Self-Deceiver…Grace Receiver…Kingdom Seeker

I am a self deceiver
Blind to my own sin
Trapped in my own mind
Stuck in my own ways
Hungering for control
Craving for comfort
Coveting stuff
Wanting
Whining
Winning at any cost
Self-protecting
Self-promoting
Self-conscious
Self-centered
Self-justifying
Self-gratifying
Self-lying
Even self-hating
Because I realize
Something is wrong with me
Though I find a way to
Blame others
Blame my past
Blame the world
Blame God
Imprisoned inside myself
Starved for love
Acceptance
Security
But too afraid
Too stubborn
Too cynical
To open up…

I am a grace receiver
Pursued by my Creator
Overwhelmed by His holiness
Humbled by His love
Entering my world
Dying for my sin
Conquering my death
Loving
Giving
Sacrificing at any cost
Forgiving
Cleansing
Regenerating
Reconciling
Justifying
Sanctifying
Glorifying
Even uniting
Himself to me
An eternal union
A new creation
New love
New life
New hope
New family
Adopted in Christ
Indwelt by His Spirit
Accepted
Secure
Never alone
Always loved
My imprisoned heart
Opened up!

I am a kingdom seeker
Rescued from sin
Given new citizenship
Submitted to my King
Who conquered sin
Conquered death
Conquered Satan
Releasing me
Redeeming me
Transforming me at any cost
Coming again
Judging sin
Destroying the proud
Resurrecting the dead
Reversing the curse
Renewing the earth
Reigning in Jerusalem
Even wiping away tears
No more sorrow
No more death
No more war
The lion and the lamb
Joined in harmony
Led by a child
Because of a Child
Who died as a Lamb
And will reign as a Lion
Peace with God
Peace with others
Peace in me
Peace on earth
The gates of Eden
Opened up!

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Understanding Pastoral Burnout

Recently I was asked again for our church’s sabbatical policy. It seems another pastor was nearing burnout at a church unaccustomed to handling it.

What is going on?

It seems that more and more pastors are facing burnout…dealing with mental health issues…stepping down from ministry…or falling into some type of serious moral failure. Several studies have indicated that 60-80% of pastors who enter ministry will not still be in ministry ten years later and only a fraction will stay in ministry for a lifetime.

Wow.

I can’t speak for all pastors but I can speak from my own experience. Exactly a year ago, I hit a major wall in ministry…feeling completely exhausted, stressed, anxious, and overwhelmed. Pressures, demands, and long hours piled up…and for years I made little time for days off or for true vacations.

I was doing good things…”God” things…so how could I stop?

I remember sharing my feeling of utter exhaustion with a retired pastor friend of mine. He listened and sympathized but couldn’t fully understand. He had served over forty years in ministry and had faced difficult, tiring, frustrating times…but never to the point of simply feeling like quitting…like stepping away from ministry.

To his credit…and to my benefit…he read up on pastoral burnout and became a needed advocate for me to take a sabbatical.

It probably saved my ministry…and my long-term health.

I have been in full-time pastoral ministry for thirty years. Over this time, I have seen and experienced the changes that are occurring in our culture and in the nature of ministry.

Here are five things that I think make pastoral ministry more challenging and more stress-producing than a generation or two ago.

Instant access.

A generation ago, if you wanted to get in touch with your pastor, you had to call the church office or perhaps even send a letter. Communication was slower. Access was more limited. Being out of town meant being out of touch. Now a quick text not only reaches a pastor instantly but also has a way of demanding an immediate response. After all, how can you simply ignore a text that says something like, “My marriage is falling apart. Can you please call me?” Add in the world of emails and social media and access is everywhere. A pastor can easily feel like he is always on call…never away…never truly “unplugged” from the demands of ministry.

Diminishing social supports.

Increased mobility and decreased family stability have left more and more people alone and without the typical social supports of a generation ago. Fifty years ago, a person in marriage crisis would often find practical counsel, support, and intervention from close-by family members or even long-time neighbors and friends. Social “capital” was more abundant. Today, as people become more and more isolated, they often turn to professional counselors or to pastors at the first sign of crisis. Thus, pastors are finding themselves encountering more people in crisis who lack social or family supports to provide immediate or long-term help. This tends to increase the burden and expectation upon the pastor.

Increased expectations.

