Pray for Your Pastor During the Covid-19 Crisis

Your pastor needs prayer right now. He is facing significant stressors, making decisions that may have far-reaching consequences, and handling questions from concerned parishioners for which he may not have answers.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

I spend the first hour-and-a-half of each day in my study, doors closed, a cup of coffee in hand. I reach for the Book of Common Prayer and turn to the Daily Office readings, bookmarked to the current week. After a brief prayer, I read the psalm of the day, the Old Testament reading, and the reading from the Epistles. About this time, I head to the kitchen for another cup of coffee or a cup of Earl Grey. Then I return for the reading of the Gospel.

I pray as I read. I reflect. Sometimes I make notes to myself. If I have time, I read from a helpful book. Over the years, I have used George Macdonald’s remarkable sermons, Dallas Willard’s and Richard Foster’s books, C.S. Lewis’s sermons and essays, and many more. Lately, I’ve been reading Scot McKnight’s Kingdom Conspiracy.

After the reading of the Gospel, I pray. Today it was a disjointed prayer of submission, adoration, and intercession. As I prayed, I found myself wondering why I have been feeling so anxious. I am not, by nature, an anxious person but the last couple of weeks have been stressful. As I thought about this before the Lord, three particular stressors came to mind.

I find making decisions very stressful when I don’t have sufficient information. During the Covid-19 crisis, I (and tens of thousands of other pastors) have had to make one decision after another: First it was, “Do we cancel in-person services?” Then, how long must we cancel in-person services?

The decisions just keep on coming. How do we communicate during this time? Do we live stream Sunday services? How do Family Ministry, Youth Ministry, Kid’s Min communicate? Do they live stream? How do we care for our most vulnerable population? What about our staff? Will they work from home? Will they have enough to do to occupy their time? Can they afford the time off? 

All this is uncharted territory. We do not have the facts, don’t know how long the social distancing measures will be necessary. We have volunteers calling our most vulnerable folks, many of whom are seniors, but we’ve discovered they don’t answer the phone if they don’t recognize the caller. Many have mailboxes that are filled or were never set up. How do we reach them? Each question demands a decision that itself requires a flurry of other decisions.

Another stressor for me is being around disagreements. From day one, the response to the coronavirus has been full of disagreements, even at the highest levels. Congress and the White House were hardly in lockstep when all this began. It’s been reported that the president and his own coronavirus task force are at odds. People’s response to the crisis largely depends on whom they are listening to, and our church people aren’t listening to the same authorities.

To every question, someone has a different answer. Should we cancel services? Before our governor banned gatherings of more than fifty, one would answer, “Of course. It is the only loving thing to do.” Another would say, “No way! We must not give in to fear.” In most churches, people look to the pastor for guidance during disagreements, but how does one guide when one lacks sufficient information?

A third stressor has to do with expectations for (or, more accurately, with efforts to influence) the decisions being made. There are always people who strive to get their way, thinking that their idea is best or their need most urgent. Of course, everyone’s need is most urgent to them.

All of this adds to the burden pastors carry for the church family they love. Pray for your pastors and let them know it. Look for ways to help your church family during this crisis. Reach out to the vulnerable with concern and help, including unchurched neighbors and friends. Churches that do this will not only come out on the other side of this crisis; they will come out stronger.

First published by Gatehouse Media

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Good News (in the middle of the mess)

Is there any good news in the middle of this mess? You bet! The same good news that has sustained the people of Jesus through many crises and continues to change the world. Read Philippians 1 and take note of every use of the world “gospel,” which means “good news.” Consider its context and think through how Paul was using the word. Then, listen to the message at one of the links above, and share your thoughts below.

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Join Our Church's Worship Time

Like millions of others, we are streaming today’s (abbreviated) worship service. If you’d care to join us, just go to http://www.lockwoodchurch.org and click the link titled, “Click for Links.” It will give you links to both YouTube and Facebook. The service will begin at 11:00 AM EST.

The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine upon you. The Lord lift up his countenance to you – smile at you – and give you peace. Amen.

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Dealing with Isolation During the Covid-19 Crisis

In 2016, long before the advent of Covid-19, The New York Times ran a piece by a Dr. Dhruv Khullar titled, “How Social Isolation Is Killing Us.” “Social isolation,” Dr. Khullar wrote, “is a growing epidemic—one that’s increasingly recognized as having dire physical, mental and emotional consequences. Since the 1980s, the percentage of American adults who say they’re lonely has doubled from 20 percent to 40 percent.”

Photo by Kristina Tripkovic on Unsplash

What effect will the social distancing measures ordered by state and federal leaders to combat the spread of Coivd-19 have on this older and more pervasive social isolation epidemic? When it’s over, will people make an extra effort to connect with others following weeks of enforced social distancing? Or will these temporary measures have legs—will they continue on after the executive orders have expired?

Digital distractions have already replaced human interactions for many people in daily life. The coronavirus may exacerbate this new reality.

