Truth and the Inner Man

Pilate cynically spat, “What is truth?” in response to Jesus’ comment about those who side with him. I suppose we have all preached, taught, wrote, and discussed the nature of truth, the embrace of our modern, post-modern, post-Christian culture of relativism.

Don’t let your consideration of truth exist only in the exterior. The role of truth in pastoral health transcends the intellectual assent of objective truth, philosophy, or theology. Truth cannot be separated from pastoral health. Truth internalized, in this post, is Truth in our perception of ourselves in relation to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit.

Few of us have come into adulthood untouched by the effects of living in a fallen world. For some, family of origin issues exert a powerful delusion on the heart of the pastor. Mercy-oriented pastors often emerge from hellholes of rejection, abuse, and pain and bring a strong desire to heal and be healed. Just as often that desire is somewhat skewed. Others come to the role of pastor with a bullish need to control others and use the pulpit, the trust and the privilege of the pastoral office to do so. Others can’t imagine a God that really is interested in them as beings, just doers. Doing pleases and so doing becomes the primary concern while being is cast aside in lieu of doing just a little more. Others, shell-shocked and afraid of confrontation, make a decision along the way to run at the first sign of “trouble” or frustration with a church or church board.

How do you perceive yourself? How do you think God perceives you?

truthThe answers to these questions will largely impact the quality and nature of your ministry. This is the place in the post where the reader expects a list of Scripture passages or thoughts on what this looks like. This is the place in the post where this writer diverges from expectation. The truth is (pun not entirely intended) catharsis is found in each of us going to God in prayer with an open Bible and making a covenant with the Father that goes something like this: “Father, I will deal only in Truth. I will not harbor or foster deception about who you are, what your intentions are, or who I am in you.”

Perhaps you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. OK. Here’s the other shoe. He will show you, painfully and faithfully, the areas of your life where you have calculated and cultivated deception in the inner man and he will bring you to the place of making a choice—either to continue in the former deception or to embrace the truth and to power through the pain. If you persist through the pain, I guarantee that your every atom of your being will be transformed into a vessel of honor for God’s glory. You will begin increasingly to find the satisfaction in ministry that so often eludes you. You will begin to see yourself as a person serving a congregation of One. Jesus said something similar to the saints in Pergamum: “To him who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it.” (Revelation 2:17)

Longing . . . As Pastoral Health?

The Bible was almost trembling in my hands as I read Hebrews to my children. The words on the page continued to crescendo as I neared the twenty-eighth verse of chapter 9. The anticipation and intensity of those words came out almost as a whisper as I sat in awe of God’s wisdom and heart. “Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.

Uria Dawn

I stopped reading, letting it soak in. Verses paraded across my mind, Philippians 3:20, 2 Peter 3:13, Matthew 24:30. Mark 14:62. My imagination was filled with a vision of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords riding at the head of a great host, victorious, majestic, coming to collect those eagerly awaiting a Savior from heaven. Jesus, God-man, perfect sacrifice, priest in the order of Melchizedek, resurrected, ascended to heaven, at the right hand of God, always interceding, entering the true Holy of Holies to make provision for my sin, rebellion, weakness, frailty—and coming to bring me to be where he is.

I was astounded as the reality hit home in my heart: there is but one thing, one person, standing between me and eternal damnation: Jesus. I have no righteousness that can make wrong right. I have no power over death. I have no means of assuaging the wrath and judgment of a holy God. I have only Jesus and he is sufficient. There is but one that stands in the gap—for me and for you. The One who stands in that place will appear a second time, not to bear sin (that work is finished), but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.”

What does this have to do with pastoral health? Everything.

When you lay your head on the pillow at night, what visions march before your eyes? When you consider the end game, what it is you want to see come to pass in your lifetime? What dream shimmers in the theater of your mind?

Maybe you see yourself, spotlight on you, in the middle of a great crowd being showered with great adulation. If this is your dream, then your stability, security, and confidence will disappear when the crowd turns against you. Your response to difference of opinion, rejection, even conflict will be frantic activity to restore . . . your acceptance. Desperate grasping often brings disease and a fidgetiness that drives you to seek a different crowd.

