November 2011


I hate waiting. I especially don’t like waiting in lines. That’s why I avoid Black Friday. I don’t care how great the deals are–they aren’t worth the lines.

Perhaps you feel the same way. You might not mind lines, but you probably can’t stand some sort of waiting. Our modern culture forms us for immediacy, and so waiting is perceived as aberrant. Waiting is out of step, out of date, out of touch. Waiting is so last year.

I suppose this is why the modern church’s experimentation with Advent is so awkward. Advent is a time to celebrate waiting. During Advent we are called to remember what it meant for Israel to await the first coming of Christ, and learn from Israel how to wait for Christ’s second coming. But is waiting really something worth remembering, let alone celebrating? Is it not a condition to be avoided, a problem to be solved? We don’t really wait during Advent. We rush, we hurry, we eat, we plan. But we don’t wait. Or at least we don’t wait well.

This Advent I invite you to wait with me. This is the first in a series of four Advent posts, each of which will explore what it means to wait. I am going to try to overcome my distaste for waiting. I am going to try to identify what makes waiting good and explore how to wait well. Please join me in searching the Scriptures for guidance on what to wait for and how to wait well.

Let us begin with the story of a man who was waiting for the right thing, but who did not wait well.

The man’s name was Zechariah. He was a priest. He and his wife were very old. But they were also infertile. So they had been waiting a long, long time for a child.

At this point in the story they were both waiting well. The Scripture says they were upright in God’s sight and that they followed all of God’s commandments. They were waiting for the blessing of God, but they were not waiting to obey God. They knew that while we wait, we can still obey. The Scriptures also say that they had been praying to God, asking for a son. They knew that the best thing to do while waiting is praying. So while they waited, the obeyed God and prayed to God.

So, at the beginning of the story, Zechariah was waiting for God, and he was waiting well.

One day, while it was his group’s turn to serve in the temple, the lot fell to him to burn incense. While waiting for the incense to burn, the angel of the Lord appeared. It turns out Zechariah was waiting in the right place at the right time! The angel told Zechariah that his prayer had been heard: Elizabeth will bear a child! And not only that: he will be great, for he will bring many people back to God, preparing the way of the Lord!

But here is where Zechariah’s waiting went awry…

Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in year.”

It is clear from the text that this was not a good question. The angel strikes him mute because of it. But what’s wrong with this question? It seems a perfectly reasonable point to highlight the fact that his age is a significant obstacle to the fulfillment of this prophecy. Not to get ahead of ourselves, but Mary points out a similar obstacle (namely, her virginity) to a similar prophecy to the same angel, yet she is favored by God and blessed by all generations. What gives?

I think it helps to contrast their two questions — a contrast which the text invites with its juxtaposition of two similar stories. Both identify an obstacle to the angelic promise. But the questions differ ever so slightly. Mary asks, “How can this be?” whereas Zechariah asks, “How can I be sure of this?” Mary believes the promise; she just wonders how it will happen. Zechariah wants to believe the promise, but he asks for a sign to shore up his faith. He asks for some assurances, so that he doesn’t get his hopes up. Mary asks how God will work. Zechariah asks whether God will work.

This is our constant temptation when waiting on God. We ask for a sign. We ask God to make waiting easier by giving us assurances that we do not wait in vain. We are willing to wait, but we want the waiting to be a little easier. Now God gives signs from time to time. In fact, Gabriel offers the case of Elizabeth as a sign to Mary that nothing is impossible for God. But demanding a sign from God is a different matter. When we demand signs and assurances while we wait, we are not waiting well. We may be waiting for the right thing but we are not waiting in the right way. Zechariah waited on God, but he did not wait well.

Moralizing moment: don’t demand signs! It just makes this worse! He looses his voice and so is barred from sharing the prophetic promise with others. Zechariah is a warning to us of the consequences of not waiting well: when we try to make waiting easier, it just gets harder.

The grace in this story, however, is that Zechariah still received the promise. God did not take it away from him — for to do so would be to take something away from Israel. God had a bigger plan in place. But Zechariah was kept from sharing the prophecy with others. Unlike Mary, who signs her song before her promise is fulfilled, Zechariah has to wait to sign his song. But he still got to sing!

If you have demanded a sign, if your waiting has gotten worse not better, God still has something for you. The most important thing about waiting is for whom we wait. We wait for God, for his will and his blessing. When we wait for God, waiting is worthwhile. What makes waiting good is when its object is God. Zechariah got this most important thing right.

