Dread is probably too tough of a word. But I am a little concerned about my first day back at the gym when everything opens up again from the COVID19 lockdown. I’m trying to do some exercise now, but it’s not the same and when I finally make it back to the weights and inclined treadmill – I think it’s going to kill me.
Anticipation is the right word though when I think about the first Sunday morning back with my church family. Like many churches, we are doing what we can with technology to share my sermons and stay connected, but it’s not the same. Yes, life has been different the past six weeks and thus people have been forced to take stock of what’s important and remember deeper truths. I hope that when we move out of this dark valley we will see central truths about the church as well. Though there are more, here are five of those truths about the authentic church I hope people will see.
1. The True Church is the People.
Are we closed or open for business? If church is merely a Sunday morning gathering club, then yes, we’re quite closed right now. Yet when we unpack the word, church, it identifies the people of God who are called out of the world to himself. The church is the people and not the building or program. I hope we will see that while we may not be able to meet together in large numbers, we are still called to live out our mission for Christ and those around us.
2. The True Church is a Team.
Christian work is not reserved for the professional leaders while everyone else does their worldly job and merely shows up on Sunday morning to be taught spiritual mysteries. Rather, Paul notes in Ephesians 4:11 that the role of leadership is to equip the saints for the work of ministry. Coach and player might be the right feel here. Every Christian is filled with gifts and talents needed to advance the ball down the field as we work together. I hope that when this is done every follower of Jesus will see their unique and essential role in the Kingdom.
3. The True Church is a Family.
“God’s Family” is the actual phrase Paul uses in 1 Thessalonians 4:10 and I have loved seeing some of that play out in my local church. I have seen our church family checking on and supporting each other, continuing to support the mission financially, and the numerous little acts of love like when a team of volunteers went out to sing from the sidewalk to seniors who cannot get out at all. We are loving each other the way God intended for us to do and I hope that this will continue with an even greater fervency in the future. People need a family and that is what the church is.
4. The True Church is a Life-Saving Station.
After the resurrection of Jesus, he gave the first believers what we now refer to as the great commission in Matthew 28:18-20. Here he called them to make disciples the world over. Some will suggest that this commission was meant for the first disciples or professionals in ministry. But the context of the New Testament does not lend itself to such an interpretation. On the contrary, the apostle Paul referred to everyone in the church as “Ambassadors of Christ” in 2 Corinthians 5:20. As an ambassador, our mission is the mission of our king. Jesus declared his mission in Luke 19:10 as one of seeking and saving those who are lost. I hope that we will see that when Christians leave the church assembly on Sunday morning they are truly leaving the lifesaving station to go out into the world to reach the lost just like the Coast Guard leaves their shelter in a perilous storm to save drowning sailors.
5. The True Church is not to be Taken for Granted.
The first gatherings will be exciting when the lockdown is lifted. The question though will be the following months as life yawns into routine. It’s sad, but how often do we decide to attend, or not attend, the local assembly based on how we feel that day or what we may or may not get out of it for ourselves? When we do this we forget the purposes of the true church. When we do this it becomes less important and is eventually dropped to the bottom of our priority list. This has been the case many times in history dating back to the first century where the author of Hebrews exhorted the first Christians to “not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but to encourage one another.” In thinking about our time apart, maybe we can remember that in some countries, today and throughout history, Christians have been forbidden by atheistic or Muslim governments from gathering together. When this season passes, I hope we can see how much of a blessing the weekly gathering of the saints is and work to never take it for granted again.
At this writing, I don’t know when the restrictions will be lifted. The opening may be gradual and I’m sure new safety efforts will be put into place. But it is my hope that whenever and however we return, it will be with a renewed passion and energy for the body of Christ. Jesus built the church and the church is his bride. God’s heart is for the church and I hope that when this season begins to draw to a conclusion, your heart will be drawn closer to the church as well.
I’ve never been a boxer and the last time I was in a fist fight was in the spring of 1988 when I was actually trying to break up a brawl when one of the combatants jumped me. But I’ve come to appreciate the phrase, roll with the punches, which is originally from the sport of boxing. It is the practice of strategically moving one’s head back and forth away from the opponent’s glove to lessen the impacts of blows. But there is a larger application to the statement than sports.
