Archive for the ‘Evangelism’ Category

Leading and Serving

October 31, 2019

The last six months have been interesting for our Sunday evening open house.  Two of our core  members moved away last April to pursue further studies across country.  Another of our early regulars will be leaving at the end of the year.  We’ve wondered how these departures would impact who showed up.

We’ve noticed a marked uptick in attendance by friends of our children.  We now regularly have a teen-aged Russian guy coming by to game with our kids (and enjoy taunting us with his predilection for eating everything with ranch dressing).  Others have been coming as well, but he’s our regular.  And with him, on an increasingly regular basis, comes his mother, a recently naturalized Russian.  She has become closer friends with my wife over the last year or more.

Two weeks ago we got into a religious discussion.  We invited her to join a new Bible study I am leading at my congregation.  But with her busy schedule between work and school, she hasn’t had time.  But she’s clearly interested.  So we started talking about how to get the ‘big picture’ of Scripture.  Then she asked for help for a scholarship program in her graduate work.  We talked about the difference between how the world (and business schools) talk about leadership and how Jesus and the Bible talk about leadership.  We talked about the difficulty of maintaining humility in a world that essentially values pride as a necessary qualification for leadership.

I shared with her Jesus’ teaching in Mark 10:42-45, and showed her how Jesus made this teaching tangible in John 13:1-17.   And I talked about God as the ultimate example of humility and servant leadership and commitment to others in John 3:16.  We talked about the challenges and limitations of applying these truths in a business setting as a CEO or CFO or COO.  There, service to other is defined in terms of shareholders and perhaps clients/customers.  Commitment and service to others is often seen as a means to another end, like profitability, or employee retention/attraction.  We talked about how hard it is as broken, sinful people, to stay focused on serving others when the point of an MBA program is essentially the promise of skills necessary to make one successful in business leadership, and many people desire those skills and positions not for serving others but for pride, greed, etc.

All of this discussion with someone who is not Christian, but recognizes a universal need to have  some greater, deeper calling outside of yourself.

Christians should have a lot to say on this topic of servanthood and leadership but we all too easily are like James and John, confusing the standards and benefits of the world for the standards of the kingdom of heaven.  We can shake our heads and laugh condescendingly in at these two chuckleheads in Mark 10, but we share their assumptions, even though we have Jesus’ teaching and example in hindsight where they didn’t!

We talk about servant leadership, but we really mean doing things the way we want, presuming others are best served with our ideas until we quit bothering to listen.  We talk about serving but we often times mean ruling, dictating, demanding, forcing if necessary.  In the interest of higher ideals, to be certain, but reliant very heavily on the tools of the worldly leadership trade.  Tools that authorities have always kept on hand to ensure things run the way they want them to.

We don’t talk about servant leadership the way Jesus demonstrated it.  We don’t mean leadership that washes filthy feet.  We don’t talk about leadership that allows itself to be maligned.  We don’t mean leadership that suffers being called a liar and a thief.  We don’t mean leadership that leads by patience, day in and day out, year after year.  We don’t mean leadership willing to die for others rather than seek personal  protection or glory.  We hold these things lightly.  We see them as signs of weakness.

Just like the Jews did.  Just like the Romans did as they mocked Jesus with a fake royal robe and crown before leading him away to die.  What leader would suffer such a fate?  Isn’t it the mark of a true leader to avoid such shame, such failure?.  A leader who does things these ways, the way the kingdom of heaven does them, is no leader in our world today.  We don’t trust it if we see it.  We don’t respect it if we encounter it.

Challenging realities to face for someone who aspires to leadership, whether in the corporate world on in the church, which all too often prefers to borrow corporate principles rather than stick to Biblical ones.  Because it isn’t easy.  It isn’t perfect.  None of us have the perfect wisdom and insight of Jesus, and so have to make do the best we can with what we have.

I look forward to future conversations, and marvel how God the Holy Spirit continues to foster these possibilities.

