Thinking About the Good Soil

I have no idea what goes on inside of other pastor’s heads, but I assume I am not the only one who struggles with this issue. At least, I hope I am not alone in this. Sunday afternoons are an incredibly emotional time for me. I spend most of the afternoon and evening replaying the mornings’ events. I think about who was not there. I wonder if I did something wrong or have inadvertently missed something. My mind replays every conversation and asks if I said words that represent Christ well. Thoughts often dwell on people who are coming, but there are no visible signs of spiritual growth. The weight of the world comes down on me as I process the morning and the people who fill it.

I openly admit that I am a pessimist. The glass is half-empty. The people are half-committed. The Church seats are half-empty. Things are not as good as they could be in my ministry. The people I lead are mostly disappointed in me. Jesus weeps over me instead of rejoicing.

Through the years, I have tried to overcome this mental war that goes on inside my mind each week. The only remedy that seems to help me is replaying a parable of Jesus. In Matthew chapter 13, he tells a story about a sower who plants the seed in four types of soils. One is hard, another is shallow, a third is surrounded by thorns, and the final one is fertile. My heart hurts when I think that three out of four are bad soil. They will never produce the fruit that God desires. My mind likes to focus on those poor soils and how I can I help change them into something productive.

To remain in ministry as a paid worker or even as a volunteer, you must spend time thinking about that fourth soil. Some days, it is the only thing that keeps me going. Jesus said, “But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown” (Matthew 13:23 NIV 2011). He states that there are people who will hear the gospel and take it very seriously. Not only will it impact their life, but they will produce a harvest for Jesus that will touch up to a hundred lives for him.

There are people who attend our worship every week that are deeply committed to their faith. They read their Bible, pray, give, and serve selflessly in numerous ways. Some parents are guiding their children in the direction of the Lord. A group of people is representing Jesus in their family, work, and community. They are a blessing to the world and are touching hundreds of lives for Jesus. It hurts that it is only one-fourth of the people I lead, but I rejoice at the impact that one third is having.

I can close my eyes and think of face after face of people I know who are living sold-out lives for Jesus. Their faith is a light that blesses the world and encourages me. At times when I am down, I think of that handful of people who are good soil. I hope you are one of those people. If so, I thank God for the blessing you are to everyone, including me.

Doing the Same Thing Over and Over Again

It has been said that the best definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, each time expecting a different result. It’s crazy to keep trying the same approach to anything with no success.

Recently, I noticed that the definition of success is very similar to that of insanity. Success is found in doing the same thing over and over again to formulate a different result. For example, to become fit, you must exercise every day. If you would like to gain knowledge, it requires reading and learning every single day.

The difference is not about how you do things as much as it is about the results you are achieving. If you are not improving, then you probably need to stop something or start something new. If you are moving in the right direction, then keep going. Keep doing the right thing over and over, even if it looks crazy to some people.

For a believer, the ultimate question is, “Are my actions bringing me closer to God and his will for my life?” If the answer is yes, good work. If not, then stop it.

How to Pray in a Group

As a Church leader, I am often the one speaking during a group prayer. Recently I was a part of a Church conference, and I was no longer the leader, but a general worshipper. The first night I noticed that everyone who went to the stage wanted to say a prayer on behalf of the group. That meant we were praying about a dozen times within the short span of the evening. During one of the prayers, I thought to myself, “What is the best way to pray with a group?”

When the followers of Jesus come together for worship, study, or a meal, inevitably one person will stand up and say, “Let’s pray.” Then they will proceed to talk while everyone else listens. Well, are we supposed to listen or are we supposed to be praying too? How does all this work?

Interestingly enough, there is minimal Biblical discussion that I can find on the topic. We have groups of people praying together in the book of Acts, but we have no idea what was going on inside the people’s minds. So let me make a few suggestions on what I try to do.

  1. Repeat Concepts. I learned this practice from a Pentecostal friend. Whenever I would pray, he would repeat out loud the concept I had just said. I would pray, “Bless this meal that we are about to receive.” And he would repeat, “Bless it Jesus.” At first, I found it annoying, and later I found it an effective practice. Now, I do not do it out loud, but inside my mind, I do the same thing. The prayer is “be with her cancer and the treatment,” and inside my mind, I think, “cure her cancer, Lord.”
  2. Focused Thoughts. Sometimes I try to listen carefully to whoever is praying and let them use the words for me. In my mind, I am listening closely, and the only thing I think is “yes” or “amen.” This can be more difficult to do depending on who is praying. Some people like to use a lot of words to say a small prayer. With these, I use the practice above.
  3. Say My Own Prayer. There are certain situations where I will somewhat ignore what the speaker is saying and take the opportunity to talk to God directly. One example of this for me is after a sermon. Someone may stand up after to say a prayer to close out the program. While they are speaking about the evening or whatever happens next, I use the time to talk to God about what he has laid on my heart. Often I find at times like this that I am still praying after the speaker is done if God has put something profound on my soul.

