Preaching: From God & Before God

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“For to God we are the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. To some we are an aroma of death but to others, an aroma of life leading to life. Who is adequate for these things? For we do not market the word of God for profit like so many. On the contrary, we speak with sincerity in Christ, as from God and before God.” (2 Corinthians 2:15-17, CSB)

Pastor, the weekly privilege of preaching God’s word to God’s flock is no small task. Some would say it is the most significant, most valuable thing you do every week. After hours of studying the text and praying for the Holy Spirit’s discernment, wisdom and anointing, God gives you the awesome responsibility of representing him and re-presenting his word before a group of people who have gathered to meet with him and to hear from him (not with you or from you). The message of Christ is a matter of “life” and “death”, writes Paul; the gravity of the Sunday morning hour should be an occasion for sincerity and awe.

“Who is adequate for these things?” asks the apostle, rhetorically. “No one” is the appropriate response. Apart from the calling of God in Jesus Christ, not one of us is educated enough, dynamic enough, faithful enough, or eloquent enough to represent God and re-present his word every week. Apart from Christ, the preacher brings absolutely nothing to the table. There is no room for boasting or pridefulness in the pulpit. The gravity of our weekly task would completely devastate us, apart from the call of the Father, the redemption of Christ Jesus and the anointing of the Spirit.

“Profit” is a dangerous motive for preaching God’s word. If the question is “what might I gain from preaching today?” you have failed before you have begun. What is it you hope to gain from preaching? Money? Acclaim? Admiration? Experience? The preacher is only prepared to stand in the pulpit when he seeks no such earthly reward. Our only gain is found in our humbled obedience to God. In the words of Richard Baxter, 17th Century preacher, we must walk off the stage each week able to say with integrity: “I preached… as a dying man to dying men.”

In verse 17, the apostle offers a single guiding thought that may do us all good as we prepare and preach every week: “as from God and before God.” Is this message a message from God? Am I preaching it today, as if God himself is in the room watching and listening? Biblical preaching is not biblical preaching if the message is not from God and before God. Preach the word, trusting the Holy Spirit to do the work of conviction in listening hearts. Deliver every word with sincerity, knowing that the Author of your message is in the room, listening intently as you deliver his message to his people.

When Paul meditates on the gravity of his preaching task, he comes to the conclusion that on our own, none of us are “adequate for these things.” But you can stand in the pulpit every week in humbled, impassioned obedience to God when the message you have prepared is “from God” and is being delivered as “before God”.

Grace and Peace
Tony

 

King David, Absalom, & the Pastor’s World

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Having lived in the senior pastor’s world for five years and in the associate pastor’s world for 13, I can say from experience that being called of God to shepherd his flock can often be a daunting task. It was in the pastorate that I experienced some of the most joyful moments of my life. It was also in the pastorate that I experienced some of the most wearisome moments of my life. There were times when I lay down on the floor of my office with my face planted in the rug (and if I could have gotten any lower, I would have), begging God through streaming tears to intervene, to vindicate, or to deliver.

In those moments God sometimes brought a comfort I did not understand. But other times, he simply reminded me of my calling – a pastor is who I am because a pastor is who God called me to be. There were many times in the pastor’s world when the only solace and comfort I found was to just remind myself that I was called of God. Now in a position where I have the honor of serving and supporting pastors and churches across the state of Texas, I am reminded every day that resting in the sure calling of God is often the pastor’s only consolation. As it should be.

When God calls a pastor, he calls the man first to himself, then to a people. Loving and serving God is generally easy. But loving and serving the people to whom he has called you is… well, let’s be honest… people can be hard to love. Pastors are often slandered and subverted, defamed and denigrated. It is difficult to love and serve people who go to such great length to destroy you. But in moments of dejection and despair, the pastor is to rest secure in the solace of God’s calling. He is to remember that God has called him first to himself, and secondly to the people under his care.

