Faithfulness 201

Yesterday I called on us all to stay the course and do the job to which we were called. I believe in that with all my heart. But today I acknowledge that there will come a time when being faithful to our calling will force hard choices on us. In that day, I pray that we will each – and all – be led by faithfulness.

The story I am about to tell you is true, though the people in the story are entirely fictitious.

There once was a set of ambitious twins who were born to a hard-working, modestly wealthy family. The twins believed that they were set to inherit the aging couples small fortune and an ancient book passed down to them through the generations. To the aging parents, the fortune was of less importance than the book.

The twins were not content to inherit together and divide the fortune. Instead, each claimed the entire fortune, arguing that the other was not the rightful child of their parents, though they were conceived, formed and reared together. At the heart of the argument was the battered old book on the family’s kitchen table.

One of the twins was devoted to the parents’ values. This heir thought like, lived like, dreamed like and worked like the aging parents had in their youth. The parents were deeply proud of this twin, and saw themselves moving into the future in this twin’s life. This twin cherished the book on the table as a rule for right-conduct and modeled their lives around it. The book, this twin argued, held power born of timeless truth.

The other twin moved forward in ways that concerned the parents. This heir dreamed of moving in a different direction. Rejecting many of the parents’ deeply held convictions, this twin nursed entrepreneurial dreams and cutting edge political visions. This twin saw the old book as a spring-board toward (and occasionally an obstacle on the path to) enlightenment. It was an excellent resource for understanding the past and had some considerable wisdom to speak to the future, but it was, after all, an old book – not something innately powerful.

One day, each of the twins mused, the parents would die, and there would be a pitched battle for the proper use of the family fortune. The trouble was that the parents simply refused to die, and while they lived, they sided with the first twin. On and on the battle raged, upsetting and unsettling every effort toward growth and normalcy.

And there was another kink in the plans of each of the twins…

Late in their lives, the parents had given the twins a little sister. She was a sweet little thing: strong, kind and obedient. She adored her parents and doted on her older siblings. When they spoke, she followed them about, drinking in all they had to say. They often ignored her, considering her more of a pet than an heir. This was their grave mistake, because they failed to see the depth of their little sister’s wisdom, grace and power.

As the parents waned in strength, the twins fought over the fortune. Their houses and lands, investments and liquid assets were the topic of continuous conflict. Their neighbors were sometimes appalled and sometimes amused at the unseemly display, but the twins didn’t seem to care. The parents were almost past caring, but the little sister was rising, and she was deeply disturbed.

One day the little sister said to the twins, “Give me the book, and do what you wish with the fortune. When our parents started their journey, they had no fortune but the book. In those days their hearts were pure and their faith was strong. They were willing to let go of every treasure to keep faith with the book and its Author. All that you see – all that you struggle to control – is the product of living into the truth in the book.”

So the twins, focused as they were on their fortune, surrendered the book into the hands of their little sister. The parents, grieving for the book, weakened and passed away. The fortune, divorced from the book, melted in the hands of the twins, and the two were reduced to nothing.

The little sister looked at her impoverished siblings and said “If you will honor the book and live according to its principles, you can come and live in my house.”

The second twin was insulted and turned, instead, to serve the political machine. Better, the second twin reasoned, to live on the street in front of the machine than to be bound to a house that lives in the past. This twin arrogantly departed alone.

The first twin, deeply ashamed now of attachment to the perishing fortune, thanked the little sister for her gracious invitation, and humbly accepted her charity. Hungry, cold and alone, this one moved through the doors of the rising house that was built by the truth of the battered old book. On the wall was a portrait of their parents, painted in bright colors by the hands of the little sister. The first twin was amazed at the likeness she had captured. It had been years since their faces had looked so bright, alive and peaceful.

This morning, as I sit in my office with my cup of coffee and my morning dose of truth from the battered old book, I am waiting for the little sister to rise and build her house. She loves the book. When she finds her true voice, I will go live in her house – bringing with me any who are seeking spiritual shelter – because she is the true heir. Everything else is perishing.

People, pray for the little sister to rise. As you pray, work with diligence. And be patient. She will rise.

Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness?

2 Corinthians 6:14 New American Standard Bible
I am waiting for the little sister to rise and build her house.
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Faithfulness 101

After His resurrection, when Jesus reaffirmed Peter’s call to lead the Rising Church, He asked Peter three times “Do you love me…?” Each time Peter answered in the affirmative, and Jesus responded “Feed my lambs… tend my sheep… feed my sheep.” Then Jesus made Peter a heavy promise of personal suffering. (See John 21:15-19)

When a person receives a call to leadership of (or within) a congregation, (s)he should carefully ponder that passage, because housed inside Peter’s particular reinstatement is a glimpse of the Christian leadership role. In that triple calling is the mandate to provide:

  • specific nourishment for those just starting their journey,
  • care for the whole flock and
  • adequate grazing for the mature.

