Monday, May 27, 2019

You Need to Know Lyndsey Beth Hargis

On Saturday, I officiated the funeral of Lyndsey Beth Hargis who died too young at the age of 30.  Leukemia was the culprit.  A woman who couldn't be there asked me if I'd post my comments from the funeral.  You will find them below. I opened with a welcome.  The obituary, music, and a beautiful tribute from her fiance Carter Harrington followed.  We ended the service with my sermon and a benediction.

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WELCOME

Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am (John 14:1-3).

Lyndsey had written these verses on a card and tucked it in her Bible.  She knew she was up against, and she knew who was in the fight with her.  Maybe that’s why in spite of the battle, she didn’t seem to live with a troubled heart.  These verses are good for us today because her sudden death feels like trouble.  Lyndsey Beth was in remission so far as we knew.  She had some issues, but things looked promising.  And then the ER and the ICU and a major tailspin and sudden, unexpected death.

The apostle Paul called death “the last enemy.”  Anyone who has lived for very long knows that sometimes death comes as a friend.  It brings relief and release and peace—the long-term hospice patient living on a morphine drip, in and out of consciousness, mostly out; the once vibrant old man now confined to a death bed positioned by a window, constrained to watch life instead of live it.  Sometimes death comes like a friend.

But not when a young woman is in the prime of life, enjoying life, serving others, looking forward to her wedding day.  Death doesn’t wear party clothes and show up in a welcome wagon to persons like Lyndsey; he comes shrouded in a black hoodie with a sickle in his hand to reap a too early harvest.  Death separates loved ones, steals joy and peace for a season, and leaves the hard work of grief in its wake.  Death is the last enemy.

But it is a defeated enemy.  Jesus took on death and the sin that brought it into the world.  He took on death by dying—by dying on the cross for our sins.  And though death took him for a while, death could not keep him.  On the third day, Jesus rose from the dead and victor over sin and death and the grave.  A victor who shares the spoils of his victory with those who know and love him.  He shares the spoils of victory today with Lyndsey Beth.  In anticipation of his victory over death, Jesus stood at the tomb of his friend Lazarus who was four-days-dead.  Jesus said to Lazarus’ sister, “I am the resurrection and the life.  He that believes in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.  He that lives and believes in me will never die.  Do you believe this?” he asked Martha.  Do you believe this?  Because of Lyndsey Beth’s faith in Jesus, we know she is alive and well with him today.  Absent from the body, she is present with the Lord.  And that gives us comfort as we come to mourn her death, to celebrate her life, and to worship God.


Let’s pray: Father, as we do this hard thing today, we give thanks that we do not do this alone.  We are surrounded by friends who shared a common love for Lyndsey, and even more, you are with us.  While we would have chosen for Lyndsey life instead of death, healing in this world instead of heaven just yet, we give thanks that we let her go into better hands than ours.  Meet us in these moments and give us strength made perfect in our weakness, grace sufficient for our needs, and your peace that passes understanding.  In the name of Jesus, the resurrection and the life, we pray … amen. 


SERMON

Some years ago, I stumbled across some words shared at the funeral of a military chaplain who died of cancer.  What was said at his funeral can be said at Lyndsey Beth’s today …

Cancer is so limited …
It cannot cripple love.
It cannot shatter hope.
It cannot corrode faith.
It cannot eat away peace.
It cannot destroy confidence.
It cannot kill friendship.
It cannot shut out memories.
It cannot silence courage.
It cannot invade the soul.
It cannot reduce eternal life.
It cannot quench the Spirit.
It cannot lessen the power of the resurrection.

Cancer cannot do any of that and did not do any of that to Lyndsey.  Don’t think for a minute that cancer won here.  Cancer did not win this battle.  Lyndsey Beth won.  Life won.  Her cancer is dead and gone forever.  Lyndsey Beth is alive and well forever.  Cancer did not win here.

And though she battled cancer these last many months, cancer did not define Lyndsey Beth’s life.  Her life was defined by the way she lived it.  Her life was defined by her passions, by her heart.

She was a young woman who didn’t stand passively on the sidewalk and watch the parade of life pass by, she was in the parade, dancing to the music, and enjoying every minute of it.

