IVP - Online Pulpit - Encouragement Archives

September 17, 2012

Time Will Tell

by Eddie Gibbs

Looking back over fifty years of ministry provides a perspective that eluded me when in the turmoil of daily ministry demands. Some projects we thought highly significant for the future vitality and direction of the church outlived their shelf life to leave little if any lasting impression. Perhaps they were of value at the time, but with a changing spiritual climate and the cultural marginalizing of the church the day came when they had to be laid aside without regrets.

On the other hand, other projects that were puny in comparison and we thought were making little impact have in the long run assumed strategic importance. Perhaps that’s what Jesus had in mind when he described the kingdom of God as a mustard seed. Never underestimate small beginnings. The Journey of Ministry is indeed one of surprises and has to be traveled with a lifelong commitment. We cannot chart the course beforehand, and there are many twists and turns that we were not able to anticipate. That is what it means to walk by faith.

This is not to cast doubts on the vision of those leaders who had a clear and unswerving sense of direction throughout their ministry. They were privileged to see the end from the beginning, which provided them with both focus and resilience. If such describes your own journeying experience, then I rejoice with you. However, I have become convinced as I have reflected not only on my own past experience but also on the ministry journey of other church and mission leaders that this clear and specific sense of call toward a defined goal is the exception rather than the rule.

The reasons for these contrasting experiences are many. Some are given a specific sense of direction and a clear destination to enable them to survive the many obstacles that lay along the journey. For those of us who have stumbled along with the Lord surprising us with each new challenge, it has been a case of learning to trust him at each stage. If the Lord had revealed the whole course of the journey, we might have recoiled in horror or fright. We could never envision ourselves in any of those future scenarios. We felt so utterly inadequate. In response the Lord has graciously dealt with us at each stage, giving us the opportunity to learn the lessons and gain the necessary experience to function in that role, until we were ready for the next challenge.

In my own experience, I have always felt ill-prepared for that next stage, whether it is an overseas missionary assignment, an administrative and vision-casting role in a major Christian organization, a seminary professor or a leadership trainer in other parts of the world. Christian discipleship entails a lifelong apprenticeship. Any worthwhile accomplishment is due entirely to the grace of God, which includes both his provision and his patience.

GibbsOP.jpgEddie Gibbs is senior professor in the School of Intercultural Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, and a senior adviser to the Brehm Center for Worship, Theology and the Arts. His new book, The Journey of Ministry, is available now from InterVarsity Press as part of the launch of IVP Praxis.

Posted by Nate Baker-Lutz at 12:06 PM

May 1, 2010

Telling the Truth

Pastors must be the unhappiest collection of people I’ve ever met. At least that is the feeling I came away with from a recent gathering of dedicated servants. Pastors from all over the country poured into a sun soaked California location to find encouragement and rest from their hectic schedules—taking time to reconnect with old friends, make new connections or just recline by the pool. And when pastors get together, away from their parishioners, they can actually tell the truth about their feelings toward ministry. We are overworked, underpaid, overfed and underappreciated—each of us struggling to balance our low self-esteem and our messiah complex. Most of us hold to the idea that being a pastor is not a job, it’s a calling—and all to often, a call to suffer. This calling defines us and can quickly dominate our lives and subvert all other responsibilities.

It really isn’t all that bad, is it? Pastoral burnout is on the rise (but experts have been telling us that for forty years), and infidelity and sexual addiction are no longer rare occurrences. The average tenure for a pastor is about eighteen months (depending on the denomination), and now those pastors who have survived burnout and parishioner abuse struggle to “compete” with the latest multisite McChurch now residing in the junior high gymnasium.

These are but a few tidbits I picked up at the latest gathering of my brothers and sisters proclaiming the good news, but this isn’t what scares me most. A few weeks ago I was talking with some of our youth about colleges and possible career choices, and I asked if any of the students were contemplating a call to ministry. (There’s that word call again.) No one answered. They just stared at me as if I had asked them to give up the password to their Facebook account. Not only were none of the students considering ministry, but they were also outraged that I had the audacity to even suggest it. When I asked them why, each of them gave me the same answers about the low pay, high stress, low prestige of ministry. In my fairly affluent community, low pay ranked as the first reason (which is a topic for another day).

These students did not attend a ministerial gathering and hear pastors being honest about church life. They had absorbed this attitude from my preaching, teaching and interaction. I won’t take full credit for their feelings—there are other members of the staff to blame too. I would wager that your students feel the same (or at least have similar leanings).

I absolutely understand the need to have opportunities to vent about our frustrations—my wife understands that need too. But we must also celebrate the joy that comes from serving our Lord and his church—from holding a newborn to celebrating the resurrection at a dear friend’s funeral. We must remember the smiles we bring when we visit those shut-ins who rarely see anyone or when holding our friend’s hand while she awaits the results of a biopsy. We have the best job in the world; we get paid to help make our friends’ lives better. We get paid to love people.

