The Hardest Thing

“To be convinced in our hearts we have forgiveness of sins & peace with God by grace alone is the hardest thing.” – Martin Luther


“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” – Paul, Romans 5:1

This Sunday I will be preaching again.

When I was thinking about what I would preach on, I asked myself what is the hardest thing for me right now. “Where is the battle raging in your life, Matt?” And the answer came slow like a mid-morning mist.

It’s where the battle always lies. There is no shadow of turning in this. Cloaked often differently but nevertheless still the same battle always.

“Do I have peace with God?”

Actually sometimes I look at my circumstances and wonder if he is actively at war with me. Am I forgiven? Or am I an enemy suffering under his wrath? Is all this suffering because there is not any peace with God? Is he ticked off at me and am I now suffering the due recompense of my sin?

I can remember the night I had a breakthrough in understanding justification by faith and grace and being able to lie down at night resting in the righteousness of Christ instead of my own. I did not sleep for joy. And I knew I would be a pastor and tell others this good news.

Now I cannot sleep for worry. Worry for work. Worry for wife. Worry for kids. Worry about being a pastor again, if ever. And I worry with every trial if God has forgiven me. Every setback begets a furious mental search for sin in my life that could be the reason for the trial.

I sound a little crazy. I know.

But you do it too. Probably.

Why? It is hard to believe Grace is real. It is hard to, with hearts full, buy into the idea that God accepts us and loves us and has forgiven our sins. It is hard to believe he is not holding a grudge. It is hard to believe we are not enemies with God and instead have peace with God because of the justifying work of another.

It’s the hardest thing.

It’s hard because appliances break. And cancer is real. And friends betray. And cars fall apart. And children have disabilities. And death takes everyone.

And it feels like war is being made against the walls of your soul. And you cannot seem to muster belief in God being for you because possibly for this season or a hundred and one seasons, everything seems arrayed against you. “Why not God too,” you might even ask?

And Paul. I started wondering about him this week. What was his thorn? Where were his weaknesses. Because if I’m Paul, in very weak moments I’d worry about having peace with God. His mental list of past sins would be fairly dramatic. Hated the gospel, hunted down Christians, held the robes of the men who made the first martyr.

Was it the hardest thing for him also? Maybe it’s why he wrote such a letter to the Romans. He knew firsthand that it was a hard thing to trust in grace on the best of days. And on the worst of days, it can feel impossible. Maybe he knew they needed the reminder.

Which is really all a sermon needs to be for many. A reminder that the justifying work of Christ on our behalf procures a peace with God. Even when our hearts and mind veer away from confidence. Even when we cannot begin to imagine the story that sounds too good to be true is in fact more true than we know.

An Endorsement of The God of the Mundane by Martin Luther…Kinda

We’ve been working on getting a review of The God of the Mundane from Luther for some time now

I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. – John 15:5

False Christians cannot understand what Jesus is saying in this passage. They wonder, “What kind of Christians are these people? They can’t do anything more than eat and drink, work in their homes, take care of their children, and push a plow. We can do all that and better.” False Christians want to do something different and special—something above the everyday activities of an ordnary person. They want to join a convent, lie on the ground, wear sackcloth garments, and pray day and night. They believe these works are Christian fruit and produce a holy life. Accordingly, they believe that raising children, doing housework, and performing other ordinary chores aren’t part of a holy life. For false Christians look on external appearances and don’t consider the source of their works—whether or not they grow out of the vine.

But in this passage, Christ says that the only works that are good fruit are those accomplished by people who remain in him. What believers do and how they live are considered good fruit— even if these works are more menial than loading a wagon with manure and driving it away. Those false believers can’t understand this. They see these works as ordinary, everyday tasks. But there is a big difference between a believer’s works and an unbeliever’s works—even if they do the exact same thing. For an unbeliever’s works don’t spring from the vine—Jesus Christ.

That’s why unbelievers cannot please God. Their works are not Christian fruit. But because a believer’s works come from faith in Christ, they are all genuine fruit.

From Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional by Martin Luther, James C. Galvin. ©2005 by Zondervan. All rights reserved. No part may be reproduced without written permission from Zondervan, 5300 Patterson Avenue SE, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 49530. Sent from the Martin Luther’s Faith Alone Devotional. For devotionals like this one for your iPhone, visit us at 43rdElement.com

More Thoughts on Weakness

“I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”

The moon tonight sits behind my left shoulder, behind the southeast corner of our home, behind the copse of native pine and rebel bamboo due east of our backyard. The moon’s face is gathered in cloud and yellowed. He looks weary.

Since I wrote that first post on weakness, I’ve been told of books on the subject saying as much and more. I’ve been told many have been thinking along the same lines for reasons myriad. And I’ve been told how others needed to hear it. They were weary in their strength and tired of their energy.

I wish I could say I was encouraged.

On one level I am. I’m glad I’ve helped others. I’m glad to have given words to what many have felt and lived. But I’ve no idea how to move forward.

Everything in American church culture fights against weakness as a way to let the power of God rest on us as individuals, as families and as churches. It’s all about position and influence and money and energy and momentum and celebrity and excellence and skill. None of those things are bad in and of themselves. But the power when all are arrayed is hard to overcome. At least in the minds of those who wield it.

Maybe the real heroes are the boring pastors we never ever hear of.

Tonight, my wife and I drove highway 11 from Springville to Trussville after my nephew’s rehearsal dinner. The moon hung low and in its light we passed many little churches. It would be easy to despise these places. And I know nothing of their pastor or the flock. But I want to assume the best. And I wonder now. I wonder if all the really heroic pastoral work is done in out of the way places trusting that God is working for his good throughout the Kingdom in littles places we would call weak.

For some reason we are impressed by the pastor who is working to simulcast a sermon based on his new book. Maybe it’s the pastor straightening up the sanctuary while simultaneously thinking through the second point of his upcoming sermon who should impress us.

And I guess I’m not encouraged because I see this as the kind of observation people will agree with but I’m not sure anyone knows what to do with it. I sure as heck don’t want there to be a “Movement” of this kind of thinking. That would be awful. Then there would be conferences and prima donna speakers and tee shirts and mugs and study guides and bracelets and journals and platinum editions of the book based on the movement based on the whatever, ad nauseum.

But it is compelling, this weakness. Like all the stories we love where little people in their weakness surprise everyone in the end because no one thought they were doing anything or could do anything. When in fact the fate of many rested on their shoulders and no one, least of all themselves, knew it. And really none will really ever know till the end and maybe the faithful work in obscurity overseeing only a few souls is really more than all the global simulcasts we can imagine.

Luther on Trusting God in Times of Need


Do not test the LORD your God as you did at Massah. – Deuteronomy 6:16

Deuteronomy 6 teaches us to trust that God will take care of us in good and bad times. We shouldn’t become overconfident in times of plenty, but we also need to patiently endure times of adversity. God will never leave us. He will be near us in our troubles. Unbelievers don’t have this confidence in God, because they put their trust in earthly things.

If what we need isn’t available to us, we have to rely on God’s promises. If we don’t rely on God, we are testing him. This is what Moses was writing about when he said, “as you did at Massah.”

At Massah, Israel complained and asked, “Is the LORD among us or not?” (Exodus 17:7). The people didn’t trust God’s promises because he didn’t fulfill them in the time, place, or manner they expected. Therefore, they gave up and stopped believing. When we try to dictate to God the time, place, and manner for him to act, we are testing him. At the same time, we’re trying to see if he is really there. When we do this we are putting limits on God and trying to make him do what we want.

It’s nothing less than trying to deprive God of his divinity. But we must realize that God is free—not subject to any limitations. He must dictate to us the place, manner, and time that he will act.

From Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional by Martin Luther, James C. Galvin. ©2005 by Zondervan. All rights reserved. No part may be reproduced without written permission from Zondervan, 5300 Patterson Avenue SE, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 49530. Sent from the Martin Luther’s Faith Alone Devotional. For devotionals like this one for your iPhone, visit us at 43rdElement.com

Weaknesses, Résumés, and The Pastoral Search, Part 2

20130814-212938.jpg

(The theologian of glory) “does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore he prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil.
– Martin Luther

Just as there is a theology of glory and a theology of the cross, there is a ministry of glory and a ministry of the cross.

By ministry of glory, I mean that of man. And I do not only mean a ministry with the cross as its subject. I mean with the cross as its modus operandi.

To explain, I can only tell you the stories of my own journey.

If you take I-65 north of Birmingham the scenery can be breathtaking. On June 1st of the year 2000, my wife and I were driving that road. My wife was in our Honda, I was in command of the U-Haul that mercifully broke down in St. Louis, our destination. I remember a bend in the road where the northbound route rose above the southbound travelers and we passed a convoy of dull colored, bulb-bespeckled rides from a parking lot carnival. And I remember constructing a very Spurgeonesque sermon in the cab of that truck. It was one of those sermons where the saved are revived and the lost are converted. It all ends with lots of sackcloth and ashes and a publishing deal in various languages.

I’m only slightly exaggerating.

I planned to take the church by storm…I wanted to be a preacher. And I wanted to be the kind of preacher that made people listen in awe. It has taken me all these years to admit I wanted glory. Yes, I wanted genuinely more than that, much that was admirable. And while the cross was my subject, it was not something I was all that glad to take up.

Fast forward almost 13 years. I read Frederick Buechner’s rendering of God’s call to Isaiah, “Whom shall I send into a world of pain where people die?” I cannot even begin to explain what happened when I read those words. Lightning. A sleepless night. The birth pangs of a renewed calling? A soul awakening after a long sleep? Nothing really sounds right.

And then in the next few months suffering. My father’s death, financial struggles that make you glad for bread in the pantry, daily and nightly misery in work. And all of it seemed to be pointing towards a path back into pastoral ministry. And it did so in a few ways. The heaping up seemed to be a reprimand of my belief that a life out of ministry would be easier on us – the belly of a whale is not a thing to be desired. A loving reprimand. And all the suffering did something I didn’t expect, it made me want to reach out to others in their weakness, whereas before, strength. And I saw the cross as not only the means of my hope but a way of life.

When I told my friend, Jeff Hutchinson some of these things, he didn’t balk and welcomed me to life of daily dying. That’s it. The kind of dying unto life. The kind of dying that looks into the stars and laughs for the wonder.

No fear, I entered seminary in strength, or what I saw as that. But I now embark on this journey in what feels like total weakness. Back in the day I had dreams of evangelical glory when I should have been sweating drops of blood.

And back then experience and well-crafted résumés were not even questioned. It all made total sense. But now I’m looking into reentering the denomination I left.

As a pastor.

Weakness.

So my hope is this road is conducive to weakness. And wishes the weak along, born upon the shoulders of God, himself. The God, who made himself weak and emptied himself of strength so that in our weakness we might move along in the strength of Spirit.

The business world knows nothing of this. It can’t. The business world can overlook weakness, ignore it, but it cannot see anything in it. These are not management principles for the boardrooms of the West. These are laws more true than gravity – that our weakness is something we can boast in because then the power of Christ can rest upon us – laws fit for a kingdom expanding.

A cover letter pockmarked with weaknesses? A résumé chock full of the lack of strength? I still don’t know. But I do know this – I’ve once walked in this direction without fear in strength and I’d prefer the alternative. Fear without worry. Weakness without glory.

Luther on Feeling Forgotten

This’ll get you through the day…

Feeling Forgotten

But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and the livestock that were with him in the ark, and he sent a wind over the earth, and the waters receded.Genesis 8:1

Being trapped inside that floating container for such a long time was no joke and could hardly be described as fun. Noah and his family saw the torrential downpour and were tossed back and forth on the rising floodwaters. Noah felt that God had forgotten them. Moses makes a point of this when he wrote that God finally remembered Noah and his family.

