Ministering to the Grieving

Grief care requires sensitivity, hopefulness, and self-control. Lacking any of these in sufficient maturity and the better choice is to keep one’s mouth closed. Many grieving people have experienced further pain and isolation due to the faulty and erroneous statements from otherwise well-meaning people.

Part of a pastor’s ministry is to minister to the sick and grieving.  There have been many grieving people recently.  I also work with friends of the grieving and they often ask what a good ministry to the hurting would be.  I’ll opine on this subject a bit today but much more could and should be said.

Grief occurs naturally.  It is the body’s way of expressing emotional and mental pain.  It is also an emotion God expresses in various places throughout the Bible.  Grief is not evil but it can be an avenue to its evil substitute, despair.  Grief care requires sensitivity, hopefulness, and self-control.  Lacking any of these in sufficient maturity and the better choice is to keep one’s mouth closed.  Many grieving people have experienced further pain and isolation due to the faulty and erroneous statements from otherwise well-meaning people.

First, grief is an expression of love.  Grief varies from relationship to relationship just as all expressions of love vary from relationship to relationship.  Grief ministry, rightly expressed, is hopeful in that it expresses the value of the relationship lost and the ongoing affection still available to the survivor through other relationships.  Affirming one’s love for the grieved gives him or her cause to avoid despair because of a love relationship they can maintain with the living.  They can find hope for life through promise of ongoing relationships with others they love.

Secondly, grief care is sensitive just as love is sensitive.  Being a pastor I know this truth firsthand.  God does care for those who grieve.  Sometimes, however, expounding theology can be insensitive.  Prayers for comfort, wisdom, and endurance are best.  These three qualities look forward implicitly and deal sensitively with the questions of “why” that are sure to surface.  God is faithful to explain his cause but does so gently among his people.

Finally grief counsel is self-controlled just as love is self-controlled.  People respond differently based on the quality of the love they shared with the person.  In all losses, however, the goal of one’s grief ministry is to restore the perspective of the grieved.  Here, self-control plays a crucial role in helping the comforter select words and timing well.  One ought not speak about better days in the future nor about the “better-off” circumstance of the dead.  Good grief ministry avoids platitudes.


Saddling Sadness

Grief remains one of the greatest challenges we face at the holidays. Perhaps it’s the expectations of family placed upon us. Maybe it’s a feeling that the one who really made the holiday special and gave it meaning is gone. Sometimes we, especially those widowed, feel as though the holidays have no meaning without our lost loved one beside us. Some are reminded that their family expectations are far removed from their broken family reality.  These feelings and many more prove formidable challenges to our holiday happiness. What are we to do?

The Bible is no stranger to the topic of sadness and grief. God speaks a great deal about the subject and even identifies Jesus as “a man of sorrows” (Is 53:3), records his grief at a friend’s death (John 11:35), and his heavy heart for people’s unbelief (Mt 21). King David records his personal sorrow in Psalm 6 but never names the reason for it. Sorrow and sadness lines the pages of the Bible. The Bible, therefore, speaks a great deal to its remedy.

First, the Bible speaks of sorrow as a very natural part of life. It can spring from small matters or great tragedy. Sometimes we are unsure why we feel our sadness – it’s just there! The Bible also speaks of joy and hope in the face of terrible trouble. Herein lies the first secret to defeating sorrow whether at Christmas or another time. Joy and hope belong to the Lord as gifts he gives to those who place their trust in His goodness.  In order to defeat sorrow and grief, we need a bigger hope that guides us through the dark times. Faith that God is good and that he hears our prayers is that hope. In times of distress we need to remind ourselves that God is not finished with us. We have to continue to fulfill our purpose.

Second, while sorrow is natural, praise is a discipline. Just as we place a bandage over a wound to help it heal, so too must we apply the bandage of praise over the emotional wound of grief. Praise of God is a bandage because it forces us to restrain the despair that often contaminates our grief. Its not easy to practice praise when we feel grieved because it hurts us emotionally just as pressure on the wound hurts. Yet, to prevent despair, we have to speak to God about His great help toward us – no matter how small.

Finally, we have to continue working. Self-focus is the worst mistake we can make when facing times of grief. Instead of turning to self-focus, we turn to helping others as often as possible. The best response to grief is to reach out to others and carry them forward with you. Find a way to serve the Lord through a local church. Plug into a ministry in the community. Help relieve other people’s struggles. Plan a Christmas meal and invite people in your neighborhood who may also be alone. Brighten other people’s lives with love for them and you will receive great comfort. Defeating grief is a tough task but a worthy endeavor. Defeating grief allows us to continue offering salvation to others.

Bless you as you continue to defeat it!

Thanks and Giving

I love Christmas time. When I say I love it, I mean I will spend sun up to sun down to hang lights, setup the tree, and decorate the house. I love Christmas!