Religious Trends

October 28, 2019

Here’s another article about the ongoing trend of millenials  (those born between 1981 and 1996) away from religious life and particularly Christian religious life as defined by a corporate/communal worship service.  This isn’t anything new, but it does remind us that things are not changing, and are not going to change anytime soon.

The title of the essay is problematic, as there’s no exploration of why millenials are trending this way at all, other than a passing reference to being in the stage of life where family, finances, and career tend to overwhelm all other priorities.  But this is hardly anything new or unique to millenials.  Every generation has to balance and manage these demands during this time of life, and for far larger percentages of our population, this was done alongside (or perhaps more accurately enabled through) active, sustained, committed participation in a religious faith community.  Primarily Christian.  The Church.  This isn’t so much an issue with religion in general in America, but with Christianity.  According to this data, 70% of Americans consider themselves Christian (not including Mormons).  Non-religious make up almost 20%, which leaves only about 10% of the population that follows other religions.

So blaming the demands of work and finances and family doesn’t cut it as the reason millenials are no longer participating in churches as earlier generations did.  But the article does point out some of the ramifications of this change.

Yes, people are lonelier.  But let’s draw a few more tangible connections, please.  Loneliness is likely a high contributing factor to rising levels  of both depression and suicide.  More pertinent to this is the recognition that Christianity and the Bible offer something in very short supply these days – hope.  A reason to continue on in the face of periods of bleakness or sorrow.

The article also references lower levels of sexual activity among young people as another aspect of the pressures on millenials.  But what about some  deeper analysis, please?  Could reduced levels of sexual activity be linked to less attachment to Christian community and  a much decreased emphasis on the value and beauty of marriage?  Dating apps may be decreasing in popularity, but they are also being singled out as likely culprits for increasing rates of sexually transmitted diseases.  And of course if traditional Judeo-Christian teachings on sexuality are being increasingly ignored, then the overwhelming prevalence of pornographic access at the click of a button with virtually no safeguards or obstacles also is likely to play a big part in changing levels of sexual activity.

Of course the article doesn’t deal with the biggest issue of all – as rates and levels of regular worship continue to drop, there is a very real risk (likelihood?) of people abandoning not just worship but the faith.  Rather than temporal mental health or social health, Christianity posits that what we believe has eternal consequences.  That’s not something most articles like this want to deal with or know how to.  The reality is that increasingly these people may not simply be lost to the Church for the time being, but eternally.  That’s a huge deal.

Millenials  aren’t coming back to church.  How many of them were really there before?  How many of them were raised in worshiping families where weekly worship was a priority, no matter how hard the work week had been?  How many of them were isolated from actual worship in youth ministry bubbles where fun and games eclipsed actual engagement with the Bible and Christian teachings, and where discussion of how faith applies to life were limited to purity rings and other one-off experiences?

We can look at lots of factors contributing to why young people are less and less interested in church, even if they still consider themselves to be Christian in some less-easily defined way.  But I think we need to include the Church itself in those factors.  Somehow, the faith was not transmitted to millenials (and the generations following them, don’t doubt it) in a meaningful and applicable way.  If most  younger Christians are essentially moralistic therapeutic deists, the Church has to wonder if it contributed to this tragic mistake?  If church is about being nice, can’t people get that other places?  School programs, work programs, TED talks, any number of other options.  What makes church unique if not the very message and heart of the Bible and Jesus and faith?

No, the youth aren’t coming back.  Not for a long time.  How is the Church going to adapt to this and plan to deal with it?  Especially given the reality the article notes, that collection baskets have suddenly gotten lighter?  And how does the Church attract a younger demographic that is going to see – and not entirely incorrectly – that a sudden surge in interest in evangelism is driven perhaps less by actual love of neighbor and more as an effort to prop up and sustain a model of doing church that is less and less sustainable as membership levels continue to drop?

Again, it should be noted: these are large scale trends.  There are (thankfully!) always exceptions to the rules, both individual congregations and even larger communities where this is not the case.  But it does mean that sooner or later these larger trends will begin to affect these places that may not really notice the change right now.

