going through the motions and we don’t even think. We don’t even notice. And, if we are careful, we don’t even care.

Here is an example of what I am talking about. This past Sunday, Sam followed the Lord in believer’s baptism in our fellowship. He is a young man who recently gave his life to Jesus. He wanted to take the step of baptism. It was great to see.

Just as a side note—and I don’t think this has EVER happened before—I lowered Sam down in the water, and for one reason or another, I didn’t get him all the way down under the water. I brought him back up, and then I said, in front of everyone, “Sorry, Sam. I didn’t get you all the way in.” Thus, I lowered him down again and got him all the way under! It was superb!

But looking back on that, my heart is grieved because I can’t remember the last time we were able to witness a baptism. Of course, salvation is God’s business. He is the One who saves people, but He uses us as His witnesses.

Does it bother any of us when months and months go by and no one professes Christ or follows Him in baptism? Does it bother any of us when we don’t see the Lord having the freedom to work among His people?

I think that Ezekiel 10 is the equivalent of Romans 1. When we persist in idolatry, the glory of the Lord removes itself, or as Paul puts it three times in Romans 1: “He gave them over” Romans 1:24, 26, 28). Why did/does the Lord do this? Because people “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal men and birds and animals and creeping things” (Romans 1:23, ESV). This is exactly what was going on in Ezekiel’s day!

What am I saying here? Well, both Ezekiel 10 and Romans 1 describe God’s response to idolatry, and I think both of these chapters are a severe warning to the church.

Get right or else!

On a corporate level, as far as the church is concerned, if each of us is worshipping our own little god, then no wonder why the church is divided? No wonder why it seems as if we are slogging through a mud puddle and there is no sense of unity and the movement of the Spirit of God?

This is my burden this morning.

Lord, and I really don’t know how to put it, but I just pray for revival. I pray for a movement of your Holy Spirit that diverts us from idols, calling us to repentance and faith in you. Focus me, focus us, on you—the One and Only God.

If we do this, then vision and direction and unity will take care of themselves.

Do it, Lord. And do it in me.

“I think of my blessed Redeemer,
I think of Him all the day long” (“Redeemed,” BH 2008, 283). Amen.
Comments

The Lord's Discipline and New Generation Church

I don’t think I am going to be able to write as much this morning. I will see. Marilyn and I are going to take my mom’s car into the shop. Our usual custom is to take it in on Sunday night and just leave it overnight. But, because I got home so late last night, we decided just to do it early this morning.

Why did I get home late last night? Well, I had the happy privilege of attending the Brazilian congregation’s services last night. Their service starts at 5:00. And may I just say, “Wow.”

I have no hesitancy in saying that this congregation is on the move. They are the most “happening” group in the Lord’s building right now. No doubt about it.

First, a little background—when they started using space in our building a couple of years ago, Rob (my friend who was on staff in our church at the time) and I attended services on Sunday evening quite frequently. At first, we did it to support this new congregation, but as time went by, we continued to attend because of the encouragement and spiritual food we received. Okay, and plus, this church has a meal every single Sunday after the service, and I will just say it: I love Brazilian food! There, I said it.

As time went on, I was not able to attend as often, but I still made a point of going every now and again. I always left uplifted and encouraged.

When I was diagnosed with cancer a couple of summers ago, I stopped going on Sunday nights. The main reason is that I just have not had the energy to do so. Sundays still take quite a toll on me, but somehow, I felt the need to go last night.

Ilamarques and I were talking earlier in the week. I told him that I was planning to attend Sunday night. His response was immediate, “Great. We would love to have you. Can you share the Word with us?” My initial reply was, “Oh, no, brother. You don’t have to do that. I just want to come.” But he insisted, and as a matter of fact, I felt that the Lord had already laid a message on my heart. I had originally planned to preach it in the English-speaking church, but the Lord had said, “No.” And then and there, I realized why. He wanted me to share it with the Brazilians.

New Generation Christian Community Church is the official name of this congregation. From the start, it was intentionally bi-lingual because there have always been Anglos in this church—spouses of Brazilians.

Last night, the worship time was off the charts. Ilamarques’ wife, her shortened name that I use is “Edgy,” leads worship. The first few songs were in Portuguese. I didn’t understand a word, but the Holy Spirit still ministered to me through them. As the worship time progressed, we sang a couple of songs in English.

Another pastor was there, last night. After the worship time, Ilamarques invited a young woman to share a song. This pastor escorted her to the front. She was blind, but oh man, could she play the piano, and she led us in a song. By then, I was weeping.

I preached my message and Ilamarques translated. He does an excellent job of this because his tone and voice inflections mirror mine exactly.

After the message, Ilamarques asked for testimonies and prayer requests. People shared openly and freely, and then we headed downstairs for a meal and fellowship. I will say more about this later.

I was very tired as I left last night, but I felt energized and encouraged, as I do every time I attend this church. Oh, and by the way, this congregation has grown significantly since the last time I attended. At least three times as many folks as I remember two summers ago. They have grown numerically but more importantly, they have grown spiritually. It is evident. Again, I say, “Wow.”

My comment to my mom and sister last night when I got here was, “All in all, this was a very encouraging weekend—with the End of Summer Outreach on Saturday and this service on Sunday night.” It felt as if the Lord gave me a hug.

I start prayers with “Father” but why is it that I have to be reminded that He really is my Father and even when it gets hard, He is still loving me, as always.

"For the LORD corrects those he loves, just as a father corrects a child in whom he delights. Joyful is the person who finds wisdom, the one who gains understanding" (Proverbs 3:12, 13 NLT).

As I read these verses, I was reminded that the writer to Hebrews in the New Testament quotes them: "And have you forgotten the encouraging words God spoke to you as his children? He said, ‘My child, don’t make light of the LORD’s discipline, and don’t give up when he corrects you. For the LORD disciplines those he loves, and he punishes each one he accepts as his child.’ As you endure this divine discipline, remember that God is treating you as his own children. Who ever heard of a child who is never disciplined by its father? If God doesn’t discipline you as he does all of his children, it means that you are illegitimate and are not really his children at all" (Hebrews 12:5-8 NLT).

Up until last night, I think I have forgotten that I am one of God’s kids and He is disciplining me.

Lord, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for this past weekend. Thank you again for the End of Summer Outreach. Thank you also for the Brazilian Church—New Generation.

Bless Pastor Ilamarques and his wife Edgy and their children Caique, Ulie, and Dalitch (English spellings of his two daughters, proper spelling for his oldest child, his son). I thank you so much for this vibrant congregation. Protect them from the wiles and stratagems of the enemy.

Help me never to forget that you are my Dad, always on the job keeping me in line and straightened out—a full-time job that only you can perform.

This song has been on my mind the past few days:

“Were it not for grace,
I can tell you where I’d be,
Wandering down some lonesome road to nowhere,
With my salvation up to me” (“Were It Not for Grace,” www.lyrics007.com, accessed September 17, 2012). Amen.
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End of Summer Outreach

Calla was worried. I could tell. I told her that it was going to be fine, but I could see that my words didn’t help much. As she so rightly put it, “You can never predict how these things are going to go.” True.

We sent out a thousand postcards to our immediate neighborhood. One lady went to a lot of effort and energy to call the church and tell us that she wanted to be removed from our “mailing list.” Betty handled her call very well. She told the lady that we had no “mailing list,” but just sent it out to the community.

I was amazed that this woman took the time and effort to make that call. I mean, really? I get all kinds of mail all the time, and I just throw away stuff.

We also got the block party trailer from our association.

Things started early yesterday, but we had a great turnout from folks in the church. Everyone was there, and they were excited. We got the two bouncy toys set up. Popcorn machine. Snow cones. Cotton candy. Games. We found our grill, and Calla purchased 200 hotdogs. Hula hoops. Everything you could ever want.

About 9:45, I gathered some folks together, and right out there in the lawn of the church beside our building, we prayed, “Lord, we are doing this for you. We’ve set everything up. Now, we ask you to bring folks.”

He did.

I can’t believe how many folks came by. One lady, who lived just down the street, brought her two daughters. She attends another church, but is not able to go these days because she works on Sundays.

Julie, who volunteers at COFU (the organization that uses our building), invited two of her neighbors to come. They did.

Calla asked some people to stand on the street and wave a placard that said something like, “FREE. Hotdogs, Snow Cones, Candy.” I took my turn as well. At one point, a man pulled up to a stop in the median of Washington Street. He rolled down his window and said, “What is the catch?” I said, “There is none. Come and get a hotdog. So he did.” I watched him as he pulled his white Lexus into our parking lot and went over to the grill. I could see Jim and Patti and Duane visiting with him.

At one point in the day, a woman named Sara approached me. We had a good long talk about her struggles and her concerns for her church. I was a little shocked. She was so open with me. As she walked away, she said, “Thanks for this. I may stop by someday.”

At the end of the day, another lady approached some of us, “Can I get some information about your church?” Oh, yeah. We had nothing available. I ran into the building and found some brochures. I handed one to her and to some other folks.

After the clean up, and just about everyone had left, I gave Calla a high-five, “Good job.” She did do a good job. But the Lord answered prayer, BIG TIME.

It was a huge shot in the arm for me. I can tell you that. And I know the Lord will use it.

Here is the main thing: when folks are ministering, we are all better off.

As you can tell, those of you who read this blog regularly, internal “issues” at our church that have emerged recently have pulled me down a bit. Or, to put it more accurately, I have allowed them to pull me down. The greatest antidote to “inner workings-of-the-church-itis” is sharing Jesus with folks outside the church building!

Just what the doctor ordered.

I love Proverbs chapter three. One of my favorite chapters in the Bible. Notice these the two verses containing commandments, each followed by a very specific promise: "Don’t be impressed with your own wisdom. Instead, fear the LORD and turn away from evil. Then you will have healing for your body and strength for your bones. Honor the LORD with your wealth and with the best part of everything you produce. Then he will fill your barns with grain, and your vats will overflow with good wine" (Proverbs 3:7-10 NLT).

I particularly like the second command in the quote above to honor the Lord “with your wealth and with the best part of everything you produce.” This sums up the message of 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 very nicely, and so does the promise. He “will fill your barns with grain and your vats with good wine.”

