Pastor's Blog

2019 WLC Memorial Day Devotion

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While I know something about soldiering in the spiritual realm, I am not a military man. I don’t know what it’s like to wear the uniform. Each year about this time, I try to make an attempt to climb inside the mind and heart, the soul and faith of those who have and do wear the uniform for our country and people. What spiritual treasures can we find in the soul of a soldier that may indeed be beneficial for all of us and our spiritual walks with Jesus Christ? Over the years of giving this devotion, I have discovered that the men and women who wear the uniform, serve our country, and especially those who have served in combat, they at some point journey into a spiritual and ethical complexity that’s difficult for the civilian with which to relate. Their training, their decisions, and their experiences have shaped them into people of depth. Now, sometimes, this depth remains buried, and I think that I can imagine why that may be. However, for those soldiers who have attempted to put words to their depth, we thank them, and we benefit from them.

Chris Plekenpol is the current pastor at Wells Branch Community Church in Austin, TX. He graduated from West Point in 1999, and he was deployed from South Korea to combat in Iraq in 2004. He was a tank company team commander, having the rank of Captain, and was responsible for 100 soldiers and 85 million dollars worth of military equipment. Captain Plekenpol attended Dallas Theological Seminary while I was there. We were not friends, merely acquaintances. I did receive a copy of his “Soldier’s Journal,” which was published in 2006 as Faith in the Fog of War: Stories of Triumph and Tragedy in the Midst of Battle. I have been reading through Chris’ Journal leading up to today—trying to get a better handle on how a follower of Jesus Christ navigates the realities of war and soldiering. 

I have gained four truths from my time in Chris’ Journal that I would like to share with you today. These are truths from God’s word considered through a military Captain’s combat experience and filtered through your rural pastor’s shepherding experience. 

  1. Enemies expose us. In the Bible, we think of Goliath—how his presence exposes Saul, his army, and David’s brothers in a negative way, but how he exposes David in a positive way. When the Holy Spirit drove our Lord Jesus out to the wilderness where he was tempted by Satan, we learn of what kind of Savior he is. Captain Plekenpol tells a story about a tense time during the assault on Fallujah. Car bombs became an increasing threat. One day, a would-be attacker rammed his explosive-laden car into a tank in his company. However, the collision rendered the insurgent unconscious before the explosives were detonated. Through the next several series of activities to attempt to dismantle the explosives, the car eventually did burst into flames, awakening the insurgent, who attempted to escape the inferno, but struggle due to his injuries. Captain Plekenpol shares—both in the book and in his “I Am Second” testimony—that there was a brief window where he could have saved him, but he discloses that he was unwilling to risk his life or any of the lives of his soldiers to rescue his enemy. Like Chris, our minds turn to Jesus Christ, who died for sinners. He loved his enemies. Our enemies expose us, who we really are. Chris and you and I are thankful that God loved his enemies and sent his Son.

  2. Fog focuses us. Chris recalls his very first operation in command of his company. Some of his men made a bonehead decision — crossing a non-passable median that created a dirt and dust cloud that blinded the drivers behind them resulting in a collision and a halt toward their objective. He was embarrassed. He had a tank that was damaged and needed to be replaced in order to complete the mission. For a time, he didn’t know if anyone was injured. Plus, a whole list of other overwhelming details. He called it — the fog of war — mounting decisions on his shoulders, people coming to him for answers. He recalled the words of Jesus in John 16:33, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have trouble. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” For the Christian, we need focus to carry on in the flurry and fog of life. As the song says, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of his glory and grace.” Chris was able to regain his focus in the fog and get things back into order.

  3. Conflict reminds us. Captain Plekenpol recalled a situation where he verbally and publicly stripped down a Staff Sergeant for a matter that later he found out was not his fault. Every time he went to prayer, he was reminded of Matthew 5:23–24, “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go.” The pastor who married Aimee and I would often tell us a related truth, “A good marriage is not the absence of conflict, but rather a good marriage is able to work through the conflict.” Chris went to his fellow soldier and confessed his wrong-doing, to which his friend, who was also a follower of Jesus, replied, “I knew that you’d do the right thing.” Conflict reminds us that eternal things are important—people and the word of God.

