Our lives are often marked with defining moments and extraordinary people that God uses to shape who we are. For me, there is one man who stands out above all the rest: Bro. Joe Blackwell. Bro. Joe passed away last summer at the young age of 94. He was a man who loved the Lord Jesus deeply and was a hero of mine. Allow me to tell you the story of his faithfulness that captured my admiration for him…
In 2018/19, I was going through a dark and difficult season of life. I often felt confused and alone. Life was not going as I had hoped and I was tired…tired of the pain and tired of being tired. On Thursday, March 7, 2019, Smoky Gibson (a friend and the Pastor of FBC Biloxi) preached in Leavell Chapel at the New Orleans Baptist Seminary. Though I did not attend that service, I did listen to the sermon as I drove back home that afternoon. I was northbound on the Causeway when I heard him say: “People are praying for you every day. Are you living like it or are you wasting their prayers?” I was angry that Smoky would say that, and I began to weep.
In my weeping and frustration, I cried out to the Lord: “Lord, there is not one person who is praying for me every day!” What I did not know is that God had a message for me the next day. Bro. Joe had asked earlier in the week to meet with me on Friday, to which I agreed (A general rule of thumb: If a retired Pastor asks a young Pastor for a meeting, the young Pastor would be wise to make the meeting.)
The meeting was at 10 AM and when Bro. Joe walked into my office, he said these words: “I am a messenger from the Lord, who has been sent to tell you that I have been praying for you every day, for the past three months.”
I do not remember how long Bro. Joe and I talked for, but I do remember that I wept and poured my heart out to this brother. He listened and he responded with compassion and grace. He prayed for me in those moments and shared some great insight with me, insight that I hope I never forget. Of the many things we discussed, he told me this: “Never forget the Holy Spirit.”
There were other things that Bro. Joe shared with me, and I’ll share those things eventually; until then, here is one lesson that God has reminded me of these past few days and was demonstrated in Bro. Joe’s faithfulness: Be the person who is faithfully praying for someone else. Granted, it is impossible to faithfully and specifically pray for everyone you know. However, for those whom God has given you a burden, you can pray for faithfully. In my immediate context of Student and College Ministry, I recognize, as Richard Ross has noted, that the adult leaders in youth ministries may be the only adults who are faithfully praying for students by name.
So, dear friend, who can you pray for faithfully and by name? May we be a people who emulate Bro. Joe’s example of faithful intercession—albeit our prayers may never be known by anyone other that God himself.
Thank you, God, for Bro. Joe.
On the Journey,
*Article updated for typos on Wednesday, March 10, 2021.*
One of the joys of Student Ministry is seeing the interests, talents, and dreams of students develop over time. I have seen students begin 7th grade with ambitious (and often unrealistic) dreams, only to see them set their hearts on a God-given mission in high school or early college. Likewise, I’ve also seen two other groups of students. One group simply wonders aimlessly into their college experience or work-force career after high school. They have no sense of purpose or desire. They simply do a job to get a paycheck. The other group has purpose and desire, but it is their own sense of purpose and desire. They have set their own course and have a desire in and of themselves. Of these three groups, the first—the group who sets their hearts on a God-given mission—is the smallest and most overlooked of the three…yet it is also the most desired group…sorta.
When I was a student, my Youth Pastor would often encourage us to consider how God might use us should we set our hearts on his kingdom. He would also say that “everyone wants students to set their hearts on God’s mission…until it’s their own children who set their hearts on God’s mission.” I now better understand this statement.
The call of God is always to follow Jesus (Remember the old hymn, “Wherever He Leads I’ll Go”?). The way the call is fulfilled will look different for everyone, but the call is always to follow Jesus. That might mean abandoning the desire/goal/plan to pursue a Medical Degree, Education Degree (as was the case for me), a career that brings in six-figures, and the list goes on. It means that one might be called to move to an impoverished country to live a life on mission for the glory of God. It might mean leaving behind family and friends to move to a new city/town in the US to live missionally in a community deprived of the Gospel.
To be clear, there is nothing wrong with wanting to be a doctor, or teacher, or the CEO of a company. However, there is something wrong with it when we remove God from the equation. I have talked with countless students who have a plan and a desire for what they want to pursue after High School. Their dreams are as magnificent as they are grand. As they tell of their dreams, I sit and listen with enthusiasm. I ask questions and encourage them to dream big. Sadly, the dreaming cannot go on forever and so I ask what is generally a bubble bursting question: “That’s awesome! Just one thing. Have you ever consider that God might want to do something different with your life or use those skills and dreams in a much different manner than what you’re talking about?”
The look that usually comes to their faces is one of disappointment, shock, intrigue, and even perplexity. For some, they know God is not calling them to pursue all that they have talked and dreamed about. For others, they simply have not considered it and are disappointed that they might be called to pursue a different path but are intrigued by the possibilities. Still others are simply perplexed and shocked by the very notion that God would want to use them.
