Sunday, December 25, 2016

We Interrupt Your Regularly Scheduled Programming…

Two Sundays ago, I put in my one month’s notice to step down as head pastor of the church that my wife and I started out of our house in October of 2012. But this was not me merely stepping down as head pastor of one church to move on to be head pastor of another church, this was me stepping down as a head pastor.

To answer your first question: No, I did not have an affair. And to answer your second question: No, I have neither left the faith nor the ministry. So let me take you back a few years to give you a better understanding of what’s going on.

When 2012 began, I had been in full-time, vocational ministry for 8 years and was currently a worship leader and college-age small group leader at a Baptist church here in Houston. Also, I had been exposed to the writings of the early Christians for a couple of years and God had been doing a deep transformation in my spiritual worldview as a result.

My pastor, who had faithfully served the church for about a decade, announced he felt called to move down south to serve at a different church. So once he left, the people immediately asked me to preach each Sunday until they could find an interim pastor. I love teaching the Scriptures, so it seemed like a great opportunity. Soon, the people voted for me to be interim pastor.

Evidently, my wife asked me if that was something I really wanted to do. I loved teaching, she said, but did I really love the pastoring side of being a head pastor? Well, this is clearly an example one of why husbands should listen to their wives, because I don’t remember a single word of that conversation. I did, however, pay attention to the overwhelming support of the people, and jumped right into the interim job.

During the time I was preaching every week, folks often came up to me to tell me that I would make a good pastor one day. And after a few months, the people decided to vote about me becoming the head pastor of the church. A week before the vote happened, different people came up to me at various times, asking me what I would do if I was not voted in. I hadn’t really thought or prayed about it, but I replied, “I guess I’ll just have church at my house the next week.” Looking back, it was a pretty arrogant statement.

Anyway, though I had tremendous support from the church body when I began as the interim pastor, by the time of the vote, a significant portion of that support had dried up. The spiritual worldview of the early Christians had shifted my thinking away from several traditions of that church, and it was evident in the messages I gave. To become the head pastor, 75% of the people needed to vote ‘yes’; I lost by five votes.

The next Sunday, around twenty people showed up at my house, and we had church.

Things kind of evolved over time. We installed Elders, Deacons, wrote By-laws and a mission statement. My house was our meeting place for a couple of years, then we moved into a school, and finally transitioned back into meeting in houses.

Then, God broke in.

On a Wednesday night a couple of months ago, we decided to do more of a Q&A format instead of our regular verse-by-verse Bible study. That night, some important church issues came up that caused me a significant amount of concern. Basically, I felt that we were not unified around the mission of the church, and much of that had to do with the way I had led the church from the beginning.

I explained my thoughts to the leaders the next Saturday, and how through prayer, I felt that God wanted us to re-launch the church. But this time, we would do it the right way: with intense prayer. We would spend the next month, on both Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights, calling on God for the entirety of the services to unify us around His purpose for the church. And if He wanted certain people to leave who did not fit His vision, then we wanted His will to be done.

God answers prayers

That month was incredible. I absolutely looked forward to getting down on my knees each service and calling on the Lord with my brothers and sisters in Christ. Spending that month in prayer has ignited a deeper love for prayer and reading the Scriptures. Like Francis Chan once said, “My love for prayer was an answer to prayer.”

Another answer to prayer began to develop the last week of the month. For some reason, I decided to take a five-fold ministry spiritual gift inventory. These basic Church leadership gifts are based out of Ephesians 4:11-13 where Paul writes, “And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.”

Listed from strongest to weakest, my results were these: Teacher, prophet, evangelist, apostle, and pastor. That doesn’t seem like very good news for a house church pastor. Over the next few days, I spoke with a couple of other Christians who have known me very well for a lengthy period of time, and they tactfully confirmed that though God has blessed me as a teacher of the Scriptures, the pastoral side of head pastoring is not a strong suit of mine.

I spent a lot of time praying outside during the next few days, asking God what in the world I am supposed to do. And there one afternoon as I was looking up at the pecan trees, He seemed to whisper, “Go to the land that I will show you.”

Those words did not bring me a tremendous amount of comfort. Go. Leave. And by the way, I’m not telling you where, or even what you’ll be doing. For now, the first step is just to go.