Experts say that about one in three people in the U.S. lives alone. Among those who are over 85, the number is more like one in two. Katie Hafner, reporting in The New York Times, writes that“studies … show the prevalence of loneliness among people older than 60 ranging from 10 to 46 percent.” Khullar states that “A wave of new research suggests social separation is bad for us,” impacting sleep, altering immune systems, and raising stress hormones levels.

Photo by Charles Postiaux on Unsplash

When isolation becomes the norm, outsiders become a threat—and for many people, isolation is the norm. Perhaps this rise in individual isolation is affecting a rise in national isolationism, as demonstrated in the heated immigration debate, ironically being waged on the internet by people speaking out of isolation. Future historians may identify the growth of isolation and isolationism as a major story of the 21st century.

The church has an alternative story to tell or, rather, the church is an alternative story. Instead of isolation, it is a story of community. Instead of division, it is a story of reconciliation. Instead of alienation, it is a story of inclusion. Instead of top-down charity, it is a story of side by side friendship. It is the story of Jesus, incarnate for, and in, his church.

This alternative story is first of all the story of the community-loving God who, according to Christian understanding, exists forever in the loving, blissful community of the Trinity. This God didn’t create the universe to satisfy some unmet need but to share the unending joy of the Godhead. In carrying out his intent, God became human and did what God always does: shared his love with others.

The ultimate example of this love is the cross of Jesus. As St. John wrote, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…” Then God gave himself again: the other member of the joyful Trinity, known to us as the Spirit, came to live in people. Those people, now sharing one Spirit, were united into one people—the church.

In this divine comedy, that church, the church everyone knows – messy, incomplete, and sometimes just silly – has become part of the alternative story. When the church most fully embodies its divine calling to be the dwelling place of the joyful God, it becomes a prominent and glorious character in God’s story of community, reconciliation, inclusion, and friendship.

Though the church is brought into the story by the Author, it must be intentional about its place in the story. It must reflect the joyful God by being a people of community and by taking actions that demonstrate this to be true. The church, for example, might organize dinners and connection times for all its people. It might choose to be a place where forgiveness and reconciliation take place; where the outsider becomes an insider; where social status is relentlessly deconstructed as a barrier to friendship.

In an age marked by social isolation, the church can and must provide a striking alternative: a people who share an identity as family, who spend time together, forgive each other, and like each other. It can be a growing family, welcoming others in and helping them to find their place with their loving Father and the rest of the family.

First published in Gatehouse Media

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Powerful Prayers: The One Who Is Able (Ephesians 3:20-21)

(Note: For a few weeks , I will post the manuscript that goes with the audio (posted Tuesdays) from a sermon in the Powerful Prayers series. People have requested the sermon manuscripts many time, but I’ve always been reluctant to make it available for two principal reasons: 1) I never simply read a sermon, so what people read is not exactly what I spoke. The manuscript might be better or it may be worse but it will be different. And (2) because the sermon has not been edited for publication. With those caveats, here is The Spirit of Wisdom and Revelation III (His Incomparably Great Power for Us Who Believe)

The One Who Is Able

(Ephesians 3:20-21) Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. 

*******************

We began the “Powerful Prayer” series eight weeks ago. Each week, we have looked closely into one or the other of the Apostle Paul’s great prayers for the church. What we have seen has been extraordinary. We have had a master of prayer – St. Paul himself – show us why he prayed and what he prayed. Yet our in-depth study of these remarkable prayers will make no difference if it doesn’t inspire us to pray.

If we’ve learned anything, I hope we’ve learned that God expects us to pray for the church, including Lockwood Church. I hope we’ve learned that praying for the church is critical. So, after two months of hearing about praying for the church, are we praying for the church? Have you prayed for Lockwood this week? Have you used what you’ve learned to pray for our church family?

I’ve met people who believe in God but don’t believe in prayer. They think God is going to do what he is going to do, whether we pray or not. That prayer is just a matter of adjusting our attitudes and expectations.

But I don’t believe that. I agree with Henry Emerson Fosdick, who said: “Now if God has left some things contingent on man’s thinking and working, why may he not have left some things contingent on man’s praying? The testimony of the great souls is a clear affirmative to this: some things never without thinking; some things never without working; some things never without praying! Prayer is one of the three forms of man’s cooperation with God.”

God has made room in his creation for us to be involved with him in ways that make a difference, and one of those ways – the most immediate of those ways – is prayer. If we pray, some good things will happen that would not happen if we didn’t pray. Some bad things won’t happen that would have happened if we didn’t pray. St. Paul clearly did not think his prayers for the church would make no difference, other than improving his own attitude and raising his expectations. If you had suggested such a thing to him, he would have thought you were mad.

The purpose of this series was not to stick more information in our heads but to send us to our knees with inspired prayers in our mouths. The church of Jesus – including Lockwood Church – is of enormous importance in God’s plans for the world and for our lives and we should be praying for it. If we do, some things will happen that would not otherwise happen. If we don’t, some things will not happen that otherwise would.

