Trouble and anguish have found me out, but your commandments are my delight. Psalm 119:143ESV

Guatemala Storefront | Guatemala City, Guatemala | September 2018

The world would never agree with this assessment. The world knows about anguish and trouble. But the world also knows how to shift blame, deny responsibility, despise and ridicule godliness. St. Paul says it well, “Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.” (Romans 1:32). 

In our darkest moments we might be tempted to abandon God’s ways. But more often difficulties will bring us to God. As Paul says, “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,  and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5).

More often we will turn away from God’s laws and commandments in times of favor and happiness. In these times we can easily forget our need for God. In the sweet moments we often do ignore God, and substitute a self-defined sense of good and evil for the true good and evil that God has revealed in his word. 

So what are we to do? Shall we seek difficulty and trouble so that we realize how good God’s ways truly are? May it never be! Days of happiness and delight are a gift from God. In these times we must remember to thank God and remember that he is the source of all good things.

As we consider God’s commandments during those difficult times, we can delight that some things never change. God’s word, will, nature, and ways are immutable. He is constant in his love, truth, righteousness, and faithfulness. There is never a bait and switch with God. No matter what may be happening to or around us, we can delight in his decrees for they are the path of life. 

Thank God that Jesus walked that path perfectly – not only in times of difficulty and trouble, but also in times of favor and joy. He is our perfect righteousness, our hope and our peace. We may sometimes waver about loving God’s commands. Who has never thought that the commandments of God deprive us of fun we would otherwise experience? But Jesus never did. And the goodness of God’s commandments is not sustained by our obedience. Our obedience will lead us to discover just how good God’s ways and commandments truly are. 

Christ suffered for our sins once for all time. He never sinned, but he died for sinners to bring you safely home to God. He suffered physical death, but he was raised to life in the Spirit. 1 Peter 3:18 NLT

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I’ve had opportunity to share with people on occasion, who have suffered incredible unjust pain. Some were molested. Another was fired from his job in favor of an inside-track family member. Still another was made to watch as her child was taken from her and she was required to pay alimony when she earned less than 1/2 of her former husband. The list could go on.

These people have a fellowship in Jesus’ suffering and death that I do not have. Almost all of my suffering has come because of my own actions. It might be difficult to see how Jesus would need to die for those who have suffered unjustly, but it’s easy to see why he would have to die for me.

What I have learned through those conversations, however, is that everyone’s greatest need is for forgiveness. Everyone. That’s because in the dark hours of unjust suffering every mortal loses faith, becomes self-righteous, resents his tormentor, or fails to love his enemy in some manner or other.

That is a challenging statement – and worth a much closer look and examination. The concept is more fully developed in the book, The Wounded Heart, by Dan Allender and Karen Lee-Thorp. I recommend it heartily, even though it is intended for adult victims of childhood sexual abuse. The principle remains: in the moments of dire suffering and injustice we conclude that God is no longer with us, that we do not matter to God, and that there is no hope for a better life.

That’s why Jesus died. The just for the unjust. To bring us to God. He committed no sin, but offered himself for sinners. Through him we are brought to God. And just so we can be certain of his victory, and of the sufficiency of his sacrifice, God raised him from the dead and seated him in glory. Triumphant. Glorified. Living. Reigning over all – even over the injustices of this world. That’s no pass for seeking justice ourselves and doing whatever we can to uphold that which is fair and true. But it gives us hope when we do suffer.

For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 1 Peter 2:15-16 ESV

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Antigua Shop-Keeper | Antigua, Guatemala | September 2018

We’ve been challenged lately in a construction project the details of which I will not enumerate. The impact, however, is delay, frustration, and a bit of anxiety: will this drag on forever and cause even more financial trouble and delay? Even worse, I wonder, “who is behind this? I’d like to see him/her brought low.” That’s not my truest self, nor is it in keeping with God’s will as revealed here.

I may suspect that there are some foolish people who are trying to thwart the work of the church by stymying our project. I suspect that someone has an axe to grind with the church and is doing whatever he or she can to keep us from completing the work we’re doing. In fact, I have some reason to believe this – though, again, I won’t say more than that.

There are times when we must deal with foolish people – imagined or real. There are people who say in their heart, “There is no God” (cf. Psalm 14:1). They do far more harm than slowing a construction project. They undercut the faith of the weak. They destroy the hopes of the wounded. They steal the joy of the vulnerable. They kill the souls of the struggling.