King David had been called of God, from shepherding sheep in the field to shepherding an entire nation spread across the land of Israel. David was a good boy. He had the heart of a lion and the courage of a warrior. But as you read 1 and 2 Samuel it becomes obvious that the only reason David was fit to be king over Israel was because God had called him to it. He was God’s anointed. God called David first to himself and secondly to the people of Israel. God could have anointed anyone king in Israel, but he chose David. That’s it. That calling from God would prove to be David’s only solace many times throughout his life.

Take, for example, 2 Samuel Chapters 15-18. David pardoned his son Absalom from banishment after he had killed one of his brothers for raping his sister (Jerry Springer would have eaten this up). Upon his pardon, Absalom surreptitiously positioned himself between the people of Israel and their king, David. Over the course of a few years Absalom “stole the hearts of the men of Israel” with his silver tongue and his charming demeanor (2 Sa 15:1-6). In short, David had been sabotaged by his own son. Absalom undermined God’s anointed and stole the kingdom away. I guess some people just have that (un)spiritual giftedness about them. Most pastors have, at some point, had a member of the flock clandestinely smooth talk his or her way into the hearts of the other sheep. It wasn’t long before the people of Israel called Absalom their king, and David was forced to abscond. By verse 30, we see David at the lowest he had ever been – having escaped his arrest in the city, yet held prisoner by his own depression in the mountains.

I’ll be honest, pastor: Absaloms will hurt you the most. The people you think are for you – you have served them graciously and poured your heart out for their benefit, even when they did not necessarily deserve it. They’ve taken you to lunch and have slipped you a $50 bill here and there, “for you and your sweet wife”. They have spoken your praises from the well-lit platform, but planned your demise in the dark corners. And one day you are blindsided by the realization that all along they’ve been playing you like they’ve been playing everyone else – and you will be the one to fall. That hurts, pastor. I know.

To add insult to injury (literally), as David continued his retreat a man named Shimei walked beside him assaulting him verbally and physically, from Bahurim all the way to the Jordan River. That’s about 15 miles! 2 Samuel 16:5-14 details Shimei’s special ministry to King David – a ministry of defamation, slander, and physical battering. Thank God for Shimei’s, right? Those people in your flock, pastor, who have the uncanny ability to kick you when you’re down. Like blood-sucking leaches, they wait to make their move until you are weary and drained; they capitalize on your disheartened exhaustion to latch on and suck from you the last bit of life you have left.

You know the ones I’m talking about. You spent all day Thursday in crisis marital counseling sessions then committee meetings. You got a call Friday afternoon just before you finished nursing home visits to inform you that one of your young families had been in a car accident – off to the hospital you went. Saturday morning one of your deacons knocked on your door at home because “we need to talk” – a two hour conversation that revealed the urgent need for three hours worth of follow-up. Sunday morning immediately before the worship service began, one of the children’s workers stopped you in the hallway to complain about supplies going missing from her closet. Absolutely drained, you preached your sermon from the end of 2 Corinthians Chapter 4 with lackluster. And the first person to catch you after the service (he may wait until Monday Morning, if you’re lucky) is Mr. Smith who takes the liberty of criticizing your sermon, attacking your devotion to the pastorate, and questioning your ability to lead the church. God bless you, Shimei.

At this point, King David just wants to give up. Can I tell you a secret? There were a few times in the pastorate where I honestly felt that way, too. But here’s what’s great about resting in the call of God alone: in Chapter 15, David was sabotaged by a smooth talker… in Chapter 16 David was defamed by a slanderous accuser… but in Chapter 17 David was delivered by the Lord’s decree (v.14). As it turned out, David’s enemies had been plotting against him in the dark corners, then defaming him on the high hills. But the whole time, God was for David because it was he who was anointed. It was he who was called. The war that David’s enemies incited brought about their own destruction. In the end, because David rested in the call, God subverted the subverters. He slayed the slanderers. He demolished the defamers.

