Pastoral Meditation

Why Edmund does not believe Lucy

My daughter and I have been listening to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe together. Lucy enters into the wardrobe and then ventures into a new world called Narnia. Mr. Tumnus meets Lucy and offers her comfort and food. Later he is full of grief. He is repentant for embracing evil without knowing good. He makes a deal with the witch, but after having met the good and the innocent–represented by Lucy–he turns away and devotes himself to the good.

When Lucy returns from her trip to Narnia and shares her experience with the others she is immediately confronted by Edmund’s disbelief. “It’s a magic wardrobe,” she says. Edmund’s persistence in disbelieving Lucy’s report sounds very familiar to biblical ears. The disciples at times could not understand Jesus’ words. They could not understand the new world he was speaking about throughout his ministry. He was met with wild resistance by his own people.

It is easier to disbelieve than to believe. Lucy is eventually vindicated, but Edmund’s disbelief is sign of a greater despair in his own life. It’s not just disbelieving Lucy that characterizes him, it’s disbelieving the supernatural.

The Pastor as Symbol

The Pastor as Symbol

A pastor is “among symbols, as a symbol” (1). “In a society often starved for meaningful symbolic practice, the pastor may . . . discover that she or he is the only keeper of communal symbols in sight. Many people may turn to the pastor for a few appropriate words in a time of need or change, for a shared ritual on an occasion of loss, or for counsel on a rite of human passage when . . . the group discovers it has lost whatever rites it once had and does not know where to begin. Sometimes, on such an occasion, just the presence of the pastor may seem enough: the pastor then is the symbol – for mystery, for wider connection, for a barely remembered past, perhaps for good, most likely for God” (4).

-Gordon Lathrop’s The Pastor: A Spirituality

How I Have Changed

Photo: Circa 2002, Senior Year at CCC...good times. Now: Ministers, missionary, pharmacist, military chaplain, financial advisor. God has been faithful! Kenneth James Conklin, Timothy J Russell, Matthew Fisher, Tom YuI spent a couple of hours today chatting with an old friend of mine. He is now a pastor of a Lutheran congregation. He is a fine fellow whom I long to re-acquaint face to face with a pipe and a fine beer. After all these years we have kept a relatively lively relationship over the phone. We have even joined forces to write a lengthy piece combating an evangelical prohibitionist advocate of our day.

Interestingly what brought us together even more so in these last few years have been our theological journeys. We both attended a fundamentalist college, but even back then we were already pursuing dangerous literature. One time he brought a book back from home that had a warning sign on its first page written by his mother. The first page stated that we were to be careful as we read this book for it was written by a Calvinist. Lions, and tigers, and Calvinists, oh my!

How far we have come! It has been over 10 years since we parted those glory college days, and now we both are pastoring healthy congregations. We are in different theological traditions, but very rooted in our Protestant commitments. Beyond that, we are rooted in a vastly historic tradition.

As I pondered that conversation I wondered just how much I have changed over this last decade. I went from a revival preacher to a liturgical minister. Now don’t get me wrong, I long for revival, I just don’t long for the same type my brothers long for. This revival I long for is filled with beautiful images, a pattern-filled story, tasty bread, and delightful wine; church colors, rituals– in the best sense of the term—and lots of feasting. While my fundamentalist brothers longed for the sweet by and by, and times they would gather at the river to sing of that ol’ time religion. Those romantic days no longer appeal to me.

How have I changed? In so many ways! But my changes were not just theological. I have held the same convictions I have today on a host of issues for over 10 years. My changes were more situational and existential (and normative for the tri-perspectivalists out there). My reality has changed. I now treasure different things that I did not treasure a decade ago. You may say marriage does that, but the reality is I have taken my sola scriptura to the next level. I have begun to see its applicability beyond the sphere of the mind. The arm-chair theologian no longer seems admirable. Even marriage carries a symbolic significance to me. This is not just a privatized institution; it is, to quote Schmemann, “for the sake of the world.” Yes, I have changed.

