Wednesday, October 29, 2008


"And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write: 'The words of the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze. "'I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first.
(Rev 2:18-19)

There's that word διακονία (diakonia) rendered "service" but often translated "ministry" and from which the word "deacon" is derived. Obviously, it's meaning is related to service or servant-hood. There's a lot of talk about "ministry" in the local church today but I am having a tough time finding anyone really interested in doing it. In the passage from the Revelation quoted above, the Lord Jesus is telling a local church "I know your ....service...." That gets my attention. It should get the attention of some of the pastors I've had dealings with recently.

I know without asking that a lot of my "problem" derives from the fact that I work in prison ministry and my "congregations" are convicted criminals, felons, some guilty of really ugly stuff. The "church," including the pulpit, is jam-packed with folks who think they are far and above more holy than "those people" who are incarcerated. That's probably the root of my problem....

Nevertheless, it is really frustrating to call upon "fellow ministers--servants" and find that they are totally unable, unwilling, to remove themselves from their book-lined offices and mingle with the common people. Let me give you a couple of stories from my recent experiences:

We had an inmate in a 6-month "boot camp" program for first-time felons, a program designed to send men deemed by the state to be "salvagable" home on parole rather than spending 5-8 years incarcerated, learning how to be more successful criminals. A high percentage of these guys are under 30 and locked up for various drug charges. This particular young man was 25, had a good testimony of conversion and said he felt God's call on his life to be a preacher of the Gospel. He was from a city where there is a church which fellowships with my home church so I called the pastor to ask him to visit the man's mother who lived within rock-throwing distance of his church building, to meet the young man when he got home, etc. I had given the inmate the church's address and phone number, and although his early church attendance had been in pentecostal circles, his Bible study had pretty well given him an understanding of the doctrines of Grace, so he was excited about going to a doctrinally-sound Baptist church.

So, I called this pastor and told him what was going on, gave him the guy's name and the date when he'd be home and the first words out of this preacher's mouth are: What was he locked up for? Now, in a way, that's a legitimate question, but what does he think.......I'm gonna send him a serial-rapist, axe-murderer? The man had absolutely no interest in ministering to any ex-convict, no matter what. That telephone conversation was brief, centered on the Big Question. It had taken me two weeks to even get him on the phone because he never returned my calls prior to me finally catching him. After that conversation, I resorted to e-mail have never received any response to any communications since that day.....nor have I heard from the young inmate who, if he met with the same level of "ministry," probably drifted back into his pentecostal world or abandoned the idea of "church" altogether. Well, pastor, Jesus Christ says: I know your service.......

Another story: In another prison, another congregation, I have a faithful "member" who has a wonderful testimony and a heart of the type which can only come from God. He and I have spent many a time praying and weeping over his family over in East Tennessee, which includes a wheel-chair-bound sister and her mother-in-law with Alzheimers--a family where most of the men are in prison right now. This sister for whom the inmate was providing most of the care and assistance had attended a local Baptist church for some time until her disabilities further restricted her ability to get around. I talked with her on the telephone several times and kept her brother apprised regarding her surgeries, etc. The inmate, I'll call him "Bob" has a real burden for her soul and for that of others in the household and because it's too long a trip for me to make over there, I decided to contact a nearby congregation to see if they would send a minister to visit this family and share the Gospel with them. Once again, this is a congregation with close ties to my own church--people I should be able to have confidence in, right?

After two or three tries to get any of the pastoral staff on the phone, I got an associate pastor during a week when the rest of the staff was out of town for various reasons. I gave him all the information: phone numbers, addresses, names, situations, my contact numbers, etc. He said that on Monday of the coming week, he'd be on the case, as soon as some others were back to cover the office. That's the last I ever heard from them. Bob's sister never had a call, never had a visit, nothing. (I will state right here that I did not call them back to find out why....just the way I am--like Barney Fife, I don't chew my cabbage twice. I have no confidence that the second promise from them to "help" would be of any more value than the first)......and, Mr Associate Pastor: Jesus Christ says "I know your service......."

