How would you encourage a new elder?

The other night I was online when someone clicked to chat with me on Facebook. Turned out to be a guy who was a member of a church I used to serve who had graduated from college a few years before and moved with his wife and two children to take a job. He had grown up in the church but had sort of said good-bye to the faith because of some things he suffered at the hands of the church. That was until God sent my friend Ben into his life to be a means of showing him again the true beauty of the gospel. That all started with free pizza but that is a different story (and not my story). It was exciting to see him and his wife grow in the faith while at our church.

We caught up with each other and then he told me that the church he was attending was getting ready to install their first elders (he had been with this church plant almost since the beginning) and that he had been asked to give word of exhortation and asked me for suggestions. First of all I was excited that he church had elected elders. He and his family attended an independent, evangelical church and among those churches there were very seldom “elders” usually there was one elder who basically called all the shots and so I was excited that his church saw the Biblical patter for a plurality of elders.

As I thought and prayed about what to do, I asked my question “What would you say to encourage a new elder”? Surprisingly Acts 6:1-7 came to mind. Those who know the Bible well will immediately remember that that is the passage where the office of deacon was establish, so what does this have to do with elders? Well the apostles said that they needed the deacons to do the works of mercy in the church not because it was beneath the work of the apostles but rather because the apostles had been called to a different work, an also vital work. Here is what they said: “But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). I believe that the work that elders are called to are similar to that of the apostles: “prayer and the word”.

Historically the Reformed church has done a good job of stressing the “w0rd” task but not so good on the “prayer” part. It is interesting to note that prayer comes first and in lists in the Bible order is almost always important. The apostles had come to see prayer as absolutely essential to the work of the kingdom. This is remarkable for a group of men who only 60 days before did not even pray. If you don’t believe me read the Gospels and find one place where the apostles are praying. You find the apostles sleeping while Jesus prays but they never pray. After Pentecost they simply pray all the constantly.

I told my friend to encourage the elders of his church to commitment themselves to praying for the pastor, the church and themselves. I told him that this was important for several reasons. First, prayer is foundational to the advancement of the kingdom of God through the church. Churches may grow through planning, programs and personality but when it is not done through prayer it will prove to be a failure either in this world or in the world to come.

Secondly prayer is simply a means for elders (and all others!) of yelling “Help! Help!”. The work of being an elder is simply beyond human giftedness (as is daily living the Christian life!). It must be the daily, consistent work of the Spirit of God in the lives of elders, church members and the church itself that is the foundation for the work of the Kingdom. Whenever elders believe that they are capable of leading the church they are in danger. When they daily say: “I have been called to do this and have been equipped to do this but I can do nothing without the work of the Spirit but I can do all that God has called me to do through Christ who strengthens me: (Phil. 4:13) then they are placing themselves in the place where the Father can use them.

This leads to the third important benefit of prayer. Prayer, rightly understood, is a great tool in God’s hand in humbling elders. As elders see their daily, hourly need of prayer it produces humility. Humility is what produces gentleness in elders, one of the characteristics mentioned by Paul in I Timothy 3. Humility is something that most (should be all) Christians say they desire but they often don’t really want it. Years ago a friend of mine named Jack said: “Lee everyone wants to be humble but no one wants to be humiliated to get there”. Then he chuckled. He knew that there were few things like visible failure to produce humility, particularly in the life of church leaders. He also knew, however, that few leaders were willing to acknowledge failure as a means of growing in humility. Failure in ministry is a great tool in our Father’s hand of showing elders the absolutely essential need for prayer.

So I could encourage a new elder (and all old elders as well) by reminding him that his calling is a calling to a greater commitment to prayer. Not because that is “what elders do” but because that is what elders need and what the church needs. I know very few things that the Church needs today like elders who are committed to prayer.

Finally I pointed to Acts:6:7: “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith”. This advancement of the church was directly related to the dual work of the apostles: prayer and the word. It is not just the preaching of the word that produced this but the prayer that went before and after the proclamation of the word. The practice was to pray about the proclaiming of the gospel, the proclaiming of the gospel, and then praying for Holy Spirit working through the proclaiming the gospel.

Gospel take away: It is interesting to note that Luke tells us here that many of the priests were converted, not many scribed, not many Pharisees but many priests. Why? Day in and day out they saw the number of sacrifices, every day they saw it start over with new sacrifices. They knew by seeing it that there simply were not enough sacrifices to take away from sin. They knew by their daily lives that “is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb 10:4), but now a sacrifice had occurred that really had taken away all sin.

