Category Archives: Encouraging Words From Dick Koehneke

Give God the Last Word!

By Dick Koehneke

When Jesus had finished [teaching the people from the boat], he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.”  Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything.  But because you say so, I will let down the nets.” (Luke 5:4-5)

If Simon Peter and his friends had listened only to their feelings, they would have gone home empty-handed.  They were tired, worn out, and frustrated.  They had put in hours of hard work with nothing to show for it.

If Simon and his friends had been slaves to their circumstances, they never would have experienced the miracle Jesus wanted to give them, and they might never have become his followers and friends.  The fish simply weren’t there.  They hadn’t been there all through the night, when fishing was supposed to be good.  They certainly wouldn’t be there in the heat of the day. 

But Simon Peter and his partners did not listen only to their feelings.  They listened to Jesus.  They did not obey their circumstances.  They obeyed Jesus.  They gave him the last word.  They did what he said.  What happened?  They caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break.  They had to call for help from another boat, and both boats were filled with fish!  Then they left everything and followed Jesus. 

Let’s take another look at Simon Peter’s words:“ Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything.  But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”  What if he had said it the other way around?  “Master, you tell us to let down the nets.  But we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything.”  He would have been giving the last word to his feelings and his circumstances.  His decision would have been dictated by emotions and events, not the word of the Lord.

You and I are tempted to do the same thing.  Thank God, we know the Word of God.  We hear it.  We read it.  We discuss it.  But sometimes, when the crunch comes, we give the final say to feelings and circumstances.  We are guided by emotions and events instead of God’s Word.  Listen to how it works:

  • “Jesus says he is always with me, but I feel so alone.”
  • “God tells me to forgive, but I am really hurt right now.”
  • “God’s Word says not to be afraid, but I’m facing some huge struggles.”
  • “The Lord wants me to work on my job as though I’m working for Him, but my boss is so hard to please.”
  • “The Bible tells us that the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin, but I feel so guilty, so dirty, so ashamed.”

That’s what happens when we give the last word to our feelings and our circumstances.  We’re walking by sight, not by faith.  That road leads nowhere good. 

Here is what Simon Peter actually said: “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything.  But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”  He acknowledged his feelings.  He recognized his circumstances.  But he gave the final say to Jesus.  He took action based not on his emotions or events, but on the word of the Lord.  Here’s how it works.  Here are the same five sentences with the clauses reversed, giving God the last word.  

  • “I feel so alone, but Jesus says he is always with me.”
  • “I am really hurt right now, but God tells me to forgive.”
  • “I’m facing some huge struggles, but God’s Word says not to be afraid.”
  • “My boss is so hard to please, but the Lord wants me to work on my job as though I’m working for Him.”
  • “I feel so guilty, so dirty, so ashamed, but the Bible tells us that the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin.”

What a difference!  What a transformation!  Now we’re walking by faith, not by sight.  Give God the last word.  Don’t deny your feelings or stuff your emotions.  Acknowledge them, express them, but don’t give them the last word!  Give God the last word, and feel your emotions begin to change!

Don’t ignore your circumstances or pretend that events aren’t happening.  Stay informed about what’s going on around you, but don’t let events dictate your decisions.  Give God the last word, and you will change the reality around you.  When one person changes his or her behavior, it changes the situation.

I love the command and promise of Galatians 6:9 — “Let us not grow weary of doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”  The proper time is God’s proper time.  It may come today.  It may happen tomorrow, or a year from now, or a decade from now.  It may not happen in your lifetime.  The harvest may come in the next generation or the generations after that.  It most certainly will come when we are together forever in heaven. 

Then God will have the everlasting last word:  “Welcome home!” 

  

What Do You Expect?

By Dick Koehneke

Some years ago I attended a conference in which one of the speakers was making a point about the expectations we have of ourselves.  As an illustration he asked us all to raise our right hands.  I did.  Then he said, “Now raise your hand as high as you can.”  With stretching I did that too.  Finally he said, “Now raise it just a little higher.”  Surprising myself, I did.  He said that is what maximum effort feels like.  I realized that I was able to do more than I had thought I could.  The speaker then told us we could lower our hands, which we all did, with sighs of relief.  

As you begin this New Year, what do you expect of yourself? 

Maybe you expect maximum effort from yourself in every area of life, all the time, everywhere.  That would be like trying to keep your hand raised in the third position all the time.  The reality is that you can’t keep that up.  It’s exhausting. 

