Category Archives: Meditations

Mission Accomplished

Today I lost my best childhood friend, my greatest mentor, and the godliest man I ever knew.

I first remember meeting Dave Vogelsang (“Mr. Dave”) when I was seven years old and attending Anchor Baptist Church in Millersville, Maryland. I didn’t know the kind of impact that he’d have on my life and on the lives of countless others. I wish I could sum up all that Mr. Dave has and always will mean to me, but I can’t. The best I can do is write down several cathartic observations about a life well lived, at the very least to serve as personal reminders to myself.

He Had a Heart for the Next Generation

Mr. Dave taught the 5th and 6th grade Sunday School class at our church, and his was the class that everyone wanted to attend. And there was a reason. The reason wasn’t just the Tootsie Rolls that he generously gave out to all his students (he insisted that there would be no favoritism…everyone received and received alike)–although that was a definite perk. The reason was that Mr. Dave himself was the real deal. He cared about each of his students individually. He knew us and our parents. He made sure to visit the homes of his students at least once a semester. He wanted to know that we had a serious relationship with God.

I’ll never forget the day I was chatting with Mr. Dave after church and telling him about how much I wanted to be a pilot. He said, “You know, if you want to help me mow the church lawn on Saturday, I’ll take you to the airport and we’ll watch airplanes land.” Every Saturday for 4 years I mowed the church lawn with Mr. Dave. He (quite without my awareness) taught me how to serve. And then we’d grab Burger King and sit at the airport and talk. Not only could I identify every airplane and airliner at an impressive distance, but I also received the equivalent of a couple seminary degrees due to our extended theological conversations.

Over the years, even as college, marriage, seminary, kids, jobs, ministry, and so much more pulled our paths apart, I always knew that Mr. Dave was there in his little home on Alameda Parkway with Christmas decorations up year-round, praying for me. I never doubted that for a second. Sometimes he’d call and talk for no less than an hour. And he’d always send a Christmas card, with carefully selected poems and verses and a note scratched out in his ever-so-hard-to-read handwriting. Or sometimes it was a book–a love language we both shared. But I always knew he cared and that he always brought my name before the throne of grace–even when life got crazy and I forgot to call him back on far too many occasions.

He Had a Heart for the Nations

Mr. Dave’s Sunday School classes weren’t your ordinary classes. He taught the curriculum, but he always wanted to get to a missionary story. He would tell personal stories about his time with missionaries in Alaska (one of his favorite places on earth). He had an impressive grasp of geography and had instant recall of hundreds of missionary names, locations, prayer requests, and opportunities. He was the first to get missionary prayer letters and he always sent care packages (usually books) to our missionaries. He impressed on the minds of his students the importance of considering first if God would have us go to the nations before deciding to do anything else.

My call to ministry was directly impacted by Mr. Dave’s passion for missions. He knew my interest in aviation, so early in our friendship he handed me a book entitled Jungle Pilot in Liberia by Abe Guenter. As I read the book, my mind danced with the idea of serving God and doing something I was passionate about at the same time. Over the years, Mr. Dave would drive me to ground school and flying lessons. He would give me more books on missionary aviators. We would dream about what it would be like to land on a short dirt strip or on one of those pontoon planes that he loved so much in Alaska.

But more than that, Mr. Dave demonstrated his heart for the nations in his prayers. I remember the joy of praying with Mr. Dave on Wednesday night prayer meetings. He always prayed the longest (and loudest), but his prayers were always the most interesting. He would meander through missionaries I knew and didn’t know. He would pray for the kids of missionaries. He would pray for schools that trained missionaries. And he would pray for his little buddies like me to become missionaries.

One day Mr. Dave asked me if I’d like to go help out a church planter in inner city Baltimore. He helped me make the connection and regularly drove me into the city to serve alongside Pastor Fleck at New Southwest Baptist Church. Little did I know it, but Mr. Dave was a big part of awakening my vision for pastoral ministry and church planting.

He sparked the fires for Kingdom advance in little souls. And there’s nothing more he would have rather done than serve God on the foreign field himself. But there were reasons.

He Demonstrated Dignity in Suffering

At first all I thought was that he was just a little out of shape, and he walked with a cane at times. Eventually I learned that as a child he contracted the dreaded polio disease and his entire body was ravaged as a result. This weakened many of his muscles, but he was able to go on and recover significantly. He went on to serve in the US Postal Service until he took a bad fall and injured his knee. After some time sorting mail, he took disability and retired. During that time, he had married and his wife left him. In this chaotic series of events, there was a deep soul-crushing loss for him. There was physical loss–a lack of mobility that made travel and missions work challenging. There was an emotional loss–a spouse who deserted him, leaving him isolated and lonely. And there was a spiritual loss–for all of his passion for ministry, Mr. Dave believed that a divorced man could not serve as a pastor.

Over time, his physical trauma would only get worse. The first time I ever went to visit someone in a hospital was going to see my buddy, Mr. Dave. He had a standard knee replacement surgery and was hard at work doing physical therapy to try to get mobile again. But something went horribly wrong. One Wednesday night at church he told me about how badly his knee ached and that he needed to go in to see the doctor. When the results finally arrived, the doctors discovered that his knee had become infected and that there was no longer enough bone to re-insert a new knee. For the rest of his life on this earth (probably 20 years now), Mr. Dave would transport himself with a walker, his leg in a giant metal brace, and his foot in a shoe with a huge sole (to compensate for the lost length of his leg).