 

Jesus the Veggie

September 27, 2019

Our kids grew up with Veggie Tales.  More than anything, they grew up with the music of Veggie Tales.  The Silly Songs with Larry segment of these shows was often the highlight for all of us.  We had CDs of these songs, and on a six-month road trip a decade ago, these were the soundtrack to our drives through the United States.  Even today, now that our kids are teenagers, they will randomly put on some of these silly songs, and we’re all singing along together in no time.

The videos were creative  and good – for what they were.  The first time I heard a criticism of Veggie Tales was in Seminary, where a professor and other students were criticizing them for substituting morality for the Gospel.  Of course, that’s the case.  Children were exhorted to proper behavior (based on Biblical definitions of these things, of course).  Bible stories retold in the world of talking vegetables always had a moral to the story, something that would address in some respect the letter from a child that started the installment off and provided the overarching theme.  No, Veggie Tales was not pushing the Gospel, but I’d argue that pushing a Biblical morality was fine in and of itself.

So long as that’s not the only exposure to the Bible and the Christian faith and church that kids ever received!  It would be silly to criticize an appetizer for not being a full-course dinner.  It isn’t intended to be.

Nearly a decade ago, Veggie Tales‘ creator, Phil Vischer, rocked many people’s world when he criticized his own creation for teaching moralism rather than the Gospel, the center of the Christian faith.  He acknowledged that inadvertently, Veggie Tales taught kids how to behave but without any context in a larger Biblical framework of sin and salvation and most importantly, Jesus, the Incarnate Son of God.  While each episode would end with the familiar line God made you special, and He loves you very much! it wouldn’t provide any further depth in understanding what all of that meant, not just here and now but for eternity.  If Bible stories are nothing but ancient morality plays, you can’t blame kids (or parents) for not seeing a necessity or a connection to repentance and atonement and salvation.  I’m sure many parents were just glad to have their kids occupied with something wholesome for 30 minutes!

The inimitable Gene Veith has blogged on an update to this long saga, as Vischer plans to return to Veggie Tales with a vow to make them more Gospel centered.  That’s fantastic, especially if he can keep the same wit and humor and warmth that made those whacky vegetables lovable.  The full article Veith refers to can be read here.

Towards the end of his post, Veith offers some concerns and caveats about how the new effort might or might not be able to accomplish its goal.  He worries about how the Gospel can be conveyed with vegetables.  I imagine that missionaries could provide some amazing stories of how they have related the Gospel to people using an  astounding variety of metaphors and other tools to bridge from the world of their hearers to the Biblical world.

Vischer and Veith agree that Jesus should not be portrayed as a vegetable in the new series.  I disagree.  Is it weird?  Well, of course!  But is it weird within the context of Veggie Tales?  I don’t think so.  Veggie Tales creates an alternate world where vegetables can talk and hop around.  It’s a world that intersects our own (the old episodes started out on a kitchen counter, which seems a bit macabre if you think about it!), but also reflects our own but with vegetables instead of human beings.  In such an alternate world, to portray Jesus as anything other than a vegetable would be even more weird!  After all, if Jesus came to be one of us, actually incarnate as a human being, then in an alternate vegetable world, Jesus would have to become a vegetable to keep the depth and meaning the same.

And ultimately, I think Veith’s concerns are more valid if the assumption is Veggie Tales will be the only exposure to Jesus and  the Bible a child ever gets.  While this might be the case, that someone just picks up the CDs or streams the shows because they think it’s harmless, I would imagine that an explicitly Gospel-centered reincarnation will appeal mostly to Christian families.  And if so, they ought to know – or be explicitly reminded – that these shows can’t and shouldn’t substitute for weekly worship, or praying as a family, or talking out loud as a family about how faith in Jesus as the resurrected Son of God affects who we are and what we do and the decisions we make in our own world, rather than just a make-believe  vegetable world.  Parents (or grandparents) should never expect Veggie Tales to be a full course meal when it’s really only an appetizer.  A wonderful and delicious and appealing appetizer, to be sure.

