Monday, July 30, 2007

God: the Smart One

What's in the heart of God? The simplest answer is also a biblical answer, God is love, but that answer is very difficult for mere mortals to believe. Not only because they die, but also the way they die-- disease, violence, predation, disasters-- love in the heart of God would never be posited by them as a reason for such. How could an all-powerful being, who loved us govern that way?

Then, there's the whole hell thing: everlasting torment, fire and brimstone, bulimic worms, and not a tinge of pity from the God who's love. No matter how graphically (even at Mel Gibson levels) we paint a picture of Christ's vicarious sufferings, the notion of the lake that burns with fire is not going to lead anyone to think in terms of love. Is it any wonder that scoffers look at this subject with such incredulity?

God either is or he is not. Even if our experience of life makes it difficult for us to believe he is love, if he is, he surely has to be smart! And yet, we who entertain the notion of God, constantly vie our intelligence against his, as if he, somehow, has to bow to our conceptions. It's nothing new, we've been like that since the beginning of the human race. It's really the foundation of sin.

God is overjoyed to give us the kingdom. He shares his secrets with the humble, but we let our pride get in the way. We argue with God, thinking ourselves capable of understanding what he alone understands. We glory in our own opinion, and that deafens us to God and brings us neither love or knowledge, just darkness. It's in the heart of God to love us and to share all his has and all he knows with us, but to receive it, we're going to have to let God be the smart one.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Praying Through

Years ago, when I was a home missions pastor trying to reestablish a dying church in the shadows of shuttered steel mills along the Mon in the Pittsburgh area, I met a young youth pastor serving at my presbyter's church in Allison Park. He came from great ministry stock, and was a tremendously nice guy. When the the senior pastor left for California (the state, not the town in Pennsylvania), that church, which was large even at that time, elected that twenty-something young man as its pastor. He's been there ever since doing a stellar job of leading a congregation fully engaged in impacting the environs of Pittsburgh with the gospel. The following post from his site was fantastic and I thought it would be tremendously helpful to my readers. You can get to his site through the link in the title of this post. Enjoy and be blessed!

Praying Through

Sometimes we can mistake the 'burden of the Lord' with stress or discouragement. What is the 'burden of the Lord'? It is a Holy Spirit inspired heaviness that weighs on your spirit which God uses as a prompting to pray. Yesterday, I spent an hour in the 24/7 prayer room--PRAYING THROUGH this heaviness. The 'praying through' process involves more than just words, it is a groaning or crying out to God. Often as I pray through, I pray in the Spirit. I know that the process is complete when I have reached the destination of PEACE.

As I groan out to God for a season, I sense the heavy burden lifting and a release of God's peace. God prompts this kind of prayer because He is looking for me to agree with Him on some issue where breakthrough is needed. I sense my prayers are involved in pushing the barriers to God's provision out of the way. It is a real spiritual workout session.

Mature believers learn to recognize the burden of the Lord as a prompting to pray. If we don't recognize this burden, we often live under its weight--and we can end up working against the Lord's plan if we are not careful. How? By worrying instead of praying. By criticizing others instead of interceding for them. Often God births burdens on people in the church to pray because He is getting reading to do something amazing.

Instead of prayer, sometimes church-people will blame the leadership for the heaviness that they feel. 'The pastor/leader must be hindering God...don't you feel this heaviness?' By sinking into a depression. Many times we see issues on the news, or hear a doctor's diagnosis, or see a self-destructive pattern in a family member--and we are tempted to react to the burden we feel by sinking into despair.

God gives the burden to pray specifically because there is hope and He has a plan. PRAYING THROUGH is one of those old fashioned disciplines that we need to learn again. My sense is that we often live with far less from God that what is possible. So if you feel a heaviness on your spirit today, don't worry, criticize or get depressed. Take your burden to God and cry out to Him until you feel the release of His peace.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Out of the Box

Idolatry is a subtle thing. Perhaps it's not easy to see it that way with so many biblical era examples tending toward the huge and over the top: the Temple of Artemis, Jupiter Capitolinus, Nebuchadnezzar's Golden Statue, Dagon, and Aaron's magical calf (i.e. spontaneously generated by the earrings in, idol out method). If only it were so obvious, it would be no danger to any of us.

