“You have multiple blood clots in both lungs. And they’re large!”

On July 18, 2014, I heard those sobering words from an emergency room physician. Just one clot that moves from a lung to the heart can kill a person instantly. The life-threatening diagnosis brought to mind the above maxim about cemeteries and indispensable people.

I use that maxim when I teach on 2 Timothy 4, Paul’s final written words, perhaps months prior to his execution. Paul knew that his departure (death) was near (vs. 6). He insisted that he had “finished the course” (vs. 7). Now he’s coaxing Timothy to carry on and cultivate resiliency in his ministry.

John Wesley was correct when he wrote, “God buries His workmen, but His work goes on.” If the apostle Paul wasn’t indispensable, it’s a certainty that Terry Powell isn’t. I live within the tension of competing truths: my teaching and writing endeavors are high callings that imbue my life and the daily routine with deep meaning. On the other hand, God and His redemptive work will do just fine without me.

What lessons can I glean from this recent physical challenge?

  1. Put more energy now into “being with the Lord” instead of just “doing for the Lord.” If I’m one heartbeat away from spending eternity with Him, perhaps I should more diligently cultivate that relationship now. Why wait? I yearn to know Psalm 16:11 more experientially: “In Thy presence is fullness of joy. In Thy right hand are pleasures forever.”
  1. Invest more time and energy on members of my immediate family: my bride of 43 years; my two grown sons; my daughter-in-law; my three-year-old grandson. Write the letters that I’ve conceptualized but never put on paper. Finish the poems I’ve started. Take the trips I keep hedging on due to financial costs. Show up at the front door with surprises that are sure to engender glee. I don’t want my grave stone to contain the “Procrastinator’s Epitaph:

Here lies a man who was always “going to”…

Now he’s gone.

  1. Make hard choices about how to utilize my limited time and energy. For the sake of more important endeavors, what should I “plan to neglect” over the next few years? Outside of my faculty responsibilities, how should I spend my limited time and energies? What opportunities deserve a “Yes!” What opportunities should receive a “No!”? What is God’s agenda for me in my latter years? There’s a limit to the number of things I can do well, especially as my physical energy wanes.

Take this unsolicited advice: go to a nearby cemetery for your next quiet time. Observe the graves of all the indispensable people whose bodies clutter the ground. Nothing gives perspective on life like the inevitability of physical death.

May our prayer be, “Teach us to number our days, that we may present to Thee a heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90:12). In view of the fact that your days are numbered, what would wisdom look like for you?

Historical Profiles That Encourage, Inform, and Inspire Us

 

The delay in fulfilling his calling was unexpected and frustrating. After six years of intensive outreach in China, at age 29, Hudson Taylor returned to England, a furlough prompted by poor health. For five years he waited to return, all the while burdened by the spiritual darkness in China, where 30,000 died daily without hearing the Gospel.

In Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secrets, his son James explains how those years of waiting tempered the steel of his father’s soul. For periods of time in his London flat in a poor part of the city, Taylor and his family were “shut up to prayer and patience.” Persevering prayer became a deeply-ingrained habit. He experienced “the deep prolonged exercise of a soul that is following hard after God… the gradual strengthening of a man called to walk by faith, not by sight; the unutterable confidence of a heart cleaving to God and God alone.” As those years away from China progressed, when despondency assailed him, “prayer was the only way by which the burdened heart could obtain any relief.”

Yet the value of the delay wasn’t restricted to the cultivation of deeper faith through desperate prayer. When his health permitted, he spoke in churches across the British Isles to promote the needs in China. Taylor helped translate the New Testament in a Chinese dialect. He received more medical training that he knew would come in handy in rural outposts of China. Most significantly, during persistent bouts of prayer, God’s Spirit planted a vision to expand outreach in China by launching a new sending agency. In 1865, he founded China Inland Mission, which sixty-five years later became Overseas Missionary Fellowship. In 1866, after raising enough funds to support a team of twenty-one workers, Taylor sailed back to China, where he labored forty-five more years.