In the face of those kinds of evildoers, it is quite tempting to quote Psalm 139:19-22. Slay the wicked! I hate those who hate you, O God. 

This is not our calling as followers of Jesus Christ. God promises that we overcome evil with good. He wants us to be free from hatred, evil intent, malice, and vengeance. He desires that our freedom is received as a gift to leverage our service to Christ and his reign and rule.

I will pray for whoever it is – real or imagined – that is trying to undercut our construction project. I will seek to do good in such a way that the foolish are put to silence because they see the goodness, faithfulness, and righteousness of God through me. I’m sure that they will ever see it. But I am certain that by doing so, I am honoring God and living in service to Christ.

The King is Calling – Kip Fox

Come every beating heart that longs to find its worth
Come every aching soul in need of something more
Come with your questions come with your doubts
Bring them to the Lord

Come all you castaways left out of every crowd
Come all you outsiders unwanted until now
You are a people you have a place
Waiting with the Lord

Troubled and restless hungry and helpless

Sing for joy the King is calling strong in justice rich in mercy
Sing for joy the King is calling and his love is never – ending

Come all you servants with no candle left to burn
Come every broken body tired from years of work
Lay down your tools lift up your hands
Lift them to the Lord

This is one of my favorite Christian contemporary songs. I love the message: the King of Kings is calling for the troubled, restless, hungry and helpless, the castaways, outsiders, servants who’s candles have been burned at both ends to nothingness, and boken-body workers. He has love and grace and truth. He’s calling you.

Sometimes we’re very aware of our brokenness. Our souls ache from trying to keep ourselves afloat. Our hearts are broken by the burdens we bear for others. Our doubts loom large before us.

Sometimes, however, we are oblivious to our brokenness and needs. We numb ourselves with busy-ness, distractions such as sports, cinema, girl or guy-watching, fantasizing, or drugs of our choice.

Sometimes the world conspires against us in a most unusual way. All things go well. The weather is beautiful. Our friends are not needy. We’re succeeding in career and family. Life is good.

The problem is, it’s not. Just recently this came home to me when Diane came back from another week at a PLI gathering. This was in Colorado. It was a great success. Her flight was delayed, and when she got home, she mentioned that perhaps it was the fires in California that had caused the air traffic tie-up.

“What fires?” I asked. I had not heard that the worst fires in the history of California were raveging that state. According to a USA Today article the Camp Fire has destroyed more than 6700 structures as of November 10. That’s the most ever. The 2017 Tubbs Fire destroyed 5636 structures. I knew nothing about it.

I’m not sure how I had missed that news, but I did. And I wonder how many things we miss that are going on all around us. Just because we’re not aware of the brokenness all around us doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

That can even be true in our own lives. We can overlook our own brokenness. We can minimize our sin. We can deceive ourselves. If, however, God awakens us to our sin, it is not to shame us, or to cause us pain. It is not to remove us from his presence. It is to call us to himself. That is eternally and supremely good to know and to believe!

 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. – 1 John 1:8-10

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These women would not allow me to take a photo of them from the front. Note the baby on the back of the woman in the front of the other two. | Guatemala | September 2018

This is part of the message that I shared with the people of Our Shepherd Lutheran Church at the installation of Rev. John Moore. especially apropos is the reference to building (Place) in light of the fact that Our Shepherd lost its building in the Hurricane Harvey flooding. 

If you’re familiar with the King James Version of Proverbs 27:19, you might think that the title above is a mistake – another of the all-too-common typos on this blog. It is not. It is an insight we gained at St. John through a Strategic Ministry Plan process we recently completed.

And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” – Matthew 9:35-38

Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint,
    but blessed is he who keeps the law. – Proverbs 27:18

There are four things people generally identify as what they love about their church:

  • Place: Real Estate, Church Building
  • Personality: Pastor
  • Program: Women’s Ministry, Youth Program, Worship Services
  • People: Friends & Family, People like me, or people unlike me.

We took a survey about this at St. John a while ago and discovered that we were equally divided among the four: 26% People & Personality; 24% Place & Program.

That’s neither good nor bad. There is no one correct answer. The question is, Which of these do you like most about your church? Not, Which of these is the best thing about our church?

Sometimes, however, there can be problems with these things.

  • Buildings flood and require renovations – Our Shepherd & St. John…and others!
  • Pastors leave, and – sadly – some even have moral failures
  • People can get cross with one another and ruin the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace.
  • Programs can become outdated and not effectively lead people to Jesus and the true riches of his grace.