However, Aaron's excuse was not as far-fetched as it may seem, for idolatry can catch us unaware, subtlely. We think we're doing the right thing, getting along with our brothers and sisters, living cooperatively in community, going with the flow, giving props to God for what we're doing. All the while, we're really dropping an earring here and an earring there into the cauldron, pacing through an exercise that ends in us kneeling before what isn't actually God. If we get caught in time, we have no more of an answer as to why than Aaron had.

How did we get there? We were just keeping it real, getting it done. We were managing. And there it is, the culprit hiding in the wide open--managing. We like to manage things, to tidy them up, and control them, to pack them in a box and know where there are and where they belong. Add God to the mix and he gets boxed like everything else we have to deal with in life. As long as our God is small enough to be managed by us; we can keep him near, even sit on him, and feel safe, secure and holy, and not even realize the god we're worshipping is one of our own making.

Idolaters will not inherit the kingdom of God. Makes you wonder if it's worth having a god who fits in a box, doesn't it? Who's managing who in your fellowship with God? Maybe it's time to be still and let him be God. Cut the tape, open the flaps, and let God out of the box!

Friday, July 20, 2007

Misery Loves Company

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful in developing everything necessary in a disciple, so that the disciple be completely enabled to do every good work. Jesus made it possible for his disciples to do the good works he did, and even greater works than those, by returning to the Father and sending us the Holy Spirit. Peter, in interpreting the prophecy of Joel and the occurrence of Pentecost, said that very promise of Jesus was being fulfilled before the eyes of the onlookers that day, and was not only theirs (with repentance and faith), but also the next generation's, and all generations' far off, in fact, everyone's who was called by the Lord.

The scriptures also say that tongues should not be forbidden to be spoken in church. Yet, there is a unbelieving group out there, called cessationists who, in undermining the miraculous works of the Spirit delineated in scripture, effectively ban the use of tongues in their assemblies. They congratulate themselves for this, thinking themselves intelligent, rational students of God's word, tradition, and history. Often, they smugly dismiss as heretical those whose only desire is to practice what the Word preaches. They remind me of those Pharisees, hardened in unbelief, who callously withstood others from endeavoring to experience a joy the Pharisees refused to pursue themselves. They cast aspersions at the faithful, while they wobble on a tightrope precariously poised over the pit which is called blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.

Why would anyone, who actually loved Jesus, fastidiously turn over every pebble and grain looking for excuses not to walk in all that scripture equips us for? Why would someone of such wizened religion incessantly argue with and insult the humble and faithful, just to prevent them from going where trust in God's word could take them? I guess misery must truly love company.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

What Does It Prophet?

I thought I was finished talking about leadership gifts in particular, and ministry gifts in general, but an interesting post over the weekend has brought me back to the well--this time to speak about prophets and prophecy.

God has demonstrated throughout history a desire and willingness to inspire people with his Spirit. From Adam in the Garden, to the Israelites in Sinai, to the prophets of the Old Testament, to the affirmations of Paul, the scriptures confirm God's desire to inspire his people with his Spirit. Only the separation of humankind from God due to sin frustrated that desire through the ages. As a result, only a few well-chosen people were inspired by that revelatory Spirit.

Until sin was dealt with broadly through the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ God's liberality of Spirit had to "wait". Since Christ has expunged sin and reconciled to God all who put their trust in him, God's desire to inspire can be pursued all inclusively (even if only in part). Ultimately, God's desire to inspire will be fulfilled at the end of time when the redeemed will share that revelatory Spirit fully. Then it will be said of us that we know [him] even as we are known [by him].

The prophets of the Old Testament had a job, but only for a season. Some of them had great and memorable gifts, some were attended by signs and wonders, and others were less notable in these regards. All of them spoke for God to a people that could not and did not want to hear from God themselves. They were relatively rare amidst the community of faith. 

As impressive a lot as they were, none of them had the experience of the Spirit that anyone in Christ's kingdom does. They were selected by God for their labor as a necessary part of bringing things to that ripe moment when Christ would appear, and then they would no longer be needed. There are things that Daniel, Isaiah, and Ezekiel (among others) prophesied that have not yet come to pass, so their work continues in a certain respect. When Jesus said they prophesied until John, he did not mean that their words suddenly fell to the ground, but that the function they served ceased (as did the law's).

