Death by One Thousand Cuts

This July marked 22 years of pastoral ministry for me in the same church. Growing up, I moved often and rarely lived more than three to five years in an any given location. Two decades in the same place has been surreal and filled with its joys and pains.

Pastoral ministry is not easy and not for the faint of heart. In pastoral ministry you get to see the good the bad and the ugly of society in general and of your congregation in particular. There is more difficult jobs than being a pastor but few require the combination of emotional, spiritual, and intellectual engagement around the clock.

The pain that a pastor feels is unique because you can not prevent your heart from exposure to pain that you can in other lines of work the exposure of your heart is the very thing your people need to see as it points them to God’s heart. Pastors don’t burn up and burn out overnight they die a death from one thousand cuts over time.

Few people in our society ever face death or deal with it regularly, as a pastor, you walk multiple families a year through the darkest valley of their lives. Some people have been ghosted by a friend or loved one for pastors; this is not just a once in a lifetime event but a constant reality. Few people know the emotional and relational pain of baptizing families, rejoicing with them in their successes, the birth of their babies and walk with them in the darkest valleys only to have those people one Sunday not show up. One person did this to me I called to see if they were ok they answered the phone and when I said hello and they heard my voice they hung up. I still to this day have no idea why they left and how I must have hurt them without even knowing I did. One thousand cuts.

To have people that have come to your church since they were kids who you have spent hours praying with, crying with, and laughing with turn and blast you personally on social media or through text message is incredibly personal. One thousand cuts.

To watch families you have served, families you love, families who you thought would be together forever instead suffer losses that you can’t stop. It feels like a personal failure from which you can’t separate yourself, thinking you could have done something more to help them or point them more clearly to Christ.

I have found that the way I can keep showing up and what keeps me from giving up is the reapplication of what I offer to others. The tender mercy of God. I have to find a confessor on earth that I can share my sin and sorrows. I have to reapply the gospel to a heart bent on excusing sin and earning favor. I have to learn to hate my pride and clothe myself in Christ’s humility every day.

One of the ways I remind myself as a follower of Christ I need Gods help is through a Puritan prayer book called the Valley of Vision I often pray I hope it works as an ointment on the one thousand cuts on your soul and brings you back to your real home in Christ.

A MINISTERS STRENGTH

UNCHANGEABLE JEHOVAH
When I am discouraged in my ministry
        and full of doubts of my self,
  fasten me upon the rock of thy eternal election,
    then my hands will not hang down,
    and I shall have hope for myself and others.
Thou dost know thy people by name,
  and wilt at the appointed season
    lead them out of a natural to a gracious state
      by thy effectual calling.
This is the ground of my salvation,
  the object of my desire,
  the motive of my ministry.
Keep me from high thoughts of myself
    or my work,
  for I am nothing but sin and weakness;
    in me no good dwells,
    and my best works are but sin.
Humble me to the dust before thee.
Root and tear out the poisonous weed
    of self-righteousness,
  and show me my utter nothingness;
Keep me sensible of my sinnership;
Sink me deeper into penitence and self-abhorrence;
Break the Dagon of pride in pieces
    before the ark of thy presence;
Demolish the Babel of self-opinion,
    and scatter it to the wind;
Level to the ground my Jericho walls
    of a rebel heart;
Then grace, grace, will be my experience and cry.
I am a poor, feeble creature when faith
    is not in exercise,
  like an eagle with pinioned wings;
Grant me to rest on thy power and faithfulness,
  and to know that there are two things
    worth living for:
  to further thy cause in the world,
  and to do good to the souls and bodies of men;
This is my ministry, my life, my prayer, my end.
Grant me grace that I shall not fail.

So profound:

Break the Dagon of pride in pieces
before the ark of thy presence;
Demolish the Babel of self-opinion,
and scatter it to the wind;
Level to the ground my Jericho walls of a rebel heart;
Then grace, grace, will be my experience and cry.

