Friday, April 30, 2010

The Ought and the Is of Piper's Leave of Absence

The Ought and Is of Piper’s Leave Absence
Dr. Kevin Shrum

You would have to be living under a rock to not know that John Piper, well-known Christian leader, writer, gift of God to the church at large, and Pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota for the last thirty years will be taking an eight month leave of absence beginning May 1 and continuing through December 31. Piper has publicly stated that this leave of absence, approved by the elders of Bethlehem Baptist Church, will be used to deal with internal sin, pride, and to kindle as renewed commitment to his family and ministry as he prepares for his final years of ministry.

I do not begrudge Piper’s leave of absence. In fact, I believe this is the way things ‘ought’ to be for the faithful pastor. There should be, from time to time, a leave of absence for study, rest, and renewal. Pastor and preaching, if done right, is an exhausting job. It is a 24/7 job. The pastor is never off duty; even when off he is still on. Ministry demands intense emotional commitment and requires on-going mental and physical energy. The continual sapping of the pastor’s emotional, mental, and spiritual strength requires that the pastor continually replenish his supply. An occasional leave of absence helps in the pastor’s renewal project.

Yet, when I heard and read of Piper’s eight month reprieve, I instantly thought of the thousands of pastors who, for a myriad of reasons, will never be afforded the luxury of an eight month sabbatical. Most pastors may get one or two weeks a year for a vacation, but never an extended study leave. Sometimes the causes are financial – both pastor and church simply do not have the resources to provide for this kind of time off. Sometimes the causes are leadership – most pastors serve in single-staffed churches where finding someone to fill in for two weeks is difficult enough, much less for eight months. Still another cause is that most church members do not see the need so there is no desire to provide for such extended leaves. The reasoning here is to treat the pastor as the average church member who may get only a two week vacation each year – “I work hard and don’t get extended leaves of absence,” so says the uninformed church member. This is the way things actually are – the way it is!

Yet, there are many good reasons for pastors and churches to consider the practice of granting periodic leaves of absence for study, rest, family renewal, and rejuvenation. If the church expects the pastor to effectively lead and to keep his family in good order, then they must see the need to provide the time and resources needed to accomplish such worthy goals. Why? First, the renewed pastor is the effective pastor, if the leave of absence is actually planned for its intended purpose. Second, the church must change how they look at their pastor. Instead of the pastor being viewed as the hireling called to do all the work of the church, the pastor must be viewed as the God-called, God-ordained preacher of the gospel and leader of the church who must hear from God if the church is to be healthy and productive. If the pastor has little time to clear his head and meditate on God’s Word in a season of reflection then his ministry will be shallow and the church will be stunted in its growth.

Third, the pastor and church must reconsider the heavy load the pastor carries. All things are not equal when it comes to comparing the work of the pastor and the average laborer. Pastor’s help people live and die. They deal with weighty issues daily. They prepare messages from God’s Word, counsel the broken-hearted, make hospital visits, attend meetings, plan worship services, represent the church in the community, and organize various events. On top of all of this the pastor is to make sure his family is well-supported and cared for. And get this. Most of this is done while he is underpaid and underappreciated.

Finally, pastors must give up the ‘Messiah complex’ when it comes to the Lord’s work. We are not indispensable. The pastor must remember that it is the Lord’s church (Mt. 16:13). The church has survived for generations; it will survive after we’re gone. A periodic leave of absence will prove to the pastor that the church will not fall apart if he’s gone a short time. Consider the church as a long chain consisting of individual ministry links made of solid steel that represent God’s ministers in each generation. The pastor’s job is not to be the entire chain, but simply the single link he is called to be in the church’s ministry. This calls for humility. In other words, the church can live without us for a short period of rest and renewal. If the pastor is renewed and refreshed the church will more than survive, it will thrive.

It is my prayer that more churches will consider giving their pastors intentional, financed seasons of rest, renewal, and study. It is my prayer that Piper’s example and that of his church will inspire more churches and pastors to be refreshed in the work of the Lord. In this way, we will move from the way things ought to be to making these seasons of renewal the way things actually are – the way it is!

Where is Your Bible? The Case for Biblical Literacy

Where is Your Bible? – A Case for Biblical Literacy
Dr. Kevin Shrum

We live in biblically illiterate times. While economic cycles come and go and while the tide of political chaos ebbs and flows, Western culture has been able to depend on a biblically informed moral center. Both believer and unbeliever alike lived within the contours of a set of biblically-conditioned categories, even when these moral and spiritual categories were not personally or publicly acknowledged. Our cultural and moral arguments assumed a biblically conditioned intellectual framework. In other words, the blood-line of Western culture was ‘bibline,’ that is, until recent times.

We live in a day when people think – if they think at all about Scripture - that it was Jonah who built the ark, that Noah who was swallowed by a whale, that it was Nicodemus up a tree and not Zacchaeus and, that the Bible is nothing more than a collection of man-made wisdom stories that bear no resemblance to history or reality. The consequences of this kind of biblical illiteracy that have been floating just below the cultural surface are now beginning to break the surface of our culture producing violent waves of moral and spiritual crisis. The outcomes have been and will be devastating. Moral and spiritual categories are now self-determined without any objective reality. The entrepreneurial spirit of the age has made each of us our own authoritative canon.