To the shepherding community, this was an apt description of a growth-focused approach.

The promise of suffering that followed the triple call was less veiled. Peter was told clearly that his days of self-direction were over, and that he was headed toward a difficult finish-line. I can almost see him squirm as he recalls Jesus’s earlier statement from Luke 9:62: “Anyone who puts a hand to the plow and then looks back is not fit for the Kingdom of God.”

The metaphor is mixed, but the message is clear. What you start, you finish. That is Faithfulness 101.

These days, some of us are getting a taste of what it means to live into that Petrine triple calling. The intensity of pastoral ministry in a polarized and fracturing denomination can hardly be overstated. It is gut-wrenching, frustrating and, at times, exhausting. I cannot count the number of times I have heard a variant of “This is not what I signed up for.”

I get it. I do. But please remember that we did, indeed, sign up, and Christian leaders finish what they start. The shepherd does not abandon the flock. The under-shepherds do not step away when the wolf and the bear are in the center of the field. This is not – this has never been – about our comfort level or self-actualization. This is about the flock!

Now, get your head in the game and do your job. No, you’re not their Savior, but you do work for Him, so model His faithfulness. Yes, it’s tough. Yes, you’re struggling. Yes, you’re occasionally wounded. So what? This was never going to be a stroll in the flower garden, and you knew it.

Okay, that was harsh. But before you say any more about walking away, let’s look at another story. It’s older, buried deep in the Old Testament, but it’s as relevant now as then. The king was coming after Elisha the Prophet, and he had good intelligence on his location. He surrounded him in the night and waited for morning to take him prisoner. Here’s what happened in the morning:

When the servant of the man of God got up early the next morning and went outside, there were troops, horses, and chariots everywhere. “Oh, sir, what will we do now?” the young man cried to Elisha.

“Don’t be afraid!” Elisha told him. “For there are more on our side than on theirs!” Then Elisha prayed, “O Lord, open his eyes and let him see!” The Lord opened the young man’s eyes, and when he looked up, he saw that the hillside around Elisha was filled with horses and chariots of fire.

2 Kings 6:15-17

My prayer for you, if you are considering walking away, is this: “Lord, let them see things the way they really are.” That’s what you need. That’s what we all need. So, instead of getting angry with me for being uncharacteristically blunt, pray for me that which I am praying for you. We all need clarity right now. We also need to remember that we love one another if we love the One who called us.

If that was too much for you, forget I said anything. Go get another cup of coffee, and read your Upper Room. We’ll talk when you’re ready.

The shepherd does not abandon the flock to the wolf and the bear.

Tipping Point

A few days ago, I read these alarming words: “UK scrambles to boost aid as Congo’s Ebola crisis ‘spirals dangerously out of control'”. The whole situation is boiling up terribly, but the stage was set for that to happen some time ago. Back in October of 2018 we read “Aid agencies said on Thursday that the Ebola outbreak in Democratic Republic of Congo could be tipping into a wider crisis as the number of new cases spiked and violence grounded health workers for a second time.With cases on the rise and aid hindered by violence, losing control of the outbreak was inevitable.

Much like the transmission of a virus, the rabid proliferation of rebellion against authority – left unchecked – creates its own momentum. It churns up gradually at first, but as it builds in influence, its speed increases until the thing that came crawling out of the baser nature of a community explodes across the whole culture. Once the rejection of authority has thoroughly infiltrated the system of power, a tipping point is reached, and total corruption is inescapable.

We see hints of this process in the Old Testament with verses like Genesis 15:16: “After four generations your descendants will return here to this land, for the sins of the Amorites do not yet warrant their destruction.” The process of corruption was rolling forward, but was not in full bloom. Although it had reached its tipping point, it did not yet trigger the judgment of God. Judgment was surely coming, but not for four generations.

There are always among us those who reject the role of scripture and the authority of God. They are our neighbors, our friends and our family members, and we treat them with kindness and hope to win them to the truth through compassion. They are not our enemies, even while they shame and misrepresent us. They are our mission field.

But what happens when those who reject the role of scripture and the authority of God are more than our neighbors, friends and family members? What happens when they become our pastors, teachers, civic leaders and legislators? When our culture is so thoroughly infiltrated that every aspect of life is governed by rules that threaten our expression of faith, have we reached a moral tipping point? Is judgment inevitable, even if it is not yet present and active?

I don’t know. Hope and fear are at war in my perception of our role in the world. I understand the fallibility of human institutions – be they families, communities, nations or denominations. I don’t know where we are on the continuum between blessing and judgment, but I do see the direction we are moving, and the increase in our rate of speed. If we have not yet reached the tipping point, we are dangerously close to it.