She was a young woman who was full of spit and vinegar, spunk and splash, bold, at times uncomfortably unfiltered in her remarks, a woman with heart who acted and spoke from her heart without always passing it through her brain.  Her fiancĂ© Carter’s Aunt Cathy is a bold person herself, but even Cathy admitted, “Not many people can put me in my place, but Lyndsey could.”  She was full of spit and vinegar all right.

She was a young woman with a heart for the stray and the underdog, a heart for people on the margins, people the rest of us either look down on or ignore.  She’s been this way since she was a kid—befriending the odd duck, the poor kid, the forgotten.  Some of her popular friends sometimes gave her the business for it.  Didn’t bother Lyndsey.  She had a heart for the underdog.  Her mom usually took Lyndsey to school and drove her home.  Lyndsey didn’t have to ride the school bus often, but when she did, it wasn’t uncommon for her to come home and tell her mom that she saw where so-and-so lived and knew they were poor and needed help.  So after dark, Lynn and Lyndsey would sneak by the house and leave some needed things in a carport, on a porch.  Lyndsey wouldn’t dream of embarrassing that kid or drawing attention to her troubles.  But she had to do something.  She had a heart for the stray and the underdog.

She had a heart for work.  Like her parents, Lyndsey had a strong work ethic.  And it’s no surprise to anyone who knew her that she chose an occupation that is people and service centered.  A math teacher once told me, “I don’t teach math; I teach students.”  She wanted me to know she wasn’t so much about the subject as the student.  Lyndsey didn’t just style hair, she served people.  She was attached to her clients, and they were attached to her.  She knew more about them than hair color or style or the kind of make-up they preferred.  She knew them by name, she knew particular things about them.  What made her so good at what she did and what kept her clients so loyal to her was not her magic with a pair of scissors, it was her knack for loving people, for making them feel valued. for seeing beyond a haircut and a tip to the person.  Her clients cared about her too.  When I saw her at the hospital, it wasn’t unusual for one of her clients to have been there to see her.  Lyndsey had a heart for work and the people she served through work.

She had a grateful heart.  She was quick to express thanks to the people in her life.  Cancer didn’t change that.  She thanked the docs, the nurses, even the people who drew her blood.  Her phlebotomists didn’t get the gratitude: “You’re thanking me for sticking a needle in your arm?”  She was thankful for everyone helping her fight this battle.  And she appreciated every visit and every prayer.  Cancer didn’t change that.

Cancer really didn’t change anything about her.  Sure, when she got the news of her acute leukemia, she faced her initial fears.  Normal, human.  But she didn’t live there.  She got through the “why me?” stage quickly.  And she was the same person with cancer that she was in her health: concerned more for others than herself, grateful for every blessing in the midst of her sickness.  If cancer changed her in any way, it accelerated her love for the Lord and grew her to new depths in her relationship with him.

Lyndsey Beth knew and loved Jesus.  I’ve known her since she was a first-grader.  I watched her grow up.  Baptized her when she was about ten years old.  She’s loved Jesus since she was a little girl.  Her mom remembers when she took 4-year-old Lyndsey with her to get Lynn’s mamaw out of a bad situation.  Lynn was stewing over what to do next with her mamaw.  She was dissolved in tears, and Lyndsey leaned from the back seat and said to her mom, “Why don’t you pray about it?”  Lyndsey has always known about Jesus, knew he was the one to turn to in your troubles. 

She grew up in a family and a church where she heard the gospel—that she is more sinful than she dared believe and more loved than she dared hope.  She heard the gospel—that she was a sinner who needed saving and only Jesus could save her from her sin.  Jesus could save her because in love Jesus left the glories of heaven to come to earth as the God-Man, live a sinless life, know us from the inside out, and then bear our sin in his body on the cross so that we might be forgiven and saved.  Jesus died for our sin, killing its penalty and power over all who believe.  And then Jesus rose from the dead in complete victory.  Lindsey heard the gospel and believed it.  She turned from as much of her sin as she understood and put her trust in Jesus to save her.  And Jesus saved her. 

Lyndsey walked with Jesus.  She had a season like many do where she strayed a bit from her faith.  But she didn’t stray too long or too far.  And through her cancer, she grew to love Jesus more and more.  Then, at the end of her life on this earth, Lyndsey was no more passive in her death than she was in her life.  The veil between this world in the next is thinner than we realize, and Lyndsey caught a glimpse of Jesus coming for her and literally reached up her hands when she saw him coming.

