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Book Notes: Dangerous Calling by Paul Tripp


Paul Tripp’s most recent book on the challenges of pastoral ministry is the fruit of years of ministry to pastors and deep introspection on his own heart while serving the local church.  I personally benefited from this book on several levels.  First, I was reminded that a pastor must protect his own heart before the Lord.  We should expect ups and downs in our spiritual passion over the years of ministry, but when we get to the place (and routine) where our hearts are cold toward God and it doesn’t bother us, we are in serious trouble.  Every pastor knows that their personal relationship with the Lord is the most important part of their ministry, but few pastors know what to do when they find themselves in a dry place.  Into this void, Tripp adds his clear, compassionate voice.

While many of Tripp’s insights are helpful, the one that most spoke to my heart was his analysis that most pastors preach the importance of the ministry of the body of Christ, but live as though they don’t need the ministry of the body.  I believe that Tripp has picked up on one element that feeds the spiritual death of pastors – their relational isolation from the people they lead.  This seems strange to people outside of ministry, because the pastor looks as though he is connected relationally to so many people in the church.  And this is true, to a point.  However, the pastor is not known as peer or friend, but always as pastor.  This means that he is always leading, always shepherding, always caring for others, always guiding and directing, always making disciples, always counseling and teaching.  But when does he ever experience those things in his own life?  Who shepherds him, cares for his soul, guides and directs his relationship with the Lord?

I’ve always known this is a danger of pastoral ministry, but Tripp’s take on this problem was different than mine.  I assumed that this was just a by-product of the role of pastor, a necessary challenge of leadership.  But Tripp diagnoses the pride in the heart of the pastor who believes that he doesn’t need the ministry of the body, that he can (or must) hide his true nature from the people in his congregation.  We all know the consequences of hypocrisy and dishonesty on our congregations, but Tripp shows that this kind of isolated leadership is also deadly to the pastor himself.  It isn’t just the congregation that needs an authentic leader.  The pastor himself needs genuine community.  He needs to submit to the ministry of the congregation in his own life.  This one insight was worth the price of the book, in my mind.  It confirmed something I already believed, but helped me see the spiritual and biblical mandate to be in honest community with people that I lead spiritually.

By the end of the book, I felt like Tripp’s observations were getting somewhat repetitive, continually pointing out the need for the pastor to have a right view of God and a right view of himself before God.  He shows how our low view of “remaining sin” in the life and heart of the pastor can deceive us into thinking that we can do ministry apart from a vibrant, passionate relationship with Jesus, and open, honest, gracious relationships with others.  I have received his correction and thank God for it.  I hope and pray that my ministry will last a lifetime and bring honor to God because I don’t fall into the trap of thinking that I have arrived spiritually or try to live above the congregation instead of in the midst of it.

Jesus in Beijing

David Aikman’s book on the history of Christianity in China is a must read for anyone today who wants to understand non-Western Christianity and the missionary movement of God around the world.  Aikman worked at one time as the Beijing bureau chief for Time Magazine where he was able to gain perspective on the rapid expansion of Christianity throughout China.  His book was first published in 2003 and is now approaching ten years old – which means you can buy a used copy on Amazon for next to nothing.  While the last decade has seen additional developments in China, all of Aikman’s reporting is still timely and helpful in giving the reader a sense of what the last 200 years have looked like for Chinese believers.

The story of Christianity in China includes some of the most famous figures in the history of western Protestant missions.  Robert Morrison worked in China in the early 1800s and produced the first translation of the Bible into the Mandarin language.  J. Hudson Taylor led one of the largest missions mobilization movements in history when he started China Inland Missions in mid 1800s.  CIM mobilized thousands of missionaries to go to interior mainland China, contextualize their ministry to the different people groups, and share the gospel.  In addition to Morrison & Taylor, Lottie Moon spent over 40 years in China starting in the late 1800s.  Her work as a Baptist missionary is remembered today in the annual Lottie Moon Christmas offering that Southern Baptist Churches take to support international missions.