For us, as ministers, our strength does not come from being what our people need at the moment they need it. It comes from our own experience with the grace and mercy of God and the overflow of that mercy. Our work is heart work. It is to apply the reality of the gospel to the hearts of our people in every season in every situation of life. Never forgetting that the person who needs the message we spread most is us.

Father remind us of your saving grace, your empowering grace and grant me grace that I may not fail at last.

Sampson, Harris, and Trampling the Fumie

A couple of years ago I read the novel Silence by Shusaku Endo, I think of it often. There was something about it that was historical as it was based on historical events but yet profoundly modern.

The story is of two Jesuit priests who travel to Japan to find a Priest who had gone to Japan as a missionary and was feared that he had apostatized. Father Garrpe and Rodrigues arrive in Japan and start to preach and administer the sacraments in secret. Father Rodrigues believes that he and Father Garrpe are planting seeds of the gospel in the soil of Japan. They are grateful.

Not long after their arrival the town and the priests are betrayed and two of the men of the town are tortured. Father Rodrigues tries to reconcile what he has read about martyrs and his first experience with martyrdom. “They were martyred. But what a martyrdom! I had long read about martyrdom in the lives of the saints – how the souls of the martyrs had gone home to Heaven, how they had been filled with glory in Paradise, how the angels had blown trumpets. This was the splendid martyrdom I had often seen in my dreams.” Yet what he experienced was far different instead of trumpets there was Silence. Father Rodrigues never fully recovers from this perceived silence of God in the face of human suffering.

But God isn’t silent. He never was. Fear and sin had closed Father Rodrigues’ eyes and stopped his ears. Ultimately for Rodrigues is the sound of suffering and the voice of his captures telling him his faith was worthless was louder to him than the voice of God. Father Rodrigues finally trampled the Fumie (The face of Christ pictured and placed on a wooden plaque) because he failed to see the transcendent in the imminent. He chose to step on the face of Jesus that was in front of him to stop the suffering of those next to him because he could not hear or see the God that was all around him.

In their tale of de-conversion, both Josh Harris and Marty Sampson talk about the injustice, both questioned the foundation of truth. In their own way in light of relentless waves of cultural pressures have trampled the Fumie.

In recent weeks a former celebrity pastor Josh Harris openly announced his apostasy on Instagram and current celebrity worship artist Marty Sampson announced his faith was failing and he’s ok with that. How did Sampson and Harris get to this place?

They believed the post-modern lie that there is a fundamental problem with Christianity.

Father Rodrigues first believed that the soil of Japan accepting of the gospel and saw early fruit. He said “Yes, the seed had been sown; it sprouted forth with vigor; and now it was the great mission of Garrpe and myself to tend it lest it wither and die” In captivity, he saw that same soil stained with the blood of Christians at the hands of their captors. The officer who was breaking Father Rodrigues down told him the soil of Japan rejects the Europen faith of Christianity.  This is the same problem we see in our culture both Harris and Sampson each identify the problem as being a soil problem. That Christianity is not true because the soil of our culture rejects what the scripture says about your sin and my sin.

The problem is not a seed issue the problem is a root issue.
The church influenced by culture has believed the lie that we need fame for Jesus to be famous. So we turned Harris and Sampson into Christian Celebrities before their root system had developed before the depth of the scriptures had revealed their sin and tethered them to Christ. The problem here isn’t the soil it is the reveling in premature fruit of a rootless tree.

They want the benefits of grace and yet trample the face of Grace

The pathway of modern apostasy in unfortunately well worn path. One of the things that they usually mention is that they believe in love and grace, but what they don’t realize is that the idea of love and grace is on their own terms. Once Father Rodrigues trampled the Fumie he was released from prison was given a new life, a new wife a new name. He had not only trampled the face of grace but was absorbed into a new identity that was unrecognizable. Many say they love Jesus but not his people and that they have found another path that leads to joy and happiness. Harris, unfortunately, is walking this familiar path.

We turned Harris and Sampson into Christian Celebrities before their root system had developed before the depth of the scriptures had revealed their sin and tethered them to Christ. The problem here isn’t the soil it is the revealing of the premature fruit of a rootless tree.