Last week at my conference I used all three of these tactics. There are also the less spiritual things you can do during a group prayer time. These can range from checking your phone, looking at everyone else, going to the bathroom or checking out mentally and thinking of things like lunch. Once again, I have not only seen all of these, I have done them at one point or another.

I hope to grow with God on my journey of faith, and this past weekend, I realized my need to develop better practices during public prayer. Maybe I am not the only one. Please comment and tell me a way that you approach public prayer that has been helpful. If you have nothing, then maybe one of these approaches will help you the next time someone says, “Will you pray with me.”

Saturday Morning Wrestling With Satan

I grew up watching TV on Saturdays with my brother. First on was cartoons. I mean the good stuff like Sylvester the Cat, Foghorn Leghorn, and Yosemite Sam. Once the cartoons were over there were then two options. One was to watch college football which was great depending on the game. The other option was professional wrestling.

The wrestlers of my youth were heroes of their own making. Names like Dick the Bruiser, Andre the Giant, and Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka were legends in my mind. I hated the Macho Man and a host of other evil characters who was defeated regularly by the stars.

In those early years of watching wrestling, my brother and I learned a “go-to” move for all competitors. When someone was hurting, they would go to work in that area specifically. For example, if you did a flip and came down on your knee wrong, then the opponent would start focusing all his moves on that knee. As a young boy, I had no idea that most of what I saw was staged for the audience, but the tactic stuck in my mind. Whenever my older brother and I would wrestle at home, we would immediately start working on one part of the body to bring as much pain to that area.

Paul tells the Christians in the city of Ephesus that our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Our adversary, the devil, attacks us and seeks our destruction. What I have noticed through the years is that old Saturday morning tactic still works today. Evil likes to find my weakest point, and then he goes to work on it trying to bring me pain to the point of me quitting or at least surrendering to his will.

Evil knows all about your weaknesses. He sees you are struggling in your marriage, and so he connects you to a person who you think will make everything better. He understands how success is going to your head, so he whispers in your ear about how great you are. He knows you are feeling lonely, so he offers a way out that is contrary to God’s will. He knows about the emails and text you are sending so he encourages you to throw in a few words that will push the boundaries. He knows you are depressed and so he offers a quick fix in the form of a bottle. Satan knows your weakest point, and he tries to exploit it.

Paul tells the Church in Ephesians 6:11 “Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. (NIV 2011)” The following verses tell them to use the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit. I explain his words by merely saying, “Be prepared to fight.”

Wherever you are weak, Satan will attack. We need to be wise. We must be prepared. We must work vigilantly to overcome the schemes of the devil. He will try to pounce on you whenever he sees you struggling. He knows your weakest point, and he is ready to exploit it and find a victory over your soul. My words to you are simple. Stand firm, fight back and don’t ever surrender. Especially, don’t let Satan outwit you. “For we are not unaware of his schemes.” (2 Corinthians 2:11)

Finally Reaching the New Testament

Today is September 24th. In my one-year chronological Bible, this is the day I finally start reading the New Testament. Around one year ago, I decided that in 2019 I was going to use a chronological Bible to help my reading. This means that the Bible is assembled not in the traditional groupings, but in the order in which the events occurred. It has been a fantastic way to shed some new light on old passages. This journey takes about 15 minutes a day to read roughly four chapters.

I have worked through this Bible page by page for almost nine full months. Yesterday I finished what is thought to be the last words of the Old Testament written by the prophet Joel. Today I opened and saw the title “Luke 1” at the top of the page, and joy filled my heart. There are two thoughts that went through my mind this morning.

  1. The Old Testament is longer than you realize. It takes 266 days to read the Old Testament according to this plan. That is almost three-fourths of the year. You need to know that if you are reading the Bible in this format, it takes a long time to complete. The Old Testament is a massive collection of writings that require a commitment to complete.
  2. The New Testament is shorter than I remember. It will take only 99 days to complete it. That is only a little over three months. This is the reason I encourage people to read their New Testament before they try reading their whole Bible. Reading just four chapters a day for four months, and you will be finished.