Pursuing Joy

Recently Debbie and I took a four day retreat in the mountains to work through some important areas of spiritual formation in our own lives and to seek our Father’s guidance and wisdom for the next stage of our lives. One of the areas of spiritual formation we looked at was the importance of celebration and seeking joy in our lives on a daily basis. That sounds all well and good when things are going well but when life is a struggle and various events of sadness invade your life how do you find joy? During our four days together Debbie and I decided that you look for it, look for it every day.

We were reminded by word of G. K. Chesterton, that we had heard our good friend Charlie Jones, of Peculiar People, repeat a number of times in his one man portrayal of Chesterton that our God is a God of joy.

Here is what Chesterton says in his book Orthodoxy:






Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead.

For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “do it again” tothe moon.

It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tire of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

It is all too obvious that something is wrong with our world. As Cornelius Plantinga said it is “Not the Way It’s Suppose to Be”. Because of that, Christians can fall into the trap of only focusing on the results of the fall and not the ways Jesus, the Messiah, is overcoming the fall and making all things new. We can become like the man Hank in Orterg’s book The Life You’ve Always Wanted who was just cranky and “had a knack for discovering islands of bad news in oceans of happiness”. So Debbie and I have been praying about not just finding joy but pursuing it, looking for it, asking God to develop it in our own hearts. Since joy is one part of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22), then like other fruit it must be cultivated. Only this fruit of the Spirit must be cultivated by the Spirit.

So now we find ourselves, often at the end of the day or over dinner, asking each other: where did you find joy today? We find it in both small (a beautiful scene in nature, a small unexpected surprise, a wonderful dinner together) and large (major reduction in our health insurance bill because of lifestyle changes made last year, good times of fellowship with other believers) events but we are encouraging each other and challenging each other to find joy even in the midst of pain and difficulty. It reminds me of a phrase that Jack Miller would often throw out to those around him: “Any joy today?”

In our English translations, the word “joy” is found in more than 170 Bible verses. Many of them in the Psalms speaking of the believer’s correct posture before God. As we look at our sinful nature and our failures we might think that the word to best describe our posture before God should be “fear” but the Gospel casts out that fear. As the disciple that Jesus loved writes to us under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love” (1Jo 4:18 ESV). That is to say that our purest, most complete joy comes from the gospel. So the best sources of joy for me and Debbie, from day to day is the good news of the Gospel that Jesus Christ came into this world to save sinners of whom I am foremost (I Timothy 1:15).

So maybe, day in and day out, our Father wants us, like C. S. Lewis to be surprised by joy because it is that joy that points us to a world and a life beyond this one. Maybe he is calling us in Chesterton’s words to become younger like our Father. And for those of you who know me so well, yes I did think of the words of Mr. Dylan:

Ah, but I was so much older then

I’m older than that now.

(Bob Dylan, My Back Pages)



Jazz and the Christian Life

For several years now Debbie and I have found ourselves going to sleep listening to relaxing music. Some studies say it is better than sleeping pills – and you don’t wind up going downstairs in your sleep, eating half of the food in the fridge and then taking a midnight stroll in your pajamas down to the Murfreesboro square. Last night we were nodding off listening to a recording of The Gerry Mulligan Quartet with Chet Baker and as I was falling into sleep I found myself thinking back on my “relationship” with jazz.

In 1989 the family and I moved to Woodbridge, Virginia where I become pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church. Woodbridge is just south of D.C. so many in the congregation were associated with the military and several served with different bands in the various services. One of these men was an arranger for the Navy band and a huge jazz fan. In fact he did some arranging for some of the famous Big Bands of the 30s and 40s who were actually still touring the country under new band leaders but with the names of the founders (Glen Miller, Tommy Dorsey, etc.).

One day we got together and turned out that this guy was a fairly new Christian and had never been discipled in the basic of daily walking with Jesus. I had always had an interest in music and had some curiosity about jazz so we made a deal. I would disciple him in Bible reading, prayer and the like and he would disciple me in jazz. It was one of the best decisions I ever made in my life and I am forever in the debt of the “jazz man”.

As we started meeting I told him that when it came to jazz I love Dixieland and Big Band but really did not like Dave Brubeck (my first college roommate loved to play  Brubeck’s album Take 5, over and over and over again!) or any of that Bebop stuff. He told me to just wait and take it step by step. I laugh now as I think that I have a “boxed set” of Brubeck.