  4. Testimonies outlive us. In this tragic journal entry, Captain Plekenpol tells the story of the first soldier “Killed-in-Action" under his command. It was a surprise attack by the enemy. As the clouds and flames billowed from the friendly tank, chaos quickly turned into an orderly return attack. Chris’ company soon gained superiority in the firefight, and engaged in a thorough search in the village for enemy insurgents. After 7 hours, they found nothing and no one. Upon returning, Captain Plekenpol circled his team and asked if anyone would like to share anything about Staff Sergeant Gary Vaillant. After a period of awkward silence, a PVT began to speak. This man remembered waiting for transportation with SSG Vaillant in South Korea during the rains of monsoon season. As they waited, they decided to sit back-to-back, Forrest Gump and Bubba style. The PVT recalled, SSG Vaillant started talking about Jesus. After a while, the PVT told the SSG that he was getting tired, but he just kept on talking about the love of Jesus, this amazing love of Jesus. Even though the PVT tried to stay awake in the drizzle, he eventually succumbed to sleep. He awoke about an hour later, and SSG Gary Vaillant was still talking about the greatest love of his life, Jesus Christ! I think we would all agree with Captain Plekenpol’s comment on this story, “I want to be remembered like that.” The apostle Paul wrote in Philippians 1:20–21, “I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Your testimony will outlive you; what will it say?

What has an enemy exposed about you lately? Has the fog of life overwhelmed you, disoriented you? Has a recent conflict reminded you of what is truly important? What kind of testimony are you building to outlive you?

  • Learn and adjust from enemy exposure. Don’t get discouraged.
  • Focus on the mission of the Commander in the fog.
  • Let conflict accomplish its value-centering aim in your life. 
  • When you die, people will tell stories about you. What will the chapter headings be? “For me, to live is Christ."

Three Thoughts for Gospel-Shaped Ministry in Small Places

In April 2019, I attended the RHMA Rural Pastors’ Conference in Morton, IL. Stephen Witmer presented A Big Gospel in Small Places in anticipation of his upcoming book, to be published under the same title. The three these written below are his, followed by the notes and reflections that I made during the seminar.

Strategic isn’t always what we think. 

You only have about 4–5 decades of ministry in you. Right? How did you get where you are now? Why do you remain there? Do you see yourself as strategically sent by the gospel? A lot of outreach models are based upon urban models; then they trickle down to small towns. However, without a shoehorn, they won’t fit. Reflecting on the gospel ministry of Jesus and the apostles, we find that the urban initiative to “influence the influencers” is not that prominent, rather the gospel sends in a way that is lavish and inordinate—to places and people that aren’t strategic from a human point of view (e.g., the Gerasene exorcism in Mark 5; the first converts in Philippi in Acts 16). Not everyone agrees that Paul focused on urban centers (e.g., Galatian theories). The best way to influence someone you love is to be with them. A call to a small place is the most strategic move to reach that place. The gospel is lavish and plenteous. You can give your life away to people who are not “influencers.”

Small is probably better than we think. 

Our culture values “bigger is better.” Kruger calls this “the arrogance of the urban.” For a recent example, remember the comments of Andy Stanley about the rural church. He recanted, but even so. Rural pastors and churches may be deceived by envy, as we look online and feel like the J. V. team. Yet, the gospel doesn’t disdain small; it doesn’t “baptize” small either, but it certainly doesn’t despise small. In many ways, small is endorsed in theology (e.g., remnant theology) and in the apostolic mission (e.g., house churches). Big, of course, is endorsed too (e.g., the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, 3,000 converts in Jerusalem on Pentecost). Use the “fish bowl” or the “bubble” to your advantage. We yearn for revival; but we mustn’t be lazy. We don’t have to have revival in order to faithfully do God’s work where we are. The gospel sometimes comes big, sometimes small, fast and slow.

Slow is often wiser than we think.

An example of a good kind of stationary is found in the spiritual principle of “abiding.” We often value slow-moving things in small towns. The gospel takes some sins away fast (e.g., immoral relationships or decisions) and some sins slow, over time (e.g., pride, anger). The gospel endorses slow; God does things slowly (e.g., the wait for the exodus, the coming of Messiah, the wait for Pentecost, the hope of the second coming, etc). Small town pastors can become restless, especially when it comes to church planting in other small communities. Even in urban centers, they are rebelling against the “fast food,” “processed food,” and “digital pastors.” God’s character is still on display in the things that are slow developing.

