Curious George and Current Events…

My granddaughter, Davy, loves Curious George; a mischievous little monkey belonging to “the man in the yellow hat” named Ted (I bet you didn’t know that was his name). Almost every time she comes to my house we watch an episode or two (or more) together. There was one particular episode in which Ted was the scoutmaster for the Little Sprouts  and took them for a hike in the woods. They got lost after relying on a young assistant leader’s GPS,  and so Ted told George to climb up a tall tree and look around so he could help locate where they were.

In Psalm 121:1, 2 the writer says, ” I will lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” The opening verses of this Song of Ascent could be understood in two ways. One interpretation is that the hills were recognized as a place of idolatry and thus “looking unto the hills” could represent a dependency on humanly created instruments of salvation and deliverance. The writer affirms that his reliance is upon the Lord. An other interpretation says that the hills represented the holy hill of Zion (Jerusalem) where the Temple was built and where God “dwelt.” Thus “looking unto the hills” in this case meant acknowledging God as The Psalmist’s ultimte source of deliverance.  Both interpretations land us in the same place; in the midst of the circumstances that surround us we should not place our confidence and hope in any form of human deliverance, but only in God who is good, merciful, and sovereign. However, to do this we must “lift up our eyes” (or go climb a tree with George) and look for God above our circumstances.

Why is it that we don’t lift up our eyes and look for God? I think it is because of our pride and self-sufficiency. Perhaps we think we know what is best and conclude that we can figure things out. We are often like a child who thinks she knows how to put on her coat even though she can’t and has a fit if you try and help her. And so we like stubborn children close in upon ourselves and live in a world where things begin and end with us and with our interpretation of reality.

I’m reminded of the testimony of Chuck Colson’s conversion. Colson, a former Marine captain and Special Counsel to Richard Nixon, was convicted and sent to prison for complicity in the Watergate scandel of the 1970’s.  He was given a copy of CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity and was overpowered by this quote: “There is one vice of which no man in the world is free…the vice I’m talking about is Pride…. Pride leads to every other vice; it is the complete anti-God state of mind. As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things and people, and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see somethng that is above you.”

If I might be so bold as to make an observation about how many people have framed their joy or disappointment at the outcome of the recent election. As Christians, we can often be guilty of failing to lift up our eyes and see what is above us. We can easily demonstrate pride and self-sufficiency when we see only what we want to see; refuse to listen to  an other perspective; and, most of all, fail to acknowledge God’s sovereignty and power. I am deeply concerned that many have chosen to drumroll their political views at the risk of hindering their effectiveness in sharing the gospel and/or of sacrificing their relationships within the Body of Christ.

When I had a church in Massachusetts, in a very liberal college town, I chose never to put a political sign on my lawn or sticker on my car. I stuck with this decision even when one of my elders decided to run for Congress against a very liberal (notice I don’t use the word progressive) encumbent. Though I voted for my dear brother, who lost in a landslide, I was most concerned that if I wore my political leanings on my lawn or bumper, my neighbors would pigeon-hole me politically and reject the gospel for reasons other than the gospel.

It is no secret that I am very concerned about the character and rhetoric of our President-elect. I am also very concerned about the cultural vitriol being expressed for him and against him. I understand the variety of reasons for why many evangelicals voted for Trump; not all are sexist, racist, and ethnocentrists. However, I also understand the pain of many minority Christians who are very concerned and fearful because they have experienced these -ists first hand.

I believe that when we lift up our eyes to our God and reaffirm our dependency upon him and our commitment to the gospel, we will see that our main concern as evangelicals should not be whether we won or lost politically, but how we treat the broken and suffering people around us; both in the Church and those in our culture who are truly “lost.” We also will come to see that racism and sexism are spiritual issues embedded deep in the hearts and systems of all humanity, which is why we need a savior…why I need a savior!

Let us once again hear the prophetic voice: “Look unto me and be saved all the ends of the earth! For I am God and there is no other” (Isa 45:22).

The Presidential Campaign: God Have Mercy upon Us!

If the following post seems familiar, it is because I am reblogging a post written 3 months ago. I think that much of the content is relevant to the upcoming election and that is why I changed only the title.

This past July 4th, I was re-reading the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution written eleven years later; amazing documents. While many consider them to be “inspired,” they are not inerrant; the 28 amendments to the Constitution are witness to that. Also the 13th, 14th, 15th, and 19th Amendments in particular prove that the Constitution has blind spots and must supported by something more if it going to provide the foundation for continuing freedom.

