Search

Changed By Glory

"And we all… beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another." II Cor. 3:18

Tag

Ministry

As Long As It’s Green: a ministry lesson from my sad lawn

Where I live green grass is a prized possession. In fact, green grass, green trees, and the accompanying freshness to the air are rare things. The general lack of color and staleness can drive you to the point to where anything green is welcome.

This was my attitude toward my small lawn last year as summer was in the midst of its fury. Water is expensive, care takes time, but I tried. I went out every day and judicially watered. But as I did this, I noticed that grass wasn’t the only green thing growing. Other greens things were growing, weeds, some even with thorns. And I remember joking to my wife, “As long as it’s green, I’ll take it!”

Fast forward about six months. Portions of my lawn are green. From a distance you get that refreshing glimpse of life on the parched earth. But getting close you realize that I have a problem. There is very little grass. And one day as I was praying and watering my weeds, I was struck with the danger of having this same attitude in ministry, to look at my church or the pioneer field I have been called to and think, “As long as it’s green!”

How did my lawn get to the place of being green but unhealthy? Filled with weeds and thorns?

I) I was looking for the wrong results

I was more concerned with my lawn appearing green, than I was with the health of my grass. Perhaps if I done the patient work of nurturing the health of the grass there would have eventually been little place for the weeds. In my desire to see green I failed to see that the long-term goal was not greenness but the health of the grass.

So also in ministry we fall into the mistake of seeking the green rather than seeking the grass. We are content as long as there are results. The problem is that what we judge as results may not be what they appear from a distance. The seats may be full on Sunday, but is discipleship happening? Churches may be multiplying rapidly, but is conversion unclear? People may be excited, but is their excitement based on any kind of doctrinal depth? People may be caring, but is there a disturbing lack of holiness?

I have seen many pastors and missionaries so desperate for any results that they have essentially redefined what the goal of ministry is. They have veered from a biblical understanding of the gospel, of conversion, of discipleship, of the church – all because they just want some results, some green. Much like I redefined what a healthy lawn looks like, because I just wanted a green patch in a desert place.

The other thing, which relates to ministry, that led to the demise of my lawn was…

II) I wasn’t doing the difficult work of weeding

Out of fear of the bare spots that would show, the brown, parched earth that would be exposed, I left those weeds and continued to nourish them in their growth as weeds. As a result the good work of watering was actually being wasted. I was spending time and money to maintain something that would eventually rob my lawn of its health.

So also in ministry, we can end up encouraging the growth of weeds by failing to slow down and do the painful, patient work of persevering in faithful preaching and discipleship. Sometimes ministry is as much about weed clearing as it is grass growing. As the word of God is faithfully preached, the gospel is clearly heralded, and the hard work of discipleship is maintained, this may lead to many green sprigs proving to be nothing more than weeds. This can be one of the hardest and most heartbreaking aspects of ministry, but it is there and it is real. And we must not allow the pain and the desire for “green” to lead us to jettison what it is that we have been called to do.

The bottom line is that because of my desire for a quick and easy green lawn, I didn’t do the patient, dirty work of weeding and ultimately is was because I was looking for the wrong results. And the end result was something that was green, but unhealthy. The grass was nearly no more.

So what are some ways to avoid this sad result:

  1. Don’t assume that results indicate good practices

One of the biggest lies propagated by missionaries and church planters is that results (whatever that may be defined as) indicate good practices. Just because something is green does not mean it is healthy. So you may have planted 10 churches that have planted 30, which have planted 90. What are you calling a church? What are you calling a member of that church? And how did it come about? One of the greatest tragedies in missions is that the wisdom of God has been jettisoned and the Scriptures have been abused in order to justify the unbiblical means which bring about these “results”. Stick to what God has told you to do without twisting the Scriptures in order to justify your pragmatism.

 

  1. Do the nurturing work of meaningful discipleship

There is no short-cut to a healthy ministry. I have seen ministries that will point out how this generation wants everything now, without even realizing how much that has permeated their approach to ministry. New programs and better music may not be bad things, but they can’t replace the slow and steady work of discipleship. Don’t mistake leadership ability or willingness to lead a Bible study as an indication that someone is ready for either of those things. Know those that you minister to, know whether they are “grass or just green” by spending time with them in the word, calling them to respond to it in loving response to the love of God. 

