Polycarp and Pastors Gone Awry

Sometime between AD 120 and 140, Polycarp wrote a letter to the Philippian church.  Polycarp was a disciple of the apostle John and was appointed the bishop of Smyrna (now Izmir, Turkey).  He died in AD 159, being burned a the stake for his bold proclamation of the gospel.  Polycarp, like John and Paul had a deep love for the church.  He also had a keen sense of the importance of godly leadership in the church.

In his letter to the Philippian church, Polycarp addressed an issue of pastoral misconduct.  That pastor’s name was Valens.  We don’t know exactly what the problem was, but we get a hint that it may have had to do with money and power, lying and integrity.  Let’s look at what he wrote.

“I am greatly grieved for Valens, who was once a presbyter among you, because he so little understands the place that was given him [in the church]. I exhort you, therefore, that you abstain from covetousness, and that you be chaste and truthful.”

He goes on to write… “I am deeply grieved, therefore, brethren, for him (Valens) and his wife; to whom may the Lord grant true repentance! And be then moderate in regard to this matter, and do not count such as enemies, [2 Thessalonians 3:15] but call them back as suffering and straying members, that you may save your whole body.  For by acting you shall edify yourselves. [1 Corinthians 12:26].”

There’s a lot of wisdom in this old brother.  Here’s what I notice.

1 – A pastor who falls has forgotten what God has given.  A pastor has a unique, hard, challenging, stressful and blessed position.  And when it is not handled well, it can do great damage to the Bride of Jesus. In the midst of the daily grind it is easy to forget.

2 – If a pastor fails, the church should take care to watch their own lives.  It is so easy to become embittered, angry, seeking revenge – hurt for hurt – and that just destroys us.  Mourning and grief are the appropriate responses.

3 – The failing pastor is not an enemy.  We must pray for repentance (healing requires honesty).  We must call them back as suffering and straying members (though not necessarily back into leadership).

4 – The goal is to redeem the whole body!  That includes the offending pastor. The miracle comes when hearts are broken and the reconciling love of God is displayed to the world.

This doesn’t discount the pain.  It doesn’t let anyone off the hook. It doesn’t mean that there may be times when legal issues have to be addressed. It doesn’t mean we ignore the victims, they need special care in healing. It does bring everyone back to the cross, so we can see our own need for redemption.  We must pray, hope and work together until that happens.

Whether it’s James MacDonald, Bill Hybels, or the local pastor at the corner church, we should mourn, watch, pray, hope and long for God to save us all – together.

Pray with me for the churches who are suffering from pastoral failure.  Pray for those who are walking away from church and Jesus because of the failures they’ve seen.  Pray for wisdom and honest repentance.  Pray for healing and wholeness in all the church.

5 Things That Make It Possible to Give Hard Thanks

DSC_0088Around the thanksgiving table, many people have the tradition of telling something we are thankful for.  It doesn’t take long to think of a few quick answers.  Family, the food on the table, sunshine, good health, are replies that usually show up around the table with a lot of frequency. But there are always things in our lives that we just don’t want to give thanks for.  These are the disrupters.  They are the things that have created chaos, questions, and discomfort.  This is the hard thanks to give, but give it, we can and should.

I received an email from a fellow follower of Jesus.  She had read my book, “Transformed Pain” and was struggling to accept how God was currently working in her life. As a young Mom, she is burdened with a severe, life-changing health condition.  She’s been praying and she hoped that God would have given her healing and this thing would be gone by now.  The doctors have given her little hope that this would happen.  She asked me what Scripture might help her find a renewed joy in the Lord.

My heart aches for her. I can’t imagine the pain of what she’s going through. After some reflection, this was my reply: “The Scriptural example that I thought of was God’s people Israel, in the wilderness.  And day after day, for 40 years, they gathered and ate manna.  It was a tasteless food.  Every meal was a reminder of what they had known (leeks and onions by the Nile).  I imagine, with every meal the idea of family dinners lost their attraction as their tastebuds were dying a slow death from lack of use.

