When your broken spirit causes you to grow deaf to God’s word…

“Moses spoke thus to the people of Israel, but they did not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and harsh slavery.”  Exodus 6:9

I came across these words in my Bible reading this week.  I hadn’t noticed them before as I read the Exodus story.  But, as I came across them this time, it brought a lot of sense in my personal life as well as my ministry.  These words take place in the beginning of the story of the exodus of God’s people from Egypt.  They had resettled in Egypt several generations before to escape famine.  Their forefathers experienced Egypt as a place of God’s provision.  However, God’s ultimate purpose for his people was Canaan, not Egypt. What was initially a very favorable situation eventually became a place of bondage as the subsequent kings of Egypt made the Hebrews slaves.  They were in a place that was not really their home and were powerless to change their circumstances.  They cried to the Lord again and again to deliver them.  God answered their prayers by sending them Moses.

Moses was a reluctant leader.  He didn’t feel he had the power to command Pharaoh.  However, God gave him the promise of His word, backed by powerful signs, to show Moses that he was God’s instrument and that he would be sustained by God’s power.  Now, if you and I were writing this story, it would probably go like this: “Moses went to Pharaoh and commanded him to let God’s people go.  Pharaoh resisted and mocked Moses for his brashness.  Then, Moses did a miraculous sign and Pharaoh repented and gladly let God’s people go so that they went to Canaan and lived happily ever after.”  That’s the storylines we tend to write.  However, God had a bigger purpose.  God would use the stubbornness of Pharaoh’s heart and the harshness of His people’s circumstances to demonstrate the power of His redemption.  He wanted to demonstrate not only to the Hebrews, but for generations to come, that God’s redemptive power can break any bond and overcome any challenge.

Pharaoh’s initial response to the word of God was not only stubborn resistance, but increasing rebellion.  So, he made the work of the Hebrew slaves harder.  He made them continue to make their load of bricks, but without providing the straw necessary to do so.  As a result, they cried out to Pharaoh and complained to Moses.  They said ,”The Lord look on you and judge, because you have made us stink in the sight of Pharaoh and his servants, and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.” (Exodus 5:21). God responded to Moses by reaffirming his plans for deliverance.  He told Moses to say, “I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment.” (Ex 6:6).

Nevertheless, as verse 9 above shows us, as Moses spoke these words, the people didn’t listen.  But, notice why they didn’t listen: “because of their broken spirit and harsh slavery.”  The years of hard bondage and enslavement they had experienced had brought them to a point where they could hear the word of the Lord, yet refuse to believe it.  Even though they had prayed to hear these exact words for generations.  Isn’t that just like us?  We will pray to God for something only to allow the present reality of our situation to blind us to the ways God is working or to deafen us to the voice of God.  We go to church and hear God’s word preached, but it falls on deaf ears because we are too preoccupied with our present situation to hear and receive God’s promise.  We become faithless because we expect instant gratification in our prayers.  When the situation doesn’t resolve itself quick and painlessly, we fall into doubt about God’s goodness towards us, His love for us, or His sovereign plan over our lives.  I think God puts these verses in the story of Exodus and uses the increasing peril of their bondage to show you and me that when we are in the crucible of belief that we need to remember the promises of His word instead of the reality of our situation.  I think we can see a few lessons from these verses.

First, a broken spirit and the realities of our enslavement can deafen us to the voice of God.  How many times have you gone to church and silently prayed for God to change your situation?  But, even as you speak those words, you have another voice inside that says, “It won’t do any good. Nothing ever changes for me.”  This is the burden of a broken spirit.  Sometimes our present pain shouts so loud that it drowns out all other voices, including the voice of God.  However, even in that situation, you need to remember that our God is not silent.  He is speaking.  He has revealed to you already in the pages of His word that He is a gracious God, a redeeming God, and a God who is sovereign over each and every situation.  I heard someone once quote “Never doubt in the dark what God told you in the light.”  That’s such a good word.  Spurgeon said it this way, “I would sooner walk in the dark and hold hard to a promise of my God, than trust in the light of the brightest day that ever dawned.”   So, when you broken spirit wants to reject God’s clearly revealed word, remember the story of the exodus and that God promised his deliverance and God always delivers on His promise.