The first time I remember hearing the phrase was back in 1994 while serving as a missionary in Moscow, Russia. When I heard “we’ve got to roll with the punches, Steve” it came from a mentor who was advising me on how we needed to respond to an unexpected situation. In daily life the battle phrase is often used as an encouragement to adjust with flexibility and thus withstand and even find victory amidst ever changing and even negative circumstances.
With all the changes going on these days, this phrase certainly seems appropriate. Earlier today I was looking at my 2020 wall sized calendar on which I had sketched out a general path for the new year back in January. Now we’re making plans for streaming Easter services online instead of logistically planning for people to gather in our church building. Life has changed. While the present COVID19 situation is certainly a unique example, the reality is that life seldom goes exactly as we would like. Accidents happen, people get sick or make choices we weren’t expecting, and often our plans are sidetracked by something or someone else.
But we don’t have to allow the blows of life to dictate our thinking and actions. We can roll with the punches. As noted, I’m not a boxer and don’t know how long I’d last in the ring. But here are three simple starting pointers that will help maneuver through the punches of life that come our way.
1. Decide to take a deep breath and keep calm.
One verse that has continuously rung through my head over the past month is from 2 Timothy chapter 4 where the veteran apostle Paul is encouraging the young evangelist Timothy. After a charge to continue preaching Christ no matter what, Paul told Timothy to “keep his head in all situations.” We don’t know everything that Timothy was facing in his day, but this exhortation would obviously apply for us now. It’s so easy to let our imaginations run wild or to begin making judgement calls when we don’t have all the data. This is especially true when we are bombarded with a news media that thrives on fanning the negative while ignoring the positive.
2. Deliberately look for good.
In thinking of Paul again, I’m reminded of the book of Philippians which was written when the apostle was in prison for Christ. Despite his bondage, Philippians is truly a book of encouragement in which Paul concludes toward the end; “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Yes, this season of COVID19 will bring pain. But we can choose to look at the recovery cases which don’t always show up as headlines and the tiny pieces of good around the globe which are often swept under the rug of panic. One example in this season of chaos, is that we are seeing people take stock of what is really important in their lives and that is a good thing.
3. Do what you can control.
Personally for me, fear has not been a big emotion in this season. Anger on the other hand has been something I’ve had to wrestle with. I know that there is usually something deeper at play with anger and I suppose that probably one underlying issue for me is just all the things that I simply cannot control. This past fall a wise man rightfully encouraged me to leave most of the uncontrollable things alone and focus on what I do have control over. This principle is something that made U.S. Grant such a great general in the Civil War. While many Union officers were consumed with worry about what general Lee of the south was doing, Grant continued to push forward with what he could control and eventually brought the Army of Northern Virginia to it’s knees and a conclusion to the war. So maybe a huge help for us would be to honestly admit that there are things in life we cannot control. Then we can let them go and have the freedom to focus on what is in our power right now to change for the good.
Today, right now, I can . . .
-Own my own mistakes.
-Get up and keep fighting after a failure.
-Continue to readjust and plan for the future while all the while holding it gently in my hands.
-Make the most of the immediate and present relationships and opportunities right in front of me.
-Thank God for the small blessings around me each day. Wow, I really do love hearing those birds early in the morning each day in my front yard.
-I can encourage someone else who is struggling and trust that God is still on the throne no matter what life brings.
What would you add?
It’s funny, as I actually recounted the “roll with the punches” phrase a few days ago to one of my children. After I shared it, I had to stop and wonder if they even knew what I was talking about. It was a life lesson for them and I hope that it will be an encouraging pointer for you as well.
the best thing to do when you’re at the end of the rope is to trust God and
just do the next thing. A while back on a Sunday afternoon, I was physically
exhausted and emotionally spent after preaching that morning. I was also
handling a number of church projects and concerns that felt like a
mountaineering backpack filled with lead, all the while knowing I had an
important meeting that night. But after a short crash on my bed and watching my
favorite football team get beat, I threw some water on my face, stood still for
a moment, asked Jesus for physical help, and put one foot in front of the
don’t see that a lot in the Bible, but that’s pretty much what life is. We like
the action stories of David whopping Goliath, but we silently ignore all the
days that David was in the desert waiting on God. Eventually, God worked
through that normal Hebrew teenager who was stepping out in faith on a daily
was a good meeting and teaching time that Sunday night. I was still physically
beat when I got home, but there was more of a smile on my face than when I
left. I’m not sure what caused the positive change in my demeanor that night.
