A Preacher with Nothing New to Say

I was recently visiting with a pastor friend who told me one of his core commitments in ministry is to “have absolutely nothing new to say.” 

You might be thinking, “well, that sounds pretty boring, never having anything new to say!” But the truth is far deeper. While we certainly don’t try to bore anyone, we work hard to stay completely faithful to God’s word. In fact, it reminded me of Paul’s words in 2 Thessalonians 2:15. There, Paul writes, “So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.” The more I thought about my friend’s statement, the more I realized how much I agreed with his statement. 

His statement made me think about the vows every United Methodist Elder takes at their ordination (in our tradition, fully ordained clergy are called Elders, no matter their age). The bishop, prior to laying hands on us for ordination, asks us a series of questions. Here are a few of those questions followed by the response of each Elder being ordained:

“Do you trust that you are called by God to the life and work of an elder?” 

“I do so trust.” 

“Do you believe in the Triune God, and confess Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?”

“I do so believe and confess.”

“Are you persuaded that the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments contain all things necessary for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, and are the unique and authoritative standard for the Church’s faith and life?”

“I am so persuaded, by God’s grace.”

“Will you be faithful in prayer, in the reading and study of the Holy Scriptures, and with the help of the Holy Spirit continually rekindle the gift of God that is in you?” 

“I will, with the help of God.”

At my ordination, I promised that, “the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments contain all things necessary for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, and are the unique and authoritative standard for the Church’s faith and life.” Anytime I deviate from the message of truth and grace contained in Scripture, even unintentionally, I distract from the power of God’s word.

Looking back at these vows, i realized I share the same commitment as my friend. Although I hope to present the message of scripture in creative ways, I am committed to adding “nothing new” to the message of God’s word.

In Jeremiah 6:16, the prophet writes, “This is what the Lord says: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.” I pray that we continue to seek the ancient paths of God’s word and find rest for our souls, no matter what comes our way.

Without God, This World is All They Have.

Last Wednesday I had the opportunity to do a Q&A with The Loft, the student ministry of our congregation. I really enjoyed hearing their questions and offering them my best understanding of how to answer those questions using scripture. While several questions stand out in my mind, one reminded me of a question I’ve often heard asked. To put it simply, I was asked, “why does it sometimes seem like those who have faith sometimes suffer while those without faith have so much in this world?”

When my mom was a little girl, she didn’t have much from a material point of view. One day, after seeing how affluent one of her classmates was she asked her mom, “why do they have so much when they don’t even go to church?” In her young mind, it was as though God was blessing them for a lack of faith.

This is a question as old as Scripture. In Psalm 49:5-7, 16-20 (CEB) shows us,

“Why should I fear in times of trouble?
The iniquity of my foes surrounds me.
They trust in their wealth
and boast of their abundant riches.
Yet these cannot redeem a person
or pay his ransom to God…

Do not be afraid when a person gets rich,
when the wealth of his house increases.
For when he dies, he will take nothing at all;
his wealth will not follow him down.
Though he blesses himself during his lifetime —
and you are acclaimed when you do well for yourself —
he will go to the generation of his fathers;
they will never see the light.
Mankind, with his assets,
but without understanding,
is like the animals that perish.”

My grandmother Pauline drew on this Biblical wisdom when she answered my mom. She said, “honey, without God, this world is all they have…” The truth is, no matter how much wealth or prosperity we experience in this world, if we don’t have a deep relationship with God (what the Psalmist here calls understanding), we are missing out on the one thing that matters most.

Faith in God through Christ transcends this life and leads to eternal blessing and infinite happiness and joy. We must always remember, no matter how much we may prosper in this life, knowledge of God is infinitely greater value than money or success.

With that in mind, how should we prioritize our lives? I believe we should make our relationship with God an absolute priority. Every second we invest in learning about God through his Word, every second we spend deepening our relationship with God through prayer, and every moment we spend in worship are never a waste. Instead, they are eternal investments that shape not only our experience of this world, but that lead to the everlasting blessing that awaits us in the world to come!

 

Writing @ Seedbed

One of my goals for 2014 is to write more. I’ve always loved to write, and yet I’ve drifted away from doing it on a regular basis. Thanks to Seedbed, I’ve been able to share a couple posts over the past month to get me back on track. If you’d like to read those, you can check them out here:

 

A Pastor’s Responsibility

Every so often, I need to be reminded of who I’m called to be. Eugene Peterson never fails to do that in ways that challenge and inspire me. 

“The biblical fact is that there are no successful churches. There are, instead, communities of sinners, gathered before God week after week in towns and villages all over the world. The Holy Spirit gathers them and does his work in them. In these communities of sinners, one of the sinners is called pastor and given a designated responsibility in the community. The pastor’s responsibility is to keep the community attentive to God.” Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity.