Second, God can our broken spirits as a canvas on which his redemption shines even brighter.  While the Hebrews did not listen to Moses because their spirits were broken, God didn’t allow their lack of receiving the promise stop His plan.  It is true for many of us that we will not be ready to receive God’s word until our personal spirits are completely broken.  The great irony of the early chapters of the Exodus is that the very thing the Hebrews had prayed for had finally come, yet they were not yet ready to trust and believe.  As we eventually see, God would use the increasing difficulty of their situation and the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart to demonstrate his power through a series of ten debilitating plagues.  God showed his great power in the desperateness of their circumstances.  He would do the same when their backs were up against the Red Sea with Pharaoh’s army bearing down.  When we are tempted to give up hope, that’s when the God of hope shines brightest.  So, no matter what is going on right now, know that God uses our brokenness to bring Him glory.  Remember Psalm 34:18, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.”  Remember Isaiah 42:3, “a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.”  Remember Psalm 51:17, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

Finally remember that God’s promise of deliverance doesn’t usually come with immediate relief.  God will often use the increasing difficulties of our circumstances to test our faith in His word and our dependence on Him and not ourselves.  When God promises deliverance, he doesn’t always say it will be quick and easy.  As a matter of fact, it is often slow, messy, and painful.  That’s because chains of bondage and enslavement are not always easily broken.  We live in an instant gratification society where we expect the promises of God to be fulfilled like the circumstances in our favorite TV drama – “Please wrap it up nice and neatly, and all in one hour.”  Our christianized property culture is prone to see challenges, pain, and difficulty as a sign of our personal unbelief and a hindrance to God’s promise.  However, God didn’t need the Hebrews immediate belief to prove His deliverance.  God used their unbelief to reaffirm His word and remind them that all redemption is completely due to his power and not our faith or faithfulness.  So, if you cry out to God and your situation gets worse, not better, don’t doubt God’s goodness or that He is hearing you.  Instead, dive deeper into His word and see that He is a God who always delivers according to his power and for his glory.  Don’t see your chains as a sign of God’s displeasure over you.  Instead, like Paul, see them as tools for the gospel.

Whatever is going on in your life right now, don’t let the reality of a broken spirit or a painful enslavement cause you to not listen to the word of God.  If God has promised it, your redemption is coming soon.

Joseph and the Sovereignty of God…

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Too often, I believe,  as we read through the Bible stories of the OT characters, we are tempted to read them as isolated events, given to us as historical accounts and moral lessons.  Certainly, every Bible story has biblical principles embedded in them which serve for our edification and sanctification.  However, as we read the stories of these men and women, we must remember that they are not hundreds of isolated stories, but one story of One Sovereign God and the grand story of redemption that He is writing.

Take the life of Joseph as an example.  The story of his life comprises 13 chapters in Genesis – approximately 25% of the book.  It’s a story filled with continual drama – the favored son and dreamer whose dreams create jealousy with his brothers; sold into slavery and taken thousands of miles from home; unjustly thrown into prison for something he didn’t do; interpreter of Pharaoh’s dreams who is exalted to the vice-regent of Egypt; protector of Egypt and the surrounding lands in a time of famine; reunited with his brothers and father after many years.  It’s also a story about Joseph’s virtue – his commitment to work with excellence even though his is a foreigner in Egypt; his refusal to lay with his boss’s wife and commit sexual sin in the sight of God; his compassion to interpret the dreams for the baker and the cupbearer; the using of his position of power for the benefit of innocent lives instead of for his own personal ambition; his forgiveness offered to his brothers when he was in a position to enact retribution.

