Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Three Years In…

The last day of August…marking the end of another year of ministry in Dulce. We have been here for three full years and so today I find myself with a few thoughts on being a pastor. 

At the end of the first year I felt that I had spent twelve months learning to be a pastor.  What on earth does a pastor really do?  Looking back on the first year it seemed that answering that question in the specific place where I serve seemed to be my primary achievement.  I hadn’t begun with the goal of answering that question but by the end of the year I figured I had achieved a basic level of pastoral competency. 

And at the end of the second year?  My conclusion then was that I had a firm identity as "their pastor," with "them" being the people who came to church each Sunday, the people I visited at the hospital and in their homes, the people I met at the park.  I had been here long enough and spent enough time with them that I felt a sense of responsibility towards them, not because they were the group attending the church I served, but because I had gotten to know them as the people God called me to serve.  I understood things about their lives.  Their relationships.  Their community.  As people, they mattered to me.

And today, as three years have ended?  I have a different learning of my role here.  I have heard it said that it takes three years for a pastor to find out how big a mess their church is, and that it takes three years for a church to find out how big a mess their pastor is.

Regarding the church I serve I'll say that it isn't any kind of mess.  There are strengths and there are areas that could be stronger.  I wouldn’t trade this congregation for an opportunity to serve any other place.  During the call process we were asked how long we would stay and our answer was that if things work out we intend to stay until it is time to retire.  After three years we have no desire to serve anywhere else.

But as to the pastor himself, and the mess he may be?  I don’t know what the members of the congregation would have to say, but I'll say that the things I feel are among my greatest strengths are also evident to me as areas needing lots of growth.

In Acts 6 we read about the early church and one of the problems it had.  The apostles were overwhelmed with their responsibilities and so they created the role of deacon, so that there were people who were in charge of caring for the physical needs of the Christian community.  This left the apostles better able to attend to what they felt was their primary calling, saying in verse 4:

"But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word."

At the end of three years I feel strongly that these two tasks, prayer and ministry of the word, i.e. preaching and teaching the Bible, are the central tasks of a pastor.  There are many other things that clamor for my time, but these are the two things that should always be the priorities.

They are two tasks that happen in a variety of settings.  They happen in worship on Sunday mornings, over breakfast at the Inn, in a car in the parking lot, in the hospital and nursing home, in the privacy of my study.  They happen in large groups, in small groups, with just one other person, and with just myself and the Lord God.

On the one hand I can see a basic level of "competency," yet on the other hand I can see much room for growth in both areas.  As three years end I am thankful for everyone who prays for this ministry and for every prayer that is lifted up on our behalf.  And I ask for continued prayer, not because I see myself as a pastor in crisis or that we are desperate for encouragement, but because neither we, nor any other ministry, serves on their own and separate from the body of Christ.  We pray for each other to lift each other up to God, seeking that God would use His servants, wherever they may be, to bring glory to His name.

May our service in Dulce strengthen His church and bring glory to His name, or as the Psalmist says,

"From the rising of the sun to its setting,
the name of the Lord is to be praised!" 

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Servants and Stewards

Image result for servant steward
How do people look at you when they know that you are Christian?  That answer would depend largely on what a person already knew or believed to be true about Christians in general.  If they assumed Christians to be kind, or generous, or caring, then they would look to see how you measured up to those expectations.  Or on the other hand, if the things that came to mind when they hear "Christian" include being judgmental, self-righteous or narrow-minded, then those would be the kinds of things they would expect to show in your words and actions.

In reality the truth for many of us who love, believe in, and follow Jesus, is a combination of both sides.  We believe in Jesus as our Savior and Lord and so our lives are basically a "work in progress," where God is continually at work within us.  As we travel through life with faith in Jesus, one day we make two steps forward and the next a step back.  One day we see ourselves growing in kindness and patience and the next day judgmental behavior shows up again.  As Christians we know the truth that we are forgiven sinners, who still continue to struggle with sin.

In one of his letters to the Corinthians Paul writes this,

"This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God." 

While our identity may be as people who believe in and follow Jesus, Paul says that one of the primary ways we live out that identity is as servants of Christ.  Not only should Christians be known as servants but they should be known as servants of the Lord Jesus Christ. 