Mr. Dave hanging out at the family farm in South Carolina on one of his few and difficult journeys to come and see me.

As the years went on, Mr. Dave continued to experience incredible physical setbacks. But it never deterred him from service. He would still climb up on the tractor and mow the church lawn. He would drive me around to all the shut-ins, and I would deliver audio or video tapes of the church services to them. He would come early and stay late for church services, unlocking and locking the building and running the sound booth during the service. And I’ll never forget probably one of his last trips outside of Maryland–when, probably against all the doctors orders to the contrary, he showed up at my wedding in Greenville, South Carolina.

He Valued the Life of the Mind

Mr. Dave is the person who first taught me that PhD really stood for “Posthole Digger” and that an expert was nothing more than a former (“ex”) drip under pressure (“spurt”). He loved passing himself off as a know-nothing and making digs at scholarly elitism. But I think part of the reality was that Mr. Dave had spent hours teaching himself the Word of God and reading Christian books. He could see through so much of the pretentiousness of academia, but he really did know its value deep down. What he lamented was scholarship for scholarship’s sake. He loved scholars who applied their learning to missions and international training; he loved scholars who wrote books that the rest of the church could read and apply. I acutely remember his theory that conservative scholars frequently didn’t write because they were afraid of getting attacked by fellow conservatives (a theory that has given me boldness in my present responsibilities).

A vast number of my first theological books in my library have an inscription from Mr. Dave. He took me to theology seminars and to free Bible college classes at my church (when I was still a young teenager). We would discuss Calvinism, Dispensationalism, substitutionary atonement, inerrancy, church history and so much more. We read Spurgeon together. He was the first person to tell me about “this excellent preacher and writer from Minneapolis named John Piper.” He urged me on to tackle ever-higher page counts in my yearly reading goals, pushing me to read systematic theology: Ryrie, then Thiessen, then Strong, then Erickson before I turned 17. He never left his house without a book in the bag on the front of his walker. To this day, alongside my desk sits a copy of C. H. Spurgeon’s We Endeavour, a short book with messages to Christian leaders. Mr. Dave gave me that book in 2002, and I read it roughly every year. And, in turn, I’ve purchased copies and given them away to young pastors and leaders. Undoubtedly, he passed on his passion to study the Scriptures and to draw on the insights of the church.

No matter how deep we could go, it always turned back to practical. I’ll never forget that urgency. You could see it in his passionate evangelistic activity even when laid up in the hospital. You could hear it in his “Amen” from the back corner when Pastor Counterman would begin to make his applications. You could feel it on the late night drives home from the airport when he’d lapse into one of the homilies he would deliver at the local nursing home. He knew his stuff, but he knew that it was more important to know the Savior.

He is the Kind of Disciple-maker the Church Needs More Than Ever

Mr. Dave would dutifully attend events that we invited him to, even if they were physically difficult for him or even if they were as painfully awkward as my sister’s ballet recitals.

In his entire life, Mr. Dave never tweeted or posted on Facebook or wrote a blog. He never owned a computer, and his phone only made calls. He never had much money, and what he had he gave to missions. He served quietly on the periphery of the church. He prayed like I always have wanted to pray. And he knew his Bible backwards and forwards. His was a life of true piety, but it never stopped there.

He didn’t follow any disciple-making strategy that I’ve ever seen or heard of (besides in the first four books of the New Testament). There was no playbook, no leader standing over him telling him to invest in others. He had every reason to excuse himself from investing in the next generation. He could have allowed his pain and anguish over never getting to be a missionary or stand in a pulpit on a Sunday crush his soul. But instead, Mr. Dave cared enough to extend an invitation to serve in those little unseen ways alongside him. He overlooked the awkwardness of this quirky, geeky homeschooled kid to invite me into his life. It cost him a Whopper Jr. meal once a week and, okay, probably a decent chunk of book purchases on my behalf, but his investment will last for eternity. With absolute certainty I can say that I would never be the man I am today or serving God the way I am today without the life of Mr. Dave. And I’m not the only one.

I remember Mr. Dave’s frequent references to David Brainerd over the years. And one quotation from Brainerd that I suspect that Mr. Dave resonated with is this one:

“It is sweet to be nothing and less than nothing that Christ may be all in all.”

May our churches be filled with men and women who desire the sweetness of being less than nothing so that Christ might be everything to those who are far from him.

Mission accomplished, Mr. Dave.

Bright Monday: A Meditation on the Day After Easter

The familiar ringtone breaks my semi-restful night at the appointed time. Another Monday–another week–arrives with the expected regularity. My routine of mug and bowl and Word seems about the same. Outside, the birds and bugs seem to carry on their everyday rhythm. Cars zip past as yet another workday begins.

But something is different.

The resurrection happened yesterday, did it not? The ground shook and soldiers fell down like dead men. Women gasped in astonishment at empty corpse-wrappings, and men ran with reckless abandon to discover the truth–while others desperately conspired to hide the truth.

But today my life continues as usual.

Or does it?

