In this pilgrimage called life, we often face tests. Usually, we think of tests as something we took in school. They were something we crammed for the night before and then prayed hard to pass. We take driver’s tests, blood tests, and the doctors often tell us they need to run some tests. In God’s economy, our tests can be divided into three categories.

First there is the test of the MIRACULOUS. These are the times when we seem to be moving from one mountaintop experience to another. There are seasons when it seems we can overcome anything, that God is working in our lives or in our church in an unhindered way. The test of the miraculous is the test of the incredible moments. The times when it is so incredible, so blessed that you want to build a tabernacle and dwell there forever.

When you are tested by the miraculous, you tend to want to stay in a holy huddle. You can be tempted to start patting yourself on the back about how lucky God is to have you. A church can be tested by the miraculous when it makes a movie that exceeds all expectations. Or when doors are opened to minister to other churches and pastors. Or when other sincere believers brag on us and what we are doing.

If we are not careful, we could fall off the mountain, drunk from the wine of victory and in a stupor over our success as we trip over our pride. Certainly we have much to praise God for. His blessings have been poured out on us. But we must not ever come to the conclusion that we are better than anyone else. God has seen nothing in us that makes us worthy. Those who go to the mountain with Jesus and see His glory go because they have longed for a deeper intimacy and desired to live in greater obedience.

The mountain is not for the weak at heart or the casual Christian. Those who are not prepared for the mountain will quickly fall and be crushed by their own success. Pride will slip in. Ego will start to reign. They will start to believe their press clippings. They will assume that God is impressed by what they are doing. He’s not. You can’t impress God.

Beware the spirit of Simon Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration – “Let’s just build some tents and have fellowship.” At the core that is self-centered. It’s missing the point of seeing the glory of God. There is still work to be done. Ministry is in the valley. We have to deal with the sin that runs rampant in the valley.

Next, there is the test of the MONOTONOUS. The daily grind that gets you, wears you out and wears you down. It’s a test to survive the moments when God seems to be distant, when our prayers seem to be ineffective, when the altar is empty, and when we lose the sense of His presence. In this soulish generation, we want to live in the realm of emotions. We want a preacher, a song, or an event to rev us up and get us going. God never does His deepest work in the shallowest part of our being. He never has, and He never will.

God wants us to trust Him in the monotonous. We read in the Scriptures about the miracles, the healings. We read the teachings of Jesus. But what about those nights sleeping with a rock as a pillow, walking up and down the hills of Galilee? There are times when you just have to get up and get going. Discipleship is a long obedience in the right direction. We are not called to live our lives by feelings, but by faith. Just because we can’t see God working doesn’t mean He isn’t working.

Then there is the test of the MYSTERIOUS. When things don’t make sense. When we pray for healing and it doesn’t come. When we are thrown a curve when we were expecting a fastball. Times when God works in unexpected ways. Joseph certainly never expected to be thrown into a pit or in prison. Moses certainly didn’t plan on spending forty years on the backside of the desert. The children of Israel couldn’t understand how God could use pagan nations to judge His chosen people.

There are moments when God seems to change the script. Job had it happen to him. God never explained it to Job. He never told Him why. Job’s life took a nosedive. Paul was given a thorn in the flesh. God allowed Satan to sift Simon Peter like wheat. The crucible of life is impossible to explain. There are no “three points and a poem” to deal with the adversities of life.

There are mysteries that God will not explain this side of glory. Warren Wiersbe says, “We live by promises, not by explanations.” We would like someone to explain the setbacks, but no one can. Trite answers have no power to heal our wounded hearts.

When you think of the Apostle Paul, he had all three tests. He had the incredible experience of a trip to the third heaven. He had monotonous days when he was traveling on his missionary journeys. He had days in prison when he must have felt abandoned and alone. The church at Corinth treated him with disrespect. He also had the mysterious thorn in the flesh. If Paul’s prayer life couldn’t deliver him from that thorn, I doubt if we are going to fare any better.

What Paul needed in all three tests is what we need: grace. He needed abounding grace to deal with his heavenly and hellish experiences. He needed grace to deal with God’s people who wouldn’t cooperate with his leadership. He needed grace to accept the fact that God had called him to suffer many things.

We need to remember the ebbs and flows of life. We will not always be on the mountain or in the valley. Nor will we always be in the rut of routine. Days can change like the wind. Seasons change, and so does life. The question comes, how are you doing with your tests right now? Pray that God will give you the grace to handle your successes and your failures. Pray you properly handle flattery and flattening. Pray you can handle the monotonous and the mundane. Pray. Pray. Pray. That’s the best preparation, no matter what test you are facing.

After spending time in the South and the West and having preached in churches in both locales, there are clear differences between the two parts of the country. Particularly regarding the “Bible Belt,” there are things that these churches in the South don’t want to admit or change.

  • Bible Belt churches are older and often in a rut or set in their ways. They’ve typically lost their burden for the next generation and the lost. They are dying because they are comfortable and don’t like change. Church plants in the West have to think of others and outside the box to survive and grow. Anybody and everybody is a potential member or new believer. They don’t grow by transfers as much as by evangelism.
  • Rarely do you see lost people invited to churches in the Bible Belt. When I’ve been to church in the West, I’ve met multiple individuals and families who had been invited by someone. At least 40 people talked to me about people they were sharing Christ with. Often lost people come out of curiosity just to see what the difference is in their friends. Churches in the south want comfortable additions.
  • Churches in the West have first-generation believers from all walks of life – various lifestyles, careers, addictions, personalities, and agendas all changed because someone told them about Jesus.