As we approach the start of preparations for high school graduation, it is not too late to help students reframe the dream. This is not the sole job of student workers, but rather a cooperative effort between parents, student workers, and godly mentors to simply ask our students: “What if God would use _________ for his glory? What could that look like?”
What might these conversations look like as we have them? Well, I think they could go something like this:
Student: I want to be a doctor and practice medicine in New York City (where I know I can make lots of money).
Adult: Okay. That sounds like a good plan. But what if God would want to use you and your medical degree full-time on the mission field for his glory?
Student: I want to be a teacher in a high-end private school where I know I’ll be taken care of and will have great students.
Adult: Teaching is great! But what if God would want to put your skills and ability to work in a public school where Gospel-influence is basically non-existent so that you can share Jesus with students, parents, and faculty/staff?
Student: I want to get an education and poly-sci degree and then become a politician and make real change.
Adult: That’s an idea. And there’s nothing wrong with wanting to do politics. But how long will that change last, really? What if God would want to use you and your skills and abilities in the local church to proclaim his gospel, which will bring eternal change to lives of people.
Student: But I can do that [make change] in politics.
Adult: Yeah, you can make change. But what good will that do for the Kingdom?
Student: *sits in disappointed silence. *
Today, I’m answering God’s call because a Godly influence was willing to have the last conversation you just read with me (Both my youth pastor and I knew what God was calling me to do, but I was hesitant.) As we help students look toward the future, we must be careful to not only dream with them, but to remind them that God has a plan and purpose for their life (Jer. 29.11; Mt. 28.18-20; Acts 1.8; Phil. 1.27-30; 1 Thess. 5.16-18, Jude 3). We must help them reframe the dream in light of God’s eternal glory and purpose. We’ve been commanded to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (Mt. 6.33) and that applies to all of our pursuits, whether it be marriage, education, career, family, and the list continues.
As we help reframe the dreams, we might discover that God would use our students the exact way they have been talking about, and that’s okay. Whatever he might call us to, he has called us to reflect his love, grace, and mercy to a world that is in desperate need of it. So yes, God can (and does) use Construction Workers, Waiters, Managers, Garbage Men, Delivery People, Doctors, Politicians, Teachers, and countless others for his Kingdom and His glory.
Whatever our students might be called to, may we remind them that God will use their skills, abilities, and desires for his kingdom and may we be found to be their cheerleaders as they answer God’s call.
P.S. If your student is called to ministry and is called to pursue theological education, I recommend Leavell College of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. I am thankful for the influence of the professors and I know that they will provide sound theological education and practical training for ministry as your actively serves Christ and His Church
The Super Bowl is one of the largest and most watched sporting events in the world; it often becomes the topic of conversation for a few days. While many watch the Super Bowl, a good number of people, if they’re honest, only watch the Super Bowl for the commercials (I am one of those). Usually, the day after the big game, there is a compilation video of the best ads that were aired.
This year is no different; a compilation video was produced. We laugh at many, gasp at some, and others we totally dismiss. Ultimately, the commercials that are aired during the Super Bowl reflect where our society is at. Just consider Jeep’s commercial. The company used their airtime to make a plea for unity—which is the current political talking point of some. However, the reality is that our nation is anything but united—regardless of how many times it is published in a major newspaper or spoken by a politician. (For more on this, see today’s edition of “The Briefing” with Albert Mohler.) Even so, for some, this is where our nation is at: a place of unity. So, the commercial reflects the current political wave.
Likewise, Logitech’s commercial is also a reflection of our society and it is not a good reflection at that. The commercial ends with the words: To create the future, we must defy the logic of the past. We must defy logic. The words are emphatic and while I’m sure we could spend a great deal of time parsing out their statement, I choose to take them at face value. We live in a time when there is no longer a recognition of absolute truth. Now, notice the words I just used…there is no longer a recognition of absolute truth.
The failure to recognize something does not negate its reality. You know that and I know that. As a Disciple of Christ, I affirm and embrace the reality of an absolute truth. Any intellectually honest person does, too. For instance, just consider the principle of gravity: “Whatever goes up, must come down.” Gravity is true for everyone, even if one denies its existence.
As a Student and College Pastor, I meet students who recognize (and others who deny) the existence of an absolute truth. Why not? The entirety of Gen Z (2000-2015), and now every other living generation, is constantly inundated with contradictory “truth” claims. Just consider these headlines from the SnapChat Stories today (2.9.2021): “My Twin Brother is Now My Sister;” “Love Don’t Judge: We Have 2 Bedrooms—One for Each of My Lovers;” “I’m pansexual, demisexual and non-binary.” All three headlines agree with each other: Your gender, sexual preferences, and the entirety of your life is defined by you and only you. By themselves, and in a world devoid of any absolute truth, these “truths” can be true.
