Reflections: Sabbatical 2016, Pt 1

IMG_1016.JPGFor years now, I have wanted to blog. Friends have encouraged me to write more regularly, and mentors and colleagues have challenged to blog more frequently. For various reasons, to which I may blog about later, I have simply neglected to follow through. Now, I have written a blog from time to time (once a year it seems), but I have never learned to consistently blog. This I pray will be the beginning of a new era that involves blogging for me.

Yesterday was my first day back from a sabbatical the church I pastor, Providence Church, graciously provided me. I am grateful for a church that provides prolonged hiatuses for rest and study and soul care. I am grateful for a church and elders who recognize the unique difficulties of pastoral ministry and provide the fading habit of offering annual seasons to unplug. Sabbaticals are not always provided to pastors of churches and some people may not be familiar with them. If you are interested in learning more you can read this helpful article.

I have not always been able to take an annual sabbatical. The last was August 2013 when I planned it so that for 9 days I could research and write alongside a friend, Tom Ascol. Tom and I had hoped that that time and work would lead to publishing a book on the church and family. Tom wrote about that time on his blog (here). I ended up being extremely sick the first half of that sabbatical with Ulcerative Colitis and rarely left my home. I only functioned at all on those final 9 days with Tom because I was on heavy doses of prednisone. Eighteen more months of fighting this disease followed before I eventually underwent a total proctocolectomy and ileal pouch anal anastomosis (IPAA) at the Cleveland Clinic in February 2015 (may need to be another blog). Now I sit at my desk on the first day coming off a month-long sabbatical 3 years after that first one. I feel rested, rejuvenated, and thankful for this season of good health.

Sabbaticals, unlike vacations, usually involve goals like research, writing, praying, and reflecting,  as well as reevaluating one’s ministry responsibilities. Because I am a father of three children, and a husband of 18 years, my sabbatical also included IMG_1113spending time and caring for my family. So on the 6th of July the five of us and our Australian Shepherd “Copper” loaded up the truck and headed north. We were graciously offered the use of a friend’s cabin in Eastern Kentucky some 30 miles outside of Moorhead. We spent 8 nights secluded from people, televisions, cell phones, and internet connections. It was incredible. Our family had never experienced anything like that, ever. I am not sure my children thought people could survive under those conditions.

This time provided me the opportunity to read more than usual. One book I read was the recently published biography by Iain Murray about J.C. Ryle called “Prepared to Stand 510HPo8A0zL._SX314_BO1,204,203,200_Alone.” This is an incredibly well written book that I highly recommend. It was an especially wonderful resource for a pastor recharging on sabbatical. Chapter after chapter I was repeatedly encouraged by the example of this godly 19th Century English pastor and former Bishop of Liverpool. I also read much from Kent Hughes’ “Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome.” This too is a great book for pastors. In addition to reading, I also spent more time than is normal for me in prayer. Being in the middle of nowhere hearing the birds and observing God’s creation while spending extended time in prayer is an incredible experience.

I found being off social media and away from the television was a blessing. Family worship around an outside fire-pit and long exhausting walks with my children and my wife, well, these are the moments I will be grateful for as long as I live. During one of those walks we turned a 2-hour hike in the mountains viewing incredible waterfalls into a 5-hour hike causing Mary to doubt my navigational skills (I was never in doubt, most of the time). And there was that Sunday we just popped into a small baptist mountain church with the heave-hawing-style preaching. These nine days were a great start to my sabbatical. I’ll save the rest for next week…hopefully.

UPDATE: Read part two here.

 

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Why You Need to Attend Small Groups

For every Christian, hearing the Word of God read and proclaimed to their hearts each week in worship with the church is absolutely essential. The Bible warns every believer to not neglect meeting together every week, “as is the habit of some” (Hebrews 10:25). But “going to church” is not enough for the Christian. In order to grow and continue in the faith absolutely depends on regular face-to-face meeting with other Christians where we are personally involved in each others lives (1 Peter 4:10). There are things God will only do in a Christian’s life when they are in a small group setting, such as is happening in our Life Groups at Providence Church. The following is an excerpt from a sermon from John Piper that is helpful in explaining some reasons we need small group community in the church:

7 Reasons We Need Small Groups

God has given pastors to the church “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11–12). I believe in what I do. And I believe that it is not enough. Here are the seven reasons I gave the small group leaders.