What are you going to do when you don’t measure up to your expectations?  Burnout results from chronic disappointment with one’s performance.  After so much disappointment, you feel like you can’t succeed, so you stop trying.  Trying hurts too much.  You probably keep showing up, but your heart’s not in it.  That’s burnout.  It’s usually is a result of unrealistic expectations, either the ones you have for yourself or those that others have of you. 

Don’t expect more of yourself than you are capable of doing.  As someone has said, “Overconfidence gives you the courage to act on your misguided convictions.”  When we do that, bad things happen.  Falling flat on your face is a tough learning experience.  Romans 12:3 tells us not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought, but to think of ourselves with sober judgment.  In other words, be realistic.  Don’t have expectations that are so high or wide that they are impossible to meet.      

Don’t beat yourself up when you don’t fulfill your expectations for yourself.  If you do, you’ll be wasting energy that could be used for creative and constructive purposes.

A major league baseball player who hits for a .333 batting average is failing in 67% of his at-bats.  You know what?  He’s probably going to win the batting title.  He doesn’t get discouraged because he fails most of the time.  He is constantly making adjustments so that he can use his strengths to their fullest and minimize the impact of his weaknesses. 

That’s what we do in life, too.  We learn from our failures and make adjustments.  We learn to plan better . . . to get more rest . . . to try a different approach . . . to ask better questions . . . to listen more . . . to get regular exercise . . . to schedule personal devotional time . . . to understand ourselves more fully. 

What do you expect of the other people in your life?  Don’t expect more of them than they can deliver.  Trusting someone does not mean that you expect them to come through for you all the time.  No one but Jesus can do that.  We need to receive grace from others, and we need to give grace to others.  We’re not in the kingdom of glory yet.  If someone disappoints you, maybe you were expecting too much of them.  God’s Word says, “If the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have.”  (2 Corinthians 8:12)  St. Paul wrote those words about financial giving, but I think the statement applies in this context too.  You can’t give what you don’t have. 

“I am with you always,” says our Lord Jesus Christ.  His commitment to you is not based on your performance.  It springs from His perfect love for you.  He is ever faithful to His Word.  He is the same yesterday, today and forever.  Rejoice in the Lord, and have a Happy New Year!                     

Hope in the Lord

By Dick Koehneke

“Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.  They will soar on wings like eagles, they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” (Isaiah 40:13)

What does it mean to hope in the Lord?  Christian hope is not wishful thinking.  It’s being confident that God will keep His promises.  God has given us many wonderful promises.  There are two promises of our Lord that are especially helpful to me these days.  One is, “I am going to prepare a place for you; I will come back and take you to be with me where I am.”  The other is, “I am with you always, until the end of the world.” 

The first promise tells us that we have a home with God in heaven through faith in Christ.  Trusting this promise keeps our focus on what really matters:  not so much on the twists and turns of life in this world, but on our eternal destination in heaven, our true home.  Christ is preparing a place for you.  Someday he will come and take you to be with him.  The promised future of life with God in heaven gives us strength to deal with the struggles and challenges we face here on earth.  Someday we will be with our Lord, beholding his glory.  What a joyous day that will be, what a glorious day, what a victorious day!      

Until we are with our Lord in heaven, He is with us here on earth.  That’s the second promise I try to remember: “I am with you always, until the end of the world.”  The literal meaning of the word “always” in the original language is “all the days.”  Jesus is with you all your days on this earth:  on your good days, on your bad days, your high days and your low days, your days of success and your days of failure, your days of health and your days of sickness, your joyful days and your sad days, and also on those days when you’re just plain in a daze, when nothing is working and nothing makes sense. 

The song “Hills and Valleys” by Tauren Wells says it beautifully.  Here are the words to the chorus:

“On the mountains I will bow my life to the One who set me there.
In the valleys I will lift my eyes to the One who sees me there.
When I’m standing on the mountain I didn’t get there on my own.
When I’m walking through the valley I know I am not alone.
You’re God of the hills and valleys, and I am not alone!”

Our Lord is with you in the hills and valleys of life — “all the days” of your life.  Even on your lonely days, you’re not alone.  Jesus is with you, closer than your next breath, nearer than your next heartbeat.  He helps you take your next step, and the next one, and the one after that, until you take your final step across the threshold of heaven.  When the world ends, or when your life ends – whichever comes first – Jesus won’t be with you anymore, because you will be with him!  That’s why he says, “I’m with you until the end of the world.”  Then we’ll be with him in heaven!      

Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.  Our hope is not the same as optimism.  Optimism says, “Cheer up!  Things will get better.”  But sometimes things don’t get better.  Christian hope says, “Even if things get worse, if disaster turns into a meltdown, if calamity becomes catastrophe, God has a plan and a purpose for me.  My salvation is secure in Christ, the Lord is with me in all my experiences, and I have a home in heaven.” 

I invite you to say those words right now, either in your heart or out loud, pausing after each sentence to reflect and let God speak to your heart.  Here goes: 

  • “God has a plan and a purpose for me.”
  • “My salvation is secure in Christ.”
  • “The Lord is with me in all my experiences.”
  • “I have a home in heaven.”

“Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.  They will soar on wings like eagles, they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”  When you’re soaring on wings like an eagle, hope in the Lord.  You say you’re not soaring like an eagle?  You  may not be soaring, but maybe you’re running.  When you’re running and not getting weary, hope in the Lord.  You say you’re tired of running?  Maybe walking is the best you can do.  When you’re walking and not fainting, hope in the Lord.  It could be that you’re exhausted and you can’t walk anymore.  When you have no strength left, hope in the Lord.  Rest in him.  You don’t have to do anything.  Be still.  Let the Lord love you and care for you. 

“Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.”  Yes, Lord.  Let it be so.     

 

Wisdom Is Better

By Dick Koehneke

Please ponder these words with me for a few moments:  “Wisdom is better than strength.  But the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are no longer heeded.  The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools.  Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good.”  (Ecclesiastes 9:16-18)

In nearly four decades of parish pastoral ministry, one of the lessons I learned was this:  Don’t listen only to the people with the loudest voices.  Don’t pay exclusive attention to the people with the highest verbal skills. “The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools.”  To put it another way:  Sometimes the people who speak the least have the most to say. 

Sometimes, in the midst of a stressful situation or a complicated decision, the wisest thing a church leader can do is to go to a quiet, faithful person, someone who would never come to you, someone who would be petrified at the notion of speaking at a public meeting.   Go to that person one on one and ask this question:  “What do YOU think?”  Then listen.  Listen actively.  Listen very carefully.  “Wisdom is better than strength.”

Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good.”  People in church leadership positions tend to apply that last phrase to other people.  We sometimes call them “alligators” or “antagonists.”  They are rare, thank God, but they do exist, and they need to be dealt with according to the Word and will of God.  It’s a tragedy when a leader is an alligator.  One influential person can “destroy much good.”  An antagonistic church leader (ordained, commissioned, or lay) can cause enormous problems.   You have influence, and it can be used wisely or foolishly.  Use your influence to build up, not to tear down.  Wisdom is better than strength.   

But the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are no longer heeded.”  People tend to pay attention to people with worldly resources:  wealth, popularity, position.  The poor and weak are rejected and ignored because they don’t seem to have anything to offer.  How contrary this is to the ways of God!  Listen to the poor person, the unemployed person, the person in poor health, the person with no power, the person no one seems to know.  They are important people in God’s sight.  As Scripture says, God exalts the lowly and humbles the proud.  God chooses the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chooses the weak things of the world to shame the strong, so that no one may boast before him.

Jesus Christ perfectly personified this principle.  When Jesus was brought before the Sanhedrin after his arrest in Gethsemane, no doubt his accusers thought he was weak and foolish.  They treated him with contempt and abused him.  He didn’t say very much, did he?  But when he spoke in response to their accusations, he spoke words of wisdom:  “If I tell you, you will not believe me, and if I asked you, you would not answer.  But from now on, the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the mighty God.”  Wisdom is better than strength. 

Because Jesus humbled himself and became obedient unto death on the cross, God has exalted him to the highest place.  Because Jesus was humble and obedient, our sins are forgiven, and we too will be seated with him in the heavenly realms.  The foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.  “Wisdom is better than strength” after all.

Why 734 Pastors Quit

By Dick Koehneke

“Why 734 Pastors Quit (and How Their Churches Could Have Kept Them)”

(In many congregations October is Pastor Appreciation Month.  Here are excerpts from an article by Lisa Cannon Green that appeared in Christianity Today in January 2016.  I hope the insights it contains will be helpful and useful.)