  1. The hard part: Don’t let what will damage the community remain

1 Corinthians 5 contains in it instructions for the difficult work of what to do when what is green turns out to be a weed. You remove it in the hope that it will return renewed, exhibiting the evidence of spiritual life. Many churches are active and full, but if you put it under the lens of Scripture you will see that there is little evidence of spiritual life. Paul warns that a little yeast effects the entire lump of dough, this is a call to carefully examine our ministries and the supposed fruit they are producing. And it is for love of souls and jealousy for God’s glory that we must not allow people to be deceived into thinking they are something they are not. That means inspecting who is brought into church membership and being willing to remove someone from that membership when their life lacks the evidence of being converted.

  1. Know what fruit (or grass in this case) is supposed to look like

This helps understand and define the last point that was made. We need to understand that a true disciple of Jesus exhibits their genuineness by their confession and life of  “repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ”. I think it is helpful to consider the words used in Romans 10. “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord (acknowledge rebellion and repent) and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead (put all your hope in the cross-work of Christ) you will be saved.” There must be clear sorrow for sin, a desire to be free from it, and evidence in love and gratitude that the person is trusting in the Son of God alone for salvation.

  1. Understand what the objective is and be willing to engage in the long-term, consistent, prayerful labor that it will take to reach that objective

II Corinthians 2:15-17 For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ. 

II Corinthians 4:5 – “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.” 

These are two very helpful texts for understanding our objective. Is the aim to make disciples, as we see in Matthew 28? Yes. To baptize and instruct? Yes. But the foundation of that is this understanding that Paul gives us. We speak Christ. We don’t manipulate, we don’t deviate, we don’t practice cunning. We simply, albeit foolishly, speak Christ. The objective is to make Christ known – beyond that is all in God’s hands. That is going to be one of the biggest things that keeps you from seeking the green above the grass, understanding the bounds of your ability and responsibility.

I should have understood that the objective was not a green lawn, but the sowing and maintaining of the grass. So also in ministry we must understand that our objective is not what only God can do, but what God has given us to do. Understanding that will help us focus, despite the results, on what God has given us to do rather than wasting time and doing damage trying to replicate what only God can do. 

Just because something looks alive doesn’t mean that it is. You have to look at its fruit and its leaves. When someone says their ministry is bearing a lot of fruit maybe they need to ask “what kind? What are we calling fruit? Is it grass or just anything that is green?

But, before I close this post, I must say on the flip side that it could be that your yard is just brown (metaphorically speaking), because there is no care, no urgency – just plain ministerial laziness. Laziness is just as or more dangerous than is pragmatism.

This is an exhortation to faithful attendance to what God has given us to do. It could be that you “lawn” will be brown all your life due to many factors outside of your control. I have this one section of that same sad lawn that just stays dry and brown no matter how much I seed it and water it. And it is in that situation in ministry that understanding your responsibility as a worker in God’s vineyard is so important! You pour out your life like sprigs on the dry ground, you water, you pull up weeds, you water some more, but you can’t control what the soil is like. You can’t give the miracle of life. You can just supply the material and that is all you are called to do. Understanding this is crucial, lest you find yourself longing for anything that is green, smiling and rejoicing in a patch of thriving weeds and thorns.

Advertisements

Christian Ministry & The Death of Uzzah

And when they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah put out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled. And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah, and God struck him down there because of his error, and he died there beside the ark of God. (2 Samuel 6:6-7 ESV)

And you shall put the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark to carry the ark by them. (Exodus 25:14 ESV)

And when Aaron and his sons have finished covering the sanctuary and all the furnishings of the sanctuary, as the camp sets out, after that the sons of Kohath shall come to carry these, but they must not touch the holy things, lest they die. These are the things of the tent of meeting that the sons of Kohath are to carry. (Numbers 4:15 ESV)

There is probably no story in the Bible that I have found harder to wrap my mind around than the story of the death of Uzzah. It is a display of the holiness of God that leaves us stunned and even terrified. Even though it is a story from which we may be tempted to quickly avert out eyes, it may do us good to look intently at this display of the wrath and justice of God, because in it we find important lessons for life and ministry.

The first lesson that I want us to see applies to Christian ministry. The message that sounded loud and clear from Uzzah’s lifeless form was that God’s word stands and any deviation from it, however well-intentioned, is inviting wrath and disaster. From our perspective, and apparently from David’s as well[i], this reaction of the Lord to Uzzah’s attempt to steady the Ark was a little excessive! Doesn’t God see the heart? The answer is that God does see the heart and what he saw beneath all of that good-intention in Uzzah was someone who had a cheap enough view of His holiness to regard his commandments as being open to exception.

