Hello friends, just a quick check-in today . . . in the last ten days I have seen a theatrical presentation of C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce; traveled to Decatur, GA, where our covenant group memorialized Steve Hayner; underwent medical testing to investigate my vocal trouble; camped near the ocean in glorious weather;  and otherwise got a lot of mental and spiritual space. My head and heart are so full of these events and their lessons, I need an extra day to sort it. I will say this much: God continues to clarify my call and give me a view into my soul. My spirit is finding peace in a new way, with a breakthrough or two specifically setting me free in Christ. Colossians 3 talks about a radical transformation and the choices we are called to make in cooperation with God’s renovation of our hearts. This dynamic between the old self (dead to me) and the new self (alive in Christ) is very real and present. So in the days to come, I’m sure some of this will come out as I continue my comments on Colossians and those admonitions of chapter 3.

Until tomorrow, some questions for your consideration:

1. Reread Colossians 3:1-3.

2. In the last ten days, when have you “set your mind on things above”? What was the result of doing that?

3. In the last ten days, how have you been stuck on “things that are on earth” (some described in Colossians 3:5-9)?

          A prayer of confession might be appropriate here . . .

4. How is it possible to “set your mind on” things above when earthly things require or demand your attention? Is it possible to do both at once?

5. In the struggle to put your attention on things above, how has God helped? What might be an encouragement to you, or to a friend struggling with the same dilemma?

I, Paul, became a servant of this gospel.
24I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake,
and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions
for the sake of his body, that is, the church.
25I became its servant according to God’s commission that was given to me for you,
to make the word of God fully known,
26the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations
but has now been revealed to his saints.
27To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles
are the riches of the glory of this mystery,
which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.
28It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone
and teaching everyone in all wisdom,
so that we may present everyone mature in Christ.
29For this I toil and struggle with all the energy that he powerfully inspires within me.

Chapter 1 of Paul’s letter to the Colossians culminates in a testimony by the author. He offers a glimpse of his motivation for a very difficult ministry, a tenure that has required tenacity, courage, wisdom, and spiritual power to conduct. There are three themes woven together in today’s passage: the gospel as mystery revealed, Paul’s call as servant of this gospel, and how the gospel has been made known.

The Gospel as Mystery Revealed: The word of God—the Word written and the Word Become Flesh in Jesus—is God’s way of making known his eternal purposes. The Jews certainly had a lengthy and complete corpus of Writings (we call the Old Testament) that demonstrated God’s relationship with his creation (and with them) from the very beginning of time. In these writings, the history of Israel was laid out, God’s expectations for a covenant relationship were made clear, the Commandments were issued, and leadership was instructed and appointed for service over at least two thousand years. All of this activity pointed to the anticipation of a Messiah, the Savior, who would save the people from their sins. Jesus is that Savior. He is announced as the Word Become Flesh, in whom the fullness of God resides. In previous verses, Paul has eloquently expressed the majesty and realism of Jesus Christ and the meaning of his life and death. And now, Paul announces that the same Christ—eternal, present at creation, fully God and fully man, preeminent over all creation—is in you.

By virtue of his indwelling, he imparts the hope of glory. We get a taste of what is to come because the One Who Is, God himself known to us as Jesus Christ, is installing eternal life in us. This is the great news in two parts: Christ’s presence within us, and the knowledge that gives us of our own eternal destiny in the light and life of God’s glory.

What was a mystery to those who came before Jesus is now made known. This is knowledge for everybody, not just an elite few as the Gnostics taught.

Paul’s Call as Servant of This Gospel: We gain some insight into Paul’s motivation for proclaiming this message of hope in Jesus Christ. Remember that he is writing toward the end of his life (as far as we can tell) while under house arrest in Rome. He has been through a lot over a period of at least twenty years, traveling around Asia Minor and Greece, primarily, spreading the gospel. He has counted himself a servant to Christ and his message, and suffering has been a major part of his experience as an evangelist. He sees his afflictions over the years as the natural follow-on to Christ’s sacrifice. If Jesus had ventured forth from Israel, he would have encountered the same resistance Paul was experiencing in his name. It’s Paul’s turn and Paul’s time to continue in Christ’s footsteps doing Christ’s work to establish the church, equip its leadership, and secure its future. It is only Jesus Christ that Paul is serving, no other, and Paul is all in and rejoicing in the fruit of his labor.

Paul’s task as servant of the gospel is “to make the word of God fully known.” By this Paul means the Word Become Flesh, Jesus, himself; but Paul also means the content of the gospel as in transmittable information, interpretation of the Scriptures, and doctrine that will carry the church forward. We have ample evidence that Paul’s task includes both the Word Incarnate and the Word Written in his understanding of his commissioned duty. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 15: “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures . . .” and “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, . . .” (1 Corinthians 11:23). And one final example, in 2 Timothy 2: “Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.” Jesus acknowledged his role as conveying the words of truth given to him by the Father to share with his followers (John 17:8-17). Yes, indeed, God has made know the mystery of the gospel, so that it is hidden no longer!