  1. The impulse to avoid painful growth by disappearing safely into the crowd in corporate worship is very strong.
  2. The tendency toward passivity in listening to a sermon is part of our human weakness.
  3. Listeners in a big group can more easily evade redemptive crises. If tears well up in your eyes in a small group, wise friends will gently find out why. But in a large gathering, you can just walk away from it.
  4. Listeners in a large group tend to neglect efforts of personal application. The sermon may touch a nerve of conviction, but without someone to press in, it can easily be avoided.
  5. Opportunity for questions leading to growth is missing. Sermons are not dialogue. Nor should they be. But asking questions is a key to understanding and growth. Small groups are great occasions for this.
  6. Accountability for follow-through on good resolves is missing. But if someone knows what you intended to do, the resolve is stronger.
  7. Prayer support for a specific need or conviction or resolve goes wanting. O how many blessings we do not have because we are not surrounded by a band of friends who pray for us.

So please know that when this small-group ministry of our church is lifted up, I don’t think it’s an optional add-on to basic Christian living. I think it is normal, healthy, needed, New Testament Christianity. I pray that you will be part of one of these small groups or that you will get the training and start one. This is the main strategy through which our pastors and elders shepherd the flock at Bethlehem: Elders > small group leaders > members to one another.

Why We Do Missions & Why We Can’t Afford Not To

A popular question for many people has been, “what is my purpose.” Some naturally ask this question of themselves. It is not unusual for someone to wonder, “where did I come from and why am I here?” Others are counseled to ask this question for themselves. I just finished a book that was a New York Times Best Seller and the authors advised that one of the first things in any life stage is to ask, “What is my purpose?”

And still many others have had their interests peeked when the answer to this question is offered. There was a nation craze 10 years ago over the book The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren. It seemed like everyone was reading it. If by asking this question you look for the answer from the Bible, which is what Warren’s book sought to do, you’ll find that God did make you with a unique purpose. And one of the first things you discover from the Bible about your purpose is that it is absolutely connected to a bigger question, one I am not sure many ponder enough. The bigger question for us all is, “What is God’s purpose in the world?”

I wonder how many people ask the question, “What is God’s purpose?” Have you ever asked that question? Stop for a minute and think how you would answer that question. I wonder how many people in churches who come to worship God each Sunday are confident they know what God’s purpose is in the world today? What is He doing? What is God after?

What Is God’s Purpose?

The Bible teaches that God’s purpose is to uphold and display His own glory. Many, I would guess, have not thought enough about this. The word “glory” means widespread honor; magnificence; great beauty; something impressive; praise, worship, and thanksgiving offered to God; to take pleasure in (Concise Oxford English dictionary).

God created the world to declare his glory (Ps. 19:1). In fact, He created us for His glory (Is. 43:6-7). Even the animals were made to glorify Him (Is. 43:20). We are chosen to be saved for His glory (Eph 1:4-6). We are commanded to do good works for his glory (Mt 5:16). We are to do everything for His glory (1 Cor. 10:31). Jesus suffered on the cross for His glory (Jn 17:1). Jesus said His ultimate aim for us is to see and enjoy His glory (Jn 17:24).

Throughout the Bible we are commanded to glorify God. We’re told to rejoice and give him the glory (Rev. 19:7); to glorify God in our bodies (1 Cor. 6:20); to tell of his glory among the nations (1 Chr. 16:24; Ps. 96:3). And if we do not glorify Him through obedience, He will be glorified through our disobedience. He used the hardness of heart of Pharaoh, the Egyptian king, saying multiple times; “I will be honored through Pharaoh” (Ex. 14:4, 17, 18).

To not glorify Him has consequences, and will be punished. Herod did not give God the glory and God killed him (Acts 12:23). And of the unrighteous He said, they did not honor him as God (Rom. 1:21). Therefore God gave them up to their evil desires. King Belshazzar of Babylon literally saw God’s writing on the wall and was killed because, as Daniel explained to him, God in whose hand is your breath you have not glorified (Dan. 5:23).

God Deserves to Be Glorified and Desires to be Enjoyed

There is much more that could be said of God’s glory. It is magnificent. It is impressive. It is beautiful. And because of His glory, God deserves widespread honor. In fact, in the new heavens and new earth, there will be no need of sun or moon in the city, for God’s glory shines on it (Rev. 21:23). He deserves to be worshiped. It is something we certainly should take pleasure in.

