The Pastor I Want to Be

This morning I came across Philippians 2:19-30, and came to see it as an example of the type of pastor I wish I was and should strive to be.

In these verses, Paul speaks of Timothy and Epaphroditus and the encouragement they have been to him. Before looking at what he said about these two men let’s remember the situation Paul was in as he wrote these things.

They encouraged him in ministry. Only those who are well outside the loop believe ministry is an easy course. These men encouraged him in his imprisonment. Paul had been imprisoned for the gospel, in a world where prisons were especially brutal. They encouraged him as he faced the likelihood of execution. Paul speaks of his survival as a fifty-fifty shot.

This is the most amazing thing about this passage. Paul wanted the Philippians to experience the encouragement of these men so much that he was willing to send them, rather than to keep them close, serving himself.

So what does Paul say about these men?

First thing I notice is that Timothy is described of having the interest of others, from the perspective of Jesus Christ.

The opposite of this is to seek your own interests.  This is a constant challenge for a pastor or minister of any type. Just yesterday I sat with a missionary who spoke of the difficulty of speaking on God’s behalf without allowing the message to decompose into personal tirades at the people we love, because of our private, and often frustrating, knowledge of their sins.

Another challenge of seeking the interests of your congregation is that they don’t really know what is in their own best interest.  They too have a way of making their self-interests selfish instead of Christ-centered. So, in order to avoid telling people what they want to hear, you have to temper your message constantly with a deep connection to Christ.  This is the only way that you will know His best interests for your hearers.

The last thing I want to mention about this maintaining the interests of those you serve, is that it helps to have a support system outside of the circle of your own congregation.  Often others can see things in us we have carefully hidden from ourselves.  An honest friend will tell you what you need to hear to allow you the opportunity to improve. Every Paul needs a Timothy and every Timothy needs a Paul.

Second, Paul speaks of Timothy as a person of proven character.

Proving anything takes time. Proving character takes a lifetime. Timothy was not spoken of as someone whom Paul just met and had a good feeling about, but instead as someone that had served alongside Paul for an extended time.

Proving leadership has a trait in it that many people miss.  One of the ways that you become a good leader is by being a good follower. Paul’s leadership over Timothy helped bring out Timothy’s abilities in that area. Leaders who cannot follow, at least in my opinion, also cannot lead. Remember job one for any leader is to follow Christ.

Character is not weighed on scales, so that as long as more half their characteristics are good, they are a good men. Character is not a litmus test, meaning that when a strong majority of their characteristics are pure they are a good person.  Character is on the gold standard.  If it is not 100% pure then it is still in need of refinement. All of us are still in the process, but don’t use that as an excuse to change out to any other standard than Christ.

Finally, Paul speaks of Epaphroditus as a man who was willing to sacrifice all.

The first sacrifice was being willing to live broken-hearted for the people he served.  The passage describes it as longing for the Philippians, and indeed, leaving behind those you love is one sacrifice most face in ministry.  But the sacrifice of a broken heart comes in many other ways too. Everything from watching people drown in their sin to burying your beloved members break your heart.

He also was willing to walk the line of public scrutiny and shame.  I say this because prisons in that time and place were difficult to survive. Paul most likely would not have made it through if Epaphroditus was not bringing him food, water, medicines and encouragement.  But bringing these things to Paul meant he was willingly associating himself with the crimes the Roman overlords assumed Paul was guilty of.

Finally, Epaphroditus almost died from illness while performing these ministries. This was the context in which Paul said we should hold men like Epaphroditus in high esteem. Are we as willing to risk everything for the gospel?  We live in such comfort today that it is hard to tell. But if you are not willing to make the many smaller sacrifices included in ministry, you are not training yourself to be ready to make the ultimate sacrifice if, or maybe when, the time comes.

 

 

 

Theology of Politics

It might be a good time to remind America that God is in control. It is at times like these that we need to have a sound theology of politics.

I know the idea of a doctrinal statement about politics, governments, elections and so on, will rub some people the wrong way. That is largely based upon a false doctrine in this country called separation of church and state.  But let me save that conversation for another day.

Today let me present a few things a Christian should believe about politics. First, we should believe that being a good citizen is a part of our Christian responsibilities.  There are a lot of verses that tell us as much, some very directly. For starters consider Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17, 1 Timothy 2:1-6, and Titus 3:1-11.

