Prevailing in an Unwinnable War

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A couple of days ago a thought rooted in my brain: “We are in an unwinnable war.” That morning I read in Deuteronomy: “When you go out to war against your enemies and see horses, chariots, and an enemy larger than yours, do not be afraid of them, for the Lord your God, who brought you of the land of Egypt, is with you” (Deut. 20:1).

Israel won many unwinnable wars. God planned it that way. Pinned between the Red Sea and Pharaoh’s army, they were like a spider caught between the pavement and the soul of my shoe – pulverized! But then, God stepped in.

When Gideon’s 300 men attacked the Midianite army numbering over 100,000, they entered an unwinnable war, but for God. When Peter told those who shouted “Crucify Him!” that “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ!” he could have been ripped to pieces, but God had a plan.

God’s people have fought many unwinnable wars, prevailing against impossible odds. Who would have guessed that persecution of Christians in China would be used by God to grow His Church 5,000 percent in 50 years? God sent David Livingstone to Africa at a time when most Europeans died within a year of entering the malarial jungles and unknown dangers there. Livingstone, and many others, died in Africa. But today African Christians outnumber those in Europe and North America combined, boasting 400 million souls! Through the darkness Livingstone saw a brighter day would come. He wrote:

“Future missionaries will see conversions follow every sermon. We prepare the way for them. May they not forget the pioneers who worked in the thick gloom, with few cheering rays to cheer except such as flow from faith in God’s promises. We work for a glorious future which we are not destined to see, the golden age which has not been but will yet be. We are only morning stars shining in the dark, but the glorious morn will break – the good time coming yet” (David Livingston in Mackenzie, 150f).

God’s people have prevailed in many unwinnable wars, or should I say, “God has prevailed.” Often God’s people have bled and died in protracted wars that lasted generations beyond the lives of the initial combatants.

Churches in America find themselves in an unwinnable war, as does the nation itself. Battle lines are drawn on many fronts, and these lines don’t simply exist between the Church and the world. Battle lines exist inside the Church. There are matters of sexuality, with ongoing skirmishes involving the LGBTQ agenda. The “right to life” of the unborn, the elderly, the disabled and the handicapped, has raged for 50 years or more.

Then, just when it seemed Covid-19 was the greatest threat of 2020, the world witnessed the life of a black man crushed under the knee of a police officer, with other officers failing to intervene, setting off protests and riots and untold suffering in the hearts and minds of every American and people far beyond our shores. Racial problems and division have existed since the early days of our nation, and throughout human history, but we are in a unique moment. This is different. There is hope, but there is also the danger that listening, learning and reconciling get overtaken by destructive forces. Parsing words with the precision of a butcher doing surgery with a hatchet destroys the opportunity to grow understanding and influence thinking. Some seem to think they can read minds, and spot malicious intent, as easily as spotting a fly in a glass of milk. Reasonable discussion, questions and context are hard to come by. “Silence is violence,” some say, but utter the wrong word and you’ll get “cancelled” before the day ends. It is an unwinnable war.

And lest you don’t yet see how unwinnable this multi-front war is, consider that we don’t agree on the meaning of history, or even what history is. Facts are our friends, but whom do we trust to give us the facts? The media? Which media? Most media outlets aren’t helping.

What about truth? Where do we find the truth told? From politicians? Are you kidding!? Preachers? Unfortunately, much of the world doesn’t trust us preachers to tell the truth without taint. Preachers can get political too, especially if we don’t stick to the Truth we know best and start spouting and spinning about that which we know little.

Add to these battle lines the fight for the family – fatherless homes, babies without parents, teens left to wander. It’s an unwinnable war.

As I was pondering this unsavory thought, I remembered a speech I’d read years ago. It was delivered by a 28 year-old Abraham Lincoln on January 27, 1838 to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois. The speech was occasioned by a racial problem in which St. Louis was burned. Slavery was still legal and America was tearing apart. It was ripping the Church apart too. Speaking of the possible death of the United States, Lincoln reads like a prophet these 182 years later. The full quote is posted at the end of this article for those who’d like to read it and marvel at the rhetorical brilliance of the man who freed the slaves and restored the Union. Here is the most pertinent passage:

“At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it?– Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never!–All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.

“At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

Twenty-three years after this speech the nation divided and war took 620,000 lives in 10,500 skirmishes and 50 major battles. The record states that the North won the war, and they did, but in a very real sense the war continued throughout succeeding generations and up to the present day.