Even if it is made out of vegetables.

 

 

 

 

Staying Aware

September 23, 2019

Thanks to Matthew for alerting me to this latest Barna study examining what younger folks (Millenials) want when they come to church.  Matthew noted this article, which gives the link to the more  official summary above, which includes in turn a link to a fuller, free edocument you can download here if you like (I didn’t).

This study is right on track with what most studies have been saying for years now.  Trying to pander to contemporary tastes is not what younger folks want from a church.  They want an authenticity that makes them part of something larger, a tradition of faith and worship deeper than their own lifetime.  It should be noted that the respondents were apparently asked in context of if they went to a church.  It doesn’t indicate if they do currently, or why they  might consider doing so if they aren’t already – key pieces of information!  But it’s good to remember that people who are used to being marketed to incessantly can smell a sales pitch, even if it’s veiled in theological language or contemporary worship packaging.

First and foremost we need to be the body of Christ.  This level of authenticity resonates with people of all ages.  And contrary to current popular wisdom, I disagree with aiming your service at any particular demographic.  Be who you are.  Don’t fake it  hoping others will show up.  Don’t water things down for fear of frightening them off.  This is not who the Church is!  Be welcoming, be authentic, be faithful, be bold.

 

Book Review: Preaching and Culture in Latino Congregations

September 20, 2019

Preaching and Culture in Latino Congregations

Edited by Kenneth G. Davis &  Jorge L. Presmanes

 

I culled this from  the cache of Catholic texts I recently inherited.  I’ve had some experience in cross-cultural preaching, but not much.  During my seminary program seminarians are paired with a local congregation and pastor to gain some regular, practical pastoral experience.  It’s theoretically  a nice off-set to  the very academic nature  of the graduate program, though in reality mileage varies significantly based on the pastor(s) at the congregations.  I was blessed with an eccentric but open pastor at a small and mostly dead congregation.  Founded in the 1920’s, the congregation experienced the White flight out of the inner city in the 60’s as a major freeway was put through town just a mile or so away.  Less than a dozen Anglo members remained in this parish ensconced in an overwhelmingly African American neighborhood.  They were in discussions with a small Vietnamese congregation a couple of miles away about merging.  In addition to some experience working with those Vietnamese congregants, I had the opportunity to preach (with a translator) to the combined congregations.

But I didn’t give a lot of thought to the cultural nuances to be considered  in such a situation.  The Word of God, after all, is the Word of God, regardless of the culture it touches.  And while this is true enough, understanding a different culture a bit better can help the preacher articulate the Word of God in a way more easily received.

That’s the premise of this book.

The collection of essays focuses more on culture than specific preaching recommendations, but is very helpful for thinking through issues and backgrounds in a Latino congregation that would be significantly different from an Anglo or Vietnamese congregation.

The essays here vary in their usefulness (as is typical with these sorts of books), but overall were insightful in revealing or confirming ideas about Latino peoples and therefore congregations.  The first essay was a bit of a shock because it was very steeped in liberation theology, so that often the Gospel seemed more a means to an end than the end in itself!  But the other essays were more helpful and a bit less radical.

While this book comes from and is geared towards Roman Catholic parishes the material would be helpful and adaptable to anyone who finds themselves in a cross-cultural ministry situation.  The book was published in 2000 so some of  the examples are from the 80’s and 90’s, but the core material remains helpful, though I wonder if another 20 years has mitigated some of the identity issues mentioned here, particularly as second and third generation immigrants give way to fourth and fifth generations that likely identify far more as Americans than as Latinos in some sort of self-imposed exile.

 

Dangerous Grace

September 16, 2019

Here’s a good (thought-provoking) article challenging the latent notion in most Christians that the faith is primarily about them doing good things and not doing bad things, rather than about the perfect and final act of Jesus Christ on their behalf.