For example: remember Paul’s prayer for the Colossian’s Church. He prayed that God would give them the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding so that they could live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way. How we need the knowledge of God’s will in this time. The elders and the admin board are making decisions about services – we need the knowledge of God’s will. If Covid-19 forces us to move online for a time, we will need the knowledge of God’s will to serve our church family, help people keep growing in grace, meet physical needs, and so on.

When God answers the prayer to fill us with the knowledge of his will, there are four enormously valuable outcomes. The first is fruitfulness in all the church’s work. Think of that. We are always doing work – our children’s ministry, family ministry, and youth ministry, just to name a few examples. We are working hard. To some degree, the fruitfulness of all that work will hinge on knowing God’s will, which in turn hinges on our prayers. The difference between fruitful labor and mere labor resides, in part, with our prayers.

Or what about praying for a knowledge of God’s will so that our people will be strengthened? Strengthened people, according to Paul, can endure. They can be patient. They can remain joyful. Our people are going through tough stuff. I was with someone this week who was suffering intense pain throughout our short visit. She needs to be strong to endure. Paul prayed for that.

Weak people won’t endure. Marriages will end. Church members will leave. Sunday School teachers will give up. Deacons will find something easier to do. If we don’t pray, we are not doing our part to help each other.

Watchman Nee said it well: “Our prayers lay the track down on which God’s power can come. Like a mighty locomotive, his power is irresistible, but it cannot reach us without rails.”

In the prayer in Ephesians 1, Paul asked God to give the Ephesians a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him. Have you and I prayed that prayer for Lockwood? For First Baptist, Bethel Gilead, the United Methodists, and our friends in other fellowships? What a difference it makes when I get up to preach, if God has given us the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him. Being able to receive revelation, to have wisdom concerning what God is like, what he can do, and what he wants changes everything.

The prayer we have been looking at in Ephesians 3, the prayer for strength to know the knowledge-surpassing love of Christ—how important that is in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. What a difference we will make if we have grasped Christ’s love and been strengthened with God’s power. It will increase our courage, deepen our compassion, and make us stand out against the darkness of our society the way stars stand out against the darkness of the night sky (Philippians 2:15).

In one sense, it’s not our prayers that make the difference; it’s the God to whom we pray who makes the difference. He is able to do things that we cannot imagine, things that have never even crossed our minds. His power is beyond comprehension. Our best-case scenarios, our highest ambitions, and wildest dreams don’t come close to the reality of what God is capable of doing.

In Ephesians 3:20, Paul calls God (literally) “The one who is able.” Sometimes we talk about people that way: “She is a very able leader.” With God, we take that to another level.

“Able” translates a participle, the verbal form of the noun “power.” To be able is to have the power needed to accomplish something. The prayer Paul has just made is to the God who has the power to do whatever he chooses to do. His power is limitless, his ability boundless.

There are two other places the Bible speaks of God as “the one who is able” – Romans 16 and Jude 24. In the Romans passage, God is able to establish you – that is, to make you strong; to keep you stable and secure. We are wobbly – both physically and spiritually – but God is able to make us stand firm.

In Jude 24, God is the one who is able to keep you from falling. I have seen Christians fall spectacularly – fall into sin, into despair, into unbelief. What might have happened if they – and we – had prayed to the God who is able to keep us from falling?

Jude goes on: “and to present [us] before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy.” But we know ourselves too well. We are not without fault, but we are often without “joy,” certainly without “great joy.” Sometimes we are miserable. It seems impossible that we should stand before a perfect God without fault and with great joy. We can’t imagine it.

Precisely. Go back to our benediction: “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine…” We don’t see any way for things to work out, but we see a hundred ways for them to go wrong – a thousand if we keep looking. We just want things to be okay.

But God is not satisfied with okay. He is planning for perfect, planning for great joy. He is able (literal translation) “to do beyond everything, very far in excess of that which we ask or think.”[1]

You want God to get you out of a tough spot. He’s planning on getting you into heaven. You want to avoid embarrassment. He’s planning on bringing glory down on your head. You just want your kid to be okay. He wants your kid to be amazing. And he is able to do all those things. He is “the One who is able.”

You say, “But how? How is he going to do these things?” I don’t know how. No one knew, no one imagined – neither human nor angel – that God would present us without fault and with great joy through a horrible Roman cross—the cross of Jesus. No eye saw it, no ear heard it, no mind conceived it – except God’s. He is the One who is able!

His ability is very far in excess of anything we can ask or think. Listen to the words of St. Thomas Aquinas: “To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.” The first step is faith—but not in God’s great power. We start by trusting his great love, manifest in the Christ of the cross.

Vance Havner put it this way: “…we miss so much because we live on the low level of the natural, the ordinary, the explainable. We leave no room for God to do the exceeding abundant thing above all that we can ask or think.”[2]

Look at verse 20 again: “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us…” Wait a moment… This extraordinary power is not theoretical. It is already at work within us, or “among us,” as the Greek could be translated. In our church, among our people (even in our inner persons) that power is at work. Prayer plugs us into the power.