She knew who to reach to in life and in death.  Do you know who to reach to?  If you don’t know Jesus as your Savior, he’s the only one who can save you.  Good deeds can’t save you.  A moral life can’t save you.  Only Jesus can save you from your sin, and he wants to save you.  He loves you.  He died for you.  He rose for you.  He stands ready to save you if you’ll turn from your known sin and put your trust in him.  Lyndsey would want you to know that, and if God used her death to help you find life, well, praise the Lord who takes the worst brokenness we can know and make something beautiful out of it.

And the Lord has healed Lyndsey’s cancer with the healing from which she’ll never be sick again and lifted her to heaven and to the life that’s really life.  Because she knew and loved Jesus, we can be sure that she is with him today.  As we’ve said, Lyndsey was a good person in so many ways, but she is not in heaven with Jesus because she was a good person.  She is in heaven with Jesus because he is a great Savior.  She is there on his merit, not hers.  And she is free from her cancer and well again and dancing in heaven’s parade in glory and thanksgiving to God.  She is well.

And we are left in our grief.  We’re burying a 30-year-old, a daughter, a fiancĂ©, a friend.  We grieve.  We should grieve.  We need to grieve.  Right now, it’s still a little surreal, but it will get more real as our shock wears off and reality sets in.  So grieve.  It’s normal.  It’s healthy.  It’s Christian.  It’s the hurt that leads to healing.  And for those of us who know Jesus, we grieve with hope.  We grieve with hope because we know that since Lyndsey is with Jesus and Jesus is with us, we will never be that far apart. 

Lean into Jesus in your grief.  He is the resurrection and the life; he is the first and the last, the beginning and the end, the one who was dead but is alive forevermore.  He is the one who holds the keys to death and the grave.  He is the friend that sticks closer than a brother; the man of sorrows acquainted with grief, the one who promises never to leave us or forsake us.  Lean into Jesus.  It doesn’t feel like it now, but he will see you through to a brighter day.  He’s done it for others.  He will do it for you.

And remember this too: if you know Jesus, you’ve not seen the last of Lyndsey Beth.  You’ve not seen her last smile, felt her last hug.  You will see Lyndsey again on the other side when either Jesus comes back, or you go to Jesus in death.  And what a great reunion that will be in the place where the circles that are broken on earth by death will never be broken again.  No wonder Paul could stick out his tongue at that last enemy death and say, “O death, where is your sting?  O grave, where is your victory?  Death has been swallowed up in victory in Jesus Christ our Lord.”  Amen.


Saturday, February 9, 2019

Here I Am, Send Me

It was my privilege to preach on Monday of Christian Focus Week at Ouachita Baptist University.  The them for the week was "Here I Am."  Batting lead off, I got to take the very text from which that phrase comes, Isaiah 6:1-13.  Another speaker from the week posted her message to her blog.  That gave me the idea to do the same thing.  Here is my message: Here I Am, Send Me … 

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Excited to float the river, you put in your raft under bright blue skies.  Not three miles downriver, a storm blows up out of nowhere.  Lightning flashing.  Thunder crashing.  Wind whipping.  Rain pouring.  River rising.  Heart racing.  Frigid white water splashing into your raft.  Clothes soaked.  Feet and hands growing numb from the cold.  Current taking control.  Raft spinning in circles.  Oar ripped from your hands as you try to push off from a rock.  Helpless now to steer your course, you hold on for dear life … and just up ahead, the falls.

That was Isaiah in the temple.  Hear the word of the Lord … (read the text).

I

I wonder if Annie Dillard had Isaiah’s experience in mind when she wrote these words …

On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions.  Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?  Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?  The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.  It is madness to wear ladies' … hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets.  Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.  For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. [1]

Isaiah had come to the temple that day seeking the Lord.  He may have been filled with some grief and uncertainty.  King Uzziah was dead, and the whole nation was on edge.  Uzziah had ruled Judah for 52 years.  He was the only king Isaiah had known.  The splendor of Uzziah's reign, recorded in 2 Chronicles 26, was impressive.  He had modernized the army, conquered territory in Philistia, extended commercial activities into Egypt, and boosted agriculture.  Not since Solomon had the nation known such peace and prosperity.  Had Judah been a democracy, Uzziah, like Franklin Roosevelt, would have been elected over and over again.  Not only was he a political giant, until he got arrogant near the end, he mostly did what was right in the eyes of the Lord.  He was a pretty good king.  And now this man who had done so much for his country was dead.