No sabbatical. No help with counseling. No clear picture of what’s expected.  Hundreds of former evangelical pastors say these were the crucial elements missing from the final churches they led before quitting the pastorate.

A recent study by LifeWay Research points to ways churches can encourage pastors to stay in the ministry, said Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Nashville-based organization.

“Almost half of those who left the pastorate said their church wasn’t doing any of the kinds of things that would help,” Stetzer said. “Having clear documents, offering a sabbatical rest, and having people help with weighty counseling cases are key things experts tell us ought to be in place.”

In August-October 2015, LifeWay surveyed 734 former senior pastors who left the pastorate before retirement age in four Protestant denominations: the Assemblies of God, Church of the Nazarene, the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, and the Southern Baptist Convention.

Trouble begins early, the survey indicates, with 48 percent of the former pastors saying the search team didn’t accurately describe the church before their arrival.

Their churches were unlikely to have a list of counselors for referrals (27%), clear documentation of the church’s expectations of its pastor (22%), a sabbatical plan for the pastor (12%), a lay counseling ministry (9%), or a support group for the pastor’s family (8%). Almost half say their church had none of these (48%).

Most expected conflict to arise, and it did: 56 percent clashed over changes they proposed, and 54 percent say they experienced a significant personal attack. Yet almost half say their training didn’t prepare them to handle the people side of ministry (48%).  “These things are interrelated,” Stetzer said. “If you’re burning out, chances are when conflict arises you’re not going to respond well, and that will make the conflict worse.”

Almost across the board, the former pastors report more negative views than 1,500 current pastors who answered the same questions a few months earlier, in March 2015.

Current and former pastors agree the job is demanding: 84 percent of current pastors and 83 percent of former pastors say they feel on call 24 hours a day, while 48 percent of each group say the demands of ministry often feel like more than they can handle.

The churches in which current pastors serve look markedly different, according to the surveys. Current pastors report their churches are more than twice as likely as those of former pastors to offer a sabbatical plan and a list of counselors for referrals, more than three times as likely to have a lay counseling ministry and a document listing expectations of the pastor, and more than four times as likely to have a pastor support group.

(My question:  What do you see here that you can use in your congregation?) 

Speaking About One Another

By Dick Koehneke

“I am writing these things to you so that you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.”  (1 Timothy 3:14-15)

In my family of origin, and when our children were growing up, we had several activities and family traditions that were not up for debate or even discussion.  It was understood that “that’s how we do things in this family.”  Paul is saying, “This is how we do things in the family of God, the church of the living God.”  He’s saying we need to behave in such a way that the truth of God – of which the church is a pillar and buttress – is not compromised in the eyes of others by the way we conduct ourselves.  As the household of God, this is how we behave to bear witness to that truth. 

That’s what Jesus meant when he said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  Our mutual love testifies to the truth of the gospel.  Because we are loved by God, we love one another.  Let’s focus for a couple of moments on one expression of that love – how we conduct ourselves in our speaking about each other as the family of God, the church of the living God, as we testify to the truth of which we – together –  are a pillar and buttress.  The pillar and buttress stand strong and firm when we speak about one another in love.  This principle applies to families, friendships, workplaces, schools, communities, congregations, denominations – in other words, in all situations.   

Pastors and other people in spiritual leadership ought to understand the destructive power of the tongue.  Spiritual leaders are subject to all sorts of gossip, sarcasm, ridicule and attacks on character.  A pastor went to a member family’s home for dinner one evening.  While the parents were in the kitchen, their little daughter and the pastor were talking in the living room.  “So what are we having for dinner?” the pastor asked.  The little girl replied, “I think we’re having old goat, ‘cause I heard my daddy say to my mommy that we’re having the old goat for dinner tonight.” 

The internet has opened a vast new universe of possibilities for speaking ill of one another.  We need to hear the words of the inspired apostle Paul to the Ephesians:  “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.  Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.  Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:30-32) 

This is the obedience that comes from faith.   As Paul said to the Philippians, “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner that is worthy of the gospel of Christ.” (Philippians 1:27)

Here’s something to consider.  Say you’re person A speaking with person B, and person C comes up in the conversation.  You realize that what you’re about to say to person B about person C might cause person B to think less of person C.  Should you go ahead and say it anyway?  In most cases you shouldn’t.  There are times when you should, such as unethical behavior by person C when person B is someone who needs to know, or when person C has a problem that person B might help to address, like financial issues.  Besides these kinds of cases, what do you think you should do?  How would you like to be treated if you were “person C” in a different conversation?     

