Thursday, April 30, 2009

When Death Teaches Us About Life

I had the blessed privilege to be awakened in the middle of the night a few days ago.  One of the members of my congregation had just passed away and the new widow was calling to inform me.
I quickly responded by asking her if I could come be with her at her house.  She said, “No, but I’m going to the care facility right now to see him and you can meet me there if you’d like.”  I told her I’d be right there.

By God’s design, we arrived at the care facility at the same time (12:20 AM) and made our way to a dimly lit side-door.  I had never been to that facility before and I didn’t know where the front door was.  I knocked at the side-door a few times until finally someone opened it.  The worker greeted us saying, “People usually come through the front door.”  I’m glad I’m not quick-witted because this would have been a prime opportunity to display my finest work!
I’ve been to many care facilities . . . but not at 12:20 AM.  The place was dark.  The halls were dimly lit.  There were interesting aromas.  There were interesting noises.  We eventually made our way to the room where the drapes were drawn around the middle bed of three beds and a small bed light was glowing through the curtains.

As we ventured toward the break in the drapes, she drew back the drape and saw her husband.  He looked quite peaceful.  She slowly moved to his side.  She reached out her hand and began gently to rub her finger against his face which had a little bit of stubble.  She lovingly and thoughtfully moved her finger back and forth.  She then reached down and touched his hand.

It was one of the most loving scenes I’ve ever witnessed- a wife of fifty-some years gently stroking the face of her departed beloved.  There weren’t any tears or sobs . . . just loving glances and touches.

I watched with deep admiration . . . I admired her courage and I was captivated.  My mind kept pondering what must be going through her mind.  I’ll never know.  All I do know is what I learned that amazing night . . . four life-changing lessons.

First, I perceived a sense of fulfillment permeating the drape-enclosed space.  The fulfillment came from staying true to the vows “till death do us part.”  I sensed God’s pleasure that the marriage covenant was honored and I believe He extended a special grace to the surviving spouse.  It was truly special to behold.

Second, I’ve noticed a special grace that author Max Lucado calls “living grace and dying grace.”  In John 14, Jesus promises His peace to His followers and I’ve witnesses this peace time after time with the surviving spouse.  Yes, there is grief, but there is also an underlying peace and grace that can only come from the Lord.

I’ve also witnessed dying grace.  This is the grace where God gives His dying saint a sense that the end is near and everything is going to be fine.  I don’t see any fear or panic.  It is an undergirding by the hand of the Lord that carries the dying saint during his/her last days until He carries him/her Home.
Third, I’ve witnesses the power of Jesus’ words, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die.”  I usually quote this verse as I’m sitting with the spouse next to his/her departed.  These words are powerful and real.  They have the eternal power to turn the most helpless moment into the most powerful realization that this loved one is alive!

Fourth and finally, I’ve witnessed how death teaches me about life.  Sitting next to the body of a departed church member brings clarity.  The clarity is this . . . as Christians we are not to fear death or run from it.  We are to embrace it.  As the Apostle Paul says, “To live is Christ and to die is gain!”  It’s only when I embrace my death and the victory it will bring that I truly begin to live!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Debunking the Myth: Once Saved, Always Saved

There seems to be a great misunderstanding in the Christian community about the phrase, “once saved, always saved.”
The phrase refers to the belief that once a person “receives” salvation, he cannot lose it.  This belief is based upon one of two assumptions.  The first is echoed in Jesus’ words in John 10:27-29.  “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand.  My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.”

The second assumption people use to support “once saved, always saved” is a distortion of Calvinism.  Calvinism, of course, holds the view that true Christians are unconditionally elected unto salvation by God.  Therefore, they conclude that since salvation is entirely based upon God’s choice, if one is chosen, one cannot become “un-chosen.”  Thus, once he was saved, he will always be saved.

The idea of “once saved, always saved” seems to be particularly attractive to those with family or loved ones who have strayed from the Lord.  I often hear people saying, “We’re so thankful that Billy prayed to receive the Lord when he was twelve, so we know he’s saved!”  What they really mean is, “We know Billy is living like the devil, but we’re counting on that prayer to get him into heaven.”

