“Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young,” Henry Ford is claimed to have said. “The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.”

The great automobile maker is right. Learning keeps us interested and interesting. If we stop learning, we can become stale and self-absorbed, significantly hampering our effectiveness. 

Just as worship habits contribute to our spiritual health, so do our learning habits. Here are three learning habits for spiritually healthy pastors. 

HABIT #1—MAKE TIME FOR SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINES DAILY. 

The quality of our spiritual lives will never grow beyond our devotional habits. For years, I’ve used the M’Cheyne reading plan for my devotions. Reading through the Bible in sections highlights the interconnected themes in all of Scripture. 

Bible reading, study, Scripture memorization, prayer, journaling, fasting, meditating on God’s Word are commendable disciplines with manifold value. These disciplines are critical for our personal growth. 

Too many pastors and church leaders who’ve failed morally or ethically can trace their failures to a barren devotional life. May we build habits that lead us to God’s Word and prayer. 

HABIT #2— PARTICIPATE IN A GROUP WEEKLY. 

In our church’s mission strategy, we fulfill the learning step in Sunday school classes and discipleship groups. For some pastors who have multiple Sunday services, attending a Sunday morning small group is impractical or even impossible. 

However, pastors must not neglect the habit of participating in the ministry of a group. A weekly discipleship group designed to encourage regular Bible reading, accountability, and prayer is spiritually healthy. 

Even though we’re the under-shepherd of the church, we’re still sheep. We need others. We need their encouragement and accountability. 

You’ll be blessed by the spiritual growth you witness when you make a weekly habit of growing with other believers in a group.  

Just this morning, I met with my discipleship group. I was encouraged by the spiritual development of others, motivated by their insights, and challenged by their faith. We need each other. Pastors, don’t neglect being in a group.

HABIT #3— READ, THINK, AND WRITE REGULARLY. 

To be a leader is to be a learner. Too many pastors set their ministry on cruise control, failing to be challenged intellectually and spiritually. 

In what’s likely the final letter Paul wrote, he asked Timothy to bring him books and parchments (2 Timothy 4:13). Paul’s example of continued learning at the twilight of his ministry is instructive and motivating. 

Charles Spurgeon encouraged pastors to spend their leisure time reading the Bible, reading sound theology, or praying. 

The spiritually healthy pastor will make time to learn by reading, thinking, and writing. 

Reading reveals how much we don’t know. Thinking helps us integrate what we’re learning into our daily lives. Writing engages the mind, providing clarity, understanding, and application with what we’re learning. 

You may argue, “But I don’t have time for this stuff.” Begin by carving out small blocks of time each day for reading, thinking, and writing. 

Get a subscription to audible.com, check out audiobooks from your local library to listen to in the car, take short windows of time that are specifically for reading, writing, or thinking. If you took 30 minutes a day for reading, writing, or thinking and tracked it for a month, you would be amazed at how much reading, writing, or thinking you actually got accomplished.

As church leaders, we aspire to have an effective ministry. As Christians, we aspire to spiritual growth. A ministry or a life with longevity and effectiveness will require habits of learning that’ll keep us growing.

In the spirit of this article, I’d love to learn from your feedback. What are some ways you’ve built learning habits into your life? 

Originally published here at LifeWay Facts and Trends.

I’m not an expert on suffering. My life’s suffering has been minimal. My mom died a couple of years ago, and I’ve had the flu and bronchitis, but generally I’ve had a pretty non-eventful life. This post is not written from the perspective of an expert, but rather a fellow traveler seeking to understand what God wants to teach us in our circumstances.

Now Job is an expert in suffering. Following a heavenly conversation between God and Satan (Job’s accuser), God gave permission for Satan to bring suffering into Job’s life. By the end of chapter 2, Job had lost most everything he owned, had to face the death of his children, became ridden with boils, and was encouraged by his wife to curse God and die.

Few people on earth have ever suffered as Job.

The next 35 chapters of the book are basically a dialogue between Job and his friends about the reasons for Job’s suffering. These dialogues include lament, complaint, disappointment, and argument. It is normal in times of pain and suffering to complain and wonder why. But our complaints are not always profitable. Think about the wasted days of conversations between Job and his unhelpful friends. They didn’t change Job’s mind, and Job didn’t change theirs.

So how do we respond to suffering and pain?

Dr. Donna Gibbs, in her excellent book Becoming Resilient, suggests that we draw a large circle. Inside the circle, we should imagine key words like comfort, peace, forgiveness, hope, and love that reflect our relationship with Jesus Christ. Our circle contains the deepest and most important aspects of our faith. But too often, because of fear or frustration or doubt or worry or sorrow, we leave our sufferings outside the circle representing our faith in Jesus. She writes,

“Until we muster the courage to bring our suffering into the circle, into our relationship with Christ, we will miss the opportunity to experience great relief.”

