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Author: Michael Bannon

For God’s Sake: Back in the role of “minister of music”

My qualifications for the role were that I was a zealous Christ-follower with extensive music training, but I had zero experience as a “minister of music.”

So, my most difficult responsibility each week was picking those “few songs,” for I quickly learned that I knew little about corporate worship. After much reading on the subject and conversations with my peers, what seemed right to me for the worship service was each week to rehearse in song the drama of our redemption.

The prophet Isaiah’s vision in the temple of the throne room of God shaped my thinking. Isaiah was shown the magnificent train of God’s robe that sprawled out before him.

He observed the mighty and strangely-appointed seraphim – literally “the burning ones” – attending God’s throne while shielding their faces and their feet from the searing radiance of God’s glory with four of their six wings. Isaiah heard the roar of their antiphonal cry, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

Isaiah’s response to this glorious tableau was not, “Cool!” It was to fall on his face in abject terror and cry out, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people with unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” I realized that this is the God that we were gathering to worship.

Reginald Heber based his stately hymn, “Holy! Holy! Holy!” on the seraphim’s superlative cry saying that God is the holiest, that “there is none beside Thee.” We are of Isaiah’s stock, a people of unclean lips; so how can we presume to come before such a God and worship?

Our only standing before a holy God is the perfect righteousness of Christ imputed to those who would put their faith in Christ alone. Just as God hid Moses in the cleft of the rock to shield him from His searing glory lest he perish at the sight, in like manner God has hidden in Christ those whose trust is in Christ.

As I pondered these truths, I concluded that we need to be reminded of them every time we gather to worship and then rejoice in God’s grace toward us in Christ. We did so for ten years.

Now as a “church planter,” I am also back in the role of “minister of music,” selecting songs for our worship services at COMPASS. Each week we rehearse in song the drama of our redemption and then rejoice in God’s grace toward us in Christ.

For God’s Sake: Perhaps God is calling you into full-time ministry

After a nuts-and-bolts ministry report, he concluded with an open challenge to serve God with our lives. “Perhaps God is calling you into full-time ministry,” he challenged the crowd. I don’t know how his words fell on anyone else’s ears, but they hovered around mine and I brushed them away like an annoying mosquito.

The notion of me in full-time ministry was laughable. My life plan at the time was to make a boatload of money. That missionary had made it clear that serving God was not the road to financial gain – you surrender all. The missionary eventually left town, but his words did not, they followed me home. Pesky mosquitoes!

His challenge took up residence in my head and fomented an ongoing conversation between God and I.

“No way!” I would shout back to Him in my mind. A strange thing happened – subtly, seamlessly, my answer changed to, “Not right now,” then, “I’ll serve you, but finish a few things first.” The persistent assault on my will eroded my selfishness and supplanted it with an unexpected, growing desire to serve God.

Dramatic transformation characterized the months following my conversion as the gospel began to have it full effect on my life. I was truly being made new. Even still, the notion of me in full-time ministry was simply too novel a concept for me to embrace; I needed advice. I arranged to meet with my pastors, who could barely suppress their smiles as I told them that I thought God was calling me into full-time ministry.

“What do I do?” They asked me what I thought about going to seminary. “I don’t think so,” I replied, “I don’t yet know what it means to belong to a church.” We read from Scripture the accounts of the call of other men then prayed. Since I was called to serve, I figured I should begin in my own congregation.

Serving helped bring into focus my ministry call. I discovered that God had gifted me with good insight into the Bible and the ability to recall and rightly apply its message. I honestly thought that this was something every Christian could do. After four years of faithful volunteer service, my church hired me on staff in a lay capacity. The next four years were marked by continued growth and maturity and I was recommended for ordination. I served that church for the next eight years as a pastor then left to get that seminary education and pastor several churches.

Perhaps God is calling you into full-time ministry. God is patient but he is persistent – just do it, answer his call!

For God’s Sake: October is Pastor Appreciation month

Curious as to what it was, I paused to look it over. The 6”x9” envelope was hand-addressed, a return address label indicated the sender was “Faith Community Church” in a Florida town I did not recognize. I guessed it contained media of some sort. My curiosity even more piqued, I opened it as soon as I got in my car.