Through faith, Noah and his family were able to overcome their feelings of abandonment. But they had to struggle with their human natures. Because Noah had never experienced anything this serious in the past, he wondered if God would show compassion and remember him and his family. In the end, they conquered their anxieties. But it came with a tremendous struggle. In the same way, young people who want to live a pure and virtuous life must make a determined effort to control their sinful desires.

Our human nature is weak. It cannot tolerate the idea that God may have forgotten or abandoned us. We even want to brag and take the credit for ourselves when God remembers us, looks on us with kindness, and gives us success. Is it any wonder that we become hopeless when we feel as though God has abandoned us and everything seems to be going wrong?

Don’t forget that this story gives us a model of faith, patience, and perseverance. It teaches us that we must believe and trust God. It also makes us aware of our need for patience. Yet patience is unnecessary if we have no personal struggles and doubts. Even Christ calls us to persevere in difficult situations when he says in the New Testament, “But he who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:13).

From Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional by Martin Luther, James C. Galvin. ©2005 by Zondervan. All rights reserved. No part may be reproduced without written permission from Zondervan, 5300 Patterson Avenue SE, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 49530. Sent from the Martin Luther’s Faith Alone Devotional. For devotionals like this one for your iPhone, visit us at 43rdElement.com

Weaknesses, Résumés, and the Pastoral Search

In the last week or so, I’ve seen a couple posts/writings on “weakness.” Each of them encouraging because I’d been thinking about the subject. Not in a vacuum of course, but while also thinking about the necessity for God’s strength in life and ministry.

So yes, I think about doing ministry again. We pray about it. I’ve asked a few friends to pray about it for us. We fear it like we fear God. And think about it some more. And struggle to talk about it. So we pray a little more. (Please don’t read into this more than necessary, we are thinking and praying, not planning. We are very unsure but feel the need to consider returning, if only because we feel often like we are in the belly of a whale.)
Just the other day I looked at pastor job postings. Bethany did it first. Nearly all of them had their must-haves and their requirements and such. You know, some postings were admirable and a couple were actually moving.
But most were just like postings for insurance companies and banks in one particular way. They were interested only in how a person’s strengths could help the church. Don’t get me wrong, this is reasonable. I don’t even think its wrong.
But I can’t help but wonder about weakness.
Where does weakness fit in? Where does the weakness of a candidate and even the weakness of a church fit in? Is this even on anyone’s radar? And does anyone see the weakness as a way for God’s strength to be made manifest?
Maybe.
I confess I’ve imagined sending in a résumé of weakness. One that details all the reasons not to consider me. “Left the ministry and swore to never return. Has lived in the belly of a whale for about two years and smells like fish and seaweed. Has children the Vision Forum would be appalled at. Has most likely teetered on the edge of the dark chasm of depression. Has no money. Owns three vehicles, all have a check-engine light burning bright.” You know, things like that.
Every search committee and church knows every candidate for a position has weaknesses. They will even ask about them at some point. And discuss them. But will anyone see them the way Paul saw them?
“So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”(2 Corinthians 12:7–10 ESV)
Paul…and God, seemed to think the weakness he had, whatever it was – physical, emotional, spiritual – was something to boast in. And Paul did so, not to be contrary or to excuse behavior but so that “the power of Christ” would rest upon him.
Now I don’t know all the implications for this in ministry, but as I think about going forward and praying about pastoral work possibly one day in the future, it strikes me as being at odds with the prevailing wisdom.
The prevailing wisdom and practice is to treat résumés and interviews in the pastoral search process like a first date. On a first date you do everything you can to impress the other and you do everything you can to hide weakness. You borrow your parent’s Audi instead of picking a girl up in the ’79 Chevette with no reverse. You go to restaurants you would normally not go to. You spare no expense. You dress in clothes reserved for special occasions. You put your best foot-forward and keep all things negative at bay. It’s usually only later, you let your guard down and allow weaknesses to show.
College students do this in dating and churches and pastoral candidates do this in the search process. And it’s understandable. It’s reasonable. And we’ve all done it, in dating and in the search process.
But Paul’s words give us something to think about, don’t they? While all this first-date behavior and thinking is reasonable, Paul’s conviction about the place of weakness in his life and ministry may be a help.
Pretty much everywhere I went to work in ministry I soon found out that each congregation had glaring weaknesses no one felt the need to discuss with me but these weaknesses brought about constant issues that were at the forefront of the life of the congregation.
And my own weaknesses showed up pretty quickly too.