They complained.  They longed.  They asked for relief.  They demanded relief. Except for one instance of judgment, God gave them no relief.  Until they reached their spiritual and physical destination.

They felt like the manna was killing them.  It wasn’t.  It was the thing God gave them to keep them alive.  It was sustaining them through the roughest journey anyone could have.  Manna wasn’t a curse, it was a blessing.  It just wasn’t the blessing they wanted.  The manna was a reminder that this wasn’t the promised land.  Our pain reminds us that this is a time of redemption, not a time of restoration.  Restoration is to come.  But until then, God is working His plan of redemption through us – even through our suffering.”

We all have things God has brought into our lives that we would rather not have. Instead of giving thanks, we would rather just ignore it, put up with it, or even fight against it. How can we experience gratitude for the hard things?  Here are a few things that might help us give hard thanks.

  1. Keep the big story in mind.  Like everyday fits into a season of the year, your life fits into the movements of history. We should expect hot days in summer and cold days in winter. We should also expect hard times in this part of God’s story. This is a wilderness world. We are traveling toward a promised land. In the wilderness, we learn, struggle, hope, and follow. We find joy in the God who is leading us toward His future.
  2. Embrace Christ as the Author of your story. Every good story has twists, turns, tensions, movement and meaning. The wilderness was filled with this and it’s a great story for the annuls of history. This is what Jesus, as the author and finisher of your faith, is writing in you.  Yours is a story that people will read for eternity.  It won’t be boring because of what God has done in and through you.
  3. See grace everywhere. Think of grace and gift as synonyms. I hate taking pills, I take 9 per day.  I hate kale, I eat it with my breakfast each morning. With my health challenges, these things are my manna. They are gifts of God’s grace. Even our challenges are gifts of God’s grace because they are the avenues by which we experience God and his transforming love.
  4. Long for Presence over circumstance. We were created to live in the presence of God.  Christ makes it possible. In the wilderness God came in a cloud and pillar of fire.  It was his presence with the people. If the choice is manna and God’s presence, or culinary delicacies and distance from God, choose manna! Prefer God’s presence over easier times.
  5. Say it aloud. Tell God, tell others your thanks.  It is true that our hearts shape our actions. But it is also true that our actions shape and reinforce our beliefs and thoughts. Think of a hard thing in your life. Reflect and recount how you’ve seen God working in that. How has it taught you about life, forgiveness, redemption, endurance, faith, people, yourself, God’s ways? Say “thank you.” Use the comment section of this blog!

In no way do I minimize the pain of hard times. But without thanksgiving, we can easily slide into resentment, bitterness and anger. We drift from the One who is with us. We let go of the One who loves us in the wilderness. There is nothing wrong with giving God easy thanks. But let’s not neglect the hard thanks.

In the comments, I’d be encouraged to read your “hard thanks.”

As always, thank you for being a reader of my Onward and Upward blog.  Feel free to comment, share and subscribe by email above.

It Might Be Time to Stop Learning Lessons

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Have you ever experienced some difficulty in your life and one of your first thoughts is, there must be a lesson I’m supposed to learn?  Often we think that God brings calamity, or allows it – depending on your theology – for the purpose of teaching us something.  The hope is that once we learn it, everything will find resolution.  The problem will be conquered and we will walk away as better people for it.  Once this all happens, we will celebrate and say, “Thank you God, for bringing something good out of all this hard stuff.”  If all goes well, we will have a story to tell others, we may write blogs, or even craft books about the lesson we learned and how it changed our life.

But what if there is no resolution? What if the pain is persistent? We are left alone questioning the justice and mercy of God, or at the least questioning our connection to Him.  There must be something wrong with God, or us. Either the lesson can’t be learned, or I am just not getting it.