I have also changed existentially. I have learned to delve deeply into personal piety and have found it refreshing. In the past my piety led me into the valley of pietism. It was discouraging; pessimistic. Now my piety keeps me in green pastures. My existential struggle with doubt is no longer a reality. I have found objectivity in the most unlikely places. They have kept me secure and alert to my own tendencies; to the idols that I have failed to crush. Jesus has become more than an intellectual pursuit, but the heart of the issues, because he is the heart of history.

Yes, I have changed since my college days. I would like even to affirm that this is the new me; a “me” broken by idolatry and restored and renewed by word, water, and wine. Thanks be to God!

Why am I Angry?

Why am I angry? Why do I lose control so often? How can I change?

These are all questions we have considered. We don’t have to ponder too long before we realize that anger has made a home in our hearts many times.

The first instance of anger in the Bible is in Genesis 4. Cain was angry because his offering was not accepted (Gen. 4:5). We can offer some theological insight into the nature of this offering, but for our purposes, the result of this offering/worship rejection was the murder of Abel. We can then conclude that unrighteous anger ( I argue that there is righteous anger, but that anger is rarely righteous) is a result of unacceptable worship. The first recorded sinful act in the fallen world was the result of anger. Uncontrolled anger is a result of false worship. The one who is angry and sins has made his desires and agenda the center of the universe. Anger is the definition of self-worship. It is the manifestation that one’s world is not where it should be and so everyone–or someone close– must conform his world to theirs.

If a person has a history of angry outbursts, then it might take more than a few sermons and counseling sessions to see change. Ultimately, Jesus is the model we are to follow. He was insulted, abused, and falsely accused, but yet he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly (I Pet. 2:23). Changing and conforming to the image of our Lord must be a priority. Anger cannot be moderated through self-determination, but through the power of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the comforter of the afflicted and the One who calms the angry heart.

Changing then requires an initial affirmation that anger and its consequences is inconsistent with the Christian testimony. It elevates our agenda above others. It does not seek the kingdom of God first and his righteousness. But changing from angry outbursts to  a soft answer demands constant accountability with people who know you best. Your pastor or close friend may be wise choices in confronting you in this process. Anger destroys those closest to us and it can affect jobs, relationships, and our communion with the Triune God.

We need to be confronted by the peace of God daily. Jesus Christ is the shalom of God to the world. He disarms anger with love and grace. In this sense, a grateful heart is the most fundamental response to anger. The one who worships rightly is most grateful. Gratitude is anger’s worst enemy. Unrighteous anger is a denial of God’s gifts to his children.

If you are angry and your family has been on the receiving side of that anger for a long time, then it is time to change. The angry heart never takes a break. Seek Christ. Seek help from your community, and worship rightly.

Homosexuality Brings Death!

Homosexuality brings death! The entire testimony of sacred Scriptures attests to this fact. St. Paul writes that they “dishonor their bodies among themselves.” Yet our culture continues to live as if it is simply a choice like any another. But some choices bring life, and others bring death. Again, homosexuality brings death!

This became even clearer to me today. As I began editing some work this morning at the office I received a phone call from a man I will refer to as “Bill.” Bill found our Church’s name when looking for a Reformed congregation in Pensacola. Over the years our small congregation has received a fair amount of traffic due to its status on google search as one of the first two churches listed under “Reformed/Pensacola.” I am thankful for this visibility. It has afforded me various opportunities to meet new people and interact with them on-line.

If you know anything about the Bible belt is that explicit Reformational churches are few in number. Bill comes from Los Angeles where the Reformed influence is even less. But by God’s grace, due to a series of unfortunate circumstances, he found himself in Pensacola for a day. He called wanting to talk to a brother. I listened attentively. Having exposed myself to a fair number of professional panhandlers I knew this one was different. Bill’s story was sincere and it offered no hint of deceit.

With my deacon being away and my associate pastor not available I called and told him that I would pick him up. I attended the funeral of a dear neighbor with my wife and left to meet him right afterwards.

As I arrived I immediately identified Bill. His 50 year old body could easily be mistaken for a 70 year old man. The truth is Bill is dying. He once was 250 pounds, but now he only weighs 130. Bill has AIDS and the doctor told him he only has six months to live. I introduced myself, helped him with his bags, and offered to buy him breakfast. He readily accepted, though adding he will most likely throw it up later. His body can no longer digest well.