Jesus makes some clear descriptions about the sheep that won’t be snatched out of His hand.  First, they “hear” His voice.  I don’t have time to quote all the Scriptures that relate “hearing” with obedience, but it’s unquestionably what Jesus means.  So, the sheep that don’t have any fear of being snatched from the Shepherd’s hand are obedient sheep.  The second description is that they “follow” Him.  “Follow” is a present tense verb in the Greek which denotes a continuous process of following Jesus.  He isn’t referring to sheep who constantly wonder away.

Yet, most of the time I hear “once saved, always saved,” it is in reference to a person who has wondered away from the Lord.  Thus, I don’t think we can quote a passage like this for comfort.  In fact, it teaches the opposite . . . it teaches that if anyone is not “hearing” and “following,” he better watch out!  The safety is only for those who are “hearing” and “following.”

Now, in regard to Calvinism, I believe “once saved, always saved” is a distortion of the doctrine.  Yes, Calvinism clearly teaches that individuals are unconditionally elected unto salvation.  Yes, it is appropriate to then extract the truth that if one is unconditionally elected, then one cannot un-elect oneself.  However, the final point of Calvinism’s five points is the “perseverance of the saints.”  This means that those whom have been chosen for salvation by God will continue in their faith and fruitful work until called Home.  Nowhere does Calvinism teach that once one is saved, one can coast the rest of life and live in any manner.  In fact, Peter exhorts us in 2 Peter 2:10 to “be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure.”

Yet, here’s the sticky point . . . since Calvinism teaches that true saints will persevere in the faith until the end, the true test as to whether one is truly saved is if he/she perseveres until the end.  This side of the finish line, there is no way for me to know for sure whether I’ve been truly elected by God.  I can’t live 80 years as a saint and then live my final five years living like the devil.  It is only when I’ve completed my course of faith that I know I have been chosen.

So be careful with the phrase “once saved, always saved.”  The phrase is true if it is understood correctly.  However, it can be fatal if it offers false hope to one who has drifted from the Lord and remains unrepentant!   

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

I Make Plans...God Laughs

I saw a license plate holder with the message, “I make plans . . . God laughs.” 

The first thing that struck me about this license plate holder was that it was on a BMW 5 Series (which I truly admire.  If you have the means, I highly recommend one- I certainly don’t have the means).  The second thing that struck me is the apparent contradiction of images.  On the one hand, this beautiful new BMW 5 Series carried an aura of “I’ve made it . . . and the evidence that I’ve made it is the fact that I’m driving this beautiful new BMW.”  Yet, on the other hand, this person had not only the humility but also the desire to let the world know about a paramount truth in his/her life . . . “It doesn’t matter what I plan, God has the final say.”

If I had a life theme, I think this truly sums it up: I make plans . . . God laughs.  I’m starting to get the idea that God is laughing a lot about my plans because He seems to change every one.

This past year I was sure God was leading me to become a chaplain in the Navy.  The process is long and arduous but I persevered through all the hoops.  The final step was being flown out to Washington D.C. to the Naval Headquarters for a final interview with a panel of high-ranking Navy officers.  I must have done alright in the interview because I was selected to the Chaplain Corps.

Here’s where God started to laugh.  As soon as I was selected, I began to feel a sense of uneasiness about going ahead with my plans.  I then received my first assignment: Okinawa!  I should have been thrilled with these orders, but I began to feel the opposite emotion.  At one point, when I was in my Navy recruiter’s office signing the paperwork to join, I had to stop the process because I was beginning to feel severe apprehension.  The Navy set a final date for me to make a decision.  My wife and I prayed up to the last minute of the deadline and I eventually declined my commission because I didn’t feel God’s peace.  I made plans . . . God laughed!”

If you are reading this blog, you’ll notice I pastor a church in Southern California.  This leads to another example of my life theme.  Before I came to California, my wife and I were sure God was calling me to a church in the small Kansas town of Leoti.  Leoti is a town of about 2000 people in Southwest Kansas.  The people there are either farmers or ranchers and have a real zest for life.  I had been interviewing with this church for awhile and we were making plans for me to come out to the church to preach a sermon in order for the congregation to vote on whether they wanted to call me as their pastor.