The Characteristics of the Gospel Servant: Often in Paul’s letters, he writes personally about what it has cost him to proclaim the gospel in a hostile environment. The road has not been easy for him. So perseverance is the first quality of an evangelist. Prophetic faithfulness is evident in Paul’s ministry too, as he is willing to tell things as they are and help people see their need for the Savior. He is a patient teacher. The Colossians know that he spent three years in Ephesus, until he was sure that he had accurately and completely conveyed the truth about God, humanity, and Jesus Christ in order to build a church there. Paul focused on God’s goals rather than any professional career path the world would dictate. He was a great example of downward mobility, demonstrated by his imprisonment at the time of this letter. And finally, Paul would be the first to tell you how necessary it was to be empowered by the Holy Spirit. All these characteristics came into play to fulfill Paul’s purpose. He was always pouring knowledge and wisdom and insight into those he hoped some day to present to God mature in Christ.

For those of us who may not have a clear, institutionally blessed, position in the church from which to minister are nevertheless challenged. Paul didn’t have one, either, but he sought to uncover the mysteries of the gospel to people otherwise wrapped in worldly points of view. We certainly can do that as we go about our business each day. We can believe that our presence in our homes and communities makes a difference. We can act as though what we say is as important as how we live the life, and that the two messages must meet. We must also be prepared for the reality that gospel witness can be costly. Paul had the moral support of the people who had previously received his message and embraced Christ. Do you?

My studies of “the missional church” in the last seven years have heightened my awareness of those the church-growth movement used to call the unchurched. Sixty years ago, the people in this category were less likely to have ever gone to church to be exposed to the basic claims of the Christian gospel. They were probably in the minority in post WWII American culture, which in the 1950s was seeing the filling and exponential growth of church congregations nationwide.

Consequently, attention to the unchurched was largely a ministry of evangelism. During this era, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Campus Crusade for Christ (now Cru), Young Life, the Navigators, and other faith-sharing and decision-focused ministries took root and drew an entire generation into the household of faith. Overall, church attendance in America peaked in the late 1960s and evangelicalism was legitimized and anchored in places like Fuller Theological Seminary.

About this time, the Jesus Movement and, for instance, the Catholic Charismatic Movement (through which I discovered Jesus and a New Life) challenged the assumptions of cultural Christianity (Ray Stedman used to call it “churchianity”). Emphasis shifted from evangelism-leading-to-church-membership to evangelism-leading-to-radical-Christian-discipleship. A growing mistrust of authoritative institutions, including government but also the institutional church, grew in this country, and two things happened: non-denominational churches surged, and people started going off the grid church-wise.

Meanwhile, the church growth movement promoted the idea that a growing church is a healthy church, and adopted a set of values that relied on strong leadership, specialized structures, and working the numbers and economy of scale. Success was measured in church attendance, financial giving, new memberships, and baptisms. While the overall number of folks affiliated with a church diminished, the public became aware of the growth of large churches in their towns and cities. Naturally, a charismatic preacher and full-service church program drew people from their shrinking churches to the new successful thing. Small churches continued to struggle as larger churches attracted the dissatisfied, the tired, the new parents, and the Me Generation. “Church growth” was largely the result of member migration, alongside new conversions which continued in lesser numbers.

I myself have participated on church staffs numbering in the dozens, and once in a church that had over 150 on staff. After leaving the rarified air of “the large church” (we now call the mega-church), I discovered that bigger is not necessarily better, that evangelism of attraction tends to foster a consumer mentality, and that the professionalizing and specializing of church ministers often dismisses the priesthood of all believers. Emphasis on the excellent execution of programs, worship services, preaching, and even architecture, has drawn people into the church environment but not necessarily into a transformed life aligned with Christ and his Kingdom.

I have also learned that discipleship begins with first contact between a Christian and a non-believer, and that there are lots of reasons why people have not set foot in a church lately (lack or loss of commitment to Jesus Christ being only one of them).

What I have discovered in the last few years is that among the unchurched now are the de-churched—those who have church attendance in their past, and who retain core Christian beliefs, but who for one of many reasons have stopped meeting regularly for worship with other believers. For them, it is not necessarily evangelism that will bring them back into fellowship; it is healing.

