Observation as Evangelism

How it is possible to observe the intricacy of this realm and deny the intelligence behind it is a mystery to me. How can anyone imagine such breathtaking art without an artist or such elaborate design without a creator? Does anything ever fall together by chance and flow with perfect symmetry?

If we simply walk out into the beauty that surrounds us and open our minds to the truth that thrums in the flow of nature, we encounter the Maker of it. God moves in creation, always reaching to us through the order that surrounds us. Sit in the cool of the evening and listen to the chorus of praise the world is singing. How is it imaginable that all that we see is the result of some cosmic accident?

I have walked mountain pathways, stood in desert sands, and slept beneath the stars on a prairie so rimless that the sky spills down to the earth. I have chased the waves of the ocean and traveled her surface so far that the land disappeared into the curve of the water. I have trekked into treeless places where everything around me is frozen white and I have delved so deep into caves that the only light is the glow of my lantern, and I have switched it off to experience the velvet darkness. In all of that, I have found no place where the Voice ever speaking cannot be heard.

How is it possible that some never hear that Voice at all? Of all the mysteries I have encountered, this one amazes me most. How can it be that a human being can stand in the midst of creation and deny the existence of God?         

The heavens tell of the glory of God; And their expanse declares the work of His hands. Day to day pours forth speech, And night to night reveals knowledge.

Psalm 19:1-2 NASB

From Where I Stand

This is the hardest blog post I have made in many years. It comes from a host of conversations – calls and messages – with clergy and laity. Even now, as I prepare to post it, I pray that it does not increase the pain of those who read it. But truth should be spoken. Yes, I know there are many who will see things very differently, but our perception is our reality. From where I now stand, this is what I see. I do not ask anyone to agree – just listen and try to understand.

As I watch the announcements about our 2021 Holston Annual Conference, I recognize the fact that this gathering will be unlike our past gatherings. Significant changes are anticipated, not just in the proposed legislation, but in the nature of the gathering itself. Unlike the open and transparent gatherings of the past, this year only voting members will be present. There is a circulating report that the venue selected will not accommodate all the voting members, should they all choose to attend. That should not be a problem, though, since some voting members will choose not to attend because of the Covid-19 pandemic, while others may face economic constraints as some congregations are facing difficulties meeting their monthly expenses, much less covering travel expenses for their representatives. In our current financial uncertainty, families might not be able to cover their own expenses to spare their home churches the burden.

Business that is ordinarily conducted in the bright light and fresh air of a host of guests and observers will be done among those representatives who are willing and can afford to attend. It is reasonable to assume that the most fragile congregations will be less than fully represented. I do not see this as a coordinated plan to discriminate against struggling congregations. I see no ill will in the mix, just the natural outworking of a gathering during a crisis. While none of this appears intentional, it is likely that this situation will accentuate the already present tilt of power in favor of larger and urban congregations over smaller, rural assemblies. The predictable outflow of that is that the decisions made are likely to be more progressive.

Because I have given my life to the care of small, rural congregations, pastoring as many as five of them at a time, and serving a total of seventeen congregations during my career, I am saddened by the prospect of this growing imbalance. Already many congregations feel somewhat disenfranchised. In our recently exacerbated clash of convictions, I see people losing confidence in their denominational connection. When faithful, supporting members and constituents no longer see their convictions reflected and their values honored, they will cease to support and, eventually, create connections elsewhere. From their perspective, they will have been robbed of the meetinghouses, ministries, and good reputations in which they have sacrificially invested. It is impossible for me to imagine that my progressive friends and compatriots could be at peace with such an outcome. Surely the devastation of their traditional brothers and sisters cannot be seen as any sort of righteous victory.     

Yes, I know that there is a denomination rising from within our shared parent that reflects the hearts and minds of the people I have so happily served, but the aftertaste of conflict and the pain at the site of our fracture steals the joy of that discovery. Many are so paralyzed by the vitriol focused on them that trusting their hearts to new leadership is next to impossible. It is as if these gentle folks have been abandoned by their parents and settled in a foster home to start their spiritual lives over.

I grieve with them. So strong is the pain of abandonment, so keen the sting of loss, that it clouds the joy their faith has always brought them. No, they have not been forsaken by God, but they have been wounded in God’s name for keeping what they understand to be God’s expressed will, and that at the hands of those they have long loved and trusted. This is such a hard place to be.

