Love God Supremely; Love Others Deeply (What I’ve Learned in 15 Years of Pastoring, pt. 5)

In this series, I’m considering some things that I’ve learned while pastoring over the last 15 years. You can check out the previous posts and a series introduction here:

Part 1: Not everybody will like you, and that’s okay.
Part 2: Pray for people and let them know that you’re praying for them.
Part 3: Discipleship is easy, yet hard.
Part 4: Encourage your wife to serve where she feels led

In this post, we’ll consider Lesson #5: Make your vision, purpose, and mission to lead people to love God and love others.

Your church needs a vision statement, mission statement, and purpose statement. These three things relate to each other but are different. They will help keep your church on course. At least, that’s what one church growth expert said. Wait… Scratch the vision and mission statements, your church only needs a purpose statement. At least, that’s what another expert said. No, wait… Don’t worry about statements at all, they’re superfluous. Yep, another expert.

Maybe the last guy is actually right. It’s amazing what the early church accomplished without statements, buildings, or a church van.

Actually, I’m not completely against church purpose statements. My church has one. When I first arrived, it was a relic of the 90s, alliterated well: We exist to exalt the Sovereign, to edify the saint, and to evangelize the sinner. We actually changed that in my first year on the field. We now exist to live the truth, build community, and pursue missions; or TCM: Truth, Community, Missions.

But as time has progressed, I don’t even talk about TCM as much as I used to. Somewhere along the way I wrote down on a tiny scrap of paper: Love God supremely; love others deeply. That has become my vocabulary.

Really, whether we have purpose or vision statements or not, that should be our aim. Those two phrases are really what the Christian life is all about. Jesus was asked in Matthew 22 about the greatest command in the Law. Would he choose one of the Ten? Would he choose one of the hundreds of applications and situational clarifications of the Ten? Would he say something different?

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus called these the first and second greatest commandments and said everything else is just an application of them. Love God supremely; love others deeply.

In the purpose driven model made famous also in the 90s, we’re given the idea that the Great Commandment and Great Commission are two separate things but go together to define the five purposes of the church. But really, the Great Commission is just the Great Commandment lived out: Love God supremely then love others deeply by helping them to love God supremely and love others deeply. Even when you think forward to the far future, pondering our eternal purpose, it will be the same—we’ll love God supremely and we’ll love others deeply, but we won’t have to encourage others to do the same because we’ll all do so perfectly forever.

It’s so simple and straightforward.

And in the end, it’s really all that matters. The Bible even tells us that we brought nothing into the world and we’ll take nothing out. Naked we came; naked we go. When we’re passing from this life, relationship will be all that matters—did we love God and did we love others?

A lot of clutter gets in the way of this. What I’ve learned over the past 15 years and am still learning is how to fight through this clutter. It starts with keeping it forefront on and everyone’s mind. This is why we preach and teach and disciple—to love God supremely and love others deeply.

What I’ve Learned in 15 Years of Pastoring, pt. 2 (on prayer)

In this series, I’m considering some things that I’ve learned while pastoring over the last 15 years. You can check out the first lesson and a series introduction here:

Part 1: Not everybody will like you, and that’s okay.

In this post, we’ll consider Lesson #2: One of the most important things you can do for your congregation is to pray for them regularly and let them know that you’re praying for them.

Prayer and engagement with scripture are the two foundational spiritual disciplines, and they’re the foundation of pastoral ministry as well. In Acts 6, the Twelve responded to a congregational problem by delegating a specific responsibility to seven men chosen by the church, so that they, as the pastoral leaders, could devote adequate time to the word and prayer. One of my favorite verses on this subject is 1 Samuel 12:23 where Samuel tells the people: “Far be it from be that I should sin against the Lord by ceasing to pray for you, and I will instruct you in the good and the right way” (ESV).

Prayer… it’s that important.

A few years ago I wrote about the method that I have chosen in order to pray for those in my church, and I’ll detail it again in brief here. Not including Sundays, I typically have four days each week with time in the office. In my office prayer journal, I keep a monthly calendar that divides the households of the church into 16 days (4 days times 4 weeks). So, each day in the office, I typically pray by name for 4 to 5 households.

Then, I have my list divided into thirds. Every three months I send a hand-written card to each household letting them know that I prayed for them, encouraging them with a verse from scripture, and providing a prayer request slip they can return to me. Each family/household receives four of these cards during the year.