As the time got closer to deciding a date, I started to feel apprehensive about this decision.  There were some external factors that were a problem (i.e. our house in Denver had been on the market eight months without a nibble), but I couldn’t pinpoint any single issue for being the cause of my apprehension.  The more I prayed, the more apprehensive I got.  The apprehension eventually grew to the point that I knew I had to stop the process.  It was an extremely difficult phone call to make because I had grown to enjoy the people and looked forward to being their pastor.  Once again, I made plans and God laughed.

Over the course of the next couple of months, no other ministry positions opened up.  Then, at a friend’s wedding, I was sitting next to a gentleman from my denomination who asked what I was up to.  He then asked if I would consider pastoring a church in a smaller town in Southern California that consisted of all senior citizens.  “And, oh ya, part of the church was a converted chicken coup” he said.  Let me say that I didn’t exactly spring out of my chair with excitement.  However, since I was seeking to get back into ministry, I decided to pray about the position.

The wheels started turning quickly with this position and the church was excited to talk to me and I was excited to talk with them.  The first phone call from the church came from one of their elders who started the conversation with, “So you want to come to Southern California . . .”  I felt like responding, “No, I’m not looking to come to Southern California but it’s the only option I have at the moment.”  I decided against saying that.

The wheels kept turning quickly right up to the point they were ready to talk about the terms of my call to the church if I was selected by the congregation.  This is where the wheels fell off . . . all they could afford is $24,000 a year!  Boy, was I in a pickle . . . do I take the job for $24,000 or do I hope that another ministry job comes along?  My wife and I went to the Lord.  The more we prayed, the more we began to feel a strong call to this little church even if the money was barely above the poverty mark.  Once again, I made plans and God laughed.

Thinking back to my college days, I was sure that I would meet my wife in college.  My plan was to meet her during college, graduate, work a couple of years and then get married.  God laughed!  I didn’t meet her during college and it was a good thing I didn’t meet her during college because I would never have considered her . . . because she was twelve years old when I graduated!  Once again, I made plans and God laughed.

However, as I look at the situation with the Navy, the church, and my wife, I can now see that every time I made plans and God laughed, it wasn’t a cynical laugh from God.  No, it was a wonderful chuckle from a loving Father saying, “Son, I know you think you know where you are going, but I have something else in mind for you . . . and what I have in mind is far better than anything you planned.”

So, thank you Father, for laughing at my plans.  Thank you for closing the door to the Navy.  I’m far better suited here where you’ve placed me.  Thank you for leading me to this church that once had part of it as a chicken coup.  These are the most wonderful people and have been an absolute joy.  Thank you for laughing at my plan to meet my wife in college and get married shortly thereafter.  Your plan brought the most wonderful woman I could ever have imagined.

So when you make plans and God laughs, praise Him!  For His plan is far better than yours would ever have been.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Yes, I'm a Calvinist

Calvinism is a theological system that seems to be growing more and more out of favor with the Christian populace. 
“Calvinism” is the theological view that stresses God’s sovereignty above human will.  This is the foundation of Reformed theology.  The term “Calvinism” came to us as a way to express the theology held by the Reformed theologians, most notably John Calvin.  The basis of Calvinism has been summed up in the acronym of T-U-L-I-P.  Each letter of the word “tulip” stands for a major point in Calvinism.  Other terms associated with Calvinism are “election” (God chose you, you didn’t choose Him) and “predestination” (your destiny was pre-ordained), in most cases, are synonymous with Calvinism.

In the “tulip” acronym, “T” stands for total depravity (the belief that every part of humanity has been tainted by sin).  “U” stands for unconditional election (the belief that God makes the first move in the salvation process thereby showing that His choice is not based upon any condition by the one whom He chooses for salvation).  “L” stands for limited atonement (the belief that since God has chosen only some for salvation, the efficacy of Christ’s work on the Cross was not for all, but only for the chosen).  “I” stands for irresistible grace (the belief that God’s pursuit with His grace toward one whom is chosen wins every time).  “P” stands for the perseverance of the saints (the belief that those chosen for salvation do not rest on their election but continue in works of faith and righteousness until they are called to their heavenly rest).