Philip Yancy was right: “If prayer stands as the place where God and human beings meet, then I must learn about prayer. Most of my struggles in the Christian life circle around the same two themes: why God doesn’t act the way we want God to, and why I don’t act the way God wants me to. Prayer is the precise point where those themes converge.”[3] Prayer is not only the point where they converge; in countless lives, prayer has been the point where those themes unite to become a story of power and beauty.

And of glory. Look at verse 21: “to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.” Some scholars have said that Paul could not possibly have written this because of the word order. They say that Paul never would have put the church before Jesus. But this is to ignore what Paul has just been writing about: the church is the showpiece of the unsearchable wisdom of God (Ephesians 3:10), put on display for the great spiritual powers to see.

Besides that, in Paul’s mind, the church is not – and can never be – divorced from Jesus. They are a package deal. People in our day often try to divide the church from Jesus. They say, “Well, I have faith. I’m just not into organized religion.” Or, “I believe in Jesus. I just don’t believe in the church.” Such people’s experience of Jesus will always be profoundly limited for Jesus is one with his church and lives on earth through his church. Yes, the church is unfinished and no one who loves the church is blind to its faults. But Jesus’s love and God’s power are expressed in the church and it is in the church that glory comes to God.

Especially, in times like this. More than ever, we must pray (Colossians 1:9-12) for the church to have the knowledge of God’s will. There is an opportunity in this moment for the church to serve God in the world and we mustn’t miss it. This Wednesday, pastors from our county are gathering to discuss how we can serve God in the church and in the world during the pandemic. We must pray (Ephesians 1:17-19) for the spirit of wisdom and revelation so that we may grasp the hope before us and the enormous value of the each other – God’s chosen inheritance in the saints. We must pray for power (Ephesians 3:14-21) so that we will be strong in this time of uncertainty, so God can fill us – his church – to all his fullness.

Will you pray? Will you pray earnestly, continually, confidently for God’s will in our church and the church in our county and country and world? Will you pray for the elders, deacons, and admin board, that we will be filled with the knowledge of God’s will and so serve him well, so that all of us will live courageously and fruitfully in this challenging time?

I close with the words of the great 19th century preacher Charles Spurgeon. Using a church bell high in the belfry as a metaphor for prayer, he said this: “Prayer pulls the rope below and the great bell rings above in the ears of God. Some scarcely stir the bell, for they pray so languidly. Others give but an occasional pluck at the rope. But he who wins with heaven is the [person] who grasps the rope boldly and pulls continuously, with all his might.”

Let us win with heaven. Let’s pull together and let’s pull hard. Amen.


(If you’re interested, check out a song I wrote about the One Who Is Able. Romans 11:33-36 served as the basis for the lyrics. Click this link https://shaynelooper.com/music/ and scroll down to “He Is Able.”)

[1] Harold Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary, © 2002. Baker Books

[2] Vance Havner in the Vance Havner Quote Book. Christianity Today, Vol. 36, no. 14.

[3] Philip Yancey, Prayer (Zondervan, 2006)

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Powerful Prayers: The One Who Is Able (Ephesians 3:20-21)

Covid-19 has people feeling more than a little nervous. My wife Karen went to the store today and came home without some things she intended to purchase – panicky shoppers had cleaned out the shelves. Gratefully, we still have the staples—co ffee and fruit snacks.

History is full of scary times: famines, plagues, and wars. Some of you can still remember the sleepless nights and anxiety you suffered during the Second World War. I was a boy during the height of the Cold War, when our school had occasional “bomb drills.” It was scary stuff. For many of us, 9/11 seems like only yesterday.

History is full of scary times but behind history is a strong, loving God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. When times are at their darkest, that’s when the people who know God shine the brightest. Every crisis is an opportunity for salvation history to leap forward, as the church courageously trusts God and treats people with sacrificial love.

In Ephesians 3:20-21, the Apostle Paul describes our God as “him who is able.” He is able during a crisis. He is able during a pandemic. He “is able to do immeasurably more that we can ask or imagine, according to his power…” That power is already at work among us to accomplish great things. Let’s work with it. Let’s take advantage of every opportunity this crisis affords to trust God and love people.

(Note: we live streamed this sermon on Facebook for our members who could not come or chose not to come because of Covid-19. If you’d like to view it, check out this link: https://www.facebook.com/LCCFamilyMinistry/videos/533190877578050/?q=lockwood%20family%20ministry&epa=SEARCH_BOX. The sermon begins at about 20 minutes in. This is our first attempt to live stream and the video is a little fuzzy at times.)

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The Curious Origin of the Word “Church”

Ask people about the church, and most will tell you where the church is. It’s on the corner of Main and Fourth – as if the church is the building in which a group of people meet.