Of all the many things we await this Advent, be sure you are waiting for God above all else. We will explore in the next few posts how to wait well. We will see some other figures in Scripture who waited better than Zechariah. But at the very least we can join Zechariah in waiting for the right thing. When we wait for God, our waiting is worthwhile.

“The greatest of these is love…” (I Cor. 13:13)

Why do so many of us fail to love as well, or as often, as we could?  One reason is because we have developed attitudes and/or actions which inhibit our ability to love.  Like plaque that builds up in the arteries and inhibits the flow of blood through our system, “plaque” can build up in our lives and inhibit the flow of God’s love to those around us.

What are these obstacles that keep us from loving?  We can find many of them hidden in the Apostle Paul’s classic treatise on love. Here we can find both the qualities of love and the obstacles:

Love’s Ideal: “Love is patient
Love’s Obstacle — Impatience

Impatience describes a person whose own agenda is more important than anyone else’s.  He/she has little time or concern for other’s concerns. An impatient person must constantly be entertained, and quickly loses interest in people if they are not filling a need in his/her own life. The Greek word Paul uses for “patience” describes a person who has been wronged and has the power to avenge himself, but chooses not to. Impatience seeks revenge. Patience does not.

Rate yourself on the scales following each of love’s obstacles:

“Most of the time, I am…”

Impatient |———-|———-|———-|———-|———-|———-|Patient

Love’s Ideal: “Love is kind
Love’s Obstacle — Unkindness

Some people think kindness is synonymous with weakness. Therefore, these people reason, strength and power cannot be obtained through kindness. Those who constantly see themselves in competition with others tend to be unkind. A latent sense of inferiority is another cause for unkindness.  In contrast, love is the readiness to enhance the life of another person.

“Most of the time, I am…”

Unkind |———-|———-|———-|———-|———-|———-|Kind

Love’s Ideal: “Love is trusting
Love’s Obstacle — Jealousy

Love naturally means concern. As love grows, concern for the person also grows. But often, without one realizing it, this concern can become possessive. Jealousy is normal concern that has grown out of control, just as a cancer cell is only a normal cell grown out of control. Jealousy requires total possession—it must have exclusive rights to another person. This emotion has the power to overwhelm and destroy the most seemingly sound and secure relationship, and the most rational person.

“Most of the time, I am…”

Jealous |———-|———-|———-|———-|———-|———-|Trusting

Love’s Ideal: “Love is humble
Love’s Obstacle — Arrogance

Various Bible translations use different words for this love-obstacle: “boastful,” “rudeness,” “proud,” “anxious to impress,” “braggart,” “cherishes the idea of its own importance.” Arrogant people give their “love” away as though it were a tremendous favor. Their real purpose, however, is to put others down while trying to lift themselves up.

“Most of the time, I am…”

Arrogant |———-|———-|———-|———-|———-|———-|Humble

Love’s Ideal: “Love is generous
Love’s Obstacle — Selfishness

If there is one quality that creates an insurmountable barrier to love, it is selfishness. Actions motivated by selfishness are exactly the opposite to actions motivated by love. Christ knew about the problem of selfishness when he said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to into the ground and dies, it remains only a single-seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (John 12:24). Selfishness seeks its own way, and in the process loses it. Love seeks the way of others, and in the process finds its own.

“Most of the time, I am…”

Selfish |———-|———-|———-|———-|———-|———-|Generous

Love’s Ideal: “Love is slow to anger
Love’s Obstacle — Irritability/touchiness

Christ had strong words for those who are quick to anger: “But now I tell you: whoever is angry with his brother will be brought before the judge; whoever calls his brother ‘you good-for-nothing’ will be brought before the Council; and whoever calls his brother a worthless fool will be in danger of going to the fire of hell” (Mt. 5:22). “Wherefore, my beloved brethren,” said James, “let everyman be swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger” (Ja. 1:19).

“Most of the time, I am…”

Irritable/touchy |———-|———-|———-|———-|———-|———-|Slow to anger

Love’s Ideal: “Love is forgiving
Love’s Obstacle — Resentfulness

Resentfulness is the accumulation of irritations suffered in the past, recalled in the present. The word Paul used for resentfulness was an accountant’s word for entering an item in a ledger so it would not be forgotten. This is exactly what many people do…and it is a great obstacle to love. “I’ll forgive, but I’ll never forget” mocks the true meaning of forgiveness. Resentfulness looks to the past rather than the future. Love releases memory’s grip on a wrong suffered or a hurt inflicted.