Since my desire is not to write a dissertation but merely discuss Calvinism’s most controversial point- election- let me begin by quoting a verse (I chose this verse at random among dozens of verses that speak about election).   2 Thessalonians 2:13 says  “But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through the sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth.”  In this chapter, Paul is contrasting those who will be deceived by the works of the anti-Christ with those who will remain faithful to the Lord.  Notice the key wording “God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation.”  The Calvinist says this verse (and dozens like it) makes it perfectly clear . . . God makes the choice.  Calvinism boils down to this basic truth . . . it is God who chooses.

Those against Calvinism say verses such as this are easily explained by Romans 8:29 that says “For those whom (God) foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son.”  So, they say, “Sure, they were predestined for salvation because God foreknew they would accept Him.  God merely looked into the future and saw all who would accept Him and thereby chose them.”  A Calvinist would then reply, “But the meaning of the word “foreknew” really means that God knew beforehand those whom He would choose.  It doesn’t refer to God looking into the future and seeing those who would choose Him.”

Let me take the side of believing the word “foreknew” to mean that God looked into the future and saw all that would come to Him and, thereby, He predestined those individuals.  The benefit of this belief is that I don’t have to wrestle with why God didn’t choose someone because, according to this belief, each person is to blame if he doesn’t choose the Savior.  However, isn’t there something still a little upsetting about this belief that says Jimmy and Joe were predestined before time because God knew they would accept His Son but Sammy and Sue were not predestined because God knew their actions as well?  By the time Jimmy, Joe, Sammy or Sue is born, his/her eternal fate is already sealed.  How is this belief much more attractive than traditional Calvinism?  The only way this belief gives any hope about an individual being able to choose Christ while actually living is to say that God missed some folks in His “foreknowledge.”  Otherwise, they would have already been predestined!   

So let’s go back to the biggest critique of Calvinism . . . “You mean that God chose some to go to heaven but didn’t choose others and those who aren’t chosen go to hell?  How could a loving God do such a thing?”  Let me be the first to say that this thought should never be easy for us to understand.  Even the Apostle Paul told his audience in Rome that he wished he could be accursed and cut off from Christ if it would mean the salvation of his fellow Jews who didn’t believe (Rom. 9:3).  But even though it is tough to understand, it doesn’t make it less true.

I’ve noticed that most people who disagree with Calvinisn don’t have any trouble believing that the Jews were the chosen people of God throughout the Old Testament.  The person whose face gets beat red debating against Calvinism has no trouble accepting the chosen lot of the Jews.

So here’s my question . . . why is accepting New Testament election so much harder than accepting Old Testament election?  What’s the difference?  The Old Testament is filled with examples of election.  Every prophet was chosen by God.  The LORD told Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I have appointed you a prophet to the nations.”  Or how about Moses or Abraham or David . . . all elected by God.  Yet, the greatest evidence of election/predestination in the Old Testament is the Jewish people themselves.

The Jewish people began through the blood line of one man, Abraham, and became a people among hundreds if not thousands of other people groups.  Yet, to whom did God give His covenants?  It was to Abraham and his descendants.  But was it to all of Abraham’s descendents?  No, God’s covenants did not apply to Abraham’s descendents through Ishmael, but only those through Isaac.  So, of all the millions of people, it was only the Jews who were given the covenants. Is this not election?  Can’t a person use the same objection that is leveled against Calvinism . . . “You mean God chose the Jews but didn’t choose the Egyptians, Hittites, Jebusites, or any other people groups on the face of the earth?  What about the poor Edomite, Moabite, Philistine or Ammonite, didn’t they have a chance?”  The answer is . . . No!  (Of course, there were some God-fearers from other nationalities, but the number is so small that there was no realistic chance of any of these other people groups ever having access to God’s covenants).

