Awestruck – Part 3

February 1, 2012

When we are awestruck by the greatness, glory, and grace of God, we are shocked by the depth of our depravity and sin. That was Isaiah’s experience. It was also what Paul experienced. His encounter with the Risen Lord led to his conversion and his call to be an apostle, a herald of the Gospel to the Gentiles. He came to see himself as a “wretched” man unworthy of the grace of God. In that marvelous passage on the resurrection in I Corinthians 15, he writes, “For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect.” (I Corinthians 15:9-10) Paul never lost sight of either the shock of his sinfulness or the awesomeness of God’s grace.

I was recently re-reading a little of the spiritual journey of John Newton, the English preacher and hymn writer, best known as the author of “Amazing Grace.” Before his mother died when he was but seven years of age, she had sown into his life the seeds of the Gospel. When he was old enough, he joined his father as a merchant seaman and quickly began to live a life of sin and godlessness. Eventually, Newton became the captain of a ship engaged in the slave trade. Although he was a hardened sinner with no use or thought of God, he picked up a religious book one night he had found on board and began to read about the sacrificial suffering and death of Jesus on the cross. The question entered his mind and haunted his soul: What if this is true? Later that night a violent storm battered the sailing vessel, and although Newton was an experienced seaman, he was frightened to death and began to cry out, “My mother’s God, the God of mercy, have mercy on me!” That was the turning point in Newton’s life, which from then on was devoted to preaching and praising his great and glorious Savior. Like Paul, he never lost the sense of shock and awe.

In one of Newton’s lesser known hymns, he wrote: “In evil long I took delight, unawed by shame or fear, Till a new object struck my sight and stopped my wild career.” The words, “unawed by shame or fear” captured my attention. His sin was no real shock to him. He goes on to write about seeing Jesus “hanging on a tree.” It was then that he began to feel the conviction and crush of his sin, writing, “My conscience felt and owned the guilt, and plunged me in despair, I saw my sins His blood had spilt, and helped to nail him there.” Until we truly “own” the guilt, we cannot understand grace.

Newton finishes his hymn: “Thus, while his death my sin displays in all its blackest hue, Such is the mystery of grace, it seals my pardon too.” I can’t help but believe that we need a little more shock and awe injected into our lives from a fresh visit to the cross. It is only then that we are continually awestruck by the greatness, glory, and grace of God. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me!”

 

 

 

 

Awestruck (Part 2)

January 24, 2012

In my last post I wrote about how awestruck I was recently seeing and holding my new granddaughter for the first time. I was moved with an overwhelming sense of the beauty and purity of this child and the power of God to create and bring forth this miracle of life. I confessed that I was also struck with the fact that it had been a while since I had experienced something like this – this sense of being awestruck. I also asked the question: When was the last time you can say you were awestruck by something of beauty, purity, and power?

In recent years I have heard so many people say something like, “Nothing shocks me any more.” We live in a time when man is awed by almost nothing. Although we may name a military operation “Shock and Awe,” it seems to me that shock and awe are largely unfamiliar experiences to most of us. This is not a good thing. Technology throws everything in our faces. We have become so de-sensitized to the good, bad, and ugly in our world that we are seldom moved with extreme emotion, seldom shocked by great evil or awed by great Good. More personally, it seems we have lost the perspective of shock when it comes to the depth and depravity of our own sin along with the capacity of to be awed in the presence of Holiness and Power. The two are connected. Without being awestruck by the greatness and glory of God, we are not likely to be shocked by our own sin and shame.

It was Isaiah who, finding himself in the presence of God, awestruck by his majesty and glory, cried, “Woe is me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” That’s the kind of shock and awe we need to rediscover in our day

Do we not become like that which we worship? Have we not become as cold and mechanical as the technology we bow down to, flashy, but unfeeling and unthinking? Have we not at some level come to believe that technology will rescue us from some undesired outcome and save us from ourselves? When we make idols for ourselves and trust in the gods of our own making, we deprive ourselves of responding in pure humanness, shocked by our own sin and shame, awestruck by the greatness and glory of Almighty God.

Awestruck

January 16, 2012

My son-in-law, Joe, picked me up at Logan Airport about 12:30 that night. We were another 45 minutes from their home in Marblehead, north of Boston. I was more than a little anxious to see my first grandchild – Isabella Rose – for the first time. She was just five days old and already a legend in my mind and large in my heart.