This large influx of missionary work planted the seed out of which the Chinese Protestant church was to multiply exponentially.  Starting in the early 1900s, political and worldwide events led to the removal of most western missionaries by force by 1950.  China was occupied by the Japanese, then ravaged by World War II, and finally taken over by the Communists under Mao Zedong in 1949.  Mao crippled the people of China an heavily oppressed them during his thirty-year reign.  The Cultural Revolution under Mao remains one of the darkest seasons in the history of modern China when millions where killed and misplaced by the Red Guard.  After Mao did, Ding Xiaoping came to power and began the process of opening Chinese markets to semi-capitalism and the world.

The Chinese Protestant church was predominantly forced underground after 1950.  Even after the Communist Party officially approved of Christianity in China, it was tightly controlled by those in the Party structure who were lifelong atheists.  Because of this, most Protestant Christians continued to gather in homes and apartments rather than submit to the control of the Communist Party leadership.  As they did this, God worked in miraculous ways to confirm the truthfulness of the gospel and deliver millions from darkness.

In his book, Aikman introduces you to the primary figures who led the house-church movement throughout China during the darkest years of oppression and opposition from the government.  Many of these leadership figures served 20 to 30 years of their lives in prison for the cause of Christ in China.  After release, they continued to serve Jesus by proclaiming his gospel and building up the local church.  Aikman interviewed many of them in the late 1990s to write his book.  We should all be thankful for this as many of those that he interviewed have now passed away.  Leadership of the house-church movement in China has now passed to the next generation of leaders.

If you are traveling to China any time in the future for business or leisure, I would ask you to read Aikman’s book.  It will change your view of the world and the Chinese people.  As Americans, we can have a very small view of what God has done and is doing in the world.  I would encourage you to pick up a copy of Aikman’s book and learn the story of our brothers and sisters around the world who have suffered greatly for the cause of Christ.  Their faithfulness to Jesus and faith in Jesus are examples to us all.

Study Break Day #5

10:00pm  End of my study break 2012.  Still reading, but done blogging.  Thankful to God for His grace to work hard this week in praying, reading, planning, and dreaming.  My prayer is that some of what I have dreamed about and worked on during this break will help our congregation grow in the likeness of Jesus Christ and take His gospel to all people.

9:30pm Dave Ramsey’s group gave us a copy of John G. Miller’s book QBQ! The Question Behind The Question, about living with personal accountability in work and life.  Miller’s book is very short and a very quick read, but has a powerful message.  His main point is that most people ask the wrong questions and therefore get the wrong answers which shape their behavior.  He says that most people ask Who, When, and Why questions about other people which only lead to blame, procrastination, and passivity.  The only way to move to responsibility is to ask a different set of questions in everyday life.  These are what Miller calls the QBQ – questions that start with What or How and include “I” and some kind of action.  This moves the questions we ask from looking for someone else or something else to explain our inactivity to taking personal responsibility.  Our questions would look like, What can I do to help? or How can I make a difference in this situation?  The list goes on and on, but the idea is the same.  Take responsibility for your actions and don’t use other people/processes as excuses.


Tempted and Tried

4:30pm Another incredibly insightful book from Russell Moore, Tempted & Tried is a penetrating look of James 1 and Matthew 4 to see both the patterns by which we are tempted and the ways in which Christ’s victory over Satan can give us victory over temptation.  As with Dr.Moore’s other book, Adopted for Life, this book is full of Scripture.  The brother knows the Word and it flows from his pen.  I really appreciate that.  In addition, his insights on those Scriptures are helpful and deep.  He sees patterns and words that I have missed, though I have read the same passages many times before.  I like reading a writer who makes me think, and Dr. Moore is one of those writers.  This book is short, but don’t mistake the length for a lack of depth or intensity.  As a Christian and a pastor, I found his observations helpful.  Beyond my own fight with temptation, I know that some of my pastoral counseling and discipleship will change because of this book.

11:30am What a beautiful morning.  I was able to get a 2-mile jog in today – blood pumping, fresh air in the lungs.  Sinuses are finally feeling better and the lips are healing.  God is good.