Initially, poor health and years away from his beloved Chinese appeared nonsensical, a detour from God’s calling. But almost 150 years later, the missionary society he organized still penetrates unreached areas with the gospel. Rather than diminishing his effectiveness, delay multiplied it. Delay prepared Taylor for greater long-term usefulness to God.

Taylor’s story reminds me of a remark by V. Raymond Edmond: “Delay never thwarts God’s purpose. It only polishes his instruments.” His time away from the mission field in China also tells us that God never wastes time, and He never wastes experiences in the lives of His consecrated servants. The outcome of waiting on God may be more fruit, not less.

Anecdotes from Past Servants Who Inspire and Challenge Us

 

An incident in Jack Murray’s life showed that weakness is not a hindrance to usefulness in God’s kingdom. His son, George, told this story in chapel while he served as President of Columbia International University.

Jack, a traveling evangelist decades ago, was coming off back-to-back weeks of meetings in local churches. He boarded a plane, headed to yet another week-long engagement. The intensive delivery of messages and constant interactions with people had depleted his mental and physical reserves. Craving a nap so he could recoup, he was delighted to hear that seating was “open” rather than assigned. Since the plane was only half-full, to signal his desire for privacy, he sat by a window, placing his coat and hat on the two adjacent seats.

Surprisingly, a sharply-dressed business woman asked to sit in the aisle seat next to him. She tried to engage Jack in conversation, but he cited the exhausting week behind him and said he needed to rest during the flight. He pushed the seat-recliner button, closed his eyes, and leaned his head against the bulkhead. That’s when someone else started talking to him.

“Jack, there’s a woman sitting next to you,” whispered God’s Spirit.

“Yea, I know. And of all the places she could have selected, she sat next to me!”

“Don’t you think that’s significant?” asked the Lord.

“But Lord, You know how tired I am!” Jack countered. He contended with the Lord for several minutes, then yielded to His wooing. After asking forgiveness for his attitude, he pushed the seat button, sat upright, and opened his eyes. Immediately the lady blurted, “Oh, are you feeling better?”

A casual conversation ensued. When she said she lived and worked in Charlotte, North Carolina, Jack mentioned a friend of his: Henderson Belk, then president of the Belk department store chain, headquartered in her city. Excitedly, she announced that she worked for Mr. Belk in the corporate office. “Have you noticed anything different about your boss lately?” Jack inquired.

“Oh, yes. Everybody is talking about him. He ‘got religion’ or something,” she said. That’s when Jack explained how Mr. Belk had recently put his faith in Christ. He shared the gospel with her, and her heart began to melt. She wept, revealing a broken heart over dysfunction in her family. She didn’t pray to receive Christ on the plane, but Jack made her promise to ask her boss about what happened to him. Within a week, Henderson Belk cultivated the soil where Jack had planted a seed, and led his employee to faith in Christ.

When Jack was at the end of himself due to physical frailty, he and the woman were at the beginning God’s grace. Instead of stemming the flow of God’s power, his weariness merely created a dependency on it.

We have the gospel message in fragile earthen vessels. But we’re still candidates for usefulness, for God puts His word in weak vessels, “so that the surprising greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves” (2 Cor. 4:7).

How God Gets Glory

June 11, 2014 — Leave a comment

Profiles from history that challenge, inspire and encourage God’s people.

 

More than a century before satellites beamed Christian TV programs across the globe, Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) was a renowned British pastor. Due to the depth and eloquence of his preaching, contemporaries dubbed him the “Prince of Expositors.” He spoke to jam-packed sanctuaries while still in his 20s. So many folks in London wanted to hear him preach that he occasionally pleaded with church members to stay home so unsaved visitors could get a seat and hear the gospel. Spurgeon’s mental gifts dwarfed typical Christian leaders. Publishers still disseminate his devotional books and sermons throughout the world.