While each of these isolated stories are mini-dramas unto themselves and each present to us examples of the path God wants us to follow in our lives, I believe the primary reason God gives us such length and detail over Joseph’s life is to demonstrate His sovereignty in the unfolding drama of human redemption that He is unveiling.  Not only did God call Joseph’s great-grandfather from a foreign land and give him an heir in his old age; but he sovereignly persevered his grandfather, Isaac’s, life; blessed his scheming father, Jacob, and gave him twelve sons who would become the nation of Israel.  In his own life, God sovereignly used Joseph’s favor with his father and their ensuing jealousy to send Jospeh to Egypt.  God sovereignly ordained that everything Jospeh did in Potiphar’s house and Pharaoh’s palace prospered.  God sovereignly gave Joseph the ability not only to dream great dreams, but to interpret them in such a way that it revealed God’s unfolding plans.  God sovereignly placed Joseph in Pharaoh’s palace so that, as a man who was controlled by the wisdom of God, Joseph could execute a plan that would save the lives of millions.  God sovereignly used the famine in the land to create a need in the lives of the sons of Israel and the prosperity of Egypt to bring Jacob and his sons to Egypt.  He declared to Jacob in Genesis 46 that He would make Israel into a great nation, in the land of Egypt, not in the land of Canaan where Jacob expected.

And God would sovereignly turn Jacob’s descendants in Egypt into the Hebrews who, four hundred years later, would be suffering enslavement at the hands of another Egyptian Pharaoh and would cry out to God for a deliverer.  God would sovereignly protect the life of another young Hebrew boy – born into slavery, yet raised in Pharaoh’s palace; sent into exile in the wilderness for 40 years, called to deliver Yahweh’s people and bring them back to the land that was promised to Abraham.  And God would use all these stories of his sovereignly redemptive hand to point us to a future deliverer who would one day redeem all God’s people from their spiritual enslavement and bring us back into his family as the sons and daughters of God.

So, next time you are tempted to see a trial or difficulty in your life as an isolated incident of pain, remember Joseph and the continuing story of the sovereignty of God.  You cannot see in that moment what God is doing and you likely will not see what God was doing for many years to come.  God doesn’t just call you to mimic the virtue of Joseph, but to demonstrate the same trust in the invisible, sovereign hand of God that he did.  Who knows the impact your faith will have in the years to come.

Only that Christ is Proclaimed…

Our church is currently going through the book of Philippians, which has long been one of my favorite books in the Bible.  Our sermon series is focusing on “The Joy of the Christ-Centered Life”.  As you read through Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, it oozes with the themes of joy, Christ, and the gospel.  Everything Paul talks about in the letter emanates from these three themes.

In chapter 1:12-18, Paul gives his brothers and sisters in Christ an update on in imprisonment in Rome.  The context of the letter suggests that once the Philippians heard that Paul had been arrested in Jerusalem and transferred to Rome to await trail, they sent a love gift to him by way of Epaphroditus.  They also wanted Epaphroditus to bring them back a report on Paul’s physical and spiritual condition.  However, their friend became deathly ill while visiting Paul.  When he eventually made a full recovery, Paul sends him back to Philippi with a joy-saturated update on his situation.  Here is what he wrote:

 I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear. Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.”  Philippians 1:12-18

As you read those words, it’s hard to picture a man sitting in a Roman prison.  Paul has the mindset of a soldier marching into enemy lines.  Far from being a tool which was hindering the gospel, Paul’s shackles are testimony of gospel advance!   From Paul’s report, we see three Christ-centered attitudes that Paul expresses which fuel his joy while he sits under chains in a Roman incarceration.