Honesty

September 6, 2019

I like honesty.

I say that fully admitting that I am incapable of it.  That in the entire history of the human race there have only been three people perfectly capable of it and two of them threw that ability away pretty much right out of the starting gate.  None of the rest of us can be perfectly, absolutely honest all of the time.  But we can try, and trying makes all the difference sometimes.

And for me the hallmark of honesty is the willingness, the humility to admit that you might be wrong.  That you might be deceived yourself or trying to deceive others.  If there is that humility there is room for discussion.  Room to really hear other people and really be heard by others.  If there isn’t that humility, there is no discussion and ultimately there can’t be growth.

I like intellectual honesty, grappling with reality as we know it and experience it and trying to make sense of it.  I’m reading Justin Martyr’s First Apology, and I love his willingness to tackle the prejudices and ideas of his day head on with the assumption that truth can be found and honesty will lead to that truth.  He wasn’t afraid to present a demand for honesty to the Roman Emperor himself and all those who claimed or desired to be purveyors of intellectual honesty.  Justin was convinced that Christianity and the Bible could fare well in that sort of encounter.

But we have to recognize that in these confrontations Christianity is a threat to other people.  It threatens what they know or believe, or what they prefer to know or believe.  It threatens these things by insisting that there is an objective truth and reality that can be known and that knowing is life-changing.  Not simply an intellectual assent to a propositional statement but something that penetrates to the very heart and spirit of us to transform us.  To bring life from death.  So it’s a threat.

This morning I met with a young man in an addiction recovery program.  We’ve been meeting for three weeks  or so now, each week, as part of the program’s option to provide clients with a spiritual mentor.  While I don’t like the title, I’m willing to spend time with guys who want to search out the spiritual aspect of their recovery and lives further.  More honestly.

After several weeks of running around in philosophical circles about what can or can’t be known, as he was preparing to get out of my car today he said I think I want Christianity to be untrue, or I want to convince myself it isn’t a reasonable option because it would challenge my identity, and I don’t know what I’ll have to give up if I accept it as true.

Honesty.

A recognition that  the call to follow Christ is a call to self-denial.  A call to transformation.  A call to allow God to use us as He chooses rather than as we prefer.  A call to fully acknowledge the depth of our depravity and brokenness, that we might better praise and exalt the God who delivers us up and out of these things.

The Gospel reading for Sunday is Luke 14:25-35.

Jesus clearly does not understand our influencer social media culture.  Here he is with thousands of people following him and hanging on his every word.  Imagine how rich he could have become with a few well-placed product placements!  But instead, Jesus’ response is to turn around and challenge those people.  Do you really want to follow me?  Because following me is going to cost you everything.  Are you willing to give it all up?  Are you willing – more accurately – to live as though it isn’t yours in the first place? 

I think many Christians think this sacrifice comes when they enter the faith, which for many means as an infant.  I think many Christians presume there won’t be any further sacrifices demanded of them.  That they are entitled to live the rest of their lives more or less like the larger culture.

But Jesus’ words directly contradict this.  Because if we’re going to be honest about who we are as fallen and sinful creatures, we have to embrace a humility, a recognition that we might be wrong on any given matter and therefore open to being guided.  Open to growth and learning.  Conviction is fine – I’m convinced of the truth of the Bible and the real identity of Jesus of Nazareth as the incarnate Son of God who defeated the powers of sin, death, and Satan on my behalf through his death and resurrection.  Being humble and listening doesn’t mean everything is up for grabs.  But it should mean I’m listening.  That I’m willing to engage in the discussion like Justin Martyr or Josh this morning.  And that I’m understanding that this may lead to changes in me personal.  How I like to think of myself.  The things I enjoy.  Even some of my convictions.

It may, in fact, lead not to the general approval of the people around me but to my death.  Don’t think Jesus’ use of the cross is metaphorical or symbolic.  His hearers knew all too well what the cross meant, as did Jesus.  And we are called to that level of humility, if necessary.  To being branded a criminal when we are not, as Justin Martyr insisted.  On being convicted by an unfair double-standard, as Justin pointed out.  To suffering and dying in acceptance not of the truth as stated by our world, but as defined by God, as Justin ultimately was willing to do.