Elliott, my wife, was already there, of course, having flown up North for her birth and to assist Laura, our daughter, not to mention Joe. Even at that hour at night everyone was wide awake, except for Isabella, who had just had her middle-of-the-night meal and was fast asleep in her mother’s arms.

Welcoming hugs quickly gave way to Laura’s gleeful question. “Do you want to hold her?” As I gazed in emotional wonder into my granddaughter’s little face, I was truly awestruck! Taking her into my arms, I studied her tiny features. “I want to see her eyes,” I said. That’s all it took. Elliott started tickling her chubby little cheeks and calling her name. “Bella, wake up. Pops is here.” Squirming and stretching, she finally opened her eyes, and we looked at each other eye-to-eye. I was far more impressed that she was, I’m certain. The encounter was very brief as she quickly returned to her contented slumber, but I was in love!

Reflecting on that night and the days that followed over the week of Christmas, and remembering the sense of complete and utter wonder I felt with Isabella, I asked my self how long it had been since I had been so awestruck. I realized it had been a while – a long while.

It made me think. To be awestruck is to be moved by an overwhelming encounter with beauty, greatness, purity, or power. It could be something as simple as the beauty of a rose, the grandeur of a snow-covered mountain peak, the purity of an act of selfless love, or the destructive energy of a tornado, hurricane, or some other powerful display of nature and nature’s God.

I was overwhelmed by the innocence and purity I saw when I looked into Isabella’s eyes. I was moved in my heart to see the greatness of God in the frail beauty of this budding flower. I was awestruck by the power of God to create this little life in his love and likeness.

I was awestruck and now question where that sense of wide-eyed wonder has been for so long. What I’m thinking is not very flattering, but I’ll share them anyway in future posts. I doubt that I’m the only one who has somehow, somewhere lost that sense of awe in the presence of beauty and greatness.

I believe the Lord has uniquely positioned boomer pastors at this critical moment in the history of the American church. In spite of the fact that so many of our colleagues have crashed and burned, jumped ship, raised the white flag, or reluctantly retired, we are still the largest group of leaders in the American church today. We still have an opportunity to lead our churches, which are desperately in need of renewal and relevance toward transitional and transformative spiritual action.

The prophet Jeremiah learned the hard lesson that the Lord wasn’t sympathetic to his whining. Elijah had given up and run away, but he learned that the Lord wasn’t through with him, and he wasn’t as alone as he thought he was. The Lord’s challenge to both of those understandably weary men was essentially, “Stop your whining and get back in the game!”

This is going to sound very boomer-like – incurably egotistical – but this is too critical a moment in history for boomer pastors to waste time and energy whining and complaining about how difficult things are for us and how frustrated we are with our churches. This is no time to recite to God how rotten our culture is and evil the opposition. This is no time to run away and hide in a cave. It’s time to get back in the game!

We have always had this inner desire to make a difference and leave our world a better place. We have always wanted to lead our churches to new heights of effectiveness and fruitfulness for the Kingdom. As discouraged as we might be at this stage of our lives and ministries, let’s take heart in the fact that it takes time, opportunity, and desire to achieve those high goals. We still have time, though it’s short; we still have enormous opportunities; and, hopefully, we still have the will and desire to press on in the work of the Kingdom, not for our sakes, but for the sake of His Name.

One of the knocks against boomers is that they are a bunch, albeit an enormous bunch, of spoiled brats, self-absorbed, always whining about one thing and another, never content, restless, and obsessed with a competitive arrogance to leave a lasting mark on society. That last point is at least a sure bet without regard to its positive or negative nature.

Researchers say we have never been a happy bunch. In a 2008 Washington Post article, staff writer, Monica Hesse, writes, “Boomers used to be gloomy because the world needed change. Now, they’re gloomy because change didn’t work out quite as they’d hoped.” She goes on to quote Mary Furlong, a consultant with a California firm that works with companies in marketing to boomers. A boomer herself, Furlong says that back in the 70′s “we were going to build an idealistic culture. We weren’t going to be alone. We were going to leave the world a better place.” We don’t see much hope for that anymore, we must admit.