1. Paul’s first joy-fueling attitude is “No Matter What, the Gospel Comes First”.  After describing how his chains have opened doors for Paul to share Christ with the Imperial Guard and also how his critics in the church have used his imprisonment to belittle him, Paul makes the astounding comment, “Only that in every way…Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.”  He’s not complaining about his unjust incarceration.  He’s not expressing concern about his uncertain trial.  He isn’t going on a personal rant about the character of his critics.  He is simply saying, “If God chooses to use my chains or my critics as a tool for the gospel, that will bring me joy.”  Paul never got over his Damascus road encounter with Christ.  Ever since that day that Christ arrested Paul from his legalism and self-righteousness with grace and mercy, the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ became the prevailing purpose of Paul’s life.  That is why he could rejoice in trial, rejoice in personal attack, and rejoice in times when most of us would soak in discouragement, depression, or despair. There is a parallel relationship between our experience of gospel transformation and our verbal expressions of gospel proclamation. How about you?  Have you come to a point in your journey with Christ where the stunning goodness of his grace has so overwhelmed you that you can look at your unjust and difficult circumstances as vehicles that God could use to demonstrate and communicate the gospel to others?

2.  The second joy-fueling attitude is “God’s Mission is More Important than My Comfort”.     Paul describes to the Philippians how God is using his chains as tools for gospel advance, not gospel retreat.  It reminds us of how our natural human perspectives often have wired us to see trials and obstacles as hindrances and hurdles which keep us from talking about Jesus.  Where many of us would be intimidated into silence by the presence of a battle-hardened Roman soldier, Paul was excited for the opportunity to share Christ with another fallen sinner created in the image of God.  Chains and prison locks could never diminish the missionary heart of Paul.  He knew every morning that God was bringing him someone else who had never heard the good news of Christ.  So, when you read Philippians, you do not read about the uncomfortable conditions, you read about the evangelistic opportunities.  This is because God’s mission was more important than Paul’s comfort.  Too often as believers we are pushed into gospel silence by much less than what Paul was dealing with.  Once we experience the least bit of resistance or discomfort, our mouths usually dry up.  We may begin a gospel conversation and the other person takes a shot about “Christians who try to force their morality” and we quickly transition to a different subject.  Or, we encounter a spiritual question we cannot quickly answer, so we decide to leave the witnessing up to those who are “smarter” than us and just let the goodness of our lives tell others about Jesus.  Gospel conversations are not comfortable.  When we attempt to tell others about Jesus, we are entering the arena of spiritual warfare.  Of course it will be uncomfortable.  But, the mission of God is more important than our comfort.

3.  A final joy-fueling attitude Paul demonstrates is “God, Use This to Christ’s Glory, Not Mine”.  Whether facing the unjust imprisonment of a Roman government or the unjust attack of those who were supposedly brothers in Christ, Paul doesn’t resort to defensiveness, retribution, or pity.  Instead, he has learned that true joy comes from seeking the greater glory of Jesus Christ over the fleeting glory of temporal lives.  Paul knows that God often uses our trials and hardships as the canvass on which he displays the glory of Jesus Christ.  Paul also knows that whether it’s 30 days or 30 years, one day Paul will be gone but Jesus Christ and the gospel will remain.  So, isn’t it better to live our lives as an arrow pointing to the glory of Christ rather than a conduit pointing to the glory of us?  This same attitude was expressed by missionary Jim Elliot in his journal when he wrote, “Wherever you are, be all there! Live to the hilt every situation you believe to be the will of God!”.  Elliot knew that the Great Commission call of Christ meant that every tribe was worthy of hearing the gospel, even the savage Auca Indians of Ecuador who had violently resisted every attempt by outsiders to engage them.  Yet, Elliot and his friends pressed on, certain that they needed to hear Christ and would one day embrace Him.  While those five men were brutally killed for being obedient to Christ, Jesus used their death and the subsequent attempts by the families of the missionaries to continue to engage, to eventually bring the gospel to them.  Whether the gospel is transmitted through prison chains or spears, Christ can use anything for his glory as long as we look to him and not the glory of ourselves.

What would it take in your life for you to develop on “only that Christ is proclaimed” mentality?  What attitudes does God need to refine in you which cause you to look to the difficulty of your circumstances rather than the opportunities to proclaim Jesus?  Where is God calling you today to walk in deeper faith and confidence in Him?

Far as the curse is found…

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“No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.”

