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Convictions Must Flow from Somewhere

I recently returned from a trip to Brazil to teach a group of young seminarians the subject of apologetics.  The first part of the curriculum is essentially  an overview of the various systems of apologetics out there.  For those who don’t know about what I am writing, apologetics is essentially the defending and declaring of the Christian faith to a non-Christian world.  In many ways it is a subset of evangelism though in many ways it has become a way to gather a following and sell books.

The various schools of thought on this is not important to my article so I will spare you of a description of each.  Frankly it can be very boring as you read and interact with many writers who argue their points and then you try to interact with them.  The reason for it is simple, there is no basis for the average student to properly interact with the positions.  Read that sentence again because it is very important.  The men are being introduced to a huge subject and they usually do have sufficient knowledge to have a good, thoughtful opinion, much less a conviction.

The second part of the coursework is then a proposal for a specific type of apologetics that is borne from a sound exegesis of the key biblical texts related to the nature of man, especially due to the presence of sin, the ability of man to make a free decision unaffected by sin, and the nature of the way God converts a soul.  These are not merely theological ideas that we should place on a table and all talk about like they are objects picked up off of the seashore.  These are biblical statements and they mean something.  And again this is where conviction comes into play.

As I taught the second half of the course I watched to see what types of reactions, comments and questions were raised in light of passage after passage being unfolded and laid before them.  It is same thing I do when I preach.  I labor to unfold the biblical passage before the people and I watch.  Especially when it is on a subject over which I know there is dispute.  When I say something like, “Notice the way Paul wrote this . . .” I want to see how many look down to examine the text.  I can say that for the most part my church is eager to do so, making my job in preaching much easier than other pastors.

But I also see the one who will sit with their arms folded and are unmoved.  They are convinced and nothing will change that.  With my students in Brazil it was the same thing.  I wanted them to raise questions but I wanted those questions to flow from the biblical text.  Not some author and certainly not from their own thoughts.  And this is where I now make my point of this post.

Convictions exist in every human.  But for a Christian those convictions ought to flow from a willful submission to the biblical text.  And if it doesn’t then those convictions come from something other that God’s Word.  When you learn to submit yourself to the bible then you become a person in a consistent state of change.  As you mature and as you learn you realize that certain texts were misunderstood by you.  Others become more clear and certain and you see that your first thoughts were good but not as deep and full as they could have been.  Regardless, a healthy Christian is one whose first question on anything is, “What does the bible say?”

I remember years ago finishing a sermon and a person came up to me visible angry.  He told me that what I was teaching that night was not what the majority of the church believed.  I looked at him and asked one question, “Did I properly deal with this passage or not?”  He said that I did but that he did not like it nor approve of it.  I put my hand on his shoulder and told him that his problem wasn’t with me but with the Lord.

Convictions.  Powerful things they are.  Just make sure they flow from the Word of God and not anything of this age.

ELCA and An Imperfect Storm

Read with a bit of interest this little story about Luther Seminary.  I do not belong to the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church of America) but I do interact with them on a consistent basis in my stomping grounds.  This is an outtake from the whole thing:

The president of Luther Seminary in St. Paul has resigned amid rising maintenance costs and declining enrollment.

Considered the country’s largest Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) seminary, the school wants to “take a fresh look going forward” after losing nearly $4 million last school year, Luther’s board chairman Jim Lindus said Tuesday.

The seminary announced Monday that Richard Bliese stepped down from the job he’s held since 2005. Officials plan to name an interim president by January and launch a national search for a successor.

Enrollment is down from 822 nearly five years ago to 764 students this year.

We kind of had a perfect storm here of financial challenges in the last year or two,” Lindus said. “Rising maintenance costs; our buildings are older and so we’ve had more deferred maintenance. (Emphasis mine)

Seems reasonable, tough financial times so things don’t work out so well.  Pressures build to come up with money that people simply don’t have and finally the fallout begins.  Nice if that were the reason.  I take a different position.