Coupled with the lack of social support comes the high demand and expectation on the pastor and the church. I remember attending a pastor’s conference in the mid-1990’s when a Christian leader said that “discipleship in the 21st century will essentially be ‘re-parenting.'” His premise was simple: as the family breaks down, more and more people will come into the church without the basic skills of life that they should have learned in their family…skills like managing money, managing time, communicating, resolving conflict, even cleaning up after themselves. This prediction seems to be coming true as more and more people are looking to the church for financial counseling, marriage training, parenting help, conflict resolution, and life coaching. In many ways, it is a great opportunity for the church to touch people’s lives…but often all of that opportunity falls on the pastoral staff who have their own challenges and limitations in these areas.

Endless comparisons.

The internet has also increased expectations as more and more people are exposed to the gifts and strengths of more and more pastors and churches. People tend to take the best of everything they see and combine them into a composite picture of the “ideal church” and the “ideal pastor.” Thus, pastors today are often expected to be powerful preachers, motivational speakers, creative teachers, visionary leaders, cultural interpreters, political activists, marriage counselors, parenting experts, grief therapists, financial advisors, conflict mediators, life coaches, innovative evangelists, church growers, community engagers, administrative CEO’s, and loyal friends. It’s obviously an impossible task…but many pastors struggle to avoid the comparisons and often carry a nagging sense that they are always falling short.

Pervasive stresses, distractions, and temptations.

For every positive advance in technology, it seems like a hundred new stresses, distractions, and temptations come along with it. For instance, the smartphone has increased our ability to connect with each other, to get things done quicker and easier, to gain immediate access to information, and even to be better equipped with Bible study tools and devotionals. But at the same time, it has also made us more easily distracted, more isolated from face-to-face interaction, more prone to social media-induced anxiety and depression, and more tempted with online pornography. Pastors find themselves both ministering to people impacted by these pervasive stresses, distractions, and temptations as well as fighting their own battles against these things. And all of this is new territory…with every new piece of technology creating new challenges that are hard to immediately discern.

In reality, everyone is feeling the affects of our new age. As our culture rapidly changes, it is easy to feel like you are running on a treadmill that is constantly increasing in speed. You can try to keep up but eventually you will crash and burn. Instead you have to intentionally find a way to step off the treadmill.

You have to set apart the first part of your day to God.

You have to set weekly “fasts” from media.

You have to take care of your body.

You have to accept your limitations.

You have to cultivate your relationships.

You have to model Sabbath rest.

And as a pastor, you have to lead the way.

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A Few Thoughts on Christianity Today, Trump, and Jesus

I don’t like talking about politics…especially in our divided, angry, politicized culture.

One, it is not my calling or expertise. Yes, as I teach through Scripture verse-by-verse, I often encounter biblical principles that apply to our political world. I seek to highlight these principles and apply them wisely. But, at the same time, I am not a political pundit or commentator who can address or exegete the endless stream of headlines from our politicized media…nor do I think it would be wise to try.

Two, I have found that many people who ask me to comment more on politics usually want me to do so from a particular partisan viewpoint. Let’s be honest…most people in our culture are not looking to be challenged in their political leanings, rather they are looking for confirmation and affirmation of the viewpoint that they already hold. I quite simply do not want to add to the echo chamber of politics in our culture. Instead I want to try to encourage people to look above the fray and see things from a bigger, eternal perspective.

So why comment now?

A few weeks ago, Mark Galli wrote an editorial in Christianity Today that sent shockwaves through the evangelical world. It set off a host of comments, rebuttals, accolades, and attacks. I have been a long-time subscriber of Christianity Today. I have generally been informed, encouraged, and challenged by their articles. I have also enjoyed many of Galli’s articles in the past. This one was obviously different…as Galli noted at the beginning of his editorial.

Now that the dust has settled a little bit, it seems like a good time to make a few comments for hopefully thoughtful consideration. I may end up regretting it anyway.

First, about the article.

I have two problems with Galli’s article. One, it was very strange timing. Galli wrote the article on his way out the door of Christianity Today (CT). He recently retired as the magazine’s editor. It seems like his final act was to throw a grenade in the middle of his readership and essentially leave it for his successors to clean it all up. It is sort of like the pastor getting up for his final sermon in a church and saying, “And now let me tell you what I really think….” Wisdom would seem to say that either you speak your mind earlier…or you go ahead and leave and save your comments for later.

