Pastor's Blog

A Lonely Urgency

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Teaching through the writings of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah has shaped my understanding of the Christian life and pastoral ministry in our day.  As I write this, I pray that you too may find fellowship with Jeremiah and encouragement in the lonely urgency you feel regarding the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Jeremiah Was Chosen.

In the opening chapter of the Old Testament book that bears his name, Jeremiah received a calling from God into an appointed prophetic ministry. He lived in difficult days during which his homeland of Judah would be invaded by the fierce Babylonian army and his people taken into a 70 year exile. He was young, inexperienced, and afraid when his calling came. I pray that if you are reading this and you are also “young, inexperienced, and afraid” to serve the Lord, listen to God’s words to Jeremiah and take courage, “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, declares the Lord” (1:8). If his calling wasn’t intimidating enough, his job description was even more so, “Behold, I have put my words in your mouth. See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (1:9–10). What I mean is this, Jeremiah’s ministry would see double the “tearing down” that it would the “building up.” As we read on in the book, we discover that Jeremiah was chosen as a prophet to clear the land and people of unrighteousness and injustice, only then would it be ready for planting and building.

Jeremiah Was Lonely.

As I studied through Jeremiah’s writings, I remember coming to the realization that no one listened to him. Jeremiah 37:1 is one instance where the reader sees this, "But neither he nor his servants nor the people of the land listened to the words of the LORD that he spoke through Jeremiah the prophet”; however, this theme is threaded throughout Jeremiah’s life. You can feel his loneliness in the ministry of the word when he writes, “Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words become to me a joy and the delight of my heart, for I am called by your name, O LORD, God of hosts. I did not sit in the company of revelers, nor did I rejoice; I sat alone, because your hand was upon me for you had filled me with indignation. Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed? Will you be to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail?” I should add that the Lord does comfort Jeremiah in the next verse. However, don’t miss the very clear reason for his loneliness—God’s word was in him, and God’s hand was with him. Jeremiah’s delight in God was the reason for his human-to-human loneliness. He did not live in a time when the surrounding culture delighted in God and his word. He lived in a time when people would rather believe lies of their own making and cast prophetic utterances into the fire to keep themselves warm (e.g., ch. 36). He was appointed by God for loneliness among men in order to make a record of God’s testimony against Judah’s sins, the divine righteousness in decreeing the exile, and keep the hope that one day God would restore his people. At a later time, the prophet Daniel while in exile would read Jeremiah’s words, repent on behalf of the people, and cling to the Lord’s promise. The prophet endured loneliness in his day in order to give truth and hope to a day that would come later.

Jeremiah Was Urgent.

Even in his loneliness, Jeremiah maintained urgency regarding his ministry in the word of God. He wrote, “I have not run away from being your shepherd, nor have I desired the day of sickness” (17:16). He stayed the course, true to his calling, and maintained a spirit within him that while indignant about the sins of his people, still remained filled with compassion for the Lord’s people. His constant preaching and visions about the depth of Judah’s depravity and the pain of the exile weighed heavily on him, yet he could not stop preaching the word given to him by God, “For whenever I speak, I cry out, I shout, ‘Violence and destruction!’ For the word of the LORD has become for me a reproach and derision all day long. If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot” (20:8–9). The ministry of the word was a matter of uncontainable urgency for Jeremiah. He had to speak.

Calling Lonely Christians to Urgency Today

If you are a Christian, feeling the urgency of the gospel message and its eternal implications and value, I wonder if you can identify with Jeremiah. I hope he serves as an example who encourages you in your faith today; I know that he certainly has encouraged me in ministry. Let me offer three applications from what we’ve learned here about Jeremiah: 

  1. Take courage in the truth of God’s providence in giving you life and existence in such days as these. I believe that your lifetime on this earth is not accidental or random. While I doubt many of us have had such a specific and clear call as Jeremiah, I think that a general observation and truth from Scripture is that God is intentional in history and among the people of the earth to accomplish purposes. So, like Jeremiah, you are alive at the right time—regardless of what the local, national, or international circumstances may be—or better yet, because of the local, national, and international circumstances, you are alive for such a time as this. Don’t be afraid; don’t cower behind lack of experience or youth; take courage in God’s providence.

