DARKNESS VS. THE LIGHT

A personal reflection from Associate Superintendent Peter Johnson.

Being in darkness is never good when you know that you should be in the light. A month ago, I was mowing the grass and gathering up the leaves one last time before the winter season. The last thing I remember was mowing around the garden next to the garage door. The mower bag was filling up with shredded leaves from our oak tree. The next thing I remember was groggily looking around and seeing doctors looking down on me as I was being placed in an MRI machine.  

Then I was unconscious again until I awoke being wheeled into a bay in the ER, my wife and daughter nearby. I have no memory of what had just happened. I heard them say that I had a broken rib, had a gash in my forehead that needed stitches, and had a concussion. They listed out a litany of possible reasons as to why I might have fallen. Dehydration? Stroke? Heart attack? Seizure?

While ongoing tests are ruling each of these out, we are pretty sure that I was just clumsy, that I slipped while on an incline near the street, perhaps tripping while trying to maneuver the mower with a full bag of leaves. Whatever happened, because of my weak right side, I was unable to put out my right arm to protect myself while falling and I landed head first on my driveway. Fortunately, someone was driving by as I fell, saw the whole thing happen, stopped to help me as I laid there dazed and bleeding, and called 911. 

Once home from the ER, I mostly slept for the first few days, lying flat on my back in a darkened room. Any movement caused aggressive dizziness. Any noise or light was too much for my bruised brain. Now, a month into this experience, the world has pretty much stopped spinning when I try to get up, and the rib is just about healed. While still a little wobbly, I am gaining my strength back and getting stronger all the time. Hopefully after a few more medical tests, I will be cleared to drive.       

I have to tell you, it is very disconcerting to wake up and have no memory of several hours. But the truth is, I have already lost a month to this fall. And what a month to lose. I was only able to observe Advent and Christmas from the sidelines. I totally missed the tree being decorated. I could not handle the light from the first Advent candle flickering across the room. 

As Christmas approached I sat in a recliner watching as the family gathered to celebrate together.  Decorating the sugar cookies. Wrapping gifts. Going on outings with the grandchildren. Anticipating the birth of Jesus at church. I missed it all. 

Laying in a darkened room gives a person time to think. To pass the time and think about Advent themes I had my daughter read to me from a favorite book called The Birth by Gene Edwards (part of the Chronicles of the Door series). In the story, Michael the archangel breaks through the dark, brassy hardness between heaven’s throne room and earth after centuries of silence from heaven due to humanities sin. 

Once more God’s Light would shine upon God’s favored realm. Ultimately the host of heaven would watch in awe as the very essence of Almighty God would shrink, without losing any of its all-encompassing glory, and the doorway between heaven and earth would open into the womb of Mary, implanting this incredible Almighty seed of God into her womb. The door between heaven and earth would eternally be open in the person of Incarnate Jesus. God’s glory in the person of Jesus Christ would now change everything. 

Light would dispel the darkness. 

As we begin a New Year, what darkness is encumbering you? Like me, do you feel like life has come to a standstill? Are you struggling with a desert wilderness because of some emotionally charged quagmire? Has paying too much attention to the darkness of the world around you dragged you down? Maybe there is sin that is causing your heart to become brassy, hard, and dark?  

Let me challenge you as we begin 2018. Psalm 119:105, 130 says that opening the Word … is a light to your path. Commit to reading the Word devotionally, not just to prepare for a sermon but to prepare your soul to follow God’s path for you this year. Why? John 12:35 says we are to walk in the light of the word so the darkness will not overcome you.   

I found it intriguing that the online verse of the day for January 1 comes from Isaiah 43:19 (ESV).  “Behold I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? It will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” Listen to what His Word has to say. Talk to Him. Pray that God will release you from the hard brassy darkness in your soul. What new thing does God have waiting for you this year? What path through the wilderness and river in the desert has God already prepared for you to walk through? The doorway to Heaven’s throne is open and well lit.  Because of Jesus, it will never be closed again. There is Light. Walk in it.                    

BEWARE THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

Have you heard this joke? A person bought an elephant for a friend’s room. The friend thanked him to which the person said, “Don’t mention it.” 

Think about it, you will get it. Hint: What is true of the elephant in the room? 

Does your church have the proverbial elephant in the room? That uncomfortable issue no one wants to mention, the problem no one is willing to talk about and, therefore, it never gets challenged. 

Sometimes it’s a leadership issue. Weak-kneed elders or those who are too strong. Perhaps it is roles and responsibilities that we expect to be covered that are not; sin in the camp that is swept under the rug; a power hungry church boss that ignores the direction of the leaders; a gossiping spirit; prayerlessness; an unwillingness to listen to God. 

Some churches can’t remember the last time there was a new birth. Sometimes it is the old adage, “this is just the way we have always done ministry and we are not about to change now even though it is not working any longer. Like Tevya in Fiddler on the Roof a church declares, ‘TRADITION!’, that codified social interaction that just seems to make life go on peacefully year after year based on a particular congregational worldview that the group is comfortable with … until … uncomfortably, it is not. 

