Ministry in the Middle

It’s been a few months since I’ve written anything for the blog (three, to be precise). It was not my intention to stop writing, I just got a little preoccupied and never felt particularly inspired to write. I’m sorry for those who were looking forward to the posts, and I hope I haven’t driven you away through my absence.

One of the reasons I was feeling uninspired was that I wasn’t reading as much as usual during the summer. Usually I’ve got about four or five books that I’m reading at once. I don’t say that to boast. It’s just that in the process of sermon prep, study groups, and personal development, there’s always a handful of books that need read at once.

As I was saying, I slowed in my reading over the summer. We were trying to get settled in a new home, church, and community – and there were some shows on Netflix that I just had to watch. Thus, the reading suffered, and the inspiration to write suffered, too.

Well… good news! I’m back into the full swing of reading again, and – bing! – feel like I’ve got something to say.

(How’s that for clearing the throat?)

I had the opportunity to take my older children to the Life Light Concert this year – a free, open air, three day concert with some of the leading Contemporary Christian Artists. Sunday night’s headliner was Matthew West, whose music I’ve enjoyed for quite some time.  Wests’ concert was great, his music inspiring, and the message was uplifting.

What got stuck under my skin, however, was the artist who came on before West. I’ll not share his name here, I don’t want this to become a personality thing, but in between his songs, this guy liked to “preach.” Now, I’ve got no problem with an artist sharing his testimony. I’d never discourage someone from sharing how the grace of God in Jesus Christ has saved them and transformed them.

What frustrated me was that in his “preaching” he would harshly criticize the church. He had been talking to Christians from all over the world – Christians who told of the blind gaining sight and the lame walking. “What are we doing wrong, Church?” he would ask. “How many people have you healed?” And having shamed the Church for its complacency, he would then start another song, and suggest we buy his album.

To top it all off, he called this concert “worship.” Now I get that worship can come in varying styles and formats – but I believe it should have some essential qualities: Prayer in the name of Jesus Christ, the reading and teaching of Scripture, and a call to discipleship and commitment.  Simply singing (to use the broadest sense of that word for this particular artist) and rambling about the state of the church is not worship.

The crowd might have been worshiping.  Tens of thousands of people screaming and cheering for the artists – that might actually be worship.  False worship, but worship, none-the-less.

Neither should the concert tour be considered ministry.  When you step off the stage and onto the tour bus, never interacting with those to whom you preached – such is not ministry.  It is “strafe-bombing” an unwitting audience with faulty exegesis and half-truths.  Jesus pronounced woe upon the Pharisees and teachers for such things, “For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves” (Matthew 23:15).

I just started reading through Reversed Thunder, Eugene Peterson’s meditation on the book of Revelation.  In it, Peterson describes John as a prophet, a poet, and a pastor, and in reading of his vision in Revelation, we should listen as we would to a prophet, a poet, and a pastor.

Strikingly, Peterson describes the role of the pastor saying, “The pastor is the person who specializes in accompanying persons of faith “in the middle,” facing the ugly details, the meaningless routines, the mocking wickedness, and all the time doggedly insisting that this unaccountably unlovely middle is connected to a splendid beginning and glorious end” (Peterson, pg 8).

A pastor is one who reads the Bible, mindful of the glory of God, the goodness of the gospel, and the pressing needs of his congregation. He celebrates the births and the weddings and the graduations. He weeps with the widow, the grieving father, the soul lost in sin.  He knows the fragrance of joy, the stench of despair. The pastor stands in the middle, pointing not to himself, but to the only One who can make anything good come from all the “stuff” we face. He comes with the message of the “Alpha and the Omega, the One who is, who was, and who is to come” (Rev 1:8).

Pastoral ministry is messy. It is often the ministry of interruptions. It is painful, and it is wearying. And the crowds are smaller, quieter, and the lighting isn’t as good.  But Pastoral ministry, ministry in the middle of God’s people, is glorious. There’s no place I’d rather be!