When we hear preachers taking liberties with the Gospel many times we will defend or at least excuse them by saying say, “I think their heart is in the right place.” I can appreciate that humility and we certainly need to have grace, while also recognizing with trembling but God doesn’t see it that way. As I have meditated on Uzzah I have trembled. As someone who regularly stands in a pulpit and handles the sacred word of God, I am reminded at how much care I must take and am painfully reminded of the times when with quite good intentions I have been less than careful with God’s word.

Now, I want to recognize that we are under a new covenant now. One where in Christ we have bold access into the holy presence of God[ii], but this entrance into his presence through Christ’s blood does not diminish his holiness, but rather makes it more clear. The cross of Jesus gained us access into God’s presence, his perfect righteousness shields us from the blaze of his glory, but God himself does not change. Our right standing before God does not give us license to take less care with the Word of the Lord, rather the Gospel unfolds with greater clarity the holiness of the One to whom we as Gospel ministers will give an account.

This leads to the second and more positive thing we see in Uzzah’s execution in light of the cross. If the slightest disregard for the glory of God, the smallest deviation from the commandment, incited such wrath, how much more so our daily disobedience and defamation of God? As good-intentioned as Uzzah was, he disobeyed the Lord. He deserved judgment, just as we do. But there was one who did not deserve to be struck down – that was God himself, united to flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. He always brought glory to God and always obeyed -perfectly. Yet, such was God’s love for us that he poured out his judgment on Christ – a judgment much worse that Uzzah’s. If the holiness of God seen in the story of Uzzah is severe, much more severe is the holiness seen at the cross where the sinless Son suffered for us. But if the holiness of God in the execution of Uzzah is terrifying, the holiness of God in the execution of Christ is beautiful, for it shows the depth of love he had for his people, that though we deserved the death of Uzzah, God himself satisfied the demands of his holy justice. Uzzah’s execution highlights the glory of the cross.

Therefore, in Christian ministry we should see in the cross a holiness that is even more severe than that which was seen on the threshing floor at Nacon. And it should leave us trembling as we handle the holy things of God, lest in our good intentions to see fruit or to be “successful”, or to labor well for the Lord, we be found tampering with sacred material. The execution of Uzzah should drive us to our knees and deeper into the Scriptures, taking great care in preaching and teaching, lest we treat the holy Word of God as being open to exception and manipulation.

There is never a good enough reason to tamper with or disregard the Word of the living God.

[i] 2 Samuel 6:8

[ii] Eph. 3:12, Heb 10:19-22

The Novelty of Good Intentions

Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice, (Philippians 1:15-18 ESV)

As time passes I am more and more convinced that God does not need my skills, my eloquence, my cultural insight, and apparently not even my good intentions for his Word to be effective. As I have considered the God in Scripture and his Gospel, it has become apparent to me that what we proclaim, not skillfully spun, but plainly spoken, will always have its intended result. Those men that God has used as his mouthpieces in Scripture certainly were convinced of this – as was the Word-made-flesh himself.

When one carefully considers Paul, he finds someone who I would argue eschewed pragmatism. He had one method – “preach Christ”. Paul’s ministry flowed out of his theology. He knew that where the word was supposed to have its saving effect it would and where it was meant to harden it would. His confidence was not in eloquence or reason – but was in the Spirit working through the word. Even Paul himself, a doctor of the Scriptures, had rejected Christ even though he beheld with blind eyes for years his image in the law and prophets. Nothing was going to cause Paul to see the truth of the Gospel and embrace it except for a work of the Holy Spirit. And so it was.

This simple confidence that Paul had in the message which he proclaimed can be seen with shocking clarity in Philippians 1:15-18. Paul applauded the proclamation of the Gospel even by those that did it with wrong motives. He wasn’t begrudgingly thankful that the word was getting out, but he rejoiced! Why? Because he was completely confident that the power of the message was found in its source and not in its delivery. Such was Paul’s confidence in the simple proclamation of the Gospel that it did not matter to him who proclaimed it or why they did, as long as it was proclaimed. For he knew that it is the word falling on deaf ears and dead hearts that the Spirit of God uses to awaken sinners to life – if he so pleases.