Challenges

What can we locally give that people can’t find online? Relationships, presence, real-time talk in the word, knowledgeable prayer, comfort, hope, holiness & example, modest living, obedience, visible calling, holy ambition, local expertise, the practice of submitting to one another—to name a few. How does the Big Gospel distinctively shape our lives and ministries in small places? The gospel sends us to places, even small places, because of its lavish grace and because of its inherent logic and values. Small places do not hinder the gospel, nor do they divert resources to less significant places. No, the gospel of Jesus has plenty of sending and saving power for everyone in every place.

Posted by Rex Howe

For Us and for Our Salvation: What Did Jesus Do in the Resurrection?

Pastoring Exiles
Recently at the pastors’ conference hosted by the Rural Home Mission Association in Morton, IL, I heard Dr. Duane Litfin in a seminar set forth what he believes to be our new reality as Christians living in America. He said that we are vertical Christians living in a horizontal America. He made the case that America at its founding was a vertical nation, not a Christian nation, but definitely a vertical nation; that is, we used to be a people who assumed a transcendent reality and valued transcendent truth sourced from outside our material world. Today, Dr. Litfin explained, “official” America is a horizontal place. A vertical-ness is maintained for ceremony’s sake at times, but “official” America stopped looking to the transcendent for substance back in the 1950s. He exhorted the rural pastors in attendance to shepherd our flocks to be vertical Christians living in a horizontal society. He emphasized the idea that we were once truly vertical is not a myth; it was real, not imagined. However, he also cautioned that our goal as shepherds today must not be to return to the past. Rather, it is imperative that we learn how to live as the men of Issachar, “From Issachar there were 200 leaders and all their relatives at their command–they understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (1 Chronicles 12:32 NET).

As Dr. Litfin made his case, I thought to myself, “We need to study 1 Peter. He wrote to exiles.” Interestingly, the remaining plenary speakers all preached from 1 Peter. In this letter that bears his name, the apostle Peter wrote to the Diaspora. He acquired this term from the Old Testament writers, who often used it to describe God’s casting Israel into exile, scattering them throughout the nations, or to describe his regathering of his people from exile (e.g., Neh. 1:9; Ps. 146:2; Jer. 15:7; 41:17). In the Greek version of the Old Testament, Daniel warned that the final judgment for some would result in “eternal exile and shame” (12:2). The point is that diaspora or exile or dispersion is decisively negative; it means you are far from home; you are a stranger, an alien. Peter wrote in verse 1, “To those who are elect exiles of the Diaspora.” He has taken the Old Testament term and figuratively applied it to Christians who live in dispersion throughout a godless world, far from their heavenly home.1  The persecution and trials these believers faced evidenced the reality that they were not home, “In this [future salvation] you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials” (1:6).

Born into a Hopeful Exile
While it is true that Christians are exiles sojourning in a godless world system, our exile is not swallowed up in doom and gloom. This has to do with how we became exiles in the first place. Peter wrote, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to his great mercy caused us to be born again into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, into an imperishable, undefiled, unfading inheritance reserved in heaven for you” (1:3–4). Peter blessed God because he gave us new birth; essentially, God made us exiles by awakening us from the slumber of a godless world, so that now we see how far from home we truly are. We are born into a godless world system, but we are born again into hope, a hope that is foreign to the world system.

This hope is described as “living.” It’s active. It is active in life-giving or life-producing. The hope with which a Christian sojourner travels is a life-giving hope—a strange thing to see in a dying, godless world. This hope is “the looking forward to something with some reason for confidence respecting fulfillment” (BDAG). The “something” that it anticipates is resurrection into a new home. The “reason” for the confident expectation is the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. The resurrection of Jesus is not only the reason for our living hope, but it is also the instrument or means by which God caused us to be born again. Through the resurrection of Jesus, God exercises power to give us new birth as exiles who carry life-giving hope into the godless territories, neighborhoods, farms, schools, hospitals, state houses, and relationships wherein we roam.

