THE UNTHINKABLE: GOD MAKES GOOD FRUIT IN THE DARK

What seems impossible actually happens sometimes.

Every year, the national news conversation leans toward the NCAA college basketball tournament. The overall experience is called March Madness. Sports analysts go into high gear, the words “Tournament brackets” become part of everyday vocabulary for millions of people and even everyday casual fans seem to go kinda berserk during this season.

March Madness fits as a title not just because of the hoopla, but because every year, major upsets happen on the court. Top teams from storied schools get beat by unheralded lesser teams. Every spring, Goliaths fall.

Just last night, what was arguably the weakest team invited to this year’s tournament stomped the best team. UMBC beat the University of Virginia. You’re wondering who UMBC is, right? That’s the point. March Madness.

The unthinkable happens.

It happens in the world of sports and it happens where it matters so much more, namely the spiritual world. This matters because this is where our souls are fed.

There are times when we look at things in the world or in our own lives and we think, “How can anything good come out of this?”

It’s precisely then that we need to remember, the unthinkable happens.

Just as sports fans annually enjoy March Madness, each and every year the Church gets to celebrate the Lenten Season, which, when engaged fully, represents a roller coaster journey that ends with victory. There’s never been a greater triumph, a more unpredictable upset than the resurrection. Death was the ultimate Goliath, but then Jesus did the unthinkable.

With what’s left of the season, let me encourage you – don’t just jump to the end of the empty tomb and celebrate the big win. We rob ourselves of some incredible and important lessons if we don’t embrace the full story of Jesus and His followers during this season. The journey to the empty tomb reminds us of what to expect in this messed up world. It helps us re-center our minds, our hearts, our lives for what we walk through on the way to Glory.

The full story reminds us that the road to Glory is marked by struggle. Jesus, the Lord of Glory Himself, suffered like no other. He came to live as a man and to defeat the curse of death by dying. His bloodied, lifeless body was placed in a dark tomb.

Nobody knew then what we know now; God was, in the darkest moment of human existence, actually accomplishing redemption. 

God often works through unthinkable situations for His glory. We know that victory requires challenge and miracles require a mess. It’s important for us to remember the story and remind ourselves of this when life is hard.

There is no promise we will understand everything, or even half the things that happen either to us or around us in this world. But we know this – He is trustworthy even in struggle and darkness. Our “darkness” creates no confusion or fear for our Lord. He’s proven that.

In darkness He spoke light. To darkness, Jesus came. In the outer darkness of the curse for our sin, He hung alone. He still won the battle for our souls.

Even in the dark places of our lives where we are confused and hurt, we will not be ultimately overcome. That’s a great message to remember with others this Lenten Season.

Let this excerpt encourage your heart…

“It will often look as though Christ is defeated…If China was closed for forty years to the western missionaries, it was not as though Jesus accidentally slipped and fell into the tomb. He stepped in. And when it was sealed over, He saved fifty million Chinese from the inside – without Western missionaries. And when it was time, He pushed the stone away so we could see what He had done…When it looks as though He is buried for good, Jesus is doing something awesome in the dark. The world thinks Jesus is done for – out of the way. They think His Word is buried and His plans have failed. But Jesus is at work in the dark place…He lets Himself be buried and He comes out in power when and where He pleases. And His hands are full of fruit made in the dark.” Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad, p. 65

Praying for your heart to be encouraged!

Eddie

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.                    

CARPE DIEM!

The other day a man expressed to me that I must have my hands full as a District Superintendent. He had heard a couple of pastoral burnout and failure statistics that left him incredulous. He asked me if the stats were indeed true (sadly, they were) and then asked me what I do to address these issues as a DS. 

I informed him that my top priority as a DS is to make sure the pastors and leaders of our district know we are here to care for them. Among other things, the district offers pastoral cluster meetings, help from professional pastoral counselors and coaching as ways to aid with the personal health of our leaders.   

“Of course,” I said, “we can offer all of this stuff, and more, but just like a pastor with a congregation, I can only make the offer and encourage participation. I can’t make anyone participate and benefit.” 

The load of being a spiritual leader can get really heavy. But the burden of leadership surely shouldn’t crush our spiritual vitality. If the role is crushing our joy and our energy, we need to step back and remember that we aren’t called to be little saviors, just helpers. 

Rule number one in Christian leadership is that Christ alone can save. We need to remember and repeat daily the words of John the Baptist, “I am not the Christ.” Unless we get this right, we fail. 

My advice? Take care of your self and don’t be a statistic. 

Preach the Gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith in Christ alone to yourself. Remember, He alone is God and He alone can save. 

Give thanks for the gift of freedom. If you’re American, or live here, remember the high price people have paid and continue to pay for your freedom. And while you’re at it, give thanks for the spiritual freedom you have because of Jesus. 

Rest in Jesus. Only God can work 24 hours per day, 365 days per year. Everyone needs a Sabbath, including you. Seize the day!

Be genuinely present with the people you love. 

Celebrate your call to freedom (Galatians 5:13).     

Praying for your joy!

Eddie

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

Fact or Fiction? Americans Pray Differently than People in Other Countries

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When our African brothers and sisters met in the lower level of our church in New York, you could literally hear them praying through the floor. When our Arabic brothers and sisters gathered for weekly prayer and worship, they prayed with hands high and spiritual energy to match it. I’ve prayed with Koreans who are notorious for the value they place on prayer.

All these people share one thing that invigorates them when they pray – desperation that God will answer their prayers.

I’ve been to some American churches that defy what I’m about to suggest. There are definitely exceptions, but as a whole, there is a stark contrast between the prayer that goes on in the Church in America and around much of the world

Why is this?

Francis Chan, in Old Paths, New Power: Awakening Your Church through Prayer and the Ministry of the Word, a book written by Daniel Henderson, suggests the reason for this is because we Americans have options. We lean on good music or some other way to create “spiritual success” rather than God actually responding to the prayers of His children. We Americans often do something that makes us and the people in our church feel good whether God is involved in it or not. 

In contrast, Chan suggests that much of the world, has an “all or nothing” mentality, much like Joshua marching around the walls of Jericho and blowing trumpets, Elijah calling down fire from heaven, or Paul preaching a simple Gospel message. In these moments, only God could deliver the result needed. All or nothing.

What should we do?

To pastors… leave time to pray in your services and then pray with and for your people. This past weekend, my pastor gave an invitation to come to the altar to receive prayer for healing. People were moved deeply. There was hardly a dry eye in the house. God met with us. I didn’t hear any speaking in tongues, or any really loud praying. It wasn’t overly emotional at all. But the prayer time was heartfelt, deeply personal and powerful. You could sense the holiness of God in His church at that moment. Our churches need this, brothers. Invite them to pray and then pray.

To everyone… pray. Pray for healing, reconciliation, revival and salvation – things America needs, things God cares deeply about and things we cannot fake. It’s all or nothing with these things.

In His Love,

eddie