Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Ministry of the Overwhelmed

Before the church sang Chris Tomlin, before they sang Bill Gaither, before they sang Fanny Crosby, even before they sang Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is our God,” the church would sing the Psalms. We don’t do that very much any more. Outside of the more liturgical traditions of our faith, we barely even read the Psalms in worship with any consistency. That’s to our detriment. While our choruses and hymns have their place, no doubt, they mainly take us to the places we want to go. The Psalms (especially the Psalms of lament and complaint) take us to places we need to go, teaching us not only to sing out of our joy, but also out of our pain. As we well know the world’s got plenty of pain.

“Out of the depths” (Ps 130) the psalmist cries to the Lord, and he is not alone. Again and again in the scriptures we find men and women turning to God when as another Psalmist put it, “the waters have come up to my neck . . . the floods engulf me” (Ps 69). Most of the references to “the depths” in scriptures are pretty ambiguous. We’re rarely told of the specific circumstances that have brought the writer to his knees. But do we really need to know the details? Almost all of us have experienced “the depths” at one time or another. Shorthand for the depths of the grave or the depths of the sea, “the depths” in Hebrew poetry represents any situation in which a person feels overwhelmed by the bottomless troubles of life. Who of us hasn’t been there?

Perhaps the reason we avoid singing from this place of trouble (besides the pain) is that we’ve foolishly convinced ourselves that if we are overwhelmed by the depths of life, God can’t use us. But this is a myth, a myth perpetuated by a church that has failed to learn to sing from the depths. Samueal Logan Brengle was one of the great leaders of the Salvation Army. Throughout is life he ministered to countless men and women who where overwhelmed by life. Perhaps his ministry was so effective because he often found himself in the depths. He once wrote to a friend, “My nerves were ragged, frazzled, exhausted. And such gloom and depression fell upon me as I have never known, although depression is an old acquaintance of mine.” Could someone for whom depression is an “old acquaintance” really be used mightily of God? You bet! In fact, ministering through those in the midst of deep waters seems to be God’s specialty.

Too often, we come to church pretending we have it all together, pretending that we’re not overwhelmed, and we miss out on the ministry of the overwhelmed. That is, we miss out on the place that petitions and cries for deliverance have in the church’s life. The church isn’t a collection of people who’ve arrived, but a people who’ve become purposeful in watching and waiting for the coming of the Lord. A church that never cries out for help, who never sings out, “Hasten, O God, to save me; come quickly, Lord, to help me,” (Ps 70:1) has lost touch both with the brokenness of the world and the mission of the Lord. What the world needs is not a church that denies the presence of suffering in this world, but a church that leads the world in its persistent cries for deliverance and redemption and clings tenaciously to the hope that there is one who hears our cries and is able to deliver us. The world needs a church that has learned to sing from the depths to a God who is able to save.

I am overwhelmed with troubles and my life draws near to death . . . But I cry to you for help, LORD; in the morning my prayer comes before you – Psalm 88:3, 13

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The only vote that matters

I remember a story one of my heroes, the late Frank Pollard, shared with me during my seminary days. He had gone to FBC of Jackson Mississippi as their senior pastor. It was the early 1970’s and forced integration was taking its toll on the community. Racial tensions were at an all time high. Against the wishes of several powerful men in his church, Dr. Pollard asserted that their church would have an open door membership policy. They would not vote on whether or not to admit people to membership in their church, a longstanding tradition in the Baptist church. Originally the practice meant to keep the church made up of true believers, but the practice was often used and abused to exclude people of different races. Dr. Pollard knew that the church at large would not vote African-Americans into membership. In a prophetic act, Dr. Pollard declared that as long as he was the pastor, whoever wanted to join FBC Jackson would be accepted regardless of their background or race.

In the face of death threats and other more subtle forms of hostility, Dr. Pollard met with his deacons and explained, “I was the last of seven children to be born into my dirt-poor west Texas family. Our house only had two rooms. As a baby I made lots of noise and smelled bad. Had there been a vote, my six older brothers probably would have voted me right out of the house. But my family was not a democracy. The only vote that counted was my Father’s. It was his family and he said I stayed. The church is the same. The Father decides who becomes apart of the Family of God.”

What a word of truth! On the one hand, it’s a great word of comfort. No matter where you’ve come from, what you’ve done, or who you are, there is a place for you at the Table of God because God himself has saved you a seat. He has voted you in. On the other hand, it’s a word of great challenge. God hasn’t saved just you a seat, but he’s saved a seat for your neighbor (and your enemy!) as well. He’s voted them in, too! If you want to have a seat at the table, you’ll have to learn how to sit down together.

There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise – Galatians 3:28-29.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

What makes a person a phony?

So, what makes a person a phony? That’s the question I discovered the other day while reading an article on about Master’s champion Phil Mickelson. The author, Joe Posnanski, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, noted that several of his friends considered the three-time champion a fake, by which they meant, Phil does good things in public but just in order to present a good image of himself to the world. Posnanski took quite a bit of umbrage at that charge and made a pretty good case that what matters is not so much our motives but our actions.

"I guess my feeling about what "phony" means is different from some people. I believe in actions. Say there's a guy who, deep down, doesn't care all that much about people and would prefer to, I don't know, watch TV or go to strip clubs or whatever. But he desperately wants to be seen as a good guy, so he gets off the sofa, and he gives a lot of money to a charity and he tirelessly gives of his time, and he's always friendly in public, and he works hard to make other people feel better about themselves and he never stops doing this, all of his life.