 

Heaven: Everything Sad Will Come Untrue

Have you ever taken a moment to ask the question, “is this all there is?” This is one of the central questions behind everything in the book of Revelation.

There are images of throne rooms filled with bizarre creatures, watery chaos, and battles between abstract monsters representing the conflict all around us. And yet in the middle of these mysterious pictures, John encourages us with the promise that even when it looks like evil or brokenness will win the day, only God…only God…wins in the end.

There is a basic assumption that John carries with him every step of the way which is the answer to this deep question, “Is this all there is?” He looks in the eyes of those struggling with persecution for their faith. He looks in the eyes of those facing illness and sadness.  He looks in the eyes of those working on their marriages. He looks in the eyes of those dreaming of a different future. He looks in the eyes of those who’ve lost loved ones.

He knows the heart of this deep question: “Is THIS all there is?” And the entire book of Revelation answers with a resounding no. This world, and the pain that sometimes comes along with it, is not all there is. That leads us to two important questions:  1.) What else is there beyond this world? 2.) Why does it matter?

In the closing chapters John sees a final vision.

“Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” Revelation 21:1-2

 All that is old and broken passes away. The chaos represented by the sea disappears. We are promised “something new.”

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” Revelation 21:3-4

In this new reality, God dwells among the people: repairing all that is broken, comforting every pain, and wiping away every tear from their questioning eyes.

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Revelation 21:5

Everything is made new, and we can count on it with every fiber of our being. John not only says, “this is not all there is.” He says there is something far better waiting for those who trust in Christ. Everything that is bad and hard and difficult and uncertain and challenging and sad is limited. Everything that is good about this world, from knowing God to being comforted and loved, will last forever.

I love how J.R.R. Tolkein described this idea in a moving scene from his Lord of the Rings trilogy. Gandalf has just returned after being defeated by the Balrog, and one of the hobbits asks,

“Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?” Sam Gamgee

Gandalf assures him something significant has happened, pointing with hope to the future,

“A great Shadow has departed,” said Gandalf, and then he laughed and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

There is a world to come, after the world we now inhabit is long gone, where everything sad is going to come untrue. It is a world where laughter and joy drown out all that is broken and decaying about this world.

It is SO important to know this is not all there is because we have a tendency to live as though this world is long and eternity is short. However the stark reality, as Cardinal John Henry Newman once said is, “time is short; eternity is long.

Throughout this chapter, John shows us the incredible good news that the longest part of our existence is incredible! I could go through every little symbolic detail, but at the most basic level John’s description of heaven is simply intended to make us go WOW…just as the Apostle Paul once said:

“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” Romans 8:18

Unfortunately, sometimes we miss being blown away by this because we get distracted by the warning that’s included:

“But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” Revelation 21:8

Instead of being distracted by this warning, remember that this warning carries good news as well. Death, pain and destruction are not what you’re designed for. Why, then, does John include it? First notice he devotes far more room to describing the joy and beauty of heaven, but he also wants to be honest that there are other choices we can make and paths we can go down.

One of the things we know in our hearts is that this world is filled with chaos and difficulty. Many times in Revelation that’s represented by the sea, so let’s play with that imagine to understand John’s warning.

floating_driftwood

If you’re in a shipwreck and sinking at sea, there are lots of things that float by. There wood and other debris floating by, but those can only lead to destruction. Grabbing one is your choice, but it leads to death. The only solution for salvation and rescue is a solid raft, a solid rescue.

Jesus is that rescue. Jesus is the Coast Guard speeding to you over the waves. Coast Guard RescueGod isn’t sending you to destruction as an angry lighting bolt flinging deity. God is sending you the one thing that will rescue and save you.  If you know this is coming, is it loving to say, “grab onto the stick and see what happens?”

Knowing this truth, John is reminding his congregations, “Don’t hold onto driftwood. Our time is short; eternity is long, and I promise you do NOT want to miss it!

How should this influence your life? What do we learn about heaven and how it should influence us from John’s description?

  1.  Heaven is real. It is not just a “pie in the sky” reward for good behavior, but a promise that there is more to this world than meets the eye.
  2. John shows us the God of Christianity is opposed to suffering & pain. God’s designs for this world are not seen in suffering and tragedy. Instead they are seen in laughter, community, beauty, salvation, and grace.
  3. Time in this world is short, and eternity is long. Fortunately, this is incredibly good news, because this is an open invitation to everyone.

The last two verses here remind us of what this calls for. It calls for us to enter into the gates that are never shut. It calls us to enter into the Kingdom that Christ, the Lamb, invites us to join.