But beyond citizenship we need to know that there is a cause and effect relationship between how well we perform the duties of citizenship and the state of our nation. If we lift God up, honor and revere Him, use our resources to spread His kingdom, and build into our country positive moral values, then we can expect God to bless us.  But when we are not behaving as Christians ought, then we can only expect to see judgment. Consider Joshua 23:1-13, Psalm 33:12, and 2 Chronicles 7:14.

Finally we also need to recognize a Biblical pattern. This pattern may not be as clearly stated as some of the other things we have discussed, but I am certain that it is true. God chooses and directs leaders as one of the major ways that he guides history forward. Part of that is rewarding those who have earned blessing with good leaders, and another part is condemning those who have earned judgment with bad leaders. This pattern is demonstrated in the exodus event by the idea that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. It was not simply a matter of Pharaoh’s free will at work, but also how God was using Pharaoh’s decisions to create the history He wanted to bring about.

Another example is Proverbs 21:1 (NASB).

The king's heart is like channels of water in the hand of the LORD; 
He turns it wherever He wishes. 

This verse tells us that God is guiding the decisions of the king. It does not imply that the king is aware of this process, or that the king is immune from responsibility for the decisions.  The verse doesn’t really say anything about how it is worked out at all, and reading it only for this purpose is missing the point.  The key point of the verse is that God is moving history forward by working with leaders.

That said then we have to believe God knows what His plans are for us by the outcomes of our elections.  Whether this past election will mark the beginning of judgment, the end of judgement, or some other great purpose of God, only time will tell. Whatever God is up to, our first priority must be to trust Him no matter what it is that He has planned.

Convenient Mystery

A person should consider us in this way: as servants of Christ and managers of God’s mysteries. 1 Corinthians 4:1 (HCSB)

This passage refers to mysteries. I agree that there are going to be things about God that are over our heads. Things too wonderful for the human mind to comprehend. These things we rather easily dismiss as God’s mysteries.

A long while back I was listening to a person present a theological viewpoint, which I happened to disagree with. He proceeded to try and force me to spiritually say uncle and admit he was smarter than I, by showing me verse after verse that he said backed up his point of view. I don’t know if they did or didn’t since he wouldn’t slow down enough to let me think about each. People who are sure they are right and intelligent apparently don’t need to slow down to think.

When he finally come up for air I put a verse in front of him, just one, which I took the time to explain. This verse didn’t back up my perspective so much as it contradicted his. I asked him to reconcile his belief with this verse. He replied the gospel will always contain some things that are mysteries to us.

That was when it occurred to me, we tend to define ourselves by what we believe. We use terms like evangelical, Christological, Biblical, fundamental, and reformed to categorize and characterize what we think. But you might sometimes learn as much if we could define what we are satisfied leaving as mysteries.

Perhaps not always, but at least sometimes what we choose to call mysteries are those things we simply don’t want to deal with. Perhaps they interfere with our favorite doctrinal stands. Perhaps they scare us in their implications. Or perhaps they make us feel stupid.

I conjecture that one day in eternity, when we have had millions of years to figure out the truth, theology will all fit together in one coherent and cohesive system. There may still be mysteries, but if there are it will be because those ideas elude us by being more than our minds can hold. Those mysteries will not be hiding places where we huddle up to protect ourselves, emotionally and spiritually, from unwanted truth.

Did you notice the verse quoted above is spoken in the context that Paul and his co-workers were managers of revealing God’s mysteries? They were teachers of truth, not protectors hiding truth safely away somewhere.

Truth Seeking in Ferguson

A few points about Ferguson gleaned from the morning news.

This morning I watched video, reported to be from last night, of a crowd marching on a police line chanting ‘Hands up, don’t shoot.’

The governor of Missouri and the feds condemned the release of a video showing the robbery with someone resembling Michael Brown stealing cigars.

The feds are planning to perform a third autopsy on Michael Brown hoping to come up with a result that will satisfy the crowds which have rioted every night in Ferguson.

One point from yesterday’s news.

The arrests made over Saturday night were fewer but also were predominantly non-residents.