Bright Monday, for the Christian, is an aftershock of the resurrection. Sure, it’s a return to normal–another swing of the God-ordained weekly pendulum of life, but it’s also so much more than that. It’s the ordinary Monday lived in the brightness of the not-so-ordinary Sunday. The ripple effects of the rolléd stone baptize the Monday ritual of regular work in extraordinary worship to our resurrected King. As every Sunday serves as a resurrection reminder, so every Monday serves as an opportunity to live the new life we’ve been given.

This is the day that the Lord has made;
Let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs
Bestowing life!

Psalm 118:24 with Paschal Troparion (c. 6th century)

Giving Mid-Life Saints a Vision for Real-Life Discipleship

They’ve been married and have grown kids. As empty-nesters, they are experiencing newfound freedoms and newfound challenges. Many are still plugged into successful careers, but have extensive personal life histories to draw upon. Some have been saved and serving in the church for dozens of years. Chances are, your church has a number of these men and women. They’re the mid-life saints who often form the backbone of well-rooted churches. They usually give of their time and resources in the offerings and programs of the church. They usually have strong walks with God. But if there’s one wish that their pastors had for them, it would be that they would serve as the disciplers for the younger members of the church.

What if our mid-life saints could catch this vision? Wouldn’t it be incredible if the multi-generational discipleship dynamic of Titus 2 would be deeply rooted in the soil of our churches? But let’s be honest; there are some major hurdles that keep mid-life saints from discipling younger believers. Mid-life saints aren’t frequently discipling the young married couples, college students, and teenagers in the church and need help from their fellow-believers to move them toward these meaningful relationships. In this article I’d like to examine 5 ways we can help our mid-life brothers and sisters follow this Great Commission call.

Leading Mid-Life Saints through Personal Discipleship

“Phil, to be quite frank, I haven’t ever been intentionally discipled,” the saved-since-childhood, middle-aged father of two confided in me. I was a little startled at first. But then I thought about it. Most of my millennial friends could share in the same sentiment. And from what I seen, my parents’ generation seemed pretty “lone-wolf” when it came to their faith. They were probably better at the corporate worship bit of their Christianity, but when it came to connecting deeply with other believers on a one-on-one basis for accountability and discipleship, they seemed to, on the whole, come up lacking.

So, Church, let’s help prepare these believers for discipleship. Pastors, take some time to invest in them. Young up-and-coming leaders, plug into the life of an older believer and allow the experience be one of mutual growth. Instead of seeking out someone your own age to be disciple by or to disciple, build these relationships with middle-aged believers. Mid-life saints will continue to struggle to disciple until they themselves have been discipled. Walk the road of life with a mid-life saint and exponentially multiply the Church’s impact on the younger generations (2 Tim. 2.2).

Preparing Mid-Life Saints for Paradigm-Shift

A huge challenge that keeps intergenerational discipleship from happening in the church is the divide between old and young. To many mid-life saints, the younger generation in their church may be too liberal, tech-driven, or worldly. These notions of the young believers in the church are often mistaken and driven by mere cursory interaction between the generations. Tensions between the generations result in a sort of impasse whereby each generation assumes that the other is out of place and neither generation benefits from the other.

Breaking the impasse requires a Romans 14 kind of experience where both generations loosely hold to what divides them and are willing to do whatever it takes on non-essentials in order to experience unity and growth. In this spirit, both generations are able to see their blind spots more clearly and and love each other better (Phil. 2.3). This paradigm shift of unity in the non-essentials is absolutely essential if mid-life saints are going to be able to do the difficult task of intergenerational discipleship.

One substantial realization that is essential to helping mid-life saints clear this hurdle is awareness that millennials crave the input from the older generations. It’s a big deal to us to have those older and wiser than ourselves invest in us. Despite our uncomfortable social media choices and our unusual clothing choices and our prickly personas, we really do appreciate you. Your paradigm of what a “good Christian” looks like may shift by hanging out with us and loving us. But the Church will be all the better for it; that’s the way it’s always been (Gal. 3.27-28; Col. 3.11).

Moving Mid-Life Saints from Monologue to Dialogue

Another challenge for the seasoned Christians in your church when it comes to interacting with younger believers is that most of our mid-life saints learned best and most frequently via monologue. But this isn’t so with many millennials. Most of us learn best in dialogue. In order to prepare mid-life Christians for discipleship, we need to prepare them for a new method of interacting and teaching. But this takes time and intention.

In order to begin a transition away from monologue in discipleship, it’s essential for the discipler to understand the effect of a misunderstood monologue. To a dialogical learner, monologue can be misunderstood as not caring about my perspective, a superiority complex, or not allowing for helpful questions. Monologue in a discipleship context results in a “speaking at” mode rather than “discussing together” which is essential for true learning. At its worst, monologue in discipleship comes across as what a few of my friends have called “drive-by accountability.” You pop out of nowhere with a baseball bat, smack that newb Christian down, and get out of there. And how do you think that young believer is going to react? He’s going to avoid discipleship relationships like the plague!

Let’s encourage the monologue-trending disciplers to take a cue from Jesus when he asked, “Who do people say that I am?” And when their answers had prompted a surface level of consideration, he brought the question home, not by telling them the answer, but by forcing them to answer. “Who do YOU say that I am?” Prepare middle-aged believers to disciple by pointing to this discipleship technique from Jesus’ playbook.