At first glance, you’d think he’s the last person to feel inadequate or dependent. Surely the strengths of this behemoth of Church history far eclipsed his weaknesses.

Wrong.

Recurring depression dogged Spurgeon most of his adult life. His first episode descended at age twenty-four. Here’s what he wrote about it: ”My spirits were sunken so low that I could weep by the hour like a child, and yet I know not what I wept for.”   Repeated incidences spawned these words: “Causeless depression cannot be reasoned with…as well fight with the mist as with this shapeless, indefinable, yet all-beclouding hopelessness.”   In a sermon titled “When a Preacher Is Downcast,” he modeled transparency long before it was in vogue: “The strong are not always vigorous, the wise not always ready, the brave not always courageous, and the joyous not always happy…Good men are promised tribulation in this world, and ministers may expect a larger share than others, that they may learn sympathy with the Lord’s suffering people, and so may be fitting shepherds of an ailing flock.”

Painful gout attacks impaired him physically, especially as he aged. In 1888, as he lay prostrate with this debilitating form of arthritis, he said, “I cannot get better till I am in another climate, and I cannot reach that other climate till I get better.”   One of Spurgeon’s favorite Bible verses was Psalm 50:15: “Call on me in the day of troubles; I shall rescue you, and you will honor me.” Of this verse Spurgeon wrote, “Here is a ….covenant that God enters into with you who pray to Him, and whom He helps. God says, ‘you shall have deliverance, but I must have the glory’…Here is a delightful partnership: we obtain that which we so greatly need, and all that God getteth is the glory which is due His name.”

Spurgeon understood experientially how human need magnifies the sufficiency of God. He wrote, “We shall bring our Lord most glory if we get from Him much grace.”

A reassuring irony of Christian living is that God receives more glory through our weaknesses and dire circumstances, because that’s when we most need Him – that’s when He gets a chance to do what only God can do! Spurgeon understood experientially how human need magnifies the sufficiency of God. He wrote, “We shall bring our Lord most glory when we get from Him much grace.”

 

Profiles from history that inform, challenge, and encourage God’s people

 

In the late 1700s, the British economy relied heavily on the slave trade from Africa. Most captives toiled on large plantations owned by Britishers in the West Indies. The annual export of slaves from Africa’s western coast exceeded 100,000.

A year after converting to Christ, William Wilberforce (1759-1833), a member of Parliament, sensed a call on his life that would keep him in politics. He wrote, “God Almighty has set before me two great objects: the suppression of the slave trade, and the reformation of manners (morals).” A decade later he reiterated the conviction about racial injustice: “The grand object of my parliamentary existence is the abolition of the slave trade…before this grand cause all others dwindle in my eyes.”

Wilberforce would need this strong sense of divine call, for the battle for racial justice consumed almost forty-six years of his life (1787-1833). Eleven times the House of Commons defeated his motion to end the slave trade. Opponents threatened his life. Men who he thought were good friends severed ties with him. Political pressure to back down escalated, threatening his re-elections. If they abolished slavery, West Indian assemblies announced they would declare independence from Britain and federate with the United States.

One stimulant to Wilberforce’s persistence came from pastor John Newton, himself a former slave trader. He reinforced Wilberforce’s own belief that God wanted him to pursue this cause at all costs. He told Wilberforce, “It is hoped and believed that the Lord has raised you up for the good of His church and for the good of the nation.” Newton urged him to stay in public life as a context for carrying out his calling. Another contemporary, John Wesley, told him in a letter, “Unless God raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of man and devils. But if God be for you, who can be against you.”

His passionate speeches, rooted in Biblical values, gradually eroded resistance. Twenty years after his first motion, a majority voted for abolition, resulting in a torrent of tears streaming down Wilberforce’s face. Yet that vote ended the slave trade, not slavery itself. He fought twenty-six more years before Parliament voted in 1833 to outlaw slave ownership in all British colonies. The vote occurred three days after Wilberforce died.

