Our Great, High Priest

When I was a little boy, the one thing I wanted most in the world was to be a big, strong man.  While there are many reasons one has for such a desire, the premiere one was that I could then do what I wanted to do.

The thing I hated most about school was the constant reminder that I was not a man.  Nothing did this more poignantly than the need to request permission to go to the bathroom.  Oh, the granduer of just being able to rise from one’s seat and go relieve himself without first abasing himself before an adult in two significant ways: 1.  I have to pee.  My body requires of me this obedience, and should I not respond correctly, I will eventually be covered in my own waste.  2.  You can tell me “no”.

Are you serious?!

Weakness is the antithesis of greatness.  There are no grand statues of our leaders throughout history holding themselves while dancing due to their need to pee.  It, in fact, seems disrespectful to even mention it.  Greatness is strength.  Greatness is not asking permission.  Greatness is doing, not submitting.

…and yet, Jesus is our Great, High Priest precisely because of his choosing our weaknesses, limitations and position.  In fact, he didn’t just choose to be a human but to serve to the ultimate extent of the expression of our limitations – he died…naked…in front of everyone…until his own weakness meant he couldn’t breathe anymore, and so he strangled to death due to his own body’s frailty.  Remember the pleading of Jesus for a drink?  Remember those in power telling him “no” in so many ways?  No, you aren’t worthy of the title Son of Man.  No, you are not our long-awaited Messiah.  No, you aren’t in control, and we’ll prove it by killing you after torturing and humiliating you.

And this is what makes Him great.  No, I am not lessening his perpetual divinity, nor his miraculous healing of others, nor any of the other “great” things he said/did.

What makes Him great is that Jesus understands our pain, our suffering, our weakness, our temptations.  He gets it.

He also defeated them.  Not in physical prowess, but in spiritual submission to the Father.  Nothing could make Him deny the Father’s will for His life, nothing!  The Apostle Paul knew this same truth when he said, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.”

We often pray for God to make our lives easier.  Oh, that the Church would begin again to pray “Thy will be done on Earth as it is in heaven”, and in this, show Christ’s victory to the world.  The indomitable will of the submitted servant.  “You can kill me, but you can’t make me deny my LORD!!!!”  May my brothers and sisters in the Middle East, Asia and Africa be strong in the midst of their weakness, and may we be inspired by their example of following Jesus.

Brokenness

brokennessA few years ago, my wife stood up to go turn the light in the hallway off.  Instead, her lights went out…she passed out.  In the process of passing out, she fell on her left forearm – and snapped both bones resulting in a hand that was an inch too high and an inch and a half too far to the left.  Needless to say, we went to the hospital.

In the hospital, x-rays were taken, pain medication was administered, and the doctor pulled on my wife’s broken hand – wrenching the bones back into place (not to mention my stomach getting wrenched while watching).  She had to have surgery, pins, plate and cast.  The cast eventually came off – the pins and plate remain.

Her arm will never be the same again.  No one else can tell just looking at her, or how she functions on a daily basis.  In fact, thanks to good medical care, there is very little difference in how she functions on a daily basis – including playing the piano on our worship team.  But every now and then, there’s a catch.  There’s a reminder.

Healing takes time, but it also takes a healer.

Same time, same effort, same person without the healer pulling, setting and pinning – no hand and no forearm.

Sin is brokenness.  Sin causes brokenness.

God wants to heal you…but it’s going to hurt, it’s going to take time and its going to take your cooperation.

Go to church, go to God, grit your teeth and let him set your broken heart in line with Him.

“He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” (Psalm 147:3, NIV)

How to Thrive in Church Ministry

Bible Study 2

Bible Study 2 (Photo credit: DrGBB)

Notice I didn’t say, “How to have a thriving Church Ministry.”  The two are not mutually exclusive – in fact, in the long run thriving ministry requires that you thrive as a pastor.

God rescued me from myself when he called me to Cuba, NY – a village in economically depressed Western New York with only 1600 inside its limits. As soon as he called me here, I knew I would never be a famous, world-changing, magazine-cover, hip t-shirt wearing pastor.  I also knew my God had called me.  The answer was obvious, simple and even joyous.  It was at that moment that God saved me from and for ministry simultaneously.  I no longer would strive to be a great pastor, but rather to be a great Christian who happened to be a pastor.

Being a pastor is not peripheral to me, but neither is it central – it’s integral.