I know that neither of the realizations is anything exciting. I have often had high school students open their Bibles to the first page of the New Testament and show them the mere number of pages of which the Old Testament is composed. Today, because this is a new way for me to read the Bible, it highlighted the difference in reading the Old versus the New.

The challenge for today is simple. Think of this as January first. If you start a reading of the New Testament today, you can be done by the New Year. Today is a great day to start reading or listening your way to deeper spiritual growth. I can think of no reason for you to delay another day.

Throwing Gospel Rocks in a Puddle

I spent time last week at a conference put together by the Rural Matters Institute. Two days were spent exploring the call to rural communities and the ministry that happens there. I filled about eight pages with notes that I have been processing information since my return. One of the most challenging things I heard was in the form of an analogy.

One preacher compared serving Jesus in a small town to throwing rocks. Imagine your life represents the rock of the gospel. Now, if you take that rock and throw it into Lake Michigan, it will make a splash, but because of the size of the lake, it will have a minimal effect. However, if I take that same rock and throw it into a small puddle, it will make a considerable splash sending water all directions. Take a handful of stones, and you can fill in the entire puddle.

If you understand your life as a rock, then the water represents your community. Your life will have an impact, no matter where you serve Jesus. In a large city, there will be less lasting impact than in a small community.

Many Christians, including myself, can feel like our life has little significance because we live in a small community rather than a large city. In big cities live power and influence. The truth is something different than you might expect. Because you live a small community, your life has more considerable influence on other people. A firm believer in a small town has the chance to change their whole community. A handful of believers can overwhelm their village with the love of Jesus.

I often need to be reminded that my life and your life has a more significant impact for the kingdom of God than we imagine. This is true even in a small community, maybe especially here.

Spending Some Time at the Buffet

Through the years, I have encountered numerous people who have said that they needed to stop serving at the Church so that “they could be fed.” In the early days of my ministry, I would nod and smile as if this made perfect sense. After several years, I started asking a question in response, “Who do you think feeds me?”

Most of the time, I am greeted with a blank stare. I remind them that I rarely hear a sermon on Sunday morning because I am always preaching. I ask, “How do you think I keep growing in my faith?”

The usual response is anger and frustration. They tell me, “It’s my job.” They say they are busier than I am. They used to say to me that they had been serving longer than I have been alive. There was a long list of reasons why my spiritual growth does not count, and there is definitely no need for comparison. This reaction is because I called their bluff. They simply wanted to quit serving so they could spend more time on selfish pursuits. It had nothing to do with “needing to be fed” and was more about wanting to do something else.

I still pose the question to you, “How do preachers get fed spiritually?”

The first answer is that we learn to feed ourselves. One mark of maturity is the ability to take care of yourself. To read, study, and learn on your own. The second answer is to go out to eat. Go to places outside of Sunday morning that feeds your soul.

While you are reading this post, I am traveling about four hours to a conference so that I can spend time at a spiritual buffet. There will be powerful speakers, incredible stories, and personal connections that will fill me to the point where I feel I am going to explode. I will bring back stories, notes, and notebooks full of ideas. These two days will propel me through Christmas and into the new year.

Personally, I attend at least one conference every year as one of the ways I feed myself spiritually. There are similar opportunities for men, women, couples, youth leaders, children’s teachers, and even worship leaders. Maybe if you are feeling empty in an area of your life, you should consider going to a conference. I know I need it, and perhaps you do too.

A Strategy for Growth in Your Faith

What is yours?

You need one. Everyone does.

I am not here to give you one, because the best one is the one that works for you. That might include getting up early, staying up late or skipping lunch to provide time in some form of Bible study. The kind of the study may range from listening to a podcast, reading a devotional, to just walking through the Bible a chapter at a time. Your journey through the Bible might just be the New Testament or the whole Bible or some type of hybrid daily plan. You can read it or listen to it if reading is not your thing.

It doesn’t matter how you do it; you must try something.

There will be a lot of dead ends and failed plans, but each one will lead you closer to something that does work.

One of the founding fathers of our movement of Churches used to keep a bucket of ice water beside the table where he spent time in his study. Every time he started to nod off, he would dip his head in the icy water and go back to reading with his eyes wide open. It’s not my thing, but it worked for him.

The flip side of this idea is worth noting. You will never grow without a plan. You will never back your way into spiritual maturity. It takes work, and the work needs a plan.