9 If the gospel can be described doctrinally (God reconciling humanity to Himself through Christ), through narrative (Jesus as the fulfillment of the story of Israel), culturally (Jesus establishing a counter-kingdom in the world), it can also be described existentially (rooting your identity in grace instead of works).  JD Greear’s new book Gospel works to move the gospel from head-knowledge to heart-knowledge, to articulate how the gospel gets worked into the soul of a person and becomes existential reality in their life.  Greear is (by his own admission) not covering new ground.  Rather, he is showing how God has moved the gospel-identity deeper into his life as a pastor and a person.  To help us, he proposes a gospel prayer that can be prayed every day as a way to preach the gospel to yourself, by which he means a way that we can root our daily experience in the gospel and not our performance.  Here is the prayer he suggests (and then explains in the book): In Christ, there is nothing I can do that would make You love me more, and nothing I have done that makes You love me less. Your presence and approval are all I need for everlasting joy.  As you have been to me, so I will be to others.  As I pray, I’ll measure Your compassion by the cross and Your power by the resurrection.  I really appreciate Greear’s testimony and suggestions.  I think they are helpful.  In many ways, his story is my story – learning to live daily in light of the gospel.  As I like to say, learning to see the gospel not as the doorway into the Christian faith, but the boat that carries us throughout the Christian faith.  All that being said, Greear’s book is really a look at applying the gospel to the human heart, not an exposition of the gospel itself.  The gospel (as Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 15) is ultimately a description of a historical event – the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ according to the Scriptures (the OT).  It is first about what God has done in Christ to resolve the story of the Old Testament.  Greear’s book is not an explanation of this.  Instead, he assumes this – using Jesus died in your place for your sins and rose again as shorthand for the gospel narrative.  He then gives chapter after chapter on how to live in light of the gospel.  In this way, his book is about how the gospel gives us a new identity (based on grace, not works), a heart free of idolatry, a passion for God above all else, a new view of relating to other people and stuff, and an expectant faith in our prayers.  I share this just so if you read this book, you know what you are getting – a very helpful, practical look at how the gospel gets to the heart and then changes a life.  Very practical, challenging, and funny.

Study Break Day #4

9:45am Prayer & Bible reading this morning.  Reminded of how much I liked our EPIC series in the fall at HCBC that emphasized reading the Bible as one story, not as a collection of moral parables.  I have heard more feedback from people in our church about how that series helped them read the Bible with fresh eyes and understanding than anything we’ve ever done as a church.  It also has helped me – as we are reading through the Bible this year as a church (right now, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Matthew, Romans, and Psalms) to put all the pieces together.  To see not just the differences but the unified story.  If you have never learned how to read the Bible as one story, check out the series on our church website.

10:20am Six leadership shifts we need in the church in America.

10:30am I’ve been reading Eugene Peterson’s memoir, The Pastor, slowly over this study break.  A lot of books I read quickly, but this one is fun and ministers to my soul.  Peterson views the pastoral calling very differently from most leaders today.  He is one of those very thoughtful shepherds who cares deeply for the people under his watch.  I have much to learn from his perspective and his insights, especially if I want to still be doing this job in forty years.  Sometimes I don’t know – the burden is heavy.  But in Jesus Christ, the burden is light.  Thank you, Dr. Peterson, for always shepherding my soul and not just challenging my practice.  A good reminder that a pastor is a Christian first.  Jesus must always be enough for your soul.  And rhythm is important – time to be filled up by God so that you have something to give to those you lead.  I won’t finish this book this week.  I want to read it slowly.  More insights later maybe.  Maybe I will just read it and let it sit on my heart.

10:45am Long-term sermon planning this morning.  Excited to work on the plan for the biblical manhood/womanhood series this spring, the series in Proverbs this summer, and the new goal / series starting in September.  Looking to God for direction and holding all of these ideas with an open hand so the Lord can change our plans at any time.

2:45pm Next two series overviews complete with sermon titles, major passages, and main topics.  Working on the third one now.  So many great passages and ideas to teach.  Thankful to God for the deep well that is His Word.