I’m not going to lie. I’m disappointed and I’m scared. I’m disappointed in myself that I wasn’t more prayerful from the beginning, and therefore was not the kind of leader that so many people I have pastored needed. I’m scared because even though I have a part-time job as a courier, vocational ministry has basically been all that I’ve known for the last 12 years.

However, I'm also hopeful. There is always hope when we are following God in faith. 

I have no idea where God is ultimately going with this, but I know I have to serve Him. Whether that’s through writing, speaking, one-on-one discipling or just the random opportunities that He brings throughout our days, I have to help people experience the gospel of Jesus Christ. So please pray for me and for my family. Pray that I will fearlessly declare the gospel like I should. And pray that I will live a life worthy of the calling that I have received. 

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Unlikely Apostle Pt. 6: “All Scripture Is Inspired By God”

As a young child, why did I try to punch my doctor when he attempted to give me a penicillin shot? Then in seventh grade, why did I shoot a paper taco at my History teacher’s head on the last day of school? Why did I lie to the policeman who pulled me over for speeding during my first month of having my license?

Why do kids rebel against the authorities in their lives? Well, after being a parent for two-and-a-half years now, I think the answer is that they choose to obey the authority of their feelings. As simple as it sounds, “I wanted to,” is usually the most honest response a child will give for his or her disobedience.

What about us? What about the Church? What is the authority that guides our values, policies, services and daily decisions?

A typical church doctrinal statement will usually contain something like this:
“The Scriptures: We believe and accept fully the writings of the Old and New Testaments as inspired by God, wholly without error as originally given, altogether sufficient as our infallible and authoritative rule of faith and practice.”

And what is the reason for such a strong statement for the Bible being the authoritative rule of faith and practice of the church? Generally, a church will reference 2 Timothy 3.

You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. – 2 Timothy 3:14-17

Unlike many in our culture, Paul takes a high view of the Scriptures. The early Christians did so as well, holding fast to the belief in the inspiration and authority of our sacred text.

Look carefully into the Scriptures, which are the true utterances of the Holy Spirit. Observe that nothing of an unjust or counterfeit character is written in them. … Take up the epistle of the blessed Apostle Paul. What did he write to you at the time when the Gospel first began to be preached? Truly, under the inspiration of the Spirit, he wrote to you. – Clement of Rome 95CE, Volume 1, p. 33, 35 [CD-ROM]

The Scriptures which we believe are valid from their omnipotent authority. – Clement of Alexandria 195CE, Volume 2, p. 671, [CD-ROM]

Life is full of moments where we have to make important decisions.

Should I marry this person? How do I make amends? Should I take this job? Should I leave this job? What should I do with my money? Where should I serve the Church?

In those kinds of times, it’s natural to start and end with our feelings. It’s natural to dwell on what we think will make us happy. But as Christians, our ultimate authority should be the Holy Spirit guiding us through the whole of the God-breathed Scriptures.

Do you have a critical decision to make? Are you facing a moral dilemma? What does the whole counsel of the Scriptures have to say about it?

The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; the judgments of the Lord are true; they are righteous altogether. They are more desirable than gold, yes, than much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover, by them Your servant is warned; in keeping them there is great reward. Who can discern his errors? Acquit me of hidden faults. Also keep back Your servant from presumptuous sins; let them not rule over me; then I will be blameless, and I shall be acquitted of great transgression. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer. – Psalm 19:7-14

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Unlikely Apostle Pt. 5: “The Chief of Sinners”

Perhaps the greatest pleasure of my life is getting to talk with people about Jesus. Though these conversations are built into my regular routine on Sundays and Wednesdays, it’s the gospel conversations that happen outside of those times that often feel the most impactful.

I’ll never forget an interaction I had with a soldier one day about Jesus, Paul and the power of the gospel to transform lives.

There I was at my table, when he came up beside me and sat down. Knowing that I’m in ministry, he began to ask a few questions about God and various spiritual matters. I felt led to investigate what might be prompting him to seek me out, so I asked him to tell me a bit of his story.

This man was a highly intelligent officer who had fought bravely in the Middle East for several years. During the line of duty and throughout several intense battles, he had killed many, many people, sometimes in extremely violent ways. He was so overwhelmed by the things he had done, said and thought that if anyone was irredeemable, he was sure it was him.

I said that it would be foolish for me to try to empathize with him, but I knew of someone who could. So I paraphrased the Apostle Paul’s testimony from 1 Timothy 1:12-16.