Healing is required when a person has felt betrayed by leaders who abuse, usurp power, or foster a celebrity culture. Healing is required when a person is displaced by the professional minister and cannot use his or her gifts for the building up of the Body, negating the good news of 1 Corinthians 12. Healing is required when a church twists the truth, accommodates the culture, loses the truth-and-grace balance of Jesus Christ, or otherwise diminishes the transformational impact of the gospel.

Healing is best accomplished in community, but when that community has been the site for hurt—deep injury to the spirits of its members—healing and spiritual health must be pursued another way. I feel drawn to offer encouragement for this journey, to do what I do best (teach) among those who cannot gather in a classroom or even a coffee-shop for spiritual conversation just yet, but who are hungry. To those who are hungry, I offer the Word of God, the Bread of Life, a bit of spiritual nourishment . . . all with an eye to finding Christ at the center, the conviction of the Holy Spirit at the heart, and the grace and mercy of the Father to try again to participate in fellowship.

Next time: What will feed us?

Out of the Silence

November 12, 2014

As I indicated in my last post on October 27, the Naegeli family is grieving the sudden untimely death of Matthew, nephew to my husband and me and beloved friend to so many. Some life experiences are simply off-limits to a blogger, particularly when one’s writing might only add to the pain a family suffers. And sometimes, there are no words.

This is my one blog out of this sad journey, about what I experienced and how the Word was brought to life during Matthew’s memorial service in Albuquerque. This was a public event, attended by several hundred mourners who filled the sanctuary of Hope Evangelical Free Church.

It is a glorious, sunny Albuquerque morning. The vistas are breathtaking at this time of year, reminding us as we walk into the church that the world and God’s handiwork is vast and beautiful and much bigger than we are. Arriving an hour early, we enter from the parking lot through the back door of the church, right into the flurry of activity by “the church ladies” preparing lunch for the reception. It has been said that one way to avoid descent into the black pit of mourning is to keep busy. These wonderful, hospitable ladies are putting their loving care into action, to facilitate a most healing fellowship that unfolds in the next few hours.

We family members are ushered into various rooms for various activities: baby care here, singing practice there, main lobby for setting up pictures and guest book . . . and “the cry room” (ordinarily for moms and their babies) where we would all gather just prior to the service. Twenty-five (at least) aunts and uncles, cousins, parents and grandma finally land for a quiet moment of reflection with the pastor.

The pastor, relatively new to Hope, looks like he graduated from college last June. (Why is it that so many pastors look a lot younger than me these days?!) He is gentle in spirit, authentic in manner, and wise in his approach to the family. It turns out he is the anchor for the service and the preacher of the Word. For now, he is the convener of a brief family meeting in which he lays out the flow of the service and prays a heartfelt petition to God that our time together would honor Matthew’s memory and demonstrate God’s goodness even in our grief.

The television screen in the cry room is transmitting a beautiful hymn medley played by a pianist and violinist in the sanctuary. I appreciate the quality of the music, and—knowing how much Matthew invested in the music ministry of this church—realize these musicians’ gifts were cultivated by Matthew’s passion for the arts in worship. With this lovely backdrop, we all stand and get in line to walk into the sanctuary and to our rows reserved in the front.

Some time between our departure from the cry room and our entry into the sanctuary, the music stops. As we enter from the back, the congregation stands in complete silence. No music to cover our steps or our sobs, just the solidarity of a dear community of faith saying with its presence, “There are no words.” I am close to losing my composure, stunned and blessed at the same time by the truth of this moment.

Out of the silence, the pastor gently invites us into the presence of God. We are urged to bring everything we’ve got at the moment—sadness, grief, tears, anxiety, whatever—with us to the place where God cries with us. He introduces briefly the gospel story he will preach later in the service, the account of Jesus traveling to Bethany to comfort Martha and Mary upon the death of their brother Lazarus. As Martha runs out to greet Jesus, the two have a brief conversation about faith and Jesus’ power to do something. But when Jesus approaches Lazarus’ tomb, he stands there and weeps. In the face of death, there are no words.

And yet, out of that silence, Jesus summoned the depth of God’s suffering and the power of God’s redemption to raise Lazarus, unbind him, and let him go (John 11).

The pastor emphasized the presence of the weeping Jesus in our current suffering and the knowledge that some things simply cannot be explained but only experienced in the compassionate presence of our Risen Lord.

As the service progresses, we hear the tributes, the funny stories, the laughter and tears of a life devoted to Jesus, to the arts, and to loving friendship. When his turn comes once again, the pastor preaches the love of God, the sufficiency of his grace, the power of the resurrection, and the genuineness of our hope in Jesus Christ. But this is no triumphalistic denial of death, rather a full-on confrontation with its rudeness and injustice in light of God’s intention for humankind, Life. Embedded here is the proclamation of a hope that some day joy and laughter will be as natural and genuine as sadness is today.