Look at this passage a bit with me.  This is one of my favorite passages to hate.  Hate may be too strong a word…  let’s read.  “So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:7–10, ESV)

Paul seems to be talking about some physical burden he endured.  It played a significant role in his life.  It kept him humbled before God.  We see that he asked God three times to remove it.  Then Jesus spoke those famous words, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  This sounds like a lesson Paul needed to learn.  It sounds like a lesson we all need to learn.  At least that’s how I’ve preached it before.

And he learned it.  All was well, we assume.  But wait.  All was not well.  There is no relief!  There is no indication in this passage, or any other that God removed this from him.  God doesn’t say, “Now that you’ve learned your lesson, I’ll make you whole again.”  The thorn, pain, limitation didn’t go away.  God didn’t give healing.  What did happen is that Paul stopped asking.  And it seems the hardships kept coming. He lists them: weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, calamities.  Why?  Because Christ wasn’t inviting Paul to learn a lesson!  He invited Paul to a life!

Faith in Christ is not a list of lessons to learn.  Faith in Christ is an invitation to life with Him.  Paul, in his weakness wasn’t being taught about the power of Christ in weakness.  He was being encouraged to live in the power of Christ in His weakness.  When we understand this is the invitation we are given, the permanence of our weakness becomes irrelevant.  Real resolution is found when we live the life Christ provides to us through His presence, grace and strength.  Faith is not a problem-solution formula that allows us to live our best life now.  Faith is a response to an invitation by the God of Creation, the Savior of the World, the Lord of God’s Kingdom; to truly live with Him and in Him.

Next time you are tempted to try and figure out the lesson God wants you to learn, instead ask Him to give you a clearer understanding of the life He’s inviting you to live with Him.  When we do that, our pains and difficulties stop feeling like punishments and they instead become invitations to know what life with Christ means.

As always, thanks for reading, commenting and sharing!

NOTE:  And don’t forget to subscribe!  I’ve begun working on a new book about the journey with Christ through hard times and how that forms us.  I want to involve all those who subscribe to my blog through email.  So, don’t be left out!  Subscribe and let’s do this together! – Blessings, Jim

 

You are God’s Beautiful Boys and Girls

beautiful-boy-film-chalamet-carell.pngLast Saturday, my son and I went to see the movie “Beautiful Boy.”  I wasn’t sure what I would experience, though I was pretty sure it was going to be a heavy movie.  It was.  When the movie ended, the place was silent except for a few sniffles here and there.  It is a story of addiction.  And it doesn’t end in a fake, movie-like, happily every after way.  It is based on a true story, written by David Sheff.  It shows the pain and process of loving a kid with addictions.  As I sat there, I found myself feeling pain for those I know who have had children and siblings struggling with the horrors of addiction.

There was one line that stuck out to me.  It was said during a scene at an Narcotics Anonymous (NA) group session.  When the kid said his addiction was a disease, he was corrected by the group as they recited together something like, “Addiction isn’t the disease, but my way of treating the disease.”  In essence they were saying that the path to addiction begins because there is something else wrong on the inside.  This is profound.  As long as we treat the symptom without dealing with the issue, we will miss the cure.

This week I was visiting with a parent who said his 16 year old announced to him that she thinks she is transexual. Like most of us parents would be, he was floored.  His little girl, who he thought he knew was having doubts about the very essence of her identity.  And he didn’t know how to respond, or what to do next.  Is this another case where culture has pointed our kids to a solution that misses the problem altogether?  Is it another way of treating what is the real issue and do we run the danger of missing the cure?

These issues aren’t just for the young.  I’ve spoken to adults that have jumped from one spouse to another, to another.  They repeat the pattern all the while trying to treat their unhappiness, their frustrations, their anger. And they end up taking their unchanged self into the next relationship hoping this time they’ve found the answer.  But again, they’ve been misdiagnosed and the real cure eludes them.

Some of us do this with pills.  Some of us do this with career moves.  Some of us do it with porn.  Some of us do it with sexuality. Some of us do this with out-of-contol emotions.  Some of us do this with a new commitment to a new morality.  This is so engrained in us that pastors can even do this with ministry. It is the common human approach to finding the cure to our ache, our loneliness, our identity questions, our search for belonging and meaning.  We keep buying into the misdiagnosis and the next fake cure.

