5 Posts from December 2009

The Willing Unknowns, Part 2

Do you recall who replaced Jesus’s betrayer among the apostles? More importantly, do you remember the qualifications he had to fill? Let’s take a quick look at where Peter gave the credentials required to replace Judas:
“Therefore it is necessary that of the men who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us—beginning with the baptism of John until the day that He was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us of His resurrection.” . . . And they drew lots for them, and the lot fell to Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles. (Acts 1:21–22, 26)
If you search the gospels you’ll not find Matthias’s name anywhere. Many Christians today have never heard of him. He was a man just as qualified as the other apostles, but whose name never appears in the ministry of Jesus. Never. And yet, he was there the whole time! Never demanding attention. Not hung up on his position. In no way insisting on a particular rank or title. (How’s servant for a job title?) He didn’t stay faithful in order to get a pat on the back or in hopes of replacing anybody. Matthias had none of that. I love that kind of humble integrity in one who serves in ministry.

If you are one of those willing unknowns and sometimes feel discouraged because you’re overlooked, remember a promise the Lord has made to you:
For God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love which you have shown toward His name, in having ministered and in still ministering to the saints. (Hebrews 6:10)
An individual with that kind of selfless commitment to the ministry of Jesus was exactly who was needed in the first century. The church today still needs that kind of quiet modesty and availability among its servants.


See also: The Willing Unknowns, Part 1

Give Your Presence This Year

Do you feel the tightening squeeze this time of year brings?

On top of an already demanding schedule of preaching, teaching, counseling, and calling, you have had to add Christmas parties and programs, a creative Christmas series that you’ve never preached before—and still another eloquent sermon is coming up for the Christmas Eve service.

Such a schedule has a tendency to turn us into Scrooge-like characters, doesn’t it? (We secretly think: Humbug!) Work, work, work . . . nothing and no one will get in our way.

May I assume the role of one of old Scrooge’s ghosts for you? Let me escort you to your home. Peer into the window. Look closely. Is your chair empty at the dinner table?

Okay, that was a cheap shot.

We in ministry don’t like to talk about it, but too many of us sanctify workaholism. And the holidays can be the busiest time! We can allow ourselves to be so involved in “the Lord’s work” that our family is neglected. And I do mean “we.”

This may sound like heresy, but we have to learn to adopt the attitude: “I’m more committed to my home than I am to my ministry.” Try saying that out loud. I doubt any pastor’s final words will be—and I know mine won’t be—“I should have put more time into studying supralapsarianism for that sermon on election.” No way! But I will regret not spending more time loving and laughing with my wife, children, and grandchildren.

Are you feeling adequately guilty yet? Me too. So let me suggest some positive things for us to consider. Here are six rewards that represent huge dividends for yourself, your family, and even your ministry if you make your home your priority. You will enjoy:

·         the sustained cultivation of a great character

·         the continued relief a clear conscience brings

·         the increasing personal delight of knowing God intimately

·         the rare privilege of becoming a mentor

·         the priceless treasure of leaving an unforgettable legacy

·         the crowning reward of finishing strong

It took three ghosts and a sleepless night to convince old Ebenezer Scrooge that work without regard for others amounts to foolishness—and a wasted life.

I have a pastor-friend whose wife often tells him, “I don’t want your presents as much as your presence.” Let’s give ourselves to our families this week, okay?


My Advice This Christmas

If I may borrow from Charles Dickens’s famous opening line, Christmas can be “the best of times, and the worst of times.” We have them both, don’t we?

Who hasn’t cringed in September as stores drag out and display the artificial Christmas trees? Who hasn’t felt uneasy about the obligatory exchange of gifts with individuals you hardly know? Something about those annual experiences can make them seem like “the worst of times.”

But I prefer to view Christmas as “the best of times.” This is God’s annual reminder to us, in effect: “Feel the warmth in all the lights? Smell that tree? See those gifts? Hear those songs? My Son came and died for you.” The things familiar are reminders of things essential.

“I will always be ready to remind you of these things,” the apostle Peter wrote, “even though you already know them” (2 Peter 1:12). Isn’t that great? We need regular reminders of essential truths.

In the Old Testament, the Lord used tangible objects and actions as memory-triggers—phylacteries on the forehead, special food at Passover, stones beside rivers, and trumpets for the New Year. The sights, sounds, smells, tastes—these seasonal traditions—reignited the passions of God’s people and reminded them of His love and His commands. Christmas can do the same for us.

You string up the lights. You trim the tree. You wrap the presents. You preach a Christmas Eve service. It’s all familiar . . . it’s just words, just lights, just a tree, just gifts, just songs.

Wait a minute!