Most of us are familiar with the popular Christmas hymn, “Joy to the World” by Isaac Watts.  One of the beautiful things I appreciate about Christmas is the opportunity it provides to sing familiar hymns and songs associated with the birth of Christ.  Christmas provides a yearly rhythm where we reflect on the gospel by drawing us to sing songs that the church usually reserves for just the Christmas holiday season.   There is a beauty and a danger in familiarity.  The beauty is that the words of these songs are imbedded in our memories, and hopefully our hearts.  The danger is that their familiarity can lead us to recall and sing them without giving much reflection to what we are singing.

I was thinking this week about this particular line from “Joy to the World” and the powerful truth it proclaims that I really have never paused to reflect upon.  In the first line of the hymn, we excitedly pronounce “joy to the world” because the Lord and King has now come.  The announcement of the arrival of the King ignites joy into the hearts of those who belong to His kingdom.  Consequently, we are called to “let every heart prepare Him room”.  In order to make room for the King of Kings, you must first relinquish the right to your own throne.

When we come to this third verse, we see the powerful implications of the arrival of our King.  This King of Kings is also our kinsman redeemer.  He has come not only to establish His rule over the earth, but also to redeem us from the curse of sin that we have brought into the world and into our own lives because we rejected His rule and authority and decided to supplant His rule with our own.  The result of our sin and rejection of Him is seen in the prevailing presence of sin and sorrows in our world.  As we fell in the garden, God pronounced a curse not only to Adam, but to the very creation that he was commanded to steward.  God said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  Paul echoed this curse on creation in Romans 8 when he wrote, For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.  And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”  

Simply put, have you ever wondered to yourself, “What is wrong with this world?  Why does life have to be so hard?”  The answer is that this world and all its inhabitants are living under the rightful curse of the sin and rebellion of all mankind.  And the scope of that curse is universal.  Paul says that the entire creation was subjected to futility.  But the good news of the gospel, and the good news we proclaim in song, is this truth –  because our sovereign King and perfect Redeemer has finally come, there will one day be a full and final redemption in which sin and sorrow will no longer grow and thorns will one day be vanquished from creation.  Not only that, but His blessings will flow “far as the curse is found.”  There isn’t one fallen molecule in this creation that will not one day experience the blessings of redemption.  What a glorious truth to sing!  Joy to the world, indeed!

 

Thoughts from Uganda (five months later)…

This past July, I had the honor of leading a mission trip to Uganda with Four Corners Ministries.  It was my third trip to Northern Uganda in the last 6 years with FCM.  The story of what God is doing in that region through the ministry of Four Corners and Abaana’s Hope is virtually impossible to adequately put into words.  But if I were able to personally take you there, you would find a holistic and thriving Christian community in the midst of the African bush where darkness, hopelessness, and lostness once reigned.  Our primary work for the past decade has been among the Acholi people, a people group once ravaged by a 20-year civil war in Northern Uganda.  The sovereignty of God has now opened another door of ministry for FCM to work directly among the 1.5 million refugees and displaced people from South Sudan who have relocated to Northern Uganda.

37610800_10156791970430288_1021225845827567616_o.jpgThe team that I led this year was composed of 8 team members – 5 pastors, 2 young men who feel called to ministry, and a good friend of mine who came to take video of the trip. Few of the team members had a connection to each other, outside of their personal connection to me, before meeting at the airport in Atlanta.  However, by the end of the journey, the fellowship of the Holy Spirit and the shared experience of gospel ministry had bound us together as brothers-in-Christ.  The primary purpose of our trip was two-fold: 1) to provide a “vision trip” experience for those who were first-timers to see and feel the ministry impact among the Acholi and the great need for the gospel among the South Sudanese; and, 2) to lead two “leadership training conferences” among pastors and church leaders in the region around Gulu, as well as in the refugee camp in Adjumani.  While I could write a long description of all the experiences we encountered on that trip, I will forgo that detailed description in lieu of several thoughts and observations I still have several months later.