Well, Bob's folks still need ministry and in a subsequent phone call his sister told me that the local congregation had helped them several times and she really liked that church. I looked at their website and saw that it was probably the largest congregation in the town, about 600 and their doctrinal statement hinted that they might be more than just a First Baptist Entertainment Center so I decided to call the pastor there. It happens that I knew his father back in dinosaur days and the old man was a fine, Godly pastor. Pastor Son had absolutely no interest in taking my phone calls. His incoming calls are filtered through 2 secretaries and I never got him on the 3 weeks of trying! I won't take up space with all the reasons proffered as to why he could not come to the phone, even when he was in the office. Some light entered last week as Secretary #2 asked "Who are you with?"....and I said "Aha, he thinks I'm trying to sell him something...." Though I had told them before, at one time or another, all the following: my name, location, that I was a volunteer prison chaplain, a Baptist preacher, a friend of Pastor's father, a Baptist missionary.....Even when I told her again "who I was with" soap! After I hung up from what I had decided was my last effort, I had the brainstorm.......and called her back: Hey, does Pastor Son have an email address? Yep, so I got it and sent him an email with all the details and my hope for some help.

And, surprise, surprise......I got a reply, and he had actually done something! Their phone had been disconnected so I had been unable to check on them for 6 weeks or so. He sent a deacon out to the house and reported that they were "all right" and gave me a new phone number. Now that's all I got, far short of what I asked for or feel like I needed with regard to health reports, etc, but I can now get them first hand. He also gave me a litany of what the church had done for these folks over the last year or two.....which I already knew. But the tone was: We tried to help these bums and they came to church for a while but haven't been there for 5 months so we're washing our hands of them. The two emails with which he responded to my lengthy, detailed inquiries totaled 3 sentences. Maybe I'm hypersensitive, but I read a clear: Now, don't bother me about this any more....

I have to give this fellow credit for at least doing something but am still disappointed in the way he isolates himself, or at least isolated himself from me. I cannot understand that kind of behavior in a pastor. "I know your service........."

I've always felt that too many churches are populated with people who hold in disdain the "great unwashed" populations of the backroads and sidestreets of our communities, the down-and-outs, and no group is more in that class than the families struggling with incarcerated members. We love to look down on the criminals who got caught. It seems impossible for the average church member, even some pastors, to realize that it is only the restraining Grace of God which kept them (and keeps them) from the same end. We have modified "servant-hood" to exclude service to those who are "not deserving" those who are too far gone into sin and need to waste our time or resources on those ne'er-do-wells. (And, yes, I am quite familiar with the types who thrive on fleecing churches and other charities, and do not disdain the use of discretion and stewardship principles).....BUT,

To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them. "If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.
(Luke 6:29-36)

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Get THE Point?

"God saves sinners—and the force of this confession may not be weakened by disrupting the unity of the work of the Trinity, or by dividing the achievement of salvation between God and man and making the decisive part man’s own, or by soft-pedaling the sinner’s inability so as to allow him to share the praise of his salvation with his Saviour. This is the one point of Calvinistic soteriology which the “five points” are concerned to establish and Arminianism in all its forms to deny: namely, that sinners do not save themselves in any sense at all, but that salvation, first and last, whole and entire, past, present and future, is of the Lord, to whom be glory for ever; amen."

J. I. Packer, “Introductory Essay” to John Owen's The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (London: Banner of Truth, 1959)

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
(Romans 1:22-23)

Recently I was invited to preach a Sunday morning service in a small country church pastored by a friend. He's a wonderful fellow with a real heart for the downtrodden and is a faithful worker in prison ministry.

In a month of study on the Glory of God in Preaching (using Piper's book as a guide), my heart was greatly impressed by the absolute primacy of God's Glory in all that we do, preach, how we live, how we conduct ourselves among other people, in church and out. I guess that's stating the obvious....but it's one thing to believe that in one's head and quite another thing to have God impress it upon one's heart.

