People Really Need To Be Loved

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Our Lord is coming to the close of His earthly life and ministry.  He shares a meal with His closest followers, girds Himself with a towel, draws a bason of water, and kneels to wash the feet of His friends.  It is a wonderful lesson on humility that convicts me each time that I read it.  It is my desire to be that kind of a servant.

As we consider John 13 and John’s account of this impactful event, I think it is important that we not overlook the very first verse of the chapter.  I believe it holds a key to why Christ did what He did with that towel and bason of water.  In that verse we read these words:  “Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto the Father, having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end.”   Jesus served these people because He loved them!

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The love that Jesus had for others is what compelled Him to stoop down and do what most would not be willing to do.

Many years ago I voiced my concern to Bro. Darrell Cox from Mocksville, NC about a man who had accepted a pastorate.  At the time, this man was not a very gifted pulpiteer.  Bro. Cox said to me, “He doesn’t have to be a great preacher as long as he is a good lover.  People will put up with poor preaching if they get good loving.”  I have never forgotten that statement, and I have tried, for more than thirty years, to be sure that my people have received “good loving.”

We can determine in our hearts to serve, and we can run on that fuel for a while.  Inevitably, serving will become laborious and we will eventually find ourselves operating on fumes.  The alternative to that motivation is to love people.  If you love people, you do not mind serving them.  Kneeling down at someone’s nasty feet is not such a difficult task, if you love the people to whom those feet are attached.

Jesus operated from a heart of love.  He genuinely cared.  He did not weep at Lazarus’ grave because Lazarus was dead.  He wept because Mary and Martha were broken-hearted and He loved Mary and Martha.  Jesus did not have to force Himself to spend time with the crippled man by the Pool of Bethesda, He approached that man because He cared about him.  Jesus had to go to Samaria.  He did not have to go because He was making Himself go, He had to go because there was a woman there for whom He cared.

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Loving people who have lost their way is not always easy, but it may be the one thing they need to make it through.

I would rather be good at loving people than to be a good preacher, a good administrator or a good supervisor.  It is compassion that makes a difference, not so many things that we think make us more effective.  Love is powerful.  Love is impactful.  Love is necessary.  However, there is more to this passage than just the statement that Jesus loved the people.  The Bible states, “…He loved them unto the end.”

Too often, we claim to love people, and we do love them as long as they behave like we think they should.  Over the years, I have seen many ministry workers who obviously loved the loveable.  As long as those to whom they ministered “toed the line”, they were quick to express their love to them.  Thank God, that was not how Jesus loved.  Jesus loved unto the end.  Of whom was John 13:1 speaking?  It was speaking of His disciples, including Judas.  He did not love them as long as they did the right thing.  He loved them unto the end.  He did not love them as long as they dressed a certain way, walked a certain way, talked a certain way or lived a certain way.  He loved them unto the end.  He did not love them as long as they kept the rules at the Christian school.  He loved them unto the end.  He did not love them as long as they took a stand for what was right.  He loved them unto the end.

Yes, Jesus loved them unto the end of His earthly life, (and beyond).   He also loved them unto the end of themselves.  When they came to the end of the dead-end road that led them away from the Saviour, He still loved them.  Much like the father loved the Prodigal when he had gone as far away from home as his conscience would allow him to go.  From the pig pen, the wayward son knew that his father loved him.

When our young people disappoint us and rebel against all they have ever been taught, may they know unto the end, that they are loved.  When our church members allow temptation to overcome them and sin to take up residence in their hearts and lives, may they know unto the end, that they are loved.  When those in whom we have invested the most seem to appreciate it the least, may they know unto the end, that they are loved.  May we love them the way we will want to be loved if we walk away.  May we love them the way we will want someone to love our son or daughter if they are overtaken in a fault.

Over the past three decades, I have been let down too many times to count.  People for whom I had the highest hopes have driven me to some of my deepest disappointments.  I have watched some of our Christian school graduates make tragic decisions that have destroyed their lives.  I have watched faithful church members walk away from the Lord in betrayal, and in some cases, denial.  Again and again I have felt so helpless.  I have felt that there is nothing that I can do to make any difference whatsoever.  Then I am reminded of John 13:1.  There is something that I can do.  I can love them unto the end!

Rick Finley

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Burning Bridges Is Bad Business

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We have all heard the term “burning bridges.”  It means to do something that cannot be easily reversed or undone.  There are times in our lives when bridges need to be burned, but there are other times when burning bridges is bad business.