Some may tell you the denomination of the church. It is a Methodist church, a Presbyterian church, or maybe “a holy roller church.” Don’t bother asking what a holy roller church is. For that matter, asking the difference between the Methodists and the Presbyterians will probably not yield an adequate answer, either.

I once invited a man to visit our church and he immediately replied that he had his own church, which was obviously meant to put me off. It didn’t. I said, “Great! Which church is that?”

He seemed surprised by the question and I could see he was searching his memory for a name. The best he could do was: “Uh, it’s the one on Parkman Road … uh, just before you get to the overpass.”

I said, “You mean the Nazarene Church?”

His eyes lit up, he pointed is finger at me and said, “That’s the one!”

It was like I’d won the prize on “Let’s Make a Deal.”

The word “church” has a complicated history. It is probably derived from Old English “cirice,” which in turn came from the German “kirika,” which likely came from the Greek “kuriake,” which means “of the Lord.” Some scholars dispute this, saying that our English word derives from the Anglo-Saxon “kirke,” which in turn comes from the Latin “circus” (meaning “circle” or “ring”) because early congregants gathered in a circle.

Somehow, the idea that the words “church” and “circus” are related seems fitting. Sometimes, the church is like a circus. However, the oldest word for church is completely unrelated to any of these derivations.

The oldest word for church, the word that St. Paul himself used, is the Greek word “ecclesia,” from which we get the terms “ecclesial” and “ecclesiastical.” The word was in use centuries before the Christian church appeared on the scene. It referred to a socio-political gathering of citizens, who were called together to attend to the concerns of their city.

The term’s political associations probably had little to do with its use by the followers of Jesus. Those earliest followers probably borrowed the word from the popular Greek translation of the Old Testament, where it referred to Israel’s sacred assemblies, called together to worship or conduct business. It was natural for the first followers of Jesus, nearly all of whom were Jews, to borrow the familiar term for their assemblies.

Nevertheless, as news spread across the Mediterranean that a potential rival to Caesar had appeared, and that his followers were gathering in ecclesia, the ancient meaning of the word must surely have come to mind. That the Christians (Christ-ones or Christ-supporters) were meeting in socio-political gatherings across the Empire caused the Emperor and his prefects to see the church as a threat and attempt to abolish it.

Few people see the church as a threat today, though many politicians see it as a resource to be leveraged or an obstacle to be avoided in the acquisition of power. Some within the church have encouraged such thinking as a way to snatch at least the leftover crumbs of power. This betrays a misunderstanding of the church that is based on a category error.

Society at large – the “world” in biblical parlance – is not the dominant category into which the church must negotiate a place. On the contrary, St. Paul would say the church is the principal reality the world and society are called to join. In any biblical understanding, the church is the future.

It is a general election year, which means the church sometimes looks more like a circus than an ecclesia. The best thing the church can do for society is to be the church as Jesus intended and as his apostles instructed. Then the world will see what a just society looks like: a society where people are respected; burdens are shared; talents are used and not exploited; the poor are valued and the rich are helpful. Then the church will become the prototype of what the world can and, by God’s grace, will be.

First published by Gatehouse Media.

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Powerful Prayers: To Know the Unknowable

(Note: For a few weeks , I will post the manuscript that goes with the audio (posted Tuesdays) from a sermon in the Powerful Prayers series. People have requested the sermon manuscripts many time, but I’ve always been reluctant to make it available for two principal reasons: 1) I never simply read a sermon, so what people read is not exactly what I spoke. The manuscript might be better or it may be worse but it will be different. And (2) because the sermon has not been edited for publication. With those caveats, here is The Spirit of Wisdom and Revelation III (His Incomparably Great Power for Us Who Believe)

(Ephesians 3:16-19) I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. 

We have a house plant that is like something out of a science fiction movie. Someone gave it to Karen – this nice, shiny, dark green plant – and she watered it and took care of it and it got bigger. When it was in danger of becoming root-bound, Karen transplanted it into a bigger pot. I think it might have outgrown that pot as well, so she put it in an even bigger one and now it is threatening to take over our house. We recently set it next to my side of the bed. I have dreams that it is going to eat me in my sleep.

Sometimes plants need to be transplanted to be healthy and strong. Sometimes people do too. In this passage, Paul talks about people being rooted in love, and the good things that can come from that.

Some people first took root in soil that has little love in it. It was highly acidic and full of selfishness. They grew up with selfish parents, in selfish schools, around selfish friends, and they were poisoned by it. They can hardly be blamed them for turning inward on themselves, but they can be transplanted them into the rich soil of Christ’s love in the church. That’s what happens when someone comes over to God’s side through faith in Jesus and is baptized into Christ. They are transplanted. The church becomes their family. If it is a healthy church and there is plenty of love in that soil, they will, apart from injury, grow strong.

Being rooted (verse 17) is an agrarian image. Being established, as the NIV has it (also verse 17), is a construction image. Paul loves to mix those two metaphors. He does it here. He does it in Colossians 2:7. He does it in 1st Corinthians 3:9, where he calls the Corinthian church both God’s field and God’s building.