Your spiritual growth problem is your fault. Own it. Then find a way to work around your setbacks. Develop a new strategy and move on. A lack of maturity in your faith can usually be traced back to a lack of planning, not a lack of tools.

Helping People Who Are Struggling Emotionally

I am not a doctor, but I play one on TV. That is a line I remember from a childhood commercial. In other words, I have no idea how to be a real doctor, but I am a good actor. Nowadays I think the line should be. “I am not a psychologist, but I play one online.” Every day I read all kinds of psychobabble floating around social media. Most of it means well as we want to understand our world, our friends, and even our actions. The problem is that they are armed with a little knowledge and have no idea how to use it.

I once had a conversation with a doctor, and he told me the biggest frustration in his profession was the internet. Everyone who came into his office had read several articles online, and they were sure what was wrong with them. He told me, and they are almost always wrong. What makes it worse is that some people already start treating themselves without really knowing the problem. The line he used, as best I can remember it, was, “You go to at least eight years of medical school for a reason.”

We live in a society full of information, and I hope we keep learning, but frequently I encounter people who have made a wrong diagnosis about their friends. So today I want to make a couple of suggestions on how to handle the people around you who are struggling.

  1. Listen. The single most significant thing you can do for most people is to listen to their problems. They do not need a diagnosis or a solution. They need someone to listen.
  2. Learn. Pay attention as you listen. You will be amazed by what you can learn about people. More than once, I have seen people emotionally breakdown because someone remembered something they said or did.
  3. Lead. Most people are not looking for advice; they are looking for a companion. They want someone to help them on their journey through a difficult time. Your online post about the trouble with narcissistic behavior is way less helpful than inviting that person to help you serve others. Show them the way to a better life.
  4. Love. Once again, you do not need to have profound psychological insights into the mind of the suffering. You just need to love the people who are hurting. You need to stand beside those who need a friend. You need to help guide those whose lives have gone off track. Finally, you need to let them know you care when all others have turned away.

The other night I was scrolling through my social media feeds, and I was troubled by the repeated things that people share, like and give approval in that setting. We have somehow all become experts at things of which we have no idea. Just like you should not perform surgery because you have read some stuff on WebMD, it is not helpful to psychoanalyze people because you saw a meme that you find applicable.

If you as a believer want to make a difference in the world, then my suggestion is that you listen, learn, lead, and love as Christ would do for someone. These may not always work, but they will be far more helpful than most of the stuff I see.

A Sermon Series and Preacher After 20 Years

Currently, I am preaching through the book of Ecclesiastes. This is not the first time preaching through the book in my ministry. It is officially the second trip through those twelve chapters about the meaning of life. My first exploration through it was 20 years ago. It was so long ago that I had handwritten notes for each sermon that were then put in a manila folder and placed in a big metal filing cabinet. For my new series, I went back and pulled out the file and looked over each sermon. When I did this, I noticed a few things.

  1. God’s word never changes. Many of the things I said 20 years ago are still 100% correct because they were based on God’s eternal word.
  2. A sermon that honors God’s word is timeless. Now, I did not preach those old outlines and sermons, but I could have done it. The structure was sound, and the words were valid.
  3. I have changed tremendously. While the original sermons were fine, my insights and applications have adjusted through the years. When you are 27 years old with a newer marriage and a couple of small children the world looks different than it does to a 47-year-old with 25 years of marriage and four boys who are almost adults.

I am continually reminded of the Biblical image of God being the potter, and we are the clay, but I also like the idea that I am iron, and God is shaping me with each pound of his hammer. Both of those images fit my life so perfectly. Sometimes God has molded my life with gentle hands on my soft clay, and other times he has hit me repeatedly to get me to change my shape.

As I look back over my life, I am amazed at the things that have changed without my noticing. My words are different, my heart is softer to certain things and tougher with others, and my knowledge of God and life has expanded with every passing year. My prayers are less desperate, and my faith is firmly established. I have gone from being a kid who embraced the reckless love of God to a middle-aged man who holds tightly to God’s unchanging nature. Twenty years of molding and shaping by the master have made me a different person, and I barely noticed until I opened that file.

For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord, there is this unseen hand making us into the image of God. Most of us lose sight of that until we pull out the old files and look back at old pictures of ourselves. I think one healthy practice for all believers is to spend a few minutes thinking about who you used to be and who God has made you into today. The sermon is still true, but the person delivering it is not the same.