As a pastor, there are times when people choose to leave our church.  I am not so foolish to think that God never leads people away.  Neither am I so gullible as to believe that He leads people away as often as He is blamed for doing so.  I have tried to love our people with a jealous love, so I am never happy when people choose to leave FBC.  It always hurts and I always feel as if I have failed.

Sometimes people will approach me to tell me that they are leaving.  Sometimes they call.  Sometimes they just leave without so much as a goodbye.  (That one has always amazed me.  I guess the relationship meant much more to me than it did to them.)  In spite of my hurt, disappointment, feelings of failure or bewilderment, I always try to let people leave on “good terms.”  Most often, I send them a letter, thanking them for the time that we were able to serve together.  After all, they did invest in the work that the Lord will continue to do in our church.

I have heard of pastors who have handled things very differently when people left their church.  Folks have told me they felt like they had to leave without a goodbye in order to escape the condemnation that they felt would come their way if their impending departure were realized.  I have had people tell me that their previous pastor told them that they would be cursed by God if they left their church.  (You really cannot make this stuff up!)

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I never want to burn bridges between a departing member and myself.  When I see our former members in the community, I always try to be gracious and friendly.  There have been times when I’ve dropped them a note a month or so after their departure, especially if I know that they have yet to plant themselves in another church.  I always want to keep that door open.  Over the years, there have been numerous former members who have returned to our church.  Sometimes it is within months; sometimes it has taken years.

I do not want to burn bridges between another preacher and myself.  Over thirty years of ministry, I have known fundamental preachers who have publicly condemned other pastors over issues of preference.  That condemnation has come from conference pulpits, periodicals and posts on their blogs.  I have never understood how anyone wins in those situations.  I do not believe anyone does.

When I was a younger pastor, I remember some preachers who became very negative toward a certain group of preachers.  Those preachers, and the conferences that they frequented, were oftentimes caught in the crosshairs of their mean-spirited attacks.  Several years passed.  One year I happened to attend one of those conferences.  Much to my shock, I saw a handful of preachers in attendance, who years before had been very hateful toward that group of preachers.

I can remember my Daddy saying to me, “Son, when you climb a ladder, don’t get the rungs dirty.  You’re going to have to come back down that ladder the same way you went up it.”  I have never forgotten that advice.

When a preacher falls or begins to drift, I want to reach out to him in kindness rather than in condemnation.  That does not mean that I condone or endorse his actions, his position nor his direction, it just means that I continue to treat him with respect and dignity.  I do not “burn the bridge” between he and myself.  Should he ever desire to return, I want the way back to be intact.

If you are saved from a life of sin, it is a good idea to burn the bridges to the places and things that you have left behind.  If someone hurts you, disappoints you or walks away from you, it is important to leave those bridges in place. Someone might need them some day.

Rick Finley

Friends Are Important

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Serving the Lord is an amazing life!  I’m not just talking about those who are paid to serve Christ. When I talk about serving the Lord, I am talking about those who live their lives to bring glory to God, regardless of how they make their living.

In my mind, one of the greatest things about serving the Lord is that you get to spend your life alongside some of the most wonderful people to be found anywhere.  Christians certainly aren’t perfect.  We’re all sinners, but thankfully, some of us have been forgiven because of our faith in Christ.  Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon to see one of our brethren succumb to temptation.  When that happens, it’s easy for us to forget when we were the ones over whom the Tempter had gained the victory.  In spite of their faults and failures, those who’ve been redeemed by the blood of Christ are a special lot.  We are special; not because of us, but because of Him.

When you travel this road for decades, you meet a lot of people and you build a lot of relationships.  Some of those friendships that were established forty years ago are still strong today.  Many of those with whom we once walked have departed from the path.  They have little interest in the things of God and the bond that we once shared no longer exists.  It’s really difficult for two to walk together whenever they don’t agree.  Don’t misunderstand me, because someone changes don’t mean that I am no longer their friend. It simply means that we are not able to help each other as much as we once did.

Many of my friends attend our church and we spend many hours together each week. Some of my friends live on the other side of the country or in a distant corner of the world. We seldom see each other in person, but our friendship remains strong.  My friends are important. Their testimonies challenge me. Their faithfulness encourages me.  Their love strengthens me. I don’t have to share a meal with them each week to share their burdens, and for them to share mine. The distant that separates us is irrelevant.