As a pastor myself, having conducted hundreds of memorial services and funerals in the last twenty-seven years of ministry, I am convicted that I have perhaps not made room for tears and true sadness. I think I have talked too much. I never regret lifting up the hope of the resurrection, because this is in fact all we have to hold onto at a time like this. But the hope shines brightly against a dark backdrop we might tend to keep safe and unseen behind a curtain. There is really no need to be secretive or embarrassed about the pain of loss; our faith fully acknowledges its existence and its source. This service taught me that for all its immensity, death is still not big enough to take away the grace and truth of the gospel: “By his stripes we are healed,” (Isaiah 53) and “then there will be no more mourning or tears or pain . . .” (Revelation 21).

[After two days of jury duty, during which I was not selected for a three-week trial, I am finally coming back to the topic of physician-assisted suicide. Thanks for your thoughts and prayers while I was otherwise occupied.]

One of my deepest concerns, from a sociological and ethical point of view, about physician-assisted suicide (PAS) is the “slippery slope” argument. In a BreakPoint broadcast this week, Eric Metaxas addressed the broader issues with historical illustrations. The sociological equivalent of “give them an inch, and they take a mile” is a reality, as evidenced by the gradual acceptance and practice of all sorts of behaviors that in the 19th century would have been deemed unconscionable. These days, when the claim is made that “this [practice] will be regulated and controlled,” as a Calvinist who believes in “total depravity,” I simply cannot buy it. I don’t buy the idea that legalized marijuana (starting out as “medical marijuana”) is harmless, that gambling is a destination recreation rather than an economic cash-cow, or that abortion is rare but necessary. As these doors have opened, so have the floodgates of crime, addiction, and/or exploitation.

But where does the slippery slope take us in the realm of physician-assisted suicide? When a right (promoted for rare, but difficult cases) becomes a social or ethical obligation (i.e. under certain conditions, it becomes mandatory that a person die), a slide downward has begun. Let’s say that the most likely candidate for PAS is terminally ill, undergoing great suffering, and pleads for relief through death. A parishioner once appealed to me, several times, to give her moral permission to end her cancer misery by taking an overdose. We had long talks about it, and she was angry with me for not siding with her wish. She did die a natural death, with her pain and anxiety under control until the end. What if PAS had been a legal option, and her family agreed to let her go that route to end her life on her own terms?

The supposed safeguards to prevent a slippery slope put many conditions on the practice. PAS, where it is legal, requires evidence that the patient is indeed “terminal,” is making a free choice, is not mentally ill, and can in fact administer the means of death without assistance. All control is completely in the hands of the ailing patient.

But wait . . . what if a person has Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) and loses the ability to pull a lever or take a pill independently? Someone is “needed” to do what the patient cannot. Then the situation slips from physician-assisted suicide to mercy killing (euthanasia). The patient is still in control of the decision whether or not to proceed, but cannot implement the decision because the ailment has gone too far.

But wait . . . what if a person is comatose, unresponsive and unable to render an opinion about his or her care. If wise and forward looking, that person had a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care to guide decisions about such things and place them in the hands of a trusted ally. But so far, in California at least, the decision in the hands of a loved one does not include proactive measures to end life but only the withholding of artificial support for biological functioning that cannot be sustained without it. [I know I am oversimplifying this a little bit, but hang with me…]

But wait . . . what if our town has a whole lot of elderly, comatose individuals who have no hope of recovery? Their care is exhausting limited supplies and human resources that could be spent on younger patients with whole lives ahead of them? Isn’t it okay to hasten the process of dying for the older ones, in good stewardship of those resources, and for the good of the town’s future? Aha, now all of a sudden we are in morally reprehensible territory, are we not?

P. D. James, known for her splendid Adam Dalgliesh murder mysteries, wrote a novel of a different sort called The Children of Men. The “what if” she explores in chilling detail is the discovery that all men on the planet had become infertile, and no children had been born anywhere in the world for over twenty years. As governments, schools, health care systems, and even businesses realize the reality unfolding, a deep-seated depression sets a fatal logic in motion. The elderly and infirm, the weak of society are deemed an undue burden upon the healthy who want to enjoy what little “life” is left to them. The picture of mass suicides, masked in a shroud of dignified ceremony, is haunting.

The worry is the misplacement of power to the young and healthy and the demands of a society short on resources. If ever we come to the point where it is deemed a shame to care for folks who are “going to die anyway,” we have crashed to the bottom of the slippery slope. This is why, for instance, the ministry of Mother Teresa was so very important. I think many criticized her for not setting up hospitals and actually treating the diseases of the destitute in Calcutta; but her specific calling was to spend time and effort ministering to the basic human needs of individuals who, yes, were “dying anyway,” so that they would know the love of God and the dignity of being cared for as a human being.