Let’s do away with sarcasm, ridicule, and criticism of the other person’s character and motives.   Let’s commit ourselves to speaking well of one another and explaining each other’s actions in the kindest way, as Luther says in his explanation of the Eighth Commandment.  When we disagree, let’s debate the point at issue; let’s not attack the integrity or motives of the other person.   It’s not difficult to find fault.  We all have plenty of faults, and most of them are not hard to find. 

Faultfinding is not our way.  As members of the household of God who live by the Spirit, we’re not interested in faultfinding.  We don’t get fired up by attacking or ridiculing.  We’re into encouraging.  We speak about one another as we would like to be spoken about.  When a conversation in person – or online – takes a turn toward sarcasm, ridicule, and character assassination, we challenge it and try to put a stop to it; at the very least we disengage from it.  “That’s not how we live in this family.”   

If people choose to make you the object of sarcasm and ridicule because you no longer join them in their ungodly behavior, what should you do?  Rejoice!  “If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.” (1 Peter 4:14)  People who talk critically to you about others most likely are talking critically to others about you.  Now you have given them something good and God-pleasing to talk about! 

Learn to Listen, Listen to Learn

By Dick Koehneke

“Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry, for

human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.”  (James 1:19-20)

Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was the perfect listener.  Examine the four Gospels.  Look closely at his interactions with people.  People said many things to Jesus.  Sometimes they asked questions of information.  Sometimes they made requests for help.  On occasion they gave him thanks and praise.  Or they made statements, or tried to trick him, or even falsely accused him of wrongdoing.  In every case, Jesus responded with exactly what was needed by the other person – not always what they wanted, but always what they needed.  He was able to respond to people perfectly, because he really listened to the other person: not only to hear what was being said, but also for the deep meaning behind the words being spoken. 

Sometimes he responded with a direct answer, other times with teaching.  Often he would ask a question of the other person, or tell a story to make a point.  There were times when he spoke words of conviction and confrontation.  He always did or said exactly what the other person needed.  He was the perfect listener.

He still is!  You can go to Jesus with whatever is in your mind or on your heart, and you can be certain that he is listening.  You can be sure that he will respond in his perfect will for you, to give you what you really need – not always what you want, but what you really need – not only for right now, but for the future; not only for the future, but for eternity. 

As followers and friends of Jesus, powered by his Spirit, our heart’s desire is to be like him.  We want to follow his example, walking in his steps on the way to heaven.  Here is some wisdom from God’s Word: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry, for human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.”  (James 1:19-20)

Have you ever noticed that God gave us two ears but only one mouth?  Did you ever wonder what it means that the resting position of the mouth is closed, but that your ears are naturally open?  Maybe God is trying to tell us to learn to listen.

Someone has said, “When you’re talking, you’re probably not learning.”  We need to listen to learn.  Many a pointless argument has begun over a simple misunderstanding of meaning.  When the other person says something you don’t like, ask, “What do you mean?”  Or you could say, “Why do you say that?”  Don’t just respond to what you think they said. 

If the other person’s comments are getting you upset, don’t respond out of anger.  You might say,  “I’m not very comfortable with this conversation.” Maybe you can explain why you’re feeling uncomfortable.  Maybe the two of you will agree to suspend that particular conversation until another time.  You might agree to switch subjects, and you may even agree to disagree!

I try to remember this little saying:  “If you say everything that’s on your mind in a moment of anger, you will probably make the very best speech you will ever live to regret!”  We need to get control of our words so that our words build up, not tear down; so that we speak words that create, not destroy; words that heal, not harm.  “O Lord, may my words today be sweet and tender, for tomorrow I may have to eat them!”

As we think about the people in our lives, let’s ask God to help us LEARN TO LISTEN and LISTEN TO LEARN, always with Christ-like LOVE in our hearts.   

Absent Members

By Dick Koehneke

Most (if not all) congregations struggle with the issue of absent members:  people whose names are on the membership roster but who rarely if ever participate in worship.  Here are a few thoughts on the subject. 