So, I pray and witness. I warn and plead. And I grieve. (Oh, how I grieve!) But I will not give up until judgment is a present reality all around me. I pray that I am standing among the righteous who perish with the wicked if (when) that day comes. It is so much better to die with integrity than to live with duplicity.

But to this man I will look,
even to him who is poor and of a contrite spirit,
and trembles at My word.
He who kills a bull
is as if he kills a man;
he who sacrifices a lamb,
as if he breaks a dog’s neck;
he who offers a grain offering,
as if he offers swine’s blood;
he who burns incense,
as if he blesses an idol.
They have chosen their own ways,
and their soul delights in their abominations;
I also will choose their punishments
and will bring their fears on them,

because when I called, no one answered;
when I spoke, they did not listen;
but they did evil before My eyes
and chose that in which I did not delight.

Isaiah 66:2b-4 (emphasis mine)

Soul Care

a poem by RuthAnne G. Henley, 20 May 2019

“Oh, Lord,” I prayed, “I’m overwhelmed by pain and suffering.
Some of it’s mine, and some my friends’ and some strangers’ unmet.
But there it is, that well of hurt, that oozes from the wounds
Of humankind’s first fall from grace. I see. I can’t forget.

Day after day I hear the cries of those caught in the trap
Of greed and hate and thirst for power. I vibrate with the sound.
Of shattered dreams and scattered hopes and plans all gone astray
It fills the air. It falls like rain. It rumbles on the ground.

I cry my pain, my own and theirs, into the ear of God
Must war and pestilence persist, must all our human race
Go ‘round and ‘round in this whirlpool of violence and fear…
Be drowned in inhumanity and buried in disgrace?

And then I hear a still, small voice above the graceless din.
“My daughter, turn your gaze aside a moment from the swirl
Of pain and suffering, struggle, guilt and all things mean and vile.
Remember this a moment, child: there’s beauty in the world.

And then I see the swaying flower and catch its sweet perfume.
“Come shelter here beneath blue skies and let yourself be whole.”
I hear the birdsong, feel the breeze and touch the flowing stream.
Let all Earth’s tribulations wait. I pause to tend my soul.

Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

Philippians 4:8-9

Community

Several folk have asked me to expand on one of the points from the Sunday Sermon, so here it is:

Why did God create humankind? What is humankind’s purpose? Why are we here?

Chapter 1 of Genesis is a 7 day adventure with the creative power of God. In that story, God works in a pattern. First, God speaks a new aspect of the world into existence, then God calls it good. So, God speaks light, makes a space for darkness, and says “That’s good!” God gathers the water and brings forth dry land, calling vegetation into being, and says “That’s good!” God speaks into being birds and fish, land animals, and the human being. With each step we hear God’s affirmation: “That’s good!”

But do we remember the second creation story in Genesis 2? In that telling, when the garden was perfect, God brought the man into it to share it with him. Looking at the man in the garden, God said something remarkable. In Genesis 2:18 (NASB) we read:

Then the Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.”

There it is! Do you hear it? “That’s good! That’s good! That’s good! Oh, wait, that’s not so good…”

Yes, we recognize that God was speaking of the creation of Eve and referencing the human’s need partnership and intimacy. God is surely saying that, but is that all God is saying? Look harder.

Look at that statement from a missional perspective. Human beings need food, water, shelter, rest and purpose. The garden provided all of that. But the one thing the garden did not provide for the man, even in the presence of God, was a sense of community. Standing in the presence of God and all the animals, with the beauty of the natural world all around him, the man was incomplete because the man was alone.

Do you think the answer was having a wife?

No, Eve was not, in herself, the solution to Adam’s loneliness. Eve came into the garden as the only creature in the world capable of dispelling Adam’s loneliness because, together, they could create community. Each needed the other to bring new life into the world.

People need people. It really is as simple as that.

Eve didn’t come into the garden to be a servant to Adam, to make him biscuits and gravy, sweep his floors and knit fig-leaves. She was not some female version of Robinson Crusoe’s Man Friday. (Please don’t try to diminish the creative work of God with ideas like that.) Eve’s presence made the process of forming community possible. Adam could not have done it without her.

Human beings were created to live in community. As individuals we are called to community. As couples, we are commanded to create and sustain community.

Since community has reached a point of sustainability, some of us are called to singleness. That’s okay. Some of us are married but don’t have children, and there’s no harm in that. The creating and sustaining of community is one divinely inspired mission at which humankind has excelled in numbers, though not so much in quality control.

So, how do we apply that realization to our faith-walk? Let me ask you a question. When was the last time you invited a neighbor to church?