I have been a pastor here in Dulce for three years and I have come to know many people in our congregation well, and time and time again I see them willing to serve others.  I see them serving in their immediate and extended families.  I see them serving to meet needs within the community.  As individuals, many people in our church are willing servants, going wherever they see a need that they can help to meet.

But what of our  congregation?  It has been in Dulce for 102 years and while we are the oldest Christian congregation in town, we are not alone here as representatives of the Lord Jesus Christ.  As a group, are we serving the Lord here in all of the ways that we could be?  Are there opportunities in the community where we could join together as sisters and brothers in Christ to serve the Lord in this place? 

I think that there may be opportunities for us and that we could live as a group of faithful servants, although I don’t know what those specific opportunities might be.  And I believe that finding those needs and filling them will be an essential part of keeping the work of Christ within this congregation alive in Dulce for many years to come.

Paul says that we are "stewards of the mysteries of God," meaning that we know and understand that God saves sinners through the saving work of Jesus.  And being servants of Christ is the means to creating opportunities to share that Good News in life-changing ways.  May we, as a congregation, continue to grow as servants of Christ.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Friday, August 26, 2016

"He Restores My Soul"

Image result for he restores my soul
I am fairly certain that I have read the 23rd Psalm at every funeral I've done since coming to Dulce.  I did so again yesterday, but this time I did it a bit differently.  My usual practice has been to read that Psalm early in the service and then read and preach from a different scripture text later in the service.  Yesterday I read the 46th Psalm early and then later read and preached from Psalm 23.

The reason I made the change was simple, and personal.  The funeral yesterday was for a woman I had visited a number of times over our three years in Dulce.  She had been quite ill for several months and the last time I visited her was last week, two days before she passed on to Glory.  The 23rd Psalm was a favorite of hers.  I would take my Bible along as I visited and ask if she would like to hear anything in particular, but it was a kind of dumb question, because as I got to know her I knew what words she wanted to hear.  And so as a pastor it was easy to choose a text to preach at her funeral.

I would guess that this Psalm is a very familiar one to most Christians, and that it is also familiar to many non-Christians.  It is written by David, who looks toward God as his shepherd.  David knows that the Lord, as shepherd, provides for his needs.  His shepherd shows him the way and protects him from all dangers, going so far as to show his goodness in the face of grave danger.  And David is so confident in the Lord as shepherd that he closes the Psalm knowing that he will dwell with the Lord forever.  I tried to bring out something about each of those points during the sermon yesterday but the part I tried to emphasize most strongly, and which I continue to ponder today, are four words in the third verse,

"He restores my soul."

Four words, but they say so much!  Let's begin with "soul."  According on an online dictionary the primary definition of soul is:

"The principle of life, feeling, thought, and action in humans, regarded as a distinct entity separate from the body, and commonly held to be separable in existence from the body; the spiritual part of humans as distinct from the physical part."

David's words imply that he knows some sort of disconnect between his soul, his "spiritual part," as it should be, and his soul as it is. He also implies that this disconnect is something that needs to be made right, and he can’t do it.  The restoration of his soul is something that has to happen through the work of someone else.  And in these four words David gives credit to the Lord for restoring his soul. 

At the heart of the problem of the human soul, for David, for myself, and for everyone else who has ever lived, is sin.  Our sin is the disconnect afflicting our souls, as they are, and our souls as they should be.  Our souls are disconnected from God as a consequence of our sin.  Deep down there is a longing for restoration.  In Psalm 51 we see how David responds when he has been confronted with his sin problem.  He could have denied his sin and continued to live in it but instead he confesses his sin to God and places his trust in God's mercy.

We live in a time in history when the way our sin problem has been dealt with has been clearly revealed in the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ.  The work of Jesus is the only way a human soul has ever been restored with God.  It was the means of restoration for David, and it is the means of restoration for you and for me.

Yesterday it was a privilege to worship God and preach Psalm 23 as we remembered a woman who knew deep in her bones that Jesus was her Lord and Savior.  The Lord had restored her soul, beyond a shadow of a doubt, as surely as He restored David's. 