We turned Harris and Sampson into Christian Celebrities before their root system had developed before the depth of the scriptures had revealed their sin and tethered them to Christ.

Harris asked for forgiveness from the LGBTQ community and to the Christian community he said “I can’t join you in your morning, I don’t view this moment negatively. I feel very much alive, and awake, and surprisingly hopeful.” He has trampled the Fumie and has taken a new identity. For this we should morn without him and pray that God will have mercy on him.

In their desire for a God who is close the were offended by a God who is powerful and in the end, lost both.

Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem As Kingfishers Catch Fire paints a picture of God that is both vivid and penetrating. He says:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s

He is saying God reveals himself to us in ten thousand places. The beauty that captures our hearts is because of what it points to. We all want transcendence we want to experience something beyond this life but so often we forfeit transcendence for what is in front of us. Because our minds can not hold immanence and transcendence in the same space. How can God be real if there is suffering? How can a transcendent God look down and judge a kind person who is living in what the Bible defines as sin? How can people suffer and God is silent.

“Hopkins’s diction conveys the vigor and spark and spontaneity that is inherent in all of life. The focused conviction expressed here is that it is Christ, the God-revealing Christ, who is behind and in all of this living.”
Eugene Peterson

They trade transcendence for imminence – failing to realize that Christianity is the only religion that offers both. A transcendent God who came close. Into the silence of this world, the transcendent God came close he made himself small. We will inevitably deconvert when we fail to Christ as both transcendent and immanent at the same time. Harris saw Christ as Big but not close this will always lead to spiritual pride and looking down on others as he has admitted. Likewise Sampson saw Christ as close but not big this leads to overwhelming dispair and as a result, he was able to see God as a close friend who is powerless to save.

The weak, sometimes failed characters of Silence “expose our true selves.” Endo had harsh words for readers quick to judge the failure of Rodrigues: “How can anyone who has never experianced the horrific tortues of the Christian persecution era have any right to say anything about the depth or shallowness of the believers then? …First that personhas no imagination. It shows not the shallow faith of thosw who end up apostatizing, but it reveals the lack of compassion in the ones making such a judgment.” Too often, in our tendency to ake heroes out of faith leaders, “we fall into a false dichotomy of seeing faith only in terms of victory or failure, which leads us to dismiss and discard the weak,”

Karen Swallow Prior

De-conversion stories should cause us to morn and make us look at our own hearts exposed and see our own frailties and our need for a God. What is our only comfort in life and death? That we are not our own but belong body, soul, and spirit to our faithful savior Jesus Christ.

How do we avoid de-conversion?

  1. We must trust Jesus alone for salvation
  2. We must allow our roots to go deep and we must be strengthened not by the praise and expectations of others but by the winds of joy and pain.
  3. We must know about God we must think right thoughts about God. We must be grounded in historic doctrines of the church. – (transcendence)
  4. We must have an authentic experience with God. (immanence)
  5. We must remember that if not for the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit of God we could profess true things about God and not believe them. We could profess them and be unchanged by them. We need new mercies every morning.
  6. Pray for grace in the face of Christ.

3 Ways to be a Better Dad

Today is the start of my twenty-third year of doing ministry for kids and youth in the same church. One of the things I have come to realize is the reality that no family is perfect that marriage is hard work and parenting does not always come easy. Kids today face greater challenges than kids did twenty years ago there has been extensive studies as to why that is a reality some credit technology, others environmental concerns what few people mention and I have found to be the most profound issues is the dissolution of the family. The family in America is under attack.

The breakdown in the family is now into multiple generations and so many dads I talk to want to be better dads they have no idea what that looks like. They only know how it feels to be on the receiving end of a father who failed them. They feel powerless and so they turn to pop culture that either tells them it’s hopeless and to live your life for your own happiness or the other side saying you need to take the power back. I think there is a better option for dads. Here are three ways to be a better dad.

