Economic participation is usually considered a selfish transaction. As the economy moves up, or as we’ve experienced lately, steeply down, these selfish actions leave many victims behind. It does not matter whether the economic behavior of people, businesses or governments are motivated by fear or greed, they lead each one to seize or hoard, build or destroy, grasp or deny.
By contrast, the Christian worldview compels a believer to participate in the economy as a means to:
- receive with gratitude,
- create in order that others might benefit,
- and share in God’s name that others might gratefully receive.
Preparing to preach on 1 Corinthians 2 this weekend took me back into some old notebooks of previous research. I came across this article I wrote for Faith and Life Resources in 2006.
An ancient person might hold several ideas about what Paul meant when he spoke of having God’s secret wisdom. Jews may have thought one thing, Greeks and Romans another. Those with Gnostic commitments were also fond of speaking about secrets and mysteries. Paul was very astute to use the phrase secret wisdom. It kept the vast potential audience of cosmopolitan Corinth with him.
But what was his secret wisdom? Looking at the full scope of his writing, we discover Paul spoke often of his calling to take the gospel where God sent him. The gospel for Paul was God’s secret wisdom. It should not, however, be mistaken for a body of doctrine or the replication of a denominational system. Paul is referring to the kerygma–the Greek term for a specific set of messages that tell the story of what Jesus Christ means to the world.
Joel Stephen Williams developed a succinct list of what was included in the kerygma Paul preached so faithfully. Here is a concise summary of it:
- The prophets foretold an age led by God’s special Servant, the Messiah.
- This age came in the birth, life, ministry, death, resurrection and promised return of Jesus Christ.
- Jesus sits at the right hand of God and is the head of the spiritual Israel, the church, God’s people.
- The Holy Spirit is the sign of Christ’s power and glory until the promised return of Christ when Christ’s kingdom of peace and righteousness will come in entirety.
- All are invited to repent and enjoy the offer of forgiveness, salvation, and the Holy Spirit.
A recent interview with me in OUTCOMES Online can be found here. Because of limited space for the magazine version of the interview, a significant amount of content needed to be trimmed. The unedited version of the interview follows below:
1. What is the best framework for deciding when to outsource certain ministry operations?
I’m delighted you used the word “framework” in your question, because the framework we tend to use is inappropriate for the outsourcing conversation, and that assumes we are actually conscious of it. A framework always exists, but if it is ignored decision makers cannot explain why they did what they did, and why it connects to the mission of the organization. And if the framework is consciously present but is inappropriate, then resulting decisions do not build the long-term effectiveness of the organization.
One inappropriate framework is too often that of “outsourcing is for when you cannot afford a staff position and need to spend less money.” This framework is inappropriate because it believes that reducing expense outranks ministry effectiveness and long-term ministry growth.
A better framework begins with an organizational metric. This can be found by answering the following questions:
- What is the size of our organizational economy? Also, how much of this economy is in annual income we use for operations?
- What is the healthy distribution percentage of operations money for staff, for program and facilities? This needs to add up to less than 100% because the difference is the carryover to keep building up cash reserves.
- In accomplishing and expanding our mission objectives, what staff tasks must be performed? Of these tasks, which must be carried by employees that embody the mission and values of the organization, and which ones are best carried by vendors who share a passion for our mission and values? The key in such a decision is the regularity of the task, interaction with the constituency (employees), versus irregularity of the task, expertise, continuous learning, and efficiency (vendors)
- How will we distribute our staff budget in such a way that accomplishes and expands our mission objectives, while retaining flexibility to respond to needs when they arise? This points to some money remaining unspent, or spent for only part of a year in order to take advantage of a vendor’s expertise or to cover the costs of a special project.
One obstacle that prevents organizations and leaders from moving to this better framework is that they are already spending everything and more that they have available for staffing. Thus, outsourcing requires extra money or is put in place to cover the tasks after having cut a staff position. This creates problems for the vendors because they are resented as job stealers, or because the expectation is to preserve an organization by cutting expenses rather than through mission fulfillment. By working ahead and working from a larger economic point of view, vendors become part of the organizational growth strategy rather than a last ditch choice.