I often complain about my job, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything—I hope the kids in my youth group read this. (I hope yours do too.)

“Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task” (1 Timothy 3:1).

Posted by Lee Cook at 9:01 AM

March 1, 2010

Our Journey Home

Recently I had the opportunity to travel to Minnesota to attend my father’s eightieth birthday party. Our entire family could not go, so I took my son Jesse. Jesse is one of the most enjoyable children you could ever meet. Though he is now fourteen, everything is just as exciting for him as if he were a young child. Perhaps part of that is due to his having an extra twenty-first chromosome, commonly called Down syndrome.

Jesse had never flown in a plane before, and as the time for our adventure drew closer, so did his excitement and anxiety. Because he does not bury his feelings, Jesse’s anticipation was obvious as he counted down the days until our trip. Saturday morning came very early, but he was up without a murmur. He got dressed and grabbed his backpack, which had been packed and repacked several times the day before. Mom drove us to the airport, and after a big hug and kiss, we were off. Boarding passes in hand, we made it through the complicated security check, Jesse flirting with the security guard all the while. They called our flight, and down the long, cold tunnel we went until we ended up in row 10, seats A and B, on flight 1291.

Jesse chose the window seat, but immediately shut the blind on the window. He said he was too scared to look out, but every once in a while he would open the shutter just a bit, peek out and pronounce that we were almost there. In reality we had not yet left the runway. The take-off made him quite anxious and he grabbed my hand, but once in the air he lifted the shutter and announced that we were almost at Grandpa’s house. The flight was about an hour long, and Jesse enjoyed every minute of it, including the complimentary soda and pretzels and, of course, flirting with the flight attendant.

Landing in Minneapolis went fine, except for the turbulence we encountered just before touching down. With the first bump of the plane Jesse wrapped his arms around me and just about took my head off, but when the plane landed he was fine and proclaimed that he had never really been scared. He opened the shutter and announced that we were just about there.

As we continued on our journey in a rental car, Jesse was still convinced that we were just about there, even after an hour of traveling on cold, snowy roads. Finally we drove into the driveway. Jesse jumped out of the car and through the open door. There was Grandpa, waiting with his arms open wide. With a jump and a hug that just about toppled Grandpa, Jesse was home and in the arms of someone who loved him dearly.

This trip was very similar to the last journey that any of us will take. It will be a new journey for us, and we will experience at the same time both great excitement and much anxiety. We know however, that we will be met by the loving arms of our Father.

We probably won’t get to heaven in an airplane or a rental car—God uses different means of transportation. For some it may be cancer; for others, pulmonary disease. Still others will arrive quickly by heart failure. These are all vehicles that most have not traveled in before, but the destination is the same, the loving arms of our Father.

So take heart, we are all on a journey to God. Despite how we get there, may we still be filled with wonderful excitement as we lift the shutter of life and find out that we are almost home.

Posted by Gerry Koning at 10:26 AM

January 1, 2010

The Church in Exile

We live in a spiritual society. Bookstore shelves are lined with books on God, angels, the afterlife and spiritual self-help from every conceivable perspective. The evidence of a growing spiritual hunger is overwhelming, but as the sales of books on spirituality increases, attendance in churches is declining. Many Americans now profess to be “spiritual but not religious”—which is not a rejection of God altogether but a rejection of the God manifested by institutional church. It is the God revealed in the lives of Christians that is so distasteful to those seeking spiritual truth. The American church has entered a cultural, moral and intellectual exile. The outside world rejects the church and its teachings because it believes the church has nothing to offer.

Our exile is analogous to Israel’s experience of exile in the fifth century B.C. God had judged Israel because of their idolatry, injustice and ritualism—in short, they had failed to love God with all their hearts and their neighbors as themselves. By the time of Nehemiah the people of God had been living in exile for a hundred years, Jerusalem lay in ruin and the Jews bore the communal weight of guilt and shame. Israel had become a laughing stock, the object of guilt and shame. Abraham’s children, who were to be a blessing to the entire world, were scattered throughout the Persian Empire, and Nehemiah understood this exile as the consequences of Israel’s sin (Neh 1:4-11).

Christians have been exiled from the cultural, moral and intellectual center of our society. With every article detailing the moral failure of a Christian leader, new accounts of priestly impropriety, lawsuits over church property or Christians amassing fortunes in the midst of poverty, we grow increasingly irrelevant. This irrelevance is not the result of the church’s inability to keep up with contemporary musical tastes or its insistence on traditional theology. Our exile is the consequence of our failure to live out our vocation: making disciples. This vocation is more than convincing people to pray the sinner’s prayer or apply for church membership; it is the process by which we help people discover the new life made available in God’s kingdom.

Disciples of Christ are not defined primarily by what they believe but by who they are—or perhaps more correctly, whose they are. But when the outside world looks at the church, they do not see people living changed lives marked by love and holiness. They see a group of people living defeated lives of compromise, desperately trying to convince the world they have all the answers. We must accept that the only proof for the truth of the resurrection is a life changed by the grace of God.