Can a Baptist really claim the second part of that verse? Ha.

Lord, thank you SO MUCH for yesterday. Thank you for Calla’s good work. Thank you for all the other folks from our congregation who were there and were happy to be. Thank you for everyone from the community who came by. Several come to mind: Debra and her two daughters, Sara, and Charlie. Many, many more.

Lord, I commit today to you. It will be very busy. Sam is following you in believer’s baptism. Hooray! There is a meeting after our services today. And then, I am preaching in the Brazilian church tonight. I love that congregation and Ilamarques. I pray for the strength to do it.

I pray that fatigue would not affect me today.

“Sing, O sing of my Redeemer,
With His blood He purchased me.
On the cross He sealed my pardon,
Paid the debt and made me free” (“I Will Sing of My Redeemer,” BH 2008, 281). Amen.
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A Branch to the Nose

Before I talk about the passage I read this morning, I want to mention a couple of things. First, I had a great visit with Mickey yesterday. We met the Blackeyed Pea for lunch and were able to catch up on a lot of things. His work with Texas Baptist Men is very interesting.

They do a lot of Experiencing God conferences across the country. That is what they are doing this weekend at Riverside Baptist Church. But they do much more. Mickey told me about the trips he has made to Cuba! That’s right, Cuba! My initial response was, “How did you get into Cuba? I didn’t know they allowed anyone, let alone Americans, into that country?”

I guess they do, especially if you are there actually to help and the government learns this. They go there to work with Christians and churches for all sorts of reasons. Mickey invited me to go with them the next time they travel there. I’m going to have to add Cuba to the list. I owe Pastor Lim a trip to Korea, Pastor Jose a trip to Peru, and Pastor Ilamarques a journey to Brazil.

I think my international travel schedule is rather full, don’t you think? Ha.

The other thing Mickey told me is that Texas Baptist Men, the organization, is working with an individual who has invented a very inexpensive but effective water treatment system. They go into countries like Cuba where no one drinks the water and teach people who to use this system and then talk about Jesus as the Living Water.

It is amazing to me how many places in the world do not have clean drinking water readily available. This is another ministry of Texas Baptist Men.

I’m kind of amazed at all they do. I was under the impression that they just had a couple of barbeques every year and called it good.

Not! I’m glad Mickey is affiliated with this organization. Good for him!

Today, in the parking lot of the church, from 10:00 to 1:00, we are sponsoring an “End of Summer” outreach. We have secured the Block Party Trailer from the Mile High Association. We will have some games and crafts and activities for families. We are hoping that many folks from the community will stop by.

My role today is that of a “floater.” Calla wants me to be available just to flap my mouth with people that stop by. Okay. No problem. Glad to do it.

I am praying that we have opportunities today to share Jesus with folks. We will see what happens.

Now, to the passage for today. The indictments against the idolatrous worship of the people of Israel continue. Once again, the Lord takes his prophet into inner courtyard of the temple, and as he does so, they find twenty-five men, bowing down, facing east, and worshiping the sun. Huh? In the Lord’s Temple? Are you kidding?

What is the Lord’s response to this? "Then he said to me, ‘Have you seen this, O son of man? Is it too light a thing for the house of Judah to commit the abominations that they commit here, that they should fill the land with violence and provoke me still further to anger? Behold, they put the branch to their nose’" (Ezekiel 8:17 ESV).

That final phrase, “they put a branch to their nose,” captured my attention. What on earth is THAT all about? The Amplified Version translates it this way: "Then [the Spirit] said to me, Have you seen this, O son of man? Is it too slight a thing to the house of Judah to commit the abominations which they commit here, that they must fill the land with violence and turn back afresh to provoke Me to anger? And behold, they put the branch to their nose [actually, before their mouths, in superstitious worship]!" (Ezekiel 8:17 AMP) This makes it sound as if this phrase is referring to some type of pagan worship practice. Not sure I buy this.

The New Living Translation puts it, "’Have you seen this, son of man?’ he asked. ‘Is it nothing to the people of Judah that they commit these detestable sins, leading the whole nation into violence, thumbing their noses at me, and provoking my anger?’" (Ezekiel 8:17 NLT) Humm. Okay. I checked one of my online commentaries. Lamar Cooper, in the New American Commentary on Ezekiel, concurs with this view.

Somehow, some way, “a branch to the nose” is an obscene gesture like thumbing one’s nose or the finger in our day and time.

Here is God’s view of idolatry: it is thumbing one’s nose at God. That is pretty graphic.

In the justification of our idolatry, we would probably prefer not to think of it that way. We want our cake and we want to eat it, too. We want to worship God and yet bow down the Sun god or __________ at the same time.

Any idolatry is an affront to our God.

Lord, as much as I want to try to justify myself in my sin, I come to you today to acknowledge you again as the One and Only God. Examine me. Clean out and clear out all other competitors to your Lordship in my life. I would not dare thumb my nose at you blatantly. Keep me from actually doing it.

Thanks again for Mickey. Bless the ministry and outreach of Texas Baptist Men.

Give us opportunities to share Jesus today.

“Redeemed, how I love to proclaim it!
Redeemed by the blood of the Lamb” (“Redeemed, How I Love to Proclaim It,” BH 2008, 280). Amen.
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A Buddy from Fort Worth in Town

As I sit here this morning, my mind goes back to my church pilgrimage when I moved to Fort Worth, Texas in the Fall of 1981 to start seminary.

I started out at Southcliff Baptist Church. At that time, Paul Burleson was the pastor. It was sort of the trendy church to attend. The single’s group was rather large. A lot of seminary students attended there, but I just never felt comfortable or a part of the fellowship.

So, I left Southcliff, and it took me a while to find a church home. I eventually ended up at Arlington Heights Baptist Church. Larry Venable was the pastor. This was a rather small church in the central city of Fort Worth. The building was old. There weren’t many singles in the church, but I developed good relationships with people in the church. I played on the church basketball team. I got to know Larry very well.

In fact, that reminds me. I need to call him and find out how he is doing. He left that congregation and moved to a church in Garland. That was probably in 1984, about the time I was graduating from the M. Div. program. As far as I know, he has been at that church ever since.

Well, anyway, in the Fall of 1984, Marilyn and I decided that the Lord was leading us to change churches again, and we ended up at Travis Avenue Baptist Church. When we started, the church did not have a pastor. Jimmy Draper was the interim teacher, but a year later the congregation called Joel Gregory as pastor.

This was the largest church in terms of numbers of people that Marilyn and I had ever been a part of, but it didn’t take us long to feel at home. We got involved in Sunday School. When we first started, our Sunday School teachers were Barry and Sherry Thompson. We often had get-togethers outside of class and Barry gathered the guys together. For the first time in my life, I learned conversational prayer from Barry Thompson. What a gift that was and is!

Eventually, the “powers that be” at the church asked me to teach a Sunday School class. We had about fifty folks each week. I enjoyed teaching and developed some life long friendship that I maintain today—Lane, Liz, Carolyn, and Phil--are just four. I could name more.

It was about that time that I met Mickey. He and his family had been long-time members of Travis. Mickey was not in seminary. He was a “normal” person. Ha. We hit it off and became fast friends. We spent a lot of time together, especially on the golf course.

I was honored to be Mickey’s best man at his wedding. He actually married a gal named Sally who was in the Sunday School class.

Not long after his marriage, Mickey and Sally moved to Phoenix where he joined North Phoenix Baptist Church—the well-known mega church. Dan Yeary succeeded Richard Jackson as the pastor there. Mickey was very involved in that church. His profession (another thing that we had in common because my dad was in the business) was insurance, and he did well in his work. He could sell ice to Eskimos, as the old expression goes.

Recently, Mickey has moved back to the Dallas/Fort Worth area and the Lord has led him in a little different direction. He is working now with the Texas Baptist Men. This also seems to fit him very well.

Anyway, Mickey is in town for an Experiencing God conference at Riverside and we are going to get together and share some fellowship. We are meeting in Norhtglenn. He wants to see the church building. That won’t take long to show! Ha again.

I have tremendously fond memories of my years in Fort Worth, especially those at Travis. I remember sitting in the auditorium of the church in the summer of 1985, and this thought crossed my mind, “This is a very unusual time in your life. Enjoy it.”

I miss it, to be honest. I miss being able to hang out with a group of single folks basically in my situation. It was indeed a special time. I miss the fellowship.

I wonder if somewhere in the city of Denver there is a large group of fifty-something singles!?! Do you think? Not!

Well, it will be good to reconnect with Mickey today.

Back to Ezekiel, there is an interesting reference in chapter nine. "Now the glory of the God of Israel had gone up from the cherub on which it rested to the threshold of the house. And he called to the man clothed in linen, who had the writing case at his waist. And the Lord said to him, ‘Pass through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it’” (Ezekiel 9:3, 4 ESV).

The Lord asked the angel to mark those who cared enough about the Lord to mourn sin and evil. Wow. This is exactly the opposite of another well known “mark” in scripture.

How about this? "And he provides that no one will be able to buy or to sell, except the one who has the mark, either the name of the beast or the number of his name" (Revelation 13:17 NASB). The mark of the beast. Don’t want that one!

I prefer the “mark of mercy.”

Lord, today, I thank you for the blood of your Son. I’m glad I am marked forever and I am an object of your mercy.

Thank you for my years in Fort Worth and at Travis. Bless Mickey and Sally and the Texas Baptist Men’s organization and all the good work they do across the nation and world. Thanks for Mickey as a friend and brother.

“Because You’re alive, I live” (“I Live,” BH 2008, 278). Amen.
Comments

What You Do in the Dark

One of the things that I am realizing about this blog, the more I write, day by day, is that I don’t do very well with it if I have to mask or not talk about what is REALLY going on with me. I’m at my best, not only here, but also in general when I am totally transparent and vulnerable.

If this blog is something less than that, there really seems to be no point of continuing.

Actually, from the beginning, all this blog has been is a continuation of the journaling I have done in my Quiet Time for years.