This war will continue in some form until the end of time, because it’s a war that started in Eden. It was there that man divided from God, and began dividing from each other. In Genesis 3 we see the beginning of a distancing between humans, a covering up of sin, followed by brother murdering brother in Genesis 4.

Our leaders are not smart enough, or good enough, or strong enough, to lead us to victory in the war that is raging in America. And our churches aren’t that strong, either. All our unwinnable wars are rooted in human sin, and that root runs deep in the human heart, too deep to kill.

Depressed yet? Don’t be, because God shows Himself most visibly, gloriously and powerfully during unwinnable wars. No person turns to God until they are at rope’s end and realize they need God if they hope to survive. No nation experiences awakening when the people think they are the answer to their problems. Revival comes when the church is desperate, when it doesn’t know what to do or where to turn, and it falls to its knees, and buries its face in the floor’s dirt, and wets the dirt with tears, calling out to God for mercy, begging Him to show compassion and forgive sins, that’s when God shows up and wins the war … for a time. Not forever, until Jesus returns, will the war be finally and completely won because the war proceeds from the human heart. The war surfaces within families. It erupts between neighbors. The war is with those near and far away. God doesn’t give us the capacity to win the war without Him. Without Him we’re helpless. Without Him, we wrestle in vain against principalities and powers that kill, steal and destroy. Without Him, there is no peace, no life, no hope, and no future.

And remember, Israel didn’t win all their wars. Sometimes they were felled by tiny towns like Ai. Other times they suffered near annihilation and total humiliation. Their corpses were strewn in the wilderness and eaten by birds. Some were swallowed up by the earth itself. I apologize for the sad reminder, but not really, because if we think we can win the war, I mean really win, we’re doomed. Only God can win this war. We need Him. He’s a God of righteousness and justice. He didn’t let the tower of Babel stand when the people stood apart from Him, and He never will let us prevail in this war apart from Him.

The struggles that we face are mostly within ourselves. Racism is a heart problem, as is hate and bitterness and pride and lust and lovelessness of all kinds. It’s in the heart that the battle rages most fiercely. It’s the heart of every single person, of every color and hue, under heaven. Only God can win that war. Only the blood of Jesus can quell those flames. Only the Holy Spirit can spread the balm of peace that produces love one for another, sufficient to pursue righteousness and justice for all.
Without Jesus we have laws, courts, negotiations, punishments, coercion, threats, intimidation … and war. We need a system of justice, the best that we can build. But in the end, apart from Jesus, the war is unwinnable. Until He comes, His people must live as salt and light, loving sacrificially, seeking justice and preaching the Truth, even when the world does not understand.

Come, Lord Jesus. You are our only real hope. But You are enough.

Randy Adams
Executive Director-Treasurer
Northwest Baptist Convention

Text of Lincoln’s speech quoted above:

“In the great journal of things happening under the sun, we, the American People, find our account running…. We find ourselves in the peaceful possession, of the fairest portion of the earth…. We find ourselves under the government of a system of political institutions, conducing more essentially to the ends of civil and religious liberty, than any of which the history of former times tells us. We, when mounting the stage of existence, found ourselves the legal inheritors of these fundamental blessings. We toiled not in the acquirement or establishment of them–they are a legacy bequeathed us, by a once hardy, brave, and patriotic, but now lamented and departed race of ancestors. Their’s was the task (and nobly they performed it) to possess themselves, and through themselves, us, of this goodly land; and to uprear upon its hills and its valleys, a political edifice of liberty and equal rights; ’tis ours only, to transmit these, the former, unprofaned by the foot of an invader; the latter, undecayed by the lapse of time and untorn by usurpation, to the latest generation that fate shall permit the world to know. This task of gratitude to our fathers, justice to ourselves, duty to posterity, and love for our species in general, all imperatively require us faithfully to perform.

“How then shall we perform it?–At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it?– Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never!–All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.

“At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.

“I hope I am over wary; but if I am not, there is, even now, something of ill-omen, amongst us. I mean the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgment of Courts.” (to read the full speech of go to http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/lyceum.htm).

Are We There Yet?

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“Are we there yet? Why is it taking so long?” Every parent on a road trip with their kids has endured whining questions. Little children don’t understand the relationship between time and distance, so a long, boring car ride seems endless. And what happens when there are two or three kids in the backseat? Trouble! Squabbling and poking and crying.