Nehemiah was called to unite God’s people and rebuild Jerusalem’s walls, fulfilling God’s promise of restoration. So how do we begin “rebuilding the walls” of integrity and trust? It would be tempting to begin by rethinking how we structure our churches—casting a new vision for what a community of believers should be, but Nehemiah knew that the first step is repentance (Neh 1:4-12). We must confess our sin, not just our private sins but also our corporate sin. The sin of the one is the sin of all—we learn that lesson all too clearly from Achan and his family (Josh 7). This is a slap in the face of Western individuality, but it is absolutely crucial for a genuine understanding of community.

Of course, our job doesn’t end with confession; it is only the first step. We must prepare ourselves for the long journey ahead. So grab your hammer. We’ve got work to do.

Posted by Lee Cook at 9:02 AM

October 1, 2009

Deep Peace

Something that has become very precious to me as I get older in the Lord is peace. I guard and fight for peace at all costs. This peace I cherish doesn’t mean that I don’t have conflicts with people—either in the world or in the church. It doesn’t mean I don’t have upsets, trials or temptations. These things are part of living in the world. However, God wants me to have peace in the midst of the wear and tear of life. It is actually possible to experience it, but we have to work at it every day.

A key to maintaining the peace of God is to be in the Word of God. That may seem like an odd thing to say to pastors. The Bible is the main “tool” of our trade. But sometimes we are so busy going to the Word for answers to others’ needs and that we are neglecting our own need for it. We can only hope to maintain our personal peace and confidence in our walk with God if we are meeting him in his Word every day.

How many times have you counseled someone with the promise:

Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God, and the peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6, 7)

Or:

My peace I give you. My peace I leave with you. Not as the world gives give I unto you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. (John 14:27)

Are you fighting for that peace for your own soul? I learned an important lesson about peace from a dear soul friend. She said, “I will not let anything rob me of my peace. I make deliberate choices that preserve my peace.” If you are too busy or are taking on too much or have said yes to a ministry or activity that is not God’s will for you, you will notice that your peace is gone. It might be an unconfessed sin that is stealing your peace. It might be fear.

Is the “peace that passes all understanding” characteristic of your life? If it isn’t, don’t keep rushing headlong into your day without stopping and figuring out what the enemy of your peace is. And then take care of it. Pray about it, ask a soul friend to pray about it with you. This life is too short to live a minute without God’s peace. Peace is too precious to lose for any reason.

Today I read a Celtic prayer by Fiona Macleod that blessed me, and I have been rejoicing in it all day long. Through it God reminds me that I am surrounded by his peace all the time, if I will just listen to it and let it sink in. I pass the blessing on to you:

Deep peace of the running wave to you

Deep peace of the flowing air to you

Deep peace of the quiet earth to you

Deep peace of the shining stars to you

Deep peace of the Son of peace to you

“Let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts” (Colossians 3:15).

Posted by Joan Tyvoll at 10:11 AM

August 1, 2009

The Mouth of the Lord

One foggy morning, when my parents were visiting my family, we decided to go out for breakfast. We found a nice large booth so six of us could sit together. My thirteen-year-old son, who was with us, loves to go out to eat, but as much as he loves to eat at a restaurant, he loves to meet new people. You see Jesse has Down Syndrome, and for some reason he loves to go up to strangers (the stranger the better) to introduce himself and shake hands.

Since it was still early on a foggy morning, I thought we would be safe in the largely empty Perkins Restaurant. Just in case, I sat with my arm around Jesse for most of the breakfast. We had a great conversation spiced by maple syrup and hot coffee.

As we ate, a couple of gentlemen sat down in the booth across from us. These well-dressed businessmen took out their Palm Pilots and notepads and conversed about figures and budgets. I could tell that Jesse wanted to greet them, so I tightened my grip around his shoulder. But when we got up to put our coats on, he escaped my grasp and went immediately to the larger of the two men. He greeted him and shook his hand. The surprised man was very cordial and greeted Jesse back, and even gave him his name. Jesse seized on the man’s greeting and then went in for a hug, which did not upset the man at all. He seemed to enjoy the break in his meeting and the affection of a young boy.

But Jesse was not finished with him or his unconventional greeting. Sensing a real openness in the gentleman, Jesse went for it all. He got the man in a headlock and gave him a noogy (vigorously rubbing the man’s hair with his knuckles). I quickly tried to intervene, but I was too late. All I could do was try to tear Jesse away from the man’s head and begin to apologize for my son’s behavior.

I got Jesse away and put my hands on both sides of his face, looked him right in the eyes and told him that this man did not deserve to have a noogy given to him. But then to my astonishment, the man immediately responded that indeed he did deserve a noogy this morning. He said that when he left the house that morning he did not treat his wife very kindly and actually deserved more than a noogy. He then went on to say, “Sometimes God speaks to us loudly through a burning bush, and at others times though a young child.”