As I think about my friends, my heart is filled with gratitude for how God has manifested His goodness to me. Dr. Jack Hyles once mentioned that if a man, in his lifetime, had five true friends, he was a blessed man.  If that is true, I am very blessed. God has surrounded me with wonderful people that have proven to be true friends.

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Continuing on in ministry, I want to be sure that I don’t just have friends, but that I am a friend.  I want to be an encouragement to others.  I want to love others, even when they seem to be unlovable.  I want to strengthen others whenever they are weak.  I want my relationship with my friends to be one that is reciprocal. I don’t just want to be blessed, I want to be a blessing.

As I begin my fourth decade in the pastorate, I am challenged by this matter of friendship.  One thing is certain, I don’t want to disappoint those that consider themselves to be my friends.  I know the hurt that comes from that, and I don’t want to impose that on anyone.  I want to stay close to Christ, because He was the reason most of my friends and I were drawn to each other.  As I followed Him, and others followed Him, our paths crossed. I want to stay true to the Word of God because it instructs me in how to be the kind of friend that I need to be.

Having a relationship with Jesus is the greatest things in all the world. Having relationships because of Jesus is one of the wonderful by-products of being a Christian.  If there were no Heaven, if there were no Hell and if there were no eternity, I would still want to walk this journey because of the great people with whom I get to walk it.

Rick Finley

God’s Word Changes Lives

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When I entered the ministry, I had a great desire to make a difference.  While some of my contemporaries were determined to make a living, I was consumed with wanting to make a difference.  I wanted my life to be a part of seeing the lives of others being transformed.

I began preaching in Bible college.  It is a skill that I have worked to hone for almost forty years.  The older I get, the greater my desire grows to see my preaching be used to impact lives.  I am constantly mining for truths, gathering illustrations and looking for ways to use everyday occurrences in my life to illustrate the scriptures.

I am always looking for sermons!  When you preach to the same people, three or four times each week, for more than thirty years, it can be challenging to stay fresh.  I very rarely preach “leftovers” to our people at Fellowship Baptist Church.  I doubt there have been five times in three decades when I have deliberately preached an old sermon in our pulpit.

As a younger preacher trying to develop my craft, I mistakenly looked in the wrong direction.  I studied other preachers and picked up ideas concerning their styles of delivery.  There have been times when I have thought that I had to have the right illustration if my sermon was going to be effective.  Do not get me wrong.  I realize that delivery and illustrations can certainly capture listeners’ attention. They can receive the truth, but those tools will not change lives.  What changes lives is the Word of God!

There is much discussion today concerning what constitutes sound preaching.  Some criticize topical preaching.  Some attack expository preaching.  When I graduated from college, I simply had a desire for God to use my preaching to manifest His Word so that people could understand it, and hopefully, apply it.  I would read the Bible until my heart burned, and then I would immerse myself in that passage. I never set out to be an “expository preacher” or a “topical preacher.” I set out to be a Bible preacher. I oftentimes preached expository messages. I sometimes preached topical messages.  I always tried to preach the Word.

I remember going to preach a missions conference at a great church in the Midwest.  The pastor commented after the service, “That was a great sermon, but I’m somewhat surprised that you preached an expository message knowing where you went to college.”  I remember when one of our church members approached me years ago.  He said something like this, “Pastor, your preaching helps me so much, but I have a hard time figuring it out.  Sometimes I think you’re preaching an expository message, but halfway through, I will decide that it is a topical sermon.”  When I heard this brother’s commentary, I lost interest in what he said after his opening sentence. He said, “Pastor, your preaching helps me so much.” What he said about what type of sermon I was preaching did not mean nearly as much to me as the fact that he was being helped by the messages.

I have heard preachers jokingly state, “I have found a sermon, now I just have to find a verse to go with it.” Some chuckle, but I doubt that the Lord is amused. When Paul challenged Timothy in his preaching ministry he admonished him to “Preach the Word.”  God never promised that our illustrations would not return void.  “Rightly dividing the Word of truth” is impossible apart from the use of the scriptures.

All of us want to see lives changed. We desire to see transformation; not just adjustments which make it possible for people to conform to man-made rules. What is going to change lives? It is the Word of God! People will not be changed due to our standards, our pressure, our illustrations, our delivery or our technique. People’s lives will be changed because of the Bible!  Our messages should be saturated in scripture. Over 2,800 times one can read the phrase, “Thus saith the Lord” in scripture. Not once do you find the words, “Thus saith Rick Finley.” I do not think you will find your name in there either.