The number one question that should be asked at this moment is, what really happened in the Michael Brown shooting? The media and the public have fallen in love with a version of the story that is incomplete. They are in love with thinking that Michael Brown was the innocent victim of police brutality. They are in love with thinking the police cannot be trusted to investigate the event. And the political activity around the event is aimed at appeasing the crowd rather than seeking the truth.

People who want to know the truth, do not seek it through inciting violence and looting. People seeking truth do not rebel when evidence points to a conclusion they didn’t want to hear. People wanting to protest peacefully will organize their protests in the daytime rather than in the night.

Ferguson is a town that has been victimized. Possibly the start of it was when Michael Brown was murdered by police. But it is also possible that Michael Brown was interacting with the police in exactly the manner that justifies the officer defending himself. If this is the case then the bigger problem started with witnesses not understanding what they saw, the media reporting what they have not understood and the public jumping into a situation they did not fully understand.

Truth takes time. Incendiary actions stand in the way of truth.

 

Welcome to the Information Age

We live in the information age. Somehow it turned out differently than I expected.

On any given day we can tune in to dozens of television stations, hundreds of radio commentators, thousands of internet news sites and hundreds of thousands of bloggers. They will all tell you their perspective on any number of different events.

But the plurality of voices has made finding the truth about any specific event increasingly difficult. Even the major news outlets are so slanted as to be unable to see unfavorable truths. It is no longer their practice to search for the facts, but rather to search for evidence and to promote information which will further their cause.

Society is moving further and further from being anchored in truth. Part of the reason why is that those giving out the information are only interested in it, if it is useful to them.

Hastening the End

I believe the world, as we know it, is temporary. God will wrap up this world and through a series of events, He will destroy this planet and will replace it with a new heaven and earth. The Bible gives a surprising amount of detail about these events. But in addition to what the Bible says, there are a multitude of things people have assumed about the end times.

In Matthew 24:14 (HCSB) Jesus said, “This good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed in all the world as a testimony to all nations. And then the end will come.” This of course is a passage intended to be about the end times. In recent years it has been common to discuss the word ‘nations’. The Greek word refers to people groups. A people group would be a population that share a common language, common culture, likely a common ethnicity and also have barriers preventing them from integrating with the groups around them. I believe these relatively new assertions are correct.

But one thing I don’t believe about this passage is that it indicates we can hasten the end, by doing a better job at missions and reaching every people group. I mention this because I hear it either implied or stated with increasing frequency that a part of the Christian’s responsibility is to usher in the end times as quickly as possible.

Take a good look at the verse. It only says all nations will have heard the gospel prior to the end. It doesn’t say this proclamation will allow or cause the end to come. It only says, “And then the end will come.” This is a statement of sequence, and while it implies the end will happen soon thereafter, it is not stated as a promise. Nor do the commands telling us to reach the world with the gospel make this connection.

So I believe the idea that we can hasten the end is a mistake. Jesus indicates no one knows the exact time except the Father. This means the Father has already chosen the time, but it also implies He did so in an independent manner, rather than timing it based upon human activity.

Philosophy of Pain

Pain is a difficult issue to consider. Nobody wants to experience it and for the most part we don’t want to think about it, either. But pain is a part of life and I suspect it is an important part of God’s good interactions with humanity. If you didn’t hear me right the first time, let me emphasize that. I suspect pain is a tool of God, with good purposes, rather than merely a byproduct of the fall.

Think for a minute about the ways that pain affects you. A minor pain will draw one’s attention to things they otherwise might not notice. A minor pain on my nose allowed me to notice and have a skin cancer removed before it became a bigger problem. An intermediate pain will prompt a change of behavior, such as the proverbial child touching the stove. A severe pain will cause one to seek immediate help. And the most severe pains will shut down all other activities while the body heals.

Likely, many of us tend to think of pain only in its negative context. I understand that since the most obvious aspect of pain is that it hurts! But, if we only think of pain as a negative, we will miss one of the ways God is leading us forward. In the process of leading us toward maturity He will need to evoke every level of response listed above during the course of our lives. This is one of the many ways that God works for good whatever the devil intends for evil.

So as you move forward look at your pain as an opportunity. It might be calling your attention to a small problem before it becomes a big problem. It might be reshaping your patterns into more Christ-like behavior. It might be signaling the need to seek help from other believers. Or it might be motivating a time of retreat where you can spend time alone with God.

So what do you think about pain?