I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because He considered me faithful, putting me into service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor. Yet I was shown mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief; and the grace of our Lord was more than abundant, with the faith and love which are found in Christ Jesus. It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all. Yet for this reason I found mercy, so that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life. – 1 Timothy 1:12-16

I reminded the man that Paul said his testimony in 1 Timothy is a trustworthy statement that deserves full acceptance. These are words we can bet our lives on. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, and Paul is the worst who ever lived.

Not you. Not me. Paul.

Not only did Jesus save the worst sinner who ever lived, He transformed him through the regenerative power of the Holy Spirit into one of the most influential people in history. And we should humbly accept this fact that we cannot change, because Jesus specifically chose Paul as an example for us of the love and power of the gospel.

If Jesus wanted Paul to be a part of the kingdom of God, He certainly wants you and the people you hate. If Jesus could save Paul, He can certainly save you and the people you hate. If Jesus could transform Paul into a mighty, church-planting Apostle who wrote half the books of the New Testament, He can certainly transform you and the people you hate.

Jesus can take violent, blaspheming persecutors of the Church and turn them into compassionate, godly pastors who love their enemies and seek to see even their oppressors become disciples of Christ. Jesus can take hardened, cold hearts and melt them with His touch.

It was powerful seeing the Holy Spirit working in my friend’s heart that day as he began to believe Paul’s testimony. May you too believe and be changed by the words of that unlikely Apostle. And may you bring that message of hope and transformation with you wherever you go.

“This is a faithful saying, that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the chief.” … Paul … after being a persecutor of the Church of God and a bitter opponent of believers, who went so far even as to deliver over the disciples of Jesus to death, so great a change afterwards passed over him that he preached the Gospel of Jesus from Jerusalem all the way to Illyricum … to places where the Gospel of God in Christ had not been proclaimed at all. – Origen 225CE, Volume 4, p. 730 [CD-ROM]

Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Unlikely Apostle Pt. 4: “The Fellowship of His Sufferings…”

Anything that is truly wonderful in our lives is going to come with its share of difficulties. Seeking to graduate from college, being married, parenting children, working in ministry… each of these amazing endeavors have a way of bringing us to our wits end at times.

At various points in my life, I’ve found myself crying out to God, “I don’t know how I can keep going on like this!”

I think part of the reason for these breaking points is due to TV programs and movies, which have convinced some part of my subconscious that tension is supposed to be resolved in 23 minutes, or an-hour-and-a-half if it’s a really intense situation. Another variable that has subtly shaped my worldview has been a steady, low-grade dose of teaching throughout my life that Christians are not actually blessed when we suffer for righteousness.

We always feel blessed when we win, blessed when we’re first, blessed when we’re promoted, blessed when we’re adored, blessed when we’re full, blessed when we’re happy, blessed when we buy new things, and blessed when we’re safe.

Conversely, we struggle to feel blessed when we’re defeated, blessed when we’re last, blessed when we lose a job, blessed when we’re hated, blessed when we’re hungry, blessed when we are mourning, blessed when we are broke, and blessed when we are attacked.

Like the Apostles in the gospels, we struggle to believe the simple words of Christ about suffering.

However, have you noticed the radical shift that happened in the Apostles’ lives after Pentecost? Have you observed the drastic change in their approach toward suffering after the Holy Spirit came on them in power?

Before Pentecost, they are passionate about avoiding personal suffering, and quite willing to cause the enemies of God to suffer. After Pentecost, though, they hold prayer meetings where they praise God for the opportunity to suffer for Him and see enemies of the cross become believers as a result.

The Apostle Paul seems to have actually sought out opportunities to suffer for Christ from time to time. He even bragged about the extensive horrors he experienced for the cause of the gospel.

Paul explains his perspective on suffering for Christ in Philippians 3.

I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.Philippians 3:8-11

According to Paul, there is a certain fellowship, a partnership, a communion we experience with Jesus when we suffer for Him. According to Paul, suffering for our Lord is one of the primary ways we get to know Him better. And the early Christians believed in the same path toward partaking in these Christological blessings.