For almost three months America has been on a journey. It seems like a trip to nowhere. Will it be over by the end of summer? Who knows? No one does, but it won’t be over soon enough! We simply don’t know when it will end. And like kids in the backseat on a cross-country trip, that spells trouble.

For political leaders Covid-19 is both a difficultly and an opportunity because politicians can use the virus like a ballistic missile to blow up their opposition by destroying confidence in their leadership. Politicians, by design, exploit problems to gain control. It may sound cynical, but it’s mostly true. And it’s not just politicians who use crises this way. Recently I heard a Christian leader say that crises provide “smoke cover” for leaders to do things they want to do, but can’t without the covering of “smoke.” He was speaking of the current Covid-19 crisis.

For pastors, the leadership challenge is different. Pastors shepherd people they know by name and by sight. Churches are bodies of believers whose head is Christ, bound together by love for Christ and His love for them. So the pastoral challenge isn’t like that of the politician leading opposing factions. It’s more like that of the parent with kids squabbling in the backseat. Now, don’t run too far with this analogy. Pastors aren’t our parents and the congregation isn’t a gathering of whining children, though there are different levels of spiritual maturity and understanding in the membership of any church.

The church is a family. We live together, young and old, mature and immature. We see things differently, but we each have an interest in the health of the family. We may whine, and we might even squabble about how to drive the car down the long and winding road, but we love our church and want it healthy and living in obedience to Christ.

So, are there some principles or guidelines that can help pastors and churches as we travel together on a difficult, unfamiliar road? Yes, there are a few:

First, now and always, we must fear God and love God above all others. Honoring God and seeking what He wants us to be, say, and do is always the most important thing. When we get this right, everything is right. Every day the challenge is the same. What is God saying? What does He want from me? How can I obey Him? Much of the trouble we face happens because we fear others more than God. We love God, but we love something/someone else, more. This is a problem. It is a bigger problem than Covid-19. Pastors, church members, love God first. Fear God most. Everything else becomes clearer when we get this right.

Second, love your neighbor. Bless your community. This requires intention, not mere sentiment. Loving is something we do, not something we say or feel. Every crisis or problem provides us the opportunity to love someone, bless someone. How does God want me to love my neighbor today? How does God want us to bless our community today? Yesterday my wife gave each of the 13 kids on our cul-de-sac a set of marbles with instructions on different games to play. She also wrote them a poem. She’s been introducing our neighbor kids to various “old fashioned games” to try and alleviate a bit of the stay-at-home monotony. She’s having fun, and the kids are too.

Pastors I’ve spoken with are leading their churches to abide by the stay-at-home orders, and the social distancing guidelines, out of love for their church and community, not because they believe the government has the authority to dictate whether the church can gather for worship. They are voluntarily following the guidelines because they love their people and don’t want to jeopardize the health and lives of their church and community.

Whether our state and national leaders, including the medical experts, get things exactly right in terms of how to handle the crisis is not the primary point when it concerns the church gathering or not. The politicians and medical experts won’t get it exactly right. They’ve changed their opinions about things such as whether to wear a mask or not. They have changed the rationale for the stay-at-home orders as well. We can certainly argue and disagree about how fast to open up the economy and get people back to work. But don’t let this create a problem for your church. When we think about love, remember love for the “weaker brother” (Romans 14 and 1 Cor. 8). Covid-19 is providing new ways to do this. This leads to the next principle.

Third, protect and promote the unity of the church. Some families pull together in a crisis and some get blown up by it. Churches are no different. Like kids squabbling in the backseat, this Covid-19 road trip is putting pressure on churches. There are financial pressures caused by over 36 million people losing their jobs in just eight weeks. Church members are seeing their businesses crumble. Some are dealing with sickness and even death. Even before Covid-19, an average of 7,700 people died every day in the United States, more than 2.8 million each year. If the averages hold true, that means that while 90,000 have died of Covid-19 in the U.S. so far, another 800,000 have died from some other cause. Covid-19 didn’t introduce death to us, but it has introduced massive job loss and isolation through stay-at-home orders.

Added to these troubles, pastors are learning new technologies and acquiring new skills and working harder than ever. Then there’s the pressure about when to begin gathering again and how to gather. When we gather, what precautions should we take? Do we need sanitation stations in the church building? How do we practice social distancing? Do people wear masks? Do we take temperatures as people walk in the door? What do we do if someone in the church gets sick with Covid-19? Do we ask everyone they came near to self-quarantine?