5:20pm All three sermon-series planned out.  Dreaming about the goal for the 2012-2013 ministry year that starts in September.  Oh, that God would use our church to reach many with the gospel of Jesus Christ in the next year.  Planning for sermon series and intentional strategies that could help us with that goal.  Still very early in the rough draft form at this point.  Will need to be looked over and prayed through by the elders of our church in the coming months.  Hopefully, we can land the plane by May or June to help us in our ministry planning this summer.  What an exciting time to lead this congregation.  Humbled and thankful. Reading Stephen Sprinkle’s book called Ordination, trying to get my views straight on what I think about ordination as a practice and what I believe ordination means theologically.  I don’t think we want to discourage the ministry of lay people in the church in any way, but we also need to have a process whereby we affirm the theological orthodoxy and vocational calling of pastors in the church.  As we send out Nick and Jada to plant a church and hire additional pastoral staff, we must clarify our theology and process for ordained pastors in the local church.  I already have some thoughts on what it means and what it should look like, but I am wanting to read someone’s views from another tradition to see what I can learn from another stream.  We will have our first ordination services this spring, and I’m excited to get this worked out for our congregation.  This is a question we get often in working in international missions – how do make sure a pastor is qualified and called before you send him out to plant a church?  Developing this process will help our church, the churches we plant, and the church-leaders we mentor overseas.

10:30pm Finished Sprinkle’s ordination book.  The book is wordy and overly theological and extremely liberal, but did introduce me to many tensions in the practice of ordination and the views of many different denominations when it comes to ordination.  Finished my working document on ordination for our church with one page on what ordination is, two pages on the process of ordination, and one page on what the ordination service might look like.  I’m excited to start this tradition in our church as we recognize those called out to serve the church in a special way.



Study Break Day #3

7:30am Loving the reading in Deuteronomy right now.  Reminded today that idolatry is not always a turn away from God to another god – it is usually setting up another god right next to God and dividing our loyalties between the two.  Of course, we can’t really do this, which is why God forbids it – we always end up loving our idol and hating the true God.  Challenged by Deuteronomy to root out the idolatry in my heart and worship the true and living God. I’ve been reading The King Jesus Gospel by Professor Scot McKnight.  Overall, I really agree with his premise – that we have a temptation to reduce the gospel to the personal Plan of Salvation – sin, cross, faith – while the full gospel of the NT is how the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ fulfills the story of Israel in the OT and rescues people from their sins.  McKnight likes to say that the gospel is the saving story of Jesus as it completes the story of Israel.  I like the emphasis he makes on the biblical narrative – it is similar to the case I made last fall when we preached through the EPIC series – that we have to see the Bible as one story in order to understand the individual pieces.  McKnight makes the same points – that if we don’t understand the OT, the the gospel of Jesus Christ doesn’t make any sense.  I think we must be careful, however, to not swing the pendulum the other direction.  While putting the person and work of Jesus into the full story of the Bible, we must be careful to not discourage people from sharing their grace story (encounter with Jesus Christ’s redemptive work in their own life) until they master biblical theology.  In addition, we must not forget that we still must call people to respond to the gospel story at a personal level.  Jesus’ story is not primarily about me – it is about God and creation and Israel and redemption.  But it does have implications for me.  That is why Jesus looks at his disciples and asks, who do you say that I am?  We must understand the whole story.  AND we must respond to the gospel at a personal, volitional level.  Not either or – both and.  Overall, McKnight’s book is good and extremely helpful – biblical and Christ-centered.  If you are someone who cares about biblical faithfulness in gospel proclamation, I would encourage you to pick up this book.

8:30am I am speaking this morning at 10:00am to a group about my recent missionary trips to East Asia.  I appreciate your prayers for clarity and passion while I speak.  May those who listen be stirred to what God is doing around the world for His glory.

7:00pm My speaking and travel went well today.  Thanks for your prayers.  God has been good to get me through the last couple of days.  I took an antibiotic last week and had a bad allergic reaction to it that blistered my lips.  I switched drugs, but my lips have been very painful – cracking and bleeding – you get the picture.  Lots of Vasoline and lip-care stuff.  They are just starting to look a little better today.  Now, back to study-break work.  Reading and praying and writing.