Os Guiness has written in A Free Peoples Suicide that there are many people in America today who scorn religious fundamentalism but are hard at work creating “a constitutional fundamentalism. It is being done through lawyers and judges rather than rabbis, priests, and pastors. Constitutional and unconstitutional have replaced orthodox and heretical.”  First amendment rights are being argued as the basis for opposing agendas and the interpretation of the Constitution itself is at the whim of political bias. Thus this incredible document alone cannot form the foundation for sustainable freedom. It needs to be supported by something else.

Guinness offers; “What the framers believed should complement and reinforce the Constitution and its separation of powers is the distinctive moral ecology that is at the heart of liberty.” Tocqueville called this moral ecology the “habits of the heart.” Guinness calls it “the golden triangle of freedom…freedom requires virtue, which requires faith, which requires freedom.”

What resonates with me, mostly because we have been assaulted by months of political campaigning and debates, is the diminishing importance of virtue (character) that we see in our nation. We stress a written Constitution over the moral constitution of our nation’s citizenry and leadership. Unfortunately, examples of this are not hard to find.

Look at the impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998 when he was the sitting president. He was not convicted by the Senate of “high Crimes and Misdemeanors”(Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution), and the overall consensus to the whole “affair” was that the character of the president was irrelevant as a public issue. What really matters to our society is competence– not character.  Look at the unrestrained greed and unfettered capitalism  of the Wall Street crisis and the recession of 2008. Look at the present political scenario and the upcoming election that will boil down to which untrustworthy candidate America trusts more. Our nation has sown the wind by making faith and virtue a private matter; it is now reaping the whirlwind of having two presidential candidates with serious personality flaws.

George Reedy, special assistant to Lyndon Johnson looked back on his experience in the halls of power and said, “in the White House, character and personality are extremely important because there are no other limitations…. Restraint must come from within the presidential soul and prudence from the presidential mind. The adversary forces which temper the action of others do not come into play until it is too late to change course.”(The Twilight of the Presidency, 1970, p. 20)

In spite of their importance, experience and competence are not the most important ingredients to what we should look for in a leader. We need a person of character who has demonstrated trustworthiness in his/her private world as well as in the public square. It is not the rhetoric or the promises for the future, but it is what they have done about keeping their promises in the past, both privately and publicly.

I think Os Guinness borders on the profound when he says, “Externally character is the bridge that provides the point of trust that links leaders with their followers. Internally, character is the part-gyroscope, part-brake that provides a leader’s deepest source of bearings and strongest source of restraint when the dizzy heights of leadership mean there are no other limitations.”

Our Constitution is a magnificent document and we can be thankful for it. But let us not fool ourselves into thinking that our nation can be sustained by a document alone without the virtue of its leaders and citizenry. “A good government may hold the rotten materials together for some time, but beyond a certain pitch, even the best constitution will be ineffectual and slavery will ensue.” (John Witherspoon, the only minister to sign the Declaration of Independence.)

Vote your conscience and may God have mercy on America!

The Dangers of Being a Pastor (4)

This final blog on the danger of being a pastor will focus on

THE DANGER OF LOSING the JOY of MINISTRY…

Paul David Tripp writes to pastors,  “This is where it inevitably leads. You’ve lost sight of the gospel in your personal life; you feel a growing disconnect between your private life and your public ministry persona; your ministry is no longer fueled by your own worship; your feel misunderstood by the people around you… and you are increasingly spiritually empty because you are looking for spiritual life where it cannot be found. The impact of all these things taken together is that you find your ministry less and less a privilege and a joy and more and more a burden and a duty.” (Dangerous Calling, p. 37)

Pastoral ministry is tough and tiring and sometimes you just need a break from the constant feeling that you are like a snack machine into which people put their money, push the button, and get whatever they want. In addition, you are always on; the late night calls, the hospital visits, the death bed vigils, the marital interventions, going with a husband to identify his wife’s body and then going home with him while he tells his 5 little children mom is not coming home. I could go on and on with situations that have had happened in my ministry, but one humorous illustration reflects the fact that a pastor is always on the job. One evening I had to show up a little late from an elders meeting to one of my son’s basketball games. I came somewhere in the 2nd quarter when his team was playing a very important game against an arch rival. My wife had saved me a seat, right in back of another couple from our church. I greeted them and then got down to watching my son play, and I mean watch – my wife will tell you that I focus on the game and do not like conversation. After about ten minutes, the very sincere brother from my church turned to me and said, “Hey Dave, since I have you here, can you explain the difference between Calvinism and Arminianism?” (By the way, I told him we’d talk later.)