Well after a couple of years I grew to understand both the beauty and complexity of jazz. I came to greatly enjoy Brubeck and eventually was astounded by Dizzy Gillespie (how can you not love a man whose autobiography is entitled To Be or Not to Bop and was born in Cheraw, SC)

The man with the horn and the cheeks

Through the “mentoring” of my jazz guide I came to love the music of people like Bix Beiderbecke, Oscar Peterson, and Charlie Christian. The vocals of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Ella Fitzgerald began to amaze me. Top drawer,however, became Miles Davis. My jazz favorite. Albums like Birth of the Cool and Kind of Blue became regular companions on my individual tapes long before the day of Ipods and MP3s. But for me Sketches of Spain was a piece that amazed and continues to amaze me. In my opinion, one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever recorded. Miles continues to be a giant for me in this world of jazz. As I listen to him I hear things that it seems impossible to come out of a trumpet.

The man, I mean The man with the horn

Much like listening to some of my favorite preachers and seeing how the Spirit uses them to point out things in God’s Word that I would never be able to see on my own.

So what does this have to do with the Christian life? Well the beauty of jazz, it seems to me, lies in two things: 1) the way all the musicians play together; 2) the way that individual solos crop up in most pieces.

As I think about the church in general and Christianity in particular I believe that the Christian life and the church are a lot like jazz. In I Corinthians Paul tells us that all of us have been given individual gifts for the good of the body, not for individual edification, but for the wonderful building up of the whole Church. In most jazz numbers a time come around for the piano solo, the trumpet solo or even the bass solo. By themselves most of these would be pretty boring but as the come together in one composition and end up pushing the listener to the point when all the instruments again come together they really serve their purpose of bringing unity out of diversity.

Of course the source of all the beauty and unity of the tune is the writer, the composer. So it is with the Church as the different parts play in unison and at times as each individual does a solo it is only because the Great Composer has not only put it all together but also gifted each “musician” to play in just the right way. The difference is that when Miles took the lead he wanted to make sure you knew that it was Miles (if you have read Miles: The Autobiography you know how true this is) who got the credit. In the Church, however, the great soloists not only do not care if you know they were the ones playing, they also prefer to play in unison and harmony with the other members of the band.

So tonight, as I go to sleep listening to, say Stan Getz, I will be enjoying Stan and his music

Stan Getz

but I will be thinking about “the music of the spheres” and the glorious tune of the gospel. A far more complex tune but much easier to understand and appreciate. But like many, many jazz tunes, with the gospel it is often easy to remember the music and forget the words. With the gospel, however, as beautiful as the music is, the words are far, far more beautiful. So as we listen to the music of the gospel let us ask our heavenly Father to remind us over and over and over again of the words of this glorious, life changing, reality changing song.

I sang in a choir once

For those of you who know me, you may find this hard to believe but I actually sang in a choir growing up in church. I can remember every year singing in a children’s city-wide Christmas program that always seemed to include one of the 4 “songs” from Luke’s gospel. Mary’s Magnificat, Zechariah’s Benedictus, the angel’s Gloria and my favorite Simeon’s Nunc Dimitis:

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;  A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel. Luke 2:29-32

When I sang in this choir I had not as yet come to believe that all of these things we sang about were true. Like many from my generation in the South, church was primarily a part of my cultural setting. But I can still remember being intrigued by the words of this song and the story of this man’s life. A man who has waited all of his life to see the fulfillment of the promise that the LORD, the Covenant keeping God, had made to him that he would see the Messiah, that he would witness in introduction of the new age.

Over the years, as I have read through the Bible over and over again, Simeon continues to be one of the people who fascinates me the most. In our own day and time we want “fast” everything – fast food, fast cars, faster downloads on our computer, faster access to movies straight from our own homes. How well would we do in Simeon’s place, waiting what appears to be almost a lifetime for God to fulfill his word? Instead of Simeon’s prayer would we end up saying: “Well after all these years, all I see is a baby?!? What kind of Messiah is this, so small, weak and helpless? Well at least now I can stay at home instead of coming to this crowded temple every day!” I wonder.

I think of Simeon as we approach Ephany the day after tomorrow. The day that marks the remembrance of Simeon is usually February 2 according to the customs of cleanliness in the OT and the time Mary had to wait before going to the temple but I find myself thinking of Simeon over the past few days as I prayerfully wonder what the New Year will bring. This past years has been one of sadness, trial and struggle. Our Father knows that those things are needed in our lives to make us more like Jesus but I am hoping and praying that he is moving on to new lessons in our lives at least for right now. Until we find out I will continue to be amazed at Simeon’s love of the Father and his complete trust in what God said to him and will pray that I would become a bit more like Simeon in 2011.