I guess we all have to decide if we want to be a part of a religious country club where we can pay our dues and be comfortable, or if we want to be part of a Jesus movement. Honestly, when you read of how Jesus related to tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners, He might be more comfortable in a church in the West than in the Bible Belt today.

As a pastor in the South, I refuse to let us be a typical Bible Belt church. We’re going to be a Jesus church or we will take the sign down. Jesus died for the lost, not for our comfort. Every pastor must lead their people to be broken about the things that break His heart.

Recently I was honored to attend the memorial service for my dear friend Warren Wiersbe. It was important to Terri and me that we pay honor to this man who meant so much to us. He and Betty became our friends nearly 25 years ago, and he will be deeply missed.

Through the years, it was instilled in me to honor people. It has always been important to me to remember. We live in a world that easily forgets. With the advancement of technology, it’s easy to just check the box and move on to the next thing. That does a disservice to us and to those we love.

Remembering is an important part of biblical faith. The Jews were frequently told to remember. The Passover was a reminder to tell the story of God’s deliverance. The memorial stones were a reminder to tell the next generation of God’s divine intervention. The songs of ascent were to be sung as a reminder while the Jewish pilgrims traveled to the Holy City during feasts. The Lord’s Supper is a reminder of what Christ did for us at the Cross.

The list of friends and supporters in Paul’s letters was a reminder that even the great Apostle Paul didn’t do it by himself. The Hall of Faith in Hebrews 11 is a reminder that history is HIS story, told through the lives of His servants.

Reminders and repetition are good for us. Worshiping the past or people in our past is not healthy, but remembering them is. Remember how they blessed you, how God used them, and why it’s important. It is not healthy or Christlike to pretend that every idea is your idea. We are a product of the investment of others in our lives – parents, professors, authors, conference speakers, friends, and family who have poured into us along the way.

My life is marked by men who hold places of honor in my heart and life. I rarely preach without quoting one of them. Sometimes I don’t know where they end and where I begin. They are so much a part of me, and I rejoice when I remember seasons in their path.

This fall I will celebrate thirty years as the pastor of Sherwood. A few years ago, we built a hall to honor the history of our church. It’s not a brass serpent to be worshiped; rather, it is a hall where we have marked historical moments along the journey. We’ve honored the former pastors, key events, and significant moments when God showed up. It is our “What mean these stones?” hallway. When someone new comes to the church, they can take a walk down this hall, watch videos, and see a historical timeline and items from specific decades.

Through the years, most of our charter members have gone on to glory. Key leaders who helped me in my early years here have passed away. It’s imperative, in my opinion, that people know Sherwood didn’t just happen. It happened because God put some incredibly patient, praying people together who worked for the glory of God. It’s important to pause and ponder the impact of those who are no longer with us and those who can no longer contribute as they once could.

Every generation must recognize that something significant happened before they were born. It’s important that each of us remember that we didn’t get here by ourselves. We are the product of the places we’ve been, the people we’ve met, and the books we’ve read (I agree with my friend Jay Strack!). We stand on the shoulders of giants.

Today, I pause to remember and rejoice specifically over men in ministry who poured into me. Men like Vance Havner, Ron Dunn, Manley Beasley, Don Miller, and Warren Wiersbe allowed me into their lives. There are pastors along the way who believed in me, even when I wasn’t sure I believed in myself. I’m forever grateful to Charlie Draper, Fred Lowery, Nelson Price, George Harris, Tom Elliff, John Bisagno, and Jimmy Draper for their investment and encouragement. They loved me, prayed for me, encouraged me, and blessed me. Their spiritual DNA is a part of my spiritual DNA.

My prayer is that I can remind people from time to time that we once had giants in the land. These giants cast long shadows and provided shade for countless thousands along the way.

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As I’m writing this, I’m watching the colors of the leaves change almost daily. What a few days before was a splash of green is now mixed with yellows and reds and a few leaves that have already turned brown. Each day is a visible reminder that life has seasons, and rather than complain about the seasons, we should embrace them and ask God to teach us what He wants us to learn. Just think about all the seasons you go through if you live a long life:

  • Childhood
  • Teenage years
  • Going off to college or getting your first job
  • Moving away from home
  • Getting married
  • All the seasons around having or not having kids
  • Empty nest
  • Aging parents
  • Changing careers
  • The death of a child, spouse, or parent
  • The end of your youthful idealism and the reality that life isn’t fair
  • Spiritual transformation
  • Times of personal revival and renewal
  • Changes in your health

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When God Works in Unexpected Ways

This is the first blog I’ve written since I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Someone told me that one in six men will have prostate cancer in their life. It’s the most prominent cancer in men, as breast cancer is in women. The last few months have been, to say the least, an emotional roller coaster. The “C-word” takes your breath away. It brings a new normal and a fast learning curve. Learning that you have it leads to discerning what kind of treatment is best for you. Listening to countless stories of other men who have been diagnosed with the same thing and are living active lives is encouraging. Continue reading “When God Works in Unexpected Ways”