On the front of my prayer journal is written the line, “Pray specific prayers.” This is where those return slips are important. I already know certain prayer needs from knowing and visiting those involved with the church; but the slips give people opportunity to share specific needs that may not be publicly known. (There’s also an area on each slip that can be checked indicating whether or not the person would like their request to remain private with me, or shared on the church’s prayer list.)

But, we know human nature—not everyone is going to provide specific prayer requests. You can even ask them face-to-face and receive back only general answers. This is why I wrote that line on the front of my journal. Too often I found myself going the lazy route in response to the lack of requests: “Lord, I don’t know what they specifically need prayed for, but you know their hearts.”

That notion was challenged by a Sunday night study we did once by D. A. Carson called Praying with Paul. Carson scours through the congregational prayers in Paul’s letters. These are prayers typically about spiritual growth, knowing God more deeply, fighting for purity, remaining steadfast, having a faith that encourages others, etc.

Now, each month I choose a section of scripture and list three or four items to pray for those involved in the church. This means that even if a person is unwilling to share requests, I still have specific things to regularly pray about their faith and spiritual growth.

Obviously, I don’t have empirical evidence to support this, only what I’ve experienced, but I believe that letting the church know that I pray for them regularly has helped enhance my relationship with the congregation and the unity they experience with each other. Honestly, I still don’t think that I pray as much as I should. I have been trying to devote more time to prayer throughout my week. However, prayer is a powerful part of the life of the church and the spiritual warfare in which we’re involved. I have little doubt that spiritually healthy churches have pastors who make prayer a priority.

Pray for your church regularly, pastors. Pray specific prayers, pray the scriptures, and let your church families know that you are praying for them.

Christians, the Government, and the Ballot Box

When it comes to the relationship between Christians and the government of our United States, we want to root our attitudes, ideas, and actions in Scripture. Yet, when it comes to our historical situation, we don’t match the hierarchies in place during Old and New Testament times. As a Democratic-Republic in which supreme power is vested in the people as we select men and women to represent our views, we are a different creature than what we see with Israel and Rome.

Israel was a theocracy. God created a community of people and he established the rules. Even after giving the nation a king, the monarchy was to be subject to the rule and commands of God. The kings were expected to learn, know, and obey God’s Law, though most failed miserably at this. The church exists as a singular people spread throughout many nations. This means that from culture to culture and period to period, the church lives and thrives under many different types of governments, including monarchies, dictatorships, and democracies.

The early church existed primarily within the Roman Empire that at times sought to persecute and kill Christians. Still, Jesus, Paul, and Peter all taught that God’s people should pay their taxes, pray for their leaders, honor authorities, and submit to just laws.

Though, situationally, our relationship to our government is different than that of Old Testament Israel or the early church, we find guiding principles in scripture that help us determine our Christian duty in regards to the government. Briefly, I want to detail five primary duties we have.

First, we have a duty to honor and pray for those in authority. “Authority” in our system is different than what we see in a monarchy or empire. The opening line to the preamble of the constitution is “We the people.” Authority ultimately resides in the voting population. Still, we elect persons to represent us and thus grant to them representative authority. Therefore, we will not equate our president or senators or representatives like an “emperor as the supreme authority” as Peter writes, but we can still see them as fitting the bill of governing authorities in passages such as 1 Peter 2:13-17, which tells us to honor those in charge (as a subset of “honoring everyone”), and 1 Timothy 2:1-4, which tell us to pray for those in authority that we might live peaceful lives and that they might be saved.

We live in a climate where respect has almost become an artifact of the past. Social media and polarized “news” channels have brought out the worst in us. We need to relearn respect, for those in government and for our fellow citizens, even those with whom we deeply disagree. We must relearn what it means to argue against ideas without belittling the person. Followers of Jesus should pave the way in this. A person made in the image of God is of much greater worth than winning a particular argument.

And praying for someone will help build respect. If we truly pray with deep concern that another might act in wisdom, know Jesus, and follow Jesus, then it will change for the better the attitudes we harbor toward them.

Second, we have a duty to obey just laws. In the gospels when Jesus was asked if it was lawful to pay taxes, he replied, “Whose image is on the coin?” When those testing him answered, “Caesar,” Jesus said, “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” In Romans 13, Paul continued this thought, telling us to obey governing authorities and pay our taxes. Then in 1 Peter 2, Peter commanded that we “submit to every human authority.” For, as both Paul and Peter state, government exists as a representative of God to punish evil and support good.