To make matters worse, Assyria, the new bully on the block, was coming into her own, beating her chest, harassing her neighbors, and slaughtering enemies in the most ruthless ways.  Assyria was a terrorist nation: ISIS, Alqaeda, and the Taliban rolled into one.  Twisted, evil, bad to the bone.  The Northern Kingdom was already dealing with these animals.  How much longer till Assyria set her sights on Judah? 

And why not?  Judah’s righteousness—filthy rags.  Judah’s sin—off the charts.  Judah’s future was uncertain.  Perhaps, Isaiah felt his own future a bit uncertain.  Uzziah was off his throne.  Was God still on his?  So Isaiah came to the temple seeking God.

And got more than he bargained for!  He saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and lifted up.  His train filled the temple.  Seraphim were flying around tending to the Lord. "Holy, Holy, Holy!" was the anthem of the day.

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;
his glory fills the whole earth.

God's train filled the temple, and his glory filled the whole wide world.  The Lord is too big to be held comfortably in the walls of a building.  So as the seraphim sang and God's presence filled that place, the door-posts shook, the foundation trembled, wafts of smoke billowed about, and Isaiah reached to his head to make sure his crash helmet was on good and tight.

What does a person say in the presence of such things?  Well, if he can say anything at all, he echoes Isaiah.  "Woe is me!"  That's funeral language.  He thought he was going to die.  "Woe is me!"  he said.  "I am ruined.  For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty."  How can a sinner stand in the presence of a holy God and expect to survive? Isaiah figured he was a goner for sure.
 
And if the place hadn't been heaving like a ship in a storm, he'd have probably made a run for it.  Instead, he tightened his seat belt and hung on for dear life.  When suddenly one of the seraphim, with tongs in his hands, took a white hot coal off the altar and made a bee-line for Isaiah.  "Oh, no!" Isaiah must have thought. "If I have to die, why do I have to be burned to death." 

Fearing for his life, his eyes red and stinging from the smoke, Isaiah hunkered down and hoped for the best.  The seraph took the coal, touched Isaiah's lips and declared, “Your guilt is gone, your sin forgiven.”  What?  Good news instead of bad news!  A little cross before the cross.  A little Jesus before he even came.  “Amazing grace!  How sweet the sound that save a wretch like me!”  “Your guilt is gone, your sin forgiven.”  What an incredible turn of events!  Isaiah thought he would die because of his sin, but God killed his sin and kept Isaiah alive. 

And when Isaiah saw that he was going to survive, he was so moved by the grace and mercy of God that when God gave the invitation: "Who should I send?  Who will go for us?"  Isaiah was the first one to step out from his pew, walk down the aisle, and say to the Lord, "Here I am.  Send me!"

And with that act of surrender, the smoke cleared, the temple settled back on its foundation, Isaiah took off his crash helmet, unbuckled his seatbelt, and walked away with a job to do, his life never again to be the same.

II

It was not an easy job.  No cush assignment for Isaiah.  It wasn’t a mission trip to Maui.  It wasn’t, “Open a spiritual retreat center at the top of Mt. Hebron.”  It wasn’t, “Go bring spiritual revival to the land.”  No.  You heard God’s assignment for Isaiah in our text: “Dull their minds.  Make them deaf.  Blind their eyes … lest they see, hear, understand, turn back to me, and be healed.”  Huh? 

When I was ordained, the church told me, “Go preach the gospel.  Preach people to salvation and shepherd them to Christian maturity.”  My commission was, “Open eyes.  Open ears.  Convince minds.”  God had a different commission for Isaiah.  Judah was growing sick with sin.  Granite hearts toward God.  God had taken about all he was going to take of their idolatry and rebellion.  They had crossed some line of no return.  “Dull their minds.  Make them deaf.  Blind their eyes.  Judgment is on the way.”

Isaiah was confused.  He asked in v. 11 – “Lord, how long do I have to preach like that?”

And God said, “Until cities are piles of rubble, houses are empty, the land doesn’t grow a thing, I drive the people far away, and Judah looks like a forest of stumps.”  Good grief!  So much for preaching for growth.  Isaiah’s going to have one lousy ministry resume. 