May you know the joy of a soul restored to the Lord through faith in Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, August 18, 2016


Yesterday I preached a funeral, using Isaiah 43:1-3a as the text, which reads:

"But now thus says the Lord, he who created you,
 O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
    and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
  For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.""

As Isaiah brings this word from the Lord the people of Israel are in a bad spot, and a bad spot that is entirely of their own making.  They have ignored God and many calls by Him through the prophets, particularly Isaiah, to repent of their sin and return to Him.  And in spite of the way they have acted towards God the message that they receive is not "You are about to get what you deserve, so tough luck" but "You are mine. Things will be hard but I will be with you. In all things I am your Savior." 

The words Isaiah brings are words of assurance and while the specific context involves bad behavior by God's people the truth of the assurance they provide applies to  God's people in any time of hardship or struggle.  God, looking down from above, sends a message of His assurance to His people in the midst of their troubles.

The other scripture I used during the funeral was Psalm 23, which says this in verse 4:

"Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,  I will fear no evil,
for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me."

In this verse David speaks to God during a time of hardship, expressing assurance that he trusts God in the darkest of situations.  In a sense these two passages express the same thing.  They look from one side, through hardship to the other side, and yet say the same thing: God is good and He is with His children in even the worst of times.  They are almost mirror images.

Almost, with the difference being in the one speaking.  David speaks to God with confidence, but David is human, and even the best of humans have their moments of weakness, when the strongest and best of intentions may waver.

But not so God.  There is no weakness in God.  There is no good intention with bad follow-through in God.  There is no doubting that everything He promises to provide for His children will one day be fulfilled. It may not happen in the way we desire, or according to our timeline, but it most certainly will happen.

Yesterday I tried to use the text from Isaiah to bring a family comfort, assurance and hope as they go through a trying time.  But so many Christians are going through their own struggles and so I share this bit from yesterday to bring the same assurance to them.  And to you. 

The assurance that by faith in Jesus Christ you are His and though things may be hard, He is always with you. This is assurance that comes from God through His word.  It is assurance that will never fail.  Amen.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Monday, August 15, 2016

A Subtle Irony

Last week we went on an overnight trip from Dulce, NM to Ouray, CO.  As far as options for our route go, there are two, and we took the shortest one.  So we drove to Durango and then took the highway north.  A few miles after leaving Durango we saw a sign thanking the group that has taken on the responsibility of cleaning the litter along that section of the highway, the Durango Skeptics and Atheists

Hmm, I thought.  That, of all groups, is an ironic choice for this section of highway.  Shortly after passing the sign I took the picture to the right.  Robin was doing the driving so that I could see the sights.  We had made this trip one other time.  I drove that time and this route requires a high degree of concentration.  So she took on the driving and I enjoyed the views, taking this picture from the car as we went along at 55 MPH.

Taking a picture from the car doesn’t really do justice to how pretty things are on the road running north from Durango.  This section was pretty, but fairly tame.  A few more miles along and the landscape becomes more mountainous, and sharply so.  There are twists and turns.  There are sharp drop-offs without guardrails.  The speed limit decreases at places to 15 MPH.  If you look-up the Million Dollar Highway, the section from Silverton to Ouray, you'll quickly see why so much concentration is required to safely drive this route.     

Back to the Durango Skeptics and Atheists. Generally speaking, skeptics are people with doubts, specifically about the existence and purposes of God.  There might be a God, but they aren't sure and they lean more towards disbelief than belief.  And atheists deny the existence of God.  As far as they are concerned there is no God, and that is the end of the story.

Take a look at the photo I took from the moving car.  It gives just a taste of the majesty of the San Juan mountains in this part of Colorado.  And that majesty becomes more pronounced just a few miles farther along the highway.  And in the presence of this majesty, which I would call "creation," is a sign from a group that denies the existence of a Creator. A subtle bit of irony. 

As we look back and try to understand creation, I don’t have the answers to the ultimate questions of how it all came to be.  Neither do the Durango Skeptics and Atheists.  But as we look into the physical world, be it the views as majestic as those found along the Million Dollar Highway, or something much more commonplace, such as the lines marking my fingerprints, I can't find it possible that these things of exquisite complexity and beauty essentially created themselves.  To my mind, the presence of creation requires the presence of a Creator.   