Well, I was speechless and simply thanked the man for being so understanding. He in turn thanked me for my son and the clear message he brought to him from the Lord.

The Lord also brought me a clear message that morning. He can speak through whomever he wishes. I had to repent of wanting to cuff God’s messenger (Jesse) upside the head.

Maybe we need to quit pretending to know whom God will use to be his voice and allow him to surprise us as he speaks through some unlikely people.

Posted by Gerry Koning at 10:27 AM

April 1, 2009

"Oh, Buzzard Skeet!"

I had expected disappointment and sadness when I announced my resignation, but as the parishioners processed the news and reacted in their own unique ways, my heart quaked. “Buzzard Skeet!” was as close to profanity as one gentle soul could come when expressing her dismay at the news that I was leaving. “You are breaking my heart, you know” were the words of one of my octogenarians. I had been her pastor and friend for nine years. I was breaking her heart, and it was hard to do. But it was time for me to leave.

I came to the church when they were a small group of lonely and hurting people. The church had been declining for many years, and they knew that unless God did a miracle, they would have to close their doors.

God gave me the gift of ministering to this dear church family for nine years. Those years brought healing to them as I loved them and reminded them that God had not forgotten them. The church began to grow and once again become a viable part of the life of that small rural community. I started a youth group with the five teens in the church. When I left, the youth group had grown to an average attendance of 65-70 teens every week. Scores of teens came to Christ through that ministry.

“How can you leave?” I was asked. Good question. How do we know when it’s time to move on? Many times, the motive and reason is clear: a problem of one kind or another precipitates the move. But how do you know it is time to leave a successful ministry?

Kingdom Heart

As pastors, we need to cultivate “kingdom hearts.” A pastor with a kingdom mentality knows that God’s heart is for every church to grow and to be a light to their communities. With that as our number one priority, we make decisions that are best for the church universal and the local church we have been given charge of.

A kingdom pastor asks God for his vision for a particular church. God allows pastors to tap into the heart and breath of his body, the church. A pastor asks, What is the calling of this church? And, What is its potential in this community? The answers to those questions give pastors a sense of the path the church should take.

Kingdom pastor: Do you have the calling to lead your church in that path? Do you have the gifts the church needs to carry it to its full potential?

Two Keys

As I pastored my church, God stretched me. I did more than I ever thought I could. But I also knew my limitations. I knew that the church was at a place that required different gifts than what I could give them. I made the decision to leave based on the best interests of the church.

I also made the decision based on what was best for me. That is the next key in knowing when to leave: Know yourself. What are your gifts? What are your dreams? Does your current pastorate fit those things?

We all have times of discontent. The proverbial “greener grass on the other side of the fence” pulls at all of us at times. God is, however, at the inside of your longings and dreams. He is more interested in making you all that you can be than in keeping you in your comfortable pastorate with no challenges and vision.

Don’t be afraid to let God speak to you concerning a move. Being a pastor takes great faith at any time. Being willing to set out on an unknown adventure sometimes takes more faith than staying on familiar ground.

Posted by Joan Tyvoll at 10:20 AM

October 1, 2007

When Opportunity Knocks - Don't Knock It!

Recently, while teaching the book of Acts to a group of adults, I learned something. We were noting how the early Christians took every opportunity to proclaim Christ. Every circumstance was seized as a moment to talk about Jesus. We decided to take up this challenge. Little did I realize how much I needed it! It’s easy to get so caught up in the management of the church that we miss its real purpose. Suddenly I was seeing interruptions and annoyances as opportunities.

An Interruption

It was 5:30 p.m., and I had been on the job since 7:30 a.m. (without a lunch break). As I was going to my car in the church parking lot, a young man approached me. He was looking for someone to baptize his baby. Obviously this young man knew nothing about faith or baptism. And I just wanted to go home. Suddenly, I remembered I had asked God to help me reach out to the Hispanic parents in the neighborhood of my new church. Here stood a young Hispanic parent, and I almost didn’t recognize the opportunity. I told Jimmy I would love to help him, but that baptism, like surgery, is serious business. His request was a bit like asking a doctor in a hospital parking lot to operate on his little girl! I gave him my number and asked him to call me for an appointment.

The next week, two other young Hispanic parents came to my office to ask about baptism. (They didn’t even know what kind of church they were in.) My businesslike response could have been, “You don’t understand; there are many requirements before a baby can be baptized. You’ll have to … blah, blah, blah” (the list could have gone on forever). Thank God that the Spirit interrupted me and allowed me to see an opportunity. The result: a discussion group with several young Hispanic parents is going on in our church. They are hearing the gospel for the first time!

An Annoyance

A Syrian man walked into our church and had the audacity to ask for a letter stating that he was a member. (He had attended our church a couple of times several months earlier.) Obviously, this man didn’t know how Presbyterians do things (or how many pages of the Book of Order were involved in such an endeavor!) Eventually I discovered that he was seeking political asylum. It annoyed me that this man was using faith and our church for his own political ends.