Donna Gibbs, Becoming Resilient, 165. 

What is profitable in our suffering is to bring our pains and difficulties directly to God. He alone can comfort and heal.

I love how God responds to Job and his friends at the conclusion of the book.

God’s response to Job and his three friends is poignant and powerful. It is direct and quite confrontational. For the better part of four chapters (Job 28-41), God peppers Job with question after question after question. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” And on and on. 

Do you know that God never answers Job or his friends regarding the reason for Job’s suffering? I think God’s response is instructive for two important reasons.

First, When God speaks, we need to become silent and listen. Too often all that can be heard regarding our suffering is our complaints, our opinions, and the opinions of others. Too often, we don’t pause to listen to God. We need to hear God speak by silencing our voices and reading the pages of Scripture. We need to listen for the guidance and comfort of the Holy Spirit in our situations. According to C. S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts to us in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” We might actually learn more about God in our pains if we will be silent and listen to him.

Second, We need to see God and not merely seek answers. The book of Job is a beautiful picture of the divine authorship of the Bible. No human author would spend 37 chapters building a story around a singular question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” and leave the question unanswered. If the book of Job had only human authorship, then the author would have written a response from God into Job’s question. But when God arrives, he questions Job. He silences the complaints of Job. He critiques the false statements of Job’s friends. In essence, God’s monologues to Job say, “Job, I’m enough.”

What we need more than anything else is to remember that God is enough.

Do you believe that God is enough even when you are suffering?

This week in my devotional reading I came to Romans 9. For some of my theologically astute readers, you will recognize the controversial section in Romans 9 where Paul acknowledges election and predestination. But I’m not writing in response to that section as important as it is. God impressed upon me a burden regarding an earlier set of verses.

I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen. But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.

Romans 9:1-8

As a pastor and theology professor, I often focus on the contentious theological passages of the Bible. Warranted as addressing the finer points of theology might be, Paul’s heart in Romans 9 is not found in a theological treatise, but in an evangelistic purpose.

When you read verse three above remember that Romans is Scripture. Paul’s writing here is God-breathed, inspired. Paul is not merely making an emotional point. He’s serious. Deadly serious. Eternally serious. His heart for his fellow Israelites is such that he expressed willingness to be cut off from Christ for their salvation.

This is what God used to break my heart.

Am I so concerned about the eternal state of my friends, family, and neighbors?

Am I broken by lostness that I would cry out for my own soul to be cursed that they might be saved?

Do I pray with fervency and share with urgency that sinners might come to Christ?

Take some time to read Romans 9. Go ahead and read the next two chapters as well. Paul’s internal spiritual desperation is matched only by his external evangelistic zeal. May we be so burdened in prayer and zealous in witness.

Even with the political divisions in our country, it should be our aim as pastors and evangelicals to prioritize the gospel of Jesus Christ and diminish, as much as possible, the division politics causes in the body of Christ.

Unfortunately, sometimes political conversations are unavoidable in the life of the church. Just the other Sunday, several members were discussing the recent impeachment proceedings. If that weren’t enough, Mark Galli’s Christianity Today editorial “Trump Should Be Removed from Office” stirred even more tension within evangelical circles.

Galli’s article prompted a number of responses, not the least of which came in the form of an open letter signed by nearly 200 evangelical leaders. Regardless of the outcome of the impeachment proceedings within the Senate, there will remain significant tension within evangelicalism regarding politics and the 2020 election.

Personally, I think it is wise to keep as much political tension out of the church as possible. The more we allow it to divide us, the less effective we will be in evangelizing the lost. I’m not going to get into the details of the impeachment, nor defend either side of those within evangelicalism. As pastors and church leaders, we must remember and be gracious with the following reminders.

1. We might not be who we choose to vote for. 

As a democratic republic, we have the privilege of voting for politicians to represent our values and interests. But because of our two-party system, the presidential candidates may or may not reflect our values or the character we wish to be associated with. At times this dynamic creates an unappealing “lesser of two evils” choice. Many people vote out of a sense of duty and conscience. Others vote against a candidate rather than for another one. Just because someone may have voted for a Democrat or a Republican does not mean that person automatically carries the same values, character or even holds all the policies of the candidate.

2. We might be who we choose to defend. 

Voting for someone and defending someone require different levels of engagement. While some are pleased with current policies or were pleased with the previous administration’s policies, we do not have to defend said politicians. If we defend a politician’s character in the midst of immoral or sinful behavior, we can become guilty of overlooking or defending sin. We must be careful here. Whatever your positions, when we defend the indefensible, we run the risk of losing our witness.