Healing Mid-Life Saints from Failure Paralysis

I think if I were to guess why more millennials aren’t getting discipled by the empty-nesters or men and women with college-aged kids is that most of our mature saints are paralyzed by past mistakes. They look at their kids and ask themselves if they’re really ready to speak truth into the lives of the next generation. Most of the time, the answer is “no.” They simply can’t get past what they see as their screw-ups and parenting failures.

This is a reality that we would do well to be sensitive to. The deep wounds and irreversible scars of those they love who are far from Christ are no small matters. We shouldn’t be surprised to find many middle-aged saints paralyzed because of the hurt in their lives. But sometimes this paralysis isn’t just due to parenting hindsight; sometimes the paralysis is the result of real personal failure. A divorce, a besetting sin, or an inglorious exit from vocational ministry can make a mid-life Christian question whether or not they would be the optimal candidate for mentoring the next generation.

I want to address this very real concern with two observations. First, the two men who had the greatest impact on my life could have easily allowed their life situations keep them from investing in others. One of these men had never married and had no children. Although he could have excused himself from investing in the youth of the church due to his lack of parenting experience, he instead used every gift that God had given him in the next generation of the church. The other man who plugged into my life is divorced and never remarried. In a church culture that often highlights what a divorced individual can’t do, he chose to focus on what he could do—disciple the next generation. And I think that God enjoys using those whose life experiences seem utterly disproportionate to the task at hand. Moses and Gideon doubted their capabilities too! Encourage the paralyzed to trust God with their weaknesses and failures and see what God might do through them in this Great Commission work.

Second, there’s probably no greater New Testament example of this paralyzed saint than the Apostle Peter. After denying Jesus and letting down the other disciples, Peter struggles to make heads or tails of what to do next. He checks out and returns back to his vocation of fishing the lake. But then Jesus shows up on the beach. After a rather abrupt and pixilated arrival upon shore, Peter finds himself struggling for words as Jesus asks him a tough question over and over. Lots of consideration has been given to what Jesus meant by “love” in this passage, but I think there’s something we miss in the process—the command. “Feed my sheep.” Why did Jesus tell Peter to feed his sheep? Why did Peter need to be told to feed the flock of God? What was it about Peter’s situation that demanded Jesus wake him up and drag him in this direction? Jesus knew that Peter loved him (Peter admits this), but Jesus wanted Peter to do the hard work of discipleship in, through, and for the Church. So many of the hurting and paralyzed saints in our churches, like Peter, think to themselves: “If you only know how messed up I really am you wouldn’t be asking me to disciple others.” But Jesus gently questions them, “Do you love me?” The paralyzed believers inevitably respond, “Yes, of course!” On that basis, our Lord calls out, “Oh hurting Christian, I want you to feed my sheep. I know you better than you know yourself, and I particularly want you to invest in my Church!” The passion that these paralyzed saints have for Jesus is the only thing that will help them victoriously disciple the sheep.

Arming Mid-Life Saints with Confidence

Instilling confidence in the established Christians in your church begins with our first point—disciple them! This process is not only important for their growth, but for establishing their footing for future discipleship. But beyond one-on-one discipleship, we have more options at our disposal for transitioning the mid-life saints from disciples to disciplers. First, strong disciplers can allow a mid-life believer into an established discipleship process with another believer. Pulling them in for a few meetings after which you can discuss the process with the mature believer can help take the edge off. Maybe using a group discipleship process could help here. Second, strong believers can coach mid-life saints in their own efforts at discipling others. This may look like handing off an existing discipleship relationship to them or meeting to debrief and prepare for another discipleship session with a less mature Christian. Finally, keep working them into discipleship relationships with other believers. Their own discipleship process doesn’t end until they’re discipling others. Continue to provide accountability, opportunities, and support as mid-life saints catch the vision for real-life discipleship.

Remembering PaPa

My PaPa died on Thursday. It was his 82nd birthday. Having spent a significant amount of time with him at various points in my life, I wanted to remember and honor him. And the best way I can do that is to do the thing I enjoy, and write about him. These are the 6 lessons I learned from my grandfather, Edward Bird.

He was Subtle yet Strong

As a kid, I always admired my PaPa’s ability to lift giant rocks, move seemingly immovable objects, and work all day long on draining PaPa and Metasks. My hands would blister 15 minutes into a stump removal project, but he would unflinchingly smash away at the roots for hours until the remnants of the tree which we cut down the day before were fully erased. But he never flaunted his strength. You never saw him lifting weights or flexing or bragging about how much he could lift. He would just lift bags of concrete or multiple sheets of drywall without a word. PaPa’s subtle strength taught me that real strength doesn’t come from working the weights in the gym, but from working hard to better the lives of those you love. Those same hands that could fell a tree with a crosscut saw would also gently cradle his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

He Appreciated the Small Things in Life

Anyone who knew PaPa for any length of time could see that he was essentially a hoarder. My amazement for his massive collection as a child turned to confusion and then suspicion as an adult. But I’ve often thought that there’s something I missed in my estimation of his copiously organized stacks of treasures in the labyrinth of his West Virginia basement. You see, PaPa didn’t collect what we thought of as junk simply because he needed it; he collected his prizes because he saw value in the stuff we see as valueless. He reminded his grandkids to take small bites of their food in order to savor every morsel. I’m pretty sure that he never missed a single sunrise. He took me and my siblings out to collect aluminum cans, teaching me that hard work can be fun and rewarding. He taught me that a dollar saved is a dollar earned as we labored over nail-filled 2×4’s until they were clean and ready to be reused.

