I am going to be very transparent here, not in a passive-aggressive attempt to gain anybody’s sympathy but in the hopes that someone might be helped by my experience.
I have this calling from God to preach His Word. He brought the calling to me so strongly one night that I had to fall on my face and surrender. That moment was phenomenal, but the calling has been difficult for me over the years. I have always been a self-doubter, and I struggle with the idea that I could ever do anything that really matters. Don’t get me wrong; I envision myself in more great moments than Walter Mitty, but when it comes to reality, I am more like Winnie the Pooh’s pal, Eeyore.
And so, all these years later, I find myself at the stage of life where it seems most pastors who have pastored as long as I have pastor churches of at least an average size. I, though, pastor a little church that not many people attend. The people who do attend are dear to me, and I love being their pastor. But honestly, we could all fit into two or three of the church’s pews. I sometimes wonder if we will ever be even an average sized church. But visitors are rare, and even my friends and family in the area choose to worship elsewhere. This leads me into periodic moments of confusion, wondering if anyone likes me, and sometimes questioning whether I heard my calling correctly. (Like I said, just being transparent). Those moments can become quite dark and debilitating. However, no sooner do I question the call than the Lord reminds me of the night I fell face down in surrender to Him, and I am reminded that I do not deserve to pastor even one person. And so I press on, doing the only thing on this planet that I want to do and that which gives me joy like nothing else, even though I have questions that remain unanswered.
But that’s how we shine the light of Christ; we press on in faith. Whether you’re a pastor or a plumber, a missionary or a manager, pressing on with Christ is no big deal if everything is lining up nicely for you. Even as I type this, thoughts of confusion begin to swirl in my head. “Why, Lord? I’m faithful to teach Your Word. I’m not asking for a mega-church. Maybe 150 or 200 people. Even just 5 or 10 new families would make a huge difference. Is that asking too much? Am I doing something wrong? Did I mishear the call to preach all those years ago? Etc.”
My fear is that a lot of the people I hear about who are walking away from ministry (and even from the Lord) might be doing it because of questions like that. The confusion I have expressed is about ministry, but maybe someone is confused over other matters in their walk with the Lord and is growing tired of asking the “Why, Lord” questions and is on the verge of throwing in the towel on ministry or faith. If that’s you, I hope you hang in there. It really is worth it, and there are eternal benefits to doing so. Your questions may not ever be answered. Mine, either. We may be in the company of those mentioned in Hebrews 11:32-40, who suffered and pressed on and endured much more than we may ever endure, all to reach the ends of their lives without tangibly receiving what they were pressing on toward. But it was never the Lord’s plan to fulfill in their earthly lifetimes the promise they pursued. Their involvement with the promise was as links in the chain that would one day lead to the promise’s fulfillment. Eternity will show that their faithfulness was worth the cost and that God did keep His promises.
And so it is for us. Eternity will show that pressing on through the waiting and the disappointment and the confusion was more than worth it. Such will be the case for you and for me if we press on in faith, faithful to our calling, no matter its difficulties or the fact that it bears no resemblance to what we had expected when we began the journey. Over time, we learn that the Lord knows just what He is doing. And the end of the journey–in the presence of the Lord where we will know as we are known–will tell the true tale of what the Lord was doing through us.
MIRACLES: Pastor Saeed is suffering in an Iranian prison, but he’s also leading inmates to Christ. Here’s the latest. (My conversation with his wife, Naghmeh Abedini)
The love of God toward the Iranian prisoners is seen in His placing his servant, Saeed, in prison with them to tell them of Jesus. I have been expecting a blessing from God all day. I may have just gotten it through this article. Even as the Apostle Paul saw his imprisonments for the gospel as opportunities to reach people who otherwise would not have heard the message of salvation through faith in Jesus, so Saeed sees his imprisonment. We pray for him often, as well as for his family. But perhaps we need prayers that we would be so faithful to God’s call on our lives.
On Tuesday evening, I had the opportunity to talk by phone with Mrs. Naghmeh Abedini. She is the wife of Pastor Saeed Abedini, who has been in prison in Iran for converting to Christianity, preaching the Gospel, and helping the underground house church network inside Iran.
