Saturday, August 30, 2014

Coaching soccer is more than coaching soccer to me

This is my ninth year coaching soccer for our school team, the fifth as the varsity coach for Heritage. Coaching, for me, is a way to make a deep, long-lasting impression on young men, in a relatively short period of time. The unique way competition impacts people makes me stay in the game, so to speak. I absolutely relish the preparation process required to ready a team for competitive play- especially a team that no one thinks should be good. I like recruiting guys who lack experience, but have the athletic ability, with training, to become solid, contributing players. Like a nerd analyzing a game of Risk, I am constantly scrawling potential line ups and formations on pieces of paper throughout the day.

The value of the context of team sports and competition lies in what is required to congeal and be competitive. Players must develop fitness, skill, and tactics. Individual players are responsible and accountable to their teammates to grow in all areas. Perhaps the most important life lesson from team sports is learning, as a member of a team, to know your role and execute it with full vigor and faithfulness. Playing for a team bears a strong resemblance to being a member of a church.

To become competitive and ready, we have to work hard as a team for weeks. When the season starts, the grind gets increasingly challenging as things shift from the initial physical preparation to a more mental contest. The relentless rhythm of 2-3 games per week goes on for two months. Staying fit, nursing injuries, keeping school grades up, and battling general fatigue, contribute to the character-building exercise the whole team sport experience is about. Over a 12-week period, through the regular flow of game preparation and playing, guys grow close and develop a strong basis for ongoing friendships. I get the opportunity and privilege to spend many hours under intense circumstances with young men who are in the thick of their character development. In most cases, I develop substantive relationships with my players. Often enough I will think I didn’t connect well with a certain player, only to see our relationship grow after they graduate. The coach-player relationship is unique and can be life-shaping. I have had some wonderful, learned, and godly teachers in my years of formal schooling, but for the most part, the men I have leaned on most for counsel and guidance have been my former coaches. It is the task of a coach to assess a player’s ability, help them improve, develop, overcome obstacles, and fulfill their role so they contribute well and enjoy the team sport experience. Being a coach bears a strong resemblance to being a pastor of a church. 

I have always been thankful Redeemer allows me to coach the school team.  It serves as a way I can directly interact with the students of our school.  This year, eight of the players are also members of our church, one is my oldest son, which is pretty cool.  In our four years of official KSHSAA membership, we are 56-13-5.  Not bad for a small, 1A school!

Friday, August 29, 2014

Gospel Ministry: To spend and to be spent...

Over my years of pastoral ministry I have gone through brief periods of depression.  In Scripture you find many people going through periods of despair, melancholy, and depression.  Abraham, Jonah, Job, Elijah, David, and the so-called "weeping" prophet Jeremiah are all examples of people who are on biblical record as having been depressed.

Thankfully, God has given me a sensitive wife who knows when I am in a funk.  She challenges me with God's Word and promises. She also nudges me toward some fellow elders, pastors, and godly counselors in our church to encourage, exhort, and sometimes rebuke me. These faithful friends help me get back my gospel bearings, so to speak.  Just today one such brother was encouraging me by asking questions and reminding me of God's faithfulness and provision.  He asked me a great question- "Tony, when did you know God was calling you to ministry."  As I started to answer his question and remembering a very distinct sense of call while in high school, I became enlivened about the reason I do what I do.  I want people to know the gospel of Jesus Christ.  I want people to know how they are made right with God- through faith in Christ and His work on their behalf.  I want to see people who have not previously believed, trust in Christ and be transformed.  I want people who have been believers for a long time to be encouraged afresh in the gospel. I want to minister in a church where I have the opportunity to remind the precious Sheep for whom Christ died, of their high privilege in Christ. Preaching, teaching, and promoting the gospel of Jesus Christ is the simplest way to describe my purpose and calling.  I fully affirm what is clear in Scripture- the gospel is veiled to those who are perishing.  Only God can remove the scales from someone's eyes so they can lay hold of Jesus.  Still, I am pained greatly when people reject the gospel.  I am grieved when believers seem to forget the gospel.

