Monday, April 12, 2021

The Hardest Ministry

I've had a few folks, especially in the last few years, say that the hardest job in the church is that of the Worship Pastor, or Minster of Music, or whatever you call it. Everyone has an opinion about the style of music--more newer, more older--or more people, or fewer people, choir, organ, brass, drums, electric guitar, hymns, choruses, Bethel, Elevation, Passion, Getty, T4G, Vineyard, and on and on it goes.

I appreciate the sentiment, and even more the sensitivity to the challenges. At one level I agree. People are deeply passionate about their musical preferences and traditions.

But at another, I can't imagine the holy burden of being a senior pastor. In seasons of my career I've had a little taste. Serving a church without a pastor, I would feel the weight of the spiritual battles of many people. I slept less. I had to pray more. In that way, it was harder than what I do.

But I think there's a harder ministry than that.

It's a ministry you don't need to be a seminary grad to do, or a college grad, or even a Sunday school grad.

You don't have to be ordained; it isn't reserved for only men, or only women, or only adults.

Figure it out yet?

It's the ministry of presence.

That's it.

You walk into the path of the freight train of unspeakable grief and stand your ground on the tracks, being fully present with the person in crisis. Or you sit in the hospital waiting room where the silence is louder than a heavy metal concert and you wait. Even when you don't want to be, you are simply and profoundly present with someone who is hurting.

The hardest part is the feeling of powerlessness that accompanies the silence. 

I recently heard Rick Warren, who knows the darkest caverns of grief, say that "the deeper the grief, the fewer the words."

And that's what makes it so hard. We are accustomed to using our words to help people feel better. But words are powerless, or nearly so.

When there's no way to feel better--not yet anyway--the only thing better than words, than preaching, than music, that anything? It's your presence.

So that person you know of who is hurting... or when the time comes that someone you love is in this kind of pain...

I will be so bold as to commission you to be the Minister of Presence for that precious child of God. Even though it's the hardest, it's also the most powerful. There's a real good chance you will be one of just a few who know how to use very few words paired with very many hours to do the hardest ministry there is.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Good? Friday

 I'm writing on Good Friday, but this post will be released on Easter Monday.

In the equivalent of a long weekend, followers of Jesus will go from wearing black clothes and fasting to wearing bright colors and feasting.

If it feels like your Friday will never end, when it seems like an eternally long weekend, I remind you that Easter is coming sooner than you think. Resurrection can only follow death.

I'm not sure about you, but I want to experience the resurrection from the dead!

How can we do that? 

According to an amazing passage in Philippians 3:7-11 there are four stops along the way:

  1. Discard my reputation. This is how I become one with Jesus. All of those accolades I've fought for, services I've led, ministries that have grown, all of it... toss it out with the trash.
  2. Shed self-righteousness. If I will replace my pharisaical condemnation of others with humbly honoring everyone I encounter, I'm living out my faith. And faith is how I gain the righteousness of Christ.
  3. Know Jesus. This is eons away from knowing about Jesus. I may know a lot about Taylor Swift, but if I don't know her--have her number as one of my favorites on my iPhone--or better yet, she has me as one of her favorites on your iPhone, I don't really know her. Many of us spend a lot of time learning about Jesus, but we don't spend much time getting to know him.
  4. Suffer with Jesus, sharing in his death. Wait, what? Sharing in his death? Suffering? Yes. And yes. This is the ultimate was we get to know Jesus. Our suffering has a purpose. When I invite God into my suffering, I know Him more deeply than any other way. In other words, when I die to myself, I am raised to life. I live more of the life of Jesus.

Good Friday or Easter Monday... it's all about perspective. Same Jesus. Same God. Same story. 

I'll say it once more: "If it feels like your Friday will never end, when it seems like an eternally long weekend, I remind you that Easter is coming sooner than you think. Resurrection can only follow death."

I invite you to read the passage from Philippians. And after you've read, consider what you will do. Then do it. Might be a prayer, a phone call, or a wholesale change in your perspective. I don't know. But you will. So go for it. I'm cheering you on!

I once thought these things were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done. Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ and become one with him. I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ. For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith. I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death, so that one way or another I will experience the resurrection from the dead! - Philippians 3:7-11

Monday, March 29, 2021

Saying Goodbye

I have served in my current context, Woodburn Baptist Church, for about 8 years. So... those who were in 5th grade when I arrived are now in college. Some who couldn't imagine retirement have hung up their work clothes for the last time. 

And due to the transitive nature of life in these days, I have said goodbye a lot. Several of our gifted, faithful, and effective worship leaders have moved on... a few to other churches, but most to other cities, states, and even countries. I miss Joshua, Nichole, Paul, Christina, Aaron, Josh, Dawn, Shelby, Bethany, and others.

It's one of the best, and hardest, parts of staying put.

I've learned a few things about saying goodbye that might encourage you as you do the same.

1) Do it on purpose. Plan the farewell. If they are indeed moving to a new city, or to a place of leadership within another church, commission them! We have included a laying on of hands and prayer at the conclusion of our worship gatherings when our worship leaders have moved on. This creates a memory for you, the person leaving, both families, and your church family.