Two, Galli tries to take a moral position on a highly partisan political issue. Yes, some political issues are moral but I am not sure you can place impeachment in that category. It is a political, legal decision based on an interpretation of “high crimes and misdemeanors” in the Constitution. Perhaps Trump’s phone call violated the Constitution (that is the question) but I am not sure a Christian writer of a Christian magazine is in the best position to make that decision. Galli would have been better served to make a moral case and leave the impeachment decision alone. After all, the decision that was made in the House of Representatives was so politically divided…and so blatantly partisan…that to pick a side on the issue immediately threw him (and CT) in the midst of the partisan rancor. Apparently Galli felt the need to take a clear position because CT took a clear position on President Clinton’s impeachment twenty years ago. But the wisdom of CT‘s decision twenty years ago could also be debated. Unless Galli is speaking as a lawyer or Constitutional expert, then I would suggest that he leave the decision up to Congress and instead focus on the biblical or moral principles that may apply in the situation.

And here is where Galli’s article does have some merit.

He brings up a compelling point: “Remember who you are and whom you serve. Consider how your justification of Mr. Trump influences your witness to your Lord and Savior. Consider what an unbelieving world will say if you continue to brush off Mr. Trump’s immoral words and behavior in the cause of political expediency.”

Whether you agree with Galli or not, it is a point worth considering. Is it possible to be so intertwined with a particular political leader that you somehow weaken the gospel or at least confuse it with political overtones? Or asked in a more specific way…is it possible to support Trump as president and not be stained with his moral failures, his narcissistic tendencies, or his angry, profane verbal barrages?

It is a question that I have wrestled with often.

Now, about Trump.

Trump is a conundrum, a mixed bag, a lightning rod.

He has garnered more division than any other president in recent history. There are “Trump lovers” and “Trump haters”…and presumably no one in between.

But I am one of those “in between,” trying to sort it all out, trying to find balance.

I see Trump for who he is: a flawed man in the office of the presidency…as every president has been to some degree. The tendency to see him as “all hero” or “all villain” is neither realistic nor helpful and it feeds into the melodramatic, crisis-creating, news-selling narrative of our media-saturated world.

There are at least three aspects to consider in a president…personality, morality, and policy.

When it comes to personality, Trump is unconventional to say the least. He is a businessman not a politician. Diplomacy is not his style. He was shaped in the cutthroat, competitive, get-it-done-despite-the-costs business world. He is used to being a boss who gets his way. He is the antithesis to the typical, dignified, diplomatic, compromise-seeking politician. His personality has a way of forcing you to either love him or hate him…and he seems to like it that way. It has made him a successful businessman but a very contentious president.

His morality is another issue to consider. Generally we want a leader who exhibits strong character traits such as loyalty, honesty, integrity, dignity, and faithfulness, most notably to his wife and family. Trump’s past failed marriages and sexual misconduct, braggadocio, narcissistic tendencies, and constant verbal barrages have all put a stain on his character. Many past presidents have had their serious moral issues but Trump’s flaws seem to be more open and on full display. It is true that a president is not a Sunday School teacher but character matters and cannot be quickly dismissed or overlooked. If one can’t be trusted in one area, then it can be assumed that he can’t be trusted in other areas as well. On the other side of the coin, he seems to be faithful to his current wife and devoted to his family and so perhaps he is becoming better along the way but he still leaves much to be desired, particularly when measured against such spiritual virtues as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).

The third leg of the stool are a president’s policies…and this is usually where the rubber meets the road. Turn the clock back twenty years to Bill Clinton…and Democrats were defending Clinton’s morality and actions primarily because they liked his policies…while Republicans were saying Clinton’s morality and actions disqualified him from office generally because they disliked his policies. You can almost flip the script in what Democrats and Republicans are saying today (even some of the same people!).

So how can an evangelical support Trump today?

Some may like his rough and tumble, no holds barred, in your face personality…and overlook his most obvious faults…primarily because they like his policies. Others may shake their head at his divisive words, inability to admit a mistake, and questionable morality but, in the absence of a credible, electable alternative, hesitantly prefer him over someone with polar opposite views and policies. Either way, his support ultimately comes down to his platform, his policies. He is strongly pro-life…protects religious liberty…supports Israel…appoints conservative judges…and seems to have a genuine love for our nation (whether you agree with the way he expresses it or not)…issues important to many evangelicals.

Trump still presents a conundrum…but not necessarily an unusual one in politics. Politics is messy…and no candidate is perfect. Thus, both sides of the aisle, at some point, have supported questionable candidates with stained resumes because ultimately they agree with the majority of that politician’s policies not his lifestyle.

The challenge for the Christian citizen is to support good governmental policies while still maintaining a prophetic voice that speaks out against the bad character and actions of political leaders. Something that Christians have often failed to do. Consider the example of Daniel who served, prayed for, and respected the narcissistic, volatile Babylonian leader, Nebuchadnezzar, while at the same time calling him out for his foolish pride.

Even better, consider Jesus.