So whether we are looking at God’s choice of the Jewish people or God’s choice of individuals for His Church, it’s all by God’s choice.  And this is the foundation of Calvinism.

So what’s the benefit of Calvinism?  It’s certainly not to provide fodder for heated debates among saints.  If you don’t agree with Calvinism, that is OK with me.  There are plenty of Scriptures that speak to the responsibility of the individual in the salvation process.  And if I’m being completely transparent, I’m probably 51% Calvinist and 49% other.

Perhaps the greatest amazement of Calvinism is the thought that not only does the God of the universe know me, He also chose me to be in His family before the beginning of time through the work of His Son.  Meditate on that for a bit and it should begin to blow your mind.  It is my belief that prior to Christ’s departure from heaven to earth to become the incarnate Perfect Sacrifice, Jesus had you in mind as motivation for going ahead with it.  (There’s no question in my mind that those whom “God foreknew” means that the Father knew your name personally).  As David said, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.”

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Meaning of Good Friday in Two Words: Propitiation & Redemption

Speaking parenthetically, let me begin by saying that I am growing more uncomfortable with the word “Easter.”

I used to think that people who objected to the name “Easter” were merely being alarmists.  I don’t feel that way anymore.  I don’t have the desire to give a full history of the term Easter, but it seems more and more clear that its origins come from the pagan goddess Ishtar (which is usually translated “Easter”) who gave birth to a promised child Tammuz.  It appears that early Christians borrowed the term from this pagan festival that occurred at the same time of year as the Passover and Resurrection Day.  So from now on, I am challenging myself to speak only of Resurrection Day rather than “Easter.”

The key to understanding Good Friday is to understand the concepts of propitiation and redemption.  These two spiritual concepts are essentials to understanding the complexity of the Father’s wondrous salvation process.  Until we appreciate both concepts, Good Friday and its significance in the salvation process are nothing but a veiled shadow.

Propitiation is a word that many modern bibles have wiped out.  The apparent reason is that modern thinkers don’t like the concept of an angry God who exacts wrath upon sinners.  The word propitiation means the removal of wrath by the offering of a sacrifice.  In a world of political correctness, the concept of a wrathful God is not palatable to many.  The masses today want a grandfather-like God who winks at sin and says, “That’s just boys and girls being boys and girls.”

The Hebrew word kipper (atonement) underscores the understanding of God’s wrath toward sin.  Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) was the most holy day of the year when, according to Leviticus 16, the Priest would take two goats and then cast lots to see which would become the scapegoat and which would become the sacrifice.  One of the goats was then chosen as the sacrifice and it was slaughtered.  Leviticus 16:15 makes clear that the slaughter was for the peoples’ sins.  After the first goat was slaughtered, the Priest would then place both hands on the head of the other goat, confess over it all the sins of the people of Israel and all their transgressions, and then send the goat into the wilderness.

Both goats became a propitiation for the wrath of God against the sins of Israel.  I’m sure most animal lovers would say the first goat was the greater propitiation!  The first goat symbolized that the ultimate consequence of sin before God is death and the scapegoat symbolized that sin causes an eternal separation from God.  Why would God demand such an annual ritual?

I believe the answer lies in the fact that if I ever witnessed this in person, being an animal lover, I don’t think I’d ever look upon my sin or its consequences in the same way.  I’d be confronted with two realities.  The first is the sheer horror that my sin demands such a wrathful response from God.  We live in a world of denial that negates the vileness of sin in the eyes of a Holy God.  The second reality would be the utter amazement that an innocent animal took God’s wrath for me.  So by annually practicing this ceremony during Yom Kippur, the people were given a graphic reminder of God’s zero tolerance policy toward sin.

Now to the New Testament mind, hopefully it is obvious that Jesus is our sacrifice for atonement- our propitiation.  Romans 3:25 says, “God presented him as a propitiation, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished.”  Notice the reason for our Lord being a propitiation . . . “He did this to demonstrate his justice.”  A just God must render His justice against sin.