He was Passionate about his Beliefs

He was a Christian with an unflinching belief in his God. Some may have found his beliefs as odd or extreme, but he found them reliable and emboldening. He always seemed open to talking about what he PaPa and Lanebelieved. I’d like to think of PaPa’s faith as what supported him through years of loneliness and sickness. His God cared for him on the mountaintops and in the valleys. God strengthened his arms as a younger man caring for his family, and God strengthened his mind as an aging man in hospice care, remembering the word “baby” after we visited him. There’s something attractive about this simple faith. PaPa taught me that there are things worth believing in, even if it makes people uncomfortable.

He Avoided Technology Distractions

PaPa never seemed to struggle overmuch with adapting to new technology, but he had little to no time for innovations that would waste his time. I remember staying at Grammy and PaPa’s West Virginia home one summer. For some time we worked on a tool tote which we built from scratch. I often wanted to pull out the power tools, but he insisted that I learn how to use a handsaw. Then, instead of settling in front of the TV after a hard day of work, PaPa would go out on a walk. To him, walking the railroad tracks or hiking along a busy road brought him far more joy than any TV show ever could. His form of Minecraft was building sheds and toys and raised bed gardens. PaPa taught me to hold technology loosely and to find more meaningful ways to enjoy life.

He Relished Acceptable Risks

I get the feeling that PaPa would find the riskless society in which I’m raising my daughter as not very fun. I remember cutting down a huge tree in the front yard that required that someone pull the rope in the direction we needed it to fall. He was inevitably the one happy to stand in the path of destruction. He even more happily posed me as if I had been crushed by the tree when my mom came out to look. He enjoyed the thrill of taking his grandkids on hikes along a busy highway. And he built us the most incredible rope swing one time. I can hardly imagine my mom’s reaction when she returned home to see her pre-teen children hoisted dozens of feet in the air on the makeshift trapeze. Oh, but it was immeasurably fun. And I think he may have learned this from his dad. My mom told me that her PaPa (my great-grandfather) would shoot across multiple lanes of traffic while announcing, “you can’t live forever!” So the tradition lived on. PaPa taught me that an acceptable amount of risk always seems to pay off in the end.

He Cultivated a Bevy of Skills

We live in an era of specialization. Most of us live our entire lives only learning a single trade. But PaPa and his generation were the supreme generalists. He could ride a bike backwards or draft anEd and Me with PaPa.jpeg architectural or engineering model. He could construct just about anything as long as he was supplied with the proper amount of wood and nails. A veritable panoply of magic tricks came with him on every visit. He taught me how to cut sheetrock like a boss (a skill I did almost by instinct a couple months ago). He made his own cistern. He could build the best fires and lay a pristine pad of concrete. He could cut his own hair and do a little investing on the side. He cooked and canned food, often using food he raised in his carefully composted garden. He read frequently and did everything in life with a winsome attitude that would turn the most recent acquaintance into a friend.

An Observation:

We’re all role models. We teach by our lives what is important and what is unimportant. We all mess up and emphasize the wrong things from time-to-time. PaPa and his culturally unique values are a reminder to me and my generation to reconsider what we esteem as the most important goals in life. Is a safe, single-trade, faithless, grandiose, technology-crammed life really worth living? Or is there something more satisfying to pursue during this fleeting journey?

16 Questions the Guest Preacher Should Ask

I hope these questions are helpful for my friends who are called upon to preach in a new church from time-to-time.