Jesus was born into a politicized, divided, angry culture very much like our own. You can almost see modern political groups represented in the political groups of Jesus’ day…the Pharisees (social conservatives)…the Sadducees (elite progressives)…the Zealots (right-wing or left-wing revolutionaries)…the Hellenists (cultural adopters)…the Essenes (cultural rejecters)…and the Herodians (the political poll-watchers and do whatever it takes to stay in power people).

In such a politically divided world, everyone wanted to know who Jesus was. Whose side was He on? In what political category did He fit? What label could describe Him?

Jesus rose above all the political rancor.

He didn’t play the political game.

He couldn’t be plugged into any political category.

In fact, He made everyone with a political mindset mad.

Jesus put His finger on the bigger problem…the condition of our own heart.

Because ultimately our biggest problem is not political…it is spiritual.

Will I bow my knee to the God who made me?

Will I humbly acknowledge my limitations…my weakness…my need?

Will I stop pointing the finger at others and see my own selfishness and sin?

Will I receive grace…and then give it to others?

The follower of Jesus has to keep politics in perspective. Yes, we are called to be involved…to be participants in society…to honor and pray for our leaders…to pray and work for the peace and prosperity of the nation in which we live…to be ready for every good work…to speak evil of no one…to be peaceable and gentle…to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.

In short, we are to be concerned with politics but not consumed with it.

Politics is just the imperfect attempts of imperfect leaders to govern imperfect people for a limited amount of time. It won’t solve humanity’s biggest problems. It can’t change hearts. It can’t defeat death. It can’t bring new life to a disaster-filled, decaying planet. Thus, putting your trust in any political leader is short-sighted, disappointing, and foolish.

God is sovereign.

The nations are a drop in the bucket.

God can turn a leader’s heart like channels of water.

The Most High rules in the kingdom of men and gives it to whomever He chooses.

And ultimately our fate is not in the hands of donkeys and elephants but in the One who is the Lion and the Lamb.

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Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in the Country

I grew up in the country. I probably didn’t realize how “country” it was until later in life.

We had seven acres of land. A large pasture with woods in the back along with a spring-fed pond. We raised cows…chickens…and rabbits…and ate lots of good beef, fresh eggs, and fried rabbit (which tastes a lot like chicken by the way).

Summer days were often filled with exploring nature…feeding flies to spiders…feeding ants to ant lions…building tunnels in the steep sand banks of the pond…hanging out in the treehouse…and having cow patty fights with friends.

I think that qualifies as country.

We knew everyone in our small town. I sat between the same two people all the way through elementary school. Edwards…Foster…Freeman.

Fridays nights were high school football nights. Sunday mornings were church days…along with Sunday nights and Wednesday nights.

Whenever I come back home, I realize the simplicity of growing up in a small town. We didn’t have a lot but we also didn’t know we were missing out on anything. We traveled up to the big city of Jacksonville every once in awhile. I remember when the town closest to us (Orange Park) actually got a mall. But I still found my greatest joy and contentment at home…enjoying time with my family…exploring the backyard…hanging out with friends.

Now here I am forty years later. Sitting in my parents’ house…walking the same country roads…reflecting on life.

Many things have changed…but many things have remained the same.

I have lived in cities from New Orleans to Dallas to the New York City corridor of central New Jersey yet there is something unique about living in the country…something to be learned.

Here are five New Year’s lessons you can learn from the country:

Slow down!

Your quality of life is not increased by increasing your pace.

Somehow we have accepted the notion that a faster life is a better life. Squeeze more stuff in. Run. Run. Run. Get everywhere quicker. Pack your life with activities. Do more. Get more. Go more. It is almost as if we want to stay moving so that we don’t have to stop and think about the emptiness of what we have…of who we are…of what we are becoming.

The country teaches you to slow down…to notice more around you…and to get used to being stuck behind a tractor on a two-lane road.

Make the most of what you have.

My parents do not waste anything. Everything is recycled. They were “green” before green was cool. My dad made a fence out of discarded pipe…a shed out of old shipping pallets…a greenhouse out of the plastic wrapped around his new mattress. He waters his plants with rainwater. He fertilizes with coffee grounds. He even used to carefully cut open and fold up the wrapping paper on his Christmas gifts and ask my mom to save it for next year…though my mom would usually throw it away when he wasn’t looking.

When you are in the country, everything has value. You don’t worry about what you don’t have but instead you make the most of what you do have. In a disposable society…where even relationships and people are too easily discarded…that is a good lesson to learn.

Know how to survive.

