Your Preacher Does Not Have It All Figured Out

The first weekend I was in college, I went cruising with some other Freshman down the main street of Joplin with hundreds of other students. There were four of us in the car, and we saw some good-looking girls and decided to pull into a parking lot to talk to them. We were there for a couple of minutes, and a policeman pulled up and wrote us all tickets for loitering. He told us that they had been putting articles in the local paper all week, warning people of the coming crackdown. I did not know of many students who read the paper, and most of us had only been in town for a couple of days. The policeman’s response was, “Ignorance is no excuse.” I have never forgotten his words, and it only cost me $87 to learn them.

Throughout this pandemic, I have felt that line echoing in the back of my head. Every day I am faced with a new set of problems, and I want to move forward, but I simply do not know what to do. Then the voice says, “Ignorance is no excuse.” The words push me to keep reading, working, and trying to find solutions for the Church in this trying time. I must pause for a few minutes today and shout, “I do not have it figured out. I have no clear idea of what to do next. I am totally ignorant in this situation.”

Being a Church leader for so many years has given my insight into several things. I think I can help marriages, parents, people who want to grow in the faith, and those who want to overcome their past. Nothing, I mean nothing, has prepared me for this.

As I read through my social media groups, I am also convinced that no pastor, preacher, or Church leader knows what to do in the immediate future. Several parachurch leaders keep offering advice and making bold predictions, but they are guessing. No one knows what the future looks like for our Church, community, or world. This is true for me as a pastor and also for school and community leaders.

Why do I tell you all this? For two reasons that I hope you will consider. First, you are going to need to be extremely patient with your leaders over the coming months. We are trusting God and doing our best. Two, please pray for Christian leaders into the future. May God guide us with knowledge and wisdom as we move through uncharted waters. I know that ignorance is not an excuse, and I am not trying to make excuses, but we need God’s guiding hand and your grace as we move forward together.

The Church is Not a Building

He said, “It is good to be in the house of God” at the beginning of our time of worship on Sunday morning. It sounds true and has echoes of Biblical theology but misses the New Testament understanding of the Church.

In our modern era, the tendency is to equate the building the Church meets in each week with “a house of God.” Unfortunately, the terminology comes from the Old Testament. On the pages there, we read about the temple as the house of the Lord. That was a very literal understanding for them. When Solomon built the temple and dedicated it to God, the people saw the Spirit of God fall on the building, making it a special place. Each year the people went to that temple to give the priests their sacrifices and worship the Lord. On the day of Atonement, the high priest would go into the Holy of Holies and the very presence of God on behalf of the people.

When Jesus dies, everything changed. The temple veil was torn in two, and humanity was now allowed access to God through the blood of Jesus. The writer of the book of Hebrews says that we can “draw near with confidence.”

Then in Acts chapter two, the Holy Spirit poured out into the hearts of men. The dwelling place of God moved from a building into the human “tent,” and each one of us is now a temple of the Holy Spirit. God now resides in heaven, but his Spirit lives inside of the men and women who follow Jesus. Those people together form this beautiful thing called the Church. Therefore, the Church is not a building but people.

I know all of this seems like an elementary lesson for Christians, but it has been underlined to me through this time of the shutdown. Think of all the things we can do in and for the name of God while we are kept from meeting in the building on Sunday. We can still pray, sing worship songs, read the Bible while studying its contents, contact people through the phone (or text and email), give to various organizations, let your light shine on social media, train up our children in the way of the Lord, and even watch sermons online. These are just a few of the things the people of God can do even when we are not meeting together.

Don’t get me wrong. I still think getting together as a group of believers is vitally important. For now, the followers of Jesus are without a building. He has not left our midst. We are still the Church; just now, we are the Church without walls.

Reflections on Easter Online

Yesterday was the day the Christian community sets aside to remember the resurrection of Jesus specifically. We traditionally call this day Easter, and it is usually the biggest day in the religious calendar. This year was the most unique one I have experienced in my life and especially my 27 years of ministry. The Church I lead was one of the thousands of Churches who did not meet because of the Corona Virus/COVID-19 pandemic. Here are a few reflections I would like to share from this once in a lifetime experience.