  1. Which service do you want me to preach and when does it start? If there are multiple services, you need to find out which ones you’re expected to cover. When you figure out when the service starts, plan to arrive at least 15-20 minutes early so you have time to greet people, connect your media, get your wireless microphone, and calm your nerves.
  2. Would you like me to attend another service or Sunday School? Some churches would find it helpful if you attended a Sunday School class, but others don’t see it as necessarily helpful. Get a sense of the importance of this meeting, if it exists, and plan accordingly.
  3. Who will be introducing me? This question is especially important if the lead pastor is out of town. You need to know who to especially introduce yourself to and who to be watching for your queue from to go onstage.
  4. What’s the usual order of service? This question not only helps clarify when you’ll be going onstage, but also flags any liturgical anomalies that you may do well to be aware of.
  5. How much time is usually allotted for the sermon? You need to ask about sermon duration so that you can begin shaping your content for the amount of time you’ll have. I often do a practice run to make sure that I’m in the ballpark of the time that I’ve been given. As a guest speaker, I’m pretty sure that it’s a cardinal sin to preach too long. You’ll never get a congregation angry at you for letting them out a few minutes early.
  6. When do you usually finish? This is a slightly different question than the previous one. Sometimes an excited worship leader, other liturgical elements, or an unusual announcement prior to the preaching may eat into your allotted time. You need a method to gauge if this has happened.
  7. Who closes after a guest speaker preaches? How is this done? Some churches always have an altar call. Some churches never do it. Making assumptions here could lead to a major faux pas. The ideal is to be able to hand off the service closing to someone who knows the people and the process.
  8. What Bible version do you typically use? Even if the version is one that you don’t typically use, you’ll gain more rapport with the congregation if you’re quoting the text that most of them have in front of them. This question also needs to be asked early on because it will determine the English version that you’ll “stew” in (read, re-read, memorize, etc.).
  9. Do you typically use projected media? If so, how do I connect to it or where do I need to send material/links? As a guest speaker, you need to be cautious about being reliant on technology. Even if you’ve carefully asked the right questions and prepped your tech, you can still hit an odd hitch as you’re getting set to preach. Remember that you’ve usually got only a limited time to get this right. Have a backup method for deploying your media and, worst case, be capable of delivering your sermon without any technology.
  10. Do you use a portable microphone? If so, where will I get it and will there be someone to show me how it works? This isn’t usually too complicated, but sometimes you may be dealing with some odd mic that doesn’t work normally. Pro tip: even if the sound guy tells you that he’s not going to have your mic hot until you get up to preach, keep it off and remember to turn it on while you’re on your way up to the platform.
  11. How much room is on the podium for a Bible, notes, etc.? Pulpit real estate is at a premium. Some churches have tiny pulpits that are comfortable for the pastor who may preach with different pulpit material than you do. As more and more younger preachers bring iPads and other tech with them onstage, the variety of what a preacher can expect has only broadened.
  12. What do you wear when you preach? And don’t just take a “professional” or “business casual” category answer on this one. People mean different things when they use dress categories. Get a specific answer (i.e., “jeans and a button-up shirt untucked”) and don’t deviate from it.
  13. How would you describe your style of preaching? What have you been preaching on lately? Although you have your own style as a preacher, it is helpful to understand the norm at this church. Maybe if the pastor tends to do exegetical studies of books of the Bible, you could do an exegetical study of a one-off topic? If the pastor has been doing a deep dive in Romans, it may be healthy to do a narrative passage.
  14. What is the congregation like? Young/old, quiet/interactive, new/old Christians, jobs, backgrounds, approximate attendance? Truth preaches anywhere, but it never hurts to understand the audience you’ll be speaking to. Jesus didn’t have to study in order to know the hearts of his listeners, but Paul definitely understood the philosophers on Mars Hill. Every bit of information you get should shape how truth will be presented.
  15. Does your church have a missions statement? You need to know what this church is and isn’t all about. Follow up this question by asking: What are some major red flags of what you don’t want someone to preach about? Are there any practical or theological issues that you think might be important for a guest preacher to know? I try to use questions like this to draw out go/no-go zones. Regardless of how you feel about a church’s hangups or pursuits, it’s not your job to do a drive-by sermon on any of these issues. If there’s an issue that is too big for you to ignore, consider declining the invitation.
  16. Can we meet before I preach in order to get to know each other? Also: How can we follow-up afterward? I think this is the most frequently missed question on the list. Meeting before you speak can help you better understand the heart and philosophy of the pastor. If you’re able to meet on the church property, you can get a feel for the auditorium, platform, pulpit, microphone, etc. Following up gives you a great opportunity for a critique of your preaching and an ongoing relationship with the pastor.

I hope these questions are helpful. I’ve missed a couple of these in some instances and have learned from my mistakes. There are probably a few questions that you shouldn’t ask, the chief of which is anything related to compensation for speaking. Speak out of a desire for ministry and not for money. For some great additional insights on filling pulpits, see Dane Ortlund’s excellent article.

May God bless you as you preach his Word!

5 Questions We Ask about Trials (And How Jeremiah Answers them)

“Everything I had hoped for is lost!” Have you ever felt like you’re just running on fumes? Do the trials you’re going through this week make you feel like you’re in the middle of a desert and you just drank the last drop of water from your water bottle? If you’re in the middle of a trial, you can probably resonate with these mournful words from Lamentations 3.18.

Maybe you’re on the sad long road toward divorce. You’ve done everything you can think of to resolve the problem, but it just seems inevitable.

Maybe you watch as your mother fights a protracted battle with cancer. Has God just walked out on you and your family?

Maybe you’ve struggled for years with depression and suicidal thoughts. No therapy or drugs or prayer seems to be helping.

Maybe you’ve been slandered by friends at school or at work or at church and they’ve dragged your name through the mud. You feel like trash right now and you just want to disappear.

“Everything I had hoped for is lost!” You get it. And you’re asking the tough questions that come with this place in life. Jeremiah seems to have been asking those questions too. In Lamentations 3, we get a peek behind the curtain on the answers to those questions. Jeremiah the prophet is writing here after his whole country has been destroyed and his friends and family have been taken captive. Yes, it was because many in the nation kept sinning against God, but this didn’t take away the hurt. What a devastating time for this prophet — everywhere he looks there’s pain and trial. So he laments; he cries out to God. Everything has been taken away from him. It’s a nightmare that he can’t wake up from. He keeps pinching himself and saying, “just let me wake up and this all be over. Please, oh please!”