“Most of the time, I am…”

Resentful |———-|———-|———-|———-|———-|———-|Forgiving

Love’s Ideal: “Love hates evil
Love’s Obstacle — Loving evil

What did Paul mean when he said, “love hates evil”? Lewis Smedes (Love Within Limits) says that loving evil is not so much finding pleasure in doing wrong, as it is the spiteful satisfaction in hearing or saying something derogatory about another. Surprisingly, people who work the hardest at their high moral standards often love evil the most! As they struggle to live a life of abstinence from worldly things, they condemn those who do not. They gloat at the stumbling of those who “compromise with the world,” and look forward to the judgment when these hypocrites will get their dues. Their message of the Gospel begins with condemnation. It centers on judgment. It ends in separation. Love seems nowhere to be found.

“Most of the time, I…”

Love evil |———-|———-|———-|———-|———-|———-|Hate evil

Love’s Ideal: “Love is always there
Love’s Obstacle — Inconsistency

False love has limits on its endurance. It doesn’t last when things get tough. Inconsistency is like a faulty bond of a poorly made dam that begins to lose strength at its weakest point. A few drops of water begin to seep through the crack. The inconsistency grows to a stream, and then a torrent, and soon the entire dam gives way. Real love never fails. It is like the strong dam standing against the tremendous pressure of the water behind it. Love will bear any insult, any injury and disappointment…and still stand strong.

“Most of the time, I am…”

Inconsistent |———-|———-|———-|———-|———-|———-|Consistent

When we identify our personal obstacles to love, we have taken a giant step toward dealing with them and becoming the loving person God wants us to be. “Go after a life of love as if your life depended on it—because it does.” (I Cor. 14:1 Message)

I began pastoring a local church as a senior in college at the age of 23. For the next 15 years I served consecutively as a solo pastor, youth pastor, assistant pastor, and lead pastor in a variety of contexts before joining the faculty of Wesley Seminary last year. As I reflect upon my years of pastoral ministry, it seems there are a few God-initiated, ministry-enhancing shifts I stumbled upon along the way. My perspective on pastoral ministry changed significantly since I was a 23 year old “wet behind the ears” pastor in that rural and loving congregation who gathered in a fly-infested, mildew-scented sanctuary. The following shifts fostered the kind of faithfulness that facilitated fruitfulness (alliteration almost always appears arrogantJ):

Methodology to Spirituality: The best way for parents to produce healthy kids is to cultivate a healthy marriage. The same principle applies to the pastor; the best way to produce healthy Christians is for pastoral leaders to cultivate a healthy, intimate relationship with God. Most pastors will respond to this with, “thanks Einstein!” However, many pastors seem more enamored with the work of the Lord than the Lord of the work. We can easily become more infatuated with ministry methodology than authentic spirituality. The people who have had the most positive and profound impact upon my development in Christ were not methodological storm-chasers, but spiritual God-chasers. Don’t get me wrong, we must explore and incorporate best ministry practices and methods into the life of the churches we lead. However, method-rich but Spirit-poor leaders don’t seem to build churches that build God’s kingdom. At some point I began reading more books to enhance my soul than I was reading to increase my effectiveness. Oddly enough, this made me more effective. Go figure!

Programmer to Architect: I used to focus entirely on programming the church. “Get the right programs for children, youth, and adults and you get the right church,” I assumed. The pastor is the programmer who picks from a menu of programming options that are working in other churches and incorporates them into his or her particular church. A good program may provide an immediate boost but rarely any lasting change. A decade into ministry I came to the conclusion that lasting change comes not from programming the church but architecting the culture of the church. I shifted from a focus on finding programs to facilitating a culture that aligns with the values of Christ. Once the church discerned and developed a Christ-aligned culture, which for us entailed significant ministry to the poor and addicted, we sought programs that reinforced that kind of culture. Pastors are called first to architect the culture before they program the church, or we end up putting the cart before the horse.