He wanted to eat at Waffle House. We found the nearest one and sat to eat. “I want three very, very crunchy pieces of bacon,” he asked. “Sure thing, sweetie,” replied the waitress in what must be a universal Waffle House lingo. As we waited we talked. I asked him all sorts of questions. “How in the world did you end up in a reformational church in California,” I asked. Bill attends a very small congregation started by a Master’s Seminary grad from Scotland who happens to know–as Bill refers to–“brother Ferguson” personally. “Sinclair Ferguson!” I replied? “Yes, that’s him!” Bill happened to run across a passionate evangelical at Starbucks one day and the two became friends and began to talk on the phone regularly. The young man was 29 years old and suffering from serious health issues. In the process he was able to introduce Bill to Reformed literature. One day Bill fell on his face and asked God to save him. “I knew at that moment that I was no longer a homosexual,” he said. The friend who introduced him to Christ died soon after, but not without changing Bill and his life.

Bill said that J.I. Packer’s book Knowing God was his all-time favorite. “I met J.I. Packer,” I proudly stated. His eyes lit up. “I also read R.C. Sproul…lots and lots of his books.” ” I also met him and sat under his preaching many times,” I said. “You don’t know how blessed you are,” he said. The truth is I don’t. I take so much for granted.

So here I was in Pensacola sitting across a former homosexual who dedicated his entire life to the abuses of a lifestyle that he himself describes as “deadly from the start,” and this same man–who only has six months to live–has a goal to re-read Calvin’s Institutes this year. “The sovereignty of God changed my life,” he said. He only has little time left and now is consuming whatever Reformed literature he can find. Beyond that, this same man is preaching the gospel to his former homosexual community who now shuns him. “They want me gone in L.A….they don’t want to hear my message,” he says. But Bill is a changed man. He is not going to stop now. His life is vanishing little by little, but he still finds the gospel invigorating and refreshing to proclaim.

Afterwards I took Bill to his motel and bid him adieu! “God bless you and thank you,” he uttered. God bless and thank you, Bill. Homosexuality brought and will bring you death, but Christ gave you a new life in this world and in the world to come. Amen and amen!

Brothers, We Should Stink!

Thabiti Anyabwile is at it again. According to Thabiti:

These days pastoral ministry has become more glamorous, fabulous, fashionable than ever. We hear nowadays of pastors driving expensive cars or being chauffeured, owning private jets, and living in opulent mansions. Once only the “prosperity preachers” and bona fide hucksters touted such lives; now your neighborhood “orthodox” super-pastor does the same. It’s all so pretty, perfumed with the world’s “best” of everything.

Pastoral ministry has lost its wilderness motif. She is no longer invested and involved in that labor of caring, shepherding, and defending the sheep. Pastors no longer live among the sheep for their sake, rather, they prefer the green pastures of the golf course, or spending time with the elite membership. Baxter would be shocked! How much time do we spend with your people? Do we smell like them? Do we stink because of their problems? Do our clerical clothes smell like their cigarettes? Thabiiti writes:

The apostle understands that shepherds should smell like sheep. The sheep’s wool should be lint on our clothes. Our boots should be caked with their mud and their mess. Our skin ought to bear teeth marks and the weather-beaten look of exposure to wind, sun, and rain in the fields. We belong among the people to such an extent that they can be called on to honestly testify that our lives as messengers commend the message. We should be so frequently among them that we smell like them, that we smell like their real lives, sometimes fragrant but more often sweaty, musty, offensive, begrimed from battle with the world, the flesh, and the devil.

What used to be a foundational feature of the pastoral ministry has now become a forgotten tradition. Perhaps we ought to smell ourselves at the end of our weeks, and ask whether our clothes have the scent of our people, whether they are messy from those long pastoral trips, whether they are stained from coffee, and whether they reflect the shepherd’s calling.

There are profound dangers in the “pastor as academician” phenomenon. All pastors are scholars, but all pastors must use their scholarship to comfort, encourage, rebuke, exhort, and love their people. Scholarship apart from the stinkiness of pastoral ministry is an unused scholarship.