In Jeremiah’s pain we begin to see answers to these common questions we ask when we’re in trials:

How do I re-engage with God when I’ve totally lost hope?

This is where I’ve found myself time and again over the past month or so. When so many people you’ve ministered to and alongside suddenly turn against you and you feel hurt and discouraged, you know that you need God. But where do you start? God feels distant, mean, or uncaring. You feel like you can’t just pick up where you’ve left off with him. Things were different then. Now you’ve got this insurmountable and unavoidable pain in your life. And you’ve got to figure out how to make sense out of what’s happened and re-engage with God. Jeremiah re-engages with God in two ways.

First, we must overlay our grief with God. We’re not called to ignore our grief. Jeremiah thinks of his grief like a deer which has been shot in the guts (Lam. 3.13). It reminds him of the nastiest thing he’s ever tasted (19). He even goes back to discussing his grief (c. 4). We’re supposed to be brutally honest about it. We need to talk about it. But we must place God over top of it. Think of those science books for children that had plastic overlays of the digestive or circulatory systems which could be placed over a picture of a person. I think that a lot of times, we look at God as a separate paper page. Either we turn to God and forget our grief, or turn to grief and forget God. But God and grief are meant to work together. In the moments of our greatest grief, God is there. The Gospel shows us this at the cross. God and grief play well together because he knows what grief is all about. One could even say that he is acquainted with it (Isa. 53.3).

Second, we must rediscover God. Often it’s in the times of darkest trials that when we begin to see the person of our God with greater clarity. His love is steadfast, his mercies are endless, his faithfulness (or, reliability) is great (22-23). As you find who God really is you will find hope. Our trials show us that God isn’t just the ignorant grandfather in the sky; we want him to care about sin and injustice and to right the wrongs. Our trials show us that God isn’t the angry policeman in the sky; only when everything else is stripped away can we see the care and love of our Heavenly Father. The Gospel shows us God is a God of justice who won’t let sin slide, but that he’s a God of compassion and mercy who took the penalty of sin on himself.

Will I be able to make it another day?

If you’ve been there, you’ll never forget the feeling. If you’ve ever run out of energy to take another step or if you’ve ever felt like suicide could be a viable option, you’ve been there. But there’s hope. Jeremiah shares your pain and reminds us of a powerful truth.

Remember that each day will have its own challenges (Matt. 6.34 – “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”), but Jeremiah tells us that each day will have its own grace (Lam. 3.23a). Now the prophet doesn’t mean that God becomes different. What he’s saying is that our trials allow us to see fresh expressions of God’s mercy. You’ll see dimensions of his love tomorrow that you’ve never seen before in your life. You’ll screw up and need fresh opportunities for God’s grace.

But God gives us this grace day by day. This means that we can’t just ask for grace and coast for a month. We need to rely on him every day. It also means that there will come times when you feel like you’ve hit the wall and can’t make it any further. You’ll feel like your resources are exhausted. And then, like manna for the people of Israel, a new day comes along with fresh mercies. As you hear the alarm ring on Monday morning, your alarm isn’t the siren for the beginning of the Monday morning blues, but a signal for a fresh day of God’s mercies!

Where should I turn after I’ve lost so much?

Jeremiah tells us that there’s a treasure that we’ve overlooked (24). It reminds me of a time early in my married life when I was working for just over minimum wage and I could barely keep up with the bills each week. After a particularly stressful week when we’d paid for groceries on the credit card, I checked the mailbox that Sunday and found a letter that had likely been in the box for most of the week. It was my tax refund check. I’d been full of anxiety and worry all week long, but there’d been a check in the mailbox the whole time. I think we treat Jesus like this a lot too. Jesus is there to address your anxieties and worries, but yet we never bother to look for him until we’re in a bind. So God uses trials to show us that he’s all we ever need.

Let your newfound treasure renew your hope. With Jesus, you have everything; without Jesus, you have nothing. You may have lost your home or job, but no one can take Jesus away from you. Your husband may leave you, but Jesus will never leave you. Jesus is your everlasting portion when everything else is in limbo.

How am I supposed to respond?

Responses in the middle of a trial aren’t easy. I’ve heard it said that trials bring out what’s really inside of people. I’m not entirely certain of this, but I do know that trials force us to wrestle with unique situations that call for unusual responses. Often when everything falls to pieces, it’s hard to know whether your responses are right or wrong. A mix of emotion and spiritual struggle often result in actions that seem best at the time. Nothing’s simple. People that are on the outside of your trial looking in will be Monday morning quarterbacks about how you should’ve reacted to the suffering. But I like to think that God isn’t like that. Instead of standing with his arms crossed in the distance, he’s running full steam toward us, giving us every grace for every sin, every wrong response. But Jeremiah does give us some ideas on how to respond.

Responding to God

Jeremiah tells us that our response to God should be one of trust. Trust his goodness (25). He isn’t just able to bring you out of this trial whole. He wants to bring you out. Trust in his coming deliverance (26). He doesn’t work on our timetable, but this doesn’t mean that he isn’t working to deliver you. Trust in his sovereignty (27). The process and timing of our suffering has a maturing effect. God allows trials in our lives at particular times in order to prepare us for what’s next.