  1. People are still interested in religion. One of my fears going into this time of quarantine is that people would forget about the Church and push back from faith. I was encouraged this week to see so many stops to pick up communion at our Church for worship. Then there were all the posts on social media about Jesus, faith, and the Church from the people I lead along with their friends. The appeal of faith has not been reduced; in fact, it might be increasing, and that is encouraging.
  2. I am thankful for technology. I am not sure what I would have done if this crisis had happened 25 years ago. In 2020, I can do a high definition recording of my sermon, worship, and prayers. Then we are able to stream them on the web and allow everyone a chance to worship at home. I am thankful for the technology and all the people who are using it for God’s glory
  3. It didn’t quite feel like Easter. It was nice to worship at the same time with people of like faith, but it was not the same as being in the building together. I missed the fellowship we experience with the other members of our faith community. Without conversations, handshakes, hugs, and bright smiles, Easter missed some of its joy.
  4. The resurrection is still true. The central truth of our faith is not built on our time together. Our belief is grounded on the resurrection of Jesus from the grave. This pandemic will not negate the work of Jesus. The hope found on Easter morning still exists today, maybe especially today.
  5. God is still at work. I cling to this truth as a pastor and Church leader. When we are together, I get the joy of hearing people share their stories of spiritual growth. I can witness their changes and steps forward on their journey of faith. At home, I still believe God is at work in the lives of the people who are seeking to grow. My faith as a pastor is placed in God to do his mighty work despite the distance, technology issues, and my failures as a pastor.

These are some of the things I encountered this weekend as I tried to celebrate Easter in a new way. I pray the momentum and feelings of today will carry us until we can meet back together again. I am looking forward to the Church getting back together soon. Until then, keep the faith.

Maundy Thursday Revisited

Several times through the years, I have written about this day being Maundy Thursday. I want to revisit that topic today.

The Thursday of the Holy Week before Easter is known as “Maundy” Thursday. Depending on your Church background, this might be a familiar name, or it might be something you have never heard before today. Here is my textbook explanation:

“Maundy Thursday is observed during Holy Week on the Thursday before Easter. It commemorates the Last Supper when Jesus shared the Passover meal with his disciples on the night before he was crucified. In contrast to joyful Easter celebrations, when Christians worship their resurrected Savior, Maundy Thursday services are typically more solemn occasions, marked by the shadow of Jesus’ betrayal.”

The follow-up question is usually, “But what does ‘Maundy’ mean?”  I looked it up and thought you might like the answer as well:

“Derived from the Latin word mandatum, meaning “commandment,” Maundy refers to the commands Jesus gave his disciples at the Last Supper: to love with humility by serving one another (foot-washing) and to remember his sacrifice through communion or Eucharist.”

Today is Maundy Thursday at it is the day we think about Jesus washing the disciple’s feet, sharing the last supper, and the sacrifice is about to make on Friday. I hope you take a few minutes today to reflect and meditate on the events from so many years ago.   May this evening be a time in which you can connect with God in a deep and meaningful way. 

Tomorrow is already looking “Good.”

He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands

The memories of the first time I heard these lyrics have been erased over time, but the words remain in my soul. My guess would be that I heard it in children’s Church on Sunday morning as part of our worship time. We would sing the central part of the song, and then we would break it down. He has the “little bitty babies” in his hands. He has “you and me sister” in his hands. If there were enough time, we could have kept adding verses to express this one central thought; God has everything in the world in his hands.

Somewhere along the way, I slowly stopped believing the song, even if I kept singing it. I was repeatedly told to be a “self-made man” who would “pull himself up by his bootstraps” and “work as everything depended on me.” Every day I gave myself to the pursuit of MY dreams while still acknowledging that God had the whole world in his hands. My voice might have said, “He,” but my actions revealed that what I truly believed in was “Me.”

I felt I was in control of my career, my finances, my family, my health, and my relationships. Then something happened. A virus swept across the land, and I suddenly felt this loss of control, which seems odd in retrospect, since I never really had it. What really happened was the mirage of self-reliance faded, and the truth of sovereignty remained.

After doing some research, I discovered that this song became popular in the United States in 1957-58, but it was originally an African American Spiritual. While it was first published in 1927, it had existed in this country for years as a song that echoed from the lips of the slaves. Can you imagine? Every day your life is controlled by someone else. The master tells you when to rise and when to sleep. You can be bought and sold, and your world overturned in a moment’s notice. Your life feels like it is entirely at the mercy of someone else. Then you walk into the fields, and the words ring out, “He’s got the whole world in his hands.” A vocalization of God’s sovereignty and power in situations in which you feel helpless.

Lately, I have been singing this song again. This time with an enthusiasm that comes with life experience. The false concepts have washed away, and the bedrock of life has been revealed. God is in control, and the way to make it through any struggle is to lean wholly on him. Difficult seasons can remove our self-centered faith and bring us back to God. After all, “He’s got you and me sister in his hands.”

Time to Reprioritize

Much has been taken away from all of us over the last few months. Both professional and youth sports are gone for now. No travel games or competition for teenagers of any kind are happening. Going to the movies is over. Around my area, they are closing parks and recreation areas. Many restaurants are closed or only doing curbside service. Recreational shopping is no longer occurring. The list of things you cannot do right now is far longer than the list of things you can do. We are supposed to be staying inside and practicing social distancing.