What if your dream is less an image than an expectation? What if your expectation is that in ministry, marriage, friendship, conflict, even relaxation God will make you a “winner,” always coming out ahead of others, always having it your way? What happens to your fruit-bearing and impact in these seasons? If you cling to this dream, you will wither and die the slow death of bitterness and resentment.

Maybe there is a better dream. In this dream see yourself as one person standing with your back to the crowd. You are pointing to something happening out in the distance. All eyes are fixed not on you, but on the horizon. In this dream, you are pointing others to the one person in the entire universe (and beyond) that can give them a dream worth living, a vision worth sacrifice. In a flash of recognition you realize that it is Jesus on the horizon. You are jittery and twittery with excitement. You grab others: “Look, it’s the Lord. He’s on his way. Can you see him?” Can it be? You are stoked, pumped, catalyzed, motivated, and exuberant. You move and speak with genuine purpose.

Longing . . . living . . . lauding the day and speeding its coming. . . not such a bad dream, eh?

Bouncing Back

Disillusionment. Discouragement. Doubt. Danger. These are words that for most of us describe the harder grit of pastoral ministry or edge-of-the-world, cross-cultural mission work. I have focused the last few years on taking a good, hard look at these realities and deciding how best a mission sending agency might help their missionaries minister with resilience.

According to Merriam-Webster, Resilience is the “ability to withstand shock without permanent deformation or rupture.” Definition b is this: “tending to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.” It can be tricky business, especially if the missionary isn’t really in touch with his or her limits. I have found that quite often the factors in a person’s ministry that stretch them to the breaking point have less to do with the context, language, or people around them and more to do with the expectations they carry around inside. These expectations are usually formed in the secret place of the past, in close relationships gone sideways, and beliefs about God that are not in line with what God says about himself.

We can discover what our true expectations are by asking two questions. First, “Who do I think that I am?” This is a different question than, “Who am I?” The second question may be the better, “What do I believe about God’s thoughts about me?”

These two questions lead to a kaleidoscope of questions, some of which are:

  1. Whose name is at stake in my ministry: mine or His?
  2. Who sits in the center of the throne: me or Him?
  3. Whose name is being magnified and exalted: mine or His?
  4. Who is to surrender day by day: me or Him?

These are not meant to be guilt-inducing, legalistic questions intended to produce some depth of feeling. They are questions asked to provoke serious reflection on the nature of our relationship with God. They are to help us assess why we do what we do, why we think what we think, why we act and react.

If my answers are ultimately self-serving, then I will find myself hemmed in by my fears of being found out—of being a circus clown spinning plates on sticks or juggling flaming torches: entertaining but ultimately not impactful. Fear-driven, misinformed, and wandering I will live a life and conduct a ministry that has a form of godliness, but lacks power, maybe even leading some astray or away from Him.

What does the alternative look like? “Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne, and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say:  “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.” (Revelation 4:9-11, NIV84)

By His will, in His power, according to His dream, we are set free of fear and self-preservation. When the “impossible” happens, I can therefore bounce back without permanent damage. Resilience. His. Thanks!

Defying the Stats!

men-prayingGot this today from a friend who is a Chaplain in the Navy.  Some interesting stats.  My question here is how can we encourage each other in the ministry?  I have a list of guys that I pray for on a regular basis and a longer list that I pray for every Sunday morning.  What would you add to help change these stats?

“Steve, I know that some of our peers from OCC are no longer in ministry.  Few remain after 10-15 years.  Many of those 4.0 students are doing other things now.  Here are some stats I dug up.”

-1,500 clergy leaving pastoral ministry each month. ~The Barna Research Group

-61% of congregations have forced a pastor to leave. ~Christianity Today

-83% of clergy spouses want their spouse to leave pastoral ministry. -Hartford Institute for Religious Research

-90% of clergy in all denominations will not stay in ministry long enough to reach the age of retirement. ~U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics

-50% of pastors indicated that they would leave the ministry if they had another way of making a living. ~Hartford Institute for Religious Research

The Crucible

Ask a Marine about the Crucible and he might tell you about 54-hours in which he must use every skill the Corps ever taught him, in addition to 48 miles of marching. Ask a playwright about The Crucible and he or she might reference the 1953 play written by Arthur Miller about Salem, Massachusetts, 1692. Ask a metallurgist about the crucible and he might tell you that it is the hollow place at the bottom of a smelting furnace where the metal collects. What if you ask a pastor? A missionary?