Inside, I found a typed letter on church stationary that was folded and stapled to form a sleeve into which was inserted a short stack of smaller envelopes. The letter was from the pastor and began, “We have a ministry of encouragement to Christian Pastors.

You are this week’s prayerfully chosen recipient.” His Scripture-rich letter went on to acknowledge both the high calling of the pastorate and its innate challenges. “We are praying for you, your family, your ministry, and for all at Compass Community Church,” the letter assured.

That encouraging message was repeated many times over as I opened the other envelopes and read the cards and letters therein. The words were thoughtful, encouraging and gracious. Some had written several paragraphs, all contained carefully chosen Scripture passages and all urged me to continue to preach the Word and to not give up on doing well. I was moved by the gesture and their thoughtful words.

Many of the letters acknowledged a difficulty that some pastors face – the growing distaste for biblical preaching in the Church. I said “some” because not all pastors are committed to preaching the message of the Bible.

The Bible warns, “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Timothy 3:3-4, ESV).

I am committed to preaching the message of the Bible, I can do no other. This commitment has resulted in my speaking to ever shrinking congregations, to Christians whose ears have not begun to itch, This sad reality makes the surprise package of encouragement I received such a treasure. Don’t give up on doing well!

October is Pastor Appreciation month. I don’t know who decided that, but I am grateful that they did. Pastors are told often that ours is the most difficult profession and that no one works harder.

There are other professions that are just as difficult if not more so and there are many who work just as hard, though the difficulties a pastor experiences are unique to ministry.

May I encourage you to do for your pastors what the Faith Community Church congregation did for me. Write them an encouraging letter and commit to praying for them.

For God’s Sake: The COMPASS core value statement champions ‘grace giving’

That unfortunate baggage was on my mind recently as I prepared a short sermon series on giving at COMPASS, the church start-up in Navarre that I am pastoring.

The subject had come up at a recent leadership retreat and from the discussion that ensued, I realized that in crafting our foundational statements – vision, mission and core values – I had not written a core value statement on giving to the gospel ministry.

Everybody has core values, those deep-seated convictions that shape our goals and decisions. Most don’t write them out, but they surely act on them. That man complaining about my sermon was acting on his deep-seated conviction about giving. How do you write a core value statement on giving when there is likely to be a diversity of convictions in a congregation?

In planting COMPASS, we are establishing a new local community of Christ-followers with its own culture. What will shape that culture? The Apostle Paul exhorted the Philippian congregation to be “of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.”

Whose mind? The pastor’s mind? Do we take a poll and go with the majority opinion? Paul continues, “Let this mind be in you that is yours in Christ Jesus.” then he describes Christ’s mindset expressed so vividly when he laid aside his glory, came to earth in human flesh as the servant of servants, and submitted himself to his Father’s will by dying on the cross for sin. We need to agree with Christ’s mindset, which requires a careful study of Scripture.

Christ said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” A relationship with Christ is not a negotiated one with each side conceding something. Christ calls for the complete surrender of our lives to him.

When we surrender to Christ what is most precious to us – our lives – giving that which is of far lesser value is no burden. In fact, with minds being transformed into the mind of Christ, giving for the Christ-follower is a joy and a privilege.

That was the mindset of the impoverished Macedonian believers who, having already given themselves to the Lord, begged for the favor of giving and gave with overwhelming generosity from the abundance of God’s grace given to them. This makes no sense to the unregenerate heart, nor can it. It makes perfect sense to the one who is in Christ.

The COMPASS core value statement champions “grace giving,” giving that is not from the compulsion of law, but joyful giving from willing hearts from a people on whom God has lavished his great grace in Christ.

For God’s Sake: Merit is the price for favor in our world

I could not have disagreed more; grace and reward are in opposition to one another. Since I was in the middle of preparing for our Sunday service later that morning, I did not initiate a text discussion.