9:45pm Pray for our brothers and sisters around the world tonight who are facing difficulty for the cause of Christ.  68 churches in New York City face the possibility of losing their meeting space in the NYC Public Schools unless the NY state assembly passes a law quickly to change the state policy.  You can follow updates on the story from World Magazine.  Pray for the millions of Christians around the world who face physical danger at the hands of those who do not even want them to exist.  Pray that they will be able to love their enemies as Jesus taught us to do.

11:10pm  God is good.  Many new thoughts for sermon series starting in September.  I need to work tomorrow on filling up sermon details for the next two series I’m preaching at church.  Excited to do that and get ahead on those series.  Tomorrow I will also do reading and thinking and planning on ordination – more on that tomorrow.  Thursday I will set aside for leadership thinking/reading/planning.  So much ground to cover.  Need God’s grace and help.  Good night.


Study Break Day #2

7:40am Great personal prayer time this morning.  God is renewing my view of His greatness.

7:55am Today’s Bible-reading notes:

  • Deuteronomy 15:1-6 – I wonder if people would lend less if they had to forgive debts every seven years.  Interesting that God warns Israel not to borrow from other nations because it will make them servants to the other nations.  Sounds like an application of Proverbs 22:7.
  • Deuteronomy 15:7-11 – Give generously to the poor and don’t be stingy with them.  Israel was to give freely because God had given freely to them.  How much more should we as Christians give based on what God has done for us in Christ?  (see 2 Corinthians 8:9)
  • Deuteronomy 15:19-23 – Give best and first to God.
  • Deuteronomy 16 – Two words repeat in this chapter on the festivals – remember and rejoice.  We are to remember what God has done for us and rejoice in who God is and what He is doing.
  • Isaiah 13 – the wrath of God on the earth is what justice demands.  To think what Jesus endured for our salvation, so that we did not have to endure God’s justice personally.
  • Matthew 18:10-20 – God sent His Son to go after the lost sheep.  He relentlessly pursues those that are far away from Him in Jesus Christ.
  • Romans 15:22-33 – Paul writes of traveling to Spain – ever the missionary.  May we have the missionary zeal to take the name of Christ to every people on the planet.
  • Psalm 133 – live together in harmony with your brothers, says the Lord.

8:25am Working on notes/slides for a talk I will give soon on my missionary trips to East Asia.

10:10am So thankful for our partnership in East Asia.  God is doing a great work in that part of the world.  Praying now for our partners there.  Praying for wisdom about when I should go back to East Asia now that baby #5 is on the way.  God, where are you leading?

11:00am Reading Chuck Lawless’ book on church membership.  We already do many of the things he recommends very well.  We require new members to attend our class in order to join the church.  We clearly articulate the beliefs, vision, and values of the church.  However, we need to grow in laying out clear expectations for our members.  Right now, we give them generically, but we don’t give them specifically.  We need to define what the elders expect every member in our church to do and then teach that in the membership class.  Equally important, we need to define how church discipline works with church members so that people know how the elders will hold them accountable as part of the family.  We also need to make sure that we host the membership lab regularly.  In addition, the staff and elders need to work with shepherds and ministry leaders to hold people accountable to their membership covenants.  Reminded by Lawless in this book that while processes and classes are important, assimilation and involved happens most effectively by personal invitation.  Most people who are involved in ministry and growing in their faith are doing so because they were asked by someone.  Just finished the book.  Good stuff – mostly reminders, but also some new ideas. Reading Grafted into The Vine on rethinking biblical church membership. Good notes on the requirement from 1 Corinthians 12 to be in community with other members of the body of Christ.  Good emphasis on the plural “you” in the biblical languages.  Eubanks makes the historical argument that church membership has been the key way to know you are truly a Christian – through making a public confession of faith in Jesus Christ to the members and leaders of the church.  He says that church membership is nothing less than a public profession of faith in Christ.  He then goes on to argue that nothing more that faith in Christ should be required for membership.  I agree with him in theology but not in his practical outworking.  We can clearly articulate that faith in Christ is the only requirement for membership and then also clearly say that those who are converted members are expected to participate in the life of the church.  I think he is merging membership requirements and membership expectations.  These are not the same.  In other words, what is expected of members is not what makes people members – just as what is expected of my children is not what makes them my children.  Overall, a good, short read – reminding me that gospel conversion lies at the foundation of membership.