Psalm 67 verses 3 and 4 say, “Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you! Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon earth.” Have you ever thought that God desires for people to be satisfied in Him? To enjoy him? To be glad in him? We should enjoy him so much that we praise Him. In fact, “God is most glorified in us,” says pastor John Piper, “when we are most satisfied in Him.”

People are not satisfied with God, therefore He is not glorified

But that is not the condition of the people in our world, nor in the context of our passage, Luke 24. By the time the reader gets to Luke 24, God has already sent His Son Jesus into the world to rescue sinners. Not one person in history has been able to adequate return glory to God. No one has found their absolute satisfaction in God. There was no hope for humanity.

So God sent Jesus to become our hope. God became a man and lived among us in the world. And this God Man, Jesus, lived a full life in total satisfaction with His Father. Jesus glorified God with His life. Then He died a death only sinners deserved and He glorified God in His death. But He didn’t stay dead, He was raised to life three days later. His death and resurrection gives sinners hope. Sinners are forgiven when they rely on Jesus’ work and not their own for God’s favor.

That’s the context of Luke 24:36-49. Jesus is about to show Himself alive to His disciples the same Sunday evening of His resurrection. And in so doing, Jesus shows that missions is a significant part of God’s purpose.

God is fulfilling His purpose to be glorified by all peoples through missions. Missions is significant because God is serious about fulfilling His purpose. Everything He does should bring Him glory, to show off His amazing beauty. People being satisfied in God would lead them to worshiping Him, which would bring Him glory. A large portion of people in the world are not doing this, therefore missions is important.

Four things we need to understand about Missions…

1. Missions is necessary because humanity is not right with God.

One might ask, why should we do missions? Missions is needed because people are perishing and the gospel is their only hope. There are several keys to this truth found in this passage. Jesus said that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name (47). People needed to hear this because their sin has separated them from God. This is also why the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead (46).

Not to mention, even the closest men on the planet to Jesus were not convinced Jesus was who He said He is (36-43). Jesus knew their hearts were not right with God and asked, Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? (38). They did not recognize the Lord who lived with them for three years. They were troubled in their hearts about Jesus. They needed their minds opened to understand what is written in the Bible

People are going to hell and only Jesus can save them (2 Cor. 4:3-4)

The greatest missionary in the New Testament wrote in 2 Corinthians 4:3-4: And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

People are sinners. They are unable to glorify God. So Paul is explaining, the gospel is not plainly seen by sinners—it is veiled. Therefore, they are perishing. This means, they are going to hell. Hell is real. It is an eternal place for sinners who do not to glorify God. And they cannot glorify God, because they do not understand the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ. They need to have their eyes open by God to the person and work of Jesus, just as the disciples needed to have their minds open to the Scriptures.

In Kosovo, God is not Worshiped and Enjoyed

In Let the Nations be Glad, John Piper writes, “Missions exists because worship does not.” He makes the point that we are not to be mission-driven, but God-driven, meaning, “Worship is ultimate, not missions, because God is ultimate, not man.” All over the world there are people and places where God is not worshiped and enjoyed, places where He is not being glorified. Missions is necessary because there are places where God is not glorified, where people are not right with God.

Two weeks ago our church announced that Providence is intentionally partnering with other missionaries on the ground in the nation of Kosovo, where there are few, if any, churches. It is a Muslim country where there are only 20 Christians for every 10,000 people. Our hope in targeting Kosovo is for God to be glorified in that nation by Him reconciling thousands to Himself.

2. Missions is the task of the church to proclaim the Gospel to all nations

What exactly is missions? This passage answers that question. Missions is the cooperative effort of the Christ’s church to proclaim the Gospel. Jesus tells them that what was written about Him in the Old Testament had to be fulfilled. These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you that everything written about me [in the OT] must be fulfilled (44). This shows us that according to Jesus, the Old Testament is not a Jewish book, it is a Christian book.

But that’s not all. Something else in the Old Testament had to be fulfilled: the proclamation of the Gospel to all the world, beginning in Jerusalem. From the beginning of history God saw His people being a blessing to all the nations of the earth. He said this to Abraham in Genesis 18:17-18 and 22:18. He also said it to Isaac (Gen. 26:4).

In Isaiah 66:18-20, God said, For I know their works and their thoughts, and the time is coming to gather all nations and tongues. And they shall come and shall see my glory, 19 and I will set a sign among them. And from them I will send survivors to the nations…that have not heard my fame or seen my glory. And they shall declare my glory among the nations. 20 And they shall bring all your brothers from all the nations as an offering to the Lord.