I know you are thinking that P. D. James’ dystopian view cannot possibly take hold, and I pray that you are right. But the trend is for a right, such as euthanasia in the Netherlands, to get out of control and reduce human beings to the active culling of the weak from the human herd. And then we all lose, because the goal then is not “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for all people, but death to the weak so the strong may have power.

 

My next post will process state-sanctioned physician-assisted suicide from a theological/biblical perspective.

Ministry without Power

June 6, 2014

As the church family awaits the celebration of Pentecost on Sunday, I have been reflecting on what it would have been like if the Spirit had not come as promised. From the testimony of the gospels and the book of Acts, we know that the disciples—waiting as instructed for “power from on high”—basically did nothing risky or bold in the interim. Unless you consider the nomination and election of a new elder to fall into that category . . . (see Acts 1:12:26).

I have two personal experiences to share that gave me an inkling of what it is like to minister without power. The first took place in Harare, Zimbabwe, on Pentecost Sunday, 1994. The pastor of the largest Presbyterian Church in Zimbabwe was called away on a family emergency the week before this holy day, and asked me to preach in his stead. I chose as my topic “The Power of Pentecost.” I climbed the staircase to the “birdcage pulpit,” and preached what was a good, solid piece of work on the Holy Spirit. But there was something wrong with the sermon; I did not feel the power of the Lord behind it. I told the pastor when he got home, and he solicited a few comments from parishioners. Their feedback affirmed my orthodox theology but acknowledged that the sermon was more treatise than testimony. Yes indeed, it is possible to preach “The Power of Pentecost” without power! I learned a big lesson that week: I need to take as much time preparing the preacher as I do the sermon.

The second story comes from the fall of 2006. It was late September and I was launching into the new “program year” at church, feeling by that time that my work there was drawing to a close. I had been applying for new pastoral positions for a few months, but nothing was materializing. It was a Saturday, and I was reading a New York Times article about women in the pastorate when God broke into my thoughts and out of the blue said, “Mary, your time at First Church is completed and I want you to move on. I am asking you to go before you have a new call in place. Trust me. And just to make sure that you do what I am requesting of you, I am withdrawing my power from your ministry.” It was so definitive and accompanied by the surety of God’s peace; I just knew I had to begin to take the steps to exit. And yes, God did withdraw his power from my work. I’m not sure the people knew this was happening, but I definitely felt it. God was calling out of me an obedience in one direction (exit) and making it clear that this was my only option. [For those with active imaginations, no, I was not being “chased out” by hostile elders; quite the contrary, things were sweet at the time.]

So what does that feel like, to be doing the Lord’s work without power? There is a sense of waiting, because one’s spirit knows that help is needed in order to have spiritual impact. There is a retreat into listening mode to hear how the Lord is redirecting one’s efforts. There is a summoning of a sense of duty to do the work faithfully without the consolations often present when power is flowing. There is a sense that one’s faith is being tested and that one’s motives are being examined (by God). And it becomes far easier to say “no” to the things that are counterproductive to God’s new plan emerging. But because ministry without power is not sustainable, a certain kind of misery also sets in, causing me for one to do a thorough “examination of conscience,” confession, and repentance. I think this is what Ignatius of Loyola had in mind for his spiritual exercises, which originally were designed to help disciples discern their vocational call.

I am happy to say that the mourning lasted only a little while, and in time the Lord rejuvenated me with his power and direction for the new life I have been leading since leaving that parish at the end of 2006.

Desiring the Lord’s power is not being selfish, it is an absolute necessity to rely on divine help to accomplish anything of lasting, eternal value. And so, in a very real sense, these days before Pentecost offer the simple reminder that we are to wait for the Lord’s power, stay in fellowship in the meantime, and with the help of fellow disciples to fully embrace the Lord’s energizing direction when it finally does come. It is not the time to barge ahead with our great ideas, our agendas, or our plans, without first asking God to confirm them by pouring out his Spirit and showing favor for those ideas, agendas, and plans that are actually his. [I am not saying that an idea that is popular is necessarily God’s will; I am saying that somehow we must sense God’s favor with an idea. I suppose this is a subject—that is, how do we detect God’s favor?—for another blog!]

We know what it feels like to force a size 10 foot into a size 7 shoe. If that is what you are feeling in the pursuit of some particular plan, may I suggest it might be time to check in with God about your reading of his will, and ask for wisdom and power to proceed in the right direction for the sake of his Kingdom.

