The Benefits of Sorrow

“To be cast down is often the best thing that could happen to us.” (Charles Spurgeon)

It is rarely wise and often unkind to say what Spurgeon says while someone vomits from the chemo, showers off from bodily assault, exit interviews for their lost job, or weeps by the graveside of their child. In such moments, we learn from the best practice of Job’s friends. We say nothing. We sit in the ashes. We weep with those who weep. We talk more to God about them than we talk to them about God. We need not declare in these early horrid moments what grace and time in God’s hands can prove without our saying a word. So, we speak Spurgeon’s sentiment sparingly and in time, but nonetheless we learn to embody it daily. I say, “we learn to embody it” because we know full well that Spurgeon’s statement is not automatic. We know full well how sorrows can negatively change a person–it can harden us, embitter us, shatter our faith in God and make us cynical about people.

How then do we learn to embody a benefit to sorrow? Spurgeon points us to Jesus. Jesus is called, Immanuel, God with us. He is not, (as I often wish) the God who gives us immunity from the world or the God who gives freedom to choose only good things so that no neighbor ever chooses anything to harm another. Rather, God is the One who does not leave us when people, sicknesses, devils or the weather do their worst. Spurgeon therefore makes the healing claim: “There is no remedy for sorrow beneath the sun like the sorrows of Immanuel.” “The sympathy of Jesus is the next most precious thing to his sacrifice.”

Jesus speaks to our sorrows and orders them to serve His purposes. Sorrows are caused by ugly things. But Jesus adopts them as it were. He brings them into His own counsel. The One who loves even enemies, probations our sorrows. He gives them His own heart and provision and house. Living with Him they reform and take on His purposes to promote His intentions and to reverse and thwart foul tidings. In other words, sorrows belong to Jesus. He is their master no matter what fiendish thought gave them birth. With Jesus having authority over our sorrows in mind, Spurgeon identifies a handful of benefits recovered when Jesus boots with us and shovels out our pigpen muck.

  • Sorrow teaches us to resist trite views of what maturity in Jesus looks like:  Faith is not frownless. Maturity is not painless. Disheveled and bedridden amid the jittery and unanswered; this is no necessary sign of wickedness. It is the presence of Jesus and not the absence of glee that designates the situation and provides our hope. Spurgeon says it this way. “Depression of spirit is no index of declining grace; the very loss of joy and the absence of assurance may be accompanied by the greatest advancement in the spiritual life . . . we do not want rain all the days of the week, and all the weeks of the year; but if the rain comes sometimes, it makes the fields fertile, and fills the waterbrooks.”
  • Sorrow exposes and roots out our pride: Perhaps we can think of it this way. When standing at a thrift sale, the saying goes, “One man’s garbage is another man’s treasure.” We often mix-up what Jesus treasures with what Jesus willingly gets rid of. Sorrows show where we’ve been passing over His seemingly used treasures with eyes wide for brand new nothings.We are very apt to grow too big” Spurgeon says. ” It is a good thing for us to be taken down a notch or two. We sometimes rise too high, in our own estimation, that unless the Lord took away some of our joy, we should be utterly destroyed by pride.”
  • Sorrow pushes us to take a second look at ourselves, to be more honest about ourselves and our situations: Sorrow unthreads the hem of our rationalizations. Spurgeon says, “When this downcasting comes, it gets us to work at self-examination . . . When your house has been made to shake, it has caused you to see whether it was founded upon a rock.”
  • Sorrow is a means of drawing us closer to Jesus in truer dependence: As a child I watched a cartoon. It pictured a Coyote trying to catch a roadrunner. The Coyote used a saw to cut a circle hole out from underneath the Roadrunner’s feet. But when the hole was completed, it wasn’t the Roadrunner that fell. Rather, the rest of the floor crumbled down all around and upon the Coyote, leaving the Roadrunner held and fixed in the air; his feet still standing upon his piece of floor.  Jesus stays put though everything else fall around us. Strength emerges. Spurgeon says it this way, “When  you and I were little boys, and we were out at eventide walking with our father, we used sometimes to run on a long way ahead; but, by-and-by, there was a big dog loose on the road, and it is astonishing how closely we clung to our father then.”
  • Sorrow teaches us empathy for one another: “If we had never been in trouble ourselves, we should be very poor comforters of others . . . It would be no disadvantage to a surgeon if he once knew what it was to have a broken bone; you may depend upon it that his touch would be more tender afterwords; he would not be so rough with his patients as he might have been if he had never felt such pain himself.” Jesus shows us his wounds, the slanders, the manipulations, the injustices, the body blows, the mistreatments piled onto Him.  From there He loves, still. He invites us into fellowship with His empathy. We receive it from Him in the deeps. Rarely quickly but often truly, we rise again and actually give, maybe for the first time in our lives.
(See Spurgeon’s sermons, The Man of Sorrows and Sweet Stimulants for the Fainting Soul)