Being rooted implies life. A seed without life won’t root, it will only rot. Being established (better, laying a foundation) implies intention. No human has to be involved in a plant taking root (just ask the teams that pull weeds around the church) but a building’s foundation doesn’t just sprout from the ground. Laying it requires planning, intention, and effort. Both images – agrarian and construction – have something important to teach us.

In the first, we see the necessity of life. Imagine that “spirit photography” (as it is called) was a real thing. (And many people believe it is and think they can capture ghosts and spirits with it). Let’s say you took a before and an after picture of me with a “spirit camera”– before God brought me to himself and after. The principal difference would be that in the “after” picture I would have life. This is the promise repeated throughout the Bible: “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” “The Son gives life to whomever he chooses.” “I have come that you may have life and have it to the full.”

Life is powerful. It grows. It adapts. It changes. We can try to control it but we cannot create it. We can guide it, but we can’t give it – it’s not ours to give; it’s God’s. and because he gives it, we can take root in love, draw it into ourselves, and share it with others.

The other image, the construction image, implies intentionality and effort. This is not about organic growth but painstaking construction, building one block on another. Life grows, like the seed in Jesus’s story, which grew whether the farmer slept or got up. But a building rises because the builders got up and got to work. The farmer doesn’t understand how the seed grows, but the builders understand how the building rises, and they know it won’t rise unless they get to work.

Followers of Jesus need both: to be rooted and innately growing; and to be founded and systematically built. There is, on the one hand, nothing they can do to create life and, on the other, things they must do to build a suitable home for that life.

Notice again that the rooting and the foundation-laying are done in love. Love is the soil in which the growing seed is planted and upon which the rising building is founded. Things grow poorly in the desert and a loveless life is a desert. But love is a garden, where people grow fruitful and beautiful. The church can be such a garden but the love comes from God (1 John 4:7).

People not only grow beautiful in love, they grow strong. (That’s the beginning of verse 18.) People who are rooted and grounded in love are strong enough to weather life’s storms – they are stormproof – and discerning. Paul’s prayer is that they, rooted and established in love, may have power. Being loved is a prerequisite for this kind of power. Being unloved is an obstacle to it.

The Greek word for power here is not the usual one. This one has the idea of being strong enough to accomplish something. It is the word a koine Greek speaker would use to say (for example): “He is strong enough to do 100 pushups.” But, in this case, what is it that we are strong enough to do because we are rooted and established in love? We are strong enough, verse 18, to grasp the width and length and height and depth of the love of Christ.

Some people simply are not strong enough to grasp – to comprehend – the love of Christ.  We tend to think there are smart people who comprehend things and there are strong people who get things done. The smart people wear glasses, walk around with their noses in books, and got beat up a lot when they were kids.

And of course it was the strong kids who beat them up – the kids who didn’t wear glasses and couldn’t find a book in the Library of Congress. And, even if they did, they’d only use it to hit the smart kids over the head.

But this is a false dichotomy the Bible does not support. Smart does not equal weak and strong does not equal stupid. Quite the opposite: there are some things we will never grasp until we become strong. One of them is Christ’s love. That’s why Paul asks God to give the Ephesians power to strengthen their grasp.

This thing Paul wants people to be strong enough to grasp, this knowledge that transforms a life in all its dimensions, is the breadth and width and height and depth of Christ’s love. Paul looks out and as far as he can see is the love of Christ. He looks left and right and he can find no end to it. He looks up and it extends to the heavens. He looks down and it reaches beyond the grave.

If you could travel to z8­­_GND_5296. 6 – the most distant galaxy yet discovered, 13.8 billion light-years away (and remember just one light year is about 5.88 trillion miles) – you would find the love of Christ there. If you could reach the deepest part of the ocean, the Challenger Deep, where the atmospheric pressure is 16,000 pounds per square inch, (which is equivalent to turning the Eiffel Tower upside down and resting the point on your toe), you would find the love of Christ there.

What measure can we use to gauge the love of Christ? We measure breadth and width and height and depth in inches or yards. We weigh objects in pounds and ounces. We measure time from nanoseconds (a nano-second is one-billionth of a second) to millennia. But none of those units are sufficient to measure the love of Christ.

Perhaps other units and systems are needed. What about the Smoot? Every MIT student knows what a smoot is: it is a unit of length equal to five feet seven inches. It is named for Oliver Smoot who, as a fraternity pledge in 1958, was used to measure the Harvard Bridge which connects Boston and Cambridge. After repeatedly lying down on the bridge and having his position marked in chalk, it turned out that the bridge was 364.4 smoots (and an ear) long. Google now offers the option to measure anything in smoots. I, for example, am 1.134 smoots tall. But there are not enough smoots to measure the heights and depths of the love of Christ.