Of course, there are limits. I know I can’t share everything. It would just not be appropriate.

Some of the things I struggle with are sharing about what is really going on in our church. Again, some of those things need not be shared. For other issues I do talk about, I never want anything to be construed that I have some political motive to blast people or garner support for one side or another in some dispute in the church over one thing or another.

Again, I don’t feel good about that.

So, anyway, have I prefaced things enough?

Here is the deal: please pray that we do not have a major divide in our congregation over the organ.

Yesterday, Sharon came to me, as Jim and I were getting ready to pray together. First, I want to say upfront that I really appreciate her for doing this. Second, she was very honest and forthright. She expressed concerns about the fact that, in the process of installing the new sound system, we have moved the organ out of the auditorium. She said that she and the seniors have a problem with this and wondered what was going on.

We had a very frank and forthright conversation. I won’t go into details here, but I made the following comments to her (this is a summary): “Sharon, I appreciate you coming to me. I have no agenda here. I like and appreciate the organ in the worship of God as well. I had a friend from college write me and make a very convincing case for using it and keeping it. So, we will see what we can do and how to resolve some of the challenges we face with using it, and I will get back to you.”

We talked about some other issues as well and had a very good conversation. Jim was sitting there as well. He heard every word.

I cannot begin to tell you how much I appreciate Sharon. She is going through a recovery from cancer herself. She has been through a lot, but she is one of the most upbeat people you will ever meet. She does an excellent job of greeting people and always has a friendly and positive word.

When Sharon left, Jim and I, as is our usual custom on Wednesday afternoon, spent some time together in prayer. And I think the burden on both of our hearts was this: we asked the Lord to keep our congregation from dividing over a piece of furniture! I don’t refer to the organ as a “piece of furniture” to demean it. Please don’t take my comment in that way, but I am just referring to it as such to put it in its proper place. This is not about morals and doctrine. This is about furniture—a very visible and prominent and important piece of furniture, granted-- but furniture nonetheless.

Again, please pray that this does not become a point of division. This is my main concern, especially as we approach Vision Day on September 23rd. I know the enemy well enough that I can see what he wants to do at this crucial time. Please also pray that the Lord would give me wisdom in this situation. My concern is for the sheep and the body at First Southern.

This is a crucial church issue. Churches have divided and split over less. I certainly don’t see this resulting in a church split (at least I hope and pray not).

Well enough said at this point.

As I come to the passage for today, once again, I deeply appreciate how the Lord uses his word to point me in the right direction. What is the Lord ultimately concerned about? What is a priority for Him? Does it involve the furniture and instruments at the front of a church auditorium? Or …

At the beginning of chapter eight, the Lord picks up Zeke “by a lock of [his] head” (Ezekiel 8:3, ESV) and carries him to the inner court of the temple. When Zeke arrives, the Lord shows him “the seat of the image of jealousy” (Ibid). The text is not really explicit but it was some type of idol.

But the Lord transported Zeke further. He encouraged him to dig a hole in the wall between the outer court and the inner court of the temple. After digging the hole, Zeke looked into the inner sanctuary, and he saw images of “creeping things and loathsome beasts” (8:10, ESV) all over the walls. Now I quote from the chapter: "And before them stood seventy men of the elders of the house of Israel, with Jaazaniah the son of Shaphan standing among them. Each had his censer in his hand, and the smoke of the cloud of incense went up. Then he said to me, ‘Son of man, have you seen what the elders of the house of Israel are doing in the dark, each in his room of pictures? For they say, “The Lord does not see us, the Lord has forsaken the land”’” (Ezekiel 8:11, 12 ESV).

This is outrageous! In the inner sanctuary of God’s temple, his priests were involved in idol worship. This was not out in the light. It was being done “behind closed doors,” as the expression goes, “in the dark, each in his room of pictures.” What graphic language! And the reason? These priests believed that they could get away with this behavior because, in there, of all places, the Lord would not see. Are you kidding me?

And they went further to say, “The Lord has forsaken the land.” The Lord doesn’t care anyway. We will do want we want. We will worship some other type of god.

But here is the point of all of this for me today. Again, it is not that the dispute over the organ at the front of our church auditorium is not an important issue. That is not what I am intimating. BUT, what the Lord cares about is what I do in secret when no one else is watching. This is the truest indication of where my heart is with the Lord.

Am I worshiping the Lord “in the dark” or am I engaged in some practice associated with idol worship?

As the old expression goes, “Who you are in secret is who you really are.” I do think another danger of church disputes like this is that they tend to distract all of us from focusing on the Lord and maintaining our love relationship with him.

Lord, I do acknowledge you as the ONE and ONLY.

Please shine your light in all the dark places of my heart, and if there are any idols there, please show them to me so that I can rid them out. This needs to be my priority and primary focus.

I give you this situation at church. Resolve it for your good and glory and unity of the body of Christ.

“He is Lord, He is Lord!
He is risen from the dead and His is Lord!
Ev’ry knee shall bow, ev’ry tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (“He is Lord,” BH 2008, 277). Amen.
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Money in the Trash

For the past few weeks, I have been working on the presentation for Vision Day. We have scheduled it for September 23rd.

A couple of things about vision—I think I have alluded to these before. First, I am not a proponent of the CEO model of pastoral leadership. I don’t believe that it is the responsibility of a pastor to be a Steve Jobs type leader. I’m saying this not just because I like Apple products, but I think he was the prototypical corporation CEO. Talk about visionary. He was way ahead of the curve in his field in so many ways. He created products that put entire industries out of business.

For example, the IPod put music stores that sell CD’s almost entirely out. There is only one left that I know of in Denver now. Of course, I am sure there might be a couple of other stores I don’t know about, but you get my point.

He was truly on the cutting edge.

But when it comes to Christian ministry and the church, I don’t buy that perspective of vision. Not one of us is a very good prognosticator. There is only One person who knows the future, and it isn’t me. I’ll tell you that. Nope.

My perspective of “vision” is that it is a clear picture of the present. It is a broad, bird’s eye view of what is going on and where things are headed so that you can point the way. This is the unique “perch” that pastoral ministry gives you.

It comes from ministering to people in the nitty gritty situations of life. It comes from observing what is going on in the culture with an eye towards ways that the church can meet needs on the way to share the gospel. It comes from a deep burden to see God’s work flourish.

There is nothing particularly miraculous in what I have just described. It is just part of the gift that the Holy Spirit gives, and I don’t believe these things are necessarily the exclusive property of one man in the church, either.

So, anyway, that is my perspective on “vision.” On September 23rd, I just want to share with the church a clear perspective of where we are as the foundation to what I and other leaders in the church feel are “directions” for the future, and here is the main thing, challenge folks to step up to the plate, first and foremost in their walk and relationship with Jesus, second in financial stewardship (I’ll talk more about this in a moment), and third, in serving Him.

I believe all three go together. As we continue to worship God as the One and Only, all the issues in life will fall into their proper place, including and especially money.

A few years ago, I asked Mary Ann to do something for me. I asked her to give me a list of giving categories in our church. I DID NOT WANT ANY NAMES. This morning, I can’t remember those categories exactly, but it was something like: how many gave over ten thousand, how many gave between five and ten thousand, how many gave two to five, and so forth. Crucial in all of this was the category: how many gave less than a hundred and/or nothing.

The results were staggering. The common quip I hear is that, in the typical church, twenty percent of the people give eighty percent of the money. Well, for us, the disparity was more pronounced: ten percent give ninety percent of the money!

Now, before I go further, I’m certain that these numbers are common across the board in small and large churches alike in the United States. I think I also read somewhere that the average church attendee gives something like two percent of his or her income to the Lord. Again, this is common.

Well, here is my burden. And I said this last Sunday morning in my sermon based on the last half of 2 Corinthians 9: “Just because these stats are common in churches, it doesn’t make it acceptable. What you give and how you give is an index finger into the reality of your relationship with the Lord. Show me your checkbook and I will tell you if the Lord is indeed FIRST in your life.” I firmly believe this.

I do think that I am not alone in this conviction. God’s message through the prophet Ezekiel mirrors this. Chapter five of the prophecy is a very vivid indictment of the misplaced priorities of the people of Israel, and the only One who truly knows the future makes a prediction about what the people will do when God brings judgment on the land: "They will throw their money in the streets, tossing it out like worthless trash. Their silver and gold won’t save them on that day of the LORD’s anger. It will neither satisfy nor feed them, for their greed can only trip them up. They were proud of their beautiful jewelry and used it to make detestable idols and vile images. Therefore, I will make all their wealth disgusting to them. I will give it as plunder to foreigners, to the most wicked of nations, and they will defile it" (Ezekiel 7:19-21 NLT).

Can you imagine how bad things would have to get for people to toss their money in the trash? This is dramatic and drastic stuff.

But again, this is the course that the Lord often has to take—drastic measures—to get us to see the worthlessness of false gods. When God decides to judge, all the money in the world can’t help.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with money, of course, but there is something wrong when we make a god out of it. I’m reminded of Paul’s statement in I Timothy 6:10: “For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil” (NASB). There you go. The folks in Zeke’s day took their money—the blessing of God—and turned it into idol jewelry. And the Lord is appalled.

Please join me in prayer for the church I serve because somehow I think this is an issue that we are struggling with, and again, I know we aren’t alone. And I want to be clear: I’m not worried about the dollars and cents in our church bank account. I’m concerned about what this says about the priority of our relationship with the Lord across the board among families in our church.

Lord, I thank you for the clear teaching in your word—in the Old and New Testaments—about financial stewardship. Thank you for the way you have blessed us as a nation and as believers. Our poorest folks are still not poor according to worldwide standards. You have blessed us in so many ways.

I confess the sin of turning your blessings into idol jewelry.

Father, I acknowledge that I need help and intervention into my personal financial stewardship in several ways. I step up to the plate first here and now.

“Celebrate Jesus, celebrate” (“Celebrate Jesus,” BH 2008, 275). Amen.
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And They Shall Know That I am the Lord

Before I discuss the passage I read this morning, I need to share a couple of things.

First, my visit with the oncologist went well yesterday. Everything continues to go well. And I just have to pause and thank Jesus.