Tucked down a ways in this story we learn something else:

Lots of seminaries struggle

Other ELCA seminaries nationwide are also dealing with “very challenging times,” Lindus said. “They’re all facing the same problems. The scale is different because we’re much larger than the rest of them.”

So they are not alone.  ELCA is struggling as a whole.  Curses be upon this darned economy of ours.  If only. . . .  But then we keep reading:

The ELCA has seen at least 600 of its congregations leave since its controversial policy change in 2009 allowing for openly gay and lesbian clergy in committed relationships to serve as pastors.

Oops!  There is that little event too.  But that isn’t the culprit.  It could not be a basic abandonment of the God’s Word that could be causing this.  Nope, it is the economy.  Even bumper stickers in the Bush era warned us of it all.  So what can they do?  When they sit down to strategize on how to weather this perfect storm of economic madness called “today” what is the outcome?  Oh, here it is:

Theological schools will need to be more “creative in responding to the market and to the interest of students and the realities of how those students can actually play out their calling to ministry,”

See, here is where my small minded ignorance shows through time and time again.  It isn’t repent and return to the God you claim to love.  It isn’t preach the gospel and its demands to all the world calling men and women of a perverse generation to turn from sin and to the living God through Jesus Christ our Lord.  It isn’t open the Word and preach it day in and day out, word by word, sentence by sentence until the people of God rise up and shake of the shackles they have allowed to encircle them.  It could never be to unleash the Spirit-inspired, Spirit-written, Spirit-protected, Spirit-empowered Word upon the nations.

Nope, we just need creativity.  Let’s check back in ten years to see how history records that little decision.

Can You Keep from Preaching?

One of the blogs I read is done by H. B. Charles, Jr. and I find it consistently sound and enjoyable. His latest post is entitled, “If You Can Keep From Preaching , Do It.” It is a simple post that offers simple, straight-forward advice to young, aspiring preachers.  Here is a small taste of it:

One day, I had a conversation with a friend who was seeking to discern whether the Lord was calling him to pastoral or pulpit ministry. As he discussed it with me, he noted that he had mentioned this matter to me several times before without comment from me. He was right. I hadn’t responded. And I sensed that he was waiting on a response this time.

So I prayed an emergency prayer to God about what to say. And what came to my mind is what my father said to me some twenty years ago about whether I should continue in the ministry: “If you can keep from preaching, do it.”

I was about fifteen years old. And my father had given me the opportunity to preach his 11 AM service. I remember two things about that sermon.

It was the hardest I had ever worked on a sermon.

It was also the first time I received direct criticism about my preaching.

Now I will skip any real discussion about the validity of a fifteen year old preaching.  My point in this post is the common statement that if there is anything else you can do other than preach/pastor you should do it.  The rationale is that pastoral ministry, especially preaching, is hard, discouraging, and not for the faint of heart.  This was said to me and my fellow seminarians on multiple occasions and never, ever did it sound true.

When I personally heard it the first time I immediately thought of the fact that I had just had a very high paying job offered to me in another state for a great salary.  I was good at what I did and a head hunter recognized it.  Later I became a reserve police officer for the city of Glendale, CA and found out I was very good at that job as well and I was asked to come on full time.  Then there was the fact that I was a fully trained baker and had sound management skills in the realm of mid-range restaurants.  My point here is simple.  I could do a lot of different things and even succeed at them.  So was I a fool to press on in pastoral training?  Being stubborn, and noticing that in every case there was never a bible text that drove those comments about not entering the preaching ministry, I chose to push on.

Fifteen years later I am still a pastor, still pastoring the same church, and have no plans to do anything else.  So what do I think of these kind of statements?  I dislike them.  A lot.

I understand what is meant by them, but sadly what is meant is seldom actually said.  They are warning young men to really think hard about what they are entering into.  It is hard.  It is not a place for the wimpy (not if it will be a biblically driven work that is God-centered).  For every “thanks” you will have five criticisms.  Your back will get used to having knives stuck in it, etc., etc., etc.)