We left off yesterday in the story of Jesus’ post-resurrection, pre-ascension period with just a glimpse of the magnitude of the commission he was imparting to his disciples. The Savior, loved and followed, was patiently instructing them on the basics of his identity, his purpose in coming, the relational implications of his crucifixion (redemption and forgiveness), and the importance of making him known throughout the world. Peter in particular was singled out to “feed my sheep,” (John 21:15-19), but all were sent to become “fishers of [people]” (Matthew 4:19). Regardless of the particulars, the disciples heard their commission as a beyond-the-imagination undertaking, so it was a good thing that Jesus promised power to get it done.

And then he left.

“He was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God” (Mark 16:19). “While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven” (Luke 24:51). “After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight” (Acts 1:9).

Now wait. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to be, in their previous way of thinking. The clouds were to open and the Son of Man was to descend from the heavens to reign over all (Daniel 7:13-14). One can imagine them just looking at each other and rehearsing in their minds, “What did he say again?” They had another ten days to think about it, waiting in the Upper Room to which they soon retired (Acts 1:12f). “He wants us to do what?”

It reminds me of the heart-rending scene in Gravity [spoiler alert]. Mission commander Matt Kowalski (played by George Clooney) points to a distant space station and directs mission specialist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) to navigate there, enter the station, and get herself home. And then Kowalski floats away to be of no help at all (or so we think). Stone’s panic, grief, and frustration are palpable. But clearly, she was commissioned to persevere and to do what was necessary to give witness to what had transpired. She had to summon every piece of training, every instruction so far given, and be fully present in the moment in order to survive.

Sounds a lot like some ministry days I have known: completely in over my head.

One time I pulled a fast one on my staff, coming down with a serious bout of food poisoning (campylobacter) just 36 hours before we were all to depart for a weekend session-staff retreat. It became clear I had a significant infection (I would be sick for almost a week) and I was not going to be able to go with the team or speak at the retreat. So I called them to a meeting by speaker phone and let them know: “I’m not going to be with you for this….you’re going to have to lead it yourselves….there’s no backup . . . here’s what you need to tell them . . . remember everything I’ve been telling you the last few weeks . . . etc. etc.” They told me later they were looking at each other wide-eyed, like deer in the headlights.

But what do you do under such circumstances? You begin to follow very carefully the instructions you’ve been given. The disciples returned to Jerusalem and met in the Upper Room. They were joined, by the way, by dozens more close friends and followers of Jesus. They waited, as instructed; they took care of administrative business in the meantime (Presbyterians are good at this). But they knew, at some point, they were going to be off on some kind of adventure that would be laid out for them soon enough.

If Jesus had not disappeared from their sight, the disciples no doubt would have hung on his every word, stayed right by his side both to protect and be protected, and otherwise keep his fellowship to themselves. They probably would not have gained too much more ground in the ministry-skills department either. I mean, when you have Jesus right there to pray over bread and fish, why do you have to go to Costco to buy provisions (or actually learn how to cook!) for a crowd on Homeless Ministry night?

You get the idea. Jesus’ goal for his followers was nothing less than to become his agents, fully empowered and equipped to make the Kingdom of God known, visible, and effective. He had taught them enough. He had demonstrated skills enough. He had given them enough practice sessions. He had given them feedback enough. Now it was time for them to stand on their own two feet (upon the wings of the Spirit, I have to add) and fully cooperate with the “program” Jesus had laid out.

Did they feel ready? Probably not. Was there anything they lacked to do the work? Only the Spirit, who was coming soon. As the Apostle Peter wrote later in his second letter:

3His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. 4Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature. 5For this very reason, you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, 6and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, 7and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. 8For if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:3-8).

Next post: What other implications does the Ascension of Jesus hold for his disciples?

I am feeling particularly grateful for the discipline of writing this blog, mostly because I have failed to produce anything in the last week and am reminded of how it keeps me centered if I do. The good news is that my energy level is near normal and I have been busy re-entering my world, including going back to active duty (part time) at the church I have served. No excuses here, just an observation that the writer’s life is a lot harder to structure than you might think! Life happens, people call, requests come in, and whoosh! There goes a day (or two, or three).

The other factor challenging me anew is that there are just too many daily jobs that are best done “first thing in the morning.” Exercise and blogging are constantly slugging it out for priority, so that situation needs sorting, especially now that the weather is heating up. I reveal all this in extremely good humor, grateful to God for meaningful work, good health, and the joy of being his disciple.

So in all the hub-bub, I missed a timely comment on Ascension Thursday, which was last week. Because the message of that day (the Word) is so germane to Life as We Know It, I will settle on “better late than never.” Here goes:

The disciples, blown away by the news and unfolding significance of Christ’s resurrection, have forty days with him. His appearances are widespread (up to 500 people at one time, Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15:6) and, as noted in my previous post, there are times when he surprises them by cooking breakfast on the Galilean beach or otherwise popping in. During this five-week period, Jesus’ messages are somewhat sparse and it doesn’t appear that the disciples comprehend much of the future. So some time between Day 1 and Day 40, a Thursday as we celebrate it on the church calendar, Jesus meets up with the Eleven for a farewell speech and a charge (Matthew 28):

16Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and [lit. Therefore, as you go…] make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Luke tells it this way:

44Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things. 49And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

Luke recaps the story at the beginning of the Book of Acts:

3After his suffering [Jesus] presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; 5for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

6So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.

