The Pruning Process

Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit- John 15:2

I hear it said all the time, “Pastor, I feel like ever since I started walking with God, things have gone from bad to worse. I don’t understand, ‘What God is doing to me’?” I always reply, “He is putting you through the ‘Purging Promise’.”

John 15, Jesus reminds those who follow him that the only way to bear fruit is to continue with him. He tells us that if we will continue walking with him every day, we will bear fruit. He also promises us when we begin bearing fruit that he will begin “purging” us. The Greek word for “purge” is kathairo. It means, “to prune.” Jesus says “Child of God, when you begin to bear fruit, I am going to prune you.” Now, to me that seems harsh and backward. Shouldn’t you prune something that is dead, lifeless, and fruitless? Why would you prune something that is doing exactly what it is supposed to be doing? I mean, isn’t a branch supposed to bear fruit? Yes! So why take the sharp shears and start causing it pain by cutting on it? Well, a seasoned gardener knows that every fruit bearing branch on the same branch that bears fruit will also have some non-fruit bearing offshoots and those offshoots extract nutrients from the fruit bearing parts of the branch. The vinedresser knows by cutting away the useless parts, it will allow the useful parts to be more productive because it is gathering more nutrition. So pruning is purposeful even though it is painful.

Child of God, I know the pruning of God is painful. It has never felt good to be hurt. When the Spirit reveals the fruitless aspects of our soul and begins cutting it can be difficult to bear, but if we will allow him to shear away what shouldn’t be there, it will only open the channel for more nourishment to flow to the fruitful aspects of our spirit. So today, yield your life to the Heavenly Vinedresser and say, “Prune away what isn’t fruitful for you so that what is fruitful might increase for your glory.”

Have You Prepared?

Be thou prepared, and prepare for thyself, thou, and all thy company that are assembled unto thee, and be thou a guard unto them. ~Ezekiel 38:7

My entire life centers around one thing… preaching the word of God. Everything I do, Monday through Sunday leads to the moment when my mouth opens with the grandest words ever uttered, “Thus saith the Lord God.” These are truly the only life changing words that will ever enter the ears of men.

Week in and week out as I stand before the people who come to hear the word of God, I am always nervous because there are so many things that are outside of my control. Just this last weekend in the 11 o’clock service just as I began preaching, half the lights went out, the microphone started “squealing”, and it seemed one person after another went to the bathroom the entire length of the service (thankfully every service is not like that, but this last Sunday it was!).

While those things are out of my control, there is one thing that is in my control… “Am I PREPARED to stand in front of the people?” I’m not asking am I worthy, or am I able, but rather, have I prepared myself to proclaim the word of God? Have I spent time the prior week preparing the sermon, studying the text, purifying my mind, understanding what God wants said, and kneeling before God asking for his help? Finding time to prepare for messages is a must for a preacher who desires to be used by God. Anyone can steal a “sermon”, but only after agonizing with God in prayer and an open Bible can a preacher truly have a “message.”

I do not claim to be an expert or to have “arrived”, but the single greatest truth I personally exercise in my own life to make sure I have amply prepared for my time proclaiming God’s truth is this,

“Give your mornings to God.”

This is a line used and attributed to the late W.A. Criswell, former pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas for many years who was world renowned for being a giant in the pulpit. His motto to all preachers was that the morning was to be given to God in prayer and study of the word. The psalmist echoed this when he said, “Early will I seek thee.” Rising early and as Spurgeon said, “Speaking to God before speaking to any other man” will prove to be great blessing to any preacher. While this is not an easy practice to start, if you will carve out every morning for God, moving all appointments, visits, meetings, etc. to the afternoon and evening, you will be immensely enriched and especially prepared for the Lord’s day.

I cannot express to you how greatly this principle has influenced my mind and prepared me for preaching the word of God. I will not say I am an expert, but I can say for this Sunday like Ezekiel, I am prepared for all the company that are assembled unto me to be a guard unto them.