When God caused us to be born again through the resurrection of Jesus into a life-giving hope, he also made us inheritors. The first thing to understand about this inheritance is that it comes from God. God caused us to be born again into it. Therefore, to the degree that “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” himself is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading so is the inheritance that he gives. Imperishable means not subject to decay, corruption, or death (cf. Rom 1:23; 1 Cor 9:25; 15:52; 1 Tim 1:17; 1 Pet 1:23; 3:4). God is imperishable; our resurrection bodies will be imperishable; the new-birth-causing word of God is imperishable; and, the qualities affected by this new birth are imperishable. Undefiled means unstained or pure in a religious and moral sense (cf. Heb 7:26; 13:4; James 1:27). Unfading means “not losing its pristine quality or character” (BDAG), like a flower that never, ever wilts. Lastly, God has reserved this inheritance for those whom he has born into this hopeful exile; therefore, it will continue imperishable, undefiled, and unfading for his definite purpose and until the suitable time. He has reserved it in heaven—in that realm of his presence untouched by decay, corruption, stain, or death—for us.

What Did Jesus Do in the Resurrection?
The noun used for our English word “resurrection” occurs forty times in the New Testament. Here in this one reference to it in 1 Peter 1:3–4, we learn that Christ’s resurrection from the dead placed an instrument into God’s hand that provides him the power to awaken exiles who live in a world in rebellion against him. In other words, his resurrection provided the instrumental means for the new birth.

So then, how do we as vertically-gazed, hopeful exiles live in a horizontally-gazed, godless country? How do we understand the time and know what to do? Peter has given us many answers to these questions throughout his letters. I think that 1:3–4 offers us these five clear directions.

First, acknowledge the exilic reality of the Christian sojourner in America. We are not a “Christian nation,” nor have we ever been. There was a time when we were a more vertical, religious nation, but even that has faded. This exilic reality should change your approach to “life as usual.” You are not of this world; your citizenship belongs elsewhere; you are a stranger and an alien, even in America.

Second, be careful to bless God for his great mercy and not to curse God because of your proud finitude. Only God is infinite. Agree in humility about your limitations. Rejoice greatly that the infinite God has drawn near with plenty of mercy for sinners. We live in a culture that loves to rejoice in its own finite accomplishments; in fact, we are so impressed with ourselves that we feel less and less needy for anything transcendent. Increasingly, we feel that the material world is capable of fulfilling all our hopes and dreams. On such a worldview, many are building their lives; their fall will be great and tragic. Be an exile. Build a humble life on the merciful character of God.

Third, if this all sounds strange to you, have you been born again? You may have all the trimmings and trappings of a religiously decorated life, but have you been reborn in Christ by the Holy Spirit? Peter explained that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is God’s instrumental power for causing the new birth. Later he writes, “since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:23 ESV). It is precisely the word of God about Jesus, the good news of his resurrection from the dead, that God’s Spirit uses to cause the new birth. The apostle John has told us the same, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30–31 ESV).

Fourth, carry life-giving hope with you on your sojourn. If you have been born again, preach the resurrection of Jesus. When asked to give a reason for the hope within you, to give a reason for your holy and distinct life, declare the resurrection of Jesus. When the waiter asks why you pray, when the cashier asks why you smile, when the other fan or teammate asks why you aren’t dressing down the referee for the blown call, when the down-trodden classmate asks why you care, when the lost one is confused by your tireless search, when the wounded person takes a risk for healing and friendship, when the debtor wonders at your lack of attachment to money, when your co-worker’s burdens begin to surface, and when the addict stands at the edge of the grave they just finished digging, do not miss your opportunity to unpack for them the life-giving hope of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Oh, brothers and sisters, this life-giving hope that we exiles carry with us is the most precious of all our cargo.

Lastly, live as possessors of a secure inheritance. The adversary and his world system love to leverage what they can offer you, but it is all “Mirkwood magic.” This reference is from J. R. R. Tolkien’s book The Hobbit. Before entering the forest, the sojourners were given sober advice to “STAY ON THE PATH.” The way became hard for them, and after staying the course for so long, they—one by one—saw something flickering in the distance. Leaving the path and hastening to what seemed to be sure, they arrived only for it to vanish, eventually leaving them swallowed up in silence and darkness. For the one born again into this hopeful exile, the chase is over. There is no other inheritance. God has reserved for us an imperishable, undefiled, unfading salvation. Live free from the leverage of the world. Live free from the deceit of magic. Live like possessors, adopted children and heirs, of a secure inheritance.


Fredrick William Danker (editor of BDAG), A Greek - English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, Third Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000). Electronic text hypertexted and prepared by OakTree Software, Inc, version 2.7.

Posted by Rex Howe with 1 Comments

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