15.5 years into professional ministry, I am also more excited about and energized for the people God is entrusting to me and our Church.  I am not depressed.  I am not discouraged.  I am not burned-out but calmly passionate about being God’s man in this office of pointing people to Jesus.  Here are a few principles that I have found helpful in living out a life of devotion.  Feel free to add yours in the comments.

1. Be yourself, growing.  God called YOU, not someone else to your charge.  Rest in the assurance of your church’s need for you for this time, but don’t rest on your (or anyone else’s) laurels.  Be transparent enough that your people can see you growing – and thereby be challenged by the Spirit to do likewise.

2. Read.  There are way too many great ideas and insights in the world for you to have to come up with all of them.  A book is a life condensed.  Learn a life’s worth in a couple of days.  You can’t ask for a better return on your investment than that.

3. Have a day off…every week.  God did all His work in 6 days and rested on the seventh.  The corollary to this is obvious – work, actually work, 6 days a week.  My day off is Friday, and Friday night is our sacred family time (every other week that means date night).

4. Comp time.  As a pastor, my schedule is flexible so that when there is a need, I can flex my schedule to meet that need.  That means that some weeks, my day off gets taken.  I have an ongoing understanding with my church that if I put in more time in a week, I can take that time the following week (or as soon as possible) as comp time.  My family understands emergencies, but what they should never have to suffer through is taking a backseat.  Go pray with the dying saint in the hospital on Friday night – then have a family night the next week as well as a date night.  This is not vacation – it is earned.

5. Flex for your family.  No, not in front of a mirror grunting.  As pastors flex time is required for the parishioners – use it for your family too.  Child is getting an award at school in the middle of the day?  Flex.  Go, be there.

6. Talk to God, not just about Him.  Don’t confuse preaching with praying.  Just because you spend your every day talking to others about God, doesn’t mean that you don’t need to spend serious time talking with Him.  It is possible to die of thirst while pointing others to the fountain.  Be a leader, not a signpost.  Show them how to drink deeply and frequently.

7. Don’t quit too early.  I am not talking primarily about your work day – but about your sermon preparation.  Don’t ever stop preparing until you have learned something and been changed by it.  It will increase your passion for the message, and will insure that you are constantly raising the bar so that your leaders can keep growing.

What ideas do you have?

Problems with Small Groups (and why I still believe in them)

small group coverIt’s not as if this is new information, but simply my reflections on a discipleship process that we have been utilizing for quite some time.  This is not a definitive list of either pros or cons, feel free to add your own in the comments.

Let’s get the bad news over with first:

1. Formation of cliques.  This is especially true when your small groups form around what Willow Creek defines as an Affinity Group.  Same age-range, same ministry involvement, same worship style preference or same gender even.  While close-knit groups are what we want, groups that are closed to those of a minority opinion are prone to become a group for themselves.

2. Hotbed for disunity.  This is a particular type of #1.  Cliques can be of all types, but this specific type is extremely destructive.  These groups will, over time, utilize their relationships to undermine and divide the church.  This is not because they want to harm the church (usually), but because they disagree with the leadership about that which they care most about – the Church of Jesus Christ, and due to their agreement with one another have felt empowered to lead their small “church” in a different direction than the church at large is going.

3. Greater potential for unchecked heresy.  When the teaching is happening from the pulpit, generally speaking, the most biblically-educated individual in the church is the one doing the teaching (the check for heresy in this position is a multitude of “Bereans” who check what the preacher says against the word, and hopefully a denominational hierarchy that can correct abuses).  In a small group, however, the one facilitating the discussion and those sharing their opinions and perspectives are of more equal authority in interpretation.  In this type of situation, the more forceful leader rather than the more accurate insight quite often wins the day.

4. Pooling of ignorance.  This is a generalization of #3.  If everyone knows nothing, it is difficult to add them together and come up with something, and even harder to come up with the right thing.

5. Staying in the wading pool.  Starting small is important, staying shallow is unhealthy.  The best antidotes for this are

A. a well-trained facilitator

B. a service-orientation, where the group performs ministry together on at least a bi-annual basis.

C. a mix of topical and exegetical studies

D. ending each group with a simple question of, “What’s your take-away from tonight?”  Then following up as to application.

Everything cuts both ways, and in this situation, I definitely believe that the pros outweigh the cons dramatically:

1. Opportunity for the “one another”s.  There are 38 Bible verses that deal with how we are to be in relationship with one another according to http://voices.yahoo.com/38-one-another-bible-verses-5549719.html  Small Groups are the best place (other than of course your own family – a great place to practice your faith :-)) to learn to “love one another”, “show mercy and compassion to one another”, etc.  Rubber-meeting-road and all of that.