But suddenly, I remembered my calling—to preach the good news to every creature. Here was a creature, an annoying one, but no less a creature. I didn’t write the letter he requested; instead I invited him to come back to talk about it. He came back twice. The second time, his desire became so clear to me I almost laughed out loud: He wanted a letter saying he had converted from Islam to Christianity. I was ready to argue with him about the ethics of writing such a letter when I realized he needed to hear the gospel! So I opened up the Scriptures and explained the good news to him. I prayed for his salvation and invited him to come back again.

Opportunity Knocks

This is what the church was about in Acts. This is what the church is to be about today—taking every opportunity to boldly proclaim the good news of the gospel.

Thank God that his Word can even get through to pastors!

Posted by Candie Blankman at 8:53 AM

January 1, 2007

Unobstructed Hearts

In the middle of making the most of my high school years (dating, playing basketball, pulling practical jokes on teachers, etc.), I was regularly asked by adults what I was going to be when I grew up. The interesting thing about this is that the inquisitors already had an idea of what I should become. “Don’t you want to be a preacher like your grandfather?” or “Wouldn’t you really enjoy being a teacher like your father?” they would probe, making more of a statement than asking a question. I would stammer some response, hoping they would be satisfied. Then a friend gave me a great idea. The next time I was asked about my future, I boldly stated that I was going to be a pseudo-intellectual. Well, the people in the little rural town where I grew up were quite impressed and would ask if I had to go to school a long time to become one. I assured them that I did. But alas, the joke was on me—I graduated from seminary and was ordained into the ministry.

Since then I have found there are far too many expectations placed on pastors. We busy ourselves living up to other people’s ideals. We often are unsure of how long we will be at a particular church, and therefore we are hesitant to build deep relationships with our parishioners. Pastors are expected to be the moral example for the congregation; consequently we dare not speak of our own sins and shortcomings. We often feel that we must have answers to all deep theological questions, so we are afraid to show our theological shortcomings.

Unfortunately for pastors, it takes a great deal of energy to maintain a false image and plaster the cracks in our façade. I have done this for far too long. I have lost countless hours of sleep, and my mind has been preoccupied with the finer points of damage control instead of simply saying, “Hey, I’m stumped! I don’t know what to say or do. So Lord, would you please take my heart and the meager gifts I have and use me as your servant.”

Chipping away the façade of our hearts may be the single most important thing we can do to improve our ministry. My two disabled children have taught this important truth to me. They have no pretense or finely crafted images to maintain. They have pure hearts that are built for relationships. Though it might not be easy to communicate with them verbally, the language of love they speak is profoundly deep. Weak in flesh, they are strong in heart. Unlike many pastors, their hearts have not been encumbered with the heavy armor of a “shining knight” syndrome. Their strength is in an unobstructed heart that is available for relating to and loving people.

These beautiful children, who when they were born caused me deep grief, now are a source of inspiration and strength. They are not impressed that their daddy is a pastor and speaker. They are unmoved by my education and degrees. All that they are looking for from me is an accessible heart. And you know, this is really what my congregation wants as well. Somehow I think this is just what Paul had in mind when he said, “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Posted by Gerry Koning at 10:29 AM

October 15, 2006

Fall Reminders for Ministry

Things we now applaud, we later lament.

The beautiful autumn leaves never cease to amaze me. For more than forty years I have witnessed the fall colors, and each year they cause me to stop and stare, to breathe more deeply, to wonder at the creativity of God. Yet … a few days later and I am mumbling and murmuring about all those leaves on the ground. (Not as much as my husband, though. He already has had the rake out two different times for several hours at a time.) Appreciation of the fall colors soon turns to the dismay of raking leaves. And that’s not all. In a couple of months I will be looking with disgust at those same trees. Their gangly, gnarled branches exposed to the world, dark and dormant, look dead. Will they ever come to life again? In the midst of winter, I have my doubts.

So too it is with our life of faith. We sing and rejoice because of the colors God puts in our lives—our children, our health, our home, our church family. Yet these same things often are the source of dismay. Our children disappoint us. Our health deteriorates and even threatens to undo us. Our homes become burdens too difficult to bear. Our church family, like all families, can be gangly and gnarled, feeling dark and lifeless.

Creation’s changing seasons teach us about the seasons of life. God is faithful in both. Sometimes when I have been too busy to notice (my head is “buried” in ministry), I am surprised when I see leaves on a tree that was dead only yesterday. Utterly amazing, those dormant, dead-looking trees slowly but surely begin to sprout new, springtime buds. Dead trees do come to life—every year! No matter how long and cold the winter, spring brings new life. Greenery and flowers burst forth everywhere; the birds sing of their return. God is faithful in nature and life.