For every church there will be a different situation. You know what it is for your church. And even though people know it is there, because we are afraid to cause a stir, or offend someone, we tip toe around the elephant in the room, and it never is dealt with.

So what should happen with an elephant in the room? An elephant will just take up all the space in the room unless it is led away. For a church to grow and stay healthy, it is imperative that spiritual leaders acknowledge the elephant in the room, not be afraid of it, prayerfully seek God about it and take steps to deal with it. Difficult? Yes. But to not deal with it means the church will slowly suffocate by the sheer size and weight of the elephant and never be free to grow into what God intends the church to be.

We have Biblical examples: 

  • Isaiah 54 refers to the Jewish nation becoming barren because they did not share the blessings of God with the nations so that others could come to faith and worship God. 
  • Acts 6 refers to the elephant of racism when the Hebrew church was ignoring the needs of the Hellenist believing widows.
  • 1 Corinthians 1 confronted the elephant of jealousy, division and quarreling.    
  • 1 Corinthians 5 judged the elephant of sexual immorality. 
  • Galatians 1 condemns the elephant of deserting the grace of Christ and turning back to the law. 
  • Paul confronted Peter to his face for the elephant of hypocrisy when he separated himself from the Gentiles whom God was calling to Himself.      

The list could go on, but I think you get the point. Biblical leaders were not afraid to call out sin or sinners in the church and thereby removing the elephant from the room. It is time to acknowledge our elephants, call them what they are, be transformed by what is Truth, and move on to freedom in our congregations.   

LIFE WITH GOD

G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and therefore left untried.” (What’s Wrong with the World). Really living your life with God can be costly. It goes against cultural norms. Matthew 10:34-39 says that it can become a sword that separates people from their own family. It means taking up the cross and dying to self.  Because authentic discipleship is a difficult road to travel, it is too often the path least taken. 

But it is totally worth it.

What sort of expectations does your church set up for people to follow God? Is what is being taught and modeled really Biblical?   

Skye Jethani, in his book With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God, suggests that there are four postures often taken in churches that will actually discourage people, send them out of the church, or kill their desire to follow God.

1. Life UNDER God

This posture sees that God is angry, waiting to punish us for stepping out of line. He blesses the righteous and curses the unrighteous. A person’s primary calling is to live under divine rules in order to avoid the wrath of God. It becomes a way to control God to avoid pain and hardship. But it usually “burdens people under the weight of guilt, fear, and empty religiosity.” (Jethani p. 39) 

2. Life OVER God

In this posture there are principles that God has established to make everything work in an orderly fashion in our world. Follow the principles (rather than God) and life will be good. Sermons are often patterned after rules to follow: Four steps to a happy marriage or Five principles to get along at work. So you end up living over God by living by principles, not needing to live with Him. “They practice a faith that has little room for God.” (Jethani p. 45)    

3. Life FROM God

With this posture all we have comes from God, so we ask God to bless us materially (i.e. prosperity gospel). However we then live far from Him unless He becomes useful to make us more prosperous. “Life from God is nothing but consumerism with a Jesus bumper sticker slapped on the bumper.” (Jethani p. 65) 

4. Life FOR God

Many Christians feel that we must work hard to satisfy God. We can push doing rather than being, trying to accomplish as much as I can for God so He will be pleased with me. We can be so outwardly focused devoted to accomplishing God’s mission in the world that we neglect being with God. We put God’s mission ahead of God Himself. “The relentless drive to prove our worth can quickly become destructive.” (Jethani p. 88)

Life WITH God

A Biblical reaction to the above postures is life with God. It is all about the wonders and beauty of living in relationship with God. Just as the Triune God is in perfect relationship with Himself, He desires to restore relationship with us. So He sent His Son Immanuel (God with us) to earth. Life with God will be seen in the times when He shows up in unexpected ways that bring understanding, joy, truth, peace and grace to our lives. “Jesus entered into our dark existence to share our broken world and illuminate a different way forward.” (Jethani p. 101)

The posture we teach and demonstrate in our churches will either help build transformed disciples who walk with Christ, get to know and treasure Him deeply, commune with Him, and involve themselves in what He is doing; or they will fear God, try to control their world, and endanger themselves and others.     

7 STEPS TO AVOID BURNOUT

What should a pastor do when feeling tired, burned out, under-appreciated or even under attack?

1. Don’t isolate yourself. Solitude is a spiritual discipline and is healthy. Isolation is not. Make friends with someone not associated with the church. Someone from another church, a friend from seminary days, or even someone in town who is mature enough to handle the idea of a pastor who does not have his act together. Pastors can have too many relationships in church but no real friends. Isolation is a dangerous position to be in that can lead a person to a lot of dark places and allow a person to make some really poor decisions in their life.  Choose wise friends who can listen and tell you the truth – Proverbs 12:26.

2. Read your Bible.  When the Bible (or your soul) is dry as dust, don’t stop reading it. Even in a time of spiritual or emotional drought, a willing heart will once again restore God’s purpose and joy – Psalm 51:12.

