Thank You, Cecil: Being Rescued from My Pastoral Legalism

[My friend and former deacon Cecil Short died today at the age of 90. Below is an article I wrote soon after the death of his beloved wife of 63 years, Ann, back in 2014.]

Thank you, Cecil, for taking me out of my pastoral legalism.

We live in a microwave society. What you want things immediately. If they don’t come immediately, then we go to the other extreme and become so despondent, that life becomes almost unbearable. And sadly enough, we don’t recognize the issues of our own heart that’s causing this impatience and, thus, start blaming other people for not moving in our timing.

It’s a form of legalism. How so? Legalism this when we began to impose a law on someone else in order for them to be righteous. The Pharisees expressed a form of legalism in which they took a diluted law of Moses, and impose it on the people for them to approve their righteousness before God and before them. If they did not rise to their standard, they would be mocked, ridiculed, and possibly excommunicated from the temple.

When pastors are impatient, they are usually impatient because they have a set of changes that they wish to implement quickly, but if this is too fast for the culture of the church, the impatient pastor does not look inside to shepherd the People at a good pace but looks outwardly with chagrin that those who are not following his pastoral pace. Thus, the impatient  pastor sees them as the ones to blame for not following his lead,, when the shepherds are to lead one step ahead of the Sheep, and not 10 or 100.

I visited my former church for a funeral recently. It has been two and a half years since I’ve visited the church, and I had the opportunity to see my old church family and bring back some precious memories of that time. But I also remember my impatience coming out of seminary. I had studied under the finest theological minds on the planet. I was ready to use all of my knowledge and impart it on the very fortunate congregation that called me pastor.

I shudder to this day on my first two years there.  The early 30s and knew everything.

My friend Cecil Short, the one who lost his wife at that funeral, took me under his wing and showed me so much about being a pastor. Yes, he was a deacon. No, he was not a pastor or preacher. No, he wasn’t belligerent in how he taught me. He simply questioned, made me think, offered general advice when I came to his house almost in tears as to why the church wasn’t following my lead. 

He showed me how to love, to be patient, and that pastor meant shepherding and caring, not just expecting others to follow my lead because I had the title.

Thank you, Cecil.  You are my friend who is over 40 years my senior.  Thanks for shaping that green pastor patiently and modeling patience for me. 

Benedictus, Part III: Know the Discrepancy Between Being Filled with Self and the Spirit

[The Benedictus is the song of Zechariah found in Luke 1:67-80.]

When we are empty of the Spirit, we will be full of self. When we are full of the Spirit, we will be empty of self. “And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophecied” (Luke 1:67). And he started by blessing God, not his own logic (see 1:18). Read with me 1:68-75:

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days” (Luke 1:68-75 ESV).

God has visited twice (once to Mary, once to him) and redeemed (rescued) by his strength (horn of salvation). He invokes David’s name, from whom Christ came to reign as eternal king (see 2 Samuel 7:13-14). He invokes the prophets to show that what happened here was promised for centuries (those same prophets of whom he would preach Sabbath after Sabbath). And notice that not once, but twice, he said that they would be “saved from our enemies/delivered from the hand of our enemies” (vv. 71-74).

The world, the flesh, and the devil are our enemies—our own flesh being the worst enemy of all but Christ has come to deliver us. But to what end? One of the great things about the gospel is that it changes us! He changes us! We are called to “serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.” Think of the things we could do for Christ if we have no fear. It’s not only that we serve him without fear of him, but serve him without fear of what He asks  of us.

Christians are told, “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self control” (2 Timothy 1:7). When we know His promises and purpose for His church, we can move forward with confidence knowing He is going before us and will provide all that’s needed (see Matthew 16:13-20). But when we are full of self, we are not only empty of the Spirit but full of fear–fear that our ‘self’ will not have the reputation or position we wish. In the Spirit, we are grateful for where God places us and serve Him with a boldness that defies all natural and societal expectation.

With what ‘spirit’ are you filled?

Benedictus, Part II: Know the Difference Between Past Actions and Present Obedience

We’ve heard the expression, “That’s the way we’ve always done it!” which Rear Admiral Grace Hopper called “The most dangerous phrase in the language.” There’s a reason why these are words of a dying church—that and, “We’ve never done it that way before!” When people and churches say this, Christ is no longer leading them, the past is. At times, we believe that our past actions that may have worked and brought success should be continued. Christ doesn’t change, His Word doesn’t change, His commission doesn’t change, but methods do because God is leading in the here and now.