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Every Careless Word

“I tell you, on the day of judgment
people will give account for every careless word they speak…”

(Matthew 12:36)

As I wrote last week on the Delight of Duty and the Celebration of Discipline, I failed to point out one of the hazards of the discipline of daily attending to the Word of God.  As a pastor and a friend I should warn you: If you are reading scripture properly (that is, prayerfully and thoughtfully) you will find that it has less to do with God’s judgment of all the other people around you and more to do with the wickedness of your own heart and your desperate need for Christ Jesus as your savior. All who are in Christ are in the midst of their own sanctification. None of us has arrived, none has attained the perfection to which we strive (Phil 3:12-16), and so when we come before the Lord, we will be taught, reproved, corrected, and trained in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16).

I came under the rebuke of the word this week in my reading through the Gospel of Matthew.  I’m pretty familiar with Matthew’s gospel; I spent two and a half years preaching through the gospel. I’ve read it at least two times each year for the past four years using M’Cheyne’s reading program. I have sections of the gospel memorized.

Still, as I read through chapter 12 again this week, I heard these words anew, as if for the first time: “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-36).

Here’s where my mind went –

  • How often have my words been thoughtless and careless? My mouth seems to run a twice the speed of my mind, and things come out that I immediately wish I could take back; a promise I cannot keep, a harsh word of criticism, a slanderous word spoken behind the back, the quiet words I mutter under my breath thinking no one will hear.  These words reveal the uprightness of my heart (or the lack thereof). They are heard and known by God.
  • How many of my sermons, how much of this blog, would be covered by the phrase “careless words”?
  • Are my words “full of care”; care for the glory of God, care for the lost around me?
  • How reluctant and slow are the words of praise and glory before the Lord? I am quick to talk about the movie I just saw, or of my hopes for my college team in the coming season, but I stammer and struggle to find the words to express my adoration and praise of my God and of my Savior Jesus Christ.
  • If my words are careless, what of the activities of my mind, the way I spend my time? How much time have I wasted watching TV, or playing CandyCrush, time that would have been better spent in prayer, in the study of God’s Word, or in simply talking with my wife and children and leading them in worship?

If the words of my lips flow from the abundance of my heart (Matthew 12:33), then I can say with the Prophet Isaiah, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst a people of unclean lips” (Isa 6:5). Yes, even as a pastor I come under the judgment of this text, and even a greater judgment, as James 3:1-2 says, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.”

James goes on to say, “No human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8).  Is there another passage of scripture that has more empirical evidence in the world today? We are all leveled and laid waste by the judgment of our careless words.

But we also have the promise of grace in Jesus Christ our Savior. In Isaiah’s vision, the seraphim comes with the burning coal from the altar and touches his lips, applying the cleansing mercy of God’s grace, and equipping Isaiah for the ministry of the Word. In the same way, when we are united to Christ, we are given a new heart (Ezek 36:26), we are a new creation (2 Cor 5:17), and from the heart of Christ in us springs the rivers of living water (John 7:38). By faith, through the leading of God’s Spirit and the instruction of His Word, I pray that each day there will be fewer careless words, and more words that are full of care, full of praise; words that build up others and bring glory to my Savior.

So then, here are some things that I will be working on, resolutions for the tongue, if you will (and these are things I have given carful thought to before sharing):

  1. I will speak to no one until I have first spoken to the Lord in prayer, and have attended to His word in scripture.
  2. I will not let a day end without having come before the Lord to give an account for the day in prayer.
  3. I will think of each conversation, every word written, as being spoken or written in the presence of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, asking “Would I say this before my Lord?”
  4. I will strive for my words to be praiseworthy and encouraging, full of care for the glory of God, the building up of the body of Christ, and the reaching of the lost with the Good News of Salvation in Jesus Christ.

The chorus of the Hawk Nelson song “Words” comes to mind:

Let my words be life
Let my words be truth
I don’t wanna say a word
Unless it points the world back to You

The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all!