1. Show up –
This one is difficult because when we feel that we are not wanted, needed, or respected the natural reflex is to run. You may have been on the receiving end of a dad who ran and are tempted to do the same. Don’t do it. Show up. Not to everything. Show up to the important things and the small things. I was recently talking to a woman whose dad recently passed she said that even though her mom and dad got divorced he always took them on vacations and was there for the small things like teaching her how to ride a bike. He showed up in the small things and important things.

So often dads are afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing. In my experience with families saying nothing and doing nothing is far worse than saying the wrong thing. Sending money and giving gifts don’t replace you and they don’t represent you. Show up. Step into the pain. Step into the awkard. When your kids have questions about life and sex and gender don’t send them to your wife step into the awkward and answer their questions as best as you can and point your kids to Jesus. Your kids want you dad, even when they say they don’t. Every little girl wants her dad to say she is beautiful and ever little boy wants to know his dad is proud of him. Dad only you can say those words to your kids. You want to be a better dad. Don’t text them those things show up in person and tell them yourself.

2. Shut up –
This one is hard. Because dads measure their effectiveness by how many things they can fix in a lifetime. Somethings can’t be fixed by actions some things are fixed by just showing up then shutting up. When your kids are frustrated or disappointed with you the temptation for you is to defend yourself. Instead of doing that shut up and listen. When your kids are at home come sit next to them ask them about their day and then shut up and listen. When your kids are crying because their heart is hurt don’t always try to fix everything just shut up and listen.

Kids like all of us sometimes just need to be herd. So listen, empathize, and affirm your kids. Tell them the truth. Don’t tell them they can do anything they put their minds to do tell them you are going to get through this together and stick with them. Remind them they need God’s help and after you have listened to them pray for them. If you want to be a better dad that isn’t always measured by number of problems solved it’s measured by how well you heard your child’s heart and how often you showed them God’s heart.

3. Give up –
There is something about powerlessness that we forget when we grow older. The more power we have the more control we maintain the less we can relate to a child and the harder it is to know God. I have seen people that speak powerfully to a stadium of adults but who are terrified in a room of 50 kids. Why because they have become more powerful and less dependent. They no longer relate to kids because they have forgotten how to be weak and what dependence looks like.

“You should have a fifty-year plan—a vision for growth over a long period of time as you embrace your weakness.”

J.I. Packer

We are drawn to power and strength we desire autonomy. One of the many idols in American culture is the self-made man. We think that if we achieve a certain level of success we will be happy. Packer is saying give up but don’t quit. He is saying slow growth is the best kind of growth. He is saying that weakness is the key to dependence and dependence is the key to growth. Poet Gerard Manley Hopkins says it this way.

The child is father to the man.’
How can he be? The words are wild.
Suck any sense from that who can:
‘The child is father to the man.’

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Hopkins is saying the same thing Jesus says “you want to be great remember what it was like to be dependent and overlooked?” Do that be depended and deflect glory to God. Matthew 18 Jesus described greatness not in terms of material success but in utter dependence. “You want to be great” Jesus said “become like a little child.” Dad, you want to be a better dad? Learn how to give up your power, give up your lust for success and learn to be as dependant on God as your newborn baby is dependant on you for everything.

Kids need fewer powerful parents and more dependent ones. You want to be a better dad? Show up, shut up and give up.

How to Leave Your Kids Something of Value.

Two Years ago I started a legacy project for my kids. That will take me eight years to complete. I partnered with Crossway books to use an Heirloom ESV Journaling Bible that is made of genuine leather and will stand the test of time. My hope is that my kids will have at least two years worth of insights message notes and quotes that reflect what I was thinking in the two year period I was using the Bible that is really theirs. I know that what I say today will be forgotten that even when I give them the Bible at graduation I’m not sure it will mean as much as it will one day when I am no longer here. My hope is that they will read my words and remember that their dad loved them and prayed for them. That their dad love the Bible more than any other book. I hope my words point them to God’s word his perfect revelation of himself.