All of this is to say, pastoral ministry is often wearying and difficult. But don’t feel sorry for us because this is to what we have been called. I wouldn’t want to do what some of you do. Give us some vacation and study leave, and we will rest, recoup, and will be good as new. I always come back from vacations excited to get going in ministry again. However, there are some pastors who do not want to come back at all. They have come to see that ministry is a burden. They have lost the joy of serving their congregation and the vision of seeing what they will become in Christ. They no longer resonate with what Paul tells Timothy; “For this end we toil and strive because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.” (1 Tim 4:10)

Pray that your pastor would never lose his/her joy in serving you or their vision and hope for what you can become in Christ.  Pray also that they would never lose sight of the gospel in their private life, that his/her ministry would always be fueled by worship, that they would keep their family as a priority so that their spouse or kids would never become jealous of the church, and that your pastor would take time off for rest and refreshment.

I am sorry to say that I preached a similar message for a pastor many years ago at his installation. In fact, I carry with me the bulletin for this service and my message was “The Dangers of Being a Pastor.” Within just a few years, this man had an affair, left his church and the ministry. The seeds of destruction were already in this man’s ministry, hidden and secreted away from public view. It is an ever-present reminder to me of how serious is the business of pastoral ministry.

I am not suggesting that your pastor has secrets that will do them in, but I am strongly suggesting that there are some serious dangers in the ministry that every pastor faces. We are in desperate need of the grace of God and the prayers of our people, lest we are left to ourselves and bring it all to destruction.

If I can be of any help to a pastor who is struggling in ministry, it would be my privilege. If you are that person or know of someone, I would be happy to talk to you/them. You can begin by emailing me at dave.mcdowell@wheaton.edu and we can go from there. It may not be much that I offer, but at least you’ll know that you are not alone. Blessings.

The Dangers of Being a Pastor (3)

In my last blog I mentioned the danger of feeding others at the expense of nourishing one’s own soul. In this blog I want to mention a third danger of being a pastor,

THE DANGER OF THE PASTOR NOT RECEIVING PASTORAL CARE…

The pastor is in a unique position of inherited authority and is automatically placed upon a kind of pedestal in the minds of many in his congregation. He is used to being quoted and usually what he says is the final word on most theological and life issues in the church. Sometimes the larger the church, the bigger the pastor’s influence and the bigger his ego grows. Everyone knows he is not perfect, but few view him with flaws mainly because they don’t want to see their pastor in that way. Who wants an imperfect pastor anyway? This constant pedestal of deference and respect coupled with the functional anonymity of the pulpit, the fact that few people really know the pastor and can speak into his life, create a situation where self-deception can breed. And this is especially dangerous because it seems that the pastor is often the only person in the church who does not benefit from the pastoral care he works so hard to give everyone else. Who pastors the pastor? Who continues to mentor him? Who speaks into his life?

The writer of Hebrews warns all believers (pastors included), “Take care brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil and unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.” (Heb 3:12)  Thus the Body of Christ has been designed to protect, encourage, warn, and restore us on our spiritual journey so that we do not become self-deceived and hardened by indwelling sin. And if every pastor is on the same journey in his discipleship, then there is something terribly wrong when a church allows its pastor to live a basically anonymous and independent life, WITH NO ONE TO SPEAK INTO IT.

Every pastor must daily admit to himself that he/she is basically broken and in constant need of God’s forgiveness and transforming grace. They must carry about in them the spirit of Martin Luther’s Sacristy prayer, “Use me as an instrument in Thy service, only do not Thou forsake me for if I am left to myself I will bring it all to destruction.” Every pastor must also be constantly preaching the gospel to him/herself and must fundamentally believe that what they need the most is found only in Jesus Christ, who loves them, died for them and forgave their sin completely. As C.S.Lewis has said “He who has God and everything else, has nothing more than God alone.”

The pastor does not need to find his/her identity in their own importance, performance, the size of their congregation, or how much they are sought after as a conference speaker; only in Jesus Christ. “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus blood and righteousness. I dare not trust the sweetest frame (merit or accomplishment of my own) but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.”