Lord, I do, right now, want to thank you for another good report and for bringing me this far on the two-year anniversary of my first chemotherapy treatment on September 10, 2010. That will always be a significant date for me, as I remember how buoyant you allowed me to be upon entering one of the scariest episodes of my life.

Second, this day—September 11th—continues to be a memorable day in our history, and the consequences of the events that occurred are still ongoing. I heard a report on the radio the other day that to this day, first responders and folks that spent time cleaning up the mess from the destruction of those two buildings in New York are contracting serious, life-threatening illnesses. Incidents of cancer have gone up nineteen percent in the New York City Fire Department.

As far as I am concerned, the deaths caused by illnesses need to be added to the total number of people who were killed on 9/11. I also think of all the family members of the victims whose lives will never be the same.

The magnitude of that tragedy continues to grow.

Lord, I just have to pause again. I pray that our nation would never forget that day. Keep us safe, Lord. Please prevent another similar attack from ever occurring. I pray for the families of the victims and for the firemen who have cancer and other serious illnesses.

Third, I just continue to be amazed at who reads these blogs and my daily entries on Facebook. Yesterday, I got a note from a college friend. His name is Jim. He and I served in the Baptist Student Union at Baylor together and at the same church in Waco all the way through college. His name is Jim. He wrote me to make a case for organs as wonderful tools for the worship of the Lord. I appreciated this so much. This was very affirming.

Lord, guide us in our congregation in everything we do. Give us wisdom when it comes to the organ we already have. Father, we understand how insidious and subtle idolatry is. Each person is different. Each church is different. Regardless of how you lead us in regard to the organ, keep us from idols.

This leads me to the passage for today. And I wonder what it takes for us to give up our dear idols. I’m reminded of a statement in the Psalms in the Message Version: “What am I doing in the meantime, Lord?   Hoping, that’s what I’m doing—hoping You’ll save me from a rebel life,  save me from the contempt of dunces. I’ll say no more, I’ll shut my mouth,  since you, Lord, are behind all this. But I can’t take it much longer. When you put us through the fire  to purge us from our sin,  our dearest idols go up in smoke. Are we also nothing but smoke?” (Psalms 39:7-11, MSG)

We do not part with our idols easily. And here is another thing: I’m very good at pointing out idols in other people’s lives—not very good at identifying them in my life or dealing with them.

Neither were the people of Zeke’s day. The fall of Jerusalem and the exile of the people of Israel was God’s drastic way of trying to get His people’s attention. "Wherever you dwell, the cities shall be waste and the high places ruined, so that your altars will be waste and ruined, your idols broken and destroyed, your incense altars cut down, and your works wiped out. And the slain shall fall in your midst, and you shall know that I am the Lord. Yet I will leave some of you alive. When you have among the nations some who escape the sword, and when you are scattered through the countries, then those of you who escape will remember me among the nations where they are carried captive, how I have been broken over their whoring heart that has departed from me and over their eyes that go whoring after their idols. And they will be loathsome in their own sight for the evils that they have committed, for all their abominations. And they shall know that I am the Lord. I have not said in vain that I would do this evil to them” (Ezekiel 6:6-10 ESV).

There is a refrain in the verses above. Did you notice it? It occurs two times. It is, “And they shall know that I am the Lord.”

Because the Lord’s heart is broken because of the “whoring heart” of His people, He allows terrible disaster and calamity to occur. Why? He wants His people to know that He is the Lord.

Again, I wonder what it takes to help us see the folly of our “dearest idols,” the need to turn from them FOREVER, and the absolute necessity of worshiping the one and only God. Does it take cancer? Does it take a 9/11? Does it take the destruction and end of a nation?

As I write those words, it hits me: the Lord allowed me to have cancer, and I deal with it to this day. Have I forsaken all my idols or will this experience go to waste? If so, that is ridiculous. It is tragic. It is shortsighted, and it is only an invitation to a jealous God to take even more drastic action in my life to get me to have the right focus.

“I worship You, Almighty God;
There is none like You” (“I Worship You, Almighty God,” BH 2008, 16). Amen.
Comments

God Withdraws

Yesterday, as I drove to church, I felt the Holy Spirit speaking to me. Somehow, I knew I had to be prepared. And I asked the Lord, “Please help me and give me the right answer.” As in everything, I wanted to make sure first of all that my heart was right and that I didn’t answer in anger.

I will tell you what I am talking about, but first, let me share a very vivid memory. When I started at First Southern on September 10, 1989—23 years ago today—one of the things I first noticed was the pulpit. It was absolutely huge. It was wide—probably over five feet wide. That was one thing, but it was also rather high. The top of it hit me just below my rib cage.

Every Sunday, as I preached my sermon, I felt as if I were looking over a wall. That’s about the best way I can describe it.

In the Fall of 1992, as we were growing, we felt led to go to two services. I remember saying to David, our worship leader at the time, “I just can’t deal with that pulpit any longer. Let’s just move it out. I will not use one. I’ll just stand there.”

I’m not exactly sure what happened because at some point, we did buy a fiberglass pulpit, but it didn’t last that long. Someone broke it!

But back to those first Sundays without that huge pulpit—when it was gone, I felt freed! I loved just standing up there with no barriers between myself and the congregation.

About a decade later, we did have another wooden pulpit made. It matches the décor of our auditorium. It is very well made. I tried it for a couple of Sundays, but by then, I was used to just standing up there with no podium or pulpit. We still have it and use it when we have guest preachers who prefer a pulpit. No problem.

But I will never use one EVER again. I’m just comfortable standing up there, me, myself, and I. It just feels right.

Back to the time when we moved the old “battleship” out—I still remember a man coming into my office. He was so angry he could barely speak. “What are you doing? Why isn’t the pulpit there?”

Over the years, I have thought about that incident and tried to figure out why he was so angry. It almost felt as if I had actually gone into this man’s living room at his home and taken a piece of furniture.

It felt as if he was accusing me of heresy because I removed a piece of furniture.

Back then, I remember speaking with a pastor friend about it. I said, “I’m incredulous that someone would go ballistic over a piece of furniture.” He replied, “Be careful, John. It is very important and very personal to folks. Don’t make those kind of changes lightly.”

Are you kidding me? I still have a hard time with it, but I know he is right.

That is why, when a worship leader offered to move our organ out and keep it out of the auditorium for our fiftieth anniversary service, I answered, “You can move it out for those special services, but when we are done, move it back in.” He was incredulous. “Why? We use it maybe once a year. It is huge. It takes up a lot of space. Let’s just move it out.” No, not the right time. That was two years ago.

Well, a few days ago, as the company we hired was installing the new sound system, two men just moved it out. They put it in a room at the back of the auditorium. One of them put it on Craig’s List to sell it. I don’t know what prompted these two men to do this. There have been discussions in multiple meetings, especially the Vision Team, that we need to do this, but no one did anything, and I didn’t initiate anything. They just moved it. And put it up for sale.

Anyone want to buy an organ? We will make you a deal. In fact, if you will consent to move it, …

When I heard about what they did, something resonated with me, “It is time.”

Back to yesterday, what I was preparing myself for was people asking me, confronting me, about where it was and what was going on.

Let me stop again and say something. I like organs! I like the sound they produce. I think they are valuable in the worship of God. I’m not knocking them or demeaning them as “old fashioned.” But the truth is that the new piano we are hoping folks step up to the plate to pay for has an organ sound, among many others, and it will be more effective as an organ because we can play it through the sound system. We could never get the old organ to work through our sound system, and as a result, when Jack played it, you couldn’t even hear it.

I am sorry to say that it had become just like the old pulpit—a piece of furniture that got in the way.

So, what happened? Indeed, a couple of people asked me about it. I told them that our new piano could play organ music. Neither one of them seemed satisfied with that answer. I will talk with them further. I understand their concerns. I really do. I think we can work through it.

I hope so.

Chapter five of Ezekiel is about God pronouncing judgment on the city of Jerusalem. Once again, what the Lord asks Zeke to do is rather strange. It involves using a sword to cut his hair off and do various things with the strands of hair. The pronouncement lists the sins of the people—they rejected God’s statutes and became involved with abominable behavior. What was it? Well, verse ten talks about fathers who “eat their sons in your midst, and sons shall eat their fathers” (Ezekiel 5:10, ESV).

Ugh. What is this all about? I’m not sure, but I think it has to do with actual human sacrifice and/or things getting so bad in the city under siege that people actually resort to eating one another.

I choose the first option above because of what the Lord says in the following verse: "Therefore, as I live, declares the Lord God, surely, because you have defiled my sanctuary with all your detestable things and with all your abominations, therefore I will withdraw. My eye will not spare, and I will have no pity" (Ezekiel 5:11 ESV).

Whatever the abomination was, it centered on idolatry in God’s house itself.

And I think we must always be very cautious when it comes to idols, particularly in our own worship of God. I think furniture has the potential to be an idol (and I’m not accusing anyone of anything here). I think ritual has the potential to be an idol (and I know I tend to worship doing the same things over and over. I’m guilty here). The truth is: anything can get in the way of our worship of God.

The people in Zeke’s day allowed idolatry and God’s response? He just pulled back. He removed his eye that spares and his pity.

Whoa. This is awesome and sends shivers up and down my spine. For any nation or city or church this happens to—it is done and finished.

Lord, today, I choose to worship you and you alone. I acknowledge that you are the One True God. I choose to follow you and obey you, with no other entrapments, today.

I just pray for our church in these days. I pray that you would give me the right words and the right attitude.

Change is difficult. Guide us through it and preserve the unity of your church so that we can move forward and reach more people for you.

“Up from the grave He arose,
With a mighty triumph o’er his foes” (“Christ Arose,” BH 2008, 273) Amen. Yes. Jesus is Risen! He is risen indeed!
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Richard Bergdoll's Funeral--Party Hearty, Baby!

Somehow, I think someone might consider the statement I am going to make to be a little weird but so be it. Here it is: I want my funeral service to be like Richard’s was yesterday.

Richard told his family what kind of service he wanted, and it fit him, to a tee.