2. What are benefits to using vendors and consultants versus in-house staff? What are some drawbacks to this method?
Let’s assume it is a problem to use vendors and consultants too much and it is a problem to not use them at all. A total staff approach is rigid and bound to the confines of the budget. An organization has to postpone addressing specific needs if it has no money to hire the needed staff. Further, for large organizations, staff can lodge their loyalty with their division or department instead of the overall organizational mission. Conversely, a total vendor approach makes it difficult to build an organizational culture and loyalty to the organization’s mission is always suspect. Where staff might be perceived as entrenched, vendors and consultants might be perceived as mercenary. Employees cost less per day, but cost more to train, hire and replace. Consultants and vendors cost more per day, but most work for specific projects in a time-limited basis, usually cost less per year than an employee does, and can be more easily replaced.
An intentional mix of the two works best, especially with thoughtful responses to the above questions giving strategic guidance. Staff can then provide overarching perspective and continuity while vendors and/or consultants bring fresh perspective and targeted expertise.
The drawback of staff resentment for vendors has already been mentioned. Other drawbacks to avoid are hiring vendors or consultants who cannot detail their own sense of mission and values, consultants and vendors who use their platform to seek a job rather than practice a vocation, or consultants and vendors who structure their services in an attempt to keep their contract with the organization until the end of time. The best ones in the business detail the objectives they will help you reach and the time-frame in which they will do it with you. When it is done, they are done.
3. How can a ministry be designed to allow for both outsourcing and traditional staffing?
An organizational metric is key. If an organization does not make its staff budget flexible enough to build the mix of employees and vendors, it simply will not work over the long haul.
Depending on how an organization sets up its chart of accounts, certain facility costs can be outsourced too. Outsourced custodial services are one many organizations use. The core of this discussion, however, seems to be outsourced administrative and staff tasks that carry out the program in which the ministry organization invests. Depending on the organization’s size and resident expertise among the employees, items such as executive search, training, facilitating complex decisions or organizational development, capital fundraising counsel, payroll, event planning and others might be better served by a vendor. Many ask why so, and the answer is because trying to do these things in addition to the normal full-time tasks may make employees inattentive to the work they need to be doing. Many tasks best served by a vendor are time-bound and intensive. It becomes an inefficient use of donor dollars to delay or reduce a ministry program run by staff in order to engage other important, but nonrecurring tasks.
One co-worker I experienced many years ago was emblematic of the problem. She did not want to be shut out of anything, and she was on record that she would rather leave a task undone than entrust it to someone else outside the system. This stands in contrast, of course, to the many consultants I have known who think they can do anything better than anyone else and keep bullying their clients to let them do more.
4. How can a ministry effectively make a smooth transition as tasks move from in-house to being outsourced? How can a leader effectively communicate these changes to the current in-house staff?
A smooth transition means working ahead, and I would again point to working through the metric establishing questions detailed at the beginning of this interview. Thoughtful answers to these questions help leaders build and then follow a trajectory rather than doing something abruptly. Working toward a trajectory brings in-house staff into the conversation and implementation of vendor roles. They become part of making it happen rather than it happening to them.
As to communication; this will sound simplistic, but I’ve found this following formula incredibly helpful in building toward significant change within an organization: Talk about the fact you are going to talk about it, then talk about it, then talk about the fact you talked about it. Even after this, leaders should expect that some are still not going to track with it until changes actually begin. In some cases, a person might be criticized for not paying attention, but in many cases such a person is a tactile learner and needs to see the change happening before they can fully grasp it. Patient and persistent communication is more likely to be effective communication than outstanding PowerPoint slides or corporate-wide e-mail announcements released during the weekend.
5. Do you anticipate increased outsourcing in ministries of the future?
I believe we can expect that outsourcing will and should grow some, but I don’t think it will be like a rocket. Even as organizations begin to try outsourcing as a more efficient and quality way to accomplish organizational mission, too many consultants and vendors are entering the system. The recent recession put a lot of other persons in the mood to try their hand at being a vendor. As a result pricing, quality and definitions of vendor and consultative services are all over the place. This threatens the ability for good vendors and clients to find each other. It seems for every positive step forward, vendors and clients pull stunts that set the growth back for everyone.
Clients seeking vendor services are well-advised to check references, expect a contract that details the scope and chronology of work, along with an out if they are not satisfied, and to make sure they are not paying too much of the money up front. Consultants that want their work to be an honorable vocation do well to coach their clients to expect these things.