To those still struggling, I say be strong and take courage. To those whose strength has failed, or is failing, I say we will fall nowhere but into the grace of God. There is peace on the other side of this struggle. Lean into it. Above all, keep a sweet spirit. We have no human enemies. Let nothing keep us from loving others, even those who speak evil of us, because that is our signature calling. Let each of us forgive as God in Christ has forgiven us. Bitterness does not belong in our spirits. Let us leave no room for it. Rather, let us fill every empty space with hope. Christ will not leave us comfortless.

Do not hide Your face from me,
Do not turn Your servant away in anger;
You have been my help;
Do not abandon me nor forsake me,
God of my salvation!
For my father and my mother have forsaken me,
But the Lord will take me up.

Teach me Your way, Lord,
And lead me on a level path
Because of my enemies.

David in Psalm 27:9-11 NASB

Adam’s Choice

I used to laugh every time I heard people bicker about who first brought sin into the world. The guys would blame Eve while the girls quoted Scripture to blame Adam. Both were wrong, you know. It was Satan, using the serpent as a vehicle, who brought the concept of sin – specifically the sin of disobedience to the expressed will of God – into the created realm. It was Eve who took the bait of the enemy of her soul, but it was Adam who made the choice to join Eve in her disobedience that brought the sin principle upon the human race.

What makes me say that? Biology 101. Every human baby has two parents. If Adam had simply refused to join Eve in her disobedience and, instead, walked with God when she was banished, Eve would have died alone in the world and Adam would have remained in a state of innocence. It was Adam’s choice that brought the curse of sin on the human race.

I can see Adam’s side of things, though, and I am sympathetic to his situation. He loved Eve. He had no other human connection, and she was, quite literally, a part of him. How could he abandon her in her moment of failure? From Adam’s perspective, if Eve had any hope of redemption, it was in him. God loved him. He knew that. If he set himself in peril, surely God would find a way to spare him, and Eve with him.

I wonder if Adam regretted his choice. If so, how long did it take for that regret to surface? Was it when he was banned from the lush garden and turned into a violent, thorn infested world? Perhaps he took that in stride but wavered when he had to engage in back-breaking labor to assuage his hunger.

When Eve gave birth to his sons, did it dawn on Adam that his choice also placed these little ones in danger? Was it when he lost his first two sons – one to murder and the other to the life of an outcast – that he wondered about the wisdom of joining Eve in her rebellion? Did Adam ever recognize that his choice placed billions of innocents in jeopardy?

Adam’s choice was an aspect of the image of God in him. He had mercy on Eve. He wanted to spare her, but his impulse was greater than his power. He could not save her. He could only risk damning himself and his children through the generations. Just as I owe my existence to Adam’s choice, I see him as the original source of my brokenness.

But I ask myself if I would have chosen differently.

How often have I grieved over wrong choices made by people I love? Every day I stand in the presence of God and plead for their souls. I have no power to choose their paths for them. My only choice is whether I will walk those paths with them or leave them to their chosen destruction. A divine spark in me binds me to them and calls them toward redemption over and over, even when they laugh at me and ignore my voice. Some part of me is always making Adam’s choice, coming alongside the fallen and offering what pitiful strength I have.

Love stays. Love absorbs injury and insult, long after it is healthy to do so. In the end, love celebrates the victory of redemption through the power of Christ, or weeps over the mortal remains of the unrepentant. That is why we have martyrs, because love stays and holds out a lifeline as long as there is breath in the body.  

Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all mankind, because all sinned—for until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not counted against anyone when there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the violation committed by Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come. But the gracious gift is not like the offense. For if by the offense of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many. The gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned; for on the one hand the judgment arose from one offense, resulting in condemnation, but on the other hand the gracious gift arose from many offenses, resulting in justification. For if by the offense of the one, death reigned through the one, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.

Romans 5:12-17

For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

Romans 8:20-21

Effective Prayer

Early in my pastoral ministry, I printed and distributed a monthly circuit-wide prayer request list. On it I recorded the names of the people who had specifically asked for their friends’ prayers. For ease of use, I alphabetized the list by first names and occasionally nicknames, because folk used each other’s first names more than their last. At the bottom of the page, I added several lines for folks to write in any changes or new names we picked up during the month. I truly hope my congregants used their prayer lists. I know I used mine.