My only disappointment was that there was no one from our congregation there except Betty, but the truth is that not many people in our church knew Richard all that well. I knew him better than anyone in our fellowship.

Anyway, we got started about fifteen minutes late because Kathy, one of Richard’s daughters, was waiting for some folks to get there. This is not unusual. I used to get a little nervous about starting funeral services late, but about a decade ago, the Holy Spirit corrected me, “John, this service is not about you. It is about the Lord and about the family. Just relax.” Okay.

We started about 1:15. The family had chosen four songs they wanted Helen, our pianist, to play. There was no one singing. They were instrumental only. Helen played “Safe in the Arms of Jesus” and “Nearer My God to Thee.”

Then, it was time for the eulogies. Kathy spoke first. Her testimony about her dad was simple and straightforward as she expressed how much she appreciated the time she was able to spend with her dad growing up. She remembers the times they walked down the street to Dairy Queen in Indianapolis where she would get a Peanut Butter Parfait.

I just have to pause here and say something. I’ve listened to a lot of eulogies over the years as I have served at funerals. And what I am gathering is that when a man like Richard takes care of the BIG THINGS of life—his relationship with the Lord and his love of his family—the little things take on huge significance. That little story writes volumes about Richard and what his daughter would say about him at his funeral. Volumes.

His second daughter came to the microphone. Her name is Linda. Linda asserted, “My dad gave me the greatest gift anyone could give. He led me to faith in Jesus Christ. Now, with Jesus, I can face anything life has to bring.” Wow.

Finally, one of his granddaughters-in-law, Marney, stood to share. She read a sailor’s version of Psalm 23 and a poem she had written for the occasion. I made a copy of both of these documents and I will scan them and provide a link to them, either on my website,
www.pastorjohnsblog.com or on Facebook in the next day or two.

After these three testimonies, we opened it up for others to speak. One other lady came forward. She was an adopted daughter of Richard through a later marriage. She asserted that Richard was more of a dad to her than her real dad. She told about Richard coming to take her mom and sisters out to eat every Saturday night for years to Mr. Steak. She loved those times.

After these testimonies, Helen played two more songs, “It is Well” and “Ten Thousand Reasons.” I preached my sermon. The verse the Lord brought to mind was I Corinthians 15:10, “By God’s grace I am what I am . . .” I just felt led to choose that verses at the text for the message, and it fit the theme of the service, again, to a tee. Surprise, surprise, huh? I will try to post a link to this sermon as well. Kathy has asked for a typed manuscript. I can scan it along with the two poems and provide a link.

When I had concluded the message and prayed, a father and son, David and Daniel, friends of the family, came and sang, “Amazing Grace—Chains Broken.” David sang. Daniel joined him and played his guitar.

When they finished, Linda spoke out, “Can we all sing ‘Amazing Grace’?” We picked up hymnals and sang four out of the five stanzas. And that was it.

After the memorial service, the family and I along with a few friends, traveled to Crown Hill cemetery in Lakewood. When we all arrived, we caravanned to the back of the property to an area where there was a little house. We parked our cars and gathered at the front of this house. All of us proceeded to a little courtyard in the back where Richard’s ashes were on a little table and a couple of Navy soldiers stood at solute.

It was a very intimate setting. In all the graveside services I have conducted at this cemetery, I had never been to this area before.

When I had concluded my remarks based on 2 Corinthians 5 and had prayed, the military part of the service occurred, and they handed Richard’s son Ken a folded American flag and played “Taps.”

That was it. Done.

Here is what I appreciated about this memorial. It was simple. It was humble, just like Richard. “Un-ornate.” And it honored the Lord Jesus Christ.

There weren’t that many people at the church, maybe twenty-five, and less at the graveside, but I could tell that it was more about celebrating where Richard is today—in heaven with the Lord—than it was about mourning his loss.

And I don’t belittle mourning and tears. Both are vital and necessary. Please understand. I miss Richard—very much. And his family does too, and that is okay. But the service yesterday was a celebration.

In case I get run over by a truck today, I want to say this: I want my funeral to be like that--a quiet and simple celebration. Sing a couple of hymns. Talk about how great Jesus is. And party hearty, baby! That’s what I will be doing.

These verses in Proverbs seem to sum up Richard’s life and legacy nicely: "Wisdom will save you from the immoral woman, from the seductive words of the promiscuous woman. She has abandoned her husband and ignores the covenant she made before God. Entering her house leads to death; it is the road to the grave. The man who visits her is doomed. He will never reach the paths of life. Follow the steps of good men instead, and stay on the paths of the righteous. For only the godly will live in the land, and those with integrity will remain in it. But the wicked will be removed from the land, and the treacherous will be uprooted" (Proverbs 2:16-22 NLT).

Lord, I want to thank you for the life and ministry and legacy of Richard Bergdoll. Thank you for that service yesterday—a memorial that honored you in so many ways. I was honored to be a part of it.

Help Richard’s family as they grieve and celebrate at the same time!

I continue to pray for the Bills. The Bill who had surgery has to stay in the hospital a few more days. I lift him up to you. I tried to reach Donna to ask about the “other Bill.” I lift them up to you.

I pray that you would lead and preach through me today in the power of the Holy Spirit. “Nearer my God, to Thee, Nearer to Thee!” (“Nearer, My God, to Thee,” BH 2008, 543). Amen.
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Ruth 3:15 in the Waiting Room

Yesterday morning, in Longmont United Hospital, around 6:00 AM, I met up with Bill and his daughter Nell.

As I shared yesterday, Bill was going in for surgery.

Before I continue with the story, I want to say that Bill came through his surgery well, but he has had some issues. When I called later in the afternoon, his daughter said they were waiting to see the doctor. Please continue to pray for him.

I have no update on how the “other” Bill is doing. I will call his wife Donna in a little while and find out.

Back to the waiting room before his surgery—Bill and I are sitting there visiting with one another. Bill was talking about a Bible exhibit he and Helen saw at Glen Eyrie (the Navigator retreat center and home office) in Colorado Springs a day or two ago. “Have you heard about the “he-she” controversy surrounding Ruth 3:15?”

Huh?

Honestly, in all my years of seminary and subsequent years of study as a pastor, I have NEVER heard of this issue.

But right there, in the waiting room, I pulled out my IPhone with a Bible app and looked up Ruth 3:15. “Then Boaz said to her, ‘Bring your cloak and spread it out.’ He measured six scoops of barley into the cloak and placed it on her back. Then he* returned to the town” (Ruth 3:15, ESV, the asterisk indicates a note that says, “Most Hebrew manuscripts read he; many Hebrew manuscripts, Syriac version, and Latin Vulgate read she.”).

Humm. What do you know?

I could not get this conversation out of my mind. Thus, this morning, I went to Google to try to find out more about all of this. I came across one website where I found the following quote:
“Although this Bible became known as the Authorized or King James Bible, some scholars have doubted that the king de­served the credit given him. But it was the customary thing at that time to recognize the king, and it can be said that James did not oppose the new Bible. At first it met with some opposition, but within a short time it replaced all other English versions and became the great Bible of the English-speaking world.

This new version was really a revision based on the Bishops' Bible, which in turn was a slightly revised version of Tyndale's translation. It is quite amazing how much of our English Bible today is still in Tyn­dale's original words as he translated them. I have a portion of the first edition as well as a complete copy of the second print­ing of the King James Bible. There were two issues printed, and it is not certain which was printed first. One is called the "He" Bible and the other the "She" Bible owing to difference in
Ruth 3:15. The "He" Bible is, however, generally accepted as the first since it is thought the error was noted and corrected in the "She" Bible” (“The English Bible: Collecting God’s Book—Concluded,” in www.ministrymagazine.org, accessed September 8, 2012).

Again, I say, “Humm. Very interesting and provocative. I’m going to have to do more study about all of this.”

But here is the point: I continue to be amazed at how Bill has grown since the death of his wife, Jerri. Bill was a truck driver, but when his health forced him to retire from that profession, he took up woodworking. You should see the shop in his garage. Wow. He is able to do things with wood that are incredible.

But also, he has an amazing ability to fix things. Recently, we hired him at church to be our handyman. There is always something to fix in our fifty plus year old building, as you can well imagine, plus a lot of maintenance work that our custodian, Barb, can’t handle. So, Bill has stepped in and done a great job. This is the kind of guy he is.

But in addition to all of that, Bill has become a biblical scholar. He keeps building bookcases in his home now to house all his Bible commentaries. I just have to laugh.

When the nurse finally called Bill to prep him for his surgery, his daughter Nell and I visited for a moment. She said, “He loves his job at church, but he studies all the time.”

It is incredible to see how this huge loss—the death of Jerri (and we all loved her, by the way)—has led this brother in directions that I’m sure he didn’t even imagine.

It is wonderful to see how someone who is in the Word is ready to share it, even in the most unlikely places and times and ways.

This is certainly the story of Ezekiel. The other day, I used the word “strange” to refer to the way the Lord worked with him in his call to ministry. I could use the same word to describe his actual ministry. Chapter four is a case in point.

The Lord asks Zeke to build a little model of the besieged city of Jerusalem, to lie down on each side for a total of 430 days (more than a year), preach sermons to this little layout, and eat food cooked over a fire of human excrement.


The Lord commands Zeke, "’Prepare and eat this food as you would barley cakes. While all the people are watching, bake it over a fire using dried human dung as fuel and then eat the bread.’ Then the LORD said, ‘This is how Israel will eat defiled bread in the Gentile lands to which I will banish them!’ Then I said, ‘O Sovereign LORD, must I be defiled by using human dung? For I have never been defiled before. From the time I was a child until now I have never eaten any animal that died of sickness or was killed by other animals. I have never eaten any meat forbidden by the law.’ ‘All right,’ the LORD said. ‘You may bake your bread with cow dung instead of human dung.’ Then he told me, ‘Son of man, I will make food very scarce in Jerusalem. It will be weighed out with great care and eaten fearfully. The water will be rationed out drop by drop, and the people will drink it with dismay. Lacking food and water, people will look at one another in terror, and they will waste away under their punishment’” (Ezekiel 4:12-17 NLT).