Sometimes I think Christians are more willing to embrace and affirm the idea of martyrdom rather than be open to the possibility of the Holy Spirit changing their opinions about things here and now, in the safety of their own routines and lives.  Then again, theoretical martyrdom is far more romantic and exotic than the unpleasant business of dealing with other people.

I pray for honesty.  For the blinders to be revealed and removed whenever and wherever necessary from my eyes.  I pray that knowing full well it might be highly uncomfortable.  And so when I pray for that kind of honesty and engagement for and from others, it hopefully isn’t under the assumption that I’ll get what I want that way.  But Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ. (Ephesians 4:15)

Clashing Worlds

August 15, 2019

She is very young.

In the language of today, which must constantly judge and categorize, she would undoubtedly be called privileged.  Sheltered.  But that is to some extent the condition of the young.  And here she is on the other side of the ocean from her home, interning in the court system in our town for a few weeks as part of her course of study in law in her home country.

She arrived home harried, which is not uncommon, but also agitated.  Today I went someplace I never want to go again.  I guessed where she had been before she revealed it – the jail.

Not as an inmate, but as an observer.  Her first time in a jail, and the first time is always overwhelming in one fashion or another.  It was terrible, she said.  It’s easy to know what the law says and know that if I break the law I could go to jail.  But people think they won’t get caught, won’t go to jail, and if they do, it won’t be that bad.  But it’s bad.  It’s terrible.  

I think back over my many years ministering in jails.   Yes, it’s bad.  But what you learn over time is that there are worse places.  That for some, three squares a day and a bed and a shower and a lot of regiment are just what they need.  Far better than the uncertainty of addiction or crime.  But that first time, well, the first time you simply know it’s terrible.

And by extension, you know the people there are terrible.

Why else would they be there, right?  For all the media talk about misjustice and injustice and all manner of very serious and very real issues, the vast majority of the people behind bars are there for very sound, real, good reasons.  Most of them will admit this to a greater or lesser extent.

It’s easy to see only the crime and not the person.  Probably as easy as seeing the person without seeing the crime.  And of course there is a tension between the two, a relationship to be acknowledged, a dance that must be completed and hopefully not repeated.

She gathers her dinner plate.  Mostaccioli and salad and toasted garlic cheese bread.  We’re eating out back on the patio tonight.  It’s cooler than inside and we have three extra guests tonight.  Three women, at least one if not all three who were at some point or other – perhaps very recently – in jail.

Repeatedly.

Addiction does that.

But they are gathered for dinner at our house tonight because for the time being they are working very hard to beat the odds and their addictions in hopes of a life free from jail in the future.  You wouldn’t know it to look at them.  A statuesque blonde.  A young Hispanic woman with beautiful long straight hair, though she looks with admiration at the naturally curly hair of my wife and daughter.  All three of them laughing and carrying on together like girls and women do together, enjoying food and the cool evening air.

I wonder what she would say if she knew.  Knew that but for a glitch of timing she might have met these ladies in jail, in that terrible place with terrible people who have done terrible things to themselves and others.  Her  disgust and disdain are palpable, but she’s happily engaged speaking in another language with one of our resident guests.  She doesn’t know.

I pray that as she enters the field of law she will be able to walk the difficult tightrope of never forgetting the law but also never forgetting the people.  That she will remember that ultimately our hope is not merely punitive but restorative, and that her faith – however perfunctory it may or may not be – will guide her to give  both thanks and praise to the Creator.  The God who created her in her youthful inexperience, as well as the people in the jails and prisons of our world.  People who perhaps need to be there, but hopefully don’t have to be there forever.  I pray that she never loses hope that lessons can be learned, debts to society can be repaid, lives restored, and glory given not to the magistrates or parole boards or wardens but to the God who alone has the power and will to restore life from death, hope from ashes.