Over the years I have come to realize that Gospel ministry is a depressing calling at times.  It just is.  I think pastoral ministry is prone to epochs of melancholy and discouragement.  I know I am not the only pastor to experience this or think it.  Charles Spurgeon, the famed London preacher of the Nineteenth Century, in "Lectures to My Students" warns of the tendency to depression when laboring in gospel ministry:

Our work, when earnestly undertaken, lays us open to attacks in the direction of depression. Who can bear the weight of souls without sometimes sinking to the dust? 

Passionate longings after men’s conversion, if not fully satisfied (and when are they?), consume the soul with anxiety and disappointment. To see the hopeful turn aside, the godly grow cold, professors abusing their privileges, and sinners waxing more bold in sin — are not these sights enough to crush us to the earth? The kingdom comes not as we would,  the reverend name is not hallowed as we desire, and for this we must weep. How can we be otherwise than sorrowful, while men believe not our report, and the divine arm is not revealed? 

All mental work tends to weary and to depress,  for much study is a weariness of the flesh; but ours is more than mental work — it is heart work, the labor of our inmost soul.  

How often, on Lord’s-day evenings, do we feel as if life were completely washed out of us! After pouring out our souls over our congregations, we feel like empty earthen pitchers which a child might break. 

It is our duty and our privilege to exhaust our lives for Jesus. We are not to be living specimens of men in fine preservation, but living sacrifices, whose lot is to be consumed; we are to spend and to be spent, not to lay ourselves up in lavender, and nurse our flesh. Such soul-travail as that of a faithful minister will bring on occasional seasons of exhaustion, when heart and flesh will fail.

So I have come to expect periods like this over the course of my life.  Such episodes are used by God to show His power through our weakness, for which I am extremely grateful.  Paul said it well- "Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart." (2 Corinthians 4:1)

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The only anchor that holds

Today was a very difficult day. It started with news of a brother in Christ, who used to be a member of the church I pastor, but is still in close contact with many of us, being in the last stages of cancer.  Then, a young woman in our church was diagnosed with a similar stage 4 cancer.  When she was initially tested, it seemed to be caught early and there wasn't any real concern it would be this advanced. But the results of the more advanced tests showed it was much more involved and serious.  Honestly, even though I have seen this kind of thing before, I was shocked along with her family.  There were virtually no signs before three weeks ago.

How do you counsel a person who is confronted with this news?

In this case, I have been blessed and encouraged by her immediate reflection on biblical, eternal truth.  She goes right to her bible.  This is a person who is herself a highly competent medical professional, yet finding herself on the other side, so to speak, is taking the medical analysis and diagnosis in stride, and going to the Scripture for her guidance and comfort.  She knows she is in Christ.  This isn't to say she isn't in some way fearful and upset, but I can attest she is not angry with God and she is sure of her eternal destiny.

Of course, despite the seriousness of her diagnosis and incurable nature of her kind of cancer, there is chemotherapy that has shown itself to slow down the advance of the disease.  We are asking everyone to pray the chemo works and gives her many more years.  Knowing this woman, she will live life to the fullest as God gives her however many days he has allotted (remember, none of us live one day shorter or longer than God ordains).  Even the chemotherapy's effectiveness is by God's grace.

On days like today when I visit with a Christian who has just received very difficult news, and I witness them speak eternal truth in the midst of incredible adversity, I realize they have been prepared by the Word, for just this time. When I pick up their bible to read them comforting texts from Scripture, and all the texts I turn to are already underlined, I am overwhelmed by what God does to nourish His children. My job, every pastor's job, is to feed the whole counsel of God to the Sheep for whom Christ died. It is the only sure anchor that will hold them when (not if) the storm comes. I have seen this countless times. I know it is true.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Reclaim and Gain!

I recently helped plan and lead our annual presbytery middle school youth camp. It spans four days and includes a non-stop schedule of games, activities, large group gatherings, bible teaching, singing, devotions, food, fun, fellowship...and exhaustion for old dudes like me.