Church to Community: I used to think that God called me to pastor the people who attended the church. Most of my time, therefore, was spent on the church campus developing campus-based ministries that would bring people to our campus. Then, the incarnation of Christ began to “get under my skin” a bit. God didn’t sit back and wait for us to come to him. Instead, he came to us as one of us. He came to our campus, onto our turf. INCARNATION! I also began to dig into Wesleyan Christianity and discovered John Wesley left the “campus” of the Anglican Church to go onto the turf of the poor, drunk masses of England. He insisted “the world is my parish” and “there is no holiness but social holiness.” It suddenly clicked for me. So, the amount of time I spent outside of the church increased. I began meeting with community leaders on their turf to explore ways to “do good” together. We participated in community service projects. Our budget began to reflect care, not just for our campus, but for our community as we invested more money in feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and helping the addicted. In time, some of our most persistent evangelists were unchurched people in the community who said “go to that church, they care about people, they will help you.”

Powerful to Empowering: For some reason I assumed that if anything good happened in the church I led, it would be because of my insight, giftedness, or power. Although I quoted Ephesians 4:12-13 annoyingly, usually arm-twisting people to serve in ministries I decided should be important to them, I wasn’t empowering “the saints” to do what God was calling and equipping them to do; I wasn’t giving them a “voice.” About a decade into ministry I became captivated by the concept of Trinitarian ministry, pastoral ministry that flows out of the implications of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. What does it look like for me as a pastor to relate to my people like the Father who honors and elevates the Son, and the Son who submits to the Father, and the Spirit who reminds us of the Son? My role as a pastor is to elevate, honor, and submit to the members of my team. I got the impression that the church is at its best when all the people of God are empowered to do what God has designed and called us to do. And, it made my job a lot less stressful.

Which shifts have you already made? Which shifts do you need to make to more faithfully and fruitfully serve the purposes of God as pastor?

Why Believe?

My time as a student at Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University has pushed me to grow in both the foundations as well as the practice of faith and ministry.  The constant and hard work of integrating scripture, theology and church history with the demands of ministry requires rigorous thought and application.  Instead of having specific courses in particular areas, the seminary combines all three of these with a specific area of ministry (worship, preaching, congregational spiritual formation, etc).

For example, the “Missional Church” course forced me as a student to grapple with how we reach a world in need of Jesus.

As a Christian, I am constantly concerned with this question: By what authority do I believe the Gospel?  As a pastor, I am constantly concerned with this question: By what authority should an unbeliever believe the Gospel?

This course helped me develop this methodology to show by what authority people seem to come to faith and grow in faith[1].

The Rule of Faith

Ultimately, one must either have faith or not.  Either I believe in Jesus or I don’t.  If I don’t have faith, none of these models matter.  If I do have faith, these models simply inform my faith without diminishing the “who” of my faith (Jesus).   Whenever our faith rests on the model itself, we have missed Jesus and must repent of our idolatry.  In short, my faith must rest in Jesus.  Although I may appeal to scripture, the church, tradition, reasons, or experiences, these in themselves are not my faith.

Apply it

Why is this so important to me?  Why does this matter to my – or your – ministry?

As a minister of the Gospel, I must relinquish my desire to force people into Christianity, no matter how sophisticated my methodology may be (whether model 1, model 3 or model 6).  If faith is developed only through the power of the Spirit, then my goal is to point to Jesus and to point to the work of the Spirit.  As a witness, as I point to Jesus, I may use scripture, reason, theology, or the local church.  But these things, as well as myself, must give way.  Once I have witnessed, I must get out of the way and let the Spirit do His work.

Pastors are constantly guided by the Spirit to discern where a person, a church, or a community is at in its faith journey (pre- or post-salvation) and based on this, must decide how to properly minister.  For example, The Missional Church course taught me to think about which model my local church could adopt in its evangelistic efforts in order to meet the specific needs of our context.

So what about you? 

Do you find yourself ministering in primarily one model?  Can you see how ministering in different models could help you have a more effective evangelism ministry?  Would you add a model?  Would you subtract a model?  Are some models more important in your tradition? How can you minister differently to help people come to faith and continue to grow in Christian faith?



[1] Note: These models are listed in no particular order.   Various Christian traditions will place these models in different orders of importance.  Some will emphasize some models while others will even reject some models as illegitimate.  You may discover you want to add or subtract from this list.  This is simply my attempt to make sense of how faith actually seems to take place.  For example, a person miraculously healed may believe because of a miracle.  We know Jesus says that a wicked generation desires a sign but the reality is that signs still bring people to faith.  This tries to address models of authority that bring people to faith and how they may be used for evangelistic purposes as well as how we should guard against the dangers of each model.

-Joel