Personal God

I believe God has personhood. This means He has the traits of a person rather than being an impersonal force. This is especially relevant since an impersonal force cannot love, show mercy, or make deliberate choices. God does all of these things and more. He is self-aware and cognizant of others. He holds appropriate emotions at their proper occasions.

The movie Star Wars ruined a lot of people’s theology. After that movie talked about a force as the most powerful thing in the universe, the idea of an impersonal God gained a lot of steam. But this is not how Scripture speaks of God, nor is it how any of us have experienced God. We experience God relationally and it takes personhood to have a relationship.

But if God is personal, and we relate to Him the same as any other person, then we must have an obligation to Him. The created one must relate to the creator in the manner the creator chooses. I suspect this is part of the appeal of God as an impersonal force. If God was impersonal we would be off the hook, but since God has personhood we are under His authority.

Understanding these details of God’s nature also helps us to understand how come salvation comes not by a series of rituals, or a benchmark of personal holiness, but rather through relationship with God. Why would a personal God want anything else? How could we expect our activities to measure up to God who is so much higher than us? (Please note I am not saying behavior is holiness and worship are irrelevant, I am only saying they do not bring salvation.)

Instead of earning or achieving salvation, we receive it by grace when we enter into a relationship with God.

Potty Retraining

One of the more awkward trends in America right now is towards, non-discriminatory bathrooms. A number of places are setting laws, under pressure from the LGBTQPXYZ community, to allow a person to use either the men’s room or the women’s room at any time and at any place. The goal of this law is to protect individuals who feel they are a different gender in mind than they are in body.

This is another example of the amazing amount of power our society has given to this specialized community. If this relatively small group wants a law or a community standard changed they will probably get it. In this case, they will get it even if it is beyond all common sense and contrary to the safety of the average citizen. Did anyone who worked to create and pass these laws consider the ways in which they could be misused?

Anyone who wishes to do harm will simply have to claim they felt like the other gender at that moment. This claimed feeling will give them permission to hang around in a restroom which in reality is not for people they associate themselves with, but people they intend to victimize.

I think the point of greatest concern should be schools. This law allows a curious boy to claim identity issues in order to get access to the girl’s locker room. For most boys they will go through a stage in their development when they would do anything for that opportunity. Is this really what lawmakers think is wisdom?

I noticed as my kids were going through middle and high school that gym classes had gotten very lax about the shower requirement. In today’s world children are so fearful that it has become impossible to enforce. Simply stated they believed some of the other kids were certain to be homosexuals, who would be looking at them in predatory ways. Now I wonder if they will begin to fear to even use the restroom at school, for similar reasons.

The Spiritual Discipline of Giving

The topic for today is going to be one of those which different people will see in other ways. So let me begin by saying if you see it differently then, feel free to start a conversation in the comments.

I believe a person has no right to call themselves a Christian or a believer unless they are striving to live obediently by everything God has asked. This includes being a tither, seeing everything you own as His, and being generous with those in need.

Tithing is giving ten percent of your income, from every income source, to the local church God has led you to join. I think the tithe should be for the support of the local church. For this reason I do not believe giving to a designated account, or to a special offering, or to a para-church organization is tithing. But all of these forms of giving can be legitimate ways to give offerings above and beyond your tithe and this is a part of being generous.

Stewardship is a Biblical principle for believers. Everything we are, and everything we have belongs to God. We are to care for it and manage it like it is something owned, not by us, but by the Lord. The pretty part of this picture is we can trust Him to take care of us; we will never be abandoned. But the difficult part of this picture is that we need to curb our wants according to what He would want us to have and often deny ourselves in order to be money wise.

A part of stewardship is to care about the things that God cares about. Most notably this includes those around us who are in genuine need. This giving needs to be done under the direction of the Holy Spirit, because of the deceitful nature of our world. But when God says give, we should give. (When I say the world is deceitful I mean it is full of people who appear needy, but would actually use the money to harm themselves and others.)

Now let me also say, giving sometimes has its pitfalls. Pride gets into our giving just like it does into everything else. So some act as if their giving means they get to be arrogant or bossy around the church. Some people use their giving as a means to control the shape of ministry. This is not giving, this is manipulation. It is not giving to God as an act of trust, it is using money to exert personal power and put yourself in the place of God.

So give, but give with the right attitude.