And I pray that if she can be sustained on that tightrope, she won’t be adverse to sitting down with people she may have been required to put in jail at one point or another, in anticipation of an eternal feast where our places are guaranteed not by the purity of our lives but by the grace of our Creator through his Incarnate Son, who pays the penalty for our sin that we might be set free.

Acts 16:6-10 and Change

July 23, 2019

By all  accounts it was a successful trip so far.  Wonderful reunions with congregations Paul founded on his first mission trip.  Congregations in Derbe.  Lystra.  Iconium.  Psidian Antioch.  How the Holy Spirit was at work!  How much more might be accomplished!  Plans were made to build on these successes by further mission work in the area to the north.  But such plans came to nothing.

What does it mean to be forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia (v.6) ?  Was it clear to Paul and his associates that this was the case?  Did the Holy Spirit reveal the divine will in this matter?  It would seem not.  They attempted to go to Bithynia and were unable to.  Confusion.  Frustration.  They had the will and the ability, why couldn’t they make good on their plans?  Why did they reach nothing but dead ends despite all the good work accomplished thus far?

More time should probably be given to considering verses six and seven, to the simple statements that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus prevented Paul and his companions from sharing the Gospel in certain areas.  What a strange thought to us today, who are so certain that we control evangelism, we make our plans, we execute them!  Confident that the Holy Spirit desires all to hear and be saved, how can we make sense of the possibility that for the purposes of God, and without conflicting with the reality of a good God who desires that all would be saved, God the Holy Spirit might for his unrevealed reasons frustrate the plans of faithful Christians to share the Gospel with certain others?  I’d argue we can’t, and we don’t even try any more.  But that’s a secondary consideration for me right now.

In the midst of confusion and frustration comes a vision.  More than a dream, perhaps.  Something visible, and something with supernatural overtones.  Paul can see this man.  Perhaps he can hear him as well.  He understands him despite an accent perhaps.  He sees the different clothing.  Somehow Paul understands where this man is from, where this man represents.

Morning comes.  Paul reports his experience to his associates.  Silas.  Timothy.  And based on the sudden change of pronouns in v.10, many presume also Luke himself was there, the author  of the book of Acts.

What to make of it.  The message is clear – an appeal for help in Macedonia.  Moving from the Asian continent to the European continent.  An entirely different arena for sharing the Gospel.  The vision was clear, but what to do about it?

I imagine that the men were hesitant at first.  After all, they’d had such success in the area of what we call Turkey today.  Thriving congregations!  Certainly, they hadn’t been able to travel north as they intended, but surely that would resolve itself in short order and they could continue with their plans.  Surely there were other opportunities closer to hand.  They weren’t doing anything wrong, but what they were doing wasn’t working the way it had previously.  Was it clear to them this vision came from God?  I presume not necessarily, as we’re told in v.10 they concluded it was.  There was some level of analysis, consideration, prayer.  And the result of all those things was a determination that God was behind this and it was time to follow.

Change is hard.  It isn’t what is expected.  It isn’t what is familiar.  Yet small changes can yield incredible results.  A diversion from Asia to Europe – such a small matter in the moment and yet the history of the world is changed no doubt as part of that change.  Would the Holy Spirit still have worked through Paul and his associates if they came to the conclusion that while the vision was interesting, they really were better suited and preferred to stay in Asia?  Of course.  They might have been mistaken, but that certainly wouldn’t have made them bad or evil.  Perhaps the Holy Spirit would have sent a clearer indication of the proper path.  Perhaps He would have worked with them where they were.

It’s good to remember ultimately that the Church claims that God the Holy Spirit is behind everything we do.  That doesn’t mean we aren’t prone to error, it doesn’t mean we don’t interfere.  It doesn’t mean that things are always clear and simple and easy.  But we have to trust the Holy Spirit to work in and through and at times despite us.  And this should foster a level of humility, a willingness to acknowledge our limitations and brokenness and therefore the very real possibility that we might be mistaken.  And it should drive us to hear in others the possible voice of the Holy Spirit, even if we don’t like or agree with what they say.