How about this question: should we obey governmental mandates and guidelines regarding the stay-at-home orders, or should we not obey them? What about the U.S. constitutional liberties about free exercise of religion? Are we allowing the government to trample on our constitutional and God-given rights by following the stay-at-home orders and not gathering for worship? And if we violate the governmental orders and guidelines, and someone gets sick, can they file a lawsuit? Will our insurance company support us if we fail to follow guidelines? These are the questions church leaders are considering.

As we continue down the road of Covid-19, this question of governmental authority, and when and how the church should start gathering, is beginning to threaten the unity of some churches. Disunity in the church over Covid-19 would be a great tragedy. Don’t let it happen.

Your pastor and church leaders are trying to do the right thing in the best way. Support them in this. They have incredible pressures upon them right now and they need the support and love of their church, just as you need their love and support. Like the rest of us, your pastor has never gone through something like this. He needs to know you support him. You don’t have to agree with his every move to fully support him as your pastor. He is God’s under-shepherd for your church. He bears a great responsibility about how he serves God’s church. He knows this, and more than the opinion of any other person, your pastor wants God’s blessing on his life and the people he serves. With all that your church and pastors are facing, don’t add disunity and grumbling to the mix. That will only serve the purpose of the evil one.

Fourth, focus on disciple-making and disciple growing. This is the mission of the church. Problems provide the church unique opportunities to make and grow disciples. Just think of the opportunities Covid-19 is providing families. Moms and Dads are home with their kids, teaching them math and history and grammar. Parents are teaching their kids how to handle a problem and how to redeem the time. How to pray. How to pull-together as a family. They are taking walks together, playing together, resolving conflict together, learning how to be together 24/7.

I don’t know all that parents are teaching their kids through this, but I know that they are teaching them because kids are always learning something, good or bad. I can imagine there is a family in your church that is memorizing a Bible chapter or a Bible book, together. They are redeeming this stay-at-home order, trying to make the best of it. Covid-19 provides churches a unique disciple-making opportunity. How are you growing the faith of your church and the obedience of your church during these days? What are you doing to further develop the leaders in the church? Has God led you to biblical texts that you have found helpful to grow the obedience of your church?

Impatient kids on a long road trip eventually learn that the trip will end. It might end at grandma’s house where they’re greeted with hugs and cookies. It might end at the beach or a family gathering where they get to play with the cousins. But all road trips end. The trip down Covid-19 will end as well. When it does, things won’t be quite the same. We’ll be in another place, at the end of the road. And when we get there, we don’t know what we’ll find, exactly. But we know that the Father will be there with us. Hopefully we’ll arrive together, as families and church families, serving God in His ever-changing and fallen world.

Ministry Guaranteed to Bless Your City

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A sanitation worker in our town was crushed when he was hit by a car and pinned up against the garbage truck. He was horribly injured and our church prayed for him and his family. Following the prayer, a church deacon asked a simple question that ultimately transformed our ministry. Here’s the question: “I wonder if that man has a church that is ministering to him and his family?” We learned that he did have a church and they were doing well by him. But this led to a second question: What about others in our community, who in time of crisis, have no church family? What of those who have no pastor, no Bible class, no ministry and no living testimony of God’s love and care in their life? What about them?

This tragic situation and the subsequent questions resulted in a profound commitment by our church. We determined that we would pray for, and serve as best we could, every family in town touched by tragedy. House fires, car wrecks, crime victims, accidents of various kinds, horrible medical diagnoses; these happened with some frequency in our ministry area of 25,000 people. And when they did, we sent two or three to the home with the simple message, “We’re from First Baptist. We heard what happened. We’re so sorry. We want to pray for you and see if there is any way we can help.”
Sometimes our involvement ended after the prayer and words of love and concern. Other times clothing or food was provided, biblical counseling was provided, a wheel chair ramp was built, among other things. The results included some coming to faith in Christ, goodwill built with the family and friends, and some actually joined our church so that they could be involved in this ministry of care. Our church was known for several things, one of which became, “They’re the church that serves everybody and anybody in time of crisis.”