The Pastor’s Pains and Comforts

“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too was a gift.” (Mary Oliver)

Pain sits like a sewage that has backed up into our basements or like a river overflowing its banks into our fields and pushing toward our homes.  In such cases, no matter what else we do that day the waters of stench or torrent will have to be dealt with. And yet, maybe these two water analogies don’t quite help us. For they both imply a crisis occasion.

But pain isn’t always a crisis occasion. Sometimes pain is like the air we breath or our arthritic fingers. We learn to open the pickle jar or turn the faucet each day with wince. In other words, as the old adage goes, “Pain is a part of life.” As such, pain forms part of the landscape of pastoral ministry. Pastors enter a life of pains. By this I do not mean that life is only pain. Gladness of soul, simple pleasure, laughters of goodness saturate our days like the steady Spring rains. The flowers bloom.

But the one who has an aversion to pain along with an unwillingness to learn its ways and enter its territories will truly struggle as a pastor. Surely Job’s friends, the older brother, and the clergy who would not do for the beaten man what the Samaritan did, have all testified to this truth. I do not like this fact, but while heaven waits, pain is given parole. Sometimes our weary exhaustion in life and ministry comes solely and simply from the sorrows. (Lk. 22:45) We sorrow over at least two kinds of pains in life and therefore in ministry: “pains for” and “pains from.”

  • Pain for our families: “and seeing him he fell at his feet . . .” (Mk. 5:22)
  • Pain for our neighbors and churches: “There is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.” (2 Corinthians 11:28)
  • Pain for our fellow ministers: “lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow.” (Phil. 2:27)
  • Pain from personal sin: “sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” (I Tim. 1:15)
  • Pain from limits and unanswered prayers: “Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me.” (2 Cor. 12:8)
  • Pain from our bodies: ” . . . for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.” (I Tim. 5:23)
  • Pain from our families: “And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, ‘He is out of his mind.'” (Mk. 3:21)
  • Pain from church members: “Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm…” (2 Tim. 4:14)
  • Pain from fellow pastors: “Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry.” (Phil. 1:15) “And there arose a sharp disagreement so that they separated from each other.” (Acts 15:39)
  • Pain from neighbors: “An attempt was made by both Jews and Gentiles, with their leaders, to mistreat them . . .” (Acts 14:5)
How do we enter a vocation that does not shy away from pain, but learns how to grieve it, to enter it, and to walk with others or at times alone, through it? The man of sorrows invites us to an apprenticeship. In fits and starts, through many toils and snares, with multiple nights prostrate on the floor of our pillowed tears, we learn from Him to say with Paul things like this.
“our bodies had no rest, we were afflicted at every turn, fighting without and fear within–But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us . . .” (2 Cor. 7:5-6)
“At my first defense no one came to stand by me but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them! . . . but the Lord stood by me and strengthened me.” (2 Tim. 4:16)
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God of all mercies and the Father of all comfort, who comforts us in all our afflictions, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” (2 Cor. 1:3-4)
Dear weary friend. Jesus intends to comfort you in all of these pains for and pains from. The process is sure but not quick. He is your way forward. Do not lose heart. There are gifts in this darkness. Graces in this ruin. A tomb for this cross. A tomb that cannot keep you hemmed in. A tomb from which in Jesus we rise and the bones once broken begin to dance again–the dust in which we once laid. Somehow in prison with chains and stripes on our backs, we enter the story of Paul and we too because of Jesus begin to sing. Who but Jesus can confound pain so thoroughly? Who but Jesus can comfort so truly?

When Pastors Feel Overlooked

“With him we are sending the brother who is famous among all the churches for his preaching of the gospel.” (2 Corinthians 8:18)

Most of us who serve all of our lives in ministry will not be asked to speak at a conference or write a book or give a radio interview. For the majority of us, our ministries are a long obscurity among the local and unheard of. In a celebrity and consumer oriented church culture this fact can take its toll on a pastor. We wear down as the autograph lines always form outside another’s door and never our own. It is no wonder that amid these cultural pressures even Jesus preachers can be tempted to use their ministries as a means to compete with and outshine others. (Phil. 1:17). The thought of an overlooked life knocks the wind out. Maybe this is why I come back to these sentences of Paul.