37533603_10100408313639344_5569744736555630592_o.jpgFirst, the vast majority of the American evangelical church is clueless about the global state of lostness and the deep need for the gospel throughout the world.  Like many people I know, I grew up in a Southern Baptist culture where we talked about the importance of missions and heard many stories of what God was doing through missionaries around the world.  However, until I personally began to go to places where Christ has not actually been named, I had no idea how deep the need is for the gospel around the world.  Lostness is easily hidden behind empty numbers and statistics.  Once I came face-to-face with people who, only a few years ago, not only lived in dire circumstances personally and economically, but also in deep spiritual hopelessness without any personal gospel witness, my eyes were opened to a whole new reality.  The numbers and statistics faded into the background and were replaced with names and faces – Carolyn, Grace, Stephen, Vincent, and hundreds more.  I began to see the spiritual darkness in that one remote part of the world first-hand.

I attribute this ignorance in the church pews for the most part to the ignorance in the pulpit among my fellow pastors about the global state of lostness.  I have witnessed firsthand that most pastors are too preoccupied with measuring our personal value by the size of our own pithy little kingdom outposts and competing with our fellow churches in town to even give any thought whatsoever to the fact that billions of people around the world have no gospel witness at all.  In many other parts of the world, churches aren’t fighting over a measly pool of easily-disgruntled and rarely-satisfied religious consumers because there aren’t enough professing Christians to fight over.  Brother Pastor, I plead with you, stop measuring your ministry worth by metrics that aren’t even registering in the portals of heaven.  Jesus made it clear that heaven throws a party when one lost sinner repents, but he never said anything about this past Sunday morning attendance eclipsing last year’s at your church. 37488546_10100408310740154_6085786319890415616_o.jpg

A second thought that keeps recurring with me is that the brand of Christianity that the evangelical church is exporting around the world is embarrassingly insufficient and inadequate to accomplish the Great Commission.  As in many other parts of the world, the evangelical witness that the American church has sent to central Africa is saturated with prosperity-gospel heresy.  In comparison to many countries in Africa, Uganda is considered very friendly to Christianity and “Christian influence” is seen throughout the country.  However, like most of our pragmatically-induced evangelical culture, as long as someone identifies as a Christian or pastor, we check that box and move on.  A deeper exploration of many of these pastors and churches reveals that what is being proclaimed in these pulpits is just an Africanized version of the prosperity garbage filling many American pulpits and public airwaves.  The prosperity gospel is simply a form of animism (the worship of the spirit world) dressed up in Christian language.  Ken Mbugua did an excellent job presenting this in his article “Africa, the Prosperity Gospel, and the Problem of Unguarded Churches“.

There are many underlying reasons why we are not having the global impact we claim we are having.  For one, the American church continually equates effectiveness with numbers.  Our decades steeped in the “church growth” mindset have indoctrinated us into believing that numbers equals success.  Our donors in the states want to hear about the thousands that are reached in one area and are not impressed when a church only reaches 8-10 people in a year.  Africans understand our fascination with numbers, so they easily report thousands of new converts and dozens of new churches planted.  But, this doesn’t mean that the people reached have actually responded to a biblically-faithful presentation of the gospel, that they have truly repented of their sin and trusted Jesus instead of adding another deity to their pantheon of spirits, or that they are genuinely being discipled by another, more mature believer.  Another reason is that pastors in many areas around the world are being funded by American ministries, but there is no accountability for what they preach from the pulpit or teach their members.  Pastors promise parishioners if they come to church and pray to Jesus that he will give them abundant crops or insure personal health.  Most pastors have little to no access to biblical or theological training.  What little training they have quite likely didn’t offer basic instruction in biblical interpretation, biblical theology, or defining the gospel.  At one of our leadership trainings, I was grieved when we asked several pastors in the refugee camps a basic question about the gospel, many of them gave “works-based” answers that were void of any concept of salvation by grace and grounded their own personal salvation on the fact that they were pastors and not sinners in need of grace.