How do I go forward? I’m not entirely sure. Maybe you know.

My tendency is to be embarrassed of my weaknesses. I want to smooth over the craggy edges and obscure the dark valleys from view. But I also want to believe my weaknesses can deal a blow to my conceit and make it possible for the power of Christ to rest upon me. And if I ever return to the pastorate, is there any other power I’ll need?

More tomorrow in a few days…

“Hang On”

On Saturday Bethany asked me if I’d read that day’s devotional. I had not. She said I should. So I did. And I kept reading, again and again. Still reading it today. It’s from Faith Alone, a devotional of Martin Luther’s writings. I recommend it highly as a book as an app.

More Than We Can Imagine

So Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I hereby put you in charge of the whole land of Egypt.” Then Pharaoh took his signet ring from his finger and put it on Joseph’s finger.Genesis 41:41–42

Paul is absolutely correct when he says that God “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20). In contrast, our prayers tend to be weak and insignificant. Joseph didn’t dare ask for what he finally received. His heart was like a bruised reed and a smoldering wick. His groaning was like smoke that rises straight to heaven. His heart was a real incense burner! The sweet aroma that comes from a humble, groaning heart pleases God. Though Joseph may have felt like he was dying, his groaning didn’t cause any real harm.

Hang on. God will remain faithful. Don’t despair. Cling to the truth the psalmist proclaims: “Wait for the LORD; be strong and take heart and wait for the LORD” (Psalm 27:14). The Lord won’t extinguish a smoldering wick but instead will make it glow brightly. He won’t break the bruised reed but instead will strengthen it (Isaiah 42:3).

God wants to give us more than we ask for, not just fulfill our weak prayers. Joseph asked for nothing more than to be rescued, released from prison, and returned to his father. God in heaven let him pray that for a long time. In effect, God was saying, “You don’t know what you are asking [Matthew 20:22]. I will give you more than all you ask or imagine [Ephesians 3:20]. That’s why you have to wait a little longer. I want more of the smoke that rises straight to heaven.” But later, Joseph received what he never could have imagined. He never would have had the confidence or courage to ask for it. We must recognize that God’s wisdom, grace, mercy, and power are most certainly with us, as they were with Joseph. However, God usually doesn’t give them to us in the way we ask for them.

From Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional by Martin Luther, James C. Galvin. ©2005 by Zondervan. All rights reserved. No part may be reproduced without written permission from Zondervan, 5300 Patterson Avenue SE, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 49530. Sent from the Martin Luther’s Faith Alone Devotional. For devotionals like this one for your iPhone, visit us at 43rdElement.com

Thursday’s Random Thoughts

Wife: Why won’t this person drive faster?!
Daughter: Maybe it’s a mommy and her children are asking her lots of questions?

I am not the most skilled banker but my dish of suckers always stays full.

My name plate at work almost gave a worship leader a heart attack the other day.

I haven’t run in two weeks so now I only have two pairs of pants for work that fit.

I’m reading the Harry Potter books and watching The Lord of Rings so basically I have no cool points left at all.

One of my customers met Bethany last week, “How the hell did you get her?”

“I not adorable, mommy. I awesome.” – Dylan, 4

Look, I don’t wanna be judgmental but I look down on people who by choice eat hamburgers without cheese.

I fell off the wagon and looked at Facebook for 30 seconds this morning. I’ll never get that 30 seconds back.

I’m preaching this Sunday and I look forward to it the way a swimmer looks to the waterline for air.