The Greatest Generation never had much of a chance to exercise their youthful idealism. For them, that was blown away on December 7, 1941. We as boomers have never gotten over ours, and, perhaps, that’s a part of the reason we sound so much like whiners. Things just haven’t turned out as well as we thought they should, and we’re pretty sore about it. Here we are in 2011 with over 10,000 of us turning 60 every single day, our home values have declined and our 401k’s are frightfully shrinking. We resent feeling that the world is spinning out of control at so many levels and so quickly. It’s really not that we mind all the changes. We just want to be the ones making them!

Like our cohorts, we boomer pastors have never lost our idealistic zeal to be world-changers. Our zealous nature has been sorely wounded, but it’s still there. That may be why we are a disappointed and frustrated group as a whole. We might even need to confess an anger-induced depression. But this inherent idealistic zeal just may be the trait the Lord will use to renew the church in America if this boomer zeal is redeemed and refocused on the power and purposes of God. The focus has been too long on how we could change the world. Jesus Christ is the real world changer. Many boomer pastors would do well to refocus on him and remember that He’s the church builder. We’re just the tools.

A lot has been made of the fact that baby boomers are the offspring of the Greatest Generation – that generation that so heroically and courageously endured the Great Depression, so eagerly fought and won the war against the powerful forces of fascism and imperialism, preserving America and the world for freedom. Not through yet, they followed those feats with hard work, creating for themselves and the country and period of economic prosperity. And then this greatest of all generations filled up their newly acquired , three or four bedroom suburban homes with 3.5 children, or about 78 million, born between 1946 and 1964.

I was one in that “swarm of locusts” that descended on the country, a cloud so thick that it blocked the Sun from shining over America. We hungrily devoured the crops of prosperity, turned the culture on its head, and now are sending America into economic ruin as we approach retirement, draining the “system” of its resources. At least, that’s te way some perceive the impact of this unique generation. This seems somewhat harsh to a boomer, but not all criticism of the boomer generation is unjust.

Our parents came of age in the midst of global tumult. We came of age in the midst of superficial domestic tranquility that soon erupted into a full-scale rebellion. Coming out of the Great Depression and a great world war, our parents embraced the virtues of peace and prosperity, which, at some point, we interpreted as shallow, empty, and hypocritical. Our parents believed they had achieved a pretty decent world. Somehow, we thought we could make it even better. The Greatest Generation never thought of themselves as heroic world-changers, but they were. Conversely, in all our egotistical idealism, we believed we were going to change the world and envisioned an unprecedented ticker-tape parade when our job was complete and our laudable labors celebrated. It’s pretty clear that nobody is going to put on a parade for my generation. Do I sound disappointed?

It has been noted that pastors may retire from the pastorate, but they never retire from the ministry. I can think of many examples of men whose life and ministry affirm this general truth. One man in particular comes to mind. He is a member of the Greatest Generation, nearing his 90th birthday, and still driving himself to preaching engagements regularly. Many boomer pastors have reached retirement age. The rest of us are getting there quickly, and many of us are disappointed and discouraged because we haven’t had the kind of positive impact we had hoped for. In fact, we approach these current critical days in our lives and in American church history with a disturbing knowledge that the American church is in crisis. We can’t help but wonder if we have missed our chance to make an important contribution, or if there is still an  opportunity to have a say in the future of the church and God’s movement through history.

What do you think?

So much has been written and chronicled concerning the baby boomer generation that few people get excited about any mention of this much heralded and often maligned group of Americans. Perhaps no other generation has been put under the microscope, analyzed, and dissected more than the baby boomer generation. This inordinate amount of attention has yielded countless books, articles, and research papers. I suspect many people have grown so weary of this subject that they avoid the subject altogether.

I might have been one of those until it occurred to me in recent years that baby boomers make up the largest percentage of senior pastors in the evangelical church. After all, the hallmark of this generation is its sheer numerical size. That being the case, it is not surprising that boomers are so prevalent among the senior pastor crowd. I am a part of that crowd, and I’m interested in the role we have been given by God to play in the future of the American church.

With so many of us still in positions of leadership and influence, and with the American church in a state of crisis, there is a lot we can do and a lot we must do. One thing we most surely cannot do is surrender in defeat or despair. Not now! Not ever!