I grew up in a religious family and was taught from an early age that grace was a prayer that we said before our evening meal. My dad did the praying, always the same prayer, “Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty through Christ our Lord. Amen.” That prayer, for me, was “grace.” It never occurred to me to ask why we didn’t say grace before breakfast or lunch.

As I grew older, I learned that the word grace is also used to describe a beautiful way that someone comports themselves through life. We might say of someone, “She lived her life with grace and dignity,” grace defined as a noble, praiseworthy character trait, something to be imitated.

It was only after I came to faith in Christ and started reading the Bible, that I learned that the highest and best definition of grace is God’s unmerited favor. Grace is God showing favor to people for no other reason than it pleases him to do so according to his own purposes.

Grace is at the very heart of God’s offer of salvation. The Bible says that it is by grace that people are saved through faith and not by any works they have done. Even that saving faith, the ability to believe, is a gift of God’s grace that He gives to whomever he pleases. The moment you even breathe the word “reward,” you introduce merit as an influencing factor and grace is no longer grace. Grace is never a reward.

Imagine my surprise at hearing fellow seminary students, who hadn’t met a term paper deadline, complain to the professor for docking them a grade point as was spelled out in the syllabus. “This is a Christian institution,” they protested, “you owe me grace!” Clearly, these peers had slept through some important classes on grace.

I think our struggle with comprehending God’s grace is that we rarely, if ever, find such perfectly, unilateral displays of favor among us. Merit is the price for favor in our world. We show favor to people we find favorable, who have done something to earn our favor. God shows favor on people in spite of the sinful things they have done.

Friends, if ever you see the word “grace” equated with “reward” in a “Christian” book, know that writer has missed the mark on a foundational truth of the Christian faith. Go read the Bible instead.

For God’s Sake: Valued piece of scratch-pad paper now resides in the front of my Bible

She didn’t move but stared up at me with anticipation, face still beaming. Our worship service was only moments from starting, but clearly, she was hoping that I would read it now. I did read it and I am glad that I did. With a red marker she had scrawled in kid fashion, “Love…OBeY…Lisun…PRay….” It was wise and timely advice “out of the mouth of babes.” I almost cried.

Of course, I had to share it with the rest of the congregation for the benefit of its wisdom and to encourage this young lady. I gently noted her spelling error and said that I was pretty sure that “lisun” is spelled “lissun.” The adults chuckled at my attempt at humor and this young encourager just beamed all the more.

Love. Obey. Listen. Pray. Four short, simple words exhorting us to turn godward, each of the four exhortations summing up an important biblical command.

Jesus’ orthodoxy was frequently put to the test by the Jewish religious leaders. On one occasion, a scribe asked him, “What is the most important commandment of all?” Jesus answered first with the familiar Shema, an iconic Scripture passage that exhorts God’s people to LISTEN, to give heed to a foundational truth, “The Lord our God, the Lord is one.”

Then Jesus said, “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength.” It is a command to LOVE God with the whole of your being. “The second is this,” Jesus continued, “‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

LISTEN and LOVE. Implicit in Jesus’ teaching is the exhortation to OBEY these chief commands.
The command to PRAY is everywhere in Scripture. Jesus exhorts us to pray to our heavenly Father and gave to us a model to follow – the Lord’s prayer.

God’s Word elsewhere exhorts us not to be anxious about anything but to pray about everything, and it promises that “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” I could go on, but I am limited by space.

That valued piece of scratch-pad paper now resides in the front of my Bible and I sometimes I set it out so that I can see it as I preach.

Its profundity has made me realize that, while our decision at COMPASS Church to have our children remain in the worship service was for their learning benefit, clearly it is also for my learning benefit and for the learning benefit of the other adults. “Love…OBey…Lisun…PRay…” Wise words from a wise young lady!

For God’s Sake: Bible reminds believers they are not alone

Then one day it dawned on me that I do read to my wife once a week; she sits through my sermon every Sunday. So, I asked her if my preaching makes her sleepy. A bit of free advice: never ask a question for which you really don’t want to know the answer. Yes, my preaching makes her sleepy.