After all, when Apollos preached the place was packed. But when Paul came to preach some people slept in. Seats were left vacant. It was hard to find enough volunteers for the nursery on the mornings Paul preached. The apostle’s pulpit presence was simply unimpressive. Closeness to God and measures of generational relevance were tied to the towers of oratory, spectacular influence and gathered crowds. Why bear with Paul when you could go down the street as it were and hear Apollos?

And now, with these words, Paul reveals that there is yet another preacher more impressive in the eyes of the congregations than Paul. It is almost like when the churches of that generation held a conference this famous brother would have likely been the keynote preacher, Apollos would have preached prime-time on the alternating nights, and Paul would have given a workshop or break-out session. But what some believers overlooked in Paul at times, Jesus saw clearly.

And what about Titus? It sounds rather humbling when we re-read the sentence. “With him,” (that is, “with Titus,”) we are sending the brother who is famous among all the churches.” Titus was perceived by many as a lesser pastor all of his life. When he was with Paul people would have thrown their attention to Paul first, not Titus. When Titus was with this famous preacher or in the vicinity of Apollos, they and not Titus would likely get the first invites for interviews. Titus had years of experience in the ministry-trenches of Jerusalem, Corinth, Dalmatia and Crete. He had a great deal to offer. But in these Corinthian circles it was often others they would naturally prefer for their bible and missions conferences. Corinthian Christians tended to overlook the non-sexy daily love of a man’s character toward them. They seemed to forget that part when talking about the best sermons. What some believers overlooked in Titus at times, Jesus saw fully.

The irony here is that those the Corinthians tended to prize are relatively unknown to us today (Apollos and the famous one). While those the Corinthians tended to overlook are in Jesus our sure guides today (Paul and Titus).  “What then is Apollos? What then is Paul?” “Servants . . . as the Lord assigned . . . neither is anything . . . but only God who gives the growth.” (I Cor. 3:5-8)

So, by grace, we don’t let the celebrity opportunities that pass us by or never come, break us. Likewise, saturated in the grace of Jesus, we learn to discern that living a known life doesn’t necessarily equal having the kind of influence Jesus values. By grace then we don’t let the celebrity opportunities that come our way fool us either.

Questions rise. “If, for all of your labors and gifts and efforts for the gospel, you will remain unknown in your generation, why serve at all?” “Are you being tempted to give the Corinthian “over-look” to the unknowns or unimpressives? “Are you being tempted to believe that if you don’t matter to everybody you matter to nobody?” “Or because you matter to some you matter to everybody?” “Are you starting to believe that the praise or disrespect of some is synonymous with God’s view of you?”  Obscurity tempts us to believe that no celebrity equals no lasting influence.  Celebrity tempts us to believe that no obscurity means lasting influence. What if Paul provided more grace in this statement than we first realized? “Timothy,” he said. Preach the word in the sight of God.(2 Tim. 4:1) Oh, the gracious eyes! The present presence! No pastor in Jesus goes unnoticed. None are unheard of. Our obscurity is His table. Our celebrity is His place of humbling prayer. There we sup with Him day by day.

Biblical Tips to Avoid Plagiarizing Sermons

I sometimes get asked about how we can guard against plagiarizing another’s sermon. The “verbal footnote” is the basic answer that many of us give. The verbal footnote provides clarity and secures integrity.

What is a “verbal footnote”?

A verbal footnote alerts our hearers to the fact that what we are currently saying has been said by someone else. We find examples of this practice in the Bible. The writer of Hebrews for example doesn’t remember the origin of what he intends to quote. But he says as much with a verbal footnote (identified by italics below) and then gives us the quote (which actually comes from Psalm 8).

It has been testified somewhere, what is man that you are mindful of him . . . (Heb. 2:6)

Sometimes a verbal footnote is vague in that it mentions no particular name. For example, the Apostle Paul in Acts 17:28 does not name the specific person but he gives a specific quote after letting his hearers know that the quote comes from some of their own poets. Our Lord Jesus also uses this kind of vague verbal footnote when in His Sermon on the Mount, he tells his hearers, “You have heard it said,” and then gives the quote that is familiar to them. (Matt. 5: 21, 27, 33, 38, 43) In this light, phrases such as, “a preacher has said,” or “a songwriter has written,” or “many of us have heard” find an appropriate place in our sermons.