Mark L. Vincent, is the CEO of Design Group International, an organizational development firm that helps organizations and their leaders discover clarity and implement solutions.
I once saw a picture in the Wall Street Journal of a super taster’s tongue. The photo compared the number of taste buds on such a person’s tongue with that of a normal person. It was an incredible difference.
I suddenly understood why it is some people react so strongly to salty, sweet or slightly stale foods when I almost never have such a reaction and wonder why they do.
It also made me wonder if there is a “wimpy taster’s tongue,” where the number of taste buds are significantly less than that of a normal person. I also wondered if I am such a person because most foods taste pretty bland to me unless they are spicy hot, very sweet or extremely salty.
I’ve been more observant about this since I saw that picture and notice that people with finely crafted palates take their time with food and savor it. The smells of preparing and then consuming their meals are higher art than the usual sub sandwich and large drink from a paper cup that I prefer. I’ve also learned that I enjoy dining with people like this–my daughter and one of my sisters-in-law are key examples, because they help me slow down and savor the complexities of the foods they enjoy.
How true is this for you? Think about the difference between a candy bar and richly layered baked from scratch chocolate cake. Both are chocolate. If you devour them you barely notice the difference. If you take your time, however, and are conscious of each bite, you begin to notice a substantial difference. Some of us can do this more readily than others, but we all benefit by being more conscious of the potential beauty of what we are eating.
We have a similar experience when we open the Scriptures to learn what God says to us. Our tendency is to read quickly and hope something jumps out and makes a difference in our spiritual or moral lives. Sometimes it does. More often, however, we have to take a more deliberate and reflective approach. If we don’t we will miss God who so often speaks in a still, small voice. If our minds and hearts are not quiet, we will not hear it.
It is the difference between speeding to a destination in a high-powered car while the radio is blasting and we are balancing a cell phone on our knees and a cup of coffee in one hand, or walking to a destination and leaving early so that we can take our time. In the first scenario we arrive without having noticed the world around us. In the second, our minds are aware, rested and ready for action.
We need to be deliberate when we study scripture. A major benefit of a nicely crafted worship service is that it can prepare the mind to do so. If we are in personal study, finding the quiet space to read, reflect and pray is helpful for our spiritual digestion. Consider this text from Hebrews for instance. If we rush through a reading of it a faithful person will re-affirm that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. But if they are deliberately focused they will know why. Their faith will be strengthened with a deeper conviction of how true and important it is to have an unchanging Savior.
One purpose that can be claimed in studying Hebrews 13 is to receive encouragement as a Christian, and to be reminded of what is important for our spiritual development after we receive Jesus as Savior, after our baptism, and once we have begun exercising our spiritual gifts in ministry. We could think about it this way:
- If you feel lost, then God’s call in your life is to receive his salvation offered in Jesus Christ. Then be baptized as a public confession of your intention to be a follower of Jesus.
- If you wonder if God has a plan for your life then sit down with a trusted mentor to figure out where your greatest joy intersects with the needs of the world so that you can begin engaging in ministry now, where you are, with what you have.
- And if you have done these things and wonder if there isn’t something more of God that you are missing, then you are ready for what Hebrews 13 offers.
A study of the first six verses shows that going deeper into Christian living is not about accumulating more experiences at different types of revival meetings, or collecting more versions of the bible, or owning thirteen types of portraits of Jesus, as much as it is incorporating faith into the everyday aspects of how life is organized. It is about developing a household that can show hospitality and has capacity to care for other believers who might find themselves in prison or in a prolonged illness. It is about developing a household–whether we are married or single–that honors marriage as a portrait of Christ’s relationship with the church. It is about developing a household that attests to faith in God over the desire to accumulate material wealth.. In other words, if we feel as if our Christian life is going nowhere, we need to ask ourselves if this kind of capacity exists in the way our households are organized. If it does not, then we have an answer as to why we feel spiritually dissatisfied. We do not need to look any further.
Now, as we consider verses 7-16, we find the writer of this letter to Hebrew Christians is finding multiple ways to say the same thing because he repeats the theme:
Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise–the fruit of lips that confess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased. (vv.15,16).
Worship and loving service to others needs to be the focus of Christian living. If it isn’t present, it is no small wonder we would feel disconnected from God.
Notice again, how these two verses start: “Through Jesus.” In effect, we need to know Jesus if we are going to bring praise to God and then turn and take the risk of doing good and sharing with others. The writer of the Hebrews wants to make sure we know about him and uses the preceding verses to tell us a little about him.
He begins by telling us that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever (v.8). If we read this passage quickly it almost appears like a parenthesis, something disconnected between the thoughts surrounding it. The writer talks about showing respect to the leaders who go before us, and then shifts to talking about the High Priest and the offering of sacrifices. The comment about Jesus in crossing all of the eons drops into the middle. The point of connection between these thoughts gets lost unless we slow down enough to grasp the complexity of thought, savoring all the writers wants to tell us.
As I’ve studied the passage, I find it easier to explain by working at the writer’s logic in reverse.
- We do good and worship Jesus because we identify with him. Why do we identify with him?
- Because we are with him outside the city.What in the world does that mean?
- The writer to the Hebrews compares Jesus to the sacrifice carried outside the city, not the normal type of sacrifice from which those serving in the temple might eat and provide for their families, but the type of sacrifice that needs a scapegoat. The reference here is to the day of Atonement in Leviticus 10, a day when the people and the priesthood makes sure all sins are covered, all sins are paid for: the sins of the people and the sins of the priests, the sins that they know about and the sins they did not, the sins that they did and the sins committed against them, the sins committed by their actions and the sins committed by their inaction. It was such an important sacrifice that two animals were involved. The first was not killed but banished to the wilderness. The second, the one representing all the sins of everyone, was killed at the temple but then carried outside the city to be burned and then discarded. This is the type of sacrifice Jesus is: for all your sins–those you committed by acting or not acting. Those that harmed you. Those that harmed others. Those that were not just done by you, but done to you. By believing in Jesus, we are outside the city with him, no longer needing a sacrifice to pay for our sins, but with the One whose sacrifice paid for our sins. Our citizenship is now outside the city with him. Our identity is based here, and it is the reason we worship and serve others, because we identify with the lamb who was slain and by whose slaughter a people was made from every tribe, language, people and nation, who become a new priesthood who worship God and serve others, making it possible for others to find their citizenship and identity with Jesus outside the city.
- This is the Jesus who is the same yesterday, today and forever. This is the Jesus followed by our leaders we now seek to emulate. They are a model, showing us it can be done. We now can be a model showing others it can be done.
So let’s return to this verse in the middle about Jesus, the one that at first glance seems parenthetical, but now we know it is not. And let us allow this verse to be a calling to us:
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday. Who is Jesus? Oh yes, the one who has paid for all my sins. Those who went before me–parents, grandparents, church leaders, neighbors, previous co-workers, knew this and followed him. Yes, some claimed to and botched it up pretty good. Those are not the leaders we remember. We call to mind the good examples. The people who were definitely human, but found a way to make their life a testimony of God’s goodness, God’s forgiveness and a life of worship and service.
Jesus Christ is the same today. Who is Jesus? Oh yes, the one whom I identify with and serve. I now am a model for others who will come after me. I now seek to be a good example, someone who is human yet authentic, finding a way to make my life a testimony of God’s goodness, God’s forgiveness and to live a life of worship and service.
Jesus Christ is the same forever. Who is Jesus? Oh yes, the Lamb of God slain from the foundations of the world. The one who shows mercy to us all. He is our hope, our promised reward. It is to him we offer our lives of worship and service.
So, let us return to what we know to be true. Let us dust off our bibles and get our noses in them. Let’s put creases in our journals and callouses on our knees. Let’s get our prayer closets unlocked. Let’s mark periods of sabbath in our calendars and smartphones so that we make a priority of worship with God and intimacy with our family and friends. Let’s set aside the firstfruits of our incomes again, and prioritize time for worship and service. Let this be the testimony we live, and the avenue of our growth in Christ.
If we do this the resurrected Christ will show up and increase the health and outreach of our congregations. Not because Jesus returned after an absence, but because we started believing in him again.
-mark l vincent
Shall we declare the death of denominations?
Shall we send out a message that a memorial service will be held and where memorial gifts might be sent?
- Denominations can no longer justify their existence based on connection to European Protestant expressions and specific ethnicity.
- Church members and congregations no longer contribute to denominations at a level that keeps them solvent, relevant and growth oriented.
- The ability of denominational leaders to inspire and rally the faithful is severely diminished.
- Denominations no longer provide an efficient means to develop resources for congregational leaders, to strengthen ministry skill or to carry out mission.
- Denominations no longer provide the best avenues for connecting and networking, especially for newer and younger leaders.
- Moral authority and ability to arbitrate a confessional identity is deeply compromised.
- Denominations hold little sway over their related institutions.
- Denominations can no longer maintain that they occupy the space of “helping us do better together than what we could do alone.”
Portions of the following note were also used in a memo for the members of Prairieview Mennonite Church, near Flanagan, Illinois this past week.
I spent this past week at the Christian Leadership Alliance meetings, with 1700 leaders from organizations as diverse as christian camping to crisis pregnancy centers, and from small local churches to the national director of the Gideons. Here are three standout items I am taking home:
1. From pastor Chuck Swindoll– integrity is not so much about perfection but authenticity. It is the single most necessary tool of the leader.
2. From missiologist Reggie McNeal– We need to prepare to take the church to where people already are instead of trying to create something we invite people to at our church building.
3. From Priscilla Shirer, a reminder of what Joshua said to his people– “consecrate yourselves for God is going to do a great thing among you tomorrow” (Joshua 3:5). I was impressed with the link between our personal consecration and the great thing God will do next.
Reading the newspaper as I was returning home Peggy Noonan’s column advocating for Pope John Paul II’s sainthood gripped me (Wall Street Journal, 30 April 2011, A15). In her description of this Catholic leader’s approach to faith, it seems all three points were lived: personal integrity even as a flawed person, a commitment to take the church to the people and personal consecration in anticipation of the next great work of God.
These concepts come from a variety of people representing several streams within Christianity. The example of Pope John Paul II is from yet another. Yet, the God who does great works is not limited by our narrow views and specific preferences of where or how we worship. To better align myself with what this God will do next, I do well to take these insights to heart and let them guide my point of view as a Christian leader.
-mark l vincent
In 1667, the city of Dubrovnik, which sits on the Adriatic Sea, was drowned.* During the earthquake which caused it, the sea receded from the harbor four times leaving it dry, then rushed back to slam against the cliffs and docks and the ships that moored there. At least 5,000 people died. A good deal of the city was ruined. The Cathedral was destroyed. The Marketplace obliterated. The famous library housed at the Franciscan monastery was lost.
I have not lived through a devastation such as this. Perhaps I can get some sense of it through the power of imagination, but I cannot know unless I live through it. I can have some sympathy for those who suffer, but I do not know the struggle to survive in the way the survivors of the disaster know it. This is true of any cataclysmic disaster, such as the one the swamped Japan this year, or the loss of the twin towers in New York City. If it did not touch my life directly, I might be aware of it, but I do not KNOW it.
Many aspects of life are like this. I have to live life to gain the knowledge I need. I cannot know in a good deal of cases unless I keep choosing to live in spite of what I do not yet know.
Here is an example: when I was young I conceived of marriage as the place I could finally, legally have sex. I didn’t know anything, really, about the deeper power of intimacy after many years of partnership with my wife, and how much more profound, tender and meaningful sexual expression would be as a result. I had to live it to know it. People could tell me about it who had lived it. I could try to imagine it. I could argue against those who doubted its importance, or whose experience was otherwise, but it would only have been an argument by faith rather than by knowledge of having that faith become reality.
We find another example in entrepreneurship. Can I really know what owning my business is like until I actually do so? Can I truly understand the extra hours it requires and the new responsibilities that accompany new freedoms until I become an owner? Probably not. I can imagine what it would be like. I can listen to the stories of entrepreneurs who succeeded and failed and try to make sure I don’t repeat their mistakes. Even then I won’t really know until I live the adventure of ownership.
We might wonder what it will be like to have a new pastor at the helm of a congregation. We might try to grasp what it would be like to sit in the boss’ chair, or to live in another city, or to make more money. We could try to imagine what it is like to be a grandparent or to retire or to own a boat–any of these life experiences we have not yet had–but we won’t really have knowledge about them and we certainly can’t testify about their reality–until we actually live them.
Perhaps the greatest of these arenas is death and the afterlife. Even if you read a believable account of someone who died and was resuscitated and found themselves in the very court of heaven in between, you don’t really have personal and intimate knowledge of death, the resurrection and eternal life with God until your adventure in living takes you there.
In such moments where we know that we don’t know something, we have to choose who and what we will believe, living in faith that those who have been there already are reliable and motivated by their desire to minister to us by passing along their wisdom. In such moments we have to know that we don’t know, and live in faith regarding those who do.
I think of it as if I live on the backside of a tapestry with all its tangled, colored strings. I have to trust that there is an ordered and beautiful picture on the other side. If I study the backside of the tapestry, I might get some sense of it, maybe enough to recognize the real picture when I finally see it, but I still do not know what it is really like until I do. Still, I know enough from what I do see to trust that it is really there.
Living with this kind of faith is a spiritual discipline–a way of living humbly and offering what you know for the benefit of others, even while they offer what they know and you don’t so that you too can benefit. For instance, I do not know very much about soil composition and how its health is maintained for the benefit of food production. I am glad for those who do know, however, and for those who treat this is holy work done for the glory of God.
Perhaps you don’t know very much about how to lead groups in making decisions–groups like a church family. Yet, you can agree, can’t you, that trusting people who do now how to lead groups in decision-making is far more desirable than repeating methods you know do not work and only end in greater conflict?
And here is one of the most sensitive of them all: letting others into your hurt. Some of us live with hurt because we think no one knows what it is like for us. The result is we don’t really know what mercy, forgiveness or compassion are like, because we can’t imagine that other people have had similar experiences and could be sorrowful alongside us. As a result, instead of weeping together in our great disappointments, or instead of sharing together the joy of forgiveness and resurrected hope, we end up being hard on another. We get all legalistic and impatient and judgmental with those we falsely think do not understand us, and this reinforces the belief among us that no-one understands and makes us even more intolerant of each other.
The apostle Paul takes on this issue of fear because of lack of knowledge in his first letter to the Corinthians. Some Corinthians Christians were uncomfortable with the idea of a resurrection and eternal life with God. Because they did not witness the resurrection of Jesus why should they be expected to believe such a thing could happen? More specifically, if a resurrection was promised to them, just how would it work? They knew bodies aged, deteriorated and expired. They had never seen a body re-fashioned and refreshed. So, even though they were Christians, they kept challenging the possibility of the resurrection, demanding that someone explain the mechanics of how a resurrection was conducted, and the makeup of the resurrection body (1 Corinthians 15:35).
Paul’s response was, “That is a foolish question!”
Take a moment and go back through the list of subjects we’ve discussed already this morning. We’ve considered subjects like how one deals with cataclysmic catastrophe, prepares for marriage, decides to own a business, or becomes a joyful grandparent. Is it wrong to wonder such things? In most cases, no. But to use our questions as a means of avoiding the risk of loving someone, or putting our gifts to work for others, or using gifts God wants to give us is wrong. It is foolish to refuse to live simply because we are afraid of living! What kind of life is it to die before you are dead? How does that bring any glory to God?
This is the type of foolishness Paul speaks against. Just because a person doesn’t have direct, personal knowledge of something doesn’t mean they can’t have faith in those who do. Why deny the possibility of a resurrection just because one has not yet died personally, been resurrected or seen a resurrected person? There were too many witnesses to the resurrected Jesus to simply throw the story away, and Paul takes pains to document the list of those witnesses.
And just because one does not yet have a resurrection body does not mean there is no resurrection body. Why waste time demanding to have knowledge that one cannot yet have? It is better to understand why it is we do not yet have such knowledge (because haven’t yet lived long enough), and to trust that life will eventually bring that knowledge to us just as it has to others.
In this case, the Corinthians were foolish to focus on the material makeup of a resurrection body when such a body does not come from the construction of a fallen and corrupt world. Imagine what it would be like to be resurrected with this deteriorating body we have now. That would be much more a picture of hell. This is Paul’s point too. He tells us the body we carry now is rooted in corrupt Adam and a human race that is stained by sin, but the body to come will be rooted in the one who destroyed all these things and who has the power to redeem and make all things new. And here is a fact that some of us know better than others: the longer we live and the closer we get to our grave, the more we know how frail this body is and the more we anticipate going home to be with God even while we continue in loving service to others here on this earth.
We end up avoiding so much of the joy that life could send us because, like the Corinthians, we ask such foolish questions–not just about the resurrection, but about many things and all because we are afraid of what we do not know.
We say don’t know enough to make a decision. So we