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Thursday, October 29, 2015

Our Compulsion to Complain

The whole Israelite community complained against Moses and Aaron in the desert. ‘Who are we? Your complaints aren’t against us but against the Lord.’”
Exodus 16:2, 8b (Common English Bible)

“Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.’”
Ephesians 2:10 (Common English Bible)

     Among my natural gifts is the compulsion to complain. I am not alone. Each church I have served has included similarly endowed people. The compulsion to complain is a very familiar tendency that appears on the stage of life. It may seem to have a relatively small role in the unfolding drama of our life but it has the capacity to derail the whole play. Complaining can empty our reserves of energy and diminish the ability to see how God may be moving and directing our lives.

     Moses had something to say about complaining. Through Moses’ obedience to God, he led the people of Israel from the bondage of slavery in Egypt into the wilderness – a journey that would culminate in receiving God’s “promised land” that they would call home. But the time in the wilderness would be difficult. Difficulty resulted in complaint. They grumbled that there wasn’t enough food. They complained that there wasn’t enough water. The days were hot and the nights too cold. After Moses had heard enough he declared, “Your complaints aren’t against us but against the Lord.” That is because it is God that is calling the people forward into a different future. And sometimes our future requires the preparation of a wilderness.

      Because of their complaining their promised future was at risk. Their great vision of freedom and joy was slipping away. More, their memory of slavery was not correctly remembered. They would mumble among themselves how much better it was in Egypt. Nothing was in focus – their future or their past. Now that is insight for a complainer to consider! Complain about the weather if you must. Whine about the rising cost of medical care if you need to vent. But complain about obstacles before you, difficulties and challenges that confront you and problems and sorrows that trouble your heart and Moses tells us that your complaint is against the Lord.

      How does one change? Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is helpful: change your focus! Rather than dwelling on what is wrong in our world consider how God might use you to better it. We were “created in Christ Jesus to do good things.” We were created not to belittle the world with all its difficulties, we were created to better it. Take Paul’s word and make it a great experiment for your life. Each morning pledge that you will not complain. Rather, ask how I might make this a better world for others. When you are confronted with personal hurts and difficulties ask, how might I learn and grow from this; how might God be using this to prepare me for a future I cannot now see? Then review yourself at the day’s close. How did you do? Obedience to Paul’s words here in Ephesians, consistently applied each day, will have the effect of diminishing the compulsion to complain.


Thursday, October 22, 2015

Motivated By a Vision

“One poor widow came forward and put in two small copper coins worth a penny.”
Mark 12:42 (Common English Bible)

     Catherine was a woman whose faith moved mountains. A member of a small church I served many years ago, Catherine lived modestly on a meager social security check. The only other financial stream she had came from housesitting people’s pets while they traveled. She had little, and nothing about how she dressed and lived suggested otherwise. Yet, to know Catherine was to experience a living parable of God’s grace and generosity. Her life was motivated by a vision that neither poverty nor inadequacy could quench. It was a vision that she could be used to change lives.

     Each year, that congregation collected food and prepared large gift baskets for under-resourced families in the community. Each basket would have a medium-sized turkey, fresh vegetables, assorted canned foods, and breads and a dessert. Each year, Catherine participated by baking a loaf of bread to be included in one of the baskets. It was all she could afford. It was enough. During my six years of ministry in that church, nearly 100 people told me that Catherine’s witness of generosity resulted in their own.  My best estimate is that the additional generosity approached $5,000, making those six loaves of bread become nearly $5,000 to feed empty stomachs. In my way of seeing the world that is a huge mountain Catherine moved.

     Examine this faith. Can yours compare to Catherine’s, a faith that drives you to be generous, particularly when you may have little to offer? What sort of faith is this that would make Catherine bake a loaf of bread to feed another family on Thanksgiving? I asked her and her answer was the best sermon I have ever heard on God’s grace. She giggled and said that so many people have a fear of running out. But God’s mercies are new every day and so is God’s capacity to meet our daily needs. Catherine’s loaf of bread was an expression of gratitude. More, she answered, she is part of God’s work force helping God keep God’s promise to provide for someone else.

     This one sentence from Mark’s Gospel could be about Catherine. This poor widow trusted in God. The result was a determination - in the face of all evidence to the contrary - to contribute something of significance to advance God’s work. Despite the poverty of the offering, she was motivated by a vision. It was a vision that she could be used to make a difference in the life of another. And Jesus noticed.


Thursday, October 15, 2015

Overcommitted Lives

“Your servant got busy doing this and that, and the prisoner disappeared.”
1 Kings 20:40 (Common English Bible)

     Early in my ministry, I served a congregation that had enormous challenges. The former pastor had been removed from ministry, the congregation had suffered a plateau in membership, and the financial health was strained. Much was required to return the ministry of that church back to good health. I poured myself into the mission and ministry of that congregation as the new pastor. I attended every committee meeting, taught a Sunday School class as well as provided most of the preaching and sought to meet all the pastoral care needs of the church. My heart was in the right place; my practice of ministry was seriously flawed. I exhausted myself. The result would be that the quality of my preaching, administrative leadership and pastoral care was diminished. I failed the church from over commitment.