Not that it is a miserable because it isn’t.  I am marrying the children of those who were there when I first arrived.  I am helping those young families think through a biblical marriage and family.  I have had the privilege to help heal marriages and weep with those who lost someone.  I am humbled when I watch a person come to saving faith through my preaching and I grin from ear to ear when I watch a man stand up and be a godly man.  Good stuff.  And I get paid to do it.  I am granted hours every week to study and read.  I am entrusted to open the bible and teach it to God’s people.  I wouldn’t trade it for a moment.

But that doesn’t mean I couldn’t, because I could.  And many men I know could as well.  The point is not, “If there is something else you can do, do it.”  It is, are you will to forsake those other things if the gospel ministry requires all of you?  I said, “Yes” many years ago and there are many other friends who have done the same.  That is the question that young men need to hear because, in many ways, there is no going back.

Internships Rethought

I am reluctant to link and comment to this other blog because I am in it.  However I have a different set of readers out there in blog-land and I think the essences of the post is worth it.  For me, as a pastor, the question is always how I spend my time and what is my vision.

In many ways the temptation is to grow the church, even when my lips are quick to say, “No, no, that is not what we are about.”  And now, after fifteen years at the same church it is tempting to relax and enjoy the lack of battles that I once had to fight.  A third temptation is to coast on all of the hard study I did in prior years realizing that so many who attend now have never heard those sermons.

But in the end I keep coming back to what I never really had, a man who would lend me his life so that I could walk next to it, watch it, and learn from it.  I had many good men that I knew, but none who would go so far as to do that for me and the effects are still felt today.  A long time ago I decided that if someone wanted me they could have me if at all possible.  But I also decided that they would get the real me, not the one I wanted them to see.  For those I have who want to go into full-time ministry I have tried to give them a no-holds look at want lies before them.  Nothing is worse than entering into something that demands everything you are and you are ignorant of what lies ahead for you and your family.

All of that to say, here is a good blog post, excellent perhaps, on how one seminarian views the value of what many churches offer, an internship.  But this is not for seminarians, or even pastors.  In fact, it is for anyone who seeks to influence other Christians, formally or informally.  This is what our young people need from our old people.  This is what that first time mother needs from the grandmother.  Just bold, honest, faith-filled, gospel-centered advice.  Read it and consider yourself, what are you doing in the lives of those younger in the faith?

Providence in Spite of Arrogance

The little church I helped form was a mistake.  It was born out of a sinful desire to show the elders of the former church that they were wrong.  It was born out of the hope that I could rise up and be noticed. It was born out of a heart of rebellion.  But it sure didn’t feel that way in the beginning. The reason, as best as I can describe it, is because I was naive in my thinking and theology.  I mistook excitement and energy for knowledge and wisdom.  Common for young people and that is one of the reasons our Lord gave us elders.

I think of Solomon’s son Rehoboam.  In 1 Kings 11:43 Solomon has died and Rehoboam is now king of Israel.  Right away in chapter 12 he hears wise counsel from the elders in verse 6, essentially telling him to give the people a break, let them rest and they will follow him forever.  Then these fateful words are read in verse 8, “But he forsook the counsel of the elders which they had given him, and consulted with the young men who grew up with him and served him.” The result was that he made the pressures upon the people harder and split the kingdom, losing ten of the twelve tribes.

I was wrong not to listen to the elders of the church. And every time I watch young men at my church wiggle under decisions the elders make I remember my sin.  But I serve a sovereign Lord who providentially works even in and through sin.  And that is what he did for me.

Grace Bible Church was where I decided that seminary was what I needed to do.  It was where I taught adult classes (some of which I am embarrassed over now).  It was a place where I could watch up close the workings of a church, good and bad.  It was where I was rejected as an elder which made me madder than a hornet since I thought quite highly of myself. As a deacon I was given oversight over the lowliest of responsibilities which made me mad again. But Grace Bible Church was also the place where I preached my very first sermons and where the elders officially recognized the preaching and teaching were gifts given to me by the Spirit.