The biblical illiteracy of our culture and in many of our churches calls for a series of questions that must be asked and answered if Scripture is to once again take its rightful place as the ‘shaper of ideas’ and as an authoritative explanatory text for reality.

Question #1 – Is the Bible from heaven? This is the question of origins. Every generation brings its skeptics who make every effort to demote and demean the Word. They doubt the origin, authority, and inspiration of the God’s Word. The accusations are familiar – it’s a man-made book; it’s an inspirational book, but not a divinely inspired book; its antiquated and outdated, etc. But here’s the kicker – one evidence, among many, of the Bible’s divine, heavenly origin is that while some in each generation seek to discredit the Book, the Book simply keeps rising from the grave yard of discarded literary contributions. Why does it do this? The answer is that the Bible is not just any book – it is the Book, God’s Book, inspired, infallible, inerrant, tested, tried and true. So, let the skeptic rail away against eternity and the agnostic twist in the winds of change, while all the time the Word stands forever, established in heaven.

Question #2 – Is the Bible in your hand? That is, is the Book literally in your hand? I’m all about Bible-based computer programs. The tools we have these days to study the Word are amazing and helpful. In fact, I myself have several iPhone Bible apps and some rather sophisticated laptop programs that cost me a pretty penny. However, the Book, my Book, is always in hand. It has been formed to the shape of my sometimes sweaty, oily hands. There is something about the turning of the pages, knowing where things are in the Book, that remind me that I cannot turn off the Book as easily as I can click the shut-down key on my laptop. Being familiar with the Book will keep you from thinking that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. So, use the tools God has provided, but always have the Book in hand.

Question #3 – Is the Bible in your heart? The heart, or the will, is the place of decision, dedication, and great affection. The Bible must inform the heart. Putting Scripture into the heart by memorization is invaluable. Knowing the Word intimately keeps us meditating on it even when the Book is not in front of us. Knowing the Book shapes the contours of our thinking and feeling even when we are unaware of its influence. Knowing the Book keeps us from sin. This is why the Psalmist wrote in Psalm 119:11, “I have stored up (hidden) your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” Take the Book that is in your hand and put it into your heart.

Question #4 – Is the Bible in your head? This is the question of intellectual engagement. You do not have to ‘check your brain at the door’ in order to be a Christian. Some of the finest minds in the history of our fair planet have been unashamed believers. The Bible has been the shaper of ideas and the progenitor of intellectual and cultural visions for centuries. The Word raises the five ‘essential’ questions of human existence – 1) Is there is God? What is he like? And, how can I know him? 2) Who am I? Accident? Incident? Or purposed? This is the question of human identity. 3) Who are we in relation to each other? This is the question of relationships. 4) What should I do with my life and can it have meaning? This is the question of vocation. 5) Finally, what happens when I die? This is the question of eternity. These five questions are both asked and answered in the Word in some simple and not so simple ways. So, while we’re praying to give our hearts to Jesus, we must also give our minds to Jesus (Mt. 22:37), as well.

Question #5 – Is the Bible in your home? When I ask, ‘Is the Bible in your home?’, I am not asking if there is a Bible on the coffee table or on a book shelf. What I’m asking is more systemic. In other words, does the Word inform your conversations with your spouse and your children? The method here is not to beat each other over the head with the Book. Instead, having the Book in your home means that you ask the questions the Book asks, you contemplate the answers it proposes, you discuss its moral and spiritual challenges, and you allow the Book to, once again, shape the atmospheric contours of your home life even if the Bible is not on your lap or even verbally mentioned. In other words, the Bible must contaminate the spiritual air we breathe in our homes. Maybe, just maybe, if more families would dust off their Bibles it would, as the old gospel song says, ‘save your poor souls.’

Question #6 – Is the Bible in the harvest? Believers are commissioned to share the good news, to be on mission, as it were. But we do not promote ourselves. Our job is not to be creative with the message while we are being creative with the method of delivery. We are to be ‘Johnny Appleseed,’ spreading the message of hope and life in Jesus Christ wherever we go and to whomever we meet. We are not to be novel or unique with the gospel message – the Word in this respect never changes. Sadly, while some boast to believe in the inerrancy of the Book, they do not have the complimentary belief in the sufficiency of the Book – its power and ability to deliver what it promises. So, let us take up as heralds of good news in the Book. It is our message.

Question #7 – Is the Bible in the heat of the battle? Life is filled with many challenges. Spiritual and intellectual confrontations take place daily. What resource will you use to shape your responses to the great questions of life and what weapon will you use to combat the enemies of your soul? The only Book that has stood the test of time as worthy of every challenge and battle we face in life is the Bible, God’s Word. Maybe this is why the Apostle Paul would encourage the Ephesian believers to take up the only offensive weapon in their battlefield arsenal of armor (Eph. 6:17) – ‘and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.’

There is no excuse for Biblical illiteracy. It’s not a matter of access for the Bible remains the best-selling book each year; it is the best-selling book of all time. Rather, biblical illiteracy is overcome by taking the Book in hand, placing it in the heart, mind, and home, and by allowing it to shape the message of hope we bring to the marketplace and that we use in dealing with our own personal demons and distractions. Just as the mysterious voice of God called Augustine to, ‘Take up and read, take up and read,’ on that divinely designed afternoon almost two millennia ago we, too, must take up and read the Word – it will save us and sustain us.

Monday, April 5, 2010

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