There is also another way in which a problem occurs. It occurs when we make the gifts of God more important than the purpose for which God has given these gifts. It’s when we take these provisions God has given you here at Our Shepherd Lutheran Church, and make them more important than the vision God has for Our Shepherd Lutheran Church.

While these are in fact gifts of God, they are even more a stewardship from God.

It’s when we think the provisions God has given are actually ours and divorce them from the vision he has for a lost and dying world.

Some say, “Where there is no vision the people perish.” But I want to say where God’s vision is lacking the people cherish the wrong things. The make the provision of God more important than the mission and vision of God.

Jesus helps us here:

Jesus was on a mission to proclaim the Good News of the reign and rule of God.

  • God is coming to be with us.
  • He is coming with healing in his wings.
  • Where God rules and reigns will be a place of peace, health, joy, and direction (not like sheep without a shepherd – pastor!

Jesus was aware of the needs, hurts, and brokenness of the crowds.

  • God has a heart for all people.
  • Are you harried and helpless? Are you as sheep without a shepherd? No longer, for God has seen your need and provided a shepherd for you. Please follow him! Dear Brother, these people – without a shepherd are like sheep left to their own devices. That’s no complement to them, but it is a warning and encouragement to you.
  • Jesus has sent you a shepherd to bless, guide, encourage, and equip you for your mission. You see…

Jesus was aware of the manner in which God would heal, comfort, and save his people.

  • It wasn’t ever going to be all on him. There were even times when the Son of God could do no miracles (for lack of faith). There were times when he was so tired he went to sleep in the boat and the disciples nearly drowned.
  • He pointed his disciples to pray that the Lord of the harvest would send laborers into the harvest. Prayer!
  • He pointed out that the fields are already white to harvest. God has set all this up for us to succeed! It’s his harvest. We’re given the privilege of reaping it.

The provision of God is a great blessing. People, place, personalities, and programs are wonderful gifts of God for the purpose of furthering the rule and reign of Jesus Christ in the hearts and lives of more and more people. But let’s not confuse the provision of God with the Mission of God: to seek and save the lost. Thankfully he has sought you out and saved you. When we use the provision he has supplied, for the purposes he has intended, he is glorified. People are blessed. And we have the opportunity to be his instruments for the cause of his mission – all for his glory and our great good. In Jesus’ name; Amen.

* I cannot take the credit for the title of this blog post. We learned it at St. John through Bryan Rose, our Auxanō Vision Frame® consultant. I suspect that he may have gotten it from Will Mancini, the head guru of Auxanō. Nonetheless, under the “If my bullet fits your gun, shoot it” rubric (thanks Rick Warren), I used the phrase on Sunday afternoon for the installation sermon of Rev. John Moore as pastor of Our Shepherd Lutheran Church in Crosby, Texas. The fine people of Joy Lutheran Church in northeast Houston kindly allowed Our Shepherd to use their building. Our Shepherd’s buildings were flooded out during Hurricane Harvey. The Facebook Live Feed is provided below for any who are interested.

I have the privilege of coaching some newly ordained pastors through issues around leadership, mission, and personal spiritual health. In one recent coaching call one of the young pastors told of an encounter he had with two of the staff members at his church. He came into the office and commented on the “awesome A/V system” they had at their church. “That’s really well done. Excellent.”

“Well, well,” said one of the staff members. “He actually likes something about our church.” He was stunned. He had no idea that he was conveying any significant amount of criticism or negativity toward the church. He was just constantly thinking out loud. He would see something and comment, “I wonder whether it would be better to do it that way.” Or he might muse to himself about some issue he was facing, only forget that he was actually thinking out loud. That was just the way he worked things out.

I can identify with this young man. I like to think out loud. I process things in public. I don’t get all my thoughts in order, or think of all the implications of my ideas before I speak them. That can get me into trouble.

Years ago, I had what I thought was a great idea about a new ministry opportunity at the church I was serving. Linda, our Director of Discipleship came in to my office at just that time and I shared the idea with her. “Hey Linda, what if we started a new ministry that…” I don’t remember the idea, but I do remember her reaction. “Do you think that might be confusing for people to…” Again, I don’t remember what she said, but I do remember the following exchange.

Me: “Well I hadn’t thought about that yet.”

Linda: “That does it! When I come back, I’m coming back as an idea person!” She was not really angry with me, but she was frustrated. Besides being the one who would have to put all the pieces together to make my idea work, she just didn’t need my half-baked ideas at that particular time.