However, we know that there is an absolute truth because there is an all-powerful, all-knowing, and ever-present Creator (Gen. 1; Col. 1.15-20). This Creator, who is God himself, has made creation to function in a certain way. Unfortunately, in our sinfulness, humans have chosen to exchange the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man, birds, four-footed animals, and reptiles. Therefore, God delivered them over to disgraceful passions (Romans 1.24-26). The Apostle, under the inspiration of the source of truth, went on to write that these passions have led to unrighteousness, evil, greed, and wickedness. They are full of envy, murder, quarrels, deceit, and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, arrogant, proud, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, senseless, untrustworthy, unloving, and unmerciful. Although they know God’s just sentence—that those who practice such things deserve to die—they not only do them, but even applaud others who practice them (Romans 1.29-32).
As youth ministry leaders (and parents...if you fit into that category), we must seek to speak the truth God’s Word into the lives of those we have been given the opportunity to lead. When society preaches the Gospel of Gender Fluidity, we preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When society preaches the Gospel of
whatever “Gospel” is preached today , we preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We preach the Gospel of the One who is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14.6). We point our young people back to the truth of God’s Word and pray that their hearts and ours would be enlightened so that you may know what is the hope of his calling, what is the wealth of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward those who believe, according to the mighty working of his strength (Ephesians 1.18-19). As the Lord answers this prayer, we know that he will equip us to share the truth of the Gospel with those who do not yet know him.
Friend, there is an absolute truth and here it is:
The truth of the Gospel gives us our true identity, purpose, and direction. The One who has always been, always is, and always will be is the one who defines truth. Not us, as we are here but for a moment. We are not the Creator, but the created; therefore, we must operate under the Creator’s truth.
So, who is your source of truth? Is it the Lord Jesus Christ, who came into the world to save sinners (1 Timothy 1.15) or is it you, who’s wisdom is ultimately foolish (1 Corinthians 3.19)?
*Article Updated for syntax and grammar issues on Wed., Feb. 10, 2021.
**All Scripture quotations are from the Christian Standard Bible.
Of the movie soundtracks I listen to, my favorite is from The Greatest Showman. My favorite song on the track is “From Now On.” The song comes as P. T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) has a moment of clarity. Really, it was a turning point for him; he came back to his senses after having went crazy for a bit. As he sings, Barnum makes the statement that “for years and years, I chased their cheers; the crazy need for speed of always needing more.” In the song, he resolves that he will not “be blinded by the lights.” Eventually, as the song closes, he goes back home to reconnect with his family and reconcile with his wife.
Though the movie is somewhat based in reality, Barnum’s story serves as a leadership lesson for us. Barnum chased the applause of men and was met with destruction. Just as Barnum chased applause, we too are tempted to do the same in leadership. We want to be accepted, liked, and praised by those that we seek to serve. While leading for praise may prove to be beneficial in the short term, it is never effective (or beneficial) in the long run, nor is it what we have been called to do.
Why is leading for praise not the game plan?
1) God denounced it in his Word. John recorded in John 12.43: For they loved human praise more than praise from God. This verse comes after John’s declaration that many did believe in him [Jesus] even among the rulers, but because of the Pharisees they did not confess him, so that they would not be banned from the synagogue (v42). These rulers had come to faith and yet would not publicly pronounce their faith in the Lord Jesus. They were more concerned about what others thought than they were concerned about doing the right thing.
2) It is short-sighted. The Psalmist declared: Some take pride in chariots, and others in horses, but we take pride in the name of the LORD our God (20.7). A ruler’s perceived power and esteem was connected to the number of horses and chariots he had. However, both horses and chariots are temporary. God, on the other hand, is eternal, and has always been. Remember, John wrote that in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning (John 1.1-2). Leading for praise focuses our attention on the here and now instead of on eternity. As God’s people, we work with eternity in mind. Yes, there are wins for this life, but we ought to pursue the wins that will have eternal impact.
3) It is a distraction. Nehemiah led the effort to rebuild the walls around Jerusalem; this feat was accomplished in 52 days. However, as he pursued the goal, he had critics who sought to distract him. In fact, Nehemiah noted that the efforts of his adversaries were efforts of intimidation (Neh. 6.9) and, therefore, were efforts of distraction. Those who sought to actively work against him also sought to discredit him and began to spread rumors. Nehemiah would not have any of it. His adversaries were put to shame as God completed the task.
4) It is not honoring to God. Gal 1.10c: If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ. The implication of Paul’s declaration is that servants seek to please their master and not others. The Master is not honored when we stop seeking to obey.