Clearly, Jesus is preparing his followers for something big, but not what they might imagine. The question about restoring the kingdom to Israel reveals their Messianic script. Now believing that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, they expect he is going to take over the universe and restore sovereignty to Israel, right? Jesus deftly hands that question off to the Father, and instead gives them a set of instructions for right here, right now:

1. You have a special calling because you have personally witnessed my life, death, and resurrection. You will be my witnesses.

2. You’re fanning out from this place with a job to do.

3. That job is making disciples by two means, incorporating them into the Fellowship through baptism and teaching them everything I have told you.

4. You can’t do this job without some special help, so . . . wait for it! But then . . .

5. Once officially empowered, you will turn the world upside down.

With their prior hopes of a Messianic take-over, I suspect that the disciples figured Jesus would do all the work of ushering in the Kingdom. They could go back to their fishing or other livelihoods and bask in the glory soon to overtake them. But no; Jesus commissions them for service that would be the primary focus of their lives, whether they preached or created Christian communities or served in some other capacity along the Way. That alone is a rather staggering thought, because we of course stand—in our generation—as recipients of the Great Commission also.

As I re-enter my life, transformed though I be, I am challenged to accept the requirement of effort as part of my job in Christ’s Kingdom. No, no, my friends, not “works” earning salvation, but the role God has given me (and you!) to demonstrate and make visible the reality of Christ’s reign on earth. So no matter how busy we get with what we think is “real life,” our real calling is to live into the Great Commission and do the work that is not finished yet. That work is difficult, sometimes without visible fruit, requiring ingenuity and passion, sacrifice and service. And there is nobody else to do it besides us!

In my next post, I will explore the significance of Christ’s Ascension.

Casting a Wider Net

May 28, 2014

Ministry transitions are sometimes difficult to navigate. There is always the pesky need to “make a living” while following Jesus into the unknown. In the hour-long Q & A with almost 200 Ugandan pastors last August, one of the dominant themes was financial support for the pastors who desired to work in the ministry full-time. They were frustrated because the overwhelming demands of pastoral care and the need to work a job that would pay their living expenses clashed. The deep poverty of their parishioners—a pastoral care issue in its own right—meant that the community did not have the funds to support a full-time minister and cover a church budget. Mind you, their congregations’ expenses were minimal because they did not have a lot of assets to maintain; but still, their pastors needed to eat and provide for their own families. The advice to them was, “Get a job where you can find one, and work like your parishioners do to make a living. The ministry will by necessity flow around your labor.”

In this period of the church year, between Easter and Pentecost, I am pondering how Jesus’ eleven remaining disciples managed what appeared to be a major ministry transition. We have precious little biblical data about the activities of the disciples after their world turned upside down on Good Friday and then Easter. Matthew mentions only that the disciples followed Jesus’ post-resurrection instruction to meet him at “the mountain” in Galilee, where they saw him, worshipped him, and received the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20). Mark, in an epilogue the earliest manuscripts do not include, focuses on the “lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe” the testimony of those who had seen the resurrected Christ (Mark 16:9-14). So clearly, there were some disciples who were sitting on their duffs or otherwise occupied, paralyzed in the face of the gospel’s implications. Luke records more close encounters with the disciples, including the two on their walk to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) and the Eleven, assembled in Jerusalem, with whom Jesus ate (24:36-43).

It is John who gives us a tantalizing clue as to the ongoing activity of his followers: Jesus appears to the gathered disciples locked behind closed doors (John 20:19-23), then to Thomas the Twin who missed that appearance and doubted that the Lord was risen (20:24-29). “Afterward,” that is, some time later but within the 40-day period between his resurrection and ascension, Jesus appeared again to his disciples who were fishing in the Sea of Galilee. It might have been a foray out on the lake for old time’s sake, or it might have been a routine income-producing necessity. In either case, the night of trolling was futile; they caught nothing. Early the next morning, Jesus in his new post-resurrection body, called out to them from the shore and told them to try casting their nets on the other side of the boat. When they did so, the nets filled beyond capacity and they couldn’t even haul the catch in. At this point, they recognized Jesus and swam the hundred yards to shore for a joyful reunion (21:1-14).