The most common response when we invite an unchurched person to worship with us is this: “Oh, I spend time with God. I can worship God better down by the lake, or out in the field than I can in a bunch of people.” Have you heard that one?

What if I told you they were probably right? If you’re not spending focused time alone with God, you’re missing something beautiful – something vital. But church is not just about worshiping God. It is about living into the truth God spoke in Genesis 2. It is about realizing that we are not at our best when we’re alone. People need people, so Christians need corporate worship and sacred fellowship.

So we see that Jesus has finished the work of redemption, but has partnered with us in the formation of the finished productThe Church. As Christians, we are called to form community:

  • to celebrate the presence of God in each other’s lives,
  • to encourage each other
  • to study the scriptures and ponder their application in our lives
  • to hold each other accountable
  • to run to each other in moments of crisis
  • to share insight and grace to build each other up in the faith

and , together, we are called to take the Gospel to the world.

we are not at our best when we’re alone

Hard Moments

Did you know that pastors and other ministers of God get discouraged from time to time?

When I was a rising senior in high school, I took a job at a local factory to save money for college. I spent my days attaching thingamajigs to dohinkies on an assembly line. Would it surprise you to hear that I enjoyed the work?

There was something distinctly pleasant about holding a finished piece in my hand, recognizing that I had done the job correctly and neatly. Somewhere down the line, something might go wrong in the assembly, and the finished product might fail the quality control check, but I made sure that the thingamajig was not coming off the dohinky. Quality control on that piece was right there in my hand.

Pastors can’t do that. People aren’t thingamajigs and virtues aren’t dohinkies. Free will gets in the way of a sound production from time to time, and the quality controls of life bounce us back to the starting line. Sometimes we fail. It’s just that simple.

That’s bearable, but when failures stack, the load is hard to carry. We lay it down at the altar, but it climbs on our backs again when we rise from prayer. It follows us, nagging us. Left to itself, it will drag us into depression.

There is a mercy in standing still and gazing long at the cross of Christ. Jesus came to offer Himself as a sacrifice for sin, and His offering was sufficient for every person ever born on the Earth. Despite that, only a remnant will accept the gift. Let that sink all the way in to your bones.

Ministers of God, I know you work long hours. I know you labor in prayer. I know you sweat over sermons and pour your hearts into Bible studies that will be received by some and ignored by others. I know about those late hours and shocking conversations. You are not alone in your deep frustration, but hear me well: You will not do better at this than Jesus did.

Dohinkies don’t always stay on thingamajig, no matter how well you form the attachment. Virtues do not attach to Christians just because you will them to, or urge them to, or beg them to. Do the work and leave the rest to the Lord. Speak the message and live the message, then leave the works of justification and sanctification in hands that are more beautifully scarred than your own. God wants your faithfulness. That’s it. That’s all.

Now get some rest. Tomorrow is Sunday. It’s going to take all your focus and energy to do what some people think is all you do.

God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love which you have shown toward His name, in having ministered and in still ministering to the saints.

Hebrews 6:10
Craig and Steve attaching thingamajigs to dohinkies

Judging God

It amazes me that people who actively resist full accountability feel at liberty to hold God fully accountable. How many times have I heard or read “I could never worship a God who allowed…” followed by some real (or perceived) evil. In the same breath, these folk clamor for freedom to choose their own courses of action. The fact that they are demanding that God abridge the liberty of others, while expanding their own liberty, does not seem to bother them. They are gods to themselves, and are offering God an associate role in their kingdoms – if He can measure up, that is.

It would be funny except that it is tragic.

The idea that anyone among us has adequate intellect, and a sufficient experience base, to judge the works of One who has formed the universe and followed its unfolding through the mellenia, is immeasurably ridiculous. (Who would classify that level of arrogance as thought rather than fantasy?) And yet, that level of arrogance persists, and is applauded. Students are educated toward it, and those who choose the path of faith are increasingly marginalized. Anyone seeking purpose is told that the universe is a cosmic accident, and the only purpose of humankind is self-expression. God’s judgment that the human soul is tainted by sin, and in need of redemption, has no place in this culture of rabid self-worship.

Each of us will, one day, come to terms with the existence and nature of God. We will stand in God’s presence to give an account of our lives. My prayer is that your moment of full illumination is bathed in grace and touched by mercy. (Please, Lord, let mine be, also!)

We are at the mercy of a God whose wisdom and knowledge vastly exceed our own. Happily, God’s love for us and willingness to forgive and redeem us, is equally measureless. I hope that our age will abandon its foolish attempt to whip God into shape, and will embrace anew a healthy awe in the presence of divine power. I hope we will fall on the mercy of God and rise in the grace of God. I hope so, but I doubt.

O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable are His judgments
and unfathomable are His ways!

Romans 11:33