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The Delight of Discipline

“Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you…”
James 4:8

For the past couple of weeks now I have been struggling to write for this blog. I’ve got a couple of good articles started (and a whole lot of bad ones too), but I never felt particularly inspired nor satisfied with what I had written. Being in a new church, a new denomination, a new community; there is so much to learn and take in that I just haven’t yet found the rhythm of writing.

I suppose that’s where the discipline has to kick in. When I don’t feel like writing, I need to write. Even if it’s just a paragraph, even if it never sees the light of day, the practiced discipline of daily writing – formulating a coherent thought and communicating it in an understandable way – will eventually bring me to the point where writing feels more natural and comes a lot easier.

The same goes for my running – which hasn’t been happening either. When I don’t feel like running, I need to run. The routine of going to bed on time so that I can get up early for a run, lacing up the shoes and hitting the road – even on those days I really don’t want to do it – builds a love for the run and a desire to keep going.

This is the beauty of Discipline. The practiced, purposeful, and dedicated commitment to a task, even when the heart isn’t there yet, will ultimately lead to heartfelt participation.

The same is true of the Spiritual Disciplines.  When I don’t feel like praying, I need to pray.  When my heart is not inclined to worship and praise before the Lord, I need to come before Him in worship and praise. When I’m tired of reading Scripture, when I think there’s nothing more to be gained, I need to take up and read.

We often disparage discipline because we think it takes the heart out of the experience: You’re only reading Scripture and praying because its on your schedule. That may be the case, but daily reading of God’s Word will develop a love for God’s Word and a desire to spend more time in it. Regular times of prayer and devotion before the Lord, even using a book of written prayers and traditional hymns, will lead to spontaneous moments of heartfelt praise.

Consider Charles Spurgeon’s message on “Pray without Ceasing”:

If for awhile the heavens are as brass and your prayer only echoes in thunder above your head, pray on; if month after month your prayer appears to have miscarried, and no reply has been vouchsafed to you, yet still continue to draw nigh unto the Lord. Do not abandon the mercy-seat for any reason whatever. If it be a good thing that you have been asking for, and you are sure it is according to the divine will, if the vision tarry wait for it, pray, weep, entreat, wrestle, agonise till you get that which you are praying for. If your heart be cold in prayer, do not restrain prayer until your heart warms, but pray your soul unto heat by the help of the everblessed Spirit who helpeth our infirmities. If the iron be hot then hammer it, and if it be cold hammer it till you heat it.

My heart may not be in it – the writing, the running, the reading, the praying. My heart and my mind may be wrestling and divided, but I will continue to pray, worship, and attend to God’s Word until I can do so with One heart and One mind.

Why? Because these things: worship, meditation on God’s word, and prayer are some of the ordinary means of grace.  They are the instruments that God uses to work His grace within us, to transform and conform us in the likeness of Christ.  The more we come to these means, the more we rest in His grace, the more we live and love in grace.

As I daily return to the ordinary means of grace, as I encounter Him where He has promised to meet me, it seems less like discipline, less like duty, and more and more like delight.

And so keep reading, even if the words seem to bounce around inside your head and never take root.  Keep praying, even though it feels like the words don’t leave the room. Keep praising, even through the tears. He is near, His grace is at hand, and He is sufficient.

May the grace of faithful discipline bring joy and peace to your heart!


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The Holiness of God

i love that one of the Adult classes at Church is going through Dr. Sproul’s study, “The Holiness of God.”

I highly recommend the study guide that accompanies the video series. It’s free to download here.

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See How They Love One Another

“Beloved, let us love one another…”
1 John 4:7

There is no better testimony of the love we have for God in Jesus Christ than the way in which we show our love for one another. Jesus said to His disciples, A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).

This love to which we are called as the body of Christ is an uncommon love, to be sure. It is not the kind of thing the world expects or even knows to look for. This love is demonstrated as we willingly forgive one another serious offenses, as we refuse to speak harshly to or about one another, and as we give sacrificially to help one another. This love is demonstrated as we gather regularly to encourage, correct, and pray for one another as we are lead by God’s Word and God’s Spirit. This love is shocking, unnerving, unsettling. Many will be suspicious, certain that there is some catch; this kind of love is too good to be true.