Rick Finley

It Is Easier When Someone Else Leads

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I am writing this post from Florida where much of our family is enjoying our annual family vacation.  Josh and Aimee have two weddings to attend this summer so they could not join us, and Jake is in training, waiting to be deployed to Afghanistan. We miss them all.

For many years, Renae and I, along with our five kids came to Orlando every August.  Bro. Chad Asbury pastored in nearby Winter Park and we would come and preach for him and enjoy some time away.  Those were good days and great memories.

For several years following the Florida trips, we went to Gatlinburg.  Once the kids started marrying, their spouses joined us and not long after, their kids joined us.  Our crew grew to fifteen plus.  Needless to say, it is quite a time!

Things have definitely changed.  As a father, I took great joy in planning and providing for my wife and kids a memorable vacation.  I saved the money.  I chose the rental home or cabin.  I planned the itinerary, I booked the reservations, etc.  Of course, my wife was involved in helping me to make decisions, but the burden of the vacation was mine.  Not so much anymore.

Now, I have delegated a lot of that responsibility to our kids.  This year, they chose the rental home.  They booked the theme park tickets.  They planned the schedule.  (In case you are wondering, I still pay the bill!)

As we were walking through a theme park on yesterday, I thought about how much easier it was when someone else does the leading.  I did not have to worry about anything, I just had to follow.  Following someone else’s lead took all the pressure off of me.  Letting someone else make the decisions has made my vacation much less stressful.

As I think back over my ministry, I realize that I have learned that same lesson in a different way.  If I let God lead, and I simply follow, it takes all the stress off of me.  If He does the planning, and I do the following of the plans, it is so much easier. Do not get me wrong, waiting on Him and following His lead is not easy; it is just easier.  Waiting on God is one of the most difficult things in the world to do, but if I do it, my life is so much easier.

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As a young pastor, I found myself wanting to be in control.  I wanted to do all the planning.  I wanted to make the decisions.  I had a difficult time delegating, because let’s face it, no one would do it as well as I would do it.  My desires were not necessarily wrong, just like my desires as a father were not wrong.  I wanted to provide a nice vacation for my family, and as a pastor, I wanted to provide a good church and program for our people.  Yet, my insistence on doing everything limited what God wanted to do.  It was also causing me to over-extend myself.

Several years ago, God taught me the importance of not only relying upon Him, but relying more heavily upon others.  We were searching for a man to fill a staff position, but to no avail.  After a time of prayer, I felt that the Lord was leading us not to hire someone to fill that position, but to take the responsibilities of that position and share them with people who were already serving on our staff. I made the choice to “lead by committee”, rather than having one person lead. The results have been tremendous! I am one part of that group, but just a part. Earlier in my ministry, that would have been contradictory to my leadership style. I think I have grown in that area.

I still sometimes struggle to let God be God.  I still sometimes long to be in control.  Yet, those times when I do manage to get myself out of God’s way, I find that life and ministry are so much more enjoyable!  His ways are higher than my ways and His thoughts are higher than my thoughts.  The best that I can connive cannot touch His intentions.

As I walked through the theme park yesterday, I found myself enjoying my role as a follower. As I journey through ministry, I find much the same result.  He is the shepherd; I am just a sheep. The work is His; I am just a laborer. Allowing Him to plan and to lead, and then watching His plan unfold, is such a pleasure!

Rick Finley

It Is Great To Give Back

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For the past 35 years, God has allowed me to do something that most pastors never get to do.  In May of 1983, I joined the staff at Fellowship Baptist Church, under the leadership of Pastor Lonnie Graves.  After five years of service as an Assistant Pastor, the church voted for me to be their second pastor.  For the past thirty years, I have had the opportunity to give back to the church and the people who gave so much to me!

I started attending Fellowship Baptist Church at the age of three.  In my mind, I can take you back to those rooms at the old church building on Hamlin Road where I was loved and taught the Word of God.  I can remember attending Vacation Bible School, and I even remember the pastor driving the bus to pick me up one morning!  Isn’t it funny how your mind works?  There was a certain cookie that was often served at VBS, and when I taste that cookie today, my mind immediately goes back to that very familiar place in my childhood. The roots are deep, and for that, I am grateful.

As a teenager, God began to really work in my life. I can remember spending Friday nights under the tutelage of my youth pastors and youth workers at the activities. I can remember attending camps and retreats where people made eternal investments in my young life, at the most critical times since I had been born.