Last Sunday after lunch, I decided to watch that day’s livestreamed worship service. To my embarrassment, I fell asleep during my sermon. It is probably not a good idea for a pastor who wants new people in the community to attend his worship services to publish in the local newspaper that his sermons may cause drowsiness, or maybe it is a brilliant strategy; who doesn’t need a good nap?

Lest you get the wrong impression, I am told that I am not boring in the pulpit. My skill as a writer helps me craft coherent, compelling sermons and I have honed my oratory skills over three decades. The book from which I preach is certainly not boring, the Bible is life-giving and life changing. But the Bible can also bring peace and rest to the restless soul.

During one particularly stressful season of ministry, I had trouble sleeping, my mind was racing with the many matters that came across my desk earlier that day. Even if I did manage to fall asleep, I would awaken a few hours later and my mind would go back to work robbing me of sleep.

The solution to my sleepless nights was the Bible. Someone had given us an audio Bible, so one night, I opened it up to the Book of Psalms and set it playing at a low volume.

My mind considered how blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly but instead delights in the law of the LORD. I heard how God in heaven laughs at those who foolishly plot against him. My next conscious thought was, “It’s morning!” I had slept soundly through the night.

The prophet Isaiah says of God, “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you.” Listening to God’s Word is a sure source of peace for those who trust in God. It provides wisdom for the myriad matters cluttering our minds and burdening our hearts. It’s many promises give trustworthy hope for the future to the believer.

The Bible reminds the believer that they are not alone; sovereign God is with them. These are very good things!

So, if my preaching of God’s Word brings rest to a restless soul, I’m good with that.

For God’s Sake: Absence, unwillingness to serve is as dangerous as a missing shuttle tile

Since Frank lives a distance away, I can only enjoy his photos online whenever he posts them on social media.

Recently, I was admiring his photo of a space shuttle – one of his favorite subjects. Seen from a distance, the shuttle’s nose looks like a smooth, uninterrupted surface. Frank’s photo reveals a checkerboard surface of ceramic tiles much like a bathroom shower wall.

The shape of each tile is different, and its placement seems haphazard, as if cut and placed on the spot. A second, closeup photo of a few rows of tiles reveals each tile is inscribed with a complex alphanumeric code that identifies its precise placement on the shuttle’s nose.

The tiles’ varied shapes and placement are not haphazard at all, but a meticulously engineered design. These tiles are what protect the astronauts from the extreme, four-digit temperatures generated on the nose’s surface from atmospheric friction as the shuttle reenters the earth’s atmosphere. It is critical, therefore, that every tile is in its assigned place and properly installed, for even the smallest gap, or a missing tile, would be catastrophic for the astronauts.

The shuttle nose with its meticulously engineered, precisely shaped and placed ceramic tiles reminded me of Christ’s design for his Church and the role each member plays.

A popular misconception is that the Church is a building; it is not. The Church is a people, all those who by faith alone in Christ Jesus alone have been united with him and with one another by his indwelling Holy Spirit. They are now one Body in Christ, and each person has been uniquely gifted by the Spirit to serve the Body for its common good.

Each person is as essential to the Body as our various limbs and organs are to our human bodies, the Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 12. Each person is as essential to the Body as each ceramic tile is essential to the space shuttle.

No one person in the Body can say, “I am not needed because I am small and insignificant,” any more than the smallest of shuttle tiles is not needed. Each one is unique. Each one uniquely serves in its place. Each one is necessary.

In my three decades as a pastor, I have met too many Christians who see themselves as a customer of the Church, not a vital member, as one to be served, not as one who serves. Christian, God has uniquely gifted you by his Spirit to serve the Body for its common good.

Your absence or unwillingness to serve is as dangerous as a missing shuttle tile. No, people are not dying because of your absence, but local congregations are not what they could be, and should be, because of it. Serve!

For God’s Sake: Death is no longer a threat to be feared

This was my skill level when I worked for Canadian National Railway. For a season, I was responsible for processing the data from punch cards spat out by a computer.