Having said all that, I’m going to think out loud for a few sentences. These are possible themes or titles for these series of blog posts that I hope someday will become a book. I need to get them out there to see if something comes from them that actually unifies the stories and ideas, engages a potential reader, and will let chapters flow from that theme in meaningful ways.

  • Don’t Feel Bad About Feeling Bad
  • Grace and Truth in the Age of Easy Answers
  • When Real Faith Appears
  • Grace and Truth in the Flesh: How to Stop Pretending and Start Being Real With God and Others
  • It’s OK to Lament. It’s OK to Rejoice
  • Permission to Be Real and to be Faithful
  • Peace Happens Between Happy Faces and the Defeatist Funk
  • Better than a Defeatist Funk or a Plastic Smile: Getting Real with God and Your Neighbor
  • Real. Non-Pretentious. Faithful
  • Hopeful Yet Honest
  • Broken and Hope-Filled
  • Hope-Filled Brokenness
  • Sadness in Due Season, Hope in Every Moment
  • Learning to Lament – the Key to True Joy
  • No Plastic Smiles Here, Yet Hope Abounds
  • Brokenness is Prerequisite to Redemptive Joy
  • Redemptive Sorrow, Abounding Hope
  • Redemptive Brokenness, Abounding Joy
  • The Faithfulness of God for every Season and Sinner
  • The Hope of God for every Season and Sinner
  • The Joy of Jesus for every Season and Sinner

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. 32 Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. – Ephesians 4:29-32

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Treasures Behind Bars | Guatemala City, Guatemala | September 2018

Dr. Gerhard Aho was one of my favorite professors at CTS. He was one of the most godly and decent professors I’ve ever known. He taught homiletics – the art of crafting sermons. Dr. Aho was a master at crafting themes and outlines. His expertise was thematic preaching of the text. “The theme must unify the text. It must engage the hearer. The major points must flow from the theme.” That was his mantra. He was so good at it that he was given a complimentary nickname: The Jeweler.

One example will suffice. I was to preach at my home congregation at Christmas. The assigned text was John 1:1-18. There are so many profound truths in that text. How would anyone possibly unify all the thoughts? I worked and worked for a theme, and finally landed on, “Jesus Christ is the Christmas Light that Will Never Go Out.” I really wasn’t all that jazzed with the theme, but that was the best I could do.

Then I picked up our seminary journal which included sermon studies as a regular feature. I wondered what someone else might have done with this text, so I turned to the page on which the John 1 text was found and saw my dear professor’s name. The Word Became Flesh, John 1:1-18 by Gerhard Aho. His theme unified the text – how did he do that?!? Then came the two major points: What a mystery! What a blessing! Elegant simplicity. Profound truth in simple words – just like John’s gospel. That was more than 40 years ago and I still recall it.

The day we were to discuss C.F.W. Walther’s The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel in class came. I had read the book. It was a daunting task. Many pages. Deep and profound thoughts. Challenging concepts. So challenging that I despaired of being a true Christian, much less a pastor!

Dr. Aho asked what we thought of the book. I don’t recall what any of the students said. I think we were all similarly challenged by this book. Dr. Aho offered an insight that gave me great comfort and the courage to continue to study. “I think,” he said, “Walther really knew the challenges we face. He speaks so clearly. Oh yes, gentlemen, Walther will challenge you to the core.” Amen, Dr. Aho. Amen. Walther really did challenge me to the core.

Here I am today casting about for a theme for this nascent book. I’ve written a lot of words. I’ve shared quite a few personal stories. I’ve tried to express the idea that there are times we legitimately ought to feel bad, sad, discouraged, afraid – all the negative emotions we have in this fallen world. I’ve tried to express how we will never find peace in beating up ourselves over our ill feelings. We will not offer a non-anxious presence if we are in denial of what is really happening all around us.

It is equally true that we fail to be true to the faith and hope we have in Christ if we constantly mope around in a defeatist funk. If we spend our time lamenting, being honest about how difficult life is, and expressing our very real frustrations over life’s challenges, we are forfeiting the blessings of hope and joy that are found in Christ’s resurrection. We are giving a poor witness. How might I unify those thoughts better than my working title, Don’t Feel Bad About Feeling Bad? More thought is needed on this. That will be tomorrow’s task.

For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory. 21 And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us,22 and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee. – 2 Corinthians 1:20-22

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Tools of His Trade | Guatemala City, Guatemala | September 2018