So here’s a goal that will bless your city: commit to visiting and praying for every person stricken by tragedy. The tragedy doesn’t have to be physical injury. In our local newspaper I read weekly, if not daily, of hardships in families. A local mayor’s portrait was on the front page because he was accused of soliciting sex for money. A grandmother went to prison because she embezzled from her employer. A family was ripped apart when a grandson murdered his grandmother. The list goes on. But questions that a local church needs to ask are, “Does this family have a church? Do they have a pastor? Let’s visit them and pray for them and see how we might show them God’s love.”

When I surrendered to ministry leadership a pastor told me that if I would minister to hurting people I would never lack for ministry opportunities. He was right. But I also learned that I couldn’t do it by myself. I needed to lead our church to organize and to do this in our ministry field.

Often when we discuss ministry goals we talk budgets and baptisms and attendance in public worship and Bible study. These are important matters to consider. But mostly they are the byproduct of other things. Things like leading a church to pray for Kingdom concerns and mobilizing outreach ministries of various kinds. Through ministries like http://www.Pray4EveryHome.org every member of your church can pray for their 100 closest neighbors. Through My316 and God Space you can teach your church how to share the Gospel and minister to people (these are provided to every NWBC church without cost thanks to the generous Cooperative Program missions giving of our churches).

How about this as a goal: We will pray for missionaries, the lost in our community, city and school leaders, and all of the children in town, in every public gathering of our church. That is Kingdom praying –praying for the city, unbelievers, and the missionaries we send and support. If we don’t pray for Kingdom concerns when we gather as church, Kingdom praying won’t happen in the homes of most church members.

Things like this make me excited for the spiritual possibility present in every church. Whether you gather with 20 or 200 on Sunday, these are the kinds of things you can do that will touch heaven and human hearts and will make a difference in your city. God told the people in Jeremiah’s day, living as exiles in Babylon, “Seek the welfare of the city I have deported you to. Pray to the LORD on its behalf, for when it has prosperity, you will prosper” (Jere. 29:7). That is a good word for us, living in a 21st Century Babylon.

Trust – The Indispensable Ingredient for Seizing Unexpected Ministry Opportunities

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A few weeks ago I was asked to speak about things I have learned in 35 years of ministry. I decided to tell a story that illustrates what can happen in a church/ministry when trust is high. This article is longer than most, but I think you will find it encouraging. Partly, I just wanted to get it down on paper for myself.

I was in my tenth year as pastor of FBC McAlester, OK when we learned that the trial of Terry Nichols, a conspirator in the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, would be held in the Pittsburg County Courthouse, adjacent to our church. Nichols had already been convicted in a federal trial and given a life sentence. The trial in McAlester was an Oklahoma State trial, undertaken so that Nichols could be given the death penalty for his role in the murder of 168 people, including three pregnant women and 19 children.

Our local newspaper said that the trial could last six months and that our town of 18,000 would be inundated with media people. Our church staff had our weekly meeting the day we learned the trial would be held next door to our church building. We first discussed the problems this could bring, primarily with parking, but we quickly transitioned to the question, “Is there a ministry opportunity in this situation?”

Tom Beddow was a staff member who had the unique role of providing counseling, as well as helping us connect to the needs of the community in creative ways. Tom said, “I’ll call Paul Bettis at the Oklahoma Baptist Convention office and see if he knows anything about this.” Paul led the chaplaincy ministry for Oklahoma Baptists, and when Tom told him that he wanted information about the trial, and how the church might help, Paul said, “I can’t talk to you. I can’t talk to anyone in Pittsburg County.” Tom said, “I don’t live in Pittsburg County. I live in Pontotoc County. Does that help?” Paul said, “Let me check and I’ll call you back.”

Paul called Tom 30 minutes later and told him the situation, which went generally like this: “We think the trial will last six months and that as many as 150 bombing survivors and victim family members will be there each day. We need a safe place for them to go when they want to leave the courtroom, some place where the media can’t reach them, some place where they can relax. We need to feed them a breakfast and a good lunch every day of the trial, Monday-Friday, for as many as six months. We can’t charge them for the food.”

Paul told Tom, “You can’t tell anyone about this.” Tom said, “I have to tell the pastor.” After some checking, Tom was allowed to tell me, and we were allowed to share it with our church staff, but each of us was sworn to secrecy. We couldn’t tell anyone else because they were concerned it could taint the jury pool.