One of the highlights of our camp is tubing on the Lake of the Ozarks. We rented two boats and dragged kids around for hours each day. Hearing the kids tell of their wild rides on the tube is tremendous fun.  They tell of being dragged on "suicide runs" at 100 mph and getting 2, 4, 6, even 10 feet of air! They pit the craziness of each boat driver against the other.  The boat drivers pride themselves on providing a safe, but terrorizing ride for those who dare to mount the tubes. Each likes to be known as a touch more insane than the other. Insanity is a highly lauded trait by middle school students. Often times, if the mood of the driver is maniacal enough, a tube rider gets thrown off.  Keep in mind, the boat is going 40-50 mph (although the kids will swear it's going faster) with 100 feet of rope pulling the tube.  So when a person gets launched off the tube, they are out in the middle of the lake all alone for as long as it takes for the boat to circle around quite a ways and get to them.  I've been out there, having been thrown off myself.  Even though you have a life jacket on, there's a sense of helplessness treading water for the time it takes for the boat to come and get you.  What if they forget? What if they just leave you there? It can be a touch scary.  Imagine if you didn't have a life jacket?  You can only tread water for so long.  It's a long way to shore.  Way too far for most people to swim. I think you'd eventually drown as you fatigue and the water overcomes you.  Dark thought, for sure. Notice the look on this poor boy's face.  He's wondering if we'll come pull him out.

If a church is practicing biblical discipline, there are times, hopefully rare, when a person has to be removed from the church because they are mired in a sin they will not repent of.  People are not to be excommunicated because of sin, but rather for sin they won't stop and repent of.  Repentant sinners make up the membership of any truly Christian congregation.  Sinners who won't repent aren't actually Christians (repentance is a necessary part of trusting Christ).  Now, as it works, there are times when people fall in to terrible, habitual sin, and it becomes open and scandalous. They are confronted, but won't repent.  Such a thing happened in the Corinthian church, and Paul instructed the church  to remove the person (1 Corinthians 5:1-3).  In 2 Corinthians 2, Paul refers to the same case or perhaps a different one, where a person was previously removed for unrepentant sin.  However, after being removed for a time, the person repented! The discipline of the Church was used by God to provoke a godly sorrow for their sin.  If a person is truly a Christian, and gets trapped in a sinful pattern, eventually God will give them repentance.  Church discipline has as its' chief goal the restoration of the offender.

The problem in Corinth was the congregation apparently not accepting the now repentant sinner back in to the congregation.  Notice what Paul says to them-

Now if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure—not to put it too severely—to all of you. For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough,  so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.  So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. - Paul to the Corinthians (second letter, 2:5-8)

Paul begs them to forgive, comfort, and reaffirm their love for the man!  The man was becoming excessively sorrowful. Such repentance is a product of God's supernatural work and an awesome thing (yes, awesome may be used here). When a person repents like this, the church must do as Paul instructs here!  Forgive, comfort, and love them back in to fellowship!

The Westminster Confession, chapter 30, speaks about the several purposes of church discipline, but first sentence captures the chief one- "Church censures are necessary, for the reclaiming and gaining of offending brethren..."  I love this expression of biblical teaching about church discipline.  It is for reclaiming and gaining!

Back to my description of getting thrown off a tube and treading water in the middle of a scary lake until the boat comes to get you.  When the boat comes along side a kid who can't climb back in to the boat on his or her own, an adult will reach over the side of the boat,  grab their life jacket, and pull them up, out and in to the boat. I have done this dozens of times, yanking helplessly floating kids out of the lake and in to the boat. I am reclaiming them from the sea!  I reclaim and regain them!

This is a picture of what we do for the repentant sinner floating in the sea of despair, about to be overwhelmed by the burden of their sin.  They are sorry for their sin, but paralyzed by all the pain and misery it has caused.  This is why Paul describes the man as nearly "overwhelmed by excessive sorrow." Interestingly, the greek word for "overwhelmed" is often used in conjunction with a sense of drowning.  When God gives us repentance for our sin, part of the effect is a real and heavy sorrow for the pain we have caused.

A person out in the lake floating needs to be yanked out and brought in to the boat, lest they become overwhelmed with the water and drown.  A person who repents of their sin will need immediate comfort and love, or they'll become overwhelmed, like the man described in Corinth.  Reclaim and gain them! 

You might need the same help some day.