So, it also had to be fulfilled what was prophesied in the Old Testament concerning God’s purpose for His people. God’s people were to declare God’s glory among the nations and bring many from all the nations to the Lord. This requires we proclaim the gospel.

It is a simple fact that Jesus could have come to them individually, but instead He waited until they were ALL gathered together (v33). Jesus was about to build His Church with these guys (Mt 16:18-19). You might say, they were the first church and Jesus the first pastor. They were being sent corporately to do the work of missions together by proclaiming the Gospel to all nations.

People must hear about Jesus and His work to be saved.

Belief in the Bible necessitates the work of missions in many ways. And we must not forget that it is necessary for people to hear the gospel in order to be saved. Paul explains this in Romans 10:13-17:

For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”14 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” 16 But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” 17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.

It is a beautiful thing when people GO

One of my favorite memories in seminary was the International Missions chapel. At the end of the service, the preacher would call out those who God was calling to go overseas as missionaries. Tears would stream down my face as I watched countless people walk to the front. Singles, married couples, some with small babies, older people, younger people, all surrendering their lives to proclaim the gospel to the nations. Some were going to nations where they could lose their lives, willing to go and never come back. It’s a beautiful thing “to go” the Scripture says, How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”

3. Missions happens when people become passionate about God’s glory

So when do we start doing missions? Missions happens when people become passionate about God’s glory, and with delight, go as they are commanded to bring the gospel to all nations in hopes that all will find their supreme satisfaction in God.

We begin by glorifying Jesus and proclaim His message…by His Spirit…from where we are. Then we go to places where He is not being glorified and continue to glorify and proclaim Him.

Jesus tells them to wait where they are for the promised power of the Spirit. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high (49). Passages like this, along with the Book of Acts, shows us that the possession of the Spirit is THE decisive mark of being a Christian (cf. Acts 10:44–48; 11:15–18; 15:8; 19:2–7). Therefore, it is correct to say we do missions when we become born again Christians.

This may require training and preparation for some things, but as soon as you have been given enough understanding to believe the Gospel and be saved, you can explain what you know to others in the power of the Spirit.

Where a passion for God exists, a zeal for missions will exist.

God has commissioned the church made up of Spirit-empowered Christians for the task of missions. Where a passion for God exists, a zeal for missions will exist. And the reverse is true. If hearing this does not give you a passion for missions, then you cannot have a passion for God. It amazes me that people can claim they love God if they do not have a desire to cooperate with fellow believers to do the work of missions. When you’re not passionate about God, you cannot be right with Him.

Six months after I became a Christian, my wife Mary, whom I was dating then, asked if there was something between God and me? What motivated her question was my loss of passion for God. When God first saved me, I was on fire for Him. But six-months later my zeal was fading. Shortly after our conversation, God revealed the idol of baseball in my life. I repented to God and got right with God. My passion for God soon returned.

God deserves our praise. Because of this, it is required of all peoples to glorify God. But people are not right with God because they are sinners and therefore cannot adequately glorify God. The truth is, they do not want to glorify God. But even if they did, no matter how hard they would try, they could not. They could not worship Him, and they could not enjoy Him. How can you enjoy someone you are not right with? How could you find joy in someone who has something against you, and vice versa? The reason many do not enjoy the Word of God (reading the Bible, or listening to it being taught) is because there is something between them and God. The reason many do not enjoy being around the church to worship God is because there is something between them and God. When we get right with God, a passion for Him follows. When this happens, missions can happen.

4. Get involved in seeking God’s glory among all peoples

So, how do we get involved in doing missions? Again, you do nothing until you have the gift of the Spirit. But think about what that means. “Even as the Spirit was present in Jesus’ conception (1:35, 41), earliest years (2:25–38), baptism (3:21–22), and ministry (4:1, 14, 18; 5:17), so the Spirit would come upon the disciples. Shortly the ‘baptism of the Spirit’ promised by John the Baptist (3:16; Acts 1:5) would take place as they became ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’ (2:4)” (Wiersbe).

When God truly saves us, a passion for God will enter and increase. And an increasing satisfaction in God will come over you. This will glorify God. David said, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act” (Psalm 37:4-5). Out of this passion for God’s glory, do what you desire, as long as it does not violate Scripture.