The situation boiled down to this – the Oklahoma City District of Attorney’s Office needed someone to feed and care for as many as 150 people daily for six months, but they couldn’t share this need publically. The question for me and my staff was this, “Can you commit to provide for this need without informing the church that you are committing them to six months of ministry, Monday through Friday, including providing food and other support services to these families?” Our staff and I enthusiastically and confidently committed ourselves and our church to this ministry opportunity, knowing we couldn’t tell our church or the deacons or anyone else that to which we had committed them.

About five weeks before the trial began we told the District of Attorney’s Office that we needed to bring some key lay leaders into the planning and preparation process. They asked for a list of names, and if they were not in the thousand-person jury pool, we could meet with them. None of the 21 names we gave them was in the jury pool.

The night we met with the 21 was amazing. Each were choice servants of God, people of faith who had given God a big “YES” when lesser opportunities were presented. There was an overwhelming spirit of gratitude that God would choose us to minister to a people so badly wounded by the bombing. As we talked about the particulars of purchasing food and preparing meals, someone suggested that we ask Walmart and other businesses if they would help us. But one of the 21, a big bear of a man, said, “How much glory would Walmart want if they paid for this? I think God deserves all of the glory and we don’t need to ask Walmart for help.” That statement resonated with us, and we determined to ask for no outside help. This wasn’t meant to be negative toward Walmart or any other business. It was meant as an expression of faith and confidence that our God could use His people to do this thing. And He did.

One week before the trial started and the jury was selected, I was permitted to tell church what we had committed them to do. It was a Sunday morning. As I explained the incredible opportunity God had given us to care for these families who had suffered so, to feed them, listen to their stories, offer prayer and comfort, there was tremendous excitement in our congregation. It seemed like everyone wanted to know how they could help. The spirit was one of gratitude that God had chosen us for this work, and every need we had was met.

The trial lasted 3 ½ months. Our church never faltered. We set aside $2,000 to buy food, thinking that would get us through the first couple of weeks. At the end of the trial $1,800 remained. One small country church, unsolicited, sent us $500 to purchase food. Others did the same.

One survivor who attended the trial was Mr. Khan. Mr. Khan was Islamic and couldn’t eat the food we had prepared. One of our volunteers told him, “Mr. Khan, you tell me what you would like to eat and I’ll prepare it.” She did so every day thereafter. Mr. Khan said, “I am a Muslim. But if I ever become a Christian it will be because of what you have done for me.”

Another person mentioned how hard the benches were in the courtroom. One of our people heard the comment and bought cushions for every seat in the courtroom.

Our church had two custodians who were not members of our church. Some were concerned that we were overworking them, but they came to us and said, “We want to be a part of this. If it means we have to work extra we will donate our time because we want to help.”

About two months into the trial I told a group at lunch that I wouldn’t see them the next week because I was taking my family on vacation. A man asked me where we were going and I told him Washington D.C. He asked, “Are you touring the White House?” I said that we were trying to get a tour of the East Wing (which is where the tourists were allowed to go), but that it hadn’t come through yet. He said, “I’m retired Secret Service. I can get you a private Secret Service tour of the West Wing.” The next week our family met a Secret Service agent early one evening, and he toured us through the West Wing of the White House – the Oval Office, Cabinet Room, pictures in the Rose Garden, the whole works.”

The trial wrapped up late one Friday evening on June 11, 2004. The jury deadlocked on giving Nichols a death sentence, which meant “life without parole” was the maximum he could receive. I was at my house. They called me about 10:00 PM and told me of the verdict and the sentence, and they said that the families wanted to gather one last time in our church and they wanted me to pray for them and speak to them.

It was an evening I will never forget. I don’t say this lightly, but God gave me a message that night. It was a message unrelated to any I had ever delivered. I spoke about the need we have for justice, but how the justice we ultimately need cannot be provided by any earthly court. “How do you secure justice for those who are gone? How do you render justice for an act so horrific?” I then said, “It’s during times like this that the resurrection of Jesus Christ becomes most precious. Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. And a day is coming when all the dead will be raised and God Himself will render judgment. “ I further assured them that our hope for justice is based on a God who’s love and power are so great that He not always knows the right thing to do, He has the power to do what He knows is right. “Many of you feel let down tonight. You don’t feel like justice was done. But no human court can provide what we most need. We need assurance that our loved ones have a future. We need to know that they’re alright. We need to know that we can see them again. And that is the promise of the gospel. That is the hope that Jesus’ resurrection provides.” Those moments were special. They were powerful as God ministered His Word to those gathered.