Pastor, I have no doubt that you know how David felt. You live in the pastor’s (shepherd’s) world, too. You will spend entire seasons of your pastorate dealing with the surreptitious scheming of smooth talkers and/or enduring the malicious verbal barrage of flagrant fools. But if you’ll remember that God has called you first to himself – and if you’ll trust in his faithfulness to you in every circumstance – you will see God take you from defamation to deliverance in a way that brings him great glory and always works out for your good.

David was sabotaged. David was slandered. David was defamed and demoralized. But in the end, all that matted was that David was anointed by God. This is the beauty of life in the pastor’s world. Difficulty, dejection, and despair will, at some point, find you. But remember while your face is buried in the tear-stained polyester of your office rug that in the end, pastor, as long as you are faithful, all that matters is that you have been called by God.

Grace and Peace,
Tony

Unsung Heros of Your Local Church

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“From Him [(Christ Jesus)] the whole body, fitted and knit together by every supporting ligament, promotes the growth of the body for building itself up in love by the proper working of each individual part.” Ephesians 4:16, HCSB

Have you ever thought about how many things need to be done every single week, just so that you can gather in your local church and have a meaningful worship experience? Sure, your paid church staff members are working all week long to discern God’s Word, pray for you and others, connect with the community, communicate vision, and lead with forward momentum. But have you considered and prayed for all of the volunteers that give freely of their own time, energy, giftedness, and resources to make the worship experience happen every week? Here are a some volunteers in your church that are often overlooked, but are an indispensable part of what God is up to in your church. These men and women are making it happen every single week, and are often overlooked and under-appreciated:

The Children’s Ministry Volunteers. They give up their time in corporate worship every week, once a month, or once a quarter, so that YOU can enjoy the worship service free of various distractions. They spend time on their feet investing in your children while you sit in a comfortable chair/pew and enjoy the worship service. These men and women are Kids’ Ministry Super-Heros. If you want a quality Kids’ Ministry at your church–and if you want to reach young families in your community–it will not happen without faithful, sacrificial, servant-hearted Kids’ Ministry Volunteers.

The Nursery Workers. They wipe snotty noses, change dirty diapers, hold, sing to, and comfort crying babies, and clean up messes that you don’t even want to imagine. Their tools for ministry are Lysol wipes, diapers, sanitary trash cans, vacuums, burping cloths, and goldfish containers. If they are to enjoy the worship or the sermon, it will be from behind a computer screen sometime during the week. Sacrifice. Commitment. Selflessness.

The Sound Man. If you haven’t noticed him lately, that’s a good thing. But every time a microphone squeals, a singer can’t be heard, or an instrument goes haywire, looks of judgment from turned heads unsettle him and make him feel unappreciated. He is faithful to serve in his post every week, as a committed part of the ministry team. But no one ever says much to him in the way of encouragement.

The Musicians. They are gifted. Talented. Blessed. But they give up so much to lead you in meaningful worship every single week. Whether they play instruments, sing on a microphone, or stand in the choir, their leadership in worship each week puts pressure on them that you do not know. They memorize music, work on blending, intonation, and tuning, worship through their own mistakes, sacrifice hours every week for rehearsal, and endure the pressures of up-front leadership, all the while trying their best to maintain a visible appearance of authentic, genuine connection with God.

The Deacons. Every day they come alongside their pastor to prayerfully bear the burdens of hundreds of souls. They give from their own pockets to meet tangible needs in the church. They leave their families on their days off to make hospital visits, or to sit beside the bed of ill or grieving people. They buffer and diffuse the disgruntled remarks of church members, keeping the peace among the fellowship at all costs. And it weighs on them. Sometimes very heavily. Not many people approach a deacon unless they have a problem or want to voice a concern. It’s a shame that they are not more often appreciated for their devoted service to their church family.

The Small Group Leaders/Teachers. Every week your Small Group leader spends hours in study and preparation to bring God’s Word to you in an engaging, timely way. When they’re not studying, they are doing the difficult work of staying connected with group members. They remember the dates and times for your surgical procedures and job interviews. They pray for you and your family tirelessly. They are the frontline of ministry needs for everyone in their group. They lead with much investment. But too often they are overlooked in their service to your church.