The difficult times we face, whether from circumstances beyond our control or the darkness of our own hearts, do not have to last forever. God is able to breath new life into us just as he breathes new life into nature. John 15 uses this analogy: the Father is the vinegrower, Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches. The Father tends our lives, making sure we are connected to and nurtured by Christ. If we abide in Christ we will bear fruit—spring will come. John says that apart from Christ we can do nothing—nothing that will survive the seasons of life. Through regular worship, Scripture study, fellowship and giving of our time and talents in service, we are pruned and fed so that spring will always come.

Enjoy the colors. Rake the leaves. Meditate on John 15:1-11. God is faithful. What we applaud and lament, we will applaud again!

Posted by Candie Blankman at 8:59 AM

May 15, 2006

The Preacher's Bookshelf

With Pentecost Sunday approaching, here’s a helpful book dealing with the power of prayer and the movement of God’s Holy Spirit among his people.

Few books have influenced me with a vision for ministry as has Jim Cymbala’s Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997). In it, Cymbala chronicles the growth and ministry of the Brooklyn Tabernacle. Twenty-five years ago, the Tabernacle could barely draw twenty people to a Sunday service. Today it is six thousand strong, made up of former prostitutes, pimps, drug addicts and homeless people—along with doctors, lawyers, and professional people. The book’s flyleaf calls the miracle of Brooklyn Tabernacle “a testament of what God can do when men and women begin to pour out their hearts to God.” It continues with this admonition: “Don’t look in this book for faddish techniques—you won’t find them. And while the Tabernacle today has an interracial membership and a world-renowned choir, don’t look for an emphasis on cross-culturalism, numbers, or well-orchestrated worship music. Instead, look for what God can do when a handful of people humble themselves and take the Gospel seriously. When believers turn to their last and only recourse—their knees—and discover there the life-changing reality of the Holy Spirit.”

From his recalling the cracking of a pew, which dumped five people onto the floor, to the overwhelming return of his prodigal daughter, Jim Cymbala shares a testimony of God’s power still to move in miraculous ways. Cymbala writes with a humble heart, desperately seeking God: “I discovered an astonishing truth: God is attracted to weakness. He can’t resist those who humbly and honestly admit how desperately they need him.”

An evangelist once said: “You can tell how popular a church is by who comes on Sunday morning. You can tell how popular the pastor or evangelist is by who comes on Sunday night. But you can tell how popular Jesus is by who comes when the church is called to prayer.” Which one of us could not use a more effective prayer ministry in our churches? I firmly believe that if our people would bathe us and our sermon preparation in prayer, our preaching would become more powerful than any of us would dare to imagine.

Based on personal experience, Jim Cymbala said, “Satan’s main strategy with God’s people has always been to whisper, ‘Don’t call, don’t ask, don’t depend on God to do great things. You’ll get along fine if you just rely on your own cleverness and energy.’ The truth of the matter is that the devil is not terribly frightened of our human efforts and credentials. But he knows his kingdom will be damaged when we lift our hearts to God. Let’s not divert attention away from the weak prayer life of our own churches. In Acts 4, when the apostles were unjustly arrested, imprisoned, and threatened, they didn’t call for a protest, they didn’t reach for some political leverage. Instead, they headed to a prayer meeting. Soon the place was vibrating with the power of the Holy Spirit (vv. 23-31).”

Cymbala’s strong indictment of modern church life hits home too clearly: “If our people don’t have an appetite for God, what does it matter how many are attending the services? How would that impress God? In the face of a world ignoring Christ’s offer of salvation, we can either humble ourselves before God and return to his basics … or we can go on dancing with ourselves. The potential to see local churches explode with the life of God rests in the balance.”

Satan laughs when he can get churches to spend their valuable energy focusing on trivial pursuits—issues that have no eternal significance whatsoever. When you find yourself getting worked up over some issue in church, ask yourself, “Is this an issue that Jesus would spend the time I’m spending on it?” In our preaching and ministry, let’s be able to look back and say, “We focused our energy where God focused His energy.”

It’s my prayer that God blows fresh wind and fresh fire on your preaching. As we approach Pentecost in 1998, may God’s mission become our passion and God’s passion become our mission.

Posted by Craig Loscalzo at 10:59 AM

February 1, 2006

Come, Lord Jesus!

We have been talking about what it means to be a kingdom church. I hope that wherever you are, whenever you are surrounded by church people, issues of the kingdom and kingdom language roll off your tongues as naturally as you know your name. However, as we look at kingdom issues this morning, I have some good news and some bad news. In case you hadn’t heard, Georgia beat Kentucky yesterday. Now, that is the bad news. The good news is we won’t remember that in eternity; Jesus is coming soon!

The good news is, there are things more important than football games; there are things more important than basketball games; and there are things more important than the list of things you brought with you this morning that you thought were important. Jesus is coming soon!