The prophets of the New Testament have a different job, but only until Jesus comes back. Some have more noticeable gifts than do others, some even become church leaders. Moses' inspired longing is answered among them, for even though there are only some in the church that are actually prophets, all of God's people can prophesy. Prophets no longer speak exclusively for God to people who can't and don't hear from him themselves, now they speak that which others can confirm and everyone can affirm.

New Testament prophets are not meant to be rare, for their service is needed in the meeting of the saints. It is best to have a bevy of them for the purpose of weighing what is prophesied. To squelch this needed gift, or to make it so difficult to operate in as to effectively bar it, is just shooting ourselves in the feet. Quenching the Spirit by despising this gift can truly be said to prophet nothing!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Selling Death

In my last post (linked in the title), I admitted that I've grown tired of both the church shoppers and the church marketers of our day. When I hear someone ask, "What does your church have to offer me or my family?", it's all I can do not to jet plasma in a hair sizzling tirade that would leave him or her smoldering and even balder than certain elders I know. It's not like it's anything new, Jesus had to put up with the same kind of self-centeredness, but that doesn't make it easier to take. What consumer benefits a church might offer has nothing at all to do with whether or not it is the place God desires a believer to be in order to grow and serve (or should I say serve and grow). God has a divine appointment for each of us. Our goal should be to find the place God wants us, and then with patience and grace, serve God and our brothers and sisters until (and if) God appoints us some place else. We certainly have no right to trash our brothers and sisters and divorce ourselves from the fellowship of the saints because we've decided we can be better served someplace else. God is the one who has made us parts of the body and he alone gets to appoint us to our place in the body.

What business does any church leader have, then, of dangling a carrot, trying to coax a believer to make a decision about where they belong on a basis other than God's appointment? Churches solicit suitors like Tamar enticed Judah, and then wonder why, when it's time to pay the piper, church folk are no different than the rest of our hedonistic, consumer driven society. If we tickle the flesh to get them in, we'll get nothing but a giggle from them when they're called called upon to be counted.

The gospel is good news and needs to be heard by everyone, but embracing it means buying into your own death. The old-fashioned notion of fire and brimstone is unpopular these days because it's just not marketable. I don't care for it myself, it doesn't reflect biblical preaching in my mind, but the biblical message isn't any more comfortable. I'm left dumbfounded, wondering how such a thing as church marketing can even exist? It's not just oxymoronic, it's plain old moronic too! No, it's even worse, it's faithless, and it's ruining the heritage of God.

So, on either side of the church marketing equation, I see problems-- whether on the side of self-centered consumers or on the side of ravenous church hawkers. We will reap what we sow. What will that mean if we go on trying to corner the market, establishing our little fiefdoms, building cathedrals of wood, hay and stubble, all the while never truly perceiving that what we actually have to sell is death?

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Keep Your Appointment

"Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But eagerly desire the greater gifts."

(I Corinthians 12:27-31a NIV)

This is an interesting passage for those of cessationist bent. The ordinals used in this passage can be taken as an order of rank (of importance or even authority), or as a description of the timing of expression. The mention of "greater" in the next to the last verse could be seen as requiring the ordinals to be interpreted as also ranking importance or greatness, but for me, the "thens" seal the deal-- for they most definitely introduce the idea of sequence or timing into the list. If this roster of gifts puts them into sequence, then the issue being addressed is their development and extension, not their comparative value. Paul is trying to help eager Corinthians understand not only the what, but the how and the when of ministry gifts. Notice in the sequence where the miraculous of varying sorts falls. Throughout, but incredibly enough, at the end as well, after the eruption of teachers. Paul says that the body starts with the ministry of an apostle, and as that body grows, up rise prophets, and as it continues to grow then arise teachers, and as things continue to expand then all kind of gifts... and the miraculous was intended to be present from start to finish!

That's cool enough in my mind, but here's the cherry on top: whereas we have been concentrating on leadership gifts in this series of posts, this passage doesn't restrict it's scope to them as does Ephesians 4. Leadership is part of the body, but so too are the lead. Each of us is part, each of us has gifting to serve by and these are assigned by God. Paul called these appointments. Just as a finger on your body wouldn't do any good attached to your elbow, so also God has the prerogative of placing us in the spot he knows we belong. I must admit, I've grown tired of both the church shoppers and the church marketers of our day. What consumer benefits a church might offer has nothing at all to do with divine appointment. What business does any leader have holding out a carrot trying to entice believers to make a decision about where they belong on a basis other than God's appointment?