I believe Jesus is also the New Testament fulfillment of the scapegoat.  Just as the scapegoat was banished into the wilderness by the Priest, so too Jesus was banished from the presence of His Father while hanging on the Cross.  When Jesus uttered those heart-wrenching words, “My God, My God, why has Thou forsaken me,” He was experiencing the brunt of the Father’s banishment.  One question that I’m curious to ask our Lord is, “What caused you the most agony: the hanging on the Cross or being banished from your Father’s presence?”  I’m quite certain He will say it was the latter.
While propitiation exposes us to God’s wrath against sin, redemption exposes the lengths to which God reaches out to us who have gone astray.  Redemption is defined by Easton’s Bible Dictionary as the purchase back of something that had been lost, by the payment of a ransom.[1] There is a key difference between redemption and any normal purchase.  When one purchases something, one is normally buying something that one does not already own.  Here’s a silly analogy.  Suppose you bought a pair of shoes at Macy’s and then some time later visited the store again.  At some point a clerk from the store looked at you and said you need to pay for those shoes again if you want to keep them.  You would reply, “I paid for these two weeks ago.”  The clerk would then respond, “Maybe so, but if you want to walk out of this store with those shoes, you must pay for them again!”  If you decided to pay for those shoes again, you have just ransomed your shoes.  Thus, we must understand the concept of ransom before we fully comprehend redemption
When we look at redemption through theological terms it becomes astounding what God the Father has done for us through Jesus His Son. The first reality: we first belonged to God.  As created beings, we belong to our Creator.  However, our sin drove us away from God and we were delivered to the domain of darkness as Colossians calls it.  When we were transferred into the domain of darkness, we still weren’t autonomous beings.  We were under the authority of the evil one. 
The second reality: God purchased us back.  Colossians 1:13-14 says, “For He (the Father) rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”  Imagine this . . . even though I once belonged to God and walked away from Him through my sin, God reached out to me again to purchase me back.  This truth is vividly displayed in the Old Testament by the prophet Hosea being instructed by God to go buy back his wife Gomer who had left him and gone into prostitution.
The third reality: what was the price that was ransomed for us?  Of course the answer is Jesus’ blood was the ransom price.  But let’s make this hit home . . . what is the price you would take in exchange of your son or daughter being sacrificed?  It’s pretty clear that most parents would not have any amount that they would say, “OK, if you pay me x, then you can sacrifice my child.”  Thus, the child’s blood is priceless.  Therefore, how much more priceless does this make the blood of the Son of God?  It’s countless!
So as we come to Good Friday, let us reflect on two concepts of God’s overwhelming love toward us and the Son’s inconceivable obedience.  Jesus is our propitiation.  He is the One upon whom God spent His wrath for my sin- the innocent Son of God brutalized and killed for my transgressions.  The image of Jesus being brutalized by the soldiers and ultimately crucified should cause me to “tremble, tremble, tremble” as the beloved hymn says.  It’s only when we tremble that we can be sure we understand propitiation.  If we don’t tremble, I’m not sure we understand propitiation.
Jesus is also our redemption.  Even though we had deserted God, He courted us back to Him through the Gospel and paid the amazing price to ransom us- the blood of His Son.  Today in the news there is a story of an American ship captain who was taken hostage by Somalian pirates.  These Somalian pirates are demanding a ransom for the life of the captain.  In our case, God bought us back again with the highest price in the universe- the blood of Jesus.
As I began, I said that it’s only in understanding propitiation and redemption that we have a clearer picture of Good Friday and its role in salvation.  It’s one thing to know that Jesus died on the cross for my sin . . . but it’s a deeper understanding when we grasp the depth of propitiation and redemption.

[1]Easton, M.G.: Easton's Bible Dictionary. Oak Harbor, WA : Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1996, c1897

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

"You mean I'm not the next Billy Graham?"

As I look back at my seminary days and my conversations with my fellow classmates, I’m sure that each one of us had the quiet expectation that God had a big ministry in store for us after graduation.  After all, why would God have called me to seminary if there wasn’t a grand-scale ministry down the road?  If I’m being completely honest (don’t think worse of me for this), I believe there were actually a few moments that I dreamed about being the next Billy Graham. 
Before I tell you whether or not I actually became the next Billy Graham, there were pivotal moments in my church experiences that groomed my expectations for future ministry.  Many times we base our future assumptions off of past realities.  My church experiences only fueled the fires of expecting God to do something BIG.