2. Involvement of all participants.  Unless your church is 15 people or fewer, there is no healthy and orderly way to involve everyone in a deep and meaningful way each week.  In a Small Group each person has an opportunity to add their two cents worth, and to have their concerns/problems/issues addressed, as well as their praises celebrated.

3. Individual/corporate application within a community.  See #5D above.

4. Greater dissemination to the community. Think of irrigating a field with sprinklers opposed to leaving the water hose running in one spot.  With Small Groups you are able to have an even dispersal of ministry throughout the greater community instead of saturating one spot/group of people/area of your community to the point of flooding.

5. Hotbed for leadership development.  I highly encourage a “church of small groups” model (Check out “Building a Church of Small Groups” by Donahue and Robinson) blended with Serendipity’s leadership model of those groups.  Having a Leader, a Teacher and an Encourager (and possibly a Host/Hostess) spreads out the leadership burden, creates an automatic small group and allows people to ease into their giftings, and can be more fully utilized in the church at large as their skills develop.

6. System for communication of needs/problems/successes.  Every church struggles to remain current (no I’m not speaking specifically about computer systems or internet savvy) with the life events of its members. Small Groups can become a conduit whereby the appropriate church ministry is informed of events in their Small Group’s members’ lives…if the leader is organized and remembers to communicate.

7. Friends.  Possibly the single greatest reason to move to this style of discipleship is relational connectivity.

So what are your pros and cons of Small Group ministry?

Fruitful

Peach fruits Suomi: Persikan hedelmiä

Peach fruits Suomi: Persikan hedelmiä (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I love to get a farm-fresh peach from the grocery store and take that first succulent bite.  Flavor slams into my mouth as juice dribbles over my lips and down my chin.  I swipe the juice with the back of my hand as I slowly enjoy the bite I have just taken.  Every bite is good, but that first bite is intoxicating!

Whether or not you like peaches, there is a similar experience that you enjoy when you consume the fruit of your choosing.  Everyone enjoys the fruit.  Few people plant the trees/vines/brambles/bushes.

As long as you put off planting, you will be addicted to the grocery store.  Consuming, but not creating.  Requiring, but not replenishing.  Dependent upon the work of others, unable to achieve succulence on your own.

Every pastor I have ever talked to wants to know how to have more leaders in their church.  Church after church suffers from the proverbial 80/20 rule (80% of the work is being done by 20% of the people).  They are constantly looking for that grocery store curriculum/program/event that will give them succulent fruit without any labor.  The simple truth is that fruit comes from a seed planted, tended, cared for, pruned, matured and harvested.

The good news is that your church can be an orchard, and you can kick the grocery store habit to the curb.  The great news is that you can enjoy every stage of the process, every season of the year.

The promise of Dedication.  The relief/joy of Salvation.  The exuberance of Baptism.  The submission of Membership.  The commitment of Maturity.  The sacrifice of Ministry.  The fruitfulness of Leadership.

Want fruit?  Sow a seed, and watch it grow.

Gift-giving

“It’s the thought that counts” is a phrase that has always driven me nuts!  I think it’s because it is always used in conjunction with a lousy gift.  Think crocheted underwear – “Now Jimmy, you know your aunt Gracie spent a lot of time working on those, the least you could do is pretend you like them!  You know ‘it’s the thought that counts.’”   Then you throw them away, because really who wants to wear crocheted underwear!!!  Lousy gift.

What if the phrase were used though in conjunction with an awesome gift…like a 3 horsepower cabinetry tablesaw from SawStop that magically doesn’t lop your hand off when you try shoving it through the blade at full speed.  Awesome gift!  “Now Jimmy, you know your aunt Gracie spent a lot of time saving up to get you that tablesaw, the least you could do is…be overwhelmed by the sacrificial love of an aunt who gave up so much that you could have something truly nice.”  Yes, you’re right – that is the least that I could do.

One of my favorite passages in scripture is when King David is going to make an offering to God in atonement for numbering the fighting men of Israel.  David is told by an angel to offer to the Lord a sacrifice on this guy’s threshing floor, who upon finding out why David wants it, offers it for free as well as the oxen and the wood.  David’s response is core to his being a man after God’s own heart –  he says, “I will not…sacrifice a burnt offering that costs me nothing.”

It’s got to cost me something to be meaningful.

What have you been offering God of late?  Has it cost you anything?  Has it been a sacrifice?

After all, it is the “thought that counts”.

What gift have you received that made you aware the giver really knew you and cared about you?