Pass It On

And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. –Deuteronomy 6:6-7

Here is the question (or burden, or passion, or thought… however you want to put it) on my heart over the last several months, “What am I doing with the heritage I have been given?” Am I squandering it? Am I hiding it? Am I passing it down to my children? The children of Israel had a tremendous heritage: They had been brought out of bondage, they had a God that would answer their prayer, they had His word to guide them in their living, and they were to be His witnesses of truth to the people around them. What were they going to do with their heritage? Well, history bears out what they did with theirs, but that isn’t my concern right now.

My concern is, “What am I doing with MY heritage?” My heritage is similar, if not the same as theirs: I have been brought out of sin’s bondage, I have a God that answers my prayers, I have His word to guide me in my living, and I am to be His witness for truth to the people around me. But am I walking in that heritage? More importantly, “Am I diligently passing it to my children?”

My challenge to you and myself is simple, “Pass it on to the next generation.” Pass “what” on? Your heritage! Tell the next generation (your children and grandchildren) you have been brought out sin’s bondage and they can be too. Tell them you have a God that answers your prayers and they can too. Tell them you have God’s holy, inspired, infallible word to guide you in your living, and they do too. Tell them that you are to be a witness for Jesus to the people around you, and they are too.

Our heritage from one generation to the next is like a chain. When one rung is securely fastened to another, strength remains. But when one rung breaks, then the whole chain is in danger of separating from itself. Thus our heritage is only one generation from diminution if one generation fails to “Pass it on.”

Balance in the Ministry

To say that life in the ministry is hectic is an understatement. Just to give you a glimpse of my day: I am currently in the car riding to a revival service 4 hours away; this morning I found my self conducting a funeral, and before that I was trying to steal a few hours of study lest Sunday find me unprepared. Not to mention playing with my children, talking to my wife, communicating with church staff about the Mother’s Day service this weekend, returning calls, consoling members, and forwarding emails. Needless to say, many days I feel like a feather in a hurricane (and I’m not even the busiest pastor I know. There are so many others that are far busier than I!)

The constant tug-and-pull of life and ministry can overwhelm you and take the joy out of serving our Great Savior if you don’t learn and implement one word… “Balance“. Here are some lessons I have learned in the few years of pastoring on balancing life in the service of the King:

1. Set your priorities 
Here is the fact, some things are more important than others things. Some things matter and some things don’t. The sooner you learn what does matter and what doesn’t, the better off you’ll be. For me, these are the priorities in my life…

(a) My private walk with God and the study of his word- If I preach to thousands, feed the multitudes, yet lose my personal walk with Christ I have lost it all.

(b) My wife and children- Before I am a pastor, counselor, or preacher, I am a husband and father. God can use anybody to pastor Church Street, preach to the masses, or counsel people, but only one man can be a husband to my wife and a father to my children and that is me!

(C) My church family- At the end of the day my spiritual gift is to lead, feed, and shepherd the local assembly where God has placed me.  I love helping other churches and flocks but I cannot help them to the neglect of the flock God has entrusted me to.

If I can keep these things at the top of the list in my life everything else will fall into place.
2. Say NO! 

It was a blessed day in my life when I realized that I could not do everything, be everywhere, and cure everybody. Sometimes in order to keep the priorities in order I have to say “No” to certain things. Saying no is hard especially for me because I desire to be everything, go everywhere, and cure everybody, but I can’t, therefore I have to say “no” to certain people and things. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t important, it just means that the lack of time doesn’t allow me to do them. Learn to say no to somethings so you can say yes to the priorities!

3. Schedule your time
I have heard it said all my adult life, those who fail to plan, plan to fail. I have found this to be absolutely true! My wife has helped me immensely in this area. Your schedule cannot be your “God”, but it can be your “guide”. Emergencies, unexpected visitors, and overlooked appointments do occur and sometimes schedules must be changed, but I encourage you to set monthly, weekly, and daily schedules so that you know the general direction to need to set yourself in.