What can we learn from Wilberforce? That resilience depends on remembering God’s call to a particular cause or ministry. Remembering God put us where we are instills persistence and minimizes the likelihood that we’ll quit.

If you’re currently tempted to bail out of a difficult situation, remember who put you there, and why.

Profiles from history that inform, challenge, and encourage God’s people

 

There was a baffling chasm between who he was and what he did, between his credentials and his accomplishments.

Raised in a poor family, the boy’s formal education was spotty, lasting only several years. Even as an adult, misspellings pockmarked his letters. A reporter who heard him speak to a large audience in England lamented the preacher’s incapacity to grasp basic grammar, saying, “He butchered the King’s English!”

When he moved to Boston at seventeen to work in his uncle’s shoe store, a prerequisite for the job was church attendance. Edward Kimball, who taught the young men’s Sunday School class, said he had met “few persons whose minds were spiritually darker.” Kimball led the young man to Christ, but church leaders rejected his initial application for membership. Kimball admitted, “The committee of the Mount Vernon Church seldom met an applicant for membership more unlikely ever to become a Christian of clear and decided views of the Gospel truth, still less to fill any extended sphere of public usefulness.”

But God has a sense of humor. He enjoys confounding man’s opinion and circumventing human wisdom. Dwight L. Moody (1837-1899), a trophy of God’s grace, catapulted to international renown as an evangelist, becoming a household name among believers in the United States and Great Britain. Crowds of up to 20,000 attended his meetings. One audience included the U.S. President and his cabinet. The education-deprived evangelist started a Bible school that thrives today as Moody Bible Institute in Chicago.

The same British reporter who criticized Moody’s poor grammar was bewildered by his effectiveness with an audience. Citing the emotional reaction of listeners and their responsiveness to Moody’s invitation to accept Christ, he exclaimed that he couldn’t find a natural reason for Moody’s success.

Moody agreed with the assessment, admitting that there was no natural reason for his attainments! One of his early biographers concluded, “The life of Moody is a divine apologetic, putting hope into our one-talent lives by proving endowment and advantage to be, in God’s sight, small as the dust of the balance; that my uttermost for His highest must never be an inventory of genius, but a program of consecration.” The same author insisted, “Our beleaguered age stands in need, not so much of ten-talent men as God-conquered commoners.”

Moody’s own life proved to be “Exhibit A” of the most famous quote attributed to him: “The world has yet to see what God will do with and for and through and in and by the man who is fully and wholly consecrated to Him.”

Moody’s life and ministry illustrate the fact that God uses unlikely people to accomplish extraordinary things! And the reason is this: God is more prone to receive the glory (see 1 Cor. 1:26-29).

How does this story and truth make you feel?

In what situations do you need to remember this perspective?

 

Fifth post on profiles from history that inform, challenge, and encourage God’s people

 

What follows are but a few of the heroic Biblical figures whose tears made rivulets down their cheeks. As you peruse these brief profiles, look for why they wept.

Inconsolable – The prophet Isaiah couldn’t stomach God’s forecast of judgment for His wayward people: “I will weep bitterly, do not try to comfort me concerning the destruction of the daughter of my people” (Isa. 22:4).

Weeping Prophet – When he conveyed God’s warning of dire consequences for Judah’s rebellion, Jeremiah admitted, “If you will not listen to it, my soul will sob in secret for such pride; and my eyes will bitterly weep and flow down with tears, because the flock of the Lord has been taken captive” (Jer. 13:17).

Responsive to Revelation – When a priest read aloud to King Josiah a long-lost copy of the Law, the stark contrast between God’s expectations and the nation’s moral climate broke his heart, resulting in a spate of top-down policies for spiritual reform. A prophetess divulged God’s opinion of Josiah’s initial response to the Law: “Because your heart was tender and you humbled yourself before God, when you heard His words against this place, and against its inhabitants, and because you humbled yourself before Me, tore your clothes, and wept before Me, I truly have heard you” (2 Chron. 34:27).