The Custodian. This person, though most likely paid (underpaid, honestly), is vital in preparing an atmosphere that is conducive to distraction-free worship every week. Cleaning your toilets, sweeping your crumbs, taking out your trash, and maintaining the church’s ins-and-outs is too often a thankless job. We tend to see it as “honest work.” But to him or her, it is absolutely a ministry. The faithful church custodian’s work is essential to distraction-free worship.

The First Impressions (or “Welcome Center”) Volunteers. Can you imagine putting on a smile and welcoming grumpy people to church every single week, when you have your own problems you’re working through? You ask everyone how they’re doing, pray with them in the hallways, fix their coffee, and clean up their messes; but how often does someone stop to ask how your morning is going? How often do they bring you a donut or a fresh cup of coffee? Overlooked. Unthanked. But such an important service to the church body.

The Flowers/Decorations Team. Everyone has an opinion. Surely that is something you already know. Which colors are supposed to go with which particular season, and which kinds of flowers should and should not be included in the altar arrangement. The selection of cloth on the fellowship table, and the kinds of lights used in the Christmas wreaths. Criticism abounds, but encouragement and thankfulness are usually fleeting.

So Many More. Every single week, your experience at church hinges on countless volunteers who give their time, energy, resources, and more to serve YOU in tangible ways. Space does not permit the detailed mentioning of all other ministry volunteers such as those who volunteer for lawn maintenance, quick building repairs, meal cooking/serving rotations, ushering, security, office-related needs, and more. Each of them is an essential part of your positive weekly worship experience.

I pray that after reading this, you will commit to doing two things:

  1. Be intentional about thanking these people. Pray that God would lay some on your heart today who you can text, message, call, or to whom you can send a personal card of appreciation.
  2. Look for ways to plug in. Your church needs YOU to serve, too. God has gifted you in specific ways whether that involves your time, talents, or spiritual giftedness. He has engrafted you into His church body for a purpose. Your church needs you to be an active part of the volunteer team. You don’t need to have a position or a title. Just a servant heart, devoted to the advancement of God’s kingdom in and through your local church.

Serve Him with gladness,
Enter His courts with song. 
To our Creator, true praises belong. 
Great is His mercy, wonderful is His name. 
We gladly serve Him, His great love proclaim.
(B.B. McKinney, 1959)

Grace and Peace, Tony

 

5 Steps Toward Winning the Argument

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Everyone likes to win. I know that we’re supposed to have fun “just playing the game,” and that no matter what, we’re supposed to “do our best.” But seriously. I want to win… who doesn’t? In our rapidly evolving world of social media (false senses of courage building from the perceived safety of one’s keyboard), trying to win arguments seems to be one of America’s new favorite past-times. Most of my daily news feeds are littered with one “side” or another attempting desperately to prove itself right. It appears not to matter if the topic at hand is spiritual, political, relational, or even entertainment-based. Polarized sides will take to social media daily in desperate attempts to prove their superior rightness over the baseless idiocy of their opponents. But if your social news feeds are anything like mine, it’s becoming more and more apparent that while many are playing this game, no one is really winning. 

The problem is, in most arguments, we’re not real clear on what winning looks like. You would think that redeemed children of the Living God (Christians) would have a clear understanding of what it looks like to “win” an argument. But it has become apparent that even we are losing it – both figuratively and literally. So, in efforts to help you (Christian) win an argument on social media, allow me to offer a bit of biblical advice, from 2 Timothy 2:22-26. No matter the nature or subject of the controversy, Christian, here’s how you can “win.”