But before I go on to Christmas, Thanksgiving needs a moment. In fact, I think Thanksgiving better expresses the heart of Christmas time than the celebration of Christmas. Thanksgiving is the truly important response to God. Christmas is the act of God that inaugurated a new era, but Thanksgiving reflects the incredible power of God personally formed in each person. So before Black Friday distracts us from the thanks we owe to God, I thought I might share three reasons for Thanksgiving:

  1. Giving thanks is a daily task so having one day to focus on and celebrate the acts of God is fitting. Christian people should be experts at Thanksgiving. Whenever we gather to eat, thanks should flow from us. In fact, it seems the volume of thanks flowing from us should be proportionate to the volume of food flowing into us. Giving thanks is a submissive act toward God. It keeps us in our place. It reminds us that all we have comes not from our labor but from our God.
  2. Giving thanks pushes our minds toward God. In fact, Black Friday robs joy from Thanksgiving. It’s push into Thanksgiving Day evening robs us of focus on God’s goodness. The robbery is subtle, like any dark plan would be. We think getting that “deal” is a positive aspect of our Christmas giving. By truncating our Thanksgiving, we reassert our dominance in our own lives. Whereas thanks pushes our minds toward God, buying bargains competitively against others is all about serving ourselves.
  3. Giving thanks restrains our compulsiveness. Like all things in life, spending is compulsive and giving thanks is a discipline. We should understand something about Black Friday – it aids our compulsiveness while breaking down our discipline. Thanks disciplines us to focus on the truly important matters of God’s work. The great gift of life is a great reason to celebrate. Sadly, many of us use Thanksgiving as the kickoff to compulsive self-gratification rather than self-disciplined pursuit of God.

Why Convention Matters

The big question on the minds of young Southern Baptists is NOT Convention related. In fact, I think most young pastors think Convention is a waste of time. I also think they are wrong for at least three reasons:

1. Convention is the time to evaluate the value of your cooperative mission giving. You may have a more independent missions model but most of us are not financially able to develop our own immersive missions effort. Cooperative giving demands cooperative decision making. So I think that where we send our people’s money is a place we ought to work within. Convention is valuable because you can inspect the functionality of your cooperative missions giving.

2. Convention is a time to expand your network. Truth be told, most of us have a very small network of pastors and ministry leaders with whom we connect. At some time God may press you to sponsor a church plant, for example. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to go to Convention and find a church planter with whom you could have an introductory meeting? I think the Convention should work harder to facilitate and drive this concern for networking, but they are making strides toward it.

3. Along the networking lines above, Convention is one of only a few places where you can reasonably assume that the people you encounter agree with biblical inerrancy (this is not always the case, of course). We may disagree on portions of our ecclesiology or soteriology, but the whole foundational enchilada is inerrancy. Biblical arguments are great. Doctrine developed from sentiment or societal pressure is toxic. So, at Convention, your interactions and networking are done among a group of men and women with whom you have a foundational platform. You can work with these folks! That foundational agreement greases the wheels of our ministry agenda and enables us to recruit and agree on our actions together. Maintaining and fighting for inerrancy is critical. That’s why you need to be at Convention.

Cana Church: Now What

Now that a new pastor is coming in – since the selection is made, the promise has turned to reality – the question is, “Now what?” I think that’s a great question.

First, we begin by worshipping together. It was a refreshing time the morning we arrived. You sang out. You worshipped God! Let’s start by worshipping our Lord together. Worship, at its basic footing, is a right response to God. The first thing we need to do is respond rightly to God. That means some of you need to play in the band, sing in the choir, teach children, greet guests, evangelize, disciple, learn in Sunday School, serve widows, work in the nursery, get with the mission! Worship is right response to God. That’s what it means to worship together.

Second, we will celebrate the holiday season together. I will begin by preaching into Luke and the Incarnation of Christ. At the New Year, I will shift to Philippians. In both cases we will ask the Lord to guide us by his Word and help us grow together in the efforts he has for us to accomplish. I do hope you are ready to work together…I love to work!

Third, we’ll be thankful for all the challenges God will cause us to meet. We want to improve all our ministry efforts. Our Seminary interaction will include a weekly meeting for discussion and practical ministry growth. Both men and women are included – details to come. We will spend time growing deeper in individual and small group discipleship groups. We will hone our print media and online presence. We will amplify our worship times. We will spend time thinking about and implementing disciple-making evangelistic efforts. We will work on our greeting ministry to help people more easily tie in to Life Groups and Morning worship. We will highlight our youth and children’s ministry efforts. If you want a great church, by the way, start ministering with our kids and youth. They NEED you! We will develop our singles and college outreach along with our senior adult ministry. I believe the greatest missionary force to Millennials are senior adults. We will reach people with special needs and special needs families. We will send missionaries, provide comfort and support for those in the field, and open new mission opportunities as the Lord guides.

We will be a gospel-centered and text-driven church with a tremendous mission. The only limitation we will face is our own willingness to worship Christ Jesus. What is your “spiritual act of worship?” I hope you are ready to respond rightly to God.

Listening to God

Listening implies obedience, but is a step before it. In the Scripture, God calls for Israel to “Hear” him. He calls them to listen and then commands them. I think that much of what passes for Christ-following is the result of doing good works and moral deeds that are void of God’s mission. We often focus on obedience, but perhaps we get out of step with God not because our intentions are bad but because our ears are closed. Listening to God makes our good deeds God’s deeds. The Pharisees are an example of doing without listening. Here’s how we can listen to God together and accomplish the mission of Christ.