Prostrated Priest – Ezra couldn’t tolerate blatant sin among God’s people, such as marrying foreigners. “I tore my garment… I pulled some of the hair from my head and my beard, and sat down appalled” (Ezra 9:3). According to Ezra 10:1, he “was praying and making confession, weeping and prostrating himself before the house of God.”

Newsworthy Intercession – Nehemiah, the cupbearer to the Babylonian king, received negative news from the remnant, who had returned to Jerusalem after seventy years of captivity. The city wall was rubble, the residents vulnerable to attack and the object of derision from foes. Nehemiah felt burdened for their safety, plus he was distraught because God’s glory was entwined with the fate of His people. Here’s how Nehemiah responded to the report: “I sat down and wept and mourned for days; and I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven” (Neh. 1:4).

Brash, Then Broken – Brazen, impulsive, but die-hard in his allegiance, Peter boasted that he would stay loyal to Jesus (Mark 14:29). Yet that same evening, to save his own skin, three times he denied knowing the Lord. When he remembered Jesus’ prediction of the triad of disavowal, Peter “wept bitterly” over his failure (Matt. 26:75).

Apostolic Anguish – Referring to his prior ministry in Ephesus, Paul told the church elders, “Night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one of you with tears” (Acts 20:31). Citing a moral failure in the church at Corinth that he addressed in a previous letter, Paul said, “Out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote to you with many tears” (2 Cor. 2:4).

A Savior’s Sobs – Jesus wept in front of onlookers when He observed the crying and grief of Lazarus’ sister (Luke 11:35-36). Our Savior also wept as He approached Jerusalem, brokenhearted over future judgment that would ravish the city (Luke 19:41-44).

Here’s one surefire conclusion we can draw from this survey of tenderhearted leaders: the crying of servants in Scripture wasn’t restricted to emotionally fragile persons with a melancholy temperament. Nehemiah and Paul were tough-as-nails, in-your-face leaders who demonstrated choleric traits. It’s a gross misconception to view weeping as the proclivity of a temperament that’s in need of repair.

What do dry eyes say about us?

 

Adapted from Terry’s Serve Strong: Biblical Encouragement To Sustain God’s Servants (chapter 16, “The Tracks of Your Tears.”)

Fourth post on profiles from history that inform, challenge, and encourage God’s people

 

R. A. Torrey (1856-1928), a reputable Christian leader in the Chicago area, told the story of a businessman who volunteered at an inner-city rescue mission. Colonel Clark spoke almost every night of the week to the motley crowd of drunkards, thieves, and gamblers. Despite a dull, rambling preaching style, men listened to Clark, riveted. Clark led many men to Christ. The destitute men responded far more positively to Clark than they did to the polished messages of highly-trained guest pastors, such as Torrey himself.

According to Torrey, Clark’s secret was his habit of weeping when he spoke or made an evangelistic appeal. The men, who had shed more than their fair share of tears over their brokenness, saw Clark’s sobbing as proof that he loved them. For a while in his early years at the mission, Clark felt ashamed of his wailing in front of the men. He steeled his heart, determined not to lose his composure when he shared the gospel. But a loss of power accompanied the absence of weeping. Responsiveness among the men dried up. Before long, Clark got alone with God and pleaded, “Oh God, give me back my tears!”

Throughout Scripture, God applauds tears that are spawned by a burden for the souls of others, or by the consequences of sin for God’s people. James gave the following counsel to young Jewish believers who tried to exploit God’s grace with loathsome behavior. What he said seems out of place, politically incorrect, in most church pulpits: “Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy to gloom” (James 4:9).

When George Whitefield (1714-1770) gave an outdoor evangelistic message to a group of miners during a lunch break, several mocked him aloud for tears that ran down his cheeks. He addressed those who ridiculed him, saying, in effect, “You do not weep for yourselves. Someone has to weep for your souls.”