Its steady issue easily overwhelmed my limited ability. Occasionally, the computer “went down” and I could only sit idly in fear for when it “came up” and began spewing out its backlog of cards.

When I entered pastoral ministry, my typing skills slowly improved. Knowing nothing of the “home row,” my fingers worked in an erratic, frenetic stabbing motion that somehow produced a semblance of recognizable words on the screen. Twelve years later, I entered a seminary to pursue a Master of Divinity degree and gamely decided to take lecture notes on a laptop. This sink-or-swim approach worked for me; my ad lib style took on form. Now I can type accurately without looking – mostly. An occasional typo will elude proofreading and appear in a publication, hence my correct mistake.

It was a typo in a sermon manuscript. No one else saw it nor would they have been aware of it, had I not drawn attention to it. I had transcribed Romans 6:5, and instead of typing, “we shall certainly be united with him (Christ) in his resurrection,” I typed, “we shall surely be untied with him in his resurrection.” In the preaching moment, I saw my mistake and realized that it was nonetheless theologically correct. Those who have been united with Christ in his death are surely united with him, and untied with him, in his resurrection. How so?

The Bible often speaks of death using words like “bonds” and “snares,” devices intended to restrain their prey. The psalmist facing some deadly threat wrote that “the snares of death” had encompassed him. He called out to the LORD, “Deliver my soul,” then later rejoiced, “You have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling; I will walk before the LORD in the land of the living.”

His words point to a greater and lasting deliverance that God wrought through Christ’s vicarious death and victorious resurrection.

The Apostle Peter in describing that glorious work quoted another psalm rightly assigning it to Christ: “For you will not abandon my soul to Hades or let your Holy One see corruption,” the promise of rescue from death’s decay. Peter concluded, “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses.”

Romans 6:5 assures those united with Christ in his death that they are united with him in his resurrection, the bonds of death that once bound him – and them – are loosed.

Death is no longer a threat to be feared for through it they enter an eternal existence in God’s presence united with him, never to be bound by death again.

For God’s Sake: Change characterizes new life in Christ

Favorite haunts as a kid – woodlots and pastures – have been swallowed up by housing developments. Favorite eating establishments are either gone, or their menus so radically changed that my attempts at nostalgia noshing were fruitless.

The most notable change has been in my family. In recent years, one sibling has died, another sibling went through a divorce, and several other siblings are experiencing various health issues. Nieces and nephews have grown up, married, and have children of their own to whom I am a total stranger.

As uncomfortable as we are with change, change is an inescapable, even essential, facet of life. Infancy must change into adolescence. Adolescence must change into adulthood. We may mourn the loss of the familiar that each inevitable change brings, but we also rejoice in the new. And while the final, earthly change – death – is accompanied by deep sorrow, the grief of loss, it, too, is essential.

When our forefather, Adam, rebelled against God by transgressing God’s one prohibition, he brought upon himself, the woman, and their offspring, the plague of sin and the penalty of death. Death, in its fullest expression, is separation from God and his grace.

After Adam sinned, God said, “The man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and live forever.” Living forever separated from God and his grace is a hellish prospect. Somehow, the sin-fallen needed to die to their fallen existence and live anew.

In his infinite wisdom, God had foreordained a means of atonement that required a death. He sent Christ Jesus, his beloved Son, to earth.

Christ added to himself a mortal, human nature, lived a sinless life, then, bearing our sin penalty upon himself, died in our place. Those whom God appointed to salvation have died with Christ, but they are also raised with Christ to a new life, an eternal life in sweet fellowship with God.

Change also characterizes this new life in Christ and is essential to it. Those who are in Christ must die daily to their old life with its passion for sin and live more fully their new life in Christ, the Spirit of Christ changing them to be like Christ. One day, they will be changed fully and forever to be like Christ.

So, as I walked the unfamiliar, changed streets of my hometown, I realized that I did so as a man who is now in Christ. Yes, my hometown has changed, but I, too, have been changed evermore to be like Christ, and for this, I thank God. That change is very good, and I thank God for it!

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