So pray for your pastor, that this would be the cry of his/her heart and that they would build and maintain a system of spiritual care for themselves made up of accountability and mentoring by people who love them unconditionally and have permission to speak into their life. Pray that he/she will be driven by the Holy Spirit to seek every means available for their own growth and development (not just yours) to make sure they hold firm to their confession all the way to the end of the race.

Next week’s blog: The Danger of Losing the Joy of Ministry

The Dangers of Being a Pastor (2)

One does not normally think that pastoral ministry is a high-risk job, at least in N. America. While recognizing that physical hazards do not often occur in pastoral ministry, I still maintain that there are tremendous dangers inherent in the Calling which few church members and fewer pastors realize until it is too late.  These dangers have contributed to the amazing statistic that only 1 out of every 10 pastors who begin in ministry stay in ministry.  I thought it wise to bring some of these dangers to your attention so that you can be praying for your pastor as well as others you know in ministry elsewhere.

In my last blog I mentioned the first danger lies in trying to meet everyone’s expectation. I encourage you to read that blog if you have not already done so. The second danger in pastoral ministry is

THE DANGER OF FEEDING OTHERS AT THE EXPENSE OF NOURISHING ONE’S OWN SOUL…

The primary calling of the pastor is to be about the business of teaching God’s Word to his/her people and praying for them that they grow in grace and in the knowledge of Jesus Christ. But if not careful, there is the danger that the task of teaching others might displace the time spent in the Word and in prayer for the growth of their own soul.

Henry Martin, a missionary to India in the 19th century said, “I see how great are the temptations of a missionary to neglect his own soul. Apparently outwardly employed for God, my heart has been growing more hard and proud. Let me be taught that the first great business on earth is the sanctification of my own soul; so shall I be rendered more capable also of performing the duties of the Ministry in a holy and solemn manner.”

Martin Luther, the great German reformer of the 16th century, once wrote to his barber, Peter Beskendorf, who had asked him some questions about prayer. Here is a portion of Luther’s response: “It is a good thing to let prayer be the first business of the morning and the last at night. Guard yourself carefully against those false deluding ideas which tell you, ‘wait a little while and I will pray in an hour; first I must attend to this or that.’ Such thoughts get you away from prayer into other affairs which so hold your attention and involve you so that nothing comes of prayer for that day.”

Paul tells Timothy to “train (exercise) yourself for godliness” (1 Tim 4:7). Also to “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim 4:16). The pastor must personally feed on the Word of God and practice what he/she preaches. God’s Word must be applied to their own heart and life, their own relationships and family, if they are to faithfully apply it to their people. How can I tell others what I myself am not willing to hear? How can I lead others on the path of discipleship that I am not willing to tread? Like we are told before every flight on an airplane, put the oxygen mask on yourself first before you tend to your little ones. Selfishness? No, it is about survival for the sake of others.

Pray for your pastor, that he/she will not succumb to the danger of tending to you and ignoring their own soul. Ask them how they are doing spiritually; what they are learning from God’s Word; the ways in which they are experiencing growth in their own discipleship. A spiritually healthy and robust church cannot be created or led by a hard-working pastor who is spiritually anemic and undernourished.  It is in your best interest that your pastor is a diligent student of God’s Word, caring for his/her own soul, for then they will be around a lot longer to care for you.

Next blog: The Danger of the Pastor Not Receiving Pastoral Care…

Th Dangers of Being a Pastor (1)

One does not normally think that pastoral ministry is a high-risk job, at least in North America. However, I do remember reading of a pastor many years ago who went to his office on Saturday night to put the finishing touches on his sermon. He thought he was alone in the building, but unbeknown to him the church organist had also decided to come and practice for the morning service. The wall just behind the unsuspecting pastor’s desk was the same wall against which were located the organ and the speakers in the sanctuary. The organist also was not aware that some practical joker had set the volume button on maximum and so when she laid into the first note the explosion of sound shook the building like a freight train, and the startled pastor had a heart attack and died on the spot!

While recognizing that such hazards do not often occur in pastoral ministry, I still maintain that there are tremendous dangers inherent in the Calling which few church members and fewer pastors realize until it is too late.  These dangers have contributed to the amazing statistic that only 1 out of every 10 pastors who begin in ministry stay in ministry. I have been in a pastoral ministry now for 45 years and have experienced some of these dangers, as sure every veteran pastor has as well. In this, and in my next few blogs, I would like to to bring some of these dangers to your attention so that you can be praying specifically for your pastor and others you know in ministry elsewhere. [I shared this same message a few weeks ago to the congregation of a young friend who was just installed as the lead pastor at his church.]