  2. Loneliness due to loyalty to God is not wrong or bad. If you have maintained pure sexual standards in a culture that continually competes for how deep it can dive into the pool of sensuality and have experienced rejection, ridicule, and loneliness because of it, you are depositing temporary suffering for later glory both in the pure heritage you build here and in eternity in the hereafter. If you are a pastor, seminary professor, or Christian worker who has maintained loyalty to the word of God and to the miraculous activity of the divine presence in history as recorded in Scripture and are experiencing criticism, made a laughingstock, and feeling alone in your service to God as it seems no one listens to you in these days, you are depositing the truth of God’s word for another generation who will come along and believe, like Daniel did with Jeremiah’s words. In due time, God will foil the accusers and false prophets. Consider what Jeremiah wrote in Lamentations, “‘The LORD is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.’ The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD. It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth. Let him sit alone in silence when it is laid on him; let him put his mouth in the dust—there may yet be hope; let him give his cheek to the one who strikes, and let him be filled with insults. For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love” (Lam. 3:24–32). Choose loyalty, even when it costs human-to-human loneliness, for remember that the Trinity’s fellowship can strengthen and sustain you in such a state.

  3. Lastly, remain urgent in the ministry of the word of God. A few themes in Scripture are helpful here. Sometimes belief, revival, or reform skips a generation, but it strikes red hot in the next one (e.g., King Josiah). Many of the faithful (e.g., Heb. 11) carried the promises their whole lives and died still looking on with hope toward the time of their fulfillment. The Bible repetitively teaches that in every generation—even the most agnostic, atheistic, or idolatrous of them—a remnant continues to flourish, no matter how small. Consider that the general impression we get from Jeremiah’s ministry is that no one listens to him; however, we know later that somehow the faith made its way into the heart and soul of a young and promising Daniel, to Nehemiah, to Ezra, to Mordecai, and to Esther, all of whom would remain faithful throughout the exilic period. Even if it seems like your city, town, or village is empty of anyone who cares about the gospel and the Scriptures, learn by way of example what Jesus said to the Apostle Paul, “And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.’ And he stayed a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them” (Acts 18:9–11). His persevering urgency in the ministry of the word for a year and a half established the church in Corinth.

I believe that Jeremiah is in eternal fellowship with the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ. The Lord Jesus too knew (1) that he was appointed for such a time of earthly ministry in God’s providential plan, (2) that loneliness due to loyalty to God is a reality of ministry, and (3) sustained urgency in the ministry of the word reaches the remnant and extends beyond one’s lifetime. Drink often from the fellowship of the Trinity. He will sustain you in your lonely urgency for his gospel.

Posted by Rex Howe

Waiting and Moving with God in 2019

Advent represents a time of both waiting and moving. In the first Advent of Christ, a long period of waiting and anticipation was drawing to a close. Another period of waiting, extending from the Ascension to the second Advent of Christ, was just beginning. However, the events surrounding the Incarnation bustled with activity and movement. Only believers moved by the Spirit of God saw what was happening in those days. Many others unfortunately did not have eyes to see and kept waiting during a time when they should have been moving.

In the nativity narrative of the Gospels, we see micro-stories about waiting and moving. Zechariah was a perfect example, and thankfully, a man to whom the Lord was gracious in the waiting and moving of his day. He had waited a long time—both as a leader for the hope of Israel and as a husband to a barren wife. When God called him into a time of movement, it was extraordinary, bewildering, and mixed with doses of hope and doubt. Zechariah was not at first ready to move with God, for which God’s angel temporarily chastised him. Later, Zechariah believed, saw, and moved with God’s program of blessing.

Then, there are Mary and Joseph. Unlike Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, this young couple was only betrothed, had barely entered adulthood, and knew nothing of the kind of waiting of their relatives. They hadn’t lived and suffered long enough for the full yearning of Messiah to probably bloom into the maturity that older saints knew. They were young. Nonetheless, they were thrust into a sudden, extraordinary time of movement in the program and providence of God.

However, should we be taking our cues about the spiritual life or the life of the church from such an extraordinary moment in God’s program? Surely, it was a time clustered with miracles, authenticating this major movement in God’s program, establishing Christ as Lord and Savior. It was an unprecedented time. But what did Jesus say to his disciples before ascending? Do you remember?