10:00pm Been on the road a lot today.  Listening to some great podcasts along the way.  Reading has filled up the rest of my time.

Study-Break Day #1

3:30pm In my prayer and Bible-reading time, I continued to be burdened for the need to keep God in the right place in my life.  Our readings in Deuteronomy (in our reading plan) have been awesome the last two weeks.  I love that book.  Moses continues to warn the people of Israel that they will face the temptation of picking up the idols of the nations that surround them.  I feel this same temptation, don’t you?  I am an idolater, taking up the gods of the culture around me uncritically.  The problem is that when I do that nothing in my life works as God intended it to work.  Thank God that Jesus came to set us free from our idolatry and to set our hearts on the Father.  I’m praying for an awe-inspiring encounter with the Holy God this week.

3:42pm I like that Psalm 127 was on our reading plan this week – sons are indeed a heritage from the Lord, children a reward.  like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the sons born in one’s youth.  happy is the man who has filled his quiver with them.  Amen.

3:50pm I have really liked our Bible-reading goal this year – both that it has pushed me to be faithful in my daily time in God’s Word and also that it has created great conversations around the church since people are reading the Bible together.  Our elders have been in a rhythm of doing an outward focused goal one year and an upward focused goal the next year.  Next year we will again focus our eyes on being a people sent on mission with the gospel into the world.  I’m praying this week about what that looks like – how do we equip and encourage each other to be intentionally evangelistic?  Maybe Romans 15:19-20 can be our theme verses for next year – “I have fully proclaimed the good news about the Messiah…My aim is to evangelize where Christ has not been named.”   Powerful.

3:55pm A church on mission must be a church that understands the gospel personally and corporately and a church that is set on fire by the Spirit through faithful prayer.  How do we get the gospel deep so deep in our bones that it naturally comes out in conversation?  How do we create a praying culture that anticipates God-moments every day?  Good questions to ponder.

4:00pm Looking back through my prayer journal from the last year – interesting to see how God has grown me in the last 12 months.  Convicted by commitments that I’ve made repeatedly that I still struggle to follow through on.  Maybe too busy.  Or too stubborn.

4:02pm Started a Word doc to get some book ideas I’ve had in one place.  Always thought about writing a book, but never sure I should.  I love making this list though.  Fun to dream.  And pray.

4:15pm I notice a lot of prayers in my journal over the last year for hurting marriages.  Makes me hopeful because some have been restored but also sad because some have not.  Many have been broken because of pornography and infidelity.  Sigh.  God, help us as a church to strengthen marriages.

4:20pm I’ve been collecting ideas for a while for next year’s goal on mission.  One of the outstanding questions has to do with our leadership development study for next fall.  Do I write a study on missional leadership or use an existing one?  So far, we use DWAP, Bible Doctrine, & Hermeneutics as our three leadership-level studies.  We need one on missionary leadership.  Essential for a movement built on obedience to Acts 1:8.

4:55pm Looks like one of my favorite things to do in 2011 was to write down titles of books I would like to read.  So many books that look interesting.  So little time.

5:05pm 2012 is going to be a year of massive change.  A new plant, a new building campaign, a new baby in our house, new staff members, new people.  I think the last year we experienced this much change was 2006 when we moved twice and had a baby in the same year.  Change can be good if it drives us deeper into Christ and helps us mature.  Or it can drive us crazy if we don’t have a strong foundation.  I tend to be a person of routine.  I like stability.  But I have a risky streak in me, especially if God is leading.  I will follow Him anywhere.

5:20pm Is there a football game tonight?  When do the Rangers start?

5:25pm Found a list of ideas for the missionary leadership study.  I could really get excited to lead that study and grow myself in evangelistic intentionality and effectiveness.