If you try to measure how long the love of Christ will last, you’ll use units of time. How about “the moment”? When somebody asks you to do something and you reply, “Just a moment,” you probablythink you’re giving yourself some wiggle room, but you’re not. A “moment” is quite precise. It was a medieval time measurement, roughly equal to one and a half minutes. Put a billion moments into the equation, and you have not even come close to the end of Christ’s love. Put a billion millennia into the equation and you are still no nearer. That is the love we must grasp.

Paul’s request in this prayer is broken into three parts. The first is that the Ephesian followers of Jesus would be given power to strengthen them. The second is that, being so strengthened, Christ would settle down and make himself at home in their hearts – their command centers. The third is that, being strengthened, they will be able (verse 18) to grasp the dimensions, and so (verse 19, and this is how I translate it) “to know the knowledge-surpassing love of Christ.”

Now, before we go on, we need to go back. Paul prays the Ephesians “may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and so to know this love that surpasses knowledge” (Ephesians 3:17-18). Don’t miss the words, “together with all the saints.” It is not a throwaway clause.  

We will not have power to grasp how wide and long and high and deep the love of Christ is in isolation from the saints. We need all the saints – all God’s own people – to get a handle on (to grasp) the immensity of Christ’s love. Even though we can never succeed in measuring or quantifying it, we can grasp it; can know it experientially—but only in partnership with all God’s other people. You know things I do not know, see things I have not seen, just as I know and see things you do not. Only together can we begin to get a handle on – to grasp – the unending, overwhelming love of Christ. Only in partnership with all Jesus’s people does being “filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (verse 19) become a possibility.

No one ever accused the Apostle Paul of thinking small. What a goal! “…that you may be filled to the measure of the fullness of God.” This is the goal to which Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians has been headed all along. But let’s pause a moment to ask, “Who is being filled to all the fullness of God?” Michael or Abby – the individual believer? I think not. The “you” here is plural and, in this case, that is significant. Paul is praying for the church of Jesus to be filled to all the fullness of God. He’s praying that God will come to the Living Temple – remember the end of chapter 2? – as he did Solomon’s temple, and fill it with all his fullness.

This is not a prayer for Christians in isolation but for Christians in the church. Don’t forget that God wants to demonstrate (verse 10) to rulers and authorities his manifold wisdom through what – individuals?  No. Through the church. The church that knows the knowledge-surpassing love of Christ, that has grasped and won’t let go of that love, is a miracle on earth. The church that forgives, gives, protects, trusts, hopes is a stunning alternative to the what people see in their homes and at work every day. The church that has grasped the love of Christ is both compelling evidence of God’s wisdom and a persuasive advertisement to join God’s people.

Let’s be that church! A church that is fertile soil, rich in love, in which people get rooted and upon which they build their lives.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to becoming that church is the lovelessness that we ourselves bring into it. Many of us were not rooted in love but rather in fear, rejection, indifference, and condemnation and some of that stuff is still circulating through us. We are upset when the church does not love us, but we are not doing a good job loving the church. It is a vicious cycle. When we don’t love, we don’t feel loved. When we don’t feel loved, we don’t love. What can we do?

Well, we can start by praying for our church, as Paul prayed for the Ephesians. How much we need to know this love and how essential it is that we should pray for it! If it were true, as a famous Christian once said, that “God does nothing except in answer to prayer,”[1] would God be doing this? I think that great man exaggerated, but he exaggerated to make a point: God wants us to have a role in what he is doing, and prayer is a major component in that role. Let us pray this prayer for LCC and for all the Church in Brach County!

Next, we can get active – not passive – about loving each other. We can call and encourage each other; go out to lunch together; pray together; go on vacations together; serve together; share hobbies; share sorrows; drive each other to appointments; loan cars, give aid. In other words, we can bless each other and work for each other’s good. St. John said, “Let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:18). Just talking about love is not enough to enrich the soil. People who take root in mere talk are easily uprooted. We need action.

Finally, we must learn to look beyond each other’s imperfect love (we are all so very imperfect) and draw on Jesus’s perfect love. We will let each other down. Yes, we are being purified, but there is still a lot of impurities (and, in some cases, poisons) in our lives that have not been refined out. The love we need is Jesus’s – through each other, yes; a thousand times yes – but also straight from the source.

Jesus’s love is enough for you: enough to fulfill you, change you, and enable you to love, however anyone else may act. Jesus’s love will sustain you when no one else loves you. Jesus’s love will not run out when you mess everything up. Jesus’s love is enough.

Karen and I were at Lake Tahoe for our 40th anniversary. Lake Tahoe is the eighth deepest lake in the world at 1645 feet. The lake is so large that if it were tipped over, its contents would cover the entire state of California in 14.5 inches of water. It could provide every person in the United States with 50 gallons of water per day for the next five years. Just one year’s evaporation from Tahoe could supply Los Angeles enough water for five years. And Lake Tahoe is a small lake compared to Lake Superior (120 times as large) and the world’s largest lake, the Caspian Sea (576 times as large).