At other times, a verbal footnote specifically names the reference. For example, the Apostle Peter explicitly recognizes the Apostle Paul’s contribution to the themes Peter addresses. (2 Pet. 3:15) We too in our sermons might say, “Spurgeon once said,” or “Keller writes.”

When do we use a verbal footnote?

We needn’t feel that the insights we derive from the biblical text or the human heart or the culture around us need constant footnoting. Two different people preaching the same biblical text using the same study tools with the same goal of saying what the text says are likely going to say some very similar things. In fact, if they both take biblical context, exegesis, and cultural awareness seriously they ought to say very similar things in light of the fact that a biblical text has an intended and not a hodgepodge meaning. This similarity of speech, even using the same concepts or phrases at times, does not constitute plagiarizing one another. Likewise, most of what we know we were taught. We needn’t feel that we must constantly refer to our mentors for every sentence we say.

Rather, the verbal footnote becomes required when we are quoting word for word from someone else. The verbal footnote becomes wise when we are heavily borrowing from another’s outline or general flow of thought. As an example notice the Apostle Paul’s sermon in Acts 13. From verses 17-32 Paul offers allusions but no quotes to what he preaches even though he is preaching biblical, historical and cultural content. At this point he is putting into his own words what anyone who has studied the Old Testament or was familiar with the events of Jesus’ life and death would have known. But beginning around vs. 33 the Apostle Paul begins to quote word for word from the Old Testament.  General content needs no footnote. Word for word or thought for thought copying from another does.

Poetry and the Murdered

“What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.” (Genesis 4:10)

By poetic language we sometimes learn empathy and gain wisdom for what neighbor love can require of us. Moses writes the historical headline of Abel’s death by using the poetic metaphor of “blood crying out.” We too learn from God in this way how poetic language takes our hand and walks with us down the sometimes back alleys of our days.

In the poetry of the Bible for example, the Psalmist gives voice to describe what a murderous heart does (Psalm 10:8-11). By means of these words, God enables us to see how neighbor-love gets broken like twigs thrust down with hands upon our legs.

He sits in ambush in the villages;
in hiding places he murders the innocent.
His eyes stealthily watch for the helpless;
he lurks in ambush like a lion in his thicket;
he lurks that he may seize the poor;
he seizes the poor when he draws him into his net.
The helpless are crushed, sink down,
and fall by his might.
He says in his heart, “God has forgotten,
he has hidden his face, he will never see it.”

As human beings, we imitate God in this way. Our language is not His nor perfect as His is. But for example, in her prize-winning collection entitled, Slamming Open the Door, Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno gives voice to what it is like as a human being to recover from the murder of one’s own child. She provides us words for what it is like to walk through the burned out remains of neighbor love when it is torched like this. I often think to myself when reading about such providences in the lives of others–“what would grace require of me to serve such a family if I was their pastor and if with me they looked for Jesus and His grace in the wreckage?” Kathleen helps us if we can learn to listen. She enables us to feel her rage for justice in Sticks and Stones or how one’s imagination goes into anguish in Nighttime Prayer or what it is like to hear the horrible news you cannot stop from coming in How to Find Out. The subject matter is thick enough. The poet assumes we know that already. So, she wastes no time with morbid or maudlin descriptions. She simply tells us who want to care What Not to Say.

“Don’t say you choked on a chicken bone once and then make the sound, kuh, kuh, and say you bet that’s how she felt . . . and you whisper I think of you every day, Don’t finish with because I’ve been going to Weight Watchers on Tuesdays and wonder if you want to go to.”

For brief excerpts go to http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=111218053

Preaching, Genocide and Sodom

Thoughtful non-Christians object to a god who seems to commend genocide. Sodom and Gomorrah represents one such account in the Bible. God appears to differ little from a religious terrorist in the eyes of some who read this account. How do we preach such a passage with such objections in mind, particularly for people who have little familiarity with the Bible? A place to start is with a question. We must ask ourselves, “how would this text sound to someone who only knows about the Bible, Jesus and Christianity through the scraps of caricature they have seen in sitcoms, the sad representations they’ve seen on the news, or the partial misinformation they have gleaned from movies or documentaries?”