I encountered this love, and the world’s reaction to it just last night. I made the mistake of telling the Deacons of my church as they were helping to move us into our new house that I wanted to remove the trees that surrounded our house. The old pine trees were dying, and obstructed the house, but still didn’t really provide any shade. They needed to go.

Well, last night, 14 church members showed up with chain saws, trailers, tractors, and willing hearts and hands. In 3 hours they removed 13 pine trees.

Here’s some before and after shots.



As the trees were coming down, the neighbors all came out to see what was happening, and all were glad to see the trees go. I told them all about how kind and gracious the Deacons of my church are, and how loving the congregation has been. To which one neighbor said, “Give them time, that will stop.” Unconvinced that this kind of love and service could be genuine and lasting, the man walked away in disbelief.

Tertullian, the early Church Father (2nd and 3rd cent), once wrote of the Roman culture’s curiosity regarding the Christian community:

“Look,” they say, “how they love one another” (for they themselves hate one another); “and how they are ready to die for each other” (for they themselves are readier to kill each other).”

A culture that sought honor and power above everything else was witnessing the Christian community where brothers and sisters in Christ shared freely of their possessions, provided for the needs of the poor, and were not just willing but eager to stand together in the face of persecution.

This love is rooted and established in the love that we know in Christ.  It is not an effort to win God’s favor. We are not trying to prove our goodness by showing pity on those around us so that God will count us worthy.

No, it is just the opposite.  We recognize that, in our sinfulness and rebellion, we were unlovely and unlovable. But God, who is rich in mercy, who has loved us with a steadfast love, did prove His love for us in that while we were sinners, Christ died for us (Rom 5:8).

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.  Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.  In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.  In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.  Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4:7–11)

In the love that we share in Jesus Christ, we love one another. We serve one another. We encourage one another. We provide for the needs of one another. We share God’s Word with one another. We count others as more significant than ourselves, and are willing to bear with the failings and shortcomings of one another.

When we love one another, the world will be amazed. They may be suspicious. They may be curious. But they will know we are the disciples of Jesus because of the great love we have for one another.

Grace and peace,


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Guilt is Not A Fruit of the Spirit

With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments!
I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.
(Psalm 119:10–11)

“The road to godliness is one of discipline, and discipline doesn’t come naturally to most.”
Bill Hull, Choose the Life

One of the great goals of the Christian life is that we are to be “conformed to the image of God’s Son” (Rom 8:29), that we would “in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Eph 4:15), to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” 2 Peter 3:18.  This growth in the likeness of Christ is only possible by the inward working power of God’s Holy Spirit, but the Spirit uses and supplies many spiritual graces, helps for our life of faith and maturity in Christ.

These graces, or Spiritual Disciplines, are vast.  We have the opportunity to come together as a congregation for worship and prayer. We have the signs of grace in the sacraments to aid us in our walk with the Lord. We are all literate people, and have the advantage of mass-produced copies of God’s word: every home has multiple copies of the Bible, and now you can have the Scriptures on your Smart-Phone, tablet, and mp3 player. There are endless opportunities for service, prayer, giving.  All of these are gifts given from God as disciplines intended to help you mature in your faith and understanding, as you grow in love for God and one another, and are transformed in the likeness of Christ.

The road to godliness is one of discipline, using the means of grace that have been given for our growth and strength.  We are to daily take up our cross, to die unto ourselves and to live unto Christ. The problem is, like diet and exercise, for most of us, discipline does not come naturally.  We want to be like Christ, and we love the idea of worshipping regularly, of reading the Bible daily, of serving more readily. But when it comes to actually doing it, the demands of work and family come crashing in. I’d go and visit my neighbor, but I don’t know what to say, and my favorite TV show is about to come on, so maybe tomorrow…

We have good intentions when it comes to Spiritual Discipline, but the implementation is difficult.  Add to that the fact that our enemy doesn’t want you to be disciplined and to grow in grace.  Satan would rather have you “spiritually soft” and undisciplined, stewing in the regrets of unfulfilled commitments, struggling with the doubts of despairs of an undisciplined heart and mind.