So, I delivered the message and as much as one can tell, it seemed well received by both the pastor and the congregation. We had the traditional "dinner on the grounds" (It was Homecoming Day) and after lunch returned to the auditorium for the traditional "singing."

The first group to perform make the oft-heard remarks of how their goal was to "lift up the Name of Jesus" and "glorify Him" etc. Immediately following these protestations of piety came 7 songs totally bereft of any mention of the Gospel, the Work of Christ, or the Glory of God. At that time I thought I'd remember all seven titles and record them somewhere for posterity, but my failing memory leaves me only with a hint of the first 3 titles: "I'll Never Be Ashamed" "I'll Never Turn My Back" and "I Need One More Miracle" (or words to that effect). Three more equally Christ-less examples followed, capped off with a popular chorus, "On Holy Ground" which does have at least a hint of the Lord of Glory......but only a hint.

We were able to escape after that set and I drove back home really stunned by what I had just experienced. Now, these people are not evil; they are local folks, good church members, moral, honest, friendly, and would tell you in a heartbeat of your need of Jesus Christ. I love that pastor out there for his testimony of God's great grace intervening in his wicked life at nearly 40 years of age, for his burden for the outcasts of our community, for his devoted ministry to prison inmates.

But they, like the fools Paul excoriates in Romans 1, have traded in the Glory of God for an idol. Rather than a stone or carved wooden idol, this 21st century group has an idol not just "resembling mortal man" but, in fact the mortal man himself. We are so often the focus of our worship. In the vernacular of this culture: It's all about me!

As I discussed this situation with my wife the Monday morning following the event, I wept over the state these folks are in. They simply don't get it.
This is dangerous territory. I do not want to sound "holier-than-thou"...for me, I barely get it. I'm just beginning to understand a little of God's view of His glory. I've been trying to put together an analogy which would picture how I feel.......

I am driving my car through a dark valley. A friend sits beside me in the front seat. Now and then, in between the peaks of the hills which surround us on all sides, I catch a glimpse of the brightness, the radiance, the glory of the Sun. It is overwhelming! There are no words adequate to describe to anyone what I see during those too-brief seconds of Light.

I turn to my friend to share the wonder of what I've seen......Wow! Did you see that? "What" he says. "I saw nothing. What are you talking about?"

And, he doesn't see it. They don't see it. Why does someone not see what is evident to me, and to others? I do not want to use the word "blind" in my analogy here because of the spiritual implications. "Blind" people are lost. I don't want to label any of these people as "lost"; I don't think they are all lost. But, why do they not see? Maybe my friend has the sun visor down and it blocks his view. Maybe he is reading a newspaper and will not look up. Are they distracted? Is something blocking their view?

What will it take to clear their view?

Where will we see the Glory of God?

For God, who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


Our Associate Pastor/Music Minister reported in his blog that Bob Kauflin mentioned one of Wesley's points during the recent Desiring God Conference. Hearing that motivated him to publish the entire work and I, having been much impressed especially by #4 and #7, want to share this with you.

John Wesley’s Directions for Singing is found in the front of some Methodist hymnals.

1. Learn these tunes before you learn any others; afterwards learn as many as you please.

2. Sing them exactly as they are printed here, without altering or mending them at all; and if you have learned to sing them otherwise, unlearn it as soon as you can.

3. Sing all. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a single degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up, and you will find it a blessing.

4. Sing lustily and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, then when you sung the songs of Satan.

5. Sing modestly. Do not bawl, so as to be heard above or distinct from the rest of the congregation, that you may not destroy the harmony; but strive to unite your voices together, so as to make one clear melodious sound.

6. Sing in time. Whatever time is sung be sure to keep with it. Do not run before nor stay behind it; but attend close to the leading voices, and move therewith as exactly as you can; and take care not to sing to slow. This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from us, and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.

7. Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to do this attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve here, and reward you when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.

From John Wesley’s Select Hymns, 1761