3. We must be careful to retain a prophetic voice. 

As Christians, we must be willing to speak prophetically and evangelistically. When politicians act immorally or unethically, we ought to speak out. When unethical and immoral platforms are being promoted, we ought to speak out. If we do not retain a prophetic voice, we will lose our witness in the world. And as Christians who have an allegiance to the kingdom of Christ, we should be willing to speak out prophetically regardless of the party in power or the party we align with.

4. We should occasionally get out of our echo chambers. 

In their excellent work The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt explore the tensions related to the “us versus them” culture that is so prevalent in contemporary politics. Part of the reason we are so divided is that we are able to get our information within our own chosen echo chambers of news. Social media plays to this reality as well. Clicks and likes form the basis for populating the articles on your feed. I’m not suggesting that you should watch, listen or read all news from all sources, but you should have a variety of news sources. At the least, we should recognize that each news source carries a bias. Using multiple news outlets helps us be more objective.

Might I humbly suggest that you get your news first from the Biblical Recorder. While the Recorder will not give you a rundown of the latest impeachment news, their staff is committed to news from a biblical worldview aiming to help Baptists fulfill their disciple-making mission.

This was originally published here as an editorial at the Biblical Recorder.

A typical Sunday afternoon dinner at our house goes something like this. One of my boys says, “Dad, mom, tell us a story.” We then recount some imaginative or interesting experience from our childhood. Those stories connect our remembered past with the current lives of our children.

Stories describe.

Stories define.

Stories connect.

It is through stories that we relate to one another, make sense of life, and help identify our place in the world. Stories sell. See the MCU and the recent movies that have made billions based on comic book stories. See the timeless tales written in books like The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, or the Harry Potter series.

Stories are not new. The Bible is made up of a variety of genres: history, prophecy, poetry, teaching, law, epistles, and narrative. Narratives are stories. Much of the Bible comes to us in the form of story. As a story the Bible connects us to God, to one another, and invites us to participate in a narrative that is grander than the sum of our individual lives.

A Jewish description of the importance of story helps us grasp why God chose to reveal himself through the medium of story:

“Truth naked and cold, had been turned away from every door in the village. Her nakedness frightened the people. When Parable found her she was huddled in a corner, shivering and hungry. Taking pity on her, Parable gathered her up and took her home. There, she dressed Truth in story, warmed her and sent her out again. Clothed in story, Truth knocked again at the villagers’ doors and was readily welcomed into the people’s houses. They invited her to eat at their table and warm herself by their fire.”

Annette Simmons, The Story Factor: Inspiration, Influence, and Persuasion  Through the Art of Storytelling (New York: Basic Books, 2001), 27. 

In the story of God found in the Bible, God reveals himself to us through narratives. The beauty of God’s revelation is that we can connect to his story because he came down in Christ to relate to us. God’s story can be seen in the four episodes of the Bible: Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration.

In Creation, God reveals that he is and that he created all things. He created us in his image so we could know him.

In the Fall, God judges the sin of Adam and Eve when they broke his law by eating the forbidden fruit. The Fall explains why the world is in the sinful and selfish condition it is in.

In Redemption, God rescues his people. His perfect redemption is foreshadowed in the Old Testament stories of rescue and declared in Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection.

In Restoration, God will make all things new and restore the perfect glory and purpose of his creation. Things will not be forever in sin and separation because God will restore.

Too often we get caught up in the details of our lives and focus time, energy, efforts, and worry on things that don’t really matter.

In other words, we allow our small stories to dominate our thinking. God invites us to have an eternal story. When we follow Jesus, we enter into

As we live out our lives as followers of Jesus who lead others to follow Jesus, our stories take on a permanent dimension.

The next time you read a Bible story, consider how God might have you join his story of redemption.

This is the 1st of a 4 part series on Habits for Spiritually Healthy Pastors.

I have quite a few habits I observe every day. For example, after dinner each night, I find a sweet treat, usually Oreos and milk, to finish dinner.

In the mornings, I make a pot of coffee and drink at least a cup each day. Also, in the mornings, I make time to read the Bible and pray. 

You have habits as well. Habits (good or bad) form who we are. Have you considered what your habits say about you?

Someone once said, “Watch your thoughts for they become words. Watch your words for they become actions. Watch your actions for they become habits. Watch your habits, for they become your character. And watch your character, for it becomes your destiny! What we think we become.” 

We’re the product of our regular habits. In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg suggests that habits have a cycle of routine, habit, and reward. 

In other words, we do out of habit, because we experience a benefit or reward from it. Our habits say a lot about us. So, what do your worship habits say about you?

Last fall, I preached a sermon series entitled “Habits of Healthy Church Members.” The series highlighted habits that reflect our church mission.