"Okay, he is not doing this for the right reasons. He's doing it so people will think he's a good guy. Is he a phony? I guess some would say yes because he doesn't feel it. But I would say absolutely not, because at some point for me his actions outweigh his reasons. I don't expect to understand why he's doing it and I don't care why he's doing it. Heck, I barely know why I do things"
(click here
for the full article).

The article got me thinking, “What matters most in life? My motives or my actions?” Ideally, we’d love both to match up. But what about when they don’t? Which would I rather be 1) a person who doesn’t feel like doing what’s right, but does anyway, or 2) a person who feels like doing right, but doesn’t? When put that way, I think I’d much rather be the person who does what’s right no matter my feelings or motives. I thought of a story Jesus told in Matthew 21:28-32. In the parable, a father has two sons and asks each to come and help him work in the fields. The first son flippantly tells his father off but then later shows up in the field and helps. The second boy, full of politeness and propriety says, “Yes sir, I’ll be right there” but then never shows. Jesus asks simply, “Which of the two did what his father wanted?

Notice Jesus didn’t ask which one was a phony. In a way, they both were. He didn’t even ask what their motives were: guilt? shame? love? laziness? No, he asked, which one did what his father wanted. Obviously, we all want to avoid hypocrisy in our lives. The Bible certainly condemns such play acting. But in the Bible the charge of phoniness is laid most often at those who present themselves as righteous in worship but fail to practice righteousness in their daily lives (for an example see Isaiah 1:10-20). Rarely (if ever?) is someone criticized for showing mercy or doing justice despite the fact that they may have done so with mixed motives. I wonder what God might ask at the end of this day. Will his question be what did I feel or what did I do?

What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God – Micah 6:8.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Opposite of Fasting

N. T. Wright, the bishop of Durhum, notes in his book, Surprised by Hope, that he experiences a let down after Easter. Mostly he says, this let down occurs because after spending forty days observing Lent by fasting, practicing self-denial, and not a little gloom, the single day of celebrating the resurrection seems to be a little anti-climatic. Doesn’t the resurrection deserve more than that? He suggest an eight day celebration in which we all take off work and every day begins with “champagne served after morning prayer or even before, with lots of alleluias and extra hymns and spectacular anthems.”

Sounds great to me, although, I know most of us can’t take off for eight days of celebrating. Wright makes one more suggestion, however, that not only is more doable, I think it’s downright genius. He suggests that we should balance out “giving something up” for Lent with an equal observance of “taking something up” for Easter. That is we ought to follow up Easter Sunday with a forty day period (up to the Day of Ascension) of “taking something up, some new task or venture, something wholesome and fruitful and outgoing and self-giving.” Whereas giving something up for Lent reminds us of the sacrifice of Christ, taking something up for Easter reminds us of the new life we’ve been given through Christ’s resurrection.

You could write a poem a day for the next six weeks or finally go out and buy that guitar and start to practice. You could pull out all your old art supplies and get at it once more. Maybe pick up some foreign language software and start learning another tongue. Grab a friend or a friend’s kid and invite them to help you build that tree-house you’ve always thought of building in that glorious oak out back. Whatever you choose to take up, let it stretch you into new areas of life, community, and possibilities. Let it remind you that the great promise of the resurrection is that in Christ we have indeed been made new!

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come:. The old has gone, the new is here! – 2 Corinthians 5:17

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Lessons from the shed.

If you're my facebook friend, you've probably already heard my story about getting stuck in my own tool shed this past week. For the few who haven’t, the tale is a simple one. I went inside the shed to get a rake and the wind blew the door closed behind me. The moment I heard the door close and the latch fall I knew I was stuck. You see, I built the shed myself so I knew that I hadn’t included a way to open the door from the inside out (it had never crossed my mind until this moment that I would need one!). What made things worse was that I didn’t have my cell phone with me, Alyson was away for the afternoon, and John Curtis was inside the house taking a nap. The door to the house was wide open, but I wasn’t sure he’d make his way out back when he woke up. As a parent, all sorts of nightmare situations started to fill my head, so I knew I needed to get out of the shed as quickly as possible.

Short of just busting the walls down and tearing up my shed, I conceded that I was going to have to yell out for help. I’m telling you, shouting out for help is not an easy thing to do. “Help!” “Somebody help me!” “I’m stuck in my shed!” I yelled, half hoping no one would answer me. It’s embarrassing to get stuck in your shed. It’s even more embarrassing to have someone you don’t know come and get you out. Truth be told, I didn’t yell for very long. My pride got the best of me. And in the end, it cost me a hurt shoulder and the roof of this little building. Yes, I got out – but only after busting the top off. How much easier it might have been if I had yelled longer and louder and someone had just come and let me out.

It’s not an easy thing to ask for help. Not an easy thing to cry out that we’re in need, especially if our need is caused by our own foolishness. And yet the truth is, we all find ourselves in that place from time to time. Even though we’ve been promised that there is one who loves us and cares for us and, unlike my neighbors, is always nearby waiting to step in with forgiveness and restoration, how often do we decide to take another route that only ends up hurting us and those around us? In what places are you in desperate need of rescue today? Cry out to the Lord, he’ll hear you and respond.

But you, O LORD, be not far off;
O my Strength, come quickly to help me. – Psalm 22:19