What is our disease?  Our disease is that we have left the only One (or keep leaving the One) who knows us to our core and loves us.  Our disease is that we keep trying to fabricate lives with things that can’t bear the weight of eternity.  Our disease is a pride that says, “We’ve got this.” when our lives tell a different story.  Our disease is living in independence from the One who made us with the potential of eternity and deep fellowship with the Divine.

If this is our disease, what is our cure?  Hear and embrace this…

  1. We are created in the image of God.  This doesn’t mean that everything in our life, personality, or desires are given or approved by God.  But it means that our existence has an eternal intention to it.  We are no accident.  And we are created with the potential of eternity and deep fellowship with the Divine.
  2. God invites us back to him.  God, like the Dad we all long for, looks past our crap and failed attempts a self-cure to wait for us with eagerness to embrace us and heal us.
  3. His Son, Jesus is the way to healing. He came to carry our pain and show us life.  He restores our call, our purpose, our hope of being changed and having the life we were made for.
  4. Once we’ve recognized our disease, separation from our God; and the cure, God’s rescuing love; we are freed to discover the joy of living in His presence and being changed by His love.

This sounds simple, but it is life-altering.  If accepted, it reshapes everything within us.  It reorients the core of our being around the Being of the seen and unseen universe.

The questions, the pain, the process may remain for a while, or a lifetime, but we find that God walks in the way with us.  Life is still a place a learning.  It’s a path of growth.  It’s not easy.  But Christ’s presence keeps us rooted, sure, secure and hopeful in the middle of it all. And he has provided others who are walking the journey, so we need not do it alone.

I have found that God and His Son, Jesus believe we are beautiful boys and girls.  Accepting that, in the middle of mixed emotions, is the beginning of the cure.  The rest of the cure is to let Him restore us to the lives He made us for.

Comments, Hopes, Needs, Questions??  Thanks for your time in reading, commenting and sharing.

Do you believe God is good? But, what about when… ?

Its an interesting point to note that when Jesus was addressed as “Good Teacher,” he said, “Why do you call me good?  No one is good except God alone (Lk. 18:19).”  Jesus was reminding his hearers that “goodness” is an essential characteristic of God.

When things are tough, one of the great questions we have is, “how can a good God allow all this?”  It’s a fair question.  But it presupposes that what we think is good, is actually good.  We have a perspective that is admittedly limited.  Many of us think cheeseburgers are good.  But they are not, if you want to actually nourish your body with your food.  Our definition of good has a lot to do with our value system and our over-arching purpose.

If our value system is wrapped up in the here and now, then suffering and struggling is a horrible violation of how we want to experience life now.  But if we value the eternal, growth, maturity, transformation, etc., our ideas of what is good, will be drastically changed.  Because it is in the hard times that we are formed into something new, especially when we grow through it under the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit.

Author and theologian, Peter Kreeft, wrote in his book, “Making Sense Out of Suffering”, these words, “If we love God, we will understand that everything is grace, that Job’s sores were grace, that Job’s abandonment was grace, that even Jesus’ abandonment (‘My god, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?’) was grace.  Even the delay of grace is grace.  Suffering is grace.  The cross is grace.  The grave is grace.  Even hell is made of God’s love and grace, experienced as pain by those who hate it.  There is nothing but God’s love. ‘Everything is grace.’”

When you read the word grace in the paragraph above, replace it with the words “a good gift.”  This can be a tough exercise because it confronts our idea of what is good.  But doing this teaches us that all things God gives to us are good gifts, given to accomplish His good purposes.  He can only give what is good because He is good.

Rather than judging the goodness of God by our circumstances, let’s define our circumstances by the goodness of God.  No matter what we are going through, God is good and He is bringing about His good work in our lives.  To believe this is the beginning of experiencing the goodness of God in every area and every experience of our lives.

 

Thank you for reading, for your comments, your shares and your likes.