This Saturday will mark the third year since Pastor Saeed was arrested in Iran and sentenced to death. A prayer vigil for his protection and release will be held in churches all over the world this weekend. I ask you and your family and church to commit this weekend to praying for this dear brother in Christ and his precious family. I have been invited to speak that day at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C. and will address…
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I guess I shouldn’t really expect non-Christians to view the jailing of Kim Davis as religious persecution. I doubt that non-Christians in the Roman Empire thought the jailing of Christians for exercising their faith was wrong. In fact, many of them cheered at the spectacle of Christians being thrown to the lions.In Rome, sometimes persecution was as obvious as that. Other times, it was more seemingly innocuous, such as Christians at one point (as I remember learning somewhere in my past) being forbidden to own property.
In the Kim Davis situation, those who have no personal interest in freedom of religion may not care that a person’s religious rights have been trampled, especially when those rights were exercised in a way that hindered something such people believe in. And so, not only will they not be bothered by this jailing, but some will actually celebrate it.
We have crossed a line here, and, as these things tend to go, that line will be easier to cross the next time. And on it will go, with those who have no interest in religion or who view us Christians as party poopers and pests not being bothered by it at all, until the day comes when a line is crossed that butts up against some right about which they actually care. Have we really become a country in which the Constitution is important only in so far as it affects “me?”
As for Kim Davis, I would paraphrase for her what the Apostle Paul wrote of his sufferings for Christ in 2 Corinthians 4:17. This light, momentary affliction is preparing for you an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.
Yesterday, I saw some photos that were embedded into a news story or blog post that showed a gay rights parade in South America (Brazil, I think). Two of the photos were particularly sad and disturbing. One showed two women positioned side-by-side on a cross, making out. The other showed a man supposedly portraying Jesus on the cross, kissing another man. It is sad to see people thinking that they are somehow gaining a victory in such displays when they are really only heaping judgment upon their heads.
By attempting to mock Jesus (which, by the way, is what the people who crucified him did), these people are attempting to rub something in the face of Christians. They might not even think that they are mocking Jesus; their intent is probably to mock his followers. However, a very interesting Bible passage comes to mind that relates to this. In Acts 9, the risen Christ speaks to Saul of Tarsus about his persecution of Christians. In verse 4, Jesus says, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” The point is that Jesus identifies so closely with his followers that he considers persecution of them to be persecution of himself. Those of us who follow Jesus and are the intended targets of such mocking and persecution can rest in the fact that Jesus takes our persecution very personally.
Such public displays of mocking Jesus, no matter how triumphantly they may seem to be done, fail miserably, for “God is not mocked,” and “whatever one sows, that will he also reap” (Galatians 6:7). If you sow mocking of the only one who can save you from your sin and who will judge you in the end, then you sow eternal judgment upon yourself. Every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord (Philippians 2:10). Those who know Jesus by faith will bow the knee and confess him as Lord in joyous praise as they enter eternity in his presence; those who reject him will bow the knee and confess him as Lord while begging for a second chance that will not come as they realize that they are about to spend eternity in hell. The difference between those two scenarios lies in receiving Jesus as your Savior while you still have the breath of this life. “To all who did receive him (Jesus), who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12).
The pictures that I referred to at the beginning of this post were of people who were attempting to portray Jesus as sinning, when, in reality, he is the one who knew no sin and yet became sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in him (2 Corinthians 5:21). You do not have to do something so horrible as those people did to be facing the judgment of God in hell, for, no matter how good and nice you may seem to be, if you are not in Christ, you do not have that righteousness of God that comes only from being in him. When you stand before God at the end of your life, only having perfect righteousness will allow you entry into heaven for eternity. Since none of us are perfectly righteous in our behavior (or even in our thoughts or attitudes), you can only have that righteousness by having “become the righteousness of God” in Christ (2 Cor. 5:21), and you can only do that by asking him in faith to forgive you on the basis of his death on the cross having paid the penalty for your sins. If you’ve never done that, I urge you to do so now.
There is no greater word than “grace.” It speaks of the undeserved favor of God. That’s FAVOR! UNDESERVED!
I didn’t deserve God’s favor when Christ died for my sins before I knew Him; I didn’t deserve God’s favor when He accepted me as His adopted child through faith in what Christ did for me on that cross; I don’t deserve His favor all the while since then, sinning, even while knowing better.