So have we identified ourselves with our people? Do they know us? Do they know we care for them? What is our boast? Is it in the well-delivered homily? In our power and giftedness? If so, we need to change our clothes and put on those well-worn garments of a shepherd and truly cherish the aroma of pastoral ministry. As Thabiti concludes:

Brothers, we are shepherds down in the fields of life — and we should stink.

The Pastor and His Family

Though I am in the process of editing a book on the importance of the Church, and the imperative to love the Church as God’s greatest sphere on earth, I also want to stress the significance for pastors to love their families before their flocks.

Brian Croft summarizes well the biblical necessity:

1)  The pastor’s neglect of his family reveals a disregard for the biblical imperatives commanded to every Christian husband and father (Eph. 5:25-30; 6:4; 1 Pet. 3:7) of which the pastor must excel in so to be an example of them to his flock (1 Peter 5:3).  Additionally, neglect reveals a disregard to heed the ongoing qualification to first and foremost “managing his household well” (1 Tim. 3:4-5).  The biblical imperatives that reveal the priority for the pastor to first shepherd and care for his family before his flock is clear, yet sin causes so many pastors to ignore the very task that allows them to biblically continue to minister to their flock.

2)  Any Christian man’s neglect of his family communicates a lack of value of his family to them.  There are even greater ramifications of this devaluing by the pastor to his family.  Because of the biblical calling for the pastor to be an example to his flock (1 Pet. 5:3), he not only sets a bad example to the other Christian men in his congregation by his neglect, but even worse there is this spirit of hypocrisy that permeates in the pastor’s home felt by his wife and children.  It is very likely that the devaluing of the family by the pastor is a leading cause of the cliché that pastors’ wives and their children become disenchanted with the church and even Christ Himself.

All people struggle with sin and those sins bring consequences upon the sinner and those around them.  The high stakes in the pastor’s life that are a part of God’s design, create even greater consequences upon his family and church when sin effects faithfulness.

Pastors and Warfare

A strong exhortation from Brian Croft on the dangers of sermon preparation:

Pastors, make no mistake.  That battle wages even now.  We are on the front lines of it as the enemy wants our souls and the souls of those entrusted to our care.  Do not forget that battle wages without exception even as you labor in study today to preach.  Yet in the midst of that battle, also do not forget the enemy who seeks to devour us has been completely defeated in the life, death, and resurrection of our King Jesus.  Therefore, depend upon Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit that dwells in us as you prepare each week knowing He will strengthen you not only to study this week and fight the enemy’s attacks, but to proclaim the excellencies of Jesus Christ to your people in power and victory this Sunday.

Palm Sunday Pastoral Meditation

Jesus is the hope of the world. The crowds gathering and cheering the coming of Jesus into Jerusalem indicates that they were placing their hopes and expectations on Him. They may have failed to understand in what sense Jesus would rescue and deliver them, but yet they knew that the man riding a donkey was a rescuer and deliverer. This causes us to consider how Christ comes to us each Lord’s Day rescuing and delivering us from our sins (confession) and taking us to his heavenly abode (ascension). For us, the One coming on a donkey is a ruling priest and king.
Holy and merciful Christ, You came for us when we would never come to You. You acted on our behalf; took upon yourself our guilt. May we be ever mindful that your entry into Jerusalem was an entry unto death: the death that saved us from condemnation. To you, O Christ, we offer our thanksgiving. Amen.

Lenten Pastoral Meditation

Out of the most unlikely people in biblical history we discover the richest theology. The first century did not view the testimony of women as reliable. This is one reason the resurrection story is so fascinating, since the women were the first ones to witness the empty tomb. In the Gospel of John, chapter 11, Martha declares with great certainty that Jesus is not only the Lord of the living, but also of the dead. Martha is a type of the church. She demonstrates that our hope is not simply for this present world, but in a world that is fully resurrected by the Lord of life. Jesus is Lord over death and like Lazarus we too will be raised at the Last Day.
Gracious Father, You have raised your servant Lazarus from the dead. You have overcome the tyranny of death. Teach us to see your resurrection power in our own lives as we live in light of your resurrection. For Christ’s sake, Amen!