The Challenge

We each have different stories, ideas, or pressures. dissension  overwork, under-appreciation, a challenging ministry context, personal troubles, financial difficulties, marital strife—our crucible experiences are as unique as we are. Crucibles in life and ministry are extended seasons of adversity that serve to test, purify, and train us for eternity. One of the realities that we face is the expectation that we will still be highly functional pastors during crucible seasons. How is it possible to keep it moving on all fronts while we are enduring crushing challenges?

Early in Jesus’ ministry, he gained a reputation as an authority, even more so as a supernatural healer. When he would perform a healing, he would attempt to shush the healed or the witnesses so that he would be free to move about and minister. Notice Luke’s comments as found in Luke 5:15 and 16: “Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.

Luke tells us that Jesus faced adversity in his ministry almost from day one. Every healing was challenged. Every teaching was challenged. Accusation of blasphemy flew at every turn. Yet people still came to him, attracted by the authority of his teaching and the power of healing. “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.”

Read a little further. “And the power of the Lord was present for him to heal the sick.” I can’t help but notice the proximity of this observation to Jesus withdrawing to a lonely place for prayer. Jesus withdrew, fellowshipped with His Father, returned, preached, healed (when the power was present to do so), and ministered to a people who wandered like sheep without a shepherd. “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.”

When You Face It

When you find yourself staring at the sides of the crucible—in front of you, behind you, at your sides, take the opportunity to change things up.

First, take stock of your habits. I suppose we all, to one degree or another, give way to the tyranny of the urgent. What disciplines help you put up good boundaries? What things refresh your spirit? What helps you lay aside the very things that both compel and drain you? Use your calendar to schedule more time for restorative habits (sound like sophomore practical ministries class? Just a gentle reminder).

Second, take stock of your relationships. Are you sacrificially serving your spouse? Are you shepherding the hearts of your children? Are you seeking to meet your spouse’s physical needs for intimacy? No one wants their prayers hindered. I often find that re-connection with my spouse (when I’ve not attended to her needs) restorative and life giving.

Third, take stock of your attitudes. Is the bitterness born of _____________ taking root in your attitudes? Bitterness will make it harder and harder to find your way to the prayer closet.

Fourth, take stock of your gratitude. Bitterness and gratitude don’t usually hang out together. Intentionally choosing to be grateful will help dispel the hopelessness, cynicism, and anger that does like to hang out with bitterness. Would it be helpful to focus on something other than the Crucible (vis-à-vis Philippians 4:8)?

Last, have you taken all this to the Father in prayer? Gratitude frequently accompanies prayer.

These suggestions are but a gentle reminder of things that likely already kick around in your heart and soul. They are meant to spur you on to reflection, nudging you toward a lonely place where you can off-load the exhausting burden to God in prayer.

If you are not given to extended prayer, you may find that you emerge as Jesus frequently did, with fresh power, perspective, and peace.

5 Steps to Being a Healthy Pastor

Today we want to pass along an interview with a long time pastor that Tom and I know from Northern California.  His name is Jeff Bigelow and the discussion comes from the Vanderbloemen search group.  The questions were asked by Holly Hall who serves at Vanderbloemen.  Jeff has a wealth of experience and we hope it will be an encouragement.  What would you add? Continue reading

From Tom . . . Getting Rid of All Those Tequila-Lime Wings or “Everything that Hinders and So Easily Entangles”

Today it came to me in the midst of my quiet time (an epiphany?):  Monday is garbage day.  It is Monday—and it hit me.  I had plenty of room in my garbage can out at the curb and I had noticed a day or two ago some outdated food in the freezer.  Because the garbage guy could arrive any moment, I interrupted my devotional time to examine my deep freeze.  It wasn’t long before my eyes beheld one or two packages of Tequila-Lime Chicken Wings.  I checked the dates and sure enough—one of them, actually both of them were out of date by years, not months!  But with the ice build-up, I didn’t realize that there were three more bags of wings—five in all, and yes, all of them seriously out of date!  I got back to my prayer time without too much disruption. Continue reading