5:30pm I think cancelling cable television in January 2011 may have been the best decision we made all of last year.  Amazing how many patterns we adopt uncritically without thinking.  Who ever told us we had to do that? I’ve been reading the last two hours.  Two books on pornography and purity – one on the porn pandemic in general and one a guide for men to find freedom from pornography.  Both helpful, biblical, and concrete.  I have been sensing the Lord calling me to speak up on this issue more directly in the last several months and ordered these two books to read while on study break.  I have met with too many couples in crisis because of pornography use over the last four years.  Time to go on the offensive on this issue and stop playing defense as the church.  I also just finished a blog post on protecting your family (and yourself) from pornography. Finished The Holiness of God by RC Sproul.  I picked it up after the Pastor Prayer Retreat in January after feeling that my view of God was too low.  Anyone who talks to God and about God regularly can be in danger of becoming flippant or too casual in His presence.  This book has challenged to see God in the fullness of His holiness.  I like Sproul’s chapter on Luther – who encountered the grace of the gospel after almost going insane worrying about the holy wrath of a righteous God.  God is so holy.  If God were fair, we would receive judgment and wrath.  But God has been merciful.  Let us not take it for granted.  We deserve justice.  But Jesus took our justice so that we could receive grace.  The gospel upholds God’s holiness and does not diminish it.  The church today is most likely to present God’s character in light of His love & grace, His plan for our lives (functional & practical).  But we must not forget that God’s holiness of the characteristic which defines all the rest.  God’s love is holy love.  God’s grace is holy grace.  God is holy, holy, holy.

11:00pm  I’m going to bed.  Good night.

Blogging my Study Break

This week is my spring study-break, a time of focused prayer and reading.  A time to not work in the ministry, but on the ministry, a time to not talk about God, but to connect with God.  Usually, I take a week early in the year and another week in the summer to get out of the office, away from the daily demands of ministry, to listen.  I attempt to listen to the voice of other pastors and authors and to the voice of the Lord.  Listening is a spiritual discipline.  I appreciate that the elders ask me to take time each year to listen.  As a pastor, I am usually expected to have something to say.  But saying something of consequence only comes after listening to God and listening to others who have spent time listening to God.

You can see the stack of books I will be working through this week.  I thought it might be fun to blog what I’m learning as I read and pray.  Don’t hold me to everything I write this week – most of it will be thoughts in process, not fully formed.  But that’s what will make it so much fun.  Feel free to leave your thoughts as we go.

The Dangers of Success

Personal and professional success may ultimately be more dangerous to the human soul than trials and temptations.  For if failure in life leads to self-examination and dependance on God, success can lead to personal blind spots and independence from God.  When things are going well, egos can grow and self-confidence can rise.  Think about your own life.  When your finances, relationships, career, and happiness are trending up, do you go to God with thanksgiving for His blessings?  Or do you consider the success your own?

How can we be successful in life (as all of us wish to be) without falling into the spiritual pitfalls that come with success?  The only long-term remedy is humility, which only comes from remembering the greatness of God in comparison to my contributions.  Ultimately, God is the author of every success in your life.  He  gave you the skills and the resources and the relationships to do well in this life.  And in the end, He will be the One we give an account to for how we used His gifts.  The Bible constantly warns us of the danger of forgeting God in the midst of our prosperity.  Both material and spiritual growth can result in our forgetfulness toward God.  And as we forget the Lord, we become boastful in our own ingenuity and resourcefulness.

In the end, God will not share His glory with another.  And so, if you or I continue to walk in the pride of life, taking credit for God’s work in and through our lives, God will humble us.  He must.  Because He is a consuming fire, jealous of our worship and praise, alone worthy of our adoration.  With this long view in mind, how do we stay humble in the midst of success?  A few personal thoughts:

1- We study and meditate on the character of God – specifically His holiness.  While the Bible definitely teaches the nearness of God, it also reminds us of the otherness of God.  He is not like us.  When our view of God is too small, our view of ourselves will be too high, resulting in us taking credit for the work of God.  I think we start with a focused effort to know God in the fullness of His revelation to us.  We talk about ourselves and think about ourselves all the time.  Why not spend some more time thinking about and meditating on the Trinity?