37539438_10100408315450714_1182965939008700416_o.jpgEven with these sobering realities, I am more excited about the future of missions than ever before.  It was one of my greatest honors to lead these 7 men and show them firsthand what can blossom in the midst of great spiritual darkness when you give people the simple gospel and let the word of God do the work.  I am excited about the new Pastor Training Center that we are launching through Four Corners in 2019.  I believe that this ministry will help us begin to push back lostness in dramatic ways by training men in gospel-centered ministry and networking them together for accountability and mutual disciple-making.  I eagerly anticipate seeing possibly thousands of displaced South Sudanese find the hope of Christ in the midst of their personal pain and displacement.

Please join me in praying for the Acholi people, the Olubo people, the Nuer people, and many of the dozens of level 1-2 unreached people groups in central Africa.  If you want to know more about how you or your church can personally support real, gospel-centered ministry among hard-to-reach peoples, please leave a comment or reach out to me on Facebook.

Till all the nations hear!

Restarting…

1-1.jpgI’ve finally decided to restart my blog after an almost two-year hiatus.  I launched this blog a couple of years ago with the intention of deepening the habit of writing and putting my thoughts into tangible words.   At one time, I held the vain belief that I might be a repository of spiritual wisdom that the masses were clamoring for.  And, I mistakenly thought that once I opened the computer to start typing these thoughts, not only would the words flow fast and furious from my fingers, but the masses would clamor for more.  I envisioned a post going up and within hours reaching thousands of views.  I dreamt of starting a platform for myself and several ministry friends where the conversations we were having around coffee at the conferences would launch into the greater evangelical world.

Then I discovered something – writing is hard.  Whether typing into a blog or simply writing into my journal, writing is hard.  To write, I have to slow down, and I don’t often have time to slow down.  To write well and consistently, I have to unplug from social media and turn off the extraneous electronic devices.  I have to concentrate more on thinking.  And it’s hard to do that when my mind is preoccupied with listening to the latest sports podcast or binging the newest Netflix offering.

I am painfully discovering the truth that if I don’t make certain practices in my life an intentional discipline, the will suffer from unintentional neglect.  Whether that’s wrestling through God’s word, personally discipling a few other men, or creating meaningful experiences and conversations with my family.  For my personal and spiritual health, I need to let go of some of the things that don’t matter to focus more on some of the things that should.

So, I will try in this space to wrestle through the discipline of writing and, hopefully, have something worthwhile for you to read from time to time.  Thanks for stopping by.  Hope to see you again soon.

Seeing Past Your Church’s Mailbox…

mailbox-005.jpgThere is a troubling little secret in ministry that that often goes unnoticed by the average church member, but it can have toxic and dangerous implications on us in pastoral ministry.  It’s the dangerous combination of personal ambition, the need for validation from others, and the tendency to base “success” in ministry solely on pragmatic valuations like growing numbers or statistics that are most quoted and measured in denominational headquarters.  The result is that many people I know in ministry seldom see past their own church’s mailbox.  Sure, we all know how to give external lip-service to the fact that when it comes to evangelical churches, we are all on the same team.  Even while we do so, we often secretly harbor thoughts of envy, skepticism, or comparing statistics. We know how to say “Amen” when a brother shares that he had three new families join the church Sunday.  As we do so, some of us are actually affirming other voices inside our heads and hearts.  “I’m a failure because nobody moved an inch after my sermon.”  “Yeah, if I had his location and his budget and his building, I would have people walk down each week too.”

This dangerous mix shows up subtly in several ways.  First, there is the inevitable barrage of questions at pastor’s meetings, “How many are you running in Sunday School?”, “So, have you guys gone to two services yet?”, “Did you hear about _________ Church and how many they had on Easter Sunday morning?”  The hidden suggestion is that success is measured mostly by numbers. Increasing numbers equates to ministerial success and pastoral fidelity.  Very rarely do I ever talk to a brother in the ministry whose first question to me is “How’s your time personally in God’s word lately?”  or “What are some ways that you’ve been wounded in ministry recently and how can I pray for you?”  When I do meet someone who displays such an others-first spirit, I usually want to stay around a while and talk.