True knowledge, then, consists in the understanding of Christ. Paul terms this the wisdom of God hidden in a mystery, which, “the natural man will not receive,” the doctrine of the cross. … For the truth is unsophisticated… as the same apostle declares, being easy to comprehend by those who are obedient. For it renders us likened to Christ, if we experience “the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings.” … For truly the first thing is to deny one’s self and to follow Christ; and those who do this are borne onward to perfection, having fulfilled all their Teacher’s will, becoming sons of God by spiritual regeneration, and heirs of the kingdom of heaven. – Irenaeus 180CE, Volume 1, p. 969 [CD-ROM]

If we experience fellowship with Christ through suffering with Him, the first thing we must do is deny ourselves, pick up our cross and follow Him. We must crucify our fleshly desires and choose the Spirit. Our flesh naturally avoids suffering and seeks the broad, easy road, which ultimately leads to destruction. The Spirit, which yearns for us to commune with Jesus, calls us to love Jesus and obey His voice by His power, even if it seems foolish to us at first.

Winning feels good. So does receiving a promotion, being applauded, gorging ourselves at Thanksgiving, and sleeping at night without any fear of having our houses broken into. But sometimes, good is the greatest enemy of the best.

Paul met Jesus. Paul saw the glory of God. Paul was caught up into the third heaven. And Paul came back saying that all the good things of this world are a four-letter-word compared to the greatness of knowing Jesus Christ our Lord.

Times of suffering may bring us to our wits end. That’s true. But perhaps we can reframe those breaking points as opportunities to fellowship with Jesus like we couldn’t otherwise. Perhaps they are opportunities to know Christ and find joy, hope and peace that actually do surpass understanding.

Monday, November 28, 2016

The Unlikely Apostle Pt. 3: “There Is No Authority Except from God”

To the shock of the majority of Americans, Donald Trump gave a presidential acceptance speech a few hours after midnight on November 9th. Millions of Republicans and Evangelical Christians celebrated as Hillary Clinton was defeated, and the man who was hailed as a new Cyrus the Great claimed the throne. 

Interestingly, Trump, who was reported to have converted to Christianity this year, neither thanked nor mentioned God in his acceptance speech. He thanked countless humans, but not God. He took the time to credit numerous individuals for his victory, yet the thought of honoring God or his supposed Savior evidently didn’t make the cut.

Scripture says that God took Cyrus by the hand and anointed him as a shepherd to rebuild Jerusalem. But did God specifically choose Donald Trump to rebuild America? Just because Trump won the election, does that mean that God handpicked him to be the President?

To answer this question, many people turn to Romans 13.

Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. … for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. – Romans 13:1, 4

This is an interesting passage. Does it mean that every ruler that rules has been handpicked by God? Or, is Paul simply saying that God puts all positions of authority in place? Let’s turn to a respected early Christian authority, Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyon.

God imposed upon mankind the fear of man, for mankind did not acknowledge the fear of God. So He did this in order that, being subjected to the authority of men, and kept under restraint by their law, mankind might obtain some degree of justice. They might exercise mutual forbearance through dread of the sword. … Earthly rule, therefore, has been appointed by God for the benefit of nations. … Considered from this point of view, those who exact tribute from us are God’s ministers, serving for this very purpose. – Irenaeus 180CE, Volume 1, p. 552 

According to Irenaeus, Romans 13 says that God puts all positions of authority in place. The offices of judge, policeman, president, king, governor, emperor, principal and parent have all been put in place by God. However, just because those positions have been established by God to promote good and constrain evil, it doesn’t necessarily mean that every person in authority has been handpicked by God.

King David was very clearly chosen and anointed by God to be the King of Israel as long as he lived. David had several sons, one of them being Absalom. Eventually, Absalom organized and led a successful coup, removing his father from the throne in Jerusalem for a period of time. Both men are called king at the same time period in 2 Samuel.

So, which authority was established by God? David or Absalom? Which one was supposed to be in submission when Absalom was on the throne? Which one was God’s choice at that time?  

It seems pretty clear that seeking to have your father killed is never in God’s will. It also seems pretty clear that dethroning someone God says is a man after His own heart is not something that God desires. But God gives us free will. And just like He dealt with Absalom, He will deal with us according to our choices, and yet still bring about His sovereign plan.

So, is Donald Trump God’s handpicked choice for America? I guess it’s possible. It’s also possible that Trump was simply our choice, just like the people voted for Barabbas in Jesus’ day. Whatever the case, let me close by asking you to consider a few questions.

Practically speaking, are you putting your hope in being saved by a President or delivered by Jesus? Are you more in submission to the laws of your earthly country or the commands of your heavenly country? Is your confidence in the empire of America or in the kingdom of God?