Your personal use of water could never exhaust the limits of Lake Tahoe, nor could your need for love could ever exhaust Christ’s limitless supply. Whatever you need, whatever you do, you can never exhaust Jesus’s love.[2]

Sometimes – maybe for you, this is the time – we need to be reminded of that. The supreme image of that love is Jesus on the cross. His head, crowned with thorns, points to the furthest reaches of heaven – to z8_GND_5296.6 and beyond. His feet, to the depths of the grave and beyond. His arms reach as far as the east is from the west. This is the measure of his love.

 “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10).

Take root in that love and you will flourish. Build on it, and you will be unshakeable.


[1] John Wesley

[2] David Finch, “A Picture of Praise,” sermon on PreachingToday.com, http://www.preachingtoday.com/sermons/outlines/2014/november/picture-of-praise.html

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Powerful Prayers: To Know the Unknowable (Ephesians 3:16-19)

George Hood of Naperville, Illinois, a 62-year-old former Marine, just set the endurance record for holding a plank. The plank, an isometric exercise which strengthens the abdominal muscles, is like a pushup, except one rests on one’s forearms and holds that isometric position. I can hold a plank for about a minute. George Hood held it for eight hours, 15 minutes, and 15 seconds.

The former Marine trained for years to set the record. He did 4 to 5 hours a day in a plank position, performed 700 pushups a day, 2,000 sit-ups, and 300 curls. He eventually became strong enough to hold an 8-hour plank.

Some things require strength. In Ephesians 3:14-21, the Apostle Paul surprises us with the revelation that it takes strength to grasp (and, I suppose, hold onto) the love of Christ. Grasping the love of Christ is more important and brings better results than holding an 8-hour plank and – here’s the thing – together we can become strong enough.

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Pastors: Targets to Aim at or Leaders to Follow?

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

According to the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, there are currently around 380,000 church congregations in the United States. Christianity Today’s Rebecca Randall reports that number was higher in 2006, with approximately 414,000 congregations. From 2006 to 2012, an estimated 30,000 congregations closed.

That’s the bad news. The good news is the church still has the lowest closure rate of any institution in the country. And while 30,000 churches closed between 2006 and 2012, there are still something like 50,000 more congregations in the U.S. than there were in 1998.

Most of those 380,000 congregations are led by pastors, sometimes by large pastoral staffs. How often do these pastors leave their churches? It is difficult to be sure, since study results vary widely, but in 2011, Lifeway Research found the average pastoral stay to be 3.6 years. Other studies show the typical pastoral tenure to be between 5 and 7 years.

What this means is that churches need to find new pastoral leadership more frequently than I need to find a new car. Since pastoral leadership is important to the life and health of a church, what should a local congregation be looking for in a prospective pastor?

Most pastors have a job description. They frequently detail duties such as preaching, teaching, and visiting the sick. In recent years, many job descriptions include things like “strategic leadership and planning” and call for the pastor to be the church’s “lead visionary.”

Such things are good, but they don’t replace the fundamental requirements given by the apostles of Jesus and preserved in the Bible. A key passage comes in St. Paul’s letter to his protégé, Pastor Timothy. He lays out some of the essentials in 1 Timothy 4.

First, the pastor is to be an example for church members to imitate. Paul lists some specific areas in which Timothy should provide the pattern. The first is speech. The Bible says a great deal about speech – it is to be true, loving, gentle, interesting, free of gossip, manipulation, and deceit. How pastors preach is important, but how they speak when they’re not in the pulpit is even more important.

Furthermore, their lifestyle is to be exemplary. What is important to them? How do they spend their time? Do they value people more than money, character more than fashion? Are they hard workers? If church members all patterned their lifestyle after their pastor, would the church be a better or worse place?

The apostle specifically calls Pastor Timothy to model love. Love can be taught from the pulpit, but it is caught in personal interactions. Of all the places in the world, the church should be the place where people know they are loved. The pastor must demonstrate that.

Pastors must also be devoted to Scripture. They must love the Bible, read it privately and publicly. They should teach the Scriptures, not their own pet subjects or their thoughts on the latest news cycle. (I once heard a sermon based entirely on a news story that appeared in the previous evening’s paper.)

Another essential for the pastor is that he or she is growing as a person and as a disciple of Jesus. Pastors like to look like they are completely grown, as if they had already arrived at the optimum level of spiritual maturity. But if your pastor is already done growing, it’s time for a new pastor.

St. Paul counsels Pastor Timothy to demonstrate his growth “so that everyone may see your progress.” This leaves no room for pretending one has already arrived. The church does not need a pastor who impresses them by how far he is beyond them. A faraway leader won’t be followed.

The church should look for pastors who are obviously growing, leaders who openly admit they are fallible and imperfect but whose progress is plain to see. A pastor who has already arrived is not a leader to follow but a target to aim at, as churches throughout history have proved.

Churches must remember that even the best pastor makes mistakes, has flaws, and failings. Only Jesus is perfect. The leaders he sends are not, but still he sends them, and we must do our best to love them and grow with them.

First published by Gatehouse Media

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