2) Do it with understanding. The word "goodbye" is a contraction of old English phrase "God be with ye." Similarly, "farewell" is to "travel thee well." Both words are built-in blessings. In the Middle Ages, the first person would say farewell and the other would respond with goodbye. An even more old-fashioned word? When you say "Godspeed" you are wishing the one you speak over a God-prospered journey. Use these words. They bless the one leaving and the one sending.

3) Do it with time. A hand shake at the door of the church, or even an embrace, is not enough for someone you have invested in--and who surely has invested in you. Take the person to lunch, or better yet, invite them to your home. Bless each other. (more on that later) 

4) Do it with a future plan. The technology of the last few years has been a game changer. You can now text, call, email, FaceTime, Zoom, and follow each other on social media. If you became best of friends, keep in touch regularly. If the relationship was more professional and less personal, you are still doing ministry when you check in every few months. Sometimes I've done this well. Others, not so much. I cherish the former and regret the latter.

5) Do it with grace. This may go without being said, but Christ-followers are to be characterized by grace. Regardless of how the leaving is taking place, extend grace. Perhaps number two above isn't enough and you really could speak a blessing over them...

...Which brings me to my personally emotional conclusion. One of my closest friends of the last decade has just moved away. Far away. Before leaving, her whole family came to our home and we shared a meal. And s'mores. And then we blessed one another. Each person in her family of five spoke words of scripture, prayer, and song over us. And then through misty eyes I spoke encouragement into each of them. My friend even sang a song of blessing over my sweet bride. It was stunning. I'm struggling to find words beautiful enough to convey the experience. 

Transitions are an inevitable part of life. They are often the places where we have the most to lose. When it is time for someone to transition out of your life--or for you to be the one leaving--you will thank yourself if you will do it on purpose, with understanding, slowly, with a plan, and bathed in grace. You will be a blessing and you will be blessed.

Isn't that supposed to be the Christian journey anyway?

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Worship Has Happened When...

I am so proud of our Worship Committee at Woodburn Baptist Church! At our last meeting I invited them to finish the sentence, "Worship has happened when..."

This wasn't a teaching moment, but a learning one. Below are their answers with a bit of the context from our conversation. I hope you'll notice what is missing, and I'm also eager to read your comments about things you thing could/should have been included!

These are in the order they gave them, not necessarily ranked by importance or value.

1) Lives are changed. Transformation is the primary indicator of worship.

2) There is discernible engagement with the Spirit; there's life in it.

I asked, "how can we discern engagement?" They responded with:

  • people spontaneously stand
  • some will raise hands
  • others will shed tears
  • there is freedom to express in those ways OR not to, without judgement
  • their countenance changes
  • people testify that the experience has been Christ-focused, not self-focused
  • people linger after the service, not wanting to leave the sacred place

3) We are humbled; we are reminded that God is massive and Sovereign. We are neither.

4) Individuals can tell stories of worship happening; they have epiphanies from the singing, the scripture readings, the praying, the preaching, etc.

5) People sing... from their souls.

This seems to me a fantastic list. I confess, our context may color our answers. The things they listed--the list you just read--is a decent summary of observations we make weekly in our services. 

So... what would you add? Delete? Modify?

Monday, March 15, 2021

Bible Reading Plans (Suggestions)

A friend recently asked for a few "Bible Plan" suggestions. She knows I use the YouVersion app daily and that I've been through several plans.

After I replied to her email it occurred to me that some of you might be interested as well.

So here goes... my top 12 of the 135 or so that I've completed so far.

"The Book of Mysteries" This is my top pick. It is highly creative and aimed at creative people. If you are uncomfortable with holy imagination, you may not like it. (14 days)

"Get Out of Your Head" with Jennie Allen. Jennie speaks Biblical truth that our U.S. culture desperately needs to know! The devotionals are excerpts from her book of the same name. The bottom line? How can interacting with Scripture deliver us from anxiety. (5 days)

"The Third Option" with Miles McPherson. Another reading plan pulled from McPherson's book of the same name, this one provides insight into a Biblical approach to racial reconciliation. It doesn't have to be the black option or the while option. There's a third option -- and it's in the Bible! (7 days)

"Divine Direction" with Craig Groeschel. Another plan pulled from a book, Craig gives us 7 days of Biblical insight into decision making towards our Godly destiny. His teachings are always solid, straightforward, and immediately implementable.

"Thriving in Babylon" with Larry Osborne. Larry captured my attention with his best-selling book "Accidental Pharisees," so my expectations for this 7 day plan were very high. It didn't disappoint. As our culture becomes increasingly post-Christian, teachings like these will be more and more helpful.

"The Rock the Road and the Rabbi" with Kathy Lee Gifford. The TV star/actress/singer seems to have a strong connection to the Holy Land and the Jewish roots of Jesus. I found this one interesting and insightful. (7 days)

"Right People, Right Place, Right Plan" with Jentezen Franklin. So many of the conversations I have--about my life or the lives of those I journey with--are about finding God's direction, about God's will. This plan isn't magical, but it is solid and helpful. (7 days)

"Radical Wisdom: A 7-Day Journey for Husbands" with Regi Campbell. One of my favorite things about the YouVersion reading plans is the ability to find categories to explore. After being married for nearly 34 years, I am keenly aware of my need to be a better husband. This plan was helpful in my quest.