In all of this, I understand the temptation personally…as does any honest leader. I have operated from this point before and it hurt…it hurt a great deal. I’ve listened to Pastor friends who have struggled with this temptation and I have listened to those who serve on Church Staffs and have struggled with this. No one is immune from this temptation. Nonetheless, my plea to you is this: Stop leading for the applause of men. It will drive you nuts and it is not what God has called you to do. A friend has often said that “God does not call us to the easiest, but he does call us to the best.” Embrace the best from the one who can provide the best. The work you have been called to is eternal and the applause of men, like all of us, is but for a moment.
One last thought… Since I am a Student Pastor, let me speak to fellow Student Pastors. I believe that the temptation to lead for the applause of men is especially strong in our ministry area. We serve multiple groups of people (students and their siblings, their parents, the congregation, and the rest of the Church Staff) and we want to please each group. The truth, however, is that we cannot please everybody. My grandfather has often reminded me of the adage: “You can please some of the people some of the time, but you cannot please all of the people, all of the time.” So, if you’re just starting out (or have been on this journey for some time), remember what you have been called to and remember, as one speaker said, “Who you are and whose you are.”
Rooting for you!
Note: I am aware that Barnum's story is much more complex and messy than the movie portrayed. To learn more of Barnum and his work, see this article from the Smithsonian Magazine.
I recently received the January 2021 edition of LifeWay’s “Parenting Teens” magazine. The front cover wishes everyone a “Happy Same Year!” The subtitle: “How can we help our teens look forward to a new year, when it feels like we’re reliving the last one?” It is no secret that 2020 will be one for the history books. It was a year characterized by uncertainty, fear, social unrest, division, a heated election cycle, and of course, the COVID-19 Pandemic (just to name a few).
In the past year, Church Leaders have found themselves speaking timeless truth into ever-changing situations and circumstances (which is what we’ve done, even prior to 2020). In a January 15, 2021 New York Times article, Fleur Macdonald noted that many people have found themselves to be frustrated because of the changes and uncertainty, as well as the lack of definitive answers from scientists, physicians, or elected officials. In response to this uncertainty, there has been a growing number of people who have sought the help of Psychics. Though the author threw a shadow of doubt on the “material of psychic readings,” she did acknowledge that psychic “consultations provide comfort for some.” In his podcast "The Briefing," Albert Mohler (President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) noted that ministers were absent from the list of those who have not been able to provide definitive answers. In fact, he reminded us that throughout history, Christian Ministers have been responsible for giving definitive answers to the biggest questions of life.
Why Christian Ministers? Simply put, it is because of the source of the answers. Christian Ministers have a responsibility to be faithful to God and his Word. That brings us to the main idea. In this time of uncertainty, frustration, and insert your preferred word here God has not changed and neither has his Word.
I began a series with my students last night called Immutable. Over the next few weeks, we will be looking at the reality that God never changes (which is what immutable means). I began our time by asking my students how they respond to change. Many of them said they are resistant to change (with some exceptions), and likewise, many of them said that experiencing change creates within them feelings of anxiousness, worry, and fear.
You and I, whether we be parents or youth leaders, have a unique opportunity to speak absolute truth into the lives of our students. However, to accomplish this, we must be 1) Intentional about having conversations with them, 2) Willing to listen to their opinions and concerns, and 3) Willing to gently, yet firmly, correct any erring opinions or thoughts that do not align with God’s Word.
The truth is, just as you and I are connected to the never-ending stream of news and updates, so too are our students connected to the same stream. Therefore, just as we find ourselves having concerns and worries about all that is happening in our world, our students experience these same feelings and possibly to a greater extent.
So, in those conversations, what should we say? I would suggest that we begin with the truth—God’s Word (2 Tim. 3.16-17). As we talk about all that is happening, we need to remind our students (and ourselves) that 1) God never changes (Mal. 3.6; Heb. 13.8), 2) He is creator, sustainer, and ruler of all things (Ps. 104.5-9; Col. 1.15-20), and 3) His plans can never be thwarted (Job 42.2).
How do these truths play out in our daily lives?
1) God never changes. Though our situations and circumstances change, we have been saved and called with a holy calling by the God who never changes (2 Tim. 1.9). Therefore, we can rest in unchanging nature of God.
2) God is the creator, sustainer, and ruler of all things. Though our lives may seem out of control at times, God is still in sovereign control. We can trust that our Creator and Sustainer is still ruling over all things (Psalm 113)
3) His plans can never be thwarted. Though our plans often fail and while our lives may seem in disarray, God is still at work reconciling the world to himself. His plans will never fail, and so we can rejoice in the continual and faithful work of our God (Isaiah 46.9-11; Phil. 1.6).
In the uncertainty of this life, we look to the one who is immutable…who never changes. And praise be to God for that. In this age of subjective truth, may you and I be the consistent and loving voices (that our students need) as we speak of the absolute truth that is found in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Has it ever occurred to you, that nothing occurs to God?
If you look at the world, you'll be distressed. If you look within, you'll be depressed. If you look at God you'll be at rest.