2- We press into God, expressing our dependence on Him, instead of pulling away from God.  Daily, consistent prayer reminds us that God alone gives us breath and life and the ability to succeed.  Success can lead us to pull away from God and walk independently of His Spirit.  This is the most dangerous temptation in the midst of success – that we would forget our need for God.  Without a forceful, intentional strategy to press into God, we will walk in our own strength and take pride in our own efforts.

3- We confess our sin and need for grace.  Nothing will quench the work of the Holy Spirit like impurity and a lack of repentance.  Success can deceive us into thinking that we don’t need God’s grace – that our blessings are a sign that God is giving us what we deserve.  But this is wrong biblically.  Success is a not a sign of what we deserve, but an evidence of the depths of God’s mercy and forgiveness.  It should lead us to draw even closer to the Lord and confess and repent more faithfully.

Listen to Jeremiah in 9:23-24: “This is what the Lord says: the wise man must not boast in his wisdom; the strong man must not boast in his strength; the wealthy man must not boast in his wealth. 24 But the one who boasts should boast in this, that he understands and knows Me— that I am Yahweh, showing faithful love, justice, and righteousness on the earth, for I delight in these things. This is the Lord’s declaration.”

Similarly, listen to Paul in Galatians 6:14: “But as for me, I will never boast about anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. The world has been crucified to me through the cross, and I to the world.”

If you have stopped being amazed in the presence of God, if you have stopped praying faithfully, and if you have stopped confessing and repenting regularly, then your success is drying up your soul.  Those that God uses most are those who combine strong leadership and biblical faithfulness with personal humility and spiritual dependence.  May God grant us the grace to guard our hearts from success.

Clear Vision for a Movement

When I talk to other pastors and do training for church-planters at home and in other countries, I usually start by talking about the importance of a clear biblical vision in the heart and mind of the pastor or movement-leader.  Strategy without clear vision only leads to confusion and misdirection.  Lots of good effort along the wrong path.  Before we decided on the details of strategy, we can’t run too quickly past the all important question – what are we actually trying to accomplish?  Vision breaks down into two questions:

1- What is?  Do I see clearly what is currently going on around me?  Again, this may sound simple, but it is not!  The Bible tells us that we fail to see clearly most of the time – when it comes to ourselves, to God, and to others.  The heart is deceitful, and therefore, we can convince ourselves something is true regardless of the evidence.  Everyone who shepherds other people spiritually know this is true because you run into situations where people are totally blind to the realities right in front of their face.  The same is true for spiritual leaders.  We can deceive ourselves into seeing what we want to see rather than seeing what is.

To gain clear vision for the future, we must gain clarity about the present.  We need God to give us clarity from His Word and His Spirit about the true spiritual condition of our hearts and those around us.  What is the greatest need of people in my community?  What questions are people in my culture asking?  How are people currently suffering and struggling?  What is the connection between people’s felt needs and their deepest needs?  Why are people in my community rejecting the gospel?  Are people in my community hearing a faithful presentation of the gospel?  How is the big-C church doing in my community?  Why are churches struggling in my community?  What are Christians in my community wrestling with?

2- What should be?  Now that I have begun to get a grasp on what is really happening around me, does it bother me?  As I read the Word and experience the life-changing reality of Jesus Christ in my own life, do I sense a growing unease about the state of the world around me?  I should.  That feeling is evidence that our world has experienced the fall and that God is active in putting everything right.  But how should everything change?  Just as I can misread my current environment and personal motives, I can also misapply biblical texts to create the future that I desire rather than work in sync with the Holy Spirit toward the future He desires.

The Bible tells us that God is working to renew what has been destroyed by the fall, and that He is doing this through the gospel of Jesus Christ.  The future the Bible presents and the one that we work toward is the renewal of all things (people, places, and cultures) through the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Therefore, our mission is to proclaim the gospel of Christ to all people so that they can repent, believe, and be transformed – individually and communally.  We need to allow the narrative of the Bible and the commands of Jesus to lead us into the future that God desires – not the one that we desire.

Does the language of your vision capture the tension between what is and what should be according to the Word and say it in such a way that captivates the hearts and minds of those who follow you?  To say it another way, is your vision clear, biblical, and captivating?

Much, much more on A Clear Vision can be found under the church-planting link above.