  1. What’s in a name?

Congregations use different terms to describe their absent members.  “Wayward” means straying or wandering.  “Delinquent” is a word with criminal overtones.  “Inactive” puts the focus on activity and performance.  We know they are not present in worship.  They are “absent.”  That’s what we know.  Usually we don’t know why, because we never see them.  Maybe they are hurting or struggling.  They may be absent due to illness, accident, shame, problems in school, relational strife, depression, disappointment with the pastor, or a sense of alienation from the congregation.  As the saying goes, “Some people don’t go to church because of those who do.”   

  1. In most congregations the Board of Elders is the group that carries out ministry to absent members. What is your motive in this ministry?
  • Do your duty as an elder?
  • Clean up the membership roster?
  • Improve the church’s financial condition?
  • Show the person that he or she has been negligent?
  • Understand the person and his/her situation and feelings? The person has a reason for being absent that probably makes sense to them. 
  1. What is your goal in this ministry?
  • Report that you have made contact with the person?
  • Get the person to decide if he/she is a member or not?
  • Care for the person and address his/her real needs?
  • Do we want to “seek the lost sheep” or “shake the dust off our feet”?
  • If you were an absent member, how would you hope to be treated?
  1. How would you define success in this ministry?

Success is doing what pleases  God.  What pleases God is Christ-like love:  doing what is best for the other person.  Do we view the person as a problem to be solved or a person to be loved?

  1. What about calling this a ministry of “special care” or “intensive care”?
  1. God creates and sustains faith through His Word and Sacraments. That’s a key theological reason for doing absent member ministry.  Absence from the Word and Sacraments threatens faith and could weaken or even destroy it. (That’s why we regularly bring Communion to shut-in members.)  In the physical realm, people who are dying of hunger are no longer hungry, because their bodies are shutting down.  The same is true when it comes to faith.  When faith is weakening, there is less of a felt need for the Word and Sacraments.  A second theological reason has to do with the relational nature of the Church.  We need each other.  As Hebrews 10:24-25 says, “Let us consider how we may spur one another on to love and good deeds.  Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” 
  1. It is critical to reach absent members in the early stages of absence, when they have been absent no more than four weekends in a row with no known reason.  Habits become harder and harder to break after four weeks, which is why most addiction inpatient rehabilitation periods are for 28 days.  It takes at least 28 days of treatment to establish a good habit of sobriety that can be maintained with regular support.  Start with the people who are most recently absent from worship.  There may be some exceptions to that approach, such as a long-time absent member who has gone through a crisis recently.  A life crisis can be a great opportunity for ministry to someone who has been absent.   
  1. Here’s an important question: What is the plan for supporting the absent member who returns to worship, so that he or she does not relapse?
  1. A ministry of intensive care calls for an accompanying ministry of intensive prayer by those who will be doing it: prayer for wisdom and discernment; prayer for God’s blessings upon the absent members; prayer for yourself as you make the contact, that you will be motivated by love and will be open to the needs of the other person; prayer for their minds and hearts to be open to receive your love and care.  If you are feeling angry or resentful or suspicious or condescending toward the other person, don’t make the contact.  Do whatever it takes to process those feelings and get rid of them.  You might pray, “Lord Jesus, love this person through me.  I want to be a clear channel for Your love.”  Then make the contact.    

Pray for one another that you do not become discouraged or perhaps even cynical as you do this important ministry.  Absent member ministry can be very challenging and potentially discouraging, especially if we are looking for quantifiable “results.”  Remember that there is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents.  Each person is important to God, whether that person is a leader of the congregation or someone who has not been to worship for years.  Both you and that absent member are precious in God’s sight.    

  1. You are definitely doing what God is blessing as you seek the lost sheep, look for the lost coin, and long for the return of the child who left home – so that you can welcome that precious person back to the Father’s house. (Luke 15) Proceed with confidence and joy!

Aging Is the Solution

By Dick Koehneke

“Aging is the solution and not the problem.”  That’s a key sentence in a new book titled The End of Old AgeThe author is Dr. Marc Agronin.  He is a geriatric psychiatrist who has served since 1999 as the director of mental health services, clinical research, and the outpatient memory center at Miami Jewish Health in Miami, Florida. 

I think it’s so easy to become focused on (even obsessed with) the increasing physical limitations that come with age that we lose sight of the things that we gain as we age.  The physical body is the outer self that we can see, but what matters most is what’s on the inside.  For me it’s important to remember the truth of 2 Corinthians 4:16:  “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.”   