Pray for the nations and opportunities to impact the nations with the gospel. Jesus said, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you” (John 15:16). According to Jesus, missions is necessary, therefore praying is necessary. Prayer was given specifically to accomplish missions.

Cooperate with your church in order to proclaim the gospel to the nations (Luke 24:47). It might be that your church would train you to become a full-time missionary to a people group that is not reached with the gospel yet. Or maybe you can join a short-term mission trip for a couple weeks where you will be given opportunities to share the gospel. And if you are unable to go, you can financially provide or encourage others to go on your behalf. Missions is a cooperative effort.

Nevertheless, my prayer is that we would become a people who have a passion for God’s Glory, and out of this, a passion for missions. God’s mission for His church is to proclaim the gospel to all peoples. If you are a Christian, my hope is that you will be convinced that your God-given passion must be to cooperate with your church in taking the gospel to places where God is not glorified and the gospel is not being proclaimed…for God’s glory.

Gospel vs. Religion, part 3

Christianity without the compassion of Jesus is just empty religion. Mark 2:5-12 reveals that Jesus was concerned for people. This is one reason he healed. His compassion for others is a pillar of what real Christianity should be about. The gospel requires that we be concerned about helping people.

This passage says Jesus was home. I don’t know about you, but if someone busted a whole in my roof, I’m not sure I’d remain calm and help the. Even if you could tell me that the houses in 1st century Capernaum had roof access, like a sun roof or something, they still interrupted his sermon. The compassion Jesus had for others is striking. Without it, your religion is empty.

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Gospel vs. Religion, part 2

Christianity without faith alone in Jesus is just empty religion. In Mark 2, four men came to Jesus bringing to him a paralytic (3). That’s all we know. This man could not walk and his friend carried him on his bed to find Jesus. “And when they could not get near Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and…they let down the bed on which the paralytic lay” (v4). And Jesus saw something in these men…faith. “When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven” (v5).

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Gospel vs. Religion, part 1

Christianity without a desperation for God is just empty religion. Look at Capernaum for example. In Mark 2, Jesus returned to Capernaum a short time after making His purpose on earth known. Jesus “lived in Capernaum by the sea” during His adult life (Mt 4:13). During this time, “many were gathered together” in a house, “and he was preaching the word to them.” “The Word” that Jesus was preaching was the gospel.

There can be gospel ministry, and no gospel transformation. Capernaum had the true gospel being preached to them (v1-2). In fact, they had the best gospel preaching there has ever been. And they also had real healing occurring (v11-12). No one could argue that Capernaum was not seeing and hearing wonderful gospel ministry in their city. Yet they were none the better for it. You can’t just use the Gospel like a fairy wand.

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Providence Church: Planting Update 6

On June 27, 2010 I gave a report to my church in Cape Coral, on the progress and exciting events ahead for Providence Church. As you read, please keep us in prayer:

Providence Church Report to Grace Baptist:             June 27, 2010

Over the past year as I have tried to report on the progress of our church planting efforts, whether it be through random conversations, prayer updates on my blog, or reporting on Sunday nights each month at Grace, I have tried to request prayer in three crucial areas.

I have asked for prayer that the core members starting Providence would be marked by gospel growth, and that we would see God shape others by the gospel. We have prayed that God would do this by growing our Sunday night groups, and helping start others.

God has done just that. We believe we have two healthy groups meeting, with members of those groups growing in the gospel. Almost weekly we hear of testimonies of the grace of God in the gospel working in people who attend our groups.

We have prayed for God to give us boldness and a burden to tell those we live around about the gospel. As a testimony of how God has done this, one of our teenagers approaches me every week to ask me if I have told someone about the gospel this each week. He then proceeds to tell me his efforts and desires for God to help him do the same.

We have prayed for God to save people with the gospel of Jesus Christ as He empowers us to share it. Just this week a man whom God has brought to us troubled with unemployment and a lifelong alcohol problem told us he now “has the Lord.” God has given us a desire to walk alongside others and to serve them with the gospel.

I have also asked for prayer that the core members of Providence would be marked by fervent prayer; that we would not attempt anything as a church without depending on Christ in prayer. TwoFour, our bi-monthly prayer service, has been a significant time for us to gather together before God and pray. We are praying for members, for strangers, for leaders, for churches, and for the future of Providence.

Finally, I have been asking for prayer in the area of leadership, because I am aware that leadership is a crucial necessity Continue reading