Change is difficult.  So is staying the course.  Such forks in the road are an opportunity for faith to work itself out in surprising ways.  Not necessarily pleasant ones, but surprising ones, with the trust and confidence that the Holy Spirit is working things out to the glory of God regardless of what is motivating us and our decisions.

Humbling indeed.  But comforting as well.  Sola dei gloria.  Always and in all situations.

 

Don’t Forget the Seed

May 30, 2019

Last night’s Bible study was very instructive.  We were working our way through the parable of the sower in Mark 4.  Before we continued on to Jesus’ explanation, I had the class flesh out what they thought the various aspects of the story represented:  sower, seed, path, rocky soil, weeds, good soil, etc.  Good conversation and some good insightful answers that often paralleled Jesus’ own explanation.

When Jesus’ disciples ask him to explain the parable to them, he defines the seed as the word.  What did the disciples make of this explanation?  If we assume Mark’s gospel is more or less chronological, this comes pretty early in Jesus’ ministry and the disciples would likely presume the word to mean what Jesus was proclaiming himself in his ministry – the kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe in the gospel.

At which point the hearers might have wondered what the gospel, the good news, really was.

I asked the class what they thought Jesus meant by the word in his explanation of the parable in Mark 4.  One said the commandments – this is how you ought to live your life.  Another thought love was the word.  It was clear there was a struggle.

These are answers we like – that the word is basically instructions, insights, secret tips on how to live our best lives now.  Variations on familiar themes.  Encouragements, exhortations, pleadings, even threats – do what you know to be right or else!  Those are things we can deal with.  We can’t fulfill them, of course, but we can allow ourselves to be whipped into a frenzy for short periods of time, believing we can and must and will fulfill them.

But that places the word in ourselves.  We are the answer, the solution, the key to a bountiful harvest in our own life.  We would essentially be Buddhists.  Or Hindus.  Or Muslims.  Or secular humanists.  Or pretty much any other belief system on earth, all of which ultimately place the responsibility for change and accomplishment, for enlightenment or obedience squarely on our shoulders.  Do it.  Discern it.  If you do, you can be proud of your accomplishment (though this is a relative accomplishment, in relation to other people but almost never our own metrics, let alone  God’s!).  If you fail to do it, it’s your own fault and you deserve what you have coming to you.

Only the Bible gives us a word that is outside of ourselves.  Completely, totally, forever outside of ourselves.  And that Word is the Word made flesh, the Son of God, Jesus.

So I wrote out John 3:16 on the board for the class, suggesting that this is a good encapsulation of the good news, the gospel, the word, the seed.  Then, substituting whoever or whosoever with an actual name, I repeated this verse to every single person using their name.  I gave them the seed.

How easy is it to talk about the seed, to reference the word but never define it, never spell it out?  How easy it is to presume that everybody understands what Jesus means by the word, when even his own disciples probably didn’t get it.

This is my job, and I need to remember it and break it down as simply as possible as often as possible.  I’m scattering seed.  It’s not my seed.  It’s not my job to make the seed grow – I can’t do that.  I can simply scatter the seed.  Explicitly.  Spelling it out, as it were, to make sure people actually get the seed.  Are they a well-worn path or rocky soil or full of weeds?  I can’t know that for sure, and I may not be the one to discern that.  But I cast the seed.  If that person is a hardened path with no crack for the seed to fall into, I pray someone else, at another point in time  will cast the same seed again, when perhaps the ground will be more receptive.  That someone else will scatter the word again, when the soil is less rocky, or when more of the weeds have been pulled.

But for the love of God, make sure to preach the Word!  Clearly.  Without assumptions.  Spell it out.  Make it personal and specific.  Make sure you don’t pass over good soil and toss out lint or chaff or anything other than the seed of God, the Word of God!