It could have been something as simple as the additional dopamine in my brain
chemistry caused by the physical action of getting up and moving. Maybe it was
a swath of encouragement from the Holy Spirit. Or maybe it was just a sense
that if I kept climbing, I’d eventually reach the summit of the mountain, and
that’s a good thought.
What is the next step before you today? What will it cost you to take it? What will it cost you if you do not take it?
Here we go! This afternoon I’m fully back in the saddle after a three and a half week’s study break from my regular role at Cypress Crossings Christian Church and other ministry duties. I also used this opportunity for a social media fast which I highly recommend doing yourself sometime. After 25 years of full-time ministry, I have only taken one such a break before. Thus some huge gratitude goes out to the elders of Cypress Crossings for being more than willing to grant me these past weeks to rest, recharge, and refocus. Have your ever felt like you needed a re-focus?
I was surprised that I had to remind myself that I was actually on a break. While the plan was to ensure uninterrupted study and prayer time, it was also supposed to be an extended Sabbath. Here’s the reality that I’m speaking of. Often full-time Christian ministry never stops unless you purposefully schedule in times of Sabbath and rest. For me, even assumed social gatherings are work as I’m “working” to get others connected closer to Jesus and each other. So it was good for me to unplug as much as possible and remind myself that there was indeed some purpose to the pause. A good article by Trevor Devage speaks to the value of such times of retreat for preachers.
My study goal included three or four new books to read, but what happened rather is that I picked up a couple of older books of great worth to go through with fresh eyes. The result was a reminder of things forgotten and for a greater focus going into the fall and future with preaching, church leadership, writing, and other ministry. One of those books was Simple Church by Thom S. Rainer which I had originally read during our church planting work in California. In short, Rainer notes that it is easy to get swamped by programs and business and miss the simple path of leading people into a discipleship relationship with Jesus. Just keeping things focused and simple can be a very powerful move.
An exciting fruit of the break is the upcoming release of Confessions on the Audible format which should go public the first part of September. The physical copy is still available through Amazon and B&N. I’ve created a survey here for the future direction of the Mid-Week Challenge that ran every Wednesday last year at noon. So take some time and share your input before the survey closes next week. I’m truly interested in how this tool can be more helpful for people.
Over all it was a productive break. I am reminded of the value in the Old Testament where God called His people to rest and the times where Jesus commanded his disciples to get into a boat and cross the lake for a season of respite and refocus. The truth is that when we unplug from the clutter of culture and get alone with God it is so much easier to hear his voice and see his path.
What about you? Have you had some time this summer to shut the world
off and sit with the king? If so, what
did you discover?
I’m planning to take the rest of July and early August for a study break. This will include plenty of prayer and planning along with dedicated time for study. As well, will be taking a media fast. See you on the other side. What are you doing to get quiet and alone with God this summer?
That’s right — one year ago today, the Kickstarter campaign funded and the book project, Confessions of a Pastor, was set in motion. I can still remember thirty days prior, at the launch of the drive, praying, “Ok Jesus, this is now in your hands. It will either fund or fail.” The project did fund and I am still amazed at the results today. I continue to thank Jesus and so many of you for bringing Confessions to life.
Early in the editing process we changed the official name to simply “Confessions” with the subtitle of “Finding Hope Through One Pastor’s Doubt.” Thinking of Hope, the heart of Confessions has already borne fruit in bringing hope to many and so I want to give a huge thanks on this anniversary date to everyone who gave and prayed for the venture. Not only is the book bringing encouragement to people and drawing them closer to the love of Christ, but once our final financial requirements with LUCID Books are completed, 50% of any additional royalties from the project will go toward world missions.
What about you? If you have read Confessions, what stories can you share of encouragement or testimonies from those you know? If you’ve not had a chance to read Confessions yet, you can get an e-copy or paper back from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other sources.
As I begin a summer study break in a few weeks, I will explore the possibility of turning the print into an audible work and also begin to seriously flesh out the next major writing project. But for now, I’d love to hear your stories from the release of Confessions. You can share them here, on social media sources, or even write a review for Amazon or Barnes and Noble.
Again – thanks to everyone who made this project a reality!