“And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, ‘you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now’” (Acts 1:4–5 ESV).

And again, he said to them,

“It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:7–8 ESV).

When we read the Lord’s words here and then follow the acts of the Spirit through the apostles, we see a church on the move. Waiting is the exception; moving is the rule. We see them waiting and praying for Peter’s release from prison, but the large proportion of the narrative records the movement of the missionary apostles going from place to place, evangelizing, teaching, establishing leaders, planting churches, gathering with others for briefings, and then heading back out into the work, strengthening established churches, planting new ones in new places.

It’s not that the church stopped waiting. Indeed, they kept waiting for the Lord’s second Advent, as we do still today. But as they waited for that extraordinary, unprecedented time of the second Advent of Christ, they moved. The Spirit’s vision through the movement of the apostles was not a church that settled and borough-ed in like the centralized temple and worship of Jerusalem. Rather, the Spirit’s aim is a decentralized people, equipped for ministry, moving locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally. Just like our physical bodies, the spiritual Body, the church, is only healthy when it’s mobile.

Everything that moves needs a strong core or a strong frame. A car has frame; physician’s and physical trainers talk about “core health.” What’s the core or the frame of a local church? At West Lisbon, we say the core is “Christ in us.” What we mean by that is the Spirit’s vision as recorded in Scripture for his people and his church to be conformed to the image of Christ. We want our heads, hearts, hands, feet, loving, learning, and laboring to be filled up with the fulness of Christ. We are praying for the Spirit to form in us a permanent, enlarging habitat for Christ to dwell by faith. With God’s help, West Lisbon is on the move in 2019.

Posted by Rex Howe

Blog Post from Guest Contributor: Elise Tollefson Johnson

In light of the recent chaos and turmoil in Washington during the Kavanaugh hearings, I asked one of our own to share her thoughts on the matter. Elise Tollefson Johnson is a Lisbon-Lion-hearted-and-Newark-Norsemen-graduate. She now works in Washington D.C. as a Legislative Director in the U.S. House of Representatives. She knows and loves our country, our God, and us. I particularly think the Kavanaugh situation speaks not only to “the state of the Union” but also to the state of adolescence in the harvest of the sexual revolution in America. Elise has kindly provided her perspective on these two matters in her following contribution to the West Lisbon blog:

The Kavanaugh confirmation process has been messy, it’s triggered visceral, emotional, partisan responses from participants and spectators, and it’s shed a lot of light on the political and cultural challenges the United States is facing right now.

Partisanship in American politics – when both sides refuse to compromise or empathize with an opponent they consider an enemy – is causing gridlock in government at best and rot in our political institutions on a global stage at worst. Brett Kavanaugh, a D.C. Circuit Court judge and nominee for a lifetime appointment to the United States Supreme Court, is in the midst of his confirmation process, a responsibility given to the Senate by the U.S. Constitution. The process begins with a pretty grueling vetting process that includes questioning by the Senate Judiciary Committee and culminates in a debate and vote in the full Senate. In the midst of his Judiciary Committee hearings, it was revealed that a woman wrote a letter to Senator Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the committee, detailing an attempted sexual assault perpetrated by Kavanaugh at a party when they were in high school. Other women came forward. Allegations range from shoving a woman against a wall after a party to participating in a group that drugged and assaulted high school girls. Republicans blame Democrats for waiting too long to release the information about the accusations, Democrats blame Republicans for rushing through the confirmation process despite the accusations. All allegations of sexual harassment and assault should be taken seriously. But, it’s undeniable that given the context of these allegations, Dr. Ford, one of the accusers, was thrown with Kavanaugh into a politically charged hearing and investigation to 1) allow Republicans to get to clear Kavanaugh’s name and confirm him, and 2) allow Democrats to completely derail Kavanaugh’s confirmation and keep a Supreme Court seat open for a less conservative judge. Ultimately, Republicans want the position of the federal government to be pro-life, Democrats want to uphold federal abortion rights, and their success or failure depends on whether Judge Kavanaugh is confirmed to the Supreme Court. They’ll do whatever it takes.