Get Excited About Waiting

In December 1970, I arrived back in the United States after being stationed in Thailand for a year with the US Air Force. Upon arriving home, I began the process of applying for Aunchalee’s visa so she could enter the country and we could be married sometime later in December. And I remember waiting. I arrived on December 10th. And then it seemed like the calendar stood still—like time was standing still. Christmas came and went, and still the paperwork had not cleared immigration. Then January 1st of 1971 came and went, and still we had no approval. It felt like months and months had passed since I returned home, but it had really only been about three weeks. Finally, on the 5th of January, we were told that Aunchalee’s visa had been approved. All she had to do was go to the American Embassy in Bangkok and collect the visa, which she did. On January 10th she called and said, “I’ve got the visa and my plane reservations lined up. I’ll arrive January 14th.”

Well, I can’t tell you how elated I was. I became as excited as a child at Christmas. On the day of her arrival, a cold January morning, my parents and I drove to the Philadelphia International Airport. I just couldn’t wait to see Aunchalee. There was such unbelievable anticipation in knowing that she had already flown across the Pacific, was already on her way in from Los Angeles, and was ready to land in Philadelphia. The expectation and everything we had done to get ready for that moment had almost been fulfilled.

The plane rolled up to the terminal and parked on the tarmac. The ground crew pushed the stairs into place. In just a few minutes, I saw Aunchalee walk down the stairway and make her way to the gate. There she came. It was just like in the movies—you know, Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Casa Blanca and all that. The wait had been so unbelievably anxiety-provoking, but with her arrival, the anxiety was gone. She was there; the waiting was over.

That’s how we should experience these moments of anticipation as we wait for Jesus to return. Now the interesting thing was, it wasn’t as though it was an unbelievable surprise—Aunchalee’s arrival. Aunchalee and I had talked frequently on the phone. (The phone bill provided ample evidence of that!) She told me, “I’ll be arriving on January 14th.” I knew it, and I believed it. What she meant was, “It’s time for you to get ready for me to arrive on the 14th. Don’t let this be one of those surprises. When I get there, you’d better be waiting for me.” Now, of course, Aunchalee would never say it that way. But, that’s certainly what she meant.

There should be a sense of anticipation that you and I and the church should experience. Yet, somehow we forget that the in-between time—the time between when Jesus left us here to be the church and when he will return to claim the church—is coming to a close. We don’t need to get into all the millennial hype that’s already floating around about the year 2000. And, we are not going to try to set dates. We don’t have to do that. We just have to remember what Jesus, the Lord, said in Revelation 22: “I am coming.” That’s all we really need. You and I don’t have to wonder if he’s coming. We don’t have to debate whether or not he is coming. It seems to be a matter of faith. Jesus said, “I am coming.” What we have to do is prepare.

Get Prepared in Waiting

Have you ever gotten a telephone call, maybe on a Saturday morning, maybe on a Friday night? Unexpectedly a friend or family member says, “Doing anything tonight? Why don’t we come over?” Now, you’re not ready for company, so what do you do as soon as you hang up the phone? You fly through the house to straighten up the place. You know they’re coming soon, and you don’t want them to see your home like this. They might think you’re normal! So, you’ve got to do something, and quickly. Pick up everything, move all the magazines, and put away the videos you’re not supposed to have out. We all have done this before. We have all experienced the feeling that if somebody’s coming, we have to get ready. And we’ve got to get ready now because they said they were coming soon. We don’t have that much time.

Friends and family don’t usually give us the kind of advance warning Jesus did. My goodness, we’ve had 2,000 years! How come we’re not ready? Jesus is coming soon. Let’s not be caught surprised. Let’s begin now to do whatever it is that you have to do, to do whatever it is that I have to do, to get ready—to get this place overwhelmingly ready for the coming of the King. Jesus said, “I am coming soon. My reward is with me. I’m bringing my reward with me to repay according to everyone’s work.”

In the book of Revelation, John wrote to Christians who were facing terrible predicaments. The prophesy talks about the church facing unbelievable hardships. But, in all of that, He says, “I am going to repay everyone according to their work.” This sounds like a theme from the book of James. It’s interesting that Jesus doesn’t say, “When I come, I’m going to make sure that you all believe correctly.” Oh, I think the orthodoxy issue is there, but it’s a matter of whether or not orthodoxy has played itself out in how you and I are living as the church. Jesus says, “I am coming soon.”

Remember How Christ Is Waiting

I have this feeling that Jesus is excited about his coming, excited about meeting his bride, the church. We usually think about Jesus coming from our standpoint, but take a moment to think about it from his standpoint. Think about him getting ready to make the trip to meet the church. Think about what he must be feeling. What’s going through his mind as the one who is arriving, rather than as those who are waiting for his arrival?

Again, the year was 1972. Our daughter was born in June. Unfortunately, my military base was mobilized and I was redeployed just weeks before the birth. I was not there when Aunchalee Junior was born. I was back in Thailand.