We, of course, know that in a post-Genesis 3 world, governments struggle to do this well and some flat fail. Still, we are to obey the laws of government when they are just. How do we know what a just law is? Peter wrote in 1 Peter 2:17 that we’re to “honor everyone, love the brothers and sisters…honor the emperor.” The phrase in that ellipsis is “fear God.” This is Peter’s way of saying that as much as we are to honor those in authority, we are to honor God far, far more. A king might be supreme in the land, but Jesus is the King of kings over creation.

So, if a law contradicts God’s commands or results in us treating another person in a way that degrades the image of God in them, then the law is unjust. If the law is unjust, then we are justified in disobeying it, indeed we even have a responsibility to disobey it because God is the greater King. But any law that does not contradict God’s commands or degrade another person is to be obeyed, even if we dislike it.

The great thing in the United States, however, is if we don’t like a law and enough of our other citizens don’t like a law, then we can vote in people who will work to change said law. But as long as it is law, it is to be obeyed.

Third, we have a duty to vote for men and women of character. In 1998, the messengers of the Southern Baptist Convention passed a wonderful resolution on “Moral Character of Public Officials.” The first “resolved” states: “We, the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention, meeting June 9-11, 1998, in Salt Lake City, Utah, affirm that moral character matters to God and should matter to all citizens, especially God’s people, when choosing public leaders.”

Scripture tells a consistent tale: Governmental leaders of good character lead to a better nation; those of immoral character lead to ruin and disgrace. We see this in the pattern of the kings where those who “did evil in the sight of the Lord” often brought political, social, and spiritual damage. And we see this in Proverbs 14:34, quoted in the resolution: “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people.” Or in Proverbs 11:10-11, “When the righteous thrive, a city rejoices… A city is built up by the blessing of the upright, but it is torn down by the mouth of the wicked.” And in Proverbs 28:12, “When the righteous triumph, there is great rejoicing, but when the wicked come to power, people hide.”

At the last presidential election, when the two major parties presented candidates of poor moral character, some held their nose and voted “for the lesser of two evils.” Some voted for the party with the platform they saw as being the least morally repugnant. And others of us voted third party.

What was shocking and continues to be shocking is seeing some Christians enthusiastically support a candidate of poor moral character. That flies in the face of the wisdom of scripture. Some respond, “Well, God can use evil men for his good ends, just look at Nebuchadnezzar [or: insert a different Old Testament governmental head].” That might be all well and true, but God’s people didn’t vote in Nebuchadnezzar, and neither should we.

Fourth, we have a duty to vote from a biblically informed conscience on various issues. Every election cycle there is a home in my town that places a big sign in their front yard with words you can see from the highway: “Vote the Bible.” In a way, they’re right—the Bible should inform our decisions; but the Bible doesn’t directly speak to a variety of issues. For example, the Bible gives no specifics about tax rates or infrastructure funding or gun control or automotive emissions or health care coverage or trade deals. In these cases, one platform isn’t necessarily more morally right or good than another.

But there are certain realities we find in scripture that should thoughtfully and prayerfully shape our views on such things. For example, the Bible teaches that every person is made in the image of God, that we are to honor all people, and that our lives began within our mothers’ wombs. Thus “sanctity of human life” should be a foundational principle for how we as Christians vote. Abortion, obviously, is a large part of that. But, how does sanctity of human life play into the other issues?

Some might say we have a responsibility to provide basic health care for everyone. Others might argue that a free market health care industry is best. Some might say that stronger gun control laws will help preserve life. Others might argue that an ability to protect oneself and one’s family is the better route.

And here’s the thing: As faithful followers of Jesus, we might actually come to different conclusions about these matters. That’s why Paul wrote about respecting each other’s conscience on secondary matters. That same principle applies here.

But however we end up voting on such issues, we should let our hearts and minds be guided and convinced by what the Bible clearly teaches. Then we vote our biblically informed conscience over popular thinking or strict platform/party lines.

Finally, we have a duty to seek for just causes. If you miss this one in Scripture, then it’s because you have your eyes closed while reading. In the prophets, nations are judged all the time by the way the marginalized or less fortunate are treated by the culture. We seek for just causes as we lift up those who have been marginalized and as we work against laws and attitudes that degrade the humanity of another. This means we stand against the various isms—racism, sexism, classism, ageism, etc. And we stand for that which elevates the dignity and potential of others.

We could say more on each of these topics, but as we draw near to yet another election day, let’s keep in mind these things that Scripture calls us to. Let’s cast off attitudes and political maneuvering that degrades others. Let’s stand for the kingdom of God above all others—the kingdom of love and light as the hymn goes…

All scripture quotations taken from the Christian Standard Bible.