In this text, at least three challenges surface for Western hearers.  (1) The idea that God is unjust and lustful for destruction and would destroy an entire city and kill its inhabitants. Our hearers live in a world in which people kill in God’s name. This is their cultural grammar. God will seem no different than a religious terrorist and cultural backtalk will result. (2) the cruel choice of Lot regarding his daughters in Genesis 19:8 sounds little different from the physical abuse of women that humane and Jesus movements have tried to end and (3) the supernatural presence of angels in itself along with what will seem to a Harry Potter generation as the magic powers of fictional characters Genesis 19:11. I’m coming to believe that if we act as if these cultural voices do not exist, our thoughtful non-Christian hearers will render us clueless as to their questions, Christian hearers will never learn how to address such questions with their neighbors, and I myself, not as a preacher, but as a man will have forgotten what it is like to encounter these jarring statements in the Bible and follow Abraham’s lead in asking God my questions about it. For example, I have a daughter. I have no category as a man for understanding Lot’s actions with his. If I am dishonest about this, my hearers will rightly think me unfeeling, disingenuous, or trite. Jesus is none of these things. And, I desire that they experience something of what He is like when they come and hear His message proclaimed.

So, I’m asking myself, what would it look like for us to take just one of these points and for three to five minutes in the sermon to thoughtfully say, “you have heard it said, but Jesus says to you . . .” (Just as Jesus does throughout the Sermon on the Mount) What do you think? How do we grow in communicating such things? Here is my attempt at what it might sound like to take a moment in the sermon to address the first challenge.

[you have heard it said]

Now, I realize that for some of us, this text only affirms what many are saying today. Many are saying that “religion is the cause of violence in the world. The worship of God leads to anger, division, hatred, and violence toward our neighbors.” I think there is some truth in this statement. It is true that people have done horrible things in the names of their gods. People have even done horrible things to one another in the name of Jesus. How we, who have been called by Jesus to love our neighbors, including our enemies, can justify such things, warrants challenge. People have done horrible things in the name of God.

[but I say to you]

But, that being said, there are two things that I ask you to consider and then a point I’d like to make.

1. I’d like to ask you to consider that violence toward our neighbor is also perpetrated by those who are atheist or agnostic as the history of Russia for example will quickly reveal. Most bullies on the playground, most of the crime in saint louis tonight, most arguments between husbands and wives tonight, most bench-clearing fights on the baseball field or football field tonight will have nothing to do with one’s belief in God. I ask you to consider that violence rises in the human heart quite apart from religion. There is something in us that is bent toward disregarding our neighbor whether we are religious or irreligious.

2. I’d like to ask you to consider this biblical text itself. First, the issue is that an “outcry” from victims has come to God’s attention (18:20, 19:13). The issue therefore is not innocent people going to work in two tall towers in Manhattan or eating at an outdoor cafe in London. God is not targeting innocent civilians. Second, God is not in a heated rage smashing bottles and punching walls uncontrollably. He is measured, taking time to verify and reveal what is true (18:21, 19:1ff) Thirdly, our question is asked by Abraham. “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous and the wicked?” Abraham asks and then charges that such an action would make God unjust. The Bible doesn’t avoid our question but raises it for us. God makes it clear that if there was a righteous one he would spare the city. Finally, we are told that what God finds out is this: “both young and old” are bent on raping and viciously mistreating the neighbors who come in to visit their town (19:4-5).  This text does not reveal God judging innocent righteous persons with random and cruel death. It is the opposite! God is seeking to respond to the outcry of victims who have experienced the gang and mob violence of those who inhabit Sodom. The situation resembles the horrific news story from USA Today just yesterday. The headline reads: 200 Women Gang Raped Near Congo base-U.N. says. The story includes the sexual mistreatment of a gang on four baby boys. Read this story dear friend and then ask yourself how you feel and what response is appropriate to hear the outcry of the victims, to defend them from further harm, and to justly deal with the mob of 400 persons going about perpetrating such harm?

After these two considerations, my point now is this: Sodom and Gomorrah expresses how God actively upholds neighbor-love. To do so, God hears the outcry of the victim. God judges the violent offender. Perhaps you feel that God should judge gang rapists with milder means. But at least, you and I can dismiss the caricature of this story, the caricature of a god who lustfully rages about and kills innocent persons. This story is not that one. In this story God who created Eden and instituted neighbor love must continually deal with and disrupt an ongoing neighbor-hatred since Adam and since Noah and now at the time of Abraham. We are meant to learn from it that no amount of just judgment is sufficient to heal the bent heart of humanity and turn it toward neighbor-love. Your heart and mine, no matter how many times we’ve gotten in trouble justly when we were kids and now as adults, we still find disregard for neighbor more natural to us than any of us want to admit. This is why God will finally put judgment upon Himself, and send His own Son to purchase the neighbor-love that we ourselves cannot find . . .”