  1. Understand what winning looks like. “Then they may come to their senses and escape the Devil’s trap, having been captured by him to do his will” (v.26). When someone who disagrees with you is freed from the snares of Satan, you’ve won. That’s it. That’s what it looks like to win… It looks like freedom. Grace. Salvation. The real “win” is that Satan’s work be squashed and his will overcome by God’s great glory. That’s the “win” for the Christian. Anything else is a loss. So maybe, before going on to Step 2, you need to make sure you have a proper vision of what it will look like to win. If your goal is to prove yourself right, to beat your opponent into humiliating submission, or to catch him in the entanglements of his own flawed logic, you’re not pursuing the Christian win. You’re pursuing something else. And our time is too short and our mission to important to settle for anything less than a real win.
  2. Grow up. “Flee from youthful passions, and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart” (v.22). If you’re responding to opposition with self-centered, childish behavior, get a life. Namely, get Jesus’s life and let Him live it through you. Your unholy tantrums are producing nothing of value in the fight against Satan’s schemes. So grow up. You can’t control what other people say, do, or think. But you can control how you respond to their words, actions, and attitudes. If your actions or reactions are anything but righteousness, faith, love, and peace, you’re playing for the wrong team. If your alliances are with anyone who is not calling “on the Lord from a pure heart,” you’ve switched benches in the middle of the game. So grow up. Get over yourself. Pursue Christ-like spiritual maturity over pursuing a win in any argument. Once you’ve got that down, you can move on to Step 3.
  3. Pick your battles. “But reject foolish and ignorant disputes, knowing that they breed quarrels. The Lord’s slave must not quarrel…” (vs.23-24a). Part of winning is knowing what battles to fight. If you spend all of your time, energy, and report on insignificant battles, you will not win the war. I heard a coach yelling incessantly the other day, on the basketball court. He could barely get a breath in because he yelled at the top of his lungs about every single little thing. Halfway through the second quarter, he called (yelled) for a time out and the officials didn’t hear him. He kept calling it and calling it and they never acknowledged him. Eventually, someone else had to call for the time out from the bench. Know why they never acknowledged him? Because they had tuned him out. He was talking, but they weren’t listening. I wonder, Christian, if you’ve been incessantly talking/complaining – staking your claim and yelling at the top of your lungs (TYPING IN ALL CAPS) – about things that are “foolish and ignorant disputes.” And I wonder if this has caused you to lose report with those you are trying to reach. Don’t quarrel for quarrels’ sake. If you’re going to win the war, you must choose your battles wisely.
  4. Be patient and gentle. “…but must be gentle to everyone, able to teach, and patient, instructing his opponents with gentleness” (vs.24b-25a). When you do engage in battle, understand that it is the “kindness of the Lord” which leads us to repentance (Ro.2:4). Biblical Christian opposition is always done from a position of gentleness. If you “win” the argument but misrepresent the Savior in the process, you’ve won nothing at all. In fact, if your actions or reactions point people away from the kindness of God instead of to the kindness of God, you’ve not won, but lost. Speak with gentleness. Exercise great patience. Don’t soften the truth, but don’t speak it without love. Don’t cower in fear, but don’t borrow on it either. Whatever the argument, be gentle. And be patient. That’s what points people to Jesus.
  5. Let God do what only He can do. “Perhaps God will grant them repentance leading them to the knowledge of the truth” (v.25b). Christianity is not a showboating event. You’re playing for the team – for the kingdom of God. Your part is to represent God well in the world where He has placed you. His job is to convict the world of sin and righteousness, and draw them to salvation through repentance from sin and faith in Jesus Christ. Read the playbook. You’re just the assist; God gets the dunk. The real win is not your win anyway. It’s Jesus’s win. No matter how flattering, convincing, or emphatic your words, you cannot get the win on your own. You must play your part well, with a surrendered trust that God will play His. “Repentance” and “truth” cannot be attained by those who are far from God unless God Himself grants it to them. So as you constantly work on Steps 1-4, be sure to let God handle Step 5. And when He does, make Him famous for it. Let Him get the glory.

Grace and Peace, Tony.

Prayer for the President-Elect

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Early this morning Americans received the official news that Donald Trump will become the 45th President of these United States, with Mike Pence by his side as VP. Whether you feel elated by this news or devastated by it, the truth remains that these two men will hold the two highest offices in our land beginning January 20, 2017. Over the next several weeks, they will be selecting men and women to serve with them as cabinet members and office-holders in positions of prominence. If you devoted yourself to prayer over the past week, please don’t stop now. Here are some ways you can pray for our President-Elect over the next few weeks as these important positions are being filled.