For whom are you weeping?

 

Adapted from Terry’s Serve Strong: Biblical Encouragement To Sustain God’s Servants (Chapter 16, “The Tracks of Your Tears.”)

This is the third post on profiles from church history that challenge, encourage, and inform us.

 

Almost three decades ago, evangelist Leonard Ravenhill provided a sobering example of a leader hurt by sin and spiritual inertia of God’s people. The renowned author of Why Revival Tarries was the subject of a radio interview by David Mains, on a Chapel of the Air broadcast. Ravenhill mentioned the numerous local churches where he had been guest speaker over the years. He regretted a frivolous attitude among his hosts toward the worship of God and the preaching of His Word. When pastors and elders or deacons gathered in the church office with Ravenhill prior to the service, they often told jokes or congratulated each other for whose team won the previous day. Then they typically offered a perfunctory prayer for the blessing of Ravenhill’s message. He saw little grief over spiritual apathy in churches, and almost no prevailing prayer concerning the eternal destinies of persons in the pew. Recalling the pattern of levity he sensed among leaders spawned tears in Ravenhill during the interview: not subdued sniffing or soft whimpering, but loud bawling so intense that his body convulsed. Moments later, when he regained a modicum of composure, his next words heard over the air were, “And I’m afraid this hurts God!

My previous post utilized Robert Murray McCheyne to suggest that tears are often a strength in a leader, not a weakness to be avoided. Ravenhill echoed that sentiment. The grief that sin generates in God’s heart, and the painful consequences of sin on others, should hurt us. Through Joel, God conveyed his expectations for spiritual leaders: “Let the priests, the Lord’s ministers, weep between the porch and the altar, and let them say, ‘Spare your people, O Lord’” (Joel 2:17).

When is the last time we wept over someone’s eternal destiny? Ravenhill’s name, and the concept of revival in the church, are synonymous. Would revival be more of a reality in 2014 if more of us had broken hearts and wet eyes?

 

This is the second post featuring profiles from church history that challenge, encourage, and inform us.

 

Robert Murray McCheyne’s preaching and evangelistic zeal sparked a Scottish revival in the 1830s-40s. Known for his staunch devotional life, he pledged not to see the face of man each day until, through prayer and Bible reading, he saw the face of God. He consistently filtered what he preached through his own life, often generating tears long before he reached the pulpit.

After McCheyne died of illness at age thirty, a visitor to his church, enamored by McCheyne’s sterling reputation, asked the caretaker for information on his study habits and preaching style. The sexton took the guest to McCheyne’s study where the pastor had applied God’s Word to his own heart before polishing messages for the congregation. Pointing to McCheyne’s desk, he said, “Sit down. Now put your hands over your face. Now let the tears fall – this is the way my master studied.”

Next the sexton took him into the sanctuary and coaxed the visitor into the pulpit. “Lean over, way over, and stretch out your hands towards the congregation. Now let the tears fall. That is the way my master preached.”

 

McCheyne exhibited a soft heart toward God, His Word, and the needs of his congregants. Many pastors and Bible teachers apologize for weeping in public. They view it as loss of self-control, as a weakness that may erode others’ confidence in them as leaders. But if the tears cascade down our cheeks because we’ve experienced the efficacy of the Word we’re teaching, or because we’re burdened for listeners to experience God’s truth, should we be embarrassed? Are eyes that stay dry more of a detriment than a blessing?

This is the first of several profiles from renowned historical figures who were marked by a propensity to weep. The next post will feature the late Leonard Ravenhill, evangelist and author of highly-regarded books on revival.

What prompted his tears?

What causes you to weep? The answer may be a hinge on which your ministry effectiveness turns.

(This post adapted from his new book, Serve Strong: Biblical Encouragement To Sustain God’s Servants (chapter 16, “The Tracks of your Tears”)