Responding to Others

Our response to others needs to be humble. Don’t complain about your trial (28). If you complain, you’ll just draw attention away from what God’s doing and place all the attention on yourself. Don’t be proud (29). Be willing and able to admit wrong. Show grace to those who’ve hurt you. Don’t seek revenge (30). Let God right your wrong. Let him raise up people who will advocate for you.

Finding Hope to Respond

But how on earth are we supposed to react like this? I don’t know about you, but this is a difficult calling. Frankly, I tend to be the type who’d love nothing more than to open a can of whoop-[rear] on those who’ve hurt me. But I’m enabled to respond appropriately when I recognize three truths about God. God has greater things in store for me ahead (31). I’ll lash out or walk away from God if I lose hold of this confidence. And this confidence in a future hope is driven by another truth about God. God is absolutely compassionate toward me (32). I can endure the most uncompassionate snarks from fellow-believers so long as I know that God’s compassionate arm is there to hug me when I cry, support me when I fall, and defend me when I’m attacked. This is my God. He’s so compassionate that Jeremiah says a third incredible thing about God. God doesn’t want us to suffer (33). Suffering is related to the fall, and the fall was not what God wanted for his people. He wanted so much better for us. And, guess what? God went to every length to ensure that your suffering will come to an end. One day our suffering will be glory because of this truth–God doesn’t send suffering on his people from his heart.

But what about the injustices that have been done?

Jeremiah isn’t ignorant of the real injustices that have happened. Just because God cares about our suffering doesn’t mean that he overlooks the injustices that have happened to us. To those who’ve wronged us (and to the cry for justice in our hearts) Jeremiah reminds us of 3 truths.

  1. Don’t forget that God is watching (34-35). My favorite line from the Bourne series is when in the middle of the manhunt, Jason Bourne calls the CIA agent who’s hunting him. Watching her from within the obvious easy range of his lethal abilities, he tells her: “Get some rest Pam, you look tired.” In a single instant, the agents’ entire perspective on their situation shifts because they’ve become aware that one who holds their life in his hands has them in his sights. But I, personally, would rather be in Bourne’s crosshairs than in God’s (Matt. 10.28). Take comfort or fear in the fact that those who unjustly bring trials into the life of the believer do not go unnoticed by God Almighty.
  2. Don’t forget that God is judge (35 – “Most High”). God is the one who has the prerogative to right the wrongs. Human courts of justice can be perverted. Even the God-given method of conflict resolution in the church can be turned on its head. But God is the Supreme Court of the Universe. And it’s his verdict that really counts. Your boss’ harsh review of you isn’t the final word. That boy at school who humiliated you doesn’t have the final word. Those Christians who’ve attacked you don’t have the final word. God does.
  3. Don’t forget that God angry with injustice (36). Those who have a position of influence and use it to hurt or harm don’t just flip the lever of God’s justice, they unleash the angry arm of God’s wrath. And deep down we really believe that this makes sense. If there’s a God, he needs to be ticked when the killer goes free because he’s got the right skin color. If there’s a God, he needs to look with fury on those who kill children or those who make themselves rich on the suffering of others. If there’s a God, he must be angry with those who abuse children and traffic women. The fact is that deep down we really want a just God for every abuse and sin in the world except our own.

The Gospel teaches us that God has seen us in the crosshairs of his wrath, but that he turned the anger of his justice on his own Son so that we might not only escape, but that we stand forever as righteous in the sight of the Most High God.

9 Observations on the New Year

As I consider 2014 and the transition to 2015 in light of Psalm 90 and several other relevant passages, these are 9 observations that I found worthy of considering:

  1. The God of 2015 is the same as the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, Peter, and Paul, moving all things to their created end (Psa. 90.1-2).
  2. God created 2015 (Gen. 1.14). There’s no need for doom and gloom, because God creates everything for a purpose.
  3. 2015 may be your last year. Make it count for eternity (Psa. 90.3-6, 12). Count the years and make them count!
  4. 2015 should, by nature of the fall, hold a store of evil and frustration (Psa. 90.7-11, Rom. 8.22-23 – “creation groans” – birthpangs that grow in intensity as the time of the child’s birth draws closer).
  5. 2015 will, because of God’s covenant, hold a store of grace and blessing (Psa. 90.13-17).
  6. 2015 will be for nothing if we don’t rely on God to establish our efforts (Psa. 90.17).
  7. 2015 offers us a fresh experience of God’s care (Psa. 90.14; Lam. 3.23 – in the midst of a time of great suffering and destruction, the Prophet Jeremiah rejoices in God’s mercy which is new every morning).
  8. The transition to 2015 is a picture of what God will do in the future (Isa. 65.17; 66.22; 2 Pet. 3.13; Rev. 21.1-5). He will make all things new.
  9. The transition to 2015 is a picture of what God does in the lives of those who believe in him (2 Cor. 4.16; 5.17-21). He will make YOU new.

“The object of a New Year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul and a new nose; new feet, a new backbone, new ears, and new eyes. Unless a particular man made New Year resolutions, he would make no resolutions. Unless a man starts afresh about things, he will certainly do nothing effective. Unless a man starts on the strange assumption that he has never existed before, it is quite certain that he will never exist afterwards. Unless a man be born again, he shall by no means enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.” – GK Chesterton