THE DANGER OF TRYING TO MEET EVERYONE’S EXPECTATIONS…

Very few vocations come with as many expectations as pastoral ministry. The pastor is expected to be a good preacher, a good administrator, a good counselor, a good PR person, a good fund-raiser, a good visitor in hospital and home; an expert in theology, in the original languages, and in missions; a good spouse, a good parent…to name just a few. It is fairly obvious that no human being can do all these things well and yet many pastors have been taken to task for not measuring up in some people’s minds.

Jonathan Edwards was a pastor in Northampton, MA, from 1727-1750. He was a gifted preacher and theologian and a leader in the revival that swept New England and the Middle Colonies known as the Great Awakening. He spent 13 hrs a day in study and preparation, but many in his church were dissatisfied because he did not visit enough or attend town functions. There were also certain crises in the church that some felt Edwards did not manage well. Edwards and his wife Sarah had 11 children who all survived and this embittered some who could not have as many children or whose children had died in infancy. In addition, 6 of Edward’s kids were born on Sunday and there was stigma against this to the extent that some ministers would not baptize babies born on Sundays. The reason: it was commonly thought that the day of one’s birth occurred on the same day as conception and thus the implication that such “activity” on the highly regarded Sabbath was very inappropriate. So people had all kinds of issues with Edwards based upon certain expectations, and dissatisfaction began to mount to the point where after 23 yrs of fruitful ministry he was asked to resign in 1750. Only 10% of the congregation voted against dismissal.

Paul told Timothy “Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid hands on you.” (1 Tim 4:14) I think the best advice for any pastor is to faithfully function in you’re his area of gifting, and to be the person that God called into ministry in the first place – not someone else. Practically applied this means that the Pastor should have a known job description that fits his gifting, and that he be encouraged to gather a team of people around him who have gifts in other areas than he does. You would be surprised to discover how many churches do not have a written job description for their pastor and, therefore, congregational expectation can run wild.

A congregation must evaluate their pastor only on the basis of what he has agreed to do and not what people wish him to do. Your pastor is not  a John Piper, a John Stott, a Mark Dever, or your favorite childhood pastor. He is the person gifted and called by the Holy Spirit to be your shepherd. Allow him to be who he is within the parameters of what you have hired him to do; and pray that he grows and develops as the man God chose for your congregation.

Next blog: The Danger of Feeding Others at the Expense of Nourishing His/Her Own Soul…

Remembering a Birthday While I Can Still Remember…

These are all my grandchildren, to this point. Don’t they look like an intelligent lot? They really are and and I love them all, and their parents. Yesterday was my birthday and it was most wonderfully affirming. Not only did my kids take me to Top Golf (indoor driving range) where we also had lunch, but my son Jamie who now lives and works in Switzerland was there for a surprise visit. (He had a conference in Canada.)

That evening, we all had dinner together and they gave me a Shutterfly book of remembrances that contained pics and little affirmations from my local and extended family, including the wonderful bunch from Australia and my future daughter-in-law from England. It was like being present at your own funeral service – and cheaper.

The whole day (including my Facebook greetings) was a reminder of what a blessed man I am (not lucky, but blessed) and how much I owe to God for the life He has given me. It was also a reminder of how easily I could screw it up if I allowed myself to be deceived by my own sinful nature and proneness to isolationism and independence. Whenever I have preached, I have always prayed Martin Luther’s sacristy prayer which contains this phrase, “And do not leave me to myself lest I bring it all to destruction.” No man, pastor, husband, father, or grandfather is beyond the real possibility of bringing the church down on his people or the house down on his family! And the reality  doesn’t get any easier the older one gets.

I must daily admit to myself that I am basically flawed and broken and in desperate need of God’s forgiveness and transforming grace. I need to be constantly preaching the gospel to myself and feeding my soul on the presence and promises of God in Christ. I must not hitch the wagon of my identity to anything else (position, experience, self-confidence) other than to the certainty that Jesus Christ is my Savior. As the old hymn goes “I dare not trust the sweetest frame (merit or anything I bring to the table) but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.”

And I must, by God’s grace, not allow a disconnect to grow between my private life and who I am in public. May God continue to have mercy upon my old soul. Amen.