In examining Luke 1:57-66, Elizabeth gave birth to a son, to the joy of friends, family, and neighbors. On the eighth day, according to the covenant of Abraham from Genesis 17, she took him to be circumcised. Notice: “And they would have called him Zechariah after his father, but his mother answered, ‘No; he shall be called John.’ And they said, ‘None of your relatives is called by this name” (vv. 59-61). 

There will always be pressure to do things the way they’ve always been done. Usually this is due to a desire for security, for validity, or out of fear. Routine, as A.W. Tozer noted, brings about a rut and a rot from which we must be rescued. Yet, God continues by His Spirit, by the Word, and by prayer to guide us in His direction, not simply sit and be beholden to what’s always been.

Zechariah, who had been mute for nine months and left out of the majority of conversations, was approached by signing (by the way, his ears worked fine, thank you very much) and he concurred: “His name is John.” Not Junior! What happened?

 And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, “What then will this child be?” For the hand of the Lord was with him (Luke 1:64-66 ESV).

Friends, please know this. Doing things the way they’ve always been done does not guarantee bringing glory to God and joy to others. But when we obey now, not simply borrow the obedience from another time or another place, even if it is outside of the lane and box we’ve always occupied, people will notice. Fear came upon them, conversation ensued, questions were asked—and they saw that God was at work.

Benedictus, Part I: A Condition Does Not Always Equal a Consequence… Not Always

In April of 2017, I had the opportunity to return to my alma mater, Palm Beach Atlantic University. As part of the Founder’s Day/Week festivities, the music school alumni could join the Concert Choir and sing Mozart’s Requiem. I had not sung this piece of music in over twenty years. While the choir as a whole sang the majority of the pieces, one piece stands out to me. A piece that employed four soloists, one from each part. The song was Tuba mirum from Mozart’s Requiem. The bass would come in, then the tenor, then the alto, then the soprano. It was a haunting tune speaking of how the last trumpet will sound to summon all of the dead to the throne of God for judgment. Each sang their particular solo, then would all come together for a beautiful four-part harmony.

In Luke, we have three solos and a choir singing: Mary’s in praise for the coming Christ (Luke 1:46-55), Zechariah’s for his child (John the Baptist) who would prepare the way for the Christ (Luke 1:67-80), the angels who were praising God for the culmination of God’s redemptive work and the keeping of His promise (Luke 2:14), and Simeon who praised God that he could depart in piece because he saw the Christ (Luke 2:29-32). They are all singing different solos but they, in essence, harmonize with each other communicating the same praise of God’s redemptive work.

The ‘solo’ we hear this morning is from Zechariah the priest, who went from skeptic to Spirit-filled shouting for God’s great gift. God can take any of us from our skepticism and doubt and valley and questioning to praise and thanksgiving! The lessons the Spirit seeks to show us this morning are a tune that should play in our heart, soul, mind, and strength.

First, know the difference between a condition and a consequence (Luke 1:5-25).

Just because some is in a bad condition does not mean it’s due to a consequence of sin. All through history, God’s people have come to the conclusion that a problem or a difficult condition is due to a consequence of sin rather than a condition that God can and will use to glorify Himself and bring joy to His people. We read about this in John 9 when Jesus and His disciples encountered the man born blind. The disciples ask Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:2-3). A problem condition is not a consequence of sin but an opportunity for God to display His glory and bring us hope and joy.

Zechariah and Elizabeth were faithful. In verse 6, Luke tells us, “And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years” (Luke 1:6-7). Elizabeth was old, both were past child-bearing years. I believe the Spirit put them back to back.

What about Zechariah? He was a priest. He was chosen to enter into the Temple to burn incense to intercede for the sins of the people of Israel and also to remind them of the promise of hope in the coming Christ. Gabriel appears to Zechariah, leading with this:” Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness and many will rejoice at his birth” (Luke 1:13-14). His role as John the Baptist will be to prepare the people for the Messiah!

Zechariah’s response? After preaching about the coming Messiah and the one who would pave the way? After praying for years and years for God to provide a child? After being in the Temple to burn incense for the sake of people’s sins? “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years” (Luke 1:18). Gabriel gave Zechariah a condition that was the result of a consequence for doubting. “You will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time” (Luke 1:20). Yes, his loss of speech was not mere condition but a consequence of doubting the good news and the God whom he served year in and year out.

So Zechariah’s condition was a consequence of sin, which we see does happen (see Paul’s description of the Lord’s Supper and what happens when we approach His table wrongly–1 Corinthians 11:27-34). What do we do?

We spend time seeking Christ in His Word so the Spirit will let us know. Either way, we all need to pursue Christ and His will. Let us make sure that we do not take a snapshot of someone’s condition and put together an improper narrative.