Kim and I were married now, were told by the pastor to not pursue schooling for one year just to settle into the marriage.  And over that time we began to seek God’s direction.  We had decided to go to The Master’s College and then The Master’s Seminary but were unsure when we should go.  Again God’s providence gave us a nudge.
I worked as the General Manage of Au Bon Pain, a french café, in downtown Houston.  The corporation had hired a hot shot out of New York to boost sales.  My store was picked to expand and we had plans drawn up.  When we met with the city inspector he said that we would have to lose a lot of floor space making it handicap accessible.  The hot shot told me to offer a bribe and I refused.  A week or so later I was at the headquarters with the other managers for a meeting, where he publicly mocked me and fired me for fake reasons.  Nudge number one.

I was heavily involved with the church and had a Sunday School class I taught.  I still remember the name of the class, Dispensationalism and Other Strange Words (picture me shaking my head at myself right now).  One of my friends in the class asked if I would be offended if her and her husband would attend a new class starting up.  Then the rest of the class agreed that they wanted to be in the other class.  My teaching time was up.  Nudge number two.

The two things keeping me in Houston where gone.  God’s providence again was being made plain and Kim and I were headed for Los Angeles.  I still remember the directions.  I was to turn right onto Voss, go a few blocks to I-10, go left.  When I got to I-5 I was to turn right and I was there.

What Is The Most Pressing Issue in Missions

Just finished a wonderful time with my dear friend Philemon over food and coffee. We talked much of family and personal issues but quickly began to talk about the world of missions and the needs out there. Philemon is part of the Training Leaders International and is traveling extensively throughout the world in the course of his job.  In every point of the conversation we reflected on the critical situation throughout the world for theologically trained pastors.  What is needed to get into the unreached areas?  Theologically trained pastor are needed.  What is needed to strengthen weak denominations and churches in barely reached areas?  Theologically trained pastor are needed.  What is needed in countries with long-standing churches to further the work of the gospel?  Theologically trained pastor are needed.

He was recently in Douala, Cameroon with a team I of which I was to be part.  They taught in a Pentecostal seminary where on day one the question was raised by the students, why do we need to learn how to study the bible, the Spirit will tell us what it means.  By day two they were hungrily learning what they had never been taught before and by the week’s end they were convinced that they must master the Word of God.  Another team goes out in August, Lord willing  I will be part of it.  One of the leaders of the seminary took the class as well, at the end he stood and testified that Pentecostals are too loud and that they all need to learn to be quiet and hear and see what the Word of God actually says.  Think of the difference just one course of theology has begun to create in a group of people preparing to pastor God’s people.

The gospel in God’s means to save people, but it is the unapologetic proclamation of the Word that grows them in respect to their salvation.  Untrained, poorly trained pastors simply can’t do that.  Here is a 31 day prayer map to consider using.  And if you do, pray that God will bring training to the pastors that they might be able to teach the people.

Why I Hated and Loved My Theology Professor

I read with pleasure this post by Andy Naselli and it made me remember an incident in my past.

When I was in seminary I had an unusually large number of elective credits available to use as I pleased. I also had Dr. Zemek as my adviser and since he was the theology professor I was eager to get his counsel.  I love theology, he loves theology, I have credits to burn, he will tell me to burn them on theology classes.  Right?  Nope…

I remember sitting in a chair in his office telling him of my fortunate situation.  Then, being the humble guy that I was I asked him on how I should use the credits.  Here is essentially what transpired.  He leaned back in his chair and with genuine seriousness said, “Matt, will you promise that you will do what I counsel?”  “Yes sir,” I quickly replied.  He then looked me in the eye and said, “You should spend every one of them on learning the biblical languages.”  I was stunned and sickened because I despise learning languages, especially ancient ones.

He then told me a simple truth that has never left me.  “If you don’t learn the languages well then you will always be dependent on someone else to tell you what the text says and what your theology should be.  But if you master the languages then you will naturally develop your theology from the text.”  A very sad man walked out of that office.

Fifteen years of preaching and I can say that he was absolutely right.  And that is why I hate and love him.

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