When I was a toddler living in Denver, my family drove way out west to Bear Creek Presbyterian Church every Sunday.  I didn’t care for the 45 minute drive each way but my parents never asked my opinion.  The attraction at Bear Creek was John Coad.  Here was a man who was an ex-Marine and was the nearest thing to the Apostle Peter since Peter himself.  John was a passionate preacher of God’s Word, much like Peter must have been, but also had the interpersonal skills of Peter as well.  My favorite story was when he strongly disagreed with an elder at a Session meeting and challenged the elder to step out to the parking lot!  Sure, he had a few flaws but that man could PREACH!!  The result of his preaching was that Bear Creek grew from a church of a few hundred to a church of a few thousand.

Some years later during my sophomore year of high school, my dad took our family to the first service of a start-up church.  The name of the church was Cherry Hills Community Church.  When Dr. Jim Dixon took the pulpit that first Sunday, I thought, “Here’s a tall, skinny guy who actually holds my attention during the sermon.”  As the months passed, a phenomenon started to occur: my high school friends were actually attending church and loving it.  Then another phenomenon occurred: a dad of one of my friends started attending church who hadn’t darkened the doors of a church in years . . . nor would he have ever desired it.  Within a few months, this dad was an usher.  I’m not sure he missed a single Sunday for years.  By the way, the church grew from hundreds of attendees to thousands of attendees because they were all seeing what I saw that first Sunday: this tall man can PREACH!

Some years later, my brother began attending a church-plant from Faith Presbyterian Church called Faith-Cherry Creek Presbyterian Church.  The name was eventually shortened to Cherry Creek Presbyterian Church.  The church was pastored by a short guy named Mark Brewer.  My brother told my family about the church so we visited a few times.  The first time I heard Mark preach I thought, “Here’s a guy who has an amazing ability to make me feel the Bible story in a way I hadn’t experienced before.  Yet, right when I was completely enthralled with the story, he broke my line of concentration with the funniest one-liner I had ever heard.”  By the way, this church grew from a church of hundreds to a church of thousands because this man could PREACH!

Some years later, after I had graduated from seminary, I received a call to be the Senior Pastor of Valley Community Church in San Jacinto, California.  (The title is somewhat of a misnomer because I’m a solo pastor).  As I anticipated my first year of ministry, I called upon my experience to be my guide.  I would simply do what I had been mentored to do by John Coad, Jim Dixon and Mark Brewer.  All I had to do is PREACH and the crowds would start rolling in.

The first few years the attendance rose impressively from a statistical standpoint- attendance was up 48%.  But the real numbers told the real story . . . we had gone from an average Sunday attendance of 64 to an average of 95.  The truth was brutally apparent to me: I was no John Coad, Jim Dixon, or Mark Brewer.  The harder I tried to be like them the more desperate and miserable I became.

I realized that I was lying to myself back in seminary.  God didn’t have a grand ministry in store for me.  The fact that I was one of the finalists for the Seminary Preaching Award was no indicator that I would possess the abilities of a Coad, Dixon or Brewer.  I was crushed.
 In the midst of my brokenness and misery, the Lord began ministering to me.  He took me through a Peter-like moment when He impressed upon my heart, “Guy, if I want their ministry to minister to thousands and yours to a hundred, what is that to you?  You must follow Me!”  When I allowed the fullness of these words to resonate in my heart, the great spiritual truth sprang forth . . .  If I am following the Lord and doing what He has called me to do, then it is every bit as important to Him as any other ministry!

The truth is . . . I was not lying to myself in seminary when I assumed the Lord had a grand ministry in store for me.  The only difference is that now I see things more clearly from the Lord’s perspective.  The greatest ministry is being in the place God has called us and doing the things He has called us to do.
So, I guess I’m not the next Billy Graham . . . thank God!