I heard an African-American pastor tell about a church he knew that was one sorry church.  The pastor got so discouraged that he left for greener pastures.  The church had a hard time finding another pastor, so they asked the only deacon in the church who had any commitment, “Would you be our pastor?”  He prayed about it and said yes.  In telling his story, the pastor said, “My first act was to get the deacons together and tell them how things were going to be and what I expected of them.  They balked: ‘That’s asking way too much.  We’re not going to do that.’ 

“So, you know what I did?  I fired those deacons.  I preached that church down from 50 people to 8.  And then God started growing that church every way a church could grow.  We’re more than a hundred now, and most of those folks are on fire for Jesus.”

God’s assignment for Isaiah: fire those deacons, fire those priests, fire those idolaters, fire those leaders who lead people astray.  Preach Judah down to a tenth, down to a forest of stumps. 

God gave Isaiah such a hard job to do, that on first read, I thought, “Maybe it’s a wise thing that God got Isaiah’s commitment—'Here I am. Send me’—before God gave him his job.”

III

But God almost always works that way with his people.  He wants us to respond to him, not to a job opportunity.  He wants us to worship him, not the mission.  He is God, not some headhunter in Human Resources.  Unless you get a compelling vision of God, your “Here I am. Send me” is going to be nothing more than a flash in the pan.  “Here I am. Send me … until the job gets hard … or the job gets boring … or the results don’t happen … or the pay’s too small … or the people to whom God sends me don’t like me very much.”  If your “Here I am. Send me” is going to weather storms and downturns and hard times; if it’s going to last, it must begin with a compelling vision of God …

·         the one true God

·         King God high and lifted up on his throne

·         the holy, holy, holy God whose glory fills the whole wide world

·         the forgiving God of grace and mercy who sees your sin and forgives your sin not by a hot coal from the altar but by the blood of his own Son Jesus nailed to the altar of the cross for you and for me.

Do you know this God?  Or do you worship some lesser god, some little-g god, some pipsqueak god?

·         Some worship the god of my comfort—the god who exists to make me happy and keep me healthy, wealthy, and comfortable.

·         Some worship the god of my convenience—the god who never interferes with my life and who always works with my schedule.

·         Some worship the god in my pocket—the god I can take out and use whenever I need him but tuck him away when things are going my way.

·         Some worship the god of my prejudice—the god who likes the same people I like and hates the same people I hate.  What are the odds?

Little g gods all.  Is that all the god you want?  Wilbur Rees wrote …

I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.  Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep, but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk or a snooze in the sunshine.  I don't want enough of Him to make me love a black man or pick beets with a migrant worker.  I want ecstasy, not transformation; I want the warmth of the womb, not a new birth.  I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack.  I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please. [2]

Some worship any host of little g-gods.  False gods.  No gods.  Gods who exist for me rather than the other way around.  Gods who are in it for my glory rather than their own.  Pathetic, useless idols of my own making.  Three-dollar gods.

Our little g gods are not compelling.  They can’t fill a temple, let alone the earth.  They have no authority.  They have no glory.  They offer no forgiveness.  They inspire no obedience.  They can’t call anyone to a mission.  If you worship some little g god of your own making, here’s the only response your idol compels: “Here I am. Serve me.”

But Isaiah’s God, the God of the Scripture, the one true God, our God, inspires worship, obedience, mission …

IV

And hope!  Even when the mission is hard like Isaiah’s.  Even when it seems beyond us.  Hope!  Even after God commissions Isaiah to preach Judah into a forest of stumps, God can’t help himself but to work in a little hope.  Alec Motyer says, “Typically of Isaiah, hope is the unexpected fringe attached to the garment of doom.”[3]  Hope.  It’s in that last line in v. 13—“The holy seed is the stump.”  All that hard preaching, but in the end, hope: “the holy seed is the stump.”  What seed?  What stump?  Maybe a remnant of God’s holy people through whom God could keep his covenant, do his work, and send Messiah to do for us what we could never do for ourselves.  Hello, Jesus. 

·         Isaiah 7:14 – “The Lord himself will give you a sign: the virgin will conceive, have a son, and name him Immanuel.”  Hope.

·         Isaiah 9:6-7 – “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end.”  Hope.

·         Isaiah 11:1-2a – “Then a shoot will grow from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots will bear fruit.  The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him.”  Hope.

·         And Isaiah 53:6 – “All we, like sheep, have gone astray, we’ve turned everyone to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”  Hope.