The thought of it sometimes pulls me into a sense of shame. Guilt wants to take over and pull me down into the depths. “How could someone speak the glories of God with his mouth and think the things you’ve thought – do the things you’ve done?” the enemy of my soul seems to whisper.
But then there is grace. Undeserved favor. Freely bestowed, as the hymn writer says, on all who believe.
“How could you love me, Lord,” my heart wonders, “when I feel I have so often sullied your name?”
And the answer comes: GRACE! From which flows peace.
These days, there seem to be a lot of people renouncing the Christian faith they formerly claimed. It’s happening a lot with young celebrities who, as they were coming to fame in their teens, might have been vocal about their faith but now are saying they have left it behind. It’s happening a lot with young adults who, rather than making the transition from youth group to so-called “big church” are leaving church and the faith altogether. It’s happening as people read and hear the so-called new atheists who, because of the Internet, are able to have a more vast visibility and influence than atheists of the past.
I watch this going on – and I’ve seen it with people I know, people I’ve formerly pastored, and even blood relatives – and I go back and forth between weeping and scratching my head. I weep because of the eternal destiny that lies ahead for those who deny Jesus and will one day stand before him. I scratch my head because, while I have wrestled with doubts as much as anybody, I don’t get how someone can just walk away from Jesus. Having known him all these years, I can only surmise that people who walk away from him never really knew him in the first place. Perhaps they grew up in a Christian home or joined a church because of the nice people there, all while never really having a true, spiritual encounter with Jesus. They knew the lingo; they could recite the gospel message; they even learned the various arguments for the faith; but they never really knew him. That’s the only thing that makes sense to me.
Why would I walk away from Jesus because of the influence of small-minded, straw-man arguments put forth by so many of the “new atheists?” I once saw Sam Harris speak on TV, and I’ve skimmed a couple of Bart Ehrman’s books while sitting in bookstores. They don’t move me. In fact, I thought there were so many holes in their arguments that I might use them to drain spaghetti.
Why would I walk away from Jesus because of how Christians have sometimes treated me (and folks, it has sometimes been bad). It wasn’t Jesus who mistreated me; it was people. Christian people sometimes, yes, but still people. What does the failure of people who follow Jesus have to do with his death on the cross for my sins, his resurrection from the dead, and his promise of eternal life through believing in him? Nothing, that’s what.
Why would I walk away from Jesus because of disappointments and struggles I’ve had in life? Have I sometimes been mad at God because of life’s disappointments? Yes, I have. And I’ve told Him so. But His Spirit has always worked on my heart in those moments, and hindsight has inevitably revealed life’s difficulties and disappointments to have been good training exercises for things that have lain ahead, as well as protections from situations I might have encountered had I had my way. Additionally, I’ve seen God use disappointments in my life to enable me later to counsel others with comfort I would not have had to share had I not known myself the disappointment they were facing. I love the words attributed to the second-century bishop of Smyrna, Polycarp, as he was about to be put to death for his faith and was given one last chance to deny Christ and live: “Eighty and six years have I served him, and he has never done me injury. How then can I now blaspheme my King and Savior?” I concur.
Why would I walk away from Jesus because of questions about the eternal, infinite God that my puny, finite brain might not be able to answer? For instance, I don’t understand the concept of the Trinity. I can define it, but I don’t understand it. So should I deny its reality? A better question would be, why should I expect that I would be able to understand it? After all, the Trinity is entirely unique, in the truest sense of that word. Is there anything in the experience of mankind that is three, distinct things and yet, at the same time, one thing? Not one thing with three parts; we have lots of things in the world like that. But there is nothing where the three are one, and the one is three. This is why Muslims accuse Christians of being polytheists; they say we worship three gods. But we worship one God who is three distinct persons. In human terms, that sounds like a committee of three or a Federal court with three justices, but it’s not like those things at all. In those scenarios, the individual members are entirely distinct; it is only the framework in which they serve that is one. They can hide things from each other and play politics with one another. They can disagree with each other and manipulate one another. None of those things is done by the Trinity because, in God, the three are truly one, and the one is truly three. The fact that it can’t be perfectly compared to anything means that it cannot be fully understood, but that doesn’t make it not worth believing. After all, does outer space have an ending? If so, how? If somewhere out in space, one were to come to a wall – a dead end – that wall would have to have thickness, so it would go on beyond the limits of space. And beyond that wall’s thickness, there would have to be something; how could there not be? And yet, we have nothing in our human experience with which to compare a never-ending thing, but that does not mean it’s not true. If such a conundrum exists in thinking about a created thing, how much more so in thinking about the Creator? No, it would be arrogant for the limits of my puny mind to walk away from Jesus simply because I can’t answer all the questions I might have. In fact, I’m not sure any god whom I could fully comprehend would be worthy of my worship.