At Wilkesboro Baptist, our mission is to lead our neighbors and the nations to follow Jesus by worshiping, learning, serving, and replicating. We noted three habits for each step in our church’s mission. 

In today’s article, I’m recommending three worship habits for spiritually healthy pastors. 

HABIT #1—HUMBLY PREPARE FOR WORSHIP.

One of my fellow pastors refers to the “unrelenting tyranny of the Sunday” regarding the regularity of sermon preparation and delivery.

If you’re anything like me, you have study and preparation routines throughout the week to make sure you’re ready for each Sunday.

It’s all too easy, however, to get so caught up in the reading, writing, and sermon preparation that I neglect prayer and personal application.

If you want to be spiritually healthy as a pastor, remember your need to prepare humbly. Build prayer and confession time into your office schedule and sermon preparation.

If God doesn’t draw hearts, there won’t be any lasting fruit, regardless of your skill, preparation, giftedness, and delivery.

HABIT #2—INTENTIONALLY ENGAGE IN WORSHIP. 

I know, you’re reading this and thinking, “How can I be more engaged? I’m preaching.” Well, what about the other aspects of worship? 

Are you singing with the congregation? Are you listening to the other portions of the service? Are you engaged by focusing on God, or distracted trying to remember the points of your sermon? 

Pastor, you’re the lead worshiper in your church. If you don’t sing, engage, and connect with the worship aspects in your services, how can you expect your congregation to participate? 

Finish sermon preparation before entering your sanctuary or worship center. Be engaged as you worship. Worship isn’t merely an activity to attend; it’s an attitude to reflect. 

You and your congregation will benefit greatly. More importantly, you’ll honor God with your worshipful engagement.

HABIT #3—GIVE GENEROUSLY AS WORSHIP. 

I have no idea how many pastors give a tithe or more than a tithe. But I know and believe this: pastors are the leaders in their congregations. 

If they’re not generous, how can they ask for generosity of others? Before you balk and say, “But you don’t know how much I make. It’s barely enough to make it each week,” stop and ask yourself: 

“Has God ever failed to meet my need?” In my life, the answer is a resounding, “No.” 

Trust God and give generously. He’ll provide. Trust God and give forgetfully. It only matters to God what you give. Don’t focus on it, and certainly don’t broadcast it.

Giving generously will remind you you’re part of the congregation you serve. It’ll create an attitude of investment and healthy ownership in your church community. It’ll also make you more like Christ. 

Simple habits, right? Maybe simple, but profound in their influence. 

In the next several months, I’ll post about the healthy habits of pastors in their learning, serving, and replicating. I know these aren’t exhaustive; they’re basic. 

But basic habits lived out regularly develop us into growing and fruitful followers of Jesus. What are some other worship habits we should adopt? I’d love to hear from you. 

Originally posted here at LifeWay Facts and Trends.

The last few days have been unsettling. Recently, I had a conversation with a church member who expressed concern that the US drone strike that killed Qassem Soleimani might become a full on military engagement. Iran’s retaliation against US bases in Baghdad certainly do not alleviate those concerns. It is not wrong to be concerned about the potential of another Middle East conflict.

Without question, we should pray. We should for our political leaders who need divine wisdom. We should also pray for the people in the crossfire. There are Iraqi and Iranian nationals who will be caught in the middle of a conflict they do not want. We should pray for the peoples of the region, Israel and other countries, who are regularly face terror threats and acts of violence that have been the precipitating reasons for the current situation. We should pray for our soldiers who are in the Middle East now and those who might be heading there. We should pray for believers in the region who may face even more persecution in a destabilizing situation.

You might be thinking, is that all we can do? Pray.

The reason we can pray is because international conflicts and world affairs do not fall outside the sovereignty of the living God.

During 2019, our Wednesday night Bible study focused on the book of Daniel. The book is full of turmoil, difficulty, and political intrigue. As an exile, Daniel lived under a pagan kingdom. Yet he remained faithful to God. The hero of the book of Daniel is God, who gave Daniel the grace to remain faithful, the ability to interpret dreams, the faith to pray, the willingness to speak truth to the most powerful men in the world

Daniel’s prophetic visions describe turmoil in Jerusalem, terrible tidings for the Jewish people under evil kings, uncertainties and quandaries (Dan. 7-12). But his visions also say something else. They tell us that God is in control.

That God described in predictive detail what would and did happen in the years following Daniel’s life is illuminating. That God foretold his rule and reign through the coming Ancient of Days is encouraging. That God declared to Daniel “And you shall rest and shall stand in your allotted place at the end of the days” (Dan. 12:13), is comforting.

The lesson in the book of Daniel–do not be afraid, God is in control. This is a fitting and timely reminder given the circumstances facing our world today.