What do you think? Do boomer pastors have anything to say about the future of the American church? Can we play a role in the renewal of the church and the restoration of the church’s influence in our current culture? What could, what should that role be? I’d love to explore this with you.

To be continued…

About ten years ago, I joined a friend of mine on a mission trip to Cuba. My friend had built a very close relationship with a group of pastors and churches in the western part of this island nation. I was assigned to one of those churches in a small town and was immediately received by the young pastor and his wife who welcomed me with open arms into their home for a week, and what a week it was! I was overwhelmed by the warmth and generosity of the people.

The main church building was right next door to where the pastor lived. It was a small, beautiful structure, typical of the island architecture, but in need of repair and badly in need of paint. This was true of homes and buildings all over Cuba. Outside of Havana, practically everything needed painting! Another thing that strikes a first time visitor to Cuba is the feeling that you are in a time warp. Everywhere you look, you see old Fords and Chevrolets. I felt like I had stepped back into the my childhood days in the 1950′s. Cubans who were fortunate to have a vehicle usually drove one of these pre-revolution cars. It was amazing to see. I was told that they kept these relics running by finding parts wherever they could from other old cars. It took a lot of “wheeling and dealing” and no little amount of ingenuity to keep these rolling museum pieces going. Occasionally, you would see an abandoned car on the side of the rode, stripped of everything, its empty frame rusting away.

In Cuba my eyes were opened to so many things about the church. The believers in Cuba, like other believers in so many areas of the world, worried little about material things. The government there didn’t make things easy either. For example, new construction for church buildings was almost unheard of. But new churches were springing up everywhere in the form of house churches. While I was there, I preached at four different house churches in the area in addition to the main church. There was an excitement and a sense of true joy among the believers that was so refreshing to witness. As I talked to my host pastor, I learned that their focus was on reaching people and discipleship. He told me of plans for more house churches starting soon. The movement of God and the work of the Holy Spirit was evident. It was so close to what we see in the book of Acts, and so far from what we see in the American church.

In this period of transition for me, I’ve taken a step back from my thirty plus years in the thick of the American church to do some soul searching, reflection, and study, and what I see in the American church is a lot like the Cubans and their cars. We spend a lot of time and effort just tweaking an old system to keep it running. In American, we live in a time warp. To a large degree, we’re still doing church like we did in the 1950′s and 60′s. The world and culture has changed so much, but here we are in 2011 looking like an old Ford or Chevy. We’re still running somehow because we’re pretty good at finding replacement parts when something breaks.We just keep overhauling the old system when what we need is a new system altogether.

No doubt the revolution of 1959 has devastated Cuban society in many ways, but, in time, the church has emerged with new life and vigor. This is a testimony to the promise of God and the prevailing mission of the church. The church is man’s connection to God’s redemptive mission by his grace and call to join him. I believe in the church, but I believe the church as many of us have known it is broken down. After a while, despite our “wheeling and dealing” and despite our cleverness and ingenuity, the church of the 20th century will be no more than an abandoned car on the side of the rode.

There are hopeful signs that a new church movement is underway in America – a movement in which believers are Kingdom-focused and churches are more concerned about mission than maintenance.

The only thing more distasteful than a braggart is an ingrate. A braggart is more or less obnoxious. You learn to ignore him. An ingrate, on the other hand, is a huge disappointment. Ingratitude is more difficult to overlook. When a braggart boasts, he’s bragging about something he’s done or accomplished, justified or not. When a person receives a gift of some kind and doesn’t even acknowledge the gift, it becomes personal when you’re the giver. It leaves a bad taste in your mouth. It’s distasteful!

In a period of life transition, it’s important to spend time in reflection and remember the gifts and blessings of the past and present. As a Christ follower, it’s always imperative to acknowledge the grace of God every day, and to give thanks to the Lord for his gift of salvation through the atoning work of Jesus on the cross. The Sun should never set that we haven’t expressed our humble gratitude to the heavenly Father for his gift of life and the gift of life everlasting. The forgiveness of sins and the blessings of heaven should never be forgotten or taken for granted.