Why would I walk away from Jesus? To paraphrase the Apostle Peter, where would I go? Jesus has the words of life.
For about six years of my life, I acted in community theater productions. In the first year of that experience, I landed the role of Officer Krupke in a production of my favorite play, “West Side Story.” I was thrilled to be part of telling that story and listening to Leonard Bernstein’s amazing music as I sat in the wings when not on stage. Ah yes, that music.
Krupke makes his initial appearance in the story during the musical “Prologue.” A street fight has broken out between the Jets and the Sharks, and at a certain point in the music, Krupke rushes on stage, blowing his whistle, followed by Lt. Shrank, and they break up the fight. The entry and blowing of the whistle have to be precise. There is a brief pause in the score where the whistle is to blow, followed by the orchestra playing its final measure or two. Therefore, Krupke has to blow his whistle at exactly the right time, which means he also has to enter at exactly the right time. The problem I had with this precision requirement was that the music at that moment in the score is all over the place. It’s hard to pick out a discernible melody, from which you can find a cue, upon which you know to blow the whistle. And I was having a terrible time trying to get it right (which greatly humbled me because I usually have a good ear for music).
One night, during a performance, I was waiting in the wings with Shrank, listening for my cue. Shrank actually knew the cue better than I did, and on that night, when I mistakenly thought I had heard it and headed for the stage, in character, whistle in mouth, ready to blow, I heard the actor playing Shrank whisper-yell “No!” But it was too late. I was already in the sight of the audience. I had a fraction of a second to decide that turning back at that point would look like a huge and obvious mistake, so I pressed on. I would have to improvise until the cue came up in the music and I could blow my whistle and break up the fight.
The problem was, though, I couldn’t think of a single thing to do once out I was out there in the midst of the two gangs at war with one another. And to make matters worse, I had gone out a full minute early. So for 60 seconds, I stood there, baton in hand, whistle in mouth, frozen behind the action. And if you’ve ever been in such a situation on stage, in front of an audience (and there were a few hundred there!), you know that one minute feels like about fifteen minutes. It was horrible – my most embarrassing moment on stage by far.
The next day, I went to Borders and found myself praising God that they actually had on hand, in the store, CDs of the original Broadway soundtrack to “West Side Story.” I bought one, took it home, popped it into a CD player, and played the “Prologue” until I heard the whistle blow. I then backed it up a few seconds and listened again. Over and over, I backed it up and re-listened. I must have done that fifty times. By the time I was done, I knew that cue cold. And at that night’s performance, I was right on time, as I would be for every performance thereafter.
Out of curiosity, just before writing this, I put on the “Prologue” to see if I could still hear the cue. It’s been about eight years, and that cue sticks out to me like a sore thumb. If I ever play Krupke again, I will be right on time with my entry and whistle.
As I was reliving that incident in my mind this morning, it got me thinking about how important it is to get the Word of God into our hearts and minds. Psalm 119:11 says, “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” What this is saying is that, when we take the Word of God into our hearts again and again and again – in other words, we make a regular practice of ingesting the Bible – its truths will speak to us during those crossroad moments when we decide how we will act or speak or think. The more we take it in, the more we will hear its cues – KNOW its cues – and we will be better adept at being where we need to be, when we need to be there, in our walks with God.
This Scripture ingestion can take the form of memorizing Bible verses, which is usually the way I hear Psalm 119:11 applied, but it also involves just reading the Bible regularly – daily, even. Sometimes, people try to read the Bible and then stop because they don’t understand it. Just keep on reading. Ask God to make it clear to you. The more you read it and put it into practice, the more you will understand about your own human condition and about God. In fact, in time, you will begin to think biblically, sometimes without even realizing you’re doing it. The Word will become to you what that musical cue became to me when I listened to it over and over and over again. It will guide you as you walk with God.