So, the Lord accommodates Ezekiel to a degree, granting his request, but it still doesn’t change what the Lord asks his prophet to do. Can you imagine what passersby thought as they watched this grown man play with his little miniature city while lying on his side and then the other side for more than a year? This has to be one of the craziest things anyone has EVER done. And it would be considered insanity, if it were not for the little minor detail that the Lord told him to do it. That changes this strange action from insanity to the sanest thing in the world. In fact, for Zeke to REFUSE to do this (and honestly, I could not say I would blame him for it. “Lord, you want me to do what?”) would be insane.

The most logical thing in the universe is obeying the Lord, even when it makes no sense and exposes us to ridicule.

Reading this passage this morning reminds me of Bill—not because the Lord has asked him to do something crazy—not yet, at least (and Bill would do it, whatever it was), but because, for both of these brothers, they live the Word—wherever or whenever--in a hospital waiting room before surgery or lying on both sides for 430 days.

Oh, Lord, I thank you for the encouragement you have given me through these two men.

I lift up Bill today. Help him as he recovers from surgery. Give the doctors skill and wisdom, Dr. Jesus. Take care of Bill (the other Bill) and his wife Donna as well.

Help me today as I preach Richard’s funeral. Comfort his family.

Let me live, not just preach or teach, God’s Word.

“I know He rescued my soul;
His blood has covered my sin,
I believe, I believe” (“My Redeemer Lives,” BH 2008, 271). Amen.
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Pray for Two Bills

I’m not talking legislation here! I got word last night that one Bill is very critically ill and they don’t expect him to make it. Please pray for his wife Donna.

The other Bill is having fairly extensive surgery this morning in Longmont. In fact, that is why this post is so short this morning. I am heading up there to visit with him and have prayer with him before his surgery.

I’ve been to the hospital in Longmont many times to visit Irene Warren and others. It is on a main street. But for some reason, I have brain lock and always seem to take a wrong turn or two and get off track.

I’m going early and trust the promise I read this morning:

"He guards the paths of the just and protects those who are faithful to him" (Proverbs 2:8 NLT).

Take care of these two brothers and their families, Lord. Amen.
Comments

Strange Stuff

First, it is amazing how technology spoils us to the point where it becomes a given and an expectation. I’m not very patient any way, but when things don’t work properly, it almost pushes me over the edge.

Computer “issues” are at the top of that list. I have had some this morning, but for some reason, they resolved themselves. Who knows how or why?

Anyway, back to the passage for today. One of the things that I really do appreciate about the book of Ezekiel is that it tells the story of the Lord’s dealings with one of His prophets that goes no where near any kind of “normal” stuff. I realize that the term “normal” is a very subjective concept. What is “normal’? I guess that depends on a lot of things.

But somehow, in Christian ministry, we seemed to be locked into “normal” more than in most arenas.

Last night, I was able to visit with a guy that has been coming to our church for a few months now. His name is Brent, and he lives basically across the street and a little north of the church. Brent loves Jesus and loves to Christ with others. He and I have had a few phone conversations that have been very encouraging.

In the course of our conversation last night, Brent told me about an experience he had in a church a few years ago. I believe he was speaking about his grandmother. He indicated that normally, she was a very quiet person. But one Sunday, the Holy Spirit got a hold of her. She jumped out of her pew and ran around the church praising the Lord!

Brent commented that it was something that was so radically different from her “normal” behavior, but it was evident that the Spirit of God was doing it in her life.

As he was telling this story, my mind recalled a similar incident. A friend of mine in Colorado Springs told me a very similar story. He was a very quiet and thoughtful guy. But one Sunday, he told me that the Spirit got a hold of him and he just started running around the auditorium in his church, praising God.

I remember asking, somewhat sheepishly, “How did everyone respond?”

He answered, “Well, it was very interesting. My pastor was standing in the pulpit at the time. He just stopped speaking. He was watching me very closely. Finally, he said, ‘This is of the Lord.’”

Had this happened in our church as I was preaching, I’m not sure I would have said the same thing, even if the Lord had inspired this type of action.

These two stories, however, point out the fact that most Sundays, we all follow the very same routines in lock-step fashion.

Please understand: I’m not condemning that nor am I lauding weird behavior, just because it is radically different. Strange does not necessary mean spiritual.

BUT, as I have been pondering all this, I will say that my heart yearns for something that breaks a mold, something inspired and empowered by the Holy Spirit of God.

Certainly, Zeke’s experiences in the early stages of his ministry to the exiles near the Kebar (or Chebar as the ESV spells it for some unknown reason) River in Babylon fall in that category. Notice what happens in the following verses:

"And the hand of the Lord was upon me there. And he said to me, ‘Arise, go out into the valley, and there I will speak with you.’ So I arose and went out into the valley, and behold, the glory of the Lord stood there, like the glory that I had seen by the Chebar canal, and I fell on my face. But the Spirit entered into me and set me on my feet, and he spoke with me and said to me, ‘Go, shut yourself within your house. And you, O son of man, behold, cords will be placed upon you, and you shall be bound with them, so that you cannot go out among the people. And I will make your tongue cling to the roof of your mouth, so that you shall be mute and unable to reprove them, for they are a rebellious house. But when I speak with you, I will open your mouth, and you shall say to them, “Thus says the Lord God.” He who will hear, let him hear; and he who will refuse to hear, let him refuse, for they are a rebellious house’" (Ezekiel 3:22-27 ESV).

This whole series of events makes absolutely no sense. In fact, it is downright strange. Zeke has a vision of the glory of God—the same glory he had witnessed before. But what does the Lord do with that?

“Normally,” one would assume that the Lord would want His prophet to share this vision. That is what one would assume.

But no.

The Lord shuts His prophet in his house and ties him up, preventing him from going out to minister. And, add to that—the Lord makes Zeke’s tongue stick to the roof of his mouth so that he can’t speak even if he wanted to.

However, at the right time, the Lord states that he will loosen the prophet’s tongue and enable him speak.

Strange stuff. And my recollection of some of the things in Ezekiel lead me to say that this is only the beginning of the strange stuff in this book.

But I love it! I’m glad that we are NOT (in spite of our behavior at times) cookie cutter Christians in which all of us do and say the same things all the time. How boring! And how contradictory to the power of God in creation and RECREATION!

God made each of us to be unique. And, when he saves us, His plan and purpose for each of us is just as unique—one-of-a-kind in history, never to be repeated. Praise God!

Father, I’m thankful for the unique set of circumstances in my life that you have pulled together. I’m grateful that you want to use these as a platform for ministry. I’m glad that you don’t create clones and don’t save us to be masses of sameness.

Thank you for Brent and his unique story. Encourage him today as he once again encouraged me.

“Soar we now where Christ has led, Alleluia!
Following our exalted Head, Alleluia!” (“Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” BH 2008, 270). Amen.
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The Huge Responsibility of the Watchman

After several tries, spanning the last few months, I finally made contact with Bill yesterday. He and his wife Grace are International Mission Board missionaries. I first met them months ago at Applewood Baptist Church in Wheatridge as Jim and I attended an “Embrace” conference.

“Embrace” is a challenge from the board for church to embrace an “unreached, unengaged people group” (UUPG) somewhere in the world, and there are (or were when I first heard about this challenge; I hope that this number has decreased significantly since “Embrace” began) over 3400 such groups in the world, the main concentration of which are in India.

The conference at Applewood brought together missionaries from all over the world to talk about these groups in their “cluster.” Bill and Grace taught the South Asian cluster. I attended their seminar.

As the Lord began to focus us toward India, He brought them to mind as resources. Over the past few months, I have tried to reach them on the phone and have been unsuccessful in doing so, until yesterday.

Bill and I talked for well over an hour. It didn’t take long for me to realize that he knows a lot about India as he and Grace have served there for over six years.

Bill talked about the various approaches to short-term mission trips in the past. Most were little more than veiled vacations for westerners who traveled to India and spent a few days and did not accomplish all that much.

As Bill talked about this, I responded, “Well, Bill, honestly. I was fully aware of this approach to missions and have no interest in leading our church to approach it that way. That is why I have gravitated to Embrace because it challenges churches to take a long-term view of embracing a group for the long haul. It is a huge responsibility. If a church is going to commit to a group, then it means that another church can’t choose them. We better not drop the ball.”

Bill agreed, but he went on to say, “Yes, John, you are exactly right, but you don’t need to be in a hurry. Certainly, there is urgency because people need the Lord. Don’t get me wrong, but it is important to make a good decision that the church as a whole is comfortable with.” Amen.

As I sit here this morning thinking about that conversation, it dawns on me that this is equally true of our ministry in the city of Northglenn. Certainly, we are not the only evangelical church in the city, but we have a responsibility—a huge responsibility that churches in Broomfield or Westminster or Thornton don’t have—we must share the gospel FIRST with folks in Northglenn because that is where our church is located. Isn’t that what the commission in Acts 1:8 emphasizes—our Jerusalem? This is our number one priority. It doesn’t exclude India. It is both/and.

So what is our role—both as individual believers and as a church? This is how the Lord puts things to his prophet Ezekiel in chapter three: "And at the end of seven days, the word of the Lord came to me: ‘Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, “You shall surely die,” and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked person shall die for his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked, and he does not turn from his wickedness, or from his wicked way, he shall die for his iniquity, but you will have delivered your soul. Again, if a righteous person turns from his righteousness and commits injustice, and I lay a stumbling block before him, he shall die. Because you have not warned him, he shall die for his sin, and his righteous deeds that he has done shall not be remembered, but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the righteous person not to sin, and he does not sin, he shall surely live, because he took warning, and you will have delivered your soul’” (Ezekiel 3:16-21 ESV).

Salvation actually positions each believer on a wall. When the Lord saves us, we get to experience eternal life. This is a quality of life now, but it is also a quantity of life that lasts forever.

People that don’t know the Lord don’t have this perspective. They just live in the moment, day-by-day, and don’t really think there is much else.

But when a man or woman or child gets saved, all of that changes. Somehow, we begin to perceive that there is more than just the here and now. And, as loved ones and friends die, this issue becomes even more vital because we want to see them again. We want desperately to believe that this life is not all there is. And it isn’t.