We are told in Scripture that the heavenly Father is the source of “every good and perfect gift.” From our vantage point, it is often hard to see every gift of God as “good and perfect.” Every day is a gift, but what about those “bad days?” It seems sometimes that the bad days out number the good days. Our marriage partners are God’s gifts to us, but nobody has a “perfect” marriage. Our children are beautiful blessings of God and the source of great joy, but our children are not always “good” little girls and boys, and because we love them so deeply, we often endure great heartache over them. To add to the enjoyment and pleasure of life, God brings us into meaningful relationships with special friends. He joins us to others in the Christian fellowship of the family of God – the church. But we find that even meaningful relationships can become complicated and stressful. Sometimes we think we’d be better off living alone on a forgotten island or in a mountain cabin high up in the Rockies. But God made us for relationships and relationships are his “good and perfect” gifts to us, even though the people in those relationships aren’t perfect, beginning with us!

Not every life circumstance seems good or perfect either. Periods of transition are often filled with uncertainty, hardship, and pain. Not everything we experience in life is from God, but God is with us in and through every experience. Even those circumstances which are not God’s doing, he can use to accomplish his good in us or his good for us. Hard times is no excuse to be an ingrate. In fact, you may be right where God wants you to be. The Scripture says, “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (I Thessalonians 5:18)

During this time of transition, there is some uncertainty, but this isn’t hard! I’ve been blessed. God’s grace is amazing. Life is good, and life in Christ is incomparable! The last thing I want to be is an ingrate – even for a day! I want the Lord to know today how grateful I am. Thank you, Lord! I want those who have blessed my life -those who have shared their life and love with me to know how grateful I am. Thank you! Being a pastor is a great gift. I want the churches I served to know how grateful I am and will always be that I had the privilege to be their pastor. Thank you!

I don’t want to take anything for grated. I’m grateful to be right where I am because I believe I’m right where God wants me to be today, and, by the grace of God, I’ll be where he wants me to be tomorrow.

True gratitude is bragging on Jesus.”May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 6:14)

In transition a lot of things are left behind, and things that were once nailed down, seem to be floating in the air, unsecured. You’re not sure where they will land. One of the things that is often left behind is one’s professional identity. I’ve been a pastor for thirty-three years. I’ve identified myself as a pastor. People have called me “Pastor West.” (They’ve called me other things as well, but that’s another story!) Although I’m no longer a pastor of a local church, I still think of myself as a pastor. It’s that ingrained, but I know that I’m not a pastor in the way that I was before. This period of transition has given me pause to consider the difference between one’s professional and one’s personal identity.

In transition relationships that were once well-defined and secure, become unglued, particularly if those relationships were more professional in nature than personal. We see this in Jesus’ public (professional) ministry. Over time, his popularity grew. Crowds followed him and adored him, though only a few truly believed in him. At one point he withdrew from the crowd because he perceived that they wanted to make him king. He had become that popular. The next day, they caught up with him on the other side of the lake. This is what he said to them: “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.” (John 6:26) These were people who saw Jesus in terms of what he could do for them. They saw him professionally. They didn’t know him personally. We see this when Jesus entered Jerusalem. The adoring crowds lined the street as he came into the city riding on a donkey. They waved palm branches and shouted out praise. But his popularity plummeted when he was arrested, put on trial, and crucified. They concluded that a crucified Jesus could no longer do anything for them. How wrong was that?

It was a fearful time for those few who knew Jesus on a personal level. Their love for him was put to the test during Jesus’ transition from public ministry to dying Savior. His resurrection, however, affirmed their fragile faith and rewarded their sincere personal love him.

In public life, not everyone who says they love you, really love you. That’s a hard lesson to learn. But the flip side is very sweet – very sweet indeed! I have been reminded during this transition that there are at least a few people in my life who love me no matter what. They don’t love me because I have a public position or title. Their love has never been about that. They love me at a deeply personal level, which has nothing to do with my professional life. When I left the pastorate, these relationships stayed nailed down. They didn’t budge. My wife, Elliott, has never based her love for me on my public identity. My children, my extended family, and my true friends have never based their love for me on my professional status. Their love is a true love.

Transition means change, but it doesn’t mean everything changes. I am so grateful for those special people God put in my life who continue to love me no matter what. I am blessed!

“Love never fails.” (I Corinthians 13:8)