No one trusts anyone. No one knows who is telling the truth. And instead of an honest pursuit of the truth where the stakes are extremely high, Democrats are simply trying to tear down the accused and Republicans are simply trying to tear down the accuser to get the Supreme Court to uphold liberal or conservative laws, respectively. The end (partisan Supreme Court) justifies the means (making your opposing party look as out of touch, dishonest, and nasty as possible). Not surprisingly, this has serious and lasting implications for America’s “deliberative body,” a Senate that was intended to make reasoned decisions about everything from whether the United States goes to war to whom sits on the United States Supreme Court. When the Senate is full of men and women who are motivated solely by winning a majority and robbing their opponents of any success or good reputation in the process, the body doesn’t work. And when the Senate doesn’t work, its brokenness ripples across the rest of the Republic.

The United States was intended to cultivate pluralism – not a blind acceptance of all ideas but in general a peaceful tolerance of them and the people who hold them, a willingness in government to compromise or at least to walk in the shoes of a member of another party. Americans are historically divided right now, and the people they nominate and elect to the White House and Congress reflect that. There is no incentive to work together when people are motivated by the desire to tear each other apart. That’s not just bad for America, it’s lethal.

Kavanaugh’s confirmation process also shines a spotlight on America’s cultural and spiritual problems today, and both conservatives and liberals are at fault.

Again, no one knows where the truth is in all this. But Republicans’ insistence on doing whatever it takes to confirm President Trump’s nominee, even if an investigation turns up truth to his alleged past indiscretions, means that past indiscretions will continue to be unimportant and unpunishable. The behavior of Kavanaugh and his high school buddies was horribly irresponsible. They were teenagers who made drinking beer a sport often without any kind of parental supervision, and it’s completely believable that young women were disrespected in these circumstances, potentially criminally. Aside from being terribly bad for developing brains, drugs and alcohol and this culture of partying among high school kids create a breeding ground for bad decisions and hurt people. Because this behavior is so common in American high schools, it’s often met with ambivalence, “kids will be kids” and “boys will be boys.” Speaking from personal experience, sexual harassment is worse in high school hallways than it is in most workplaces, and it goes on because kids get a pass. But if young men are saying inappropriate things to their female classmates, if they’re violating them without punishment, where do they unlearn that behavior? At what point in their lives do they realize it’s wrong? Schools and parents need to shut down this sexualized, alcohol-fueled party culture among teens that produces nothing but regret, hurt, and, as we’re seeing in the Kavanaugh case, a lifetime of consequences.

On the left, we’ve had a “sexual revolution” that’s begotten all kinds of really painful problems and insufficient Band-Aid fixes. When intimacy is already okay, when it’s encouraged, outside a life-long covenant, and that worldview is lit ablaze by drugs and alcohol that rid young people of their inhibitions, it’s inevitable that people will get hurt and they’ll usually be women. Outside the intended trust and the oneness and the promise to respect your spouse’s body, the sexual revolution needed to rely on consent. No one is really sure what consent means, and there’s disagreement about how it’s given. This confusion leads to sexual assault. Its upshot is men who aren’t sure what it means to respect a woman and her body, and women who say no and aren’t taken seriously or who apprehensively engage in behavior they later regret. The left wants to make the Kavanaugh confirmation process about consent, the only remaining rule in our post-sexual revolution world. But it’s a “solution” that elicits confusion, disagreement, bad choices, and hurt that can last decades. We’re missing the mark by using Kavanaugh and Dr. Ford to have a conversation about consent. America needs to have a conversation about morality, how the best way to prevent teenagers today from making Kavanaugh- and Ford-esque decisions they’ll have to answer for later is to be really honest about the sexual revolution that created a slew of problems its supporters are trying and failing to address.

Politically and culturally, the Kavanaugh confirmation process highlights the need for young people who respect their brothers and sisters and live above the chaos our secular society has created for itself. We need teenagers who can already talk to and demonstrate why Jesus’s moral rules regarding sexuality and how we treat our neighbors is far better for the country and its health than the fast-and-loose rules we’re playing by now. We’re learning these days that decisions as big as who gets to be president or sit on the Supreme Court are profoundly affected by young people and what they believe and how they act.