1. Listen to Text-Driven Preaching…

Preachers preach sure enough. They should, however, issue the prophetic Word’s of God as they re-present them from the Scripture. What else could be more important to the believer than hearing God’s Word? What could be more important to say than what God says? Yet, our confidence in preaching is low and our practice of it is often poor. Preachers must repent of their silly and witty sermons and begin to re-present what God has said. Christ-followers need to spend less time in the self-help section of the book store and more time prioritizing what God says. Text-driven preaching is transformational because it forces us to listen to God.

2. Listen for the Mission, not Just the Morality…

God’s moral command is in lock-step with His mission. When we listen to God, we are seeking both His moral standard and His mission in that standard. For instance, God commands sexual morality – boiled down this means sex is isolated and pure within marriage alone – because God desires families that are Christ-followers. Morality void of mission makes us pious, but petty. Listening to God is a sure way to avoid religious pettiness – we call it legalism. Listening to God puts morality in perspective of the mission God desires to accomplish in this world. When you listen to God, confess your sins, and seek his will, you are seeking restoration of both your moral failure and your mission failure. Confessing moral failure alone allows us to keep our feeling of righteousness while avoiding what righteousness and service to God is really all about. When you listen to God, hear his mission and then order your life to accomplish it. Your morality will make a lot more sense when you listen for the mission.

3. Listen for the Small Voice…

Elijah hid in his cave as he waited for the Lord to pass by (1 Kings 19). The windstorm he saw was not God. The earthquake he felt was not God. The fire that burned was not God. The whisper, however, the whisper was God. Peace and quiet, not power and show. God’s voice is gentle. His correction is patient. His voice often emerges only when we make space and time to hear it. The Small Voice is often what urges us to repent, to forgive, to sacrifice our will. Without a determined effort to hear God’s small voice through prayer, fasting, and time, we lose track of what God is doing. When we fail in our small devotional practice, our daily spiritual connect to God, we will fail to listen to God. Read the Scripture yourself. Pray for God’s work in your life. Spend a moment listening for the small voice.

So Here’s Why I’m Leaving…and Arriving

I mentioned in a previous post that telling one’s story is a good idea for any pastor leaving for another ministry. My wife elbowed me and said, “Then you should tell your story. Few have heard it.” So I’ll listen to my excellent and wise wife…

In May of 2016, a professor friend of mine called and asked if he could have my resume to submit to Cana Baptist Church. I told him I was not inclined to submit it and that I had graciously been left alone for the past 3 years. And I meant it. Having a church considering you is a major distraction and things were going well at First Baptist Hempstead.

I prayed over the weekend, however, and felt I should go ahead and send my resume. As is common, the resume went to my professor and I heard nothing for a couple months. During this time, I continued to minister and suspected I would hear little else.

In late July I received a call from one of the references on my resume. He said he had been contacted by the search committee at Cana about me. This was the first I had heard from the process other than a generic, “We have your resume” letter. There was little to be done with this information except wonder and try to ignore it. A couple other references contacted me shortly thereafter saying they too had been contacted. By this time it was early August. As of yet, I had heard nothing official, but I was expecting to hear something any day.

The first contact I had was from the Chair of the Search Committee. He told me the Committee wanted to visit with me over a meal. We scheduled the meeting for later in August, had the meeting – it went well – and I went home. By this time, my wife and I truly began to consider this as a serious option and advanced our prayer efforts. We didn’t want to make a move, but the Lord had begun to open our hearts and excite us to the possibility. Still, two other candidates were being interviewed. So we waited and continued working forward with First Hempstead. We prepared for a new ministry year.

Within the next three weeks, the Lord cleared the way and I was the pastoral candidate. The process went from slow to lightning fast. The Committee invited me to come in view of a call…we had not discussed compensation at this point…we accepted the invitation for October 9th. We trusted that Cana would care for our needs and that the fasting and prayer we (and they) had done was productive. The Lord would guide us even as he had. God gives wisdom to those who ask.

I decided to announce to my congregation on Oct 02 that I would be preaching on the following Sunday at Cana as their pastoral candidate. I announced my intentions knowing the risk of not receiving or accepting the call from Cana, but I was concerned that First Hempstead would find out through social media or some close-in connection. The risk to them – that they find out before I told them – would be far more damaging than if I just told them myself. I trust the people at First Hempstead, and I love them. So I told them our plans.

On October 09 I preached for Cana and they voted that evening. The vote was better than 99% (always has to be a “NO” in the mix). We accepted the call and will begin on October 31st.

Some have asked how a pastor knows he should go to another church. That’s tough to know. We asked for wisdom from God according to James 1. We prayed and fasted and spoke to our children. We investigated Cana and sought wise council. We evaluated First Hempstead and began to believe that someone else may be just what they need. God is faithful both to us and to others. That’s why I’m leaving…and arriving.