4. Surround yourself with like minded people- The Old Testament story of Amnon is all the example we need of the influence of friends. It was his friend Jonadab who led him down the path of seducing and ultimately raping his sister Tamar. The Bible makes it very clear that the influence of his friend was the downfall of Amnon. The same is true in our life even in issues that aren’t necessarily sinful. It is vital to surround myself with people who have the same goals, drive, and mindset. Friends are like hands on a steering wheel, the one who has a hold on you determines the direction.
Life in the ministry is a greater honor, privilege, and joy that I could have ever imagined. I could do nothing in life more rewarding than what I’m doing right now, but in order to keep the delight in the ministry, I must keep the balance in my life.

Satan in the Study

The most special time of my day is the time I spend every morning in my study. It is there I spend time in prayer, Bible reading, and meditation. Each night before I go to bed I spend time thinking about the next morning and how God will minister to my heart in that place. Yet something strange happens every morning as soon as my alarm goes off… I begin to struggle! It’s a struggle to get out of the bed. It’s a struggle to keep my eyes open as I walk up the stairs to my study. It’s a struggle to keep my mind focused as I read the Scriptures. It’s a struggle to keep my spirit focused as I try to pray. It seems that every moment in my study I am fighting, wrestling, and struggling. What am I struggling with? Every time I go into my study it seems that Satan goes with me. He is there to steal, kill, and destroy those precious moments I spend with my Savior as I try to draw strength from the word of God and prayer. This may be something that other pastors and ministers don’t struggle with, but as the struggle is real within me. 

I cannot overemphasize the importance of the time spent with the Master in the study. It is there I draw strength for the day ahead. It is there I feed my soul on the milk and meat of the word of God. It is there God ministers to my soul that I might minister his word to his people. So when Satan is in the study overwhelming me, it’s fair to say that trouble is on the horizon

These are some helpful tools I have found to help me to overcome Satan in the study:

1. Don’t give in
This is what the devil wants. If he can get you to shut your Bible and go about your day without seeking the Lord’s face and drawing strength from the presence of God then he has won. We are feeble creatures in need of the Holy Spirit’s touch. We need the Holy Spirit to guide every thought, every desire, and every plan. Yet if Satan can take us out of the study and about our day in our own power then our defeat is certain but, if we stay in the study then the breakthrough could come if will only be faithful. Remember the one and only requirement that God requires of his stewards is they be found faithful.

2. Eliminate as many distractions as possible
I know many people find it helpful to take computers, iPads and iPhones into the study to use to read their Bible on, but for me I have found these things to be more of a distraction than a help. I find that when I’m reading my Bible on these devices, the emails pop up, messages alert me, or at that moment Satan brings to my mind something I didn’t accomplish the day before and he chooses that very moment to remind me. But when I go into my study in that quiet place where there is little noise and all I have in front of me is a physical copy of the word of God I am able to focus on that without being distracted by all of the technology that so easily distracts me

3. Pray for grace
Do you think it’s any surprise to God that we are easily distracted? Surely our all-knowing God knows how easily dissuaded we are in that private time. He knows exactly how the enemy attempts to destroy us. It’s not a surprise to God when Satan goes into the study with us, therefore God gave us one up to trump the Devil… He’s called the Holy Spirit. Abiding within us is the third person of the Trinity. The omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, omni-benevolent Holy Spirit. He is our comforter. He is our guide. He is our teacher. He is our strength-giver. Do you think it bothers God before you start in the study you stop and pray saying, “Lord you know how weak I am and you know how easily distracted I am and I need your help to stay focused on you and to concentrate on what you desire to speak to me today.” This is what it means to walk in the Spirit and you will not fulfill the lust of the flesh. It means to concentrate and rely on the Holy Spirit of God.

It is true that our enemy Satan is more powerful than we are. We are no match for him. But we must remember that he is no match for our God. The truth of first John still remains, “Greater is he that is in me then he that is in the world!”