The encouragement here is plentiful:

First it should encourage us as Christians – and especially as pastors – to be humbled, recognizing that the power for effective ministry does not rest in us but in the message we proclaim, if in fact we proclaim the Gospel that Paul preached.

Second, we should also rejoice when the Gospel is preached, even if the personality of the one preaching it is abrasive or in some way obnoxious. We should rejoice that the fragrance of Christ is spread, even if it is from a crude vessel. There are preachers I can barely stand to listen to, but they proclaim the Gospel and by it many are saved. I should rejoice.

Third, abandon hope in pragmatism and cultural intelligence. Focus instead on the purity of the message you proclaim. For if God does not even need your good intentions to exalt Christ and save sinners, he certainly doesn’t need your good ideas, however well-intentioned they may be.

Know the message of the Gospel. And desire that it be preached. More than you desire fruit or freedom or approval, desire that the Gospel be preached.

 

 

Christian Ministry & The Deadness of Sarah’s Womb

The LORD said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years. The way of women had ceased to be with Sarah. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?” The LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, about this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son.” (Genesis 18:10-14 ESV)

He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the deadness of Sarah’s womb. No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. (Romans 4:19-21 ESV)

For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise…. So brothers, we are not children of the slave, but of the free woman. (Galatians 4:22-23,31 ESV)

        Against all odds the child of promise, Isaac, was born to Abraham and Sarah. The Scriptures make it clear that Sarah’s pregnancy was not a medical anomaly, but a miracle. Sarah had long ceased being “in the way of women”. In fact, it was so long since then that there was no natural hope of child bearing. Therefore, when God kept his promises he got all of the credit. It was the working of God alone which brought this baby about. This miracle was such that Paul even refers to the child of promise as being born “according to the Spirit”.

The way Isaac was born, through the promise and by the Spirit, is exactly the same way that every child of promise is born. We see in Isaac’s generation a picture of the way God works in bringing into life every child of promise. There is only deadness and hopelessness in our sin, but the sure decrees of God, his promises, through the agency of the Spirit bring about the impossible, the birth of children of promise by faith in Jesus Christ.

In John 6:63, Jesus said, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all.” In the flesh, in a way reasonable to man, Abraham and Sarah at first attempted to do what only the Spirit can do – Abraham took a bond woman, Hagar, as a wife and had a son with her, Ishmael. They did not believe in the immutability of God’s promises and the power of his working, but allowed their mind to follow the patterns of the world – going after what made sense to them. They felt that because God had not kept his promise yet that perhaps it was because they needed to do their part. They allowed themselves to be duped by a theology of cooperation rather than of trust.

We also need to realize that if we are children of promise, the offspring of Abraham by faith, we were born out of deadness exclusively as a result of the unchanging promises of God being worked out by the power of the Spirit. God declared that you would be born into the family of freedom and it was so. “It is the Spirit who gives life, the flesh is no help at all.” Abraham and Sarah found this to be true after the incident with Hagar. The promise of God was sufficient. The deadness of Sarah’s womb highlighted the necessity of a miracle, not 90% plus 10% man, but 100% the working of God – doing the impossible through human vessels.

As a pastor I can’t help but see how this connects to the way we do ministry. So often we see the promises of God and we claim to believe them, but we want a shortcut. Nothing seems to be happening so rather than trusting and pursuing faithful rest, we find a Hagar, whether it be some pragmatic construct, method, or adaptation of God’s message. We scheme, in a well-meaning fashion, to help God fulfill his promises. We assume because nothing has happened yet, because no children have “been born” that maybe we understood the promise wrong, maybe our methods need tweaking. As a result of this well-intentioned tampering we may see results in our ministry, we may seem to have success and feel that God is indeed working, but the fruit of our effort is actually a bunch of Ishmael’s running around – the results of us using our own means to reach God’s promised end.

God is calling us in ministry to simple trust. To speak of that which we have seen and heard in the Gospel. God brings children of promise into being through the means of his Word being spoken. We are to proclaim it. Clearly and consistently. That may seem weak. Foolish. Like the thought of two elderly people having a baby. But this is what he has called us to. The years may roll and we may see little results, if any, yet we must not resort to using a Hagar, but must trust in God’s promise and power, knowing that from the deadness of Sarah’s womb, God brings forth children of promise.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