Following a freshly cooked breakfast on the beach, Jesus took Peter aside to ask, “Do you love me?” When Peter answered (three times), “Yes,” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep” and began to tell him what was to come (21:15-19). Peter went on to lead the new Jesus-following movement, along with James and John, with Jerusalem (not Galilee) as their base of operations. We hear nothing more about the other eight disciples (except for the Pentecost event in Luke 2). What is the possibility that among the original eleven, the only “full-time Christian workers” were Peter, James, and John, and the other eight (plus Matthias, who was elected to replace Judas) were self-supporting laymen who lived out their faith and the Great Commission in the marketplace? [More on that topic in a later post.]

I ask the question because one of the ministry transitions I am seeing more of these days is the move from full-time pastoring to some other line of work. In the PC(USA) tribe, there are more trained and ordained “teaching elders” (i.e. ministers) than there are positions as church pastors. I am among those who, sometime between 2006 and 2011, abandoned what was a futile search for a full-time pastorate and found other things to do in the Lord’s name. This included teaching for Fuller Seminary, a wonderful well of challenge that has since dried up.

It seems as though the Lord, through these circumstances, has suggested casting my nets on the other side of the boat. I have a deep assurance that fruitful ministry will be found in another kind of “fishing.” Hence my reassignment to the ministry of writing while maintaining ties in a local congregation where I (will, as of June 1) have part-time pastoral responsibilities.

The missional good news in all of this is that Jesus’ followers are dispersing into the world. They carry with them the gospel of hope and salvation and plant seeds through their teaching-by-example. Yes, they must “make a living” somehow, and I will be the first to say that finding that occupation can be frustrating and diverting. But if we receive the challenge as a reassignment from the Lord, there is great potential for filling the nets! So my prayer for you, even as it continues for myself, is that we find great joy in serving Christ through our work, whatever that turns out to be. I pray that we would be fruitful witnesses of the resurrection as we live in its power, and that we would be surprised and humbled by the power of God at work within and through us.

As [Jesus] walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. (Matthew 4:18-22)

When Jesus bid his soon-to-be disciples, “Follow Me,” they dropped their nets and came alongside the itinerant preacher from Galilee. That was some invitation! Suddenly, nothing was more important to these fishermen than staying in close proximity to Jesus of Nazareth. They had demonstrated skills at fishing, though this would be sorely tested and Jesus would be proven superior at the sport (Luke 5:4-11). Nevertheless, when Jesus beckoned, their fishing ability became an item on their resumés, and a new work path unfolded before them. They would be called upon to transfer their fishing prowess to “fishing for people.”

I feel like that is happening to me. My experiences as musician, full-time pastor, Presbyterian activist, and academician have shaped me, but in order to follow Jesus I must put down those nets and “fish for people” another way. Redirecting the gifts and skills God has given, I believe that it is time for me to embrace the discipline and ministry of writing as my primary focus. Perhaps I have mentioned before that I have maybe four books in my brain waiting to come out, and at this stage in life it seems right to make that endeavor a priority.

Writing requires quiet time alone, and I have proven in the last few years that I can function productively while working by myself (and know how to get people-contact when I need it). From a personality standpoint, as well as the cancer experience this year that radically quieted my life, thoughtful reflection has become a necessary part of my routine. The affirmation of friends and responses to my blogs have suggested that a potential readership exists beyond my classroom or pulpit reach; in other words, writing books can expand my ministry of teaching to a wider audience. Such a lifestyle switch is also an acknowledgment that any sort of administration-laden “church job” would feel confining and diverting from my call.

Having made the case for writing, I also realize how important it is for me to interact with people at a deep level. The daily visits of friends, my “helping hands” during my cancer treatment, not only met this need but also became the context for examining ideas, making disciples, and “exegeting people” with whom I wish to communicate. Not only does this regular fellowship test my thoughts, but it also exercises me spiritually. For this reason, I want to maintain some kind of pastoral practice in the faith community. A part-time contract at a local church is in the works, as I feel ready to emerge from my medical leave and resume my public service.

Saying “yes” to these two core activities—writing and part-time pastoral service—means saying “no” to other activities. After cheering on the Presbyterian Renewal Network’s advisory team going to Detroit for the PC(USA) General Assembly in June, I will retire from denominational activism. Ramping into that decision, I will not be going to Detroit personally, in order to maintain my pulmonary rehab and to avoid absorbing the spiritual toxicity so prevalent in these meetings. [Hasn’t my body taken in enough toxicity—chemo and radiation—this year?]

The life change I undergo does not in any way render my past experiences or my present skills as irrelevant, wasted, or misguided. In fact, I truly believe that nothing is wasted in God’s economy! It will be interesting to see how my history feeds my present calling and ministry effectiveness. However it all comes out, my desire is that you would be edified and my Lord would be glorified. Hold me to that, will you, dear reader?