As I look back on my upbringing at Fellowship Baptist, there is no way my mind can comprehend the difference that this place has made in my life.  My parents had a better marriage because of the ministry of this church.  I remember the day my Daddy rededicated his life to Christ here, and I remember the dramatic change that one decision made in the lives of everyone in our family.  It was a youth pastor, who joined our church staff my senior year, that encouraged me to attend the conference where God called me into the ministry.  If you subtract Fellowship Baptist Church from the equation of my life, there is no doubt that you would arrive at a completely different answer than the reality that is my life today.

Now, for the past thirty plus years, I have been blessed with the opportunity to give back to the place that gave so much to me.  It is not normal.  Most preachers never return to their home church.  For most, it is not the will of God, but I am glad that it has been for me.  Knowing that I can re-invest in the place that impacted my life in such a profound way thrills my heart.  I consider it a wonderful privilege.

We hear much today about the action of “paying it forward”.  I have been the recipient of such actions a few times, and I have been blessed to “pay it forward” for others on occasion. The idea is to pull up to the drive-thru window, and to pay the bill for the person in the car behind you.  It is taking what God has given you, and using it to give to others.

As I labor in ministry, my desire is to “pay it forward”. I want to impact the lives of others the way those who loved me impacted my life.  Maybe I am preaching today to the next pastor of FBC.  Maybe some teen in our youth group today will one day occupy my office and fill the pulpit that I have been privileged to fill for the past thirty years.  Maybe God will use me today to have a part in building something that will be here for my grandkids.

I always want my service to be for Christ.  It is to Him that my greatest debt is owed.  I want my life and ministry to glorify my Saviour.  As I seek to do that, I am grateful that I can also give something back to a place and a people whom have given so much to me.  What a blessing!

The Ministry Can Be Self-Gratifying

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This post is one of the more difficult that I have written, so much so, that I am almost embarrassed to write it.  It is never easy to admit that, even when we do good things, they can become sinful to us.

When I entered the ministry, I was so obsessed with “wanting to do something big for God.”  My heart yearned to see growth, crowds and increase.  As a pastor, I constantly found myself comparing year-to-year attendances and results.  It was exciting to see our church moving forward for the glory of God.  

There came a point in my ministry when I realized that what I was doing was not always for the glory of God.  As a matter of fact, I found that sometimes, I was motivated by how our results could bring glory to myself.  It was very self-gratifying to say, “Today’s attendance exceeded last year’s attendance by twenty-five.”  I felt validated.  I felt successful.  I felt I had done a good job.

The self-gratification became an even greater problem when those outside of our ministry learned of our success.  I would attend conferences where I would sometimes be recognized for what God was doing in our church.  I would be introduced to speak in meetings and the pastor would oftentimes state statistics validating our growth as a church.  I must be honest, it was very gratifying. One day as I stood on a platform listening to someone’s accolades, I realized that a very small part of the work that was being commended was done by me.  The vast majority of it was done by our people.  Obviously, none of it would have mattered were it not blessed by the Lord.

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The Lord grew FBC to the point where the auditorium needed to be expanded in 2004.

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The people of FBC sacrificed to help with the financial aspect of the growth that the Lord had brought.

I would like to say that I have finally arrived in this area and that I never have a problem.  I would like to, but I cannot.  There is still a prideful monster living inside of this body that oftentimes rears its ugly head.  In order to maintain the victory in this area, I must die daily.  I must be crucified on a continual basis because it still feels really good to be successful in my work.  Even if I do not do it outwardly, I can sometimes take the credit for my ministry success in my heart and mind.

God has taught me some things over 30 years of ministry.  He has taught me how easily I can steal the glory that only belongs to Him.   He has taught me that I can find my satisfaction in my performance, or in the results of my performance, rather than finding it in Jesus.  He is still teaching me that I can do nothing without Him.  There have been times when I worked just as hard as I had at other times, but failed to realize the results.  Sometimes positive results have come when I knew, in my heart, that I had not worked as diligently as I should.

Ministry is a wonderful thing, unless it becomes the source of my satisfaction.  When it does, it has occupied a place that should only be occupied by Christ.  My ministry should be a by-product of my love for Him.  The love of Christ should constrain me.  I should certainly enjoy the work of God, but I should enjoy it because it is one thing that I can do to bring honor to my Saviour.

Rick Finley