Some people ask why we picked the name Aunchalee for our daughter. Well, I was mobilized on a Wednesday morning and left that night to go all of the way around the world. Aunchalee was eight month’s pregnant. We hadn’t picked any names yet. So, as I climbed on the bus tearfully waving to her, and as she was tearfully waving back to me, we just yelled to each other. I said, “Well, if it’s boy, call him Craig.” She said, “If it’s a girl, I’ll call her Aunchalee.” And that’s what happened. No great mystery. Pragmatism strikes again.

That was in May 1972. Aunchalee our daughter was born June 12th. I received the news through the American Red Cross. When I returned to the United States in October, just before my 22nd birthday, I flew on a commercial airliner from Los Angeles to Philadelphia to see my parents, my wife, and a daughter I had not seen before—except for some poor Polaroid photographs that were mangled in the mail. I couldn’t wait for my coming home. There was such an overwhelming sense of anticipation. I couldn’t wait to see my family. I hadn’t seen Aunchalee my wife in months, and I hadn’t ever seen Aunchalee our daughter. She was already four months old. I just couldn’t wait to see what she looked like. I couldn’t wait to see the smiles on all their faces. I couldn’t wait to hold my child. I couldn’t wait to experience those moments of excitement that had been playing over in my mind for all those months.

Well, coming off the airplane and walking into the terminal, my feet never hit the floor. Standing there was my Mom and my Dad and Aunchalee my wife standing behind a stroller. And, inside the stroller was little Aunchalee Elaine asleep. There I was in military fatigues, just back from Southeast Asia. I broke down and cried like a baby. I had been waiting for that moment. I had longed for that moment. And it was everything I expected and more. All the waiting and getting ready for that moment to happen was fulfilled. To experience the love of my family that I had been dreaming about for months made the wait worthwhile.

Jesus longs to return to meet his family. He longs to see the smiles on our faces. He longs to see us gathered together, brothers and sisters in Christ, in one accord, in wonderful, joyful harmony. He longs to meet his church. He longs to see us. He longs to love us. He will cry with tears of joy. It could be written, “And Jesus wept when he returned to see his church ready and waiting and longing for his coming.” Jesus said, “I am coming soon.”

Gifts for Waiting

In later years, whenever I come back home after a trip, little Aunchalee and her brother Michael were always there waiting for me. And, they always said those famous words that are pre-programmed into every child’s vocabulary, “What did you bring me?”

Hello! Is it nice to see me? “What did you bring me?” Now, why do they ask that? What is the matter with these kids? Why aren’t they just happy to see me? “Yeah, what’d you bring us?” I think that when a parent comes home, bringing a package says to a child, “I want you to know that I’ve been thinking about you.” In my case, I could say, “I’ve done the one thing that I most despise in life; I’ve gone shopping. And I did it for you.” And when you give children a gift, sometimes they just look at it for a second, then put it down and climb into your lap. They want to know you brought something for them. They want to know you were thinking of them even while you were away from them. And, Jesus said, “I am coming soon, and I’m bringing something for you.” God will reward us as we have been faithful in doing his kingdom work while we wait for his return.

And, so what are we going to do? I think it’s time to get ready. You may not be ready right now, but let’s get ready. So what is it that we need to be about? One of the things that we can be about is making sure that we are expanding his church. Remember that the church’s purpose in life is to proclaim Christ’s gospel to the world—to draw people in and to equip them to be fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ. That’s our goal. When Jesus comes back, I want him to find us out in our community, making friends of everyone and finding ways to bring them into the family of Jesus Christ. Let’s make sure Jesus finds us caring for one another, loving one another, ministering in his love in our city. Being out there in our communities doing what Jesus has called us to do and be in the world—his church.

One of the great stories I heard at a recent leadership conference was about a member of Willow Creek Church who couldn’t sing, who couldn’t teach. He was a mechanic. He came to Bill Hybels and said, “You know, I can’t sing; I don’t think I would be much of a teacher. I can’t do a lot of things, but what I can do is spin a wrench.” And he said, “I believe there are some single moms in this church. I’ve seen them driving up. I believe there are some people in this church that if somebody could take care of their automobiles and not charge them anything, it would be a great ministry.”

So right thereon the spot, Willow Creek’s CARS ministry began. Not because a minister had a brilliant idea, but because somebody from the pew who had a gift said I can’t sing, and I can’t teach, but I can spin a wrench. Now, I don’t know what you can do; I don’t know what you can’t do. But, God has given you a gift to do something. And, if he has given you a gift, I suppose when he comes, he’s going to want to see how you are using it.

God longs to see us using the gifts he has given us. Are you using your gifts for God’s kingdom? Do you have the gift of evangelism? If you do, then evangelize. Do you have the gift of hospitality? Then open up your doors and invite those who are unchurched into your home. Do you have the gift of discernment? Then start discerning what God would have you be and become. Do you have the gift of administration? Are you using it? Do you have the gift of teaching? Do you have the gift of compassion? Jesus is coming back soon. Are you ready?

Posted by Craig Loscalzo at 10:56 AM