  1. Pray for a Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. These four Hebrew boys determined themselves to honor God while in the court of a foreign king. They would not defile themselves with any act of disobedience to God. They spent time in prayer daily, even when that simple act landed them in a fiery furnace. The pre-incarnate Christ walked among them in the fire. Through their influence of unwavering devotion to the One True God, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon declared that “there is no other god who is able to deliver like this.” Daniel became the official interpreter for the king, and God blessed the land because of his faithful witness. President Trump will need the wisdom of godly men if he is to evaluate all things with Godly wisdom.
  2. Pray for an Esther and a Mordecai. God sovereignly placed Esther in the court of the Persian King Ahasuerus. When the king considered ordering the death of all Jews in his kingdom, by trickery from another advisor, Esther laid her own life on the line to stand for the right to life for those whose voices were not heard. Her uncle Mordecai gave her the encouragement and the challenge she needed to stand in confidence “for such a time as this.” President Trump’s Congress will likely entertain legislation, and he, Supreme Court appointments, that have the potential to change our culture from a culture of death to a culture of life concerning abortion and end-of-life practices. Let’s pray for an Esther who will lay her life on the line, if necessary, to plead with President Trump on behalf of the lives of those who cannot speak for themselves. And let’s pray for a Mordecai to give her encouragement and accountability toward this end.
  3. Pray for a Nehemiah. Nehemiah was heartbroken over the devastation of his people. Because the Lord was with him, he won the favor of King Artaxerxes who gave him provisions and protections to carry out the difficult work of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. Nehemiah endured constant terroristic threats as he worked with one hand and held the spear with the other. His tireless efforts saw not only the safety of the city restored, but the spiritual vitality of his people returned. President Trump is elected in a day when terror/evil is on the rise and feelings of safety within our country are depleting. He will need to be surrounded with leaders who do not cower in fear when threatened by evil and who will put their hands to this difficult work with tireless commitment.
  4. Pray for a Joseph. Through a series of less-than-ideal circumstances, Joseph (an Israelite) was landed in the court of the Egyptian king. His faithfulness to God and upright character was finally rewarded in such a way that he became second in command over Egypt in a time period when the Israelites and Egyptians were living together in peace. God opened Joseph’s eyes to see impending economic failure. He wisely instituted policies and laws that would prepare the people of the land for the coming difficulty. Even as second in command, God used Joseph’s sensitivity to His will and leadership among the people to preserve the lives of two whole ethnic groups: the Egyptians and the Israelites. Let’s pray that President Trump will surround himself with people who are wise in economic policies, having the leadership skills necessary to implement policies and procedures that will lead our country toward economic vitality, from impending economic doom.
  5. Pray for a Jethro. When he was overwhelmed and burned-out, Moses’s father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian, gave him some much needed wise council. The work was too much for one man to do alone. Jethro counseled Moses to find men who were trustworthy and upright, to whom he could delegate responsibility. The office of President of the United States of America is one with great responsibility and great burden. President Trump will be overwhelmed many times, and will stand in need of a wise older man who can pour wisdom into his dry vessel. Let’s pray that God would put that person into his path, and open the President’s heart to receive wise counsel with a humbled heart.

Don’t stop praying now. Remember still to place your hope in God alone:

“Do not trust in nobles, in man, who cannot save. When his breath leaves him, he returns to the ground. On that day his plans die. Happy is the one whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord his God, the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea and everything in them. He remains faithful forever, executing justice for the exploited and giving food to the hungry. The Lord frees prisoners. The Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord raises up those who are oppressed. The Lord loves the righteous. The Lord protects foreigners and helps the fatherless and the widow, but He frustrates the ways of the wicked. The Lord reigns forever; Zion, your God reigns for all generations. Hallelujah!” (Ps. 146:3-10)

Grace and Peace, Tony