So, grow where God sprouts you, stay unless God moves you. Embrace your giftings, and rise into whatever God is making you for the benefit of the body. God doesn't run by our clocks, and yet he's always on time, and being a perfectionist in all he does, he expects us to keep our appointments.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Your Gift Makes Room for You

The discussion about church leadership gifts continues...

If an apostle is the founding leadership gift of a church (in an area or in a culture), as I have purported in earlier posts, we could well say the fledgling church is led by an apostle. What do you call such a leader? To be technically accurate, he would be called an apostle, but as is often the case, a term's definition evolves through use. It seems to me, few places today would use that term, and would instead call him "pastor." We could make a case that once a congregation is established it would be more correct to call the leader an elder or bishop, but then Acts 20 indicates the terms bishop, elder, and pastor are largely interchangeable. Is it possible to describe an apostle as a pastor? Isn't that a confusion of terms since both apostle and pastor are listed in Ephesians 4?

It would seem so, except for a few verses: 2 John 1:1; 3 John 1:1; Galatians 1:19; & Acts 21:8. If one takes the Apostle John to be the author of all the Johannine epistles (as I do) and understands James to be the first Bishop of the Church in Jerusalem, a biblical case for seeing any of the five-fold gifts as capable of exercising the church leadership office begins to emerge. The long and short of it-- the office (or even the effective utility) of elder/bishop does not describe the gift that is expressed by the individual in it. Sometimes the elder/bishop will be an apostle (as in the formative stages of church establishment), sometimes a prophet, or an evangelist, or even a pastor/teacher. I think the same kind of thing is true for the deaconate. For leadership, it's the function of preparing God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up, rather than the title of office that matters.

A corollary is that some folk will be gifted in similar ways as are church leaders, but will not thereby automatically qualify to be church leaders. Church leaders are full of the Holy Spirit, tested in service, of good reputation with all, and good managers of their own families among other things (at least at the time they qualify). Some will be more gifted than others. If some are given to these gifts, it follows that some will not be. But be assured of this: when a tempered individual has been gifted in the ways leaders are gifted, his gift will most certainly make room for him.

7/6/07 Addendum:
An interesting take on the subject.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Extend the Telescope

I've been posting about church leadership, in particular the gifts associated with it and how they come into expression over the life of a church. This post resumes the discussion. We looked at the five-fold gifts in the post linked in the title of this one. In this post we'll tackle how these leadership gifts come into play over the life of a church.

The birth of a church within a culture or even a geographical area begins with the ministry of an apostle, one called by God to establish the church of Christ where it was not before. The pattern was set with the Apostles: they defined by words and deeds what an apostle is and would do in the time after them. The only real distinguishing mark between the Apostles and apostles who would follow them was the qualification of being a hand-picked eyewitness to Christ's resurrection. The Apostles, in that capacity, became the source for canonical witness, which following apostles would rely upon but not be in a position to add to. Much is made of Apostolic (and apostolic) authority today, and certainly they had authority, but I see no record in the scriptures that it was ever derived from anything more than anointing, persuasion, ethos, and consensus. That kind of authority is acknowledged by those under it, but cannot claimed hierarchically in a manner tantamount to a legal claim of subservience and fidelity. A trail blazing founder who would insist upon such authority would establish a cult not the church-- he or she would be a guru not an apostle.

I think it self-evident that an apostle would be a generalist in terms of gifting. He is the church when he starts. All that needs to be inspired is going to have to be inspired through him, hence he will be a jack of all trades. Then through preaching, teaching, signs and wonders others are added to him and the church grows. As it grows, and believers mature, others will step into aspects of gifting for which the apostle was a generalist. Prophets will arise, and teachers, and all manner of other utilitarian gifts. This is what Paul was speaking about in 1 Corinthians 12:28. The ordinals used in this text therefore sketch out the advance of gifts in the extension of the body in a telescoping fashion.

7/6/07 Addendum:
An interesting take on the subject.