“The holy seed is the stump.”  Even when the mission is hard, we serve with hope.  That hope is Jesus.  Even before the foundations of the world, as Trinity contemplated how to rescue us from our sin and the wreck we make of our lives and God’s world, Jesus said to the Father, “Here I am. Send me.”  And when the time was right, Jesus put on flesh and came all the way down.  Jesus showed us the Father.  Jesus died on the cross.  Jesus rose from the dead.  Jesus ascended to the Father in heaven, and one day Jesus will come again in glory and power and prove that his mission triumphs no matter what things look or feel like in the moment. 

We’re talking about the same Jesus who continues his mission through you and me.  You may feel God is sending you to a dry hole.  You may see little results as the world counts results.  But there’s hope.  Jesus is with you.  Because his glory fills the whole wide world there is no place he can send you where he is not already there.  Across the campus, across the world, he is there.  Get a vision of God high and lifted up in the temple.  Get a vision of the resurrected Jesus who holds the world in his nail-scarred hands.  And that vision will so propel your mission that its place or ease or hardship won’t be a factor in your “Here I am. Send me.”

V

Can you say that today?  Back in the 50s and 60s a man named Clarence Jordan used to manage a place in Georgia called Koinonia Farm.  It was a community to demonstrate in a most racist, Jim Crow time and place that people of different color can live together in equality in Christ.  As you can imagine, they were a misunderstood and persecuted lot.  Clarence had a brother named Bob who was an attorney, and Clarence asked him if he would represent Koinonia Farm in legal transactions.

“Clarence, I can’t do that,” said Bob.  “You know my political aspirations.  If I represent you, I might lose my job, my house, everything I’ve got.”

“We might lose everything too, Bob.”

“It’s different for you, Clarence.”

“Why is it different?  I remember, it seems to me, that you and I joined the church on the same Sunday, as boys.  I expect when we came forward the preacher asked me about the same question he did you.  He asked me, ‘Do you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior?’  And I said, ‘Yes.’  What did you say, Bob?”

“I follow Jesus too, Clarence … up to a point.”

“Could that point by any chance be the cross?”

“That’s right,” said Bob.  “I follow him to the cross, but not on the cross.  I’m not getting myself crucified.”

“Then I don’t believe you’re a disciple, Bob.  You’re an admirer of Jesus, but not a disciple of his.  I think you ought to go back to the church you belong to and tell them you’re an admirer, not a disciple.”[4]

Yikes!  Two boys.  Same upbringing.  Same church.  Same service.  Same sermon.  Both sensed something of God’s call in that worship service: “Who should I send?  Who will go for us?”  But I think Clarence got a vision of a bigger God than Bob did.  Clarence saw the one true God—high and lifted up, the God whose train filled the church and whose glory filled the earth, the God who had the authority and power and gravitas to compel even the most difficult of missions.  Clarence got a vision of the one true God.  Bob must have seen a little g God.  Because on that Sunday when the brothers professed faith in Christ, Clarence said, “Here I am, send me,” and Bob said, “Here I am, send Clarence.”

God is here this morning.  He’s looking out on the room.  He’s looking at you.  “Who should I send.  Who will go for us?”  How will you answer?


[1]Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk, (New York: HarperPerennial, 1982), 58-59.
[2]Cited by Charles R. Swindoll, Improving Your Serve: The Art of Unselfish Living (Waco, TX: Word, 1981), 29.
[3]J. Alec Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 79.
[4]I have no direct source from this story other than to say I have heard it in more than one venue.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

The 23rd Pastor (Excerpt from Chapter 2 "Shepherd")

In the second chapter of The 23rd Pastor, I write about the phrase, "The Lord is my shepherd," and apply that to pastoral life.  Here are some excerpts …


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Maybe you remember one of John Denver’s biggest hits: “Thank God, I’m a Country Boy!”  I love the song, but I am no country boy.  I spent the first eight years of my life in Little Rock, Arkansas.  I did the rest of my growing up in Branson, Missouri.  I grew up in a city and a small town.  I never lived on Green Acres.  I visited a farm a time or two.  And while I have known some men who worked with cattle, I have never known a shepherd.  “The Lord is my rancher”—I could understand that a little better.  Ranchers raise cattle, brand the calves, move them from pasture to pasture, keep them watered, and when the time is right, they sell them to the highest bidder so they can make a living, and you and I can enjoy that ribeye or that hamburger.  Maybe that is why ranchers try not to get too attached to their cattle.  “The Lord is my rancher.”  No thanks.