Hank Williams Jr. wasn’t lying…a country boy does know how to survive. If our economic infrastructure were to completely collapse, I would want to move back to the country. My parents know how to survive. My dad can grow his own food…catch his own food…kill his own food. He has a pond with a spring…a well with his own water. He lives simply. He knows his land. And he has a shotgun…actually several shotguns. It’s ironic that the people who are often looked down on are probably the only ones who would survive in a disaster…and the ones who would probably rescue a few people along the way.

So don’t worry about your circumstances…or about what people think…just keep moving forward…finding a way to survive…and helping others who don’t know any better.

Make family a priority.

When I come home, I am reminded of the importance of family. My parents are still going strong…celebrating over sixty years of marriage. My brothers and sisters still get together for family events. The house is packed. Laughter is everywhere.

We have our issues. As a family grows…as the generations increase…there are differences that emerge. Different opinions…different politics…different perspectives on life. But something keeps bringing us all together.

Blood is thicker than water.

The crowded city often contains the loneliest people. The faster you go…the further you go…the more often you leave your relationships behind…and the more often you feel an inner longing for home.

Don’t ignore that longing. It is a reminder that life is too short to shortchange your relationships.

Remember that God is God.

There is something about living in the “big city”…climbing the academic ladder…the economic ladder…the social ladder…that has a way of feeding your pride. You have a tendency to feel more advanced…more educated…more superior.

The elitist mentality grows in the city not the country.

And with elitism comes the sense that you no longer need God. God is for “simpler people”…for those who don’t know any better…for those who haven’t learned science yet.

But elitism is an illusion. No person is better than any other. No person has life all figured out. No person has death conquered. No person has control over the universe.

A proud man is always looking down on things and people; and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you. (C. S. Lewis)

Perhaps it is the simpler life…the life more connected to nature…more connected to family…more connected to a church community…that enables a person to see their dependency on God.

Things aren’t perfect in the country. The sins of the human heart live both in the city and on the farm. But when you need a little perspective, take a trip into the country and remember that…

Every thing you have is a gift.

Nothing should be taken for granted.

Life is worth living.

Relationships are worth treasuring.

God is worth worshiping.

Pride is a lie.

Humility is a virtue.

Thanksgiving is a must.

And even when everything around you stinks, you can still choose to have a cow patty fight.

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Wonderful Counselor

Isaiah 9:6 is one of the great prophecies about the coming Messiah.

For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called
Wonderful Counselor,
Mighty God,
Everlasting Father,
Prince of Peace.

A Child will be born. He will enter our world, the seed of the woman. He will be fully human.

A Son will be given. He will come as a gift, the Son of God. He will be fully divine.

And the government will be upon His shoulder.  He will rule over the world. He will bear the weight of responsibility. He will do that which we cannot do…cancel the debt of sin, defeat the power of death, bring peace upon the earth.

It is interesting that we generally feel stress in the tightness of our shoulders. It is almost as if we are bearing a weight that is pressing down upon us, trying to shoulder that which is beyond our power…beyond our capacity…beyond our control.

We try to run the universe.

But there is only One with the authority and power to do so…and it is not me…and it is not you.

This One is introduced with a fourfold title: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

It says that He will called these names.

By whom?

Perhaps by God Himself who knows the fullness of His identity.

Perhaps by the angels who see the glory of His splendor.

Or perhaps by those who have recognized their weakness…seen their need…and bowed before Him in humility and worship.

I think it is this last group…the redeemed…who proclaim His name…exalt in His identity.

And I believe the four names reflect a progression in understanding…the pathway of faith.

Wonderful Counselor.

He knows my heart. He shines His light into it…revealing the dark crevices of my soul…exposing my sin…my pride…my self-centeredness…my lusts…my idols…my wounds…my walls…my guilt…my shame.

Mighty God.

The best counselor in the world may help me understand myself better but they do not have the ability to change me…to make me new…to make my world new. But this Counselor has the power to conquer my sin…to defeat my real enemies (Satan and death)…and to transform my heart.

Everlasting Father.

Deep down I have a longing for a father…one who knows me…loves me…upholds me…blesses me…never leaves me. Broken by my sin…wounded by the world…humbled of my pride…I look up to see a Father running toward me with arms open wide and grace in His eyes. The broken one is held. The wounded one is healed. The humbled one is made a child of God.

Prince of Peace

Peace with God. Peace within myself. Peace with others. Peace in the world. This kind of peace can only come from the Prince of Peace. The One who enters my world…dies for my sin…rises from the dead…and offers me the free gift of eternal life.

The One who is my Savior.

The One who is my Lord.

The One who is coming again to make this world new.

Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:30-33)

Even so, come, Lord Jesus!

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