“I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there.” Revelation 21:22-25

I want you to know and to trust that heaven is real. I want you to hold firmly to the fact that heaven is a real thing. Time is short; eternity is long, so make the decision to spend eternity in a place of incredible beauty, satisfaction, joy, and love. The invitation is yours.  All you have to do is seek Christ and embrace the salvation that he alone gives.

If you’ve never done this and would like to, I would encourage you to pray this simple prayer, described by Adam Hamilton,

“Dear Lord, I would like to be one of your disciples. I would like to follow you. I accept the forgiveness and mercy you offer me. Wash me clean and make me new. Help me to follow you as I commit myself to you. I pray this to you, and in your name, Jesus. Amen.”

In the meantime, no matter what you face, no matter what difficulty you encounter, you can rest in the knowledge that everything sad will eventually come untrue in the light of God’s glorious future for everyone who trusts in him!

What Really Happens When We Pray?

 

Image

This is a picture of my dad, Billy Ray Judkins (1937-2005), around 1953. He loved to joke with the family that he played “End, Guard, and Tackle,” and he would go on to say, “I sat on the end of the bench, guarded the water jug, and tackled anyone who tried to steal it!” 

One of the most special memories I have of my dad was seeing him at our kitchen table almost every morning praying and reading his bible. He wasn’t a perfect man, and never claimed to be, but he consistently did his best to live out his faith. One of the most valuable things you can do as a father is to live your faith in front of your kids.

I am convinced that my dad’s prayers helped make him the man he was, and yet his prayers also raise important questions for me. My dad was diagnosed with lung cancer when I was in junior high, and ended up dying from complications from lung problems related to recovery from cancer about seven and a half years ago. We prayed and prayed that Dad would be healed, but it seemed that our prayers went unanswered. 

 Maybe you’ve struggled with what seemed like unanswered prayers as well, and maybe that has made praying a challenge for you. It could be that you’re like me sometimes, and prayer can be challenging because you’re not really sure if anything happens. 

The people in John’s day wondered the same thing. After all, in Chapter 6 we just saw those who had lost their lives for the faith gathered in a place of honor under an altar in the heavenly throne room praying, “how long?”

The churches John wrote were asking the same thing. Why, if we are consistently praying to God, does it seem like nothing is happening? 

John’s vision, after the last seal is opened gives us an incredible glimpse behind the scenes of what really happens when we pray. 

“When he opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them.” Revelation 8:1-2

This silence represents all of heaven and earth listening intently. It is a moment of preparation for the final seal, but it is also a moment in which the prayers of all creation can be heard. 

We then read, 

“Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all God’s people, on the golden altar in front of the throne.  The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God’s people, went up before God from the angel’s hand. Revelation 8:3-4

ImageThe basic outline of what happens is described as follows:

An angel appears with a censer

Stands before the altar

Mixes incense with prayer

This is a scene of worship, and the prayers of God’s people are purified on the altar of incense, before God, just as in the temple below.

Image

“This language is a poetic way of affirming that the prayers of God’s people are not in vain; God hears their prayers.” M. Reddish

We learn some very valuable lessons from John’s vision. 

First, God hears our prayers. 

Image

A couple years ago, while in Chichicastenango, Guatemala, 

I had the opportunity to visit a 400 year old Catholic Church called Iglesia de Santo Tomás. While there, incense burned so often that the wallswere stained with the smoke. Comparing that to this image of prayer from Revelation seems to suggest that the very walls of the heavenly throne-room of God are marked by the prayers of God’s people. God faithfully hears every prayer we pray. 

Prayer, at it’s most basic level, is being attentive to God and speaking to God. Like many of you, I find it much easier to talk about God than to talk to God. However, prayer is a gracious invitation to be in conversation with the God of all creation. 

Prayer is a focus upon God whereby all things come into focus. By centering attention on God the center, all things become centered. 

Prayer is our primary “mechanism” for giving our attention to the God who is at the center of the universe.

How to pray? We can follow the wisdom of Abbot John Chaman, who once wrote in his advice to people asking how to pray, “Pray as you can, and do not try to pray as you can’t.” John Chapman

Finally we see the effects of prayer: 

“Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake.” Revelation 8:5

Prayer makes a difference – what seems sometimes to have little effect in our limited vision of reality in fact has an incredible impact. Eugene Peterson uses George Herbert’s memorable phrase describing prayer as “Reversed Thunder” to describe the incalculable ways prayer impacts our world. 

While in seminary, I was struck more than once by hearing a quote from our school’s chancellor, Dr. Maxie Dunnam, who asked, “What if there are some things that God either will not do or cannot do until and unless we pray?”

ImageOver the years, we prayed for my dad to be healed from the disease that ravaged his body, and in the end, he wasn’t healed in the way we hoped for or expected. However, our prayers did not go unheard. I believe, beyond a shadow of a doubt that our prayers were answered in other ways. 