To me it seemed as if the juxtaposition of a sign affirming a group of skeptics and atheists, in the presence of nature's majesty, was more than a little ironic.  Psalm 19 begins with this bit of truth,

"The heavens declare the glory of God,
    and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
    and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
    whose voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out through all the earth,
    and their words to the end of the world."

Without being too harsh on the skeptics and atheists I'll confess that for a long time, far too long really, my views on God were ill-defined and virtually non-existent.  But God is merciful and one day He opened my eyes, and it was to much more than the mere fact that the world is a marvelous and intricate piece of His creation.  It was to His very person, a person most fully revealed as Jesus Christ. 

May your eyes and heart be opened to the beauty and glory of God in the person of Jesus Christ.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Wish Him a Happy Birthday?

Today Facebook suggested I send my friends with birthday's today a special greeting on their special day.  It wasn't exactly an unusual request, as I get them on most days.  What did strike me a bit oddly was one of the people I was invited to greet, the man in the photo with me, my dear friend Tom.

The picture is from my ordination, three years ago last week.  Tom and I go way back to my early days working at the Mayo Clinic.  Or more correctly I should say that Tom and I went way back.  I saw him one other time after my ordination, later in that same month.  At the end of that August we moved to Dulce and the following February he went on to glory.  And so the irony of being asked to wish him a happy birthday.

The Bible tells us a bit about those who dwell in eternal life with Christ Jesus, their faithful Savior and Lord, and the nature of life there.  But it doesn’t tell us a lot, which, for better or for worse, can allow our imaginations to get carried away with speculation about eternal life.

Do days pass in heaven?  Does Tom know that today is his birthday?  Would receiving birthday greetings make his day in heaven any better?  My answers to those questions are "probably not," "probably not," and "absolutely not."

One of the clearest pictures the Bible gives us of life in heaven is in Revelation 7:9-10, which says,

"After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!"

I've had a pretty good day today.  Among things connected with being a pastor I got to read several chapters from Romans, work on Sunday's sermon, and read some Spurgeon.  As a parent I read part of The Chronicles of Narnia.  As a husband I spent time talking with my wife.  And as a friend I was on the receiving end of some pecan bars and chokecherry jam.  That is the makings of an outstanding day, and it isn’t even 4 PM as I write this.

An outstanding day, but it doesn't compare with being in the presence of God and singing His praises. 

I'd wish Tom a "Happy Birthday!" if I could, but I can't.  So instead I'll remember him as he was and look forward to the day when, on God's timing, He will call me home to join the chorus in singing His praises.  Amen.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Word of God for the People of God

One of the bits of trivia I learned today was that the English Bible has a bit more than 783,000 words in it.  More precisely the King James version has 783,137 words, but I think the first number mentioned is roughly representative of any English translation you may be fond of.

And the reason I sought this bit of trivia out was because of something I had read in Jeremiah.  In chapter 37 Jeremiah is imprisoned by King Zedekiah.  The king is going through a fairly tumultuous time and so he seeks Jeremiah out and in verse 17 asks him,

"Is there any word from the Lord?"

The same verse holds Jeremiah's reply,

""There is."  Then he said, "You shall be delivered into the hand of the king of Babylon.""

This was not the message King Zedekiah was hoping to hear. 

The basic message of the entire book of Jeremiah to this point could be summed up as a warning for God's people to repent and turn back towards Him, or else some really bad things are going to happen to them.  And after repeatedly, and blatantly, ignoring this warning Zedekiah asks God's prophet if he has heard anything from God.  To put Jeremiah's answer into more modern words he could have said, "Yup.  Same old, same old."

I don't know how much of the Old Testament was completed at the time of Zedekiah's question but there had clearly been enough of it revealed to Zedekiah that, if he really listened to it, he could have easily understood what God desired of him and his people. 

Zedekiah had God's revealed word and was without excuse.  I believe that is also true for us today and even more so than it was for him, because in the Old and New Testaments we have the full and complete revelation of God.  We may not everything we want to know, but we have everything we need to know.[1]  783,000 words worth.  And every one of them is a good and precious word from God.  

It is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[1] See Articles 2,3,4,5 & 7 of the Belgic Confession: