Saturday, May 26, 2007

Finding an Oasis in the Sahara

I'm worried.

I know I'm not supposed to be. Jesus said very clearly not to worry.

Maybe a better word is concerned. I'm very concerned.

It seems like every friend I have is struggling with ministry right now. Some are ordained, some want to be ordained, and some do ministry without any thought of ordination by the church. (An aside, the last group might be the most satisfied--but that is a topic for another day).

Now I know that some of you are going to be consumed with who it is that I am talking about here. Others will be saying, "Friends? He has that many friends?" Just go ahead and get it out of your system right now. Because this is serious. Very serious.

Hear me out. Ministry can be intoxicating. Extremely intoxicating. Like preaching a sermon that people really respond to. Watching someone after years of searching finally 'get it.' Praying with someone who is desperate or despondent or both and knowing that it makes a difference. Feeling the Holy Spirit take over and touch others through you. Intoxicating.

Sometimes ministry is so intoxicating that it causes us to forget for a time how difficult ministry really is. How lonely it can be. How tough it is to say one thing only to have people hear another. How hard it is to really discern what God wants. How painful it can be to follow the path Christ has set before us.

This intoxication is dangerous. Intoxication by its very nature does not last. We can only stay on the mountain for so long. Then we have to come back down to the valley. And often our intoxication leaves us with a terrible hangover, one that makes us wish we had never answered God's call in the first place. God has not called us to be intoxicated, but to love above all. Love him and love each other. With every fiber of our being. No asterisks, no excuses, no ifs, ands, or buts. You already knew that didn't you?

Ministry is hard. Because life is hard. And people can be hard as well.

I've had many times that I just wanted to quit. To pack it all up and say to God and the church, "Take this job and shove it." But I've never been able to do it yet. Is it because I'm addicted to the intoxication of ministry? I hope not. I believe instead that I can't quit because I did not choose this path in the first place. Jesus says, "You didn't choose me, I chose you." We are chosen by God, all of us, ordained or not, by Christ. To minister to the world in his name. To teach and pray and love and seek peace and look for the lost and make disciples of each other. In Jesus' name. In Jesus' name.

Jesus was no stranger to disappointment, or frustration, or difficulty, or being misunderstood. In John 6 we see this very clearly:

66 At this point many of his disciples turned away and deserted him.
67 Then Jesus turned to the Twelve and asked, “Are you also going to leave?”

Jesus cautions the disciples over and over again that following him will be tough. I think that's why the verse that came to me with my call, the verse that this blog is named for is so important. We must keep our hands on the plow AND not look back.

Perhaps we really need to read this reminder written by Paul from 2nd Corinthians 4:
7 We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves.
8 We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. 9 We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. 10 Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies.
16 That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. 17 For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! 18 So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever.

I want for my friends, for myself, and for you that our spirits might be renewed every day by spending more time with God in prayer. The good thing about tough times is that we all tend to pray more, seek God out more, and become more receptive to God's teaching and leading. Spending time in the desert is an uncomfortable though necessary part of our walk with Christ. Intense, extended prayer during this time can feel like an oasis in the midst of the Sahara.

There is certainly no need for my worry or my concern. Jesus said, "In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world." I'll keep praying for and encouraging and loving my friends. Just like they do for me.

Monday, May 21, 2007

The Power of the Spirit

Our preaching series this month at church is on the Holy Spirit, which will culminate in the celebration of Pentecost Sunday. Recently we began a new, second worship service using a praise band. The first Sunday the new service went off without a hitch. Yesterday was another story entirely, as we had several logistical problems including periods of loud feedback from our brand new sound system. When I began to preach it seemed like the sermon really was going nowhere and people just weren't 'getting it.' I was despondent and frustrated as the service ended.

Last night my family talked about how the Sunday service really impacted them. My daughter Hannah talked about the powerful Spirit she felt in the service. Kim, my wife, said she thought it was one of the most meaningful services she had experienced. Later on I spoke with an old friend who had visited the service. Her take was that the sermon was one of the best she'd ever heard me preach(!) and that the Holy Spirit was very present in the room. My associate pastor had already spoken about how when we were in prayer all the people seemed to be in a physical attitude of deep prayerfulness.

Sometimes I want perfection more than anything else. Yesterday was one of those times. I want so badly for this new service to work well, for people to experience God in a mighty way, for lives to be changed and healing to occur. I should know better, but sometimes still mistakenly think that a flawless worship service is imperative to get the Spirit to show up!

Thanks be to God that all a worship service really needs is the power of the Spirit to make a difference in people's lives. Whether we get everything perfectly ordered on our end of worship doesn't really matter. When the Spirit shows up, worship truly becomes a place of amazing grace.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Graduation: The end, or the beginning?

I watched Tyler graduate from Station Camp High School last night.

It is the first high school graduation I have attended in some time. My hat is off to all educators; administrators, teachers, and staff who work hard to insure our children have the opportunity to learn.

Many things have changed since I graduated from high school 27 years ago, but one thing that remains the same is the recognition of those who have achieved the highest grades in school. In this school's ceremony the valedictorian and the salutatorian both gave speeches. As we drove home, I asked my wife Kim if she remembered who the valedictorian was when she graduated, as I could not remember either of the people who received this honor when I graduated in 1980. Kim could not remember the names of the recipients at her high school graduation either.

I wondered--which is more important, being at the top of your class or what you do with your education? Speaking as a person who is engaged in getting his third degree after the high school diploma, I can vouchsafe that it is not the degree or the grades that makes a person. We all know people who are terribly bright, very well educated, and painfully un- or under-employed. Not to mention all those who have important degrees from hallowed institutes of higher education but never do anything productive with what they learn. How sad.

"Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body" (Ecclesiastes 12:12 NIV). One might continue on getting further education seemingly forever, but until we use what we have learned, it is of no consequence.

Or as my favorite philosopher Yoda might say,"Remember what you have learned! Save you it can!"

Ultimately it matters more what you do with your education than whether or not you made it to the top of your class.

Approaching Pentecost

As we approach Pentecost Sunday and the giving of the Holy Spirit to the church, I ran across a poem in one of my sermon illustration files. I share it without knowing where it came from or who might have written it.

We are God’s people, touched by the Spirit to—
Witness more effectively,
Think more clearly,
Feel more deeply,
Listen more insightfully,
Speak more truthfully,
Love more extravagantly,
Care more soulfully,
Serve more creatively,
Give more lavishly,
Encourage more lovingly,
Live more fully,
Teach more eloquently,
Give more generously.