Here is what I ended up doing:
– I used one color pen to underline verses that stood out to me for an entire year then next year I changed pen colors so that my kids would know when I read that particular verse
– I wrote thoughts, notes, and quotes in the sides with a micron black heirloom pen and ended each section with that day’s date at the bottom.
– I wrote much of the comments in light of the fact that my kids would more than likely not read this Bible at all until one day I am no longer here.

Here is what I learned
– I wish I had a Bible like this from each of my grandfathers. I would read it to this day. I am sometimes so curious as to what they thought about a certain passage. To have sermon notes from my grandfather who was Presbyterian Minister would be priceless. I hope my grandkids will feel the same way.
– Knowing I have only two years and this is going to keep in the family for a long time created accountability to daily read.
– I also read and commented in the Bible while they were eating breakfast so they would one day connect the dots that I was writing to them in front of them.
– I learned that disciplines are modeled more than they are commanded. Your kids need to see you read, they need to hear you pray.
– I found I was more engaged with what I read because I wasn’t just checking off a box in a reading plan I was writing down thoughts my grandchildren will one day read. That is a crazy sobering thought.

I want to encourage you to do something similar. It is an excellent exercise for you to grow in your faith to journal but it is even more important for your kids to hear your heart and know your thoughts long after you are gone is a priceless gift. How do you start? Find a journaling Bible there are lots available I loved the ESV Journaling Bible from Crossway it was both beautiful and functional. You also need some good pens that won’t smudge and have archival ink. Lastly, you need to set aside time each day to grow in your faith and leave a legacy of faith for your kids and their kids. I hope you start today.

Rembrandt and The Cross of Christ

One of the truths that were recovered in the Reformation was the power of the Cross of Christ. The truth of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. It was during the time leading up to the Reformation there was a focus on our works what we could do in this life and after this life to be pleasing to God. On Good Friday we are reminded of the need for the Cross of Christ. Living in light of the Cross changes how you live because it changes why you live.

David Brainerd said it this way “I found that when my people were gripped by the great doctrine of Christ and Him crucified, I had no need to give them instructions about morality.” Living in light of the cross changes you because you see that Christ was crucified for your sin and by your sin.

The reach of the Reformation went far beyond Germany and began to shape culture. We see this in the life and work of Rembrandt (1606-1669). “Rembrandt had flaws in his life, but he was a true Christian; he believed in the death of Christ for him personally. In 1633 he painted the Raising of the Cross for Prince Frederick Henery of Orange.” Francis Schaeffer

The Raising of the Cross

In his painting, The Raising of the Cross Rembrandt painted Christ being crucified Rembrandt showed how the preaching of the Reformation had profoundly affected him. Rembrandt paints himself in his own painting. Rembrandt is the man in blue raising Christ upon the cross.

“He is stating for all the world to see that his sins had sent Christ to the cross. Rembrandt’s biblical base enabled him to excel in painting people with psychological depth. Man was great, but man was also cruel and broken, for he had revolted against God. “

Francis Schaeffer

Rembrandt saw himself as guilt. What is interesting to note is the fact that he not only painted himself as the one raising the cross in it’s place but he is also the Commander on the horse behind in charge and overseeing the death of Christ. What is striking is the commander isn’t looking at those carrying out the punishment he is staring at the person painting the picture. He is looking straight at Rembrandt as he is painting. He is looking at you and me as we are taking the painting in. He is looking to Rembrandt for orders. Rembrandt a child of the Reformation understood the weight of his sin and the power of the cross.

The last thing that stands out in this picture is the grave and the shovel in the bottom righthand corner. This grave is not for Christ because he was buried in a tomb this grave is the call to Rembrandt and to you and I to die in Christ to die with Christ and for our sinful man to be buried to await newness of life.

Good Friday is only as good as the promise of God. Rembrandt was well aware of his sinfulness. He was well aware that he was more than just “broken”. He was responsible for condemning Christ to the cross and for raising the cross in it’s place and his only hope was not to do better or try harder but to die to sin and be buried and experience a new birth new life the cross guarantees. May we this Easter season be aware of the depth of our sin and the greater depth of his grace.