"Biblical Secrets to a Happy Marriage" with Shaunti Feldhahn. Another reading plan about marriage, but with the slant of a researcher. These 14 days are crammed with helpful insights, and I love that her research points us to scripture!

Craig & Amy Groeschel's "From This Day Forward." Another 7 day plan about how to have a great marriage, this one offers the insights from both genders. They explore five commitments: seek God, fight fair, have fun, stay pure, and never give up.

"Luke Explained: The Life of Jesus." This plan goes all the way through the gospel of Luke, a chapter a day. I read it with friends, which is one of my favorite ways to use the YouVersion Bible app. (24 days)

"Habit of Happiness" with Rick Warren. Sometimes called "America's pastor," Warren has his hand on the pulse of people like few in our day. This devotional is a journey through Philippians and reminds us that happiness can be a choice more than a circumstance. (37 days)

BONUS -- if you'd like to read through the Bible in a year, I suggest "Bible in One Year" with Nicky Gumbel. Nicky is the pastor of Holy Trinity Brompton (London, England) and the founder of the Alpha Course used all over the world. You can even hear Nicky read the plan if you'd prefer. (365 days)

Monday, March 8, 2021

More Spiritual Conversations?

My pastor says that God is concerned with your "life-life" as much--or more--than your "church-life."

My observation is that we have most of our spiritual conversations at church, whereas the testimony of scripture may be that we should spend more time having spiritual conversations at home than we do at church. I suppose this only makes sense... most of us are at the church building 3-10 hours a month. We are at home a whole lot more than that!

Last night some friends came over for dinner. They are moving out of the country in a couple of weeks and we wanted to squeeze every moment in we could before they left. We had a very normal dinner, followed by making s'mores around the fire when the conversation turned to the future... what they were looking forward to and what they were sad to leave behind.

After an hour or so it got cold enough that we were glad to go back inside. The conversation got a bit more serious and then one of our friends said their family wanted to pray over us before leaving. The next 45 minutes or so is, I hope, indelibly stamped on my soul.

She sat at the piano and sang a song over my sweet wife, then read scripture and prayed. The weight of God's word has seldom felt so profound or so personal. And it wasn't even being spoken about me! 

And then words of blessing were given to our younger daughter, and finally to me. The adults spoke words of blessing, and so did their children (all under 13 years of age). For me, the words of one of the kids was what I think God knew I most needed to hear. Amazing.

These are not conversations I'm accustomed to in my Baptist upbringing, so I responded the only way I knew how, with words of affirmation and encouragement. We prayed again.

It was stunning.

I've known this family for years... but we'd never done this. Why not? What would happen if you and I took Paul's common phrase, "Encourage one another with these words" as instructive for our "life-life" not just our "church-life"?

If you have examples of how this is a regular part of life for you and those you love, I'd love to read about it. Leave a long comment and share a story. Let's encourage one another to encourage one another!

Monday, March 1, 2021

What If... Praying for your Spouse

I was praying for my wife, Jackie, early this morning. While I was praying through my topic for today (overcoming fear), I got distracted in the most beautiful way. I pondered... what would happen if every Christ follower started praying for their wife... or their husband... every day?

What would happen to the fabric of society? Can you imagine it? The depth of health? The richness of trust? The dropping prison rate? The police officers lives spared because of the decline of domestic abuse?

What would happen to the culture of our churches? We could be a light on a hill in a whole new way! The divorce rate inside of churches would be dramatically lower than that of that outside. People in the marketplace might start coming to us to find out how we are so counter-cultural.

What would happen to your family life? The more I pray for Jackie, the more I find myself becoming the husband she needs. While I do see my prayers being answered, I more quickly see the pray-er being changed. When I pray for others in the morning, I often pray for couples I know who are struggling. I wonder how their marriages could be different if they prayed for one another like this.

What would happen for the next generation? It is commonly said that the best gift you can give your children is a healthy marriage. How could this be fulfilled better than by praying for your spouse?

Allow me one more minute and tell you how I came to the WAY I pray for my bride.

About 10 years ago I read the book The Power of a Praying Husband. There are 21 chapters, each of which ends with a prayer. I took that book and typed up those prayers, filled in the blanks with the names of my wife and daughters, printed it out, and it hangs on the wall where I pray. Sure I miss a few days each month, but in general I pray through the 21 prayers every month. Wives, don't fear! The first book in the series was The Power of a Praying Wife so you can do the same thing. (I notice it has 31 chapters, probably because we men need more prayer than you women do!)

If you are in ministry--volunteer, part-time, or full-time--I'd like to encourage you to consider this deeply. When I take even 5 minutes to imagine what the worship ministry I lead could look like if every married person in it were praying for their spouse in these specific ways, my heart melts with possibility.

If you have a meaningful way of praying for your husband or wife, would you leave a comment? I would love to learn from you!