In the aftermath of the trial Oklahoma City District Attorney Wes Lane and his team of prosecutors travelled 145 miles to our church on a Sunday morning just to worship with us and to publically thank our people for what they did. Several of the survivors did the same. The Oklahoma governor issued a proclamation honoring our church. And if you tour the Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial you will see a plaque honoring FBC, McAlester. The person responsible for that recognition was Judge Stephen Taylor. He presided over the trial and said that the ministry our church provided was indispensable and he wanted it recognized.

In my years of ministry those months were the highpoint, not because it was the most impactful thing that church had ever done or I have ever experienced. It’s the highpoint because it revealed a level of trust and confidence in God and in God’s people that was extraordinary. Stephen Covey called it the “speed of trust.” High trust allows you to move quickly and confidently. Low trust keeps churches from doing much of anything. Sometimes a lengthy decision-making process is necessary, like when you’re deciding whether to build a large structure. But sometimes churches forgo great ministry opportunities because trust is low. We were able to commit the church to such a huge ministry because we had already seen God do many things over the past decade and trust was built in the process.

When David faced Goliath, he said, “The LORD who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine” (1 Sam. 17:37). We were able to say that the Lord who had delivered us and used us in multiple ways in times past will certainly do so once again.

The bottom line is that churches and pastors who hear from God and experience God gain confidence that the God who “said and did” is the God who still “says and does.”

The Newspaper’s Role in Your Leadership

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It was once said a preacher ought to have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, meaning that the sermon needs to connect biblical truth to life today, life in this world, and life in a particular place. That image of the pastor-preacher with the Bible and the newspaper made sense when I first heard it many years ago. It still resonates with me. I suspect, however, it lacks the impact it once had. That’s a shame.

I know I’m fighting an uphill battle on this one. Newspapers are in decline. Most young adults don’t read them anymore. News is found in other places and with personal “filters.” Uphill battle or not, it’s one that deserves a fight. Ministry leaders need to read their local newspaper. Thumbing through the paper with your hands, your eye catches things it won’t if you read the paper on your smartphone or computer.

First, your local newspaper helps you to know your community. Your city has issues involving economic, political, legal, educational and moral aspects of life. These are issues particular to your community. The churches, residents, schoolchildren, businesses, homeowners, homeless, everyone in the community is affected by decisions of community leaders and the particular issues the city is facing. And certain hot-button issues change daily. No person should know more about the city than ministry leaders. You might pick up bits and pieces down at the coffee shop or through the internet, but the local newspaper will give you the broadest coverage of life in your community. Rarely a week goes by that I don’t relate something from the newspaper to my sermon text on Sunday.

Second, who’s being born and who is dying in your town? Most local papers will inform you daily or weekly about these matters. If someone is killed in a tragic accident, or a young person’s life is cut short in some way, the church needs to know about it and maybe you can minister to the family. At the very least you can pray for them. Churches have been built by ministering to families of newborns. Who is filing a marriage license or divorce papers? Who was arrested for a DUI or other criminal behavior? The paper will tell you. Maybe you can reach out to them. Maybe you host substance abuse classes, or Divorce Care classes, or parenting classes and they can be invited to attend.

Third, what’s going on at the schools in your town? Which students had a great game, excelled in a sporting event, suffered an injury, have a part in the school play, or won the spelling bee? Every week young people in your town are featured in the local newspaper. How encouraging it is for them to receive an extra copy of the article, with a note written by a pastor, Sunday school teacher or other ministry leader!

Fourth, ministry leaders can use the paper to influence others. You can write letters to the editor. I’ve written articles for local papers and established relationships with reporters. Sometimes the local paper will publish articles about something the church is doing as a by-product of these relationships.
Fifth, the local newspaper will help you to pray for your city and its leaders. Every city has people and situations that need prayer. The newspaper will provide you matters for which to pray each and every day.

These principles are not for people who don’t care about their city or have no desire to impact their city. This is about ministry leaders, sent by God to a particular place, for a particular time. No one should know more about the city, and care more about its people, than the ministry leaders called there. The newspaper is indispensable in connecting you to the city in a holistic way.

Roseburg Reminds Us to Honor Our Pastors

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Last Thursday, October 1, several pastors in and near Roseburg, OR responded to the horrific murder of eight students at Umpqua Community College. Many others were wounded physically and many more were damaged emotionally, and, perhaps, spiritually. Like the hero first responders who advanced to stop the attacker and bind the wounds of the suffering, these pastors waded into an ocean of grief to pray for and comfort those whose hearts were ripped open by a wicked and violent act. And their work is not yet complete. There will be funerals, many home visits, and continued counseling. And when the community and the world turns its attention elsewhere, grief, anger, and depression will remain for months and years and even a lifetime for many, and pastors will continue to give care and comfort.

Fortunately, events like last Thursday are rare for a community, but ministering the love and presence of Christ to those who suffer is not unusual for pastors. If you are not a pastor, you probably can’t understand that many pastors say that they would rather serve a family suffering from the death of a loved one than perform a wedding. Among the reasons for this are that death provides a unique opportunity to point to the hope of the resurrection and the need to know Jesus Christ. A pastor’s heart is like that of the shepherd who leaves those who are safe and secure to seek for the one who is lost and hurting. The calling and work of the pastor is difficult. A pastor rarely rests his head, confident that he completed all of his work. Sunday is always coming, and there are always others to visit and counsel and with whom to share the gospel.

Each October churches are encouraged to honor their pastors and show them appreciation. Many reasons exist to honor a faithful pastor who labors to bring a fresh message from God’s Word each week, among his many other tasks. In addition to the burden of the church, many pastors are compared to other pastors who are deemed more “talented” and more “successful.” Within the last week someone told me that sometimes they stay home from church so they can watch their favorite preacher, a mega-church pastor, on his live internet feed. We preachers and pastors serve God first, and such things shouldn’t stab us like a knife to the belly. But pastors are human and they too can get hurt. Another person told me last week that a pastor friend of his, whose church had several thousand members, battled depression and felt he didn’t “measure up” because a nearby church had thousands more. His depression became so severe that he took his own life. Obviously he had problems. Faithfulness to his calling, and the joy of knowing God, wasn’t enough for him. But the fact is, many pastors battle discouragement.

Your pastor is God’s gift to your church and your community. He loves God and he loves His people. He was called by God to lead the church in the proclamation of the Word of God and in prayer. He is worthy of respect, love, and, yes, honor. Allow me to suggest a few ways you can show appreciation to your pastor.

Consider providing your pastor an extended retreat for prayer and study each year. Such a retreat should be a week at minimum, but there may be good reason to consider a two-week retreat, during which your pastor will plan sermons and seek God’s presence and direction for himself and the church. When I look back on my 19 years as a pastor, I preached too much and didn’t take enough time to retreat from the daily pressures of ministry. Many of my “breakthroughs” came when I was on vacation or doing a mission trip because the weekly routine was broken. But I should have retreated for extended prayer and study. Help your pastor to do this.

What else can you do to honor and appreciate your pastor? Some “dos” include: pray for him every day, tell him thank you, support him with your participation in ministry, encourage him to seize opportunities to attend pastoral trainings and other “iron-sharpens-iron” opportunities, send him on a mission trip (and don’t count it as his vacation), and forgive him when he makes a mistake (or when you think he makes a mistake). Also, respect his wife and family, understanding that their involvement in ministry will shift and change depending on the ages of children, work schedules, health issues, and other family dynamics.

Some “don’ts” include: don’t compare him to other preachers. Don’t expect him to spend all of his time in the church house, but help him connect with people and needs in the community. Don’t speak badly of him to church members, and certainly not to those who aren’t members of the church. Most who complain about their pastor don’t pray for him. Please don’t do that. Every day he is dealing with matters concerning heaven and hell and life and death.

I used to tell our church that I want to forgive others because I need forgiveness. I want to extend grace to others because I need grace. I want to be generous with others, because I need others to be generous with me. Everything that you need, your pastor needs. He carries a heavy burden. He cares about your children. He serves the young and the old. And he’s trying to lead the church to look to the fields which are ready for a spiritual harvest. You can be his friend. You can walk beside him in ministry. You can encourage him.

And know this, when tragedy hits home, when the need is great, your pastor will be there. He’ll be there whether or not you’re a “good church member.” He’ll minister to your family. He’ll love your kids. Just like those pastors in Roseburg are doing this very day.

God bless our pastors. Encourage them with Your presence and Your strength. Amen.