     Here is a story in the Old Testament of someone who was asked to do one job well – guarding a prisoner. For a while the man did just that, he stood watch over the prisoner in his charge. He did nothing else. And the prisoner remained a prisoner. Yet, he thought he could do more, that he could “do this and that” to help Israel be victorious in battle. The unfortunate result is that the one thing Israel required of him wasn’t done. He permitted himself to be overcommitted and failed.

     The character and tempo of modern-day living is captured in my story and the biblical story. We seem always on the move, operating on a tight schedule, all the while an anxious eye on the clock. Rarely are such people trying to demonstrate their worth to others. More often they are simply committed to the mission of their organization and seek to advance it forward. The pace of life grows swifter, the pressure becomes greater and eventually, we discover why God rested on the seventh day after creation. A balance of work and rest sustains us. And any organization is advanced by each of us doing a few things well and equipping others to share in the work.

     There are people who are not turning out their best work because they are so “busy doing this and that.” A popular expression that is in use today is that they have “too much on their plate.” Such people fail to practice discrimination of the important verses the secondary with the ill-fated consequence of doing little well. Perspective is lost and the prisoner – any force that is determined to diminish our work – escapes.


Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Secret of Spiritual Power

“But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength; they will fly up on wings like eagles; they will run and not be tired; they will walk and not be weary.”
Isaiah 40:31 (Common English Bible)

     A woman stepped into my office today. With tears and considerable emotion, she asked that I pray for the world. She mentioned nothing specific. She didn’t need to. Another shooting this week on a college campus that left ten people dead. An accidental bombing of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan killed twenty-two people. Hundreds of thousands of people fleeing terrorism, seeking news homes throughout Europe and the United States. These stories drain our strength and cause us to need renewed power.

     In the time that Isaiah wrote these words, his people also faced despair. Threatened by domination by a mighty foreign power, Isaiah’s people needed all the encouragement and strength that a genuine faith in God could bring. So do we. Just as the natural rhythm of life demands nourishing food, exercise and rest for the body, the same condition applies to our souls. Spiritual energies are rapidly depleted by the crises, suffering and fear that consumes our attention. Replenishing that spiritual energy is urgently needed. So Isaiah reminds his people – and us – that our sufficiency is of God. We remain weak unless we derive strength from God.

     How do God’s people claim this strength? “Hope in the Lord,” writes Isaiah. The “hope” Isaiah speaks of is not wishful thinking or “hoping for the best.” Here is Isaiah’s call to “trust unfailingly in God.” It is a call to “hold onto God” with expectant dependence. A constant reliance on God, meditating on God’s words and promises in the Bible, generates spiritual power and makes each of us alert for God’s intention to use us mightily for God’s redemptive purposes in the world. Isaiah asks that we attach ourselves to God as a child clings to a parent.

     As in the day of Isaiah, it still takes time to be holy; to be a people set apart for God’s purposes in a world shaken by fear. Schedule time each day for reading the Bible and prayer, for reading devotional literature that awakens the senses to new understandings, and do not neglect moments to simply be still and contemplate God’s love. These things, along with weekly worship in a community of faith, gives release to the inflow of God’s power that renews strength, restores hope, and lifts hearts as on the wings of eagles.


Thursday, October 1, 2015

Complete in Christ

“All the fullness of deity lives in Christ’s body.
And you have been filled by him, who is the head of every ruler and authority.”
Colossians 2:9, 10 (Common English Bible)

     John Leith, author and teacher of Reformed Theology, once commented to me that the single greatest threat to the church is amnesia – the church forgetting that she is complete in Christ. That comment was made to me nearly thirty years ago! With clarity and uncommon wisdom, Leith removed the clutter of the thousand reasons given for the decline of the church in the United States. Since his death, the church has continued on its downward trajectory, both in membership and worship attendance. If we are concerned about this current state of the church, as we ought to be, what should we be doing about it?

     The apostle Paul offers insight in these few sentences: “And you have been filled by him.” Any vessel, any person, any heart that “is full” lacks for nothing; it is full. Paul teaches here that we have been filled with Christ – that Christ alone is sufficient for all our needs. Nothing more needs to be added. Every book in the New Testament announces this truth yet the church today often fails to offer it with authority and in a compelling manner. When people, whose emotional resources have been depleted, approach the church, it seems rare that the individual is directed to Christ and Christ alone. Physical needs may be addressed – which Jesus affirms is important – but asking them to lean into the arms of Christ is absent.

     Once this truth is reclaimed – that we need nothing more than Christ to satisfy a heart that is desperate – it follows that we will draw our inspiration for daily life from his life. Guidance for our decisions, the pattern for our behavior and the manner in which we love one another will flow organically from our communion with Christ. As Christ continues to occupy our thoughts and heart, we become agents by which Christ’s continued presence and ministry is experienced in the world. Christ changes us as good mentors change for the positive those under their supervision.

     What does this lesson from Paul mean for the church? What is primary, I believe, is that the church cannot offer what it lacks. I speak of a deep conviction that the testimony of the Bible is sure; that Christ can be trusted and with that trust comes spiritual power that is palpable. We begin with ourselves. We begin to fully recognize once again the Kingship of Christ who is the Head of the Church, to read the Bible and actually do what we are instructed to do – to live as we understand Christ calling us to live. One life changed is infectious. It can change the church.