 “The Lord is my shepherd.”  That’s better.

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Without minimizing the importance of character and oversight in the pastor’s work, I am suggesting that the shepherd metaphor gives key direction to the work of a biblical pastor, especially a 23rd pastor.  The shepherd metaphor becomes the filter through which our character and oversight passes as we lead the congregations God entrusts to us.  Our character reflects the character of our Shepherd Lord—minus, of course, his sinlessness and perfection.  Even though Jesus may be blurred a bit by our faults, shepherd-pastors want the flock to see glimpses of Jesus in them.  We want to bear in our character his resemblance.  We want to offer our oversight through the heart of a shepherd, so we lead the flock rather than drive them, we love them rather than use them, we draw close to them rather than keep them at arm’s length, we get to know them rather than view them as a necessary nuisance to our work, and we consider what’s best for the flock rather than what’s best for us.  The good shepherd Jesus laid down his life for the sheep; sometimes we shepherd-pastors must lay down some things of our own to serve the flock with a shepherd’s care.

When we try to be a shop-keeper or CEO rather than a shepherd, our character and our oversight tends to reflect power rather than service, bottom-lines rather than relationships, self rather than Jesus.  In his book, They Smell Like Sheep, Lynn Anderson recounts an incident from some of his travels in the Holy Land.  Anderson and his local guide had spent part of a day traveling around the region learning about sheep and shepherds.  Late in the day, they observed a man cruelly driving a flock of sheep through the streets of a town.  This man yelled at the sheep and whacked them with a stick whenever they got out of line.  Although the sheep kept moving forward, they were visibly shaken.  Anderson commented to his guide that this harsh, driving man did not conform to the description of the kind, leading shepherd that his guide had given him throughout the day.  “Oh, that man’s not the shepherd,” his guide replied.  “That man’s the butcher.”[1]  Shepherd-pastors will never be confused with butchers.

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I remember the first time I preached the ordination service for a pastor.  Mike Roy had grown up in the church I served in Greenwood, Missouri.  God called him to ministry.  And when he became pastor of a nearby church, he asked if I would preach the service.  I was honored to do so.  It was during this time that God had been working out this shepherd image in my heart.  That image drove the sermon whose title was “Be a Real Minister” and whose text was 1 Peter 5:1-5.  In encouraging Mike to shepherd his flock like Jesus shepherds us all, here is part of the charge I offered him that day:


Be a shepherd who nurtures a relationship to the flock through love.  Love the people with whom God calls you to work.  It’s not easy because some aren’t very easy to love, some don’t love us back, and some may even work against us.  Love them anyway.  Don't harangue them or abuse them.  Don't speak ill of them.  In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, "A pastor should not complain about his congregation, certainly never to other people, but also not to God.  A congregation has not been entrusted to him in order that he should become its accuser before God."[1]   You are part of them.  When you accuse them you accuse yourself.  So love them with a Christ-like love.  Love them by being with them.  Be with them when the baby comes.  Be with them when death barges in.  Be with them in the hospital and in the home, in the cemetery and in the study.  Be with them in good times and in bad.  Imagine them looking over your shoulder and whispering in your ear as you seek to hear in a Bible text the word they need to hear from God.  Keep them in your heart.  They will try you sometimes.  They may frustrate you often.  You will sometimes feel like throwing up your hands and shaking the dust off your feet.  They may even feel the same about you sometimes.  But keep them in your heart.  Feel for them what Paul felt for the Philippian church: “I long for you all,” he wrote to them, “with the affection of Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 1:8).  Love them because of who they are—the bride of Christ, the church of the living God—and in spite of who they are—stubborn sinners, works in progress, but a work that God began and will continue until the day of Jesus Christ.  And in the midst of being with them, show them Christ and point them to him in all things—even when it’s hard and even when you don’t feel like it.  For the sheep in the flock and for those still outside, in all things and in every situation, point them to Christ.  Lean on the staff of the Chief Shepherd and he will help you.

            And, my shepherd-pastor friend, he will help you too.

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The 23rd Pastor would make a good gift at Christmas for your pastor.  You can find it at Amazon.com.  Thanks.




[1]Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1954), 29.



[1]Cited by Blaine McCormick and David Davenport, Shepherd Leadership: Wisdom for Leaders from Psalm 23 (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003), 115.