The World Needs More Foster Dads

With our journey into foster care, I’ve stepped into the social media pond of foster parenting to find resources and make connections with others on the journey. One thing I’ve noticed is that there are a whole lot more foster moms on social media than foster dads.

We could assume that these moms are simply more media-engaged than their counterparts. Yet, it’s been my experience that many of these are single foster moms or ladies who lament that their husbands aren’t more engaged. In my face to face experiences, I’ve found the latter to be far from universally true, but you still hear the stories.

I don’t have hard and fast numbers on this, but based on the above experiences this seems a safe general observation: Women are more eager to engage in foster care than men.

A couple of months ago, I wrote a post called The World Needs More Foster Parents. I want to add to those thoughts, this time talking specifically to my fellow men.

One of my favorite passages on manhood in the Bible is 1 Corinthians 16:13-14, where Paul wrote, “Be alert, stand firm in the faith, be courageous [or: “act like men” as in the ESV], be strong. Do everything in love.” (CSB) I think these admonitions by Paul can serve as a foundation for why we need more men eagerly involved in foster care.

Be alert and stand firm—our faith drives our fostering. Old and New Testaments, the Bible is replete with calls to put our faith into action through helping those in need. James calls caring for widows and orphans in their distress “pure and undefiled religion” (James 1:27). Jesus said his sheep will be the ones who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, take in the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the imprisoned; and how we treat such is how we treat Jesus (Matthew 25:31-40). Jesus also told the parable of the Good Samaritan. The neighbor we are meant to emulate is the man who actually went out of his way to help a stranger in need.

And that doesn’t even touch on all the Bible says about us being adopted into God’s family through Jesus.

Now, the way that we engage in such social ministries will differ from person to person and context to context. Not every man is under obligation to be a foster dad, though we are all obligated to help the disadvantaged in some way. But given the vast needs in the foster system, I’m willing to bet that God desires more Jesus-loving men to enthusiastically embrace foster care than currently do.

Men, will you pray about whether or not God is leading you to be a foster dad?

Be courageous, be strong—a child’s need for strong adults drives our fostering. All parenting is filled with various challenges. Foster parenting is filled with its own unique challenges. Trauma is a word that gets talked about a lot in foster care. Some kids go into care because tragedy has robbed them of their parents. Most kids go into care because adults have failed them in some way through neglect, abuse, or abandonment.

And those situations usually have been growing and festering for quite a while before the children are removed from the harmful environment and placed into care. These realities have many negative impacts on the kids.

These kids need strong adults who can help bear the weight of their traumas. These kids also need strong adults who will fight to get them the help they need in life.

The strength here is not our own, it never is. Let’s face it, most of us don’t like to wade through another person’s mess. It is God’s Spirit that gives us the strength and patience to take on bad situations of someone else’s doing, and the wisdom to understand that small positives in the now can lead to much greater twenty years down the road.

And it takes a sense of courage to welcome a stranger into your home, even if that stranger is just a little child. Because of the traumas, you don’t know what they’ll bring with them. It could be something as simple as a perpetually bad attitude. It could be something as complex as threats and attempts at harm against self or others.

We shouldn’t have to live in a world where ten-year-olds are suicidal, but it happens and they need your courage to help stare down their darkness and find light. And again, this courage is not our own. It is God who makes us courageous.

Men, are you willing to step out in courage to give strength to these kids in their times of need?

Do everything in love—loving others drives our fostering. God’s love for us in an amazing thing. He gave himself up that we might have life and a glorious eternity. When we experience his love, God, in turn, calls us to love others in a self-sacrificial manner.

We foster because we believe that every child deserves someone to love them well. In foster care, this might only be for a short time, but it remains true.

Love is happily seeking the best for another. With the traumas and causes mentioned above, so many of these children have seen the worst from life. Feeling loved tends to help us flourish. Lacking love causes us to wither.

Now, we must be cautious here. Putting a child into a safe and loving environment will not make all their traumas and related issues disappear. There will be battles against figurative demons for weeks, months, and years, and sometimes even a lifetime. Often counseling and ongoing therapy is a must.

But being in a loving environment will give them a better fighting chance as we help them learn to cope.

So, men, I ask a final question: Are you willing to show love to kids who aren’t your own and be their “dad” as long as they’re in your home?

After all, the world needs more foster dads.

You can check out Mike’s blog about being a foster dad at fosterdadadventures.com

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