Aging has many advantages.  One of the main advantages of aging, Dr. Agronin writes, is the development of wisdom that comes as a result of learning, trial and error, failure, ambition, and the increasing nearness of death.  He defines five different forms or expressions of wisdom.

  • The savant possesses much knowledge and the ability to show it and share it.
  • The sage has good judgment and can guide others in their decision-making and problem-solving.
  • The curator (my word might be “caregiver”) possesses great empathy and connects emotionally with others.
  • The creator has rich imagination and actively works on creative endeavors.
  • The seer has deep spiritual insight and can offer guidance, support and inspiration.

Not all people demonstrate these qualities, he writes.  On the other hand, some people can show various qualities in different situations.  The point is that these expressions of wisdom develop only with age. 

To repeat a key thought:  “Aging is the solution and not the problem.”

A helpful concept for me is that of age points.  Dr. Agronin defines an age point as an event or situation that disrupts our initial ability to understand and cope with it.  It exposes a gap between the challenges of a life event and our existing strengths, values, skills, and connections.  We may feel stunned, uncertain, and paralyzed.  An age point exposes a weakness but is loaded with potential for tremendous growth.  He says that age points fall into four distinct stages:

  • Event: the circumstances strong enough to prompt an age point
  • Suspension: a period of profound uncertainty and perhaps paralysis
  • Reckoning: the process of confronting the gap between what we have and what we need
  • Resolution: a new way of seeing, thinking, feeling and doing that bridges the gap and allows us to regain our balance and move forward

Another rich insight is the concept of age culture.  Individually, your age culture is composed of all your abilities and experiences, Dr. Agronin says.  He says that to understand your own age culture, ask yourself these questions:

Who was I?  What have I learned, accomplished, and experienced in my past?  What are my essential

skills and expertise?  The answers represent your reserves of wisdom.

Who am I?  What do I spend most of my time doing, or with whom do I spend most of my time?  What are my current activities and passions?  The answers show you what your purpose in life is.

Who will I be?  What do I want to see, do, and experience in the future?  With whom do I want to spend my time?  What do I want to leave behind for others?  The answers tell you how you can renew or reinvent yourself.

The author devotes the final thirty pages to an action plan to help identify, develop, and optimize your age-given strengths and appreciate your own age culture.  The action plan consists of five basic steps:

  1. Define your reserve (defined and described earlier in the book).
  2. Examine your resilience (also presented previously).
  3. Consider pathways for renewal and reinvention.
  4. Consider your legacy.
  5. Plan a ritual or ceremony to celebrate your aging.

I’m not sure I have the inclination or the discipline to go through all the steps in the action plan.  The idea of a ritual or ceremony really doesn’t appeal to me.  If you decide to get the book, you may come to a different conclusion about the action plan.   

Dr. Agronin honestly and hopefully addresses the issue of dementia and/or physical impairment.  He shares a variety of positive possibilities for people in this “ninth stage” of life (a term drawn from the research of Erik Erikson).  He writes, “I have seen the stunning rejuvenation of individuals when newfound love or purpose comes along.  Even a tiny glimmer of hope combined with the recruitment of social supports can buffer and sometimes transform their profound loss and grief.  It is possible to thrive in the ninth stage with the help of others and a determination to work around barriers and identify the best approaches.”  Insights, observations, ideas and strategies about the “ninth stage” appear throughout the book.     

There is much more in Dr. Agronin’s book than I have written about here, including some very enlightening and encouraging case studies.  I appreciate his respect, appreciation and affection for people older than himself.  

This passage of Scripture comes to mind:  “The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon; planted in the house of the Lord, they will flourish in the courts of our God.  They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green, proclaiming, ‘The Lord is upright; He is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in Him.’ ” (Psalm 92:12-15)   

Superficial or Supernatural

By Dick Koehneke

Superficial or Supernatural? (reflections on Ascension and Pentecost)

There were the apostles gathered with Jesus on the Mount of Olives.  They had just completed a 40-day intensive seminar on the kingdom of God, taught by the Son of God Himself.  But they still didn’t get the message.  They were expecting God’s kingdom to appear as a geopolitical entity with the Romans gone forever, Jesus on the throne, and the apostles as his cabinet, ruling over Israel as in the glory days of David and Solomon.  Listen to their question: “Lord, are you now going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”  Jesus’ response essentially was: “None of your business.  Wait for the Holy Spirit, and then you will be my witnesses throughout the world!”  With that, as Harry Wendt says, he gave them the greatest object lesson any teacher has ever given to a group of students.  He left them and ascended into heaven! 