Friends, the purpose of taking on Spiritual Disciplines like daily reading scripture, prayer, fasting, service, etc, is not to make you feel guilty about the times when you neglect the spiritual disciplines.  The purpose is to make you more like Christ, to lead you away from reliance upon yourself – your own wisdom, strength, and even tenacity – and turn ever more to the perfect wisdom, the perfect strength, the perfect faithfulness of God.

Rest assured, the disciplines are hard work, they take time, and we will all, at one point or another, fail in our efforts to be disciples.  The original 12 disciples often failed in their discipleship. But the point was, they kept following.  When many would be followers of Jesus left Him because of some very difficult teaching, He turned to the 12 and said, “Will you leave me too?” Peter replied, “Where else shall we go to find the words of life?”

If you made a plan to read a chapter of the Bible every day, and then one day wake up and realize it’s been a week since you’ve last read, don’t be overcome by guilt and shame and just give up altogether. Turn to Jesus, admit your lack of discipline, then pick up and read. Seek His grace today. Sit at His feet and learn from His word.

If you want to grow in prayer but struggle to pray, then plead with God would put a passion for prayer in your heart. The desire to pray is a prayer in and of itself. Don’t despair that you cannot go more than two minutes in prayer without your mind wandering. Pray through the wanderings, then come back to prayer in praise.

I will say it again: Guilt is not a fruit of the Spirit. Discouragement is never the product of close communion with Christ.  Do not despair if you are not where you want to be.  Keep putting yourself in the place where growth will occur. Stop dwelling on the things you haven’t done, or you struggle to maintain some self-imposed standard. Rest in the grace of God, trust in His steadfast love, keep running back to the nail-pierced hands of Christ who died for your disbelief and rose for your righteousness.


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Surrendered Lives

In sermon preparation, there is so much material that never makes it into the message – there’s just not enough time. Often, I simply get the edification that comes from studying the scriptures so deeply, but that’s as far as it goes. Other times, it’s just too good not to share and it winds up here, on my blog.

As I’ve was studying Philippians 1:19-20 I came across the following from James M. Boice that I had to share:

If the Lord Jesus Christ is to be magnified in our bodies, our bodies must be surrendered to him… This means that the kind of life the Bible advocates is impossible for the non-Christian; it is impossible for the one who has failed to come to God solely on the merits of Christ and His atoning death on Calvary. Nothing in the unsaved man can satisfy God in the slightest degree. All acts of human sacrifice apart from Christ, all acts of self denial apart from Christ, all acts of penance apart from Christ – all these are acts of human righteousness. And God call such acts filthy rags when measured by the standards of His holiness. It is only after a man has come to Christ, accepted Him as Savior, and committed himself to Christ irrevocably, that God moves him to make that sacrifice of his body through which Jesus Christ is magnified. Have you done this? Have you made this first and great commitment? If not, you need to. For all other steps in the Christian life flow from it.

Then, too, we must surrender our bodies to the Lord to use as He determines. Merely to see this truth is not sufficient; it must also be practiced. You must practice yielding your body to Christ. You must practice living to His glory as He gives you grace to do so. You must wake with the name of Jesus on your lips and commit the day to Him. You must surrender your thoughts to Him at breakfast. You must yield yourself to Him for guiding what you say when you enter the office or the factory, or when you begin to go about your household chores. You must ask Him to take control of your eyes, that they might be given to His service. You must give Him your tongue. Moreover, you must do so each moment as each is yielded to His direction.

In such a way Jesus Christ will be truly magnified in you, and you will be more and more able to say: It is “my earnest expectation and my hope, that in nothing shall I be ashamed, but that with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ shall be magnified in my body.”

Boice, J.M., Philippians: An Expositional Commentary. (Grand Rapids; Zondervan Pub, 1971) pg 84.
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