Therefore, salvation is like standing on top of the Empire State building. It allows us to see the present but we can look out, and because of the presence of the Holy Spirit in us, we can perceive with the eyes of faith that there is more.

But this perspective is not something to keep for ourselves. Ezekiel was not allowed to do this. The fact is that the appalling life of the refugees in Babylon near the River Kebar was not all there was. This group of folks needed to hear from someone on top of the Empire State building.

And so do people today. They need a watchman.

But here is the rub. That is not someone else in some other town. I am in a unique place with my family and friends. The church has a unique position “on the wall” as well. We must sound a warning. This is our responsibility.

Again, I am reminded of a statement Bill Bright made: it is our responsibility to share the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit and leave the results up to God. If I share, then I have done my part. My responsibility is fulfilled. If not, it is on me.

Lord, this morning, I thank you for this very stark and blatant reminder of my identity in Christ as WATCHMAN. Whatever else I do or don’t do, help me to warn everyone you bring across my path about the realities of eternity. There is a heaven. There is a hell.

Thank you for Bill and Grace. Bless them and their ministries.

There is an urgency about people in the world who have no witness. Give us guidance and direction in this regard, but there is an equally huge responsibility for us to be watchmen and sound the alarm for folks who live across the street.

“The Hope of all who seek Him, the Help of all who find,
None other is so loving, so good and kind” (“He Lives,” BH 2008, 269). Amen.
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Carried Away

I’m using this term in one way this morning, but it does have a double entendre that is rather intentional.

Before I get into it, however, I do have to make a comment about an extraordinary story I came across in USA Today this morning. At first, I thought it was some kind of joke. Then, I assumed the story would be a hazing incident or at least some type of rite of passage for a player on a team.

But it wasn’t any of those things. It was a picture of Clemson University Wide Receiver DeAndre Hopkins being baptized in a big water trough out on the practice field with all of his teammates surrounding him. Coach Jeff Scott took the picture and tweeted this message: “Highlight of my week … was seeing DeAndre Hopkins get Baptized in front of his teammates on Thursday after practice” (Tim McGarry, “Clemson WR DeAndre Hopkins baptized at practice,” USA Today, accessed September 4, 2012). I will try to attach the picture of this event on my personal website, www.pastorjohnsblog.com and/or Facebook.

Honestly, I still can’t believe it. I have actually visited Clemson University a few years ago on a trip to South Carolina. It was on a Saturday in the Fall right before a home football game. The campus was buzzing with activity.

If my memory serves me correctly, Clemson used to have Baptist ties. It still may have in some remote way. I don’t know. What I observed on that Saturday is that it is, for all intents and purposes now, a secular school.

This makes this story and photo even more amazing. Just watch: someone will come out in protest to this baptism, the old, “Separation of church and state plea.” But again, that may not apply here technically because Clemson is a private university. Well, anyway … still amazing no matter how you cut it.

I continue to find deep encouragement from Tim Tebow (the writer of the above article makes a reference to him) and others like Coach Scott who are unashamed of “out there” in their Christian testimony.

It is certainly the time for it.

Last night, as my mom and sister and I were talking, we all came to the conclusion that two things are very true: 1) evil keeps getting more and more evil and 2) Christians all over are going through very difficult times.

Here is the challenge with those two things. Satan seems to be having a heyday with all of us so that, as we are going through hardship and difficulty, the last thing on our mind is sharing the gospel with anyone. This plays right into His hands.

I feel this more than ever as a pastor. The challenges to ministry and outreach are greater than ever. I’m praying to the Lord and asking the questions, “How can we reach lost and unchurched folks in Northglenn? How can we mobilize folks for ministry in Federal Heights as we continue to seek to plant a church there? And, last but certainly not least, what unreached, unengaged people group do you want us to embrace, Lord?” All of these issues are challenging and pressing.

Jim and I talk about it often and pray about it when we have opportunity. At times, it seems as if all of this is not even on the radar screen of most people in our fellowship.

I can certainly understand and sympathize. I am right there along with everyone. My family is right there.

As I pray about this, I’m more convinced than ever that it is not about another plan or slick program. It is about the Holy Spirit. It is about the movement of the Spirit of God in my life and in the lives of folks in our congregation. God must move us, or the Great Commission will never happen.

This is what happened with Ezekiel. The Lord commissioned him. He told Zeke to go preach to the rebels while not becoming a rebel himself. Then, in the latter part of chapter three, an amazing movement occurred. Remember the descriptions of the four living creatures? Well, they re-enter the scene. They are not just spirit beings floating around in heaven somewhere around the throne of God.

They become active agents of the Holy Spirit in the life of one of God’s prophets. The thing that hits me about this story is that it takes all of heaven to move a man into mission. The Message version does the best job of bringing out all the particulars of this story.

"Then the Spirit picked me up. Behind me I heard a great commotion—"Blessed be the Glory of God in his Sanctuary!"—the wings of the living creatures beating against each other, the whirling wheels, the rumble of a great earthquake. The Spirit lifted me and took me away. I went bitterly and angrily. I didn't want to go. But God had me in his grip. I arrived among the exiles who lived near the Kebar River at Tel Aviv. I came to where they were living and sat there for seven days, appalled" (Ezekiel 3:12-15 MSG).

Ezekiel DID NOT WANT TO GO! Wherever he was—I assume it was somewhere in Israel—he did not want to leave home. But the Spirit of God carried him away even as the prophet went kicking and screaming, “bitterly and angrily.” Those are strong emotions, for sure, but God’s grip is stronger.

Somehow, he arrived at his new mission field on the banks of the Kebar River in Babylon. Things were so bad that Ezekiel could not say anything for seven days! Absolutely amazing! I’m sure that if plane, train, or rental car service had existed back then, Zeke would have turned on his heels and would have been out of there.

But the Holy Spirit had other plans, and God had a tight grip on his man.

As I read this story, I was reminded of another in Acts chapter eight. Luke uses very similar language to describe the ministry of Philip, one of the original seven servants in the church of Jerusalem. Phil could have stayed home as well, but the Holy Spirit had other ideas. Notice all the references to the Holy Spirit in this story. I will just excerpt the key verses.

"Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ This is a desert place…. And the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over and join this chariot.’… And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he passed through he preached the gospel to all the towns until he came to Caesarea" (Acts 8:26, 29, 39, 40 ESV).

Nothing has changed. God’s kingdom expands as men and women of God allow the Holy Spirit to carry them away. This is radical and dramatic, but it is our only hope.

O Lord, thank you for the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. I’m thankful for His ability to move us, carry us away and plop us down in the midst of folks who need Jesus.

Thank you for Coach Scott and my new brother in Christ DeAndre at Clemson University. Use both of these guys as well as Tim Tebow as outspoken witnesses in the places where you have carried them, Lord.

Fill me today with this same Holy Spirit. Help me to be “carried away” by Him and for Him.

“I serve a risen Savior,
He’s in the world today” (“He Lives,” BH 2008, 269). Amen.
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Go You One Better

There are two ways to respond to hard times and hard people.

The first way is very common among pastors and Christians in the American church. It can be summed up this way: cut and run.

Not too many years ago, I was talking to a pastor friend. He was telling about a difficult situation at his church. Right now, I can’t remember all the details. He involved some men in his church. It took a couple of very intense days to deal with the problem. When it was completed, the men he was working with did not leave the church, but they pulled back. One of them said something like, “Whew, pastor. I’ve got to pull away for a while. I’m beat.” He did not leave the church, but it took him a while to recover.

In response to this, my friend said, “People think that being a pastor is a cushy job and yet, after dealing with a difficult situation, they either pull away or leave the church altogether. I have to get up the next day and go right back to work—right back into the fray.”

I respect my pastor friend for doing this. He has been at his church for over a decade. He keeps plugging along.

But a lot of guys don’t. I’m not sure what the latest statistics are. The last I heard, the average tenure for pastors in one church is about three years.

Looking back on my time at First Southern, in year three, we had one of our best years EVER. Things were going very well in a lot of different categories. We then hired a staff person. He was a friend of mine from seminary. He is a good guy. We still keep in touch, but shortly after we called him, things started to happen—not because of him, mind you.

I guess I would just say that the honeymoon was over.

I know this is common. In some places, it takes a little longer. In other places, it takes three weeks for the honeymoon to be over, but it is a crucial point. I think this is the time when a lot of guys make the decision, “This isn’t going to work out. I’m going to start to work on getting out of here.”

Anyway, this is one solution to hard times.

The other is to stick it out.

Believe me—I am not writing this to pat myself on the back. No pastor I know who has served his church for any length of time wants it. Usually, when asked about their tenure, they just sigh. And it is not a cliché. I guess I can’t speak for anyone else—just me. It is the grace and mercy of God.

I do wish, however, that someone, somewhere had prepared me a little bit better before I got into the pastorate. If I ever get another chance to teach (I was an adjunct professor of preaching for a couple of years at the Rocky Mountain campus of Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary here in Denver), I am determined to talk about dealing with conflict A LOT. I think it needs to be included in the paradigm of ministry. It is not a question of “if” it occurs. It is an issue of “when.”

So, the question becomes, how does one deal with it if one is committed to sticking it out?

Well, the Lord prepared Ezekiel in advance with some very special resources. "And he said to me, ‘Son of man, go to the house of Israel and speak with my words to them. For you are not sent to a people of foreign speech and a hard language, but to the house of Israel— not to many peoples of foreign speech and a hard language, whose words you cannot understand. Surely, if I sent you to such, they would listen to you. But the house of Israel will not be willing to listen to you, for they are not willing to listen to me: because all the house of Israel have a hard forehead and a stubborn heart. Behold, I have made your face as hard as their faces, and your forehead as hard as their foreheads. Like emery harder than flint have I made your forehead. Fear them not, nor be dismayed at their looks, for they are a rebellious house’” (Ezekiel 3:4-9 ESV).

Zeke’s fellow countrymen and women had hard foreheads. This is an idiom for rebellion and a non-willingness to listen. It is a very vivid image. Their whole demeanor would be impervious to receptivity.