Think about what Jesus said to those disciples – what he says to us as his disciples today:  “You shall be my witnesses!  You are going to tell the truth about me in the courtroom of the world.  In the face of all the lies that will be told about me, you will tell the world who I really am.  I’m counting on you to be witnesses on my behalf – credible, faithful witnesses; and by the way, you do not have the right to remain silent.  The life of the world depends on your testimony about me.”  Then he says:  “Wait for the Holy Spirit!”

What Jesus is saying is this:  Don’t try to do this yourself!  Don’t try to accomplish God’s work in mere human power.  It can’t be done!  You can’t do what God wants you do in the superficial power of self, but only by the supernatural power of the Spirit.  Unlike the apostles on the Mount of Olives, we have the Holy Spirit.  Thank God, the Spirit was given on Pentecost, ten days after the Ascension.  How do you know you have the Holy Spirit living in you?  If you believe in Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord, you have the Holy Spirit.  You could not have that faith if the Holy Spirit had not created it in you.  Your faith in Christ is the work of the Holy Spirit. 

So now we have a choice.  Which will it be?  The superficial power of self, or the supernatural power of the Spirit of God? 

There are three key reference points, key indicators that can tell you in which power you are operating.  The first key reference point is that of EVENTS.  If you are being guided and directed primarily by the events going on around you, if you are constantly reacting rather than initiating, if the news of the day and the actions of other people are pretty much dictating your decisions and actions, you are probably operating in the superficial power of self. 

The second key indicator or reference point is that of EMOTIONS.   If your internal feelings are your primary guide for decision-making, you are operating in the superficial power of self.  If you hear yourself thinking or saying words like these — “I just felt like” — “It just seemed to me that” —  “My feelings ran away with me, and I just couldn’t help myself” — look out!  That’s self-talk, not Spirit-talk.

The third key indicator is that of EXPRESSIONS:  sayings, proverbs, quotable quotes, words to live by.  We all have them:  words or phrases that guide us in decision-making.  It’s like there are recordings that start to play in our heads.  Here are some of those recordings, some expressions that come out of popular opinion, worldly wisdom, and the superficial power of self:  “Look out for good old number one!  Don’t get mad, get even!  Everybody else is doing it, why not me?”

We need to play some new recordings.  We need to get some new EXPRESSIONS from the Holy Spirit through the Word of God.   “Love one another as I have loved you.  I, the Lord, will never leave you or forsake you.  In everything God is at work for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.”  Those are the kinds of expressions we need to guide us in our decisions and actions — not popular opinion or worldly wisdom, but the powerful Word of the living God! 

We need to get some new EMOTIONS from the Holy Spirit.  The superficial power of self is all about anger, resentment, despair, envy, lust, greed, and all those other emotions and attitudes we know so well.  The supernatural power of the Holy Spirit is all about love and joy, peace and patience, kindness and goodness, faithfulness and gentleness, self-control and hope.  Those are the kinds of emotions and attitudes we need to guide us in our decisions and actions.

There are some very important EVENTS that God wants to use to shape our thinking and decision-making:  the conception and birth of his beloved Son Jesus Christ — the pure and sinless life of Jesus, lived on our behalf — the words and works of Jesus Christ, demonstrating the true character of God and of sinless humanity — the God-forsaken, sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on the cross, where the sin-debt of all humanity was paid, once and for all, including your debt and mine — the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and his glorious ascension into heaven.

Because he ascended, Jesus Christ is no longer limited by time and space; he is with us always, in every circumstance, in every situation.  You don’t have to travel to Israel to speak with him.  He’s closer than your next heartbeat, nearer than your next breath.  Since he is one of us, he knows our deepest needs; since is almighty God, he is able to help us in all our trials and temptations.  He will come back in glory – perhaps today.  He says, “I came to earth to take your place.  I have gone to heaven to prepare your place.  I will come again to take you to that place, to be with me forever.” 

God’s Word says that the very same power of God that raised Jesus from the dead and seated him in the heavenly realms is at work in us to enable us to accomplish God’s purposes in our lives.  (Read Ephesians 1 and rejoice!)  We are no longer limited to the superficial power of self.  We have the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit.  Why crawl when you can fly?  Which will it be:  superficial or supernatural?