When I pray for folk, it may sound odd to you, but I expect my prayers to make a difference. I do not consider myself God’s advisor, but I do believe that the prayers I pray move us all into a more perfect alignment so that we can receive God’s blessing. There is a mystical connection in the Body of Christ (The Church) and when one of us prays, the whole body is strengthened.

I also believe that if we pray in harmony with the expressed will of God, our prayers are answered. Because of that, I pray for such things as healing, spiritual direction, and provision of our basic needs. I also believe that some prayers are inherently dangerous. It is poor judgment to rail at God, to clamor for others to be punished or killed, or to spout any sort of verbal venom in the name of prayer. If we have the wisdom to frame our words carefully when we speak to the judge in traffic court, will we not use a modicum of discretion when we address the Judge of the Universe?

Prayer is powerful. While I do not believe that prayer is a flip-switch that changes the mind of God, I know for a fact that it changes the hearts of people, making them more amenable to the will of God. I can expect God to move the world on my behalf, not so that I can alter God’s plan for my life, but so that I can flow into that plan with greater enthusiasm and effectiveness.

I recognize that when my heart is set in harmony with the will of God, the things for which I pray will enrich the Church and improve the world. Because of that, I will pray less for vindication and more for true justice. I will pray less for money to spend, and more for the wisdom to be personally spent for the sake of the Kingdom of God. I know that God’s answer to my prayer is less a measure of how God favors me above others and more a glimpse of how God shows favor to others through me.

Prayer calibrates the human heart toward the Holy Spirit of God. When the alignment is made and a link is achieved, great power flows unhindered. I pray that I may be a channel for God’s will on Earth. That is the heart of every effective prayer.

Listen to my words, Lord,
Consider my sighing.
Listen to the sound of my cry for help, my King and my God,
For to You I pray.
In the morning, Lord, You will hear my voice;
In the morning I will present my prayer to You and be on the watch.

David prays for divine protection in Psalm 5:1-3

Called and Appointed

He was a thin man with wire-rimmed glasses and dark blond hair. Our class had met him when he substituted for our teacher in the final weeks of her pregnancy. When he came to be our sixth-grade teacher, most of us welcomed him. It was the first time we had come to class to sit under the instruction of a man.

I liked Mr. Steele. He kept us interested in our work and encouraged original thinking. I especially liked the way he worked science into our everyday experience of the world.

In those days, it was hard for me to think of teachers as friends and neighbors. They were our bosses, and I had not yet made the connection between boss and coworker. So, when Mr. Steele’s car slowed down beside me as I walked home in the rain, I was more than a little flustered. Oh, I was not afraid of him, and I would never have reason to be, but it was as if the order of the world shifted when he offered me a ride home.

In the car, he asked me a question that I did not expect. “So, what do you plan to do with your life?”

Most adults did not care, and, knowing my neighborhood and my gender, I think most folks had already pegged me as a wife and mother with, perhaps, a job at the grocery or drug store. Though, given my classroom performance, he might have thought I had a future as a teacher.  

I wanted to tell him that I was called to preach, that I had known that since my earliest childhood. But there was something there that stopped me. Perhaps it was that I saw him as an authority figure and did not want to risk disapproval. Maybe it was the fact that peers had ridiculed me already. It seemed that my dream was too big – my goal too high – for a girl, especially a girl from that side of town.

I told him I was going to college. I had my sites set on a Christian school in Florida. Maybe I would be a missionary. (That seemed somehow more reasonable.)

And then we were there, at the curb in front of my house. The rain was still pouring, and I thanked him for the ride. He said he was glad to help, and then he was gone, circling back to the highway.

Back at school the next day, I entered the room as Mr. Steele stood by the door, greeting us by name. I walked to my desk and sat down. I put my books away and gathered my homework from the front pocket of my notebook. Like everyone else, I laid the neat stack of paper at the top edge of my desk, knowing it would be collected first thing.

“We’re going to the library this morning.” He was walking through the rows, scooping up our homework. As he picked up mine, he tapped my desk and said, “Check out the writings of Pearl Buck. I think you’ll like them.”

Interesting, isn’t it, the way our calling gets woven into our lives. A rainy day, a wisp of conversation, and a wealth of experience comes surging in. The fact is, we are all called, but we are not all listening to the call and finding where it sits down in our lives. I wish we could pay more attention. There are so many souls hanging in the balance.

Go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to follow all that I commanded you; and behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

Jesus’s Great Commission to the Disciples following His resurrection.
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