The other way this often shows up is in the sanctified “pastor brag”.  In this case, pious ministers have learned the art of touting their recent successes followed by a quick “Praise the Lord” or “It’s all God’s doing.  Nothing I’ve done.”   I have noticed that these pastors are usually very quick to tell you how many people have walked an aisle or been baptized recently, but they are often silent about the people that have left the church.  I don’t usually hear stories from these men about having a two-hour lunch with a young man who just needed to be discipled and know God’s word better.  Sometimes I think the pursuit of the one gets lost in the midst of pursuing the ninety-nine.

Recently I found myself in another such meeting where some of these dynamics were at play.  After about 20 minutes of the usual pastoral bloviating about numbers and statistics, we heard someone speak about the work that God was doing among an unreached people group in another part of the world.  We heard stories about how the gospel had been changing lives and bringing hope to a place that had no access to the gospel just a few years before.  We also heard about a vision to partner with existing churches to plant gospel-centered churches among unreached people groups.  We were reminded in a very powerful way that lostness is a global problem and that there are great pockets of the world that have no access to the gospel.  We were reminded that the task of planting churches falls on existing churches.  Missions organizations don’t plant churches. Healthy churches plant churches.  It dawned on me that with so many “successful” churches in our midst that surely there will be a rush to partner to accomplish the task of expanding the gospel to unreached people groups.  When the speaker finished, he gave time for any follow-up questions.  Surely this would be the moment when the light bulb would go on and a new vision for global ministry would be ignited.  Sadly, that was not the case.  One of my fellow ministers asked a question about what the process would be like if his church wanted more info.  (I also found out later that he actually did schedule a follow-up appointment for his church to begin partnering with the organization.)  After that was answered, there was a minute of awkward silence, followed by a thanks to the speaker for coming.  That was it.  No other questions asked. A few warm handshakes and let’s all get back to our offices.  After all, who has time for anything else when you have so much success coming in your own front door?  Anyways, isn’t the task of global missions best accomplished by writing a check to missions agencies and letting them deal with the issues?

I came away from that meeting with the same feeling I have had dozens of other times.  When it comes to ministry, most of us in church leadership have a hard time seeing past our church’s mailbox.  We all want to see the yearly ACP statistics at the annual associational meeting to see how we stacked up against the other churches in the area.  When a family leaves one church to start attending another church down the road, seldom does the pastor of the new church ask why they left the old church, much less suggest that the family needs to go have a talk with the former pastor to make sure they are leaving for a biblically sound reason.  After all, why run off a good prospect?  Church members who transfer from another church usually make better tithers than new people that we reach.

The fact of the matter is that any and all statistical analysis about church membership in the United States shows the same facts – church attendance and identification are declining while population in the United States is increasing.  The vast majority of our metro cities in the United States have larger numbers of unreached people than some countries around the world.  There are still over 6,000 unreached people groups in the world representing a population of over 3 billion people.  Meanwhile, in the places where the largest representation of evangelical Christians live, we are so busy swapping sheep and fighting over wayward church members that we don’t even see the vast mission field that God has called us to.  Surely we can do better than that.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not mad at anybody.  The reality is that I know that deep in my heart is that same propensity to only see my church in my local geography and try to create pragmatic ways to get the numbers up so that I can get the validation of my peers. Often I want people to walk an aisle on Sunday just so I can have something to share at the minister’s meeting on Monday.  But, I know that God has called me to more than that.  I know that God has placed in my life a strategic opportunity to partner with a fellow pastor in Boston who has the opportunity to reach more Indians and Asians in greater Boston than reside in my whole county.  I know that God has placed an opportunity for my church to be able to seed the seeds of the gospel bear fruit in Northern Uganda among a people group that can have life-changing effects on that country for generations.  These endeavors are costly and time-consuming.  And they don’t always increase the bottle line on the ACP.  But, as a friend of mine said recently, “We do this because the gospel changes all things for all people.”  And, God keeps reminding me every day that His church doesn’t stop at my mailbox.