When things like this happen, and your life is suddenly freed from your hectic schedule, it is time to reprioritize. This is an excellent opportunity to evaluate your life and calendar and see if the activities in which you engage are worth your time. If it can be removed in an instant, is it worth the valuable minutes of your life?

Make a list of essential things. The things that you cannot give up at a moment’s notice. Your faith, your family, your spouse, your friends, and your health will quickly rise to the top of the list. Maybe this break could be a time God has given you to overhaul the priority system of your life completely.

One day all the things that distract you will open for business again. There will be this temptation to go back to your regular habits and activities. My prayer is that you will not waste this experience as merely a time of rest before you jump into your same old schedule. Hopefully, your life after this is over will be filled with the important things that truly make this life worth living.

What I Miss About Corporate Worship

Yesterday I did something that I have never done on a Sunday morning. My wife and I got out of bed later than usual and went for a walk. We came home and enjoyed an excellent breakfast. Finally, we sat down and watched the worship program for our Church online. It was a wonderful morning, but something was missing.

I must admit I don’t miss the stress of a Sunday morning as a preacher. Most Sundays include arriving early and making sure the building is ready. Then I pray and practice my sermon. Any extra time I have remaining, I visit with people while trying to do any last-minute preparations for worship. It is a beautiful, emotionally draining time.

Each week we spend the first part of our worship program in song. It is a part of the morning that I thoroughly enjoy. I do long to hear the people of God singing praises to God. To listen to the truth of the faith being sung by people of all ages and backgrounds together is a powerful witness to the power of God.

We also take time on Sunday morning to pray and lift up the needs of our people. One high point every week is the sharing in communion. The Church focuses our attention on Jesus’ death for our sins. I enjoy all these elements when we meet together, but I can still do most of this at home.

The one thing I miss the most and the void in my life right now is for time with other believers. There is a deep joy in seeing people, both young and old coming together in the name of Jesus. We share our lives, our stories, and our personal victories. We pray for each other and carry one another burdens. We laugh, smile, cry, and open our hearts up to one another. The Church is not just a group of people who meet in the same building; we are the family of God. The absence of my brother and sisters in Jesus is weighing heavy on my heart.

This longing for community is not a bad thing. It reminds me of what I have in the Church that is so valuable. I have you.

I miss you.

Obstacles or Opportunities

The world is changing. Every day things are being forced to adapt to the changing circumstances all around us. School plans have changed, along with work plans, Church schedules, and family time. Everything is changing, and we have very little control.

We have two choices in the days that lie ahead. We can see all these changes as obstacles that will keep us from accomplishing our hopes and dreams. We could also see them as opportunities to achieve things in unexpected ways.

You could see this as being trapped at home with your family or a chance to reconnect with your spouse and your children.

You could see this as a time where children will not receive the needed education they require, or an opportunity to get involved in their education in a new and exciting way.

You could see this time as a financial setback or possibly as a time to develop a budget that focuses on your priorities.

You could see this time as missing worship every week, or you could take each week to worship as a family and be the spiritual leader you have always dreamed you would be.

You can see this time as missing the Holy Week and Easter with your Church, or this could be a chance for you to share a sermon online with a person who would never walk into a Church building.

We are all experiencing the same struggles as spouses, parents, and believers. The difference is that some people will use this time as an opportunity for good to grow. Others will only see obstacles and miss the chances God is giving to us. The choice of which type of person you will be is strictly up to you.

We Know How the Story Ends

The idea of seven years of famine seems unfathomable. Yet, that is what happened in Egypt. Pharaoh had a dream that was interpreted by Joseph. There were then seven years of plenty. (I like that part of the story) followed by seven years of famine. That is not seven weeks or months; instead, it is years.

The lack of food and water was forcing people to take extreme measures. They were selling their livestock and farms. People were giving up everything to survive, and through Joseph’s leadership during those years, there was enough food for everyone.

Joseph’s brothers came down to Egypt because they heard there was food there. Little did they know that the man handing it out was their brother that they had sold into slavery years before as a teenager. They were shocked when he finally revealed himself, and they were also fearful for their lives. In the final chapter of the book of Genesis, their father has died, and the brothers are still afraid, and Joseph says something that rings through the ages. He declares, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. (Genesis 50:20 – NIV 2011)”

His words offer us an interesting perspective on the whole experience. The unfolding of a lifetime is summarized in his one statement. With the vantage point of time, Joseph can now see the hand of God working through all of the bad experiences to bring a positive outcome. The end of the story is that God is working to accomplish his good work for humanity, even in the dark nights of pain and confusion.

Life right now seems to be full of struggles. There are weeks of isolation, disruption of routine, financial setbacks, job layoffs, and the threat of sickness. The good news for today is that we have the same God in charge as in the days of Joseph. Different struggles, but with the same God, it doesn’t matter. We know how the story will end.