While my dad wasn’t healed physically, he was a different man by the time he died. He was more gentle, more present, more at peace, and more focused on God in countless ways.  Sometimes our prayers are so focused on one way of understanding the outcome of what we ask for, we miss the greater results that God has in mind. 

Looking back, I realize our prayers for healing were answered in tremendous emotional and spiritual healing that we would miss if we only defined prayer from our perspective. If all I looked for in response was “physical healing,” then I would miss the powerful work God does in and through prayer. 

God hears your prayers, and God acts on your prayers in ways that profoundly impact the world. We are invited, by some mysterious gift and the gracious love of God, to walk and communicate with  God while working together for the redemption and restoration of the world.

[This post borrows heavily from the work of Eugene Peterson in Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John & the Praying Imagination, and Mitchell G. Reddish’s Revelation from the Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary Series]

I Love the Church

In a lot of the conversations about church renewal and hope for turning around mainline denominations, I sense a longing for a church that people haven’t experienced. There is a vague dream of a better Church somewhere “out there,” and the subtle suggestion is that if we are just smart enough or creative enough, we will bring it into existence. People on one side of this conversation dream of the good old days (First Church Corinth or Laodicea perhaps?), and the people on the other side dream of the glorious future when the Church will finally align with their dreams and preferences.

In light of this, I want to celebrate the Church (and churches) I’ve experienced.  I prefer the messy, but beautiful, reality of church as I’ve known it to the theoretical churches of the future and the idealized churches of the past.

This isn’t a plea for a particular denomination. The church of my childhood, imperfect as it was, is Baptist, and the church of my adult life, imperfect as it is, is United Methodist. In both places and communities, I’ve seen people actively pursuing God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in ways that are inspiring and real, and I want to share with you some of what I’ve seen.

My dad was diagnosed with lung cancer when I was in junior high, and had one of his lungs removed as part of his treatment. For the rest of his life, he was in and out of the hospital fighting off whatever infection attacked his remaining lung. During that season, I’ve seen pastors sit with our family for hours in the hospital. I’ve seen fellow church members help my mom feeding cattle and helping take care of their farm when she and my dad were away from home. And I’ve even seen a congregation move their worship service on a Sunday night to my parent’s house when my dad was too sick to attend.

I saw it in the senior minister in the first church my wife and I joined after getting married, a UMC. This pastor took time to meet with a group of young adults every Tuesday morning over donuts and coffee so that we could study scripture and ask tough questions, while at the same time he was looking for signs of God’s call in our lives. I saw it in the Associate pastors who led mission trips, taught Disciple Bible Study, and prayed for us when we attended spiritual renewal events like Walk to Emmaus. In that same congregation, I saw it in a dear friend and accountability partner giving up a lucrative career to enter full-time ministry.

Early on after I became a United Methodist pastor, my dad died. Coming out of his funeral, there were a handful of members from my first appointment who I will never forget, who took time out of their busy schedules to attend a service where they couldn’t even get into the tiny little church where we held the service. Those same members were willing to try anything I suggested (with one or two exceptions, and they ended up being right…) and launched into mission and ministry in ways that I think even surprised them at times.

I saw it in the other congregation I served during my first appointment spending their time with kids whose parents would rarely darken the doors of our building. They used their own resources to lead after-school programs and youth ministry events for young people who would never give anything back financially because they believed that knowing Christ was a gift worth giving at any cost.

I continue to see the beauty of God’s people pursuing Christ where I serve today. I see it in the small group I meet with every week who encouraged and prodded me until I read through the bible in a year for the first time in my life. I see it in their prayers and their friendship, even when I’m cranky and sarcastic. I see it in a congregation who gets fired up about feeding the poor and teaching and mentoring children who are struggling to learn to read. I see it in their  appetite for learning God’s word and seeing it take root in their lives. I see it in their willingness to invite people who don’t know Jesus to come and experience worship with them. I see it in elderly men and women who celebrate and pray for a new worship service that they will never attend because they want to know we’re trying our hardest to reach people who will connect with God in ways that are very different from them.

I see it in my colleagues and friends around the conference and across the denomination who encourage me, pray for me, and especially those who put up with countless texts and calls. These friends care about the people entrusted to their care (inside and outside the walls of their congregation) and want them to have a deep relationship with God through Christ more than anything in the world, even when it’s hard….even when it hurts. They, like me, know that we live and work in a system that isn’t perfect, but they have the ability to stop thinking about that long enough to work hard for the sake of Christ and his Kingdom.

Yes, I could tell you stories of times the Church or churches have let me and others down I could share moments of disappointment and even incredible frustration, but I could also keep going on and on sharing stories like those above. God is still at work in churches all around the world, and it is a thing of beauty and grace. Take a look and see.