3. Pray through the Psalms. Anyone in turmoil will find a treasure trove of encouragement and hope from the pen of the psalmist – Psalm 50:15.

4. Seek help. Getting past ministry struggles can be daunting. Seek out professional assistance from the District staff, a mentor or a pastoral counselor. Attend your pastor cluster meeting. Most guys in your group have struggled in ministry and can give an understanding, listening ear and wise counsel about that with which you are wrestling – Proverbs 15:22.

5. Share the burden of ministry. You can’t do it all by yourself. Share the load of ministry with your elders and other leaders – Acts 6:1-7.

6. Take a break. Even if it is in the middle of the week, occasionally take a personal health day.  Maybe a weekend away to stare at clouds and butterflies. Take all your vacation time. Ask for a Sabbatical after seven years. And even if you are busy you need to take your Sabbath rest every week. If it was good enough for God, it is good enough for you. Be creative with it. But spend time communing with the Lord – Genesis 2:2-3.

7. Remember who you serve.  t is not the praise of men you should seek. In fact you are not in ministry even for yourself. The Lord is your judge – 1 Corinthians 4:3-4.

I watched a great video on this topic. If you are a pastor or a leader in a church then this is a podcast worth taking the time to watch (or listen here, #30).

Know we are here to pray with you.

 – Pete

Where is your church going?

The life cycle of any church is often pictured by a bell curve. As the church grows, the curve goes up. But at some point, without direct decisions being intentionally made to continue the upward direction that first birthed the church, a church will plateau, grow stagnant, and begin a slide to its death.

It is inevitable for every church, including yours. You are either heading up from starting as a new church, plateauing and becoming stagnant, or heading downward, losing focus and members as you spiral toward death. 

A new church is exciting as it grows. It will dream its dream of how it will make a difference. Core values are established. Vision is cast. Goals are set. Plans are made and ministry begins. Eventually structure is put in place that allows the church to grow and thrive.

All successful plants have at their core evangelism and disciplemaking where it is part of the DNA that every member is sharing their faith and multiplying disciples. 

However, there comes a time where many churches suffer focus drift. Too often, the structure of evangelism and disciple-making gets pushed out of the way for the structure of buildings, staffing and programs. People want their needs taken care of at the expense of the evangelistic fervor of reaching the lost that marked the early days of the church. 

Unless intentional decisions are made to find its original purpose, the church will plateau, eventually heading down toward closing the doors. In other words, your church is either heading up in health and ministry or you are heading down in sickness, stagnation and death. Where is your church going? 

where-is-your

Robert Dale, author of To Dream Again: How to Help Your Church Come Alive, writes that when a church loses its way up, grows stagnant and begins the freefall toward the end, its leaders will make changes – either change policy about how to do things, change personnel by firing the pastors /electing new leaders, or create new programs. But they often miss the most basic and important of all: clarify your purpose. 

What is your church’s purpose? 

Glorifying God is always the goal of our lives. We glorify God by making disciples which is the mission of every believer based on the Great Commission.  But evangelism is the main purpose of every church that then leads to disciple making, which glorifies God. Even when you start the disciple making process with one who is unconverted you have as your hope that such a person will convert to Christ. So our purpose for church is evangelism through disciple-making. 

Biblically, evangelism is an active word. It is the going out in order to proclaim the message of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ to the unsaved people of the world. Matthew 28:19-20 tells Christians to go, make disciples, baptize, and teach to obey. If there is no going, there are no new disciples to baptize and teach to obey.

How is your church actively taking the gospel to others? 

Paul saw this as his goal in planting churches. He said to the Corinthians, “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” (1 Cor. 15-3-4, NIV).  How are you doing with this?  Can you list ways that each of your ministries are taking the gospel to those who need it? 
Questions to ask your church leaders: 

  • What are your activities at church? While your programs may be good, do they have evangelistic disciple-making as their main activity and purpose?
  • How can we phase out those programs that do not advance our main purpose?   
  • Just how passionate is your church about evangelism? When was the last time someone intentionally shared their faith? When was the last time there was a public testimony declared of evangelistic attempts by members of the church?

Have you begun to slide down? 

Evaluate where your church is on the bell curve.  Are you still excited about what started the dream of planting a church?  Is most of the congregation still committed to evangelism and disciple-making?  Or has your church peaked, grown stagnant and coasted into a maintenance mode?  Is church just doing status quo ministry? Have you begun to slide down?  Is there an attitude of frustration and questioning about ‘why can’t we do church like we used to in the good old days?’  Rather than people being won to Christ and coming into the church are people only coming when it is convenient and starting to check out? The commitment of convenience is a mark of a dying church. Changes need to be made or the death knell of the bell curve will begin to toll.

It is time to dream the dream again! That original dream based on the original purposes that got your church started. As author Robert Dale says, “Churches must constantly open themselves to revitalization.  They must dream again.  To stand still is to die!”

pete