Remember that Jesus was born of a virgin. Don’t forget how the angels lit the shepherds’ field with God’s glory, announcing the birth of a Savior. It's not just our Christmas sermon. You and I needed a Savior—One who would and could die for our sins.

My advice this Christmas? Allow the traditions of the season to stir you up by way of reminder. Allow the things familiar to point you to things essential.

Don’t miss them.


The Willing Unknowns

If the first-century church had adopted a twenty-first-century corporate model for ministry, they would have hired “Distributors-R-Us,” whose slogan would be: “We specialize in cultural conflicts, griping Christians, and whining widows.” But the church didn’t do that then, and it doesn’t do that now. You know why? The church is a family—a blended one. That’s by God’s design. That’s how we learn to grow in grace with one another.

When you’re a close-knit church family, you don’t hire everything done. Everybody pitches in! A corporate philosophy and a consumer mentality rob the body of Christ from the privilege of serving Christ. Instead, the church should say: “We have a need, and some of you can help us with the need.” That’s what the first-century church did.

Obviously, not every layperson is fit for every place of service. To deal with the problem of widows who were being overlooked in the distribution of food, the early church chose seven individuals who were filled with the Spirit. They chose people who were full of wisdom—so that the distribution of food to the Hellenistic widows would be fair and impartial. Look at how a church that was sensitive to the leading of God’s Spirit responded:
The twelve summoned the congregation of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” The statement found approval with the whole congregation; and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch. (Acts 6:2–5)
One wag has said that this was the first and last time in all of history that the entire congregation found approval in one decision! Interestingly, if you check the names of these individuals, you’ll find they are all of Hellenistic origins. Smart decision. What wisdom!

You know what else is interesting? While we see two of these men, Stephen and Philip, again in the book of Acts, five of them are never mentioned again. I love that because you don’t have to hear about them or see them. Why? They’re servants. They’re content to work in the shadows. They’re part of a group in the Bible I call “The Willing Unknowns.” These are the servants who find delight in serving without recognition or fanfare or applause. They are faithful without demanding tangible rewards.

Believe me, such individuals are rare. Are you one of them?


The Secret of Ministering to People

Some churches today have adopted a professional mind-set entirely. Like the consumer culture they live in, far too many pay the pastors to do the work of the ministry for them, while they sit back, passively watch, and offer comments now and then. Where is that in the Bible?

A pastor who allows this approach to occur has fallen for what I call “The Superman Syndrome.” I’m not talking about pulling on a pair of blue tights and a red cape and putting a fancy “S” on his chest—though I heard of a pastor who did exactly that on Easter Sunday (I wish I were kidding). I’m talking about an attitude that says: “I am self-sufficient,” “I need no one else,” or “I will not show weakness or admit any inadequacy.” These words betray the presence of the Superman Syndrome—that particular peril for pastors who go it alone and become “the star of the show.” Any pastor sets himself up for letting people down when he poses as Superman.

One of the joyful privileges of my early ministry was to know a man named Jim Petersen. Through his capable leadership and sterling character, the ministry of the Navigators expanded greatly in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where he and his wife, Marge, served for more than twenty years. What a servant-hearted couple! Cynthia and I first met Jim and Marge at Glen Eyrie, the Navigators’ headquarters in Colorado Springs. I was new to ministry at the time—and far too naïve—so I was looking for a formula for success in God’s service. “How do you do it, Jim?” I asked him. “Tell me the secret of ministering to people.” I expected him to say “Always set the pace” or “Be strong no matter what” or “Model the truth and stand against the gale as it attacks you.” I got none of that.

Jim just smiled in his inimitable way and answered, “Chuck, let people see the cracks in your life, and you’ll be able to minister to them.” That’s it. That’s the distilled essence of all he told me.

As we left their cabin that day, I felt somewhat like the deflated rich young ruler who had just asked Jesus how to inherit eternal life (see Mark 10:17–22). Like Jesus’s surprising answer to the ruler, Jim’s reply was not what I expected. It convicted me. It ripped the “S” off my chest and cut the tie strings to my cape. I was looking to minister from my strengths. Jim challenged me to serve in weakness. He made that statement to me over fifty years ago, and it remains one of the greatest lessons I have learned in ministry. I have never forgotten it. I never will.

As the apostle Paul asked in 2 Corinthians 2:16, “Who is adequate for these things?” Obvious answer: Nobody! By asking this question, Paul showed us the cracks in his life. He takes himself off any would-be pedestal and slips into the ranks of humanity. I thank God for the transparent apostle that he really was. His writings are permeated by vulnerability.
But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves.
2 Corinthians 4:7

Obviously, the appropriate attitude is to embrace this fact: pastors are not self-sufficient. We have cracks we must not hide. We need other people.