What does the Lord give to His prophet to combat this? A forehead and demeanor that is HARDER, just like emery is harder than flint.

In other words, God says to the rebels: I will “go you one better.” You are hard. My man is harder. Bring it on, baby.

The irresistible force meets the immovable object. What is harder eventually wins out.

I love this. It reminds me of the credo: outlast your critics.

So, here is what I believe the Lord is saying to His prophet: hang in there. The truth will eventually win.

This reminds me of something that was common with the Super Bowl Bronco teams of over a decade ago. With Terrell Davis, they were committed to running the football. (We can only hope that the current Broncos, with Peyton Manning at the helm, can do the same to help him out, but this is another story. I obviously could say a lot more about this, “homer” that I am). In the first quarter, it never looked as if they were making headway.

But they just kept pounding away, and later in the game, they started to wear down the opposition defense, as Davis broke long runs.

Lord, thank you for the resource you are in the life of a believer. Thank you that you give the ability to stand firm and HARD against opposition.

I pray that everyone who is reading this blog this morning would HANG TOUGH in tough times.

Show us how to do this. Give us grace.

“O breath of God, come fill this place;
Revive our hearts to know your grace” (“The Risen Christ,” BH 2008, 268). Amen.
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Don't Rebel Yourself

I’m not preaching today. This is a vacation Sunday for me, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. The past few days, I have been so exhausted that I could barely hold my head up. Any time I sit down, I fall asleep.

When folks found out I was taking a Sunday off, almost all of them said, “Are you leaving town?” I appreciate their concern. I hope my mom and sis and I can go somewhere today, even if it is just for a few hours, but honestly, I don’t know if we will. My main objective today is to rest.

I’m also going to spend some extended time with Jesus. I’ve been encouraging folks in the church, as we prepare for Vision Day in late September, to do some personal, spiritual evaluation. I need more time to do it myself.

And I tell you, when it comes to doing that, there is no substitute for time and leisure. One cannot have a hard and fast time frame to “squeeze the Lord” into. I’m finding that being in a hurry with God doesn’t work. Eventually, as my cancer experience has shown, the Lord will get His time, hook or crook. He forced me to come to a dead stop so that I would begin the process of radical change.

I have to tell you: it is still on-going.

The passage I read today in Ezekiel reinforced this: "Son of man, listen to what I say to you. Do not join them in their rebellion. Open your mouth, and eat what I give you.” Then I looked and saw a hand reaching out to me. It held a scroll, which he unrolled. And I saw that both sides were covered with funeral songs, words of sorrow, and pronouncements of doom" (Ezekiel 2:8-10 NLT).

This passage has a negative command that is very pertinent. After telling His prophet that he will be preaching to rebels who won’t listen to a word he says, the Lord cautions His servant, “Make sure you don’t join them in their rebellion.”

There is something about ministry that is a grave danger. Paul alludes to it at the end of 1 Corinthians 9: “I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27, NLT).

It is very easy to get focused and preoccupied with the failures of others. It tends to become blinding, and all of a sudden, you turn around and find yourself miles away from the Lord.

I can’t let that happen. I won’t. It costs too much.

“Don’t rebel yourself” is the negative. “Eat the Word” is the positive. This command reminds me of what the Lord said to John in Revelation 10:9. In both instances, the word these men ate was not a pleasant, people-pleasing message. It was a message of judgment.

For Zeke, it was “funeral songs, words of sorrow, and pronouncements of doom." For John, it was a message that was sweet to the initial taste, but once he digested the message, it became sour in his stomach. See Revelation 10:10.

What is this all about? Well, I believe it is important to feed off the Word that one preaches or teaches to others. The Word of God is nourishment. This is what Jesus told Satan in Matthew 4 and Luke 4 (the two temptation narratives) and what He reminded His disciples about in John 4: “My nourishment comes from doing the will of God, who sent me, and from finishing his work” (John 4:34, NLT).

It is NOT just for others. It is for the preacher. It is spiritual food. But it is something I need to hear MYSELF. This involves applying it to oneself before pointing a finger at others.

Well, anyway, this is what I plan to take the time to do today.

Lord, I thank you for the Word of God, your message through me to others, but also, your message in me. Thank you that your Word is soul nourishment and heart corrective, both/and.

Thank you for time and leisure today.

I pray for George as he preaches for me today. Thank you for this brother. Thanks for the new sound system in operation today. I pray that there would be no distractions to worship. Take care of all the families in our congregation who are traveling this weekend.

Amen.
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Surrounded by Thorns and Spiders

In chapter two of Ezekiel, after the amazing vision of the four creatures and the throne of God, we have the record of the prophet’s call to ministry.

This call is remarkably similar in content to that of the other two major prophets—Isaiah and Jeremiah, in chapters six and one of their prophecies, respectively. In each of these narratives, the Lord does not pull any punches. In fact, in each of them, God flat out tells his men that people are not going to respond to the message!

How about that? The Lord tells His prophets to go preach to people that are not going to listen. Here is what the Lord says to Zeke about his audience: "They are a stubborn and hard-hearted people. But I am sending you to say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says!’ And whether they listen or refuse to listen—for remember, they are rebels—at least they will know they have had a prophet among them. Son of man, do not fear them or their words. Don’t be afraid even though their threats surround you like nettles and briers and stinging scorpions. Do not be dismayed by their dark scowls, even though they are rebels. You must give them my messages whether they listen or not. But they won’t listen, for they are completely rebellious!" (Ezekiel 2:4-7 NLT)

As I sit here this morning, the gravity of all of that weighs on me. My calling as a pastor is somewhat different than that of a prophet. Prophets are called to preach God’s message to all types of folks, anywhere and everywhere. He is just as likely to speak to groups of lost people as saved.

My primary responsibility is to preach to the church.

But the principles that are inherent in the call of Zeke and that of the other two major prophets is the same, particularly in 21st Century America. The bottom line is the same: most folks do not want to hear the truth. Some people in this category sit in pews in churches every Sunday.

Very seldom do we see people responding to the invitation to make a public profession of faith in Jesus. I’m not so sure that is as much of an indictment of the people who are sitting there week by week, most of whom are saved, as it is an indication of our lack of personal evangelism or invitation. We don’t see people professing Christ because lost people are not hearing the Word because they have not been invited and no one has shared with them!

In other words, there are a lot of factors that go into the whole dynamic of whether or not a person “responds” to the invitation. The truth is that many do respond and take it in but do not make some tangible, visible “response.” I know this.

Anyway, what I am trying to say is that this is a very complicated matter and ultimately, trying to figure it out would send one (especially me) to the insane asylum. I would be lying, however, if I didn’t say that I don’t think about it and wish it could occur. And I know others in the church feel the same way.

Lettie, a dear sister in our church, and I were conversing a few weeks ago prior to the start of Sunday school. She said, “John, I just see this church building so full of people that we can’t contain all of them. I am praying for revival.”

I was so impressed and encouraged by these words. When she made the above statement, she was totally sincere. There was no agenda or ego.

We stopped right then and there and prayed for revival. I believe that the Lord will answer that prayer and whether this involves our building being filled to overflow or NOT (maybe true revival means there are LESS people), that is up to the Lord.

I’ve learned the hard way that I dare not attach any visible “results” or “expectations” to what I believe the Lord will do. That is totally up to him.

This is why I so appreciate these words in Ezekiel 1. God is very straightforward with His prophet. He tells him that the people are rebels and they won’t listen.

What does one do in that type of situation? Well, there are a few things. First, God tells Zeke to keep on preaching the Word of God—“the Sovereign Lord says.” That’s it. For me, this means that I must just keep explaining and applying the text of scripture as accurately as I can with the guidance and direction and empowerment of the Holy Spirit, the One who inspired the Bible in the first place.

I love the statement (I’m paraphrasing here) that the Lord makes: whether they listen to you or not, at least they will know that a prophet has been among them. Wow. I love this. This is a challenge to integrity. It is NOT about getting mad when people don’t respond. Then, they would remember you as a mad man (no pun intended. Well, maybe …).

Choose any other response or action and you get remembered for it. Decide to keep preaching the Word and get a “rep” as a prophet. I think I will choose option “B.”

The Lord also tells his prophet not to fear. This is a common injunction in the call experiences of the Bible. Anyone who wants to win friends and influence people should probably choose another profession, whether one is a prophet or pastor. I’m telling you: the truth hurts. And only a mature believer can hear the truth, get hurt, and yet respond positively. Even then, it is tough.

But finally, the Lord reminds Zeke that he is going to be surrounded by “stuff” like briars and thorn bushes and spiders that will cause injury and pain.

This is something I really need to spend some time with Jesus about this morning. “Playing hurt” is a challenge for NFL players and God’s proclaimers alike. There is no time to sit on the sidelines and feel sorry for yourself and lick your wounds. There is too much at stake.

What I appreciate about these words today is that the Lord is teaching his prophet NOT to focus on what the people he is preaching to do or don’t do. Instead, He is urging him to stay true to the Lord and to the Word.

All great champions, whether they are in sports world or in the Christian life, need to operate this way.

Yesterday, I heard a story about Jack Nicklaus. A reporter asked him, “Have you ever missed a putt on the 18th hole of a major championship, a putt you needed to make?” Nicklaus replied, “No.” The reporter was ready with a response, “But Jack, what about that putt …” And he named an example. Jack replied, “You didn’t hear me.”

The reporter was persistent, “But on that hole and in that tournament, the ball didn’t go into the hole.” Jack said it again, “You did not hear what I said.”

After a further exchange, Jack explained, “I did not miss any of those putts. I hit them exactly the way I wanted to. The fact that they did not go into the hole is immaterial.”

“Results” are up to God. My responsibility is to aim high: love Jesus and obey the Word and preach it. And, as Bill Bright used to say, “leave the results up to God.”

Father, thank you for these very timely words in Ezekiel today. Thank you for the call to preach. Thank you for the Word of God, my only source of authority and life. Let me live it today. Let me love you today. And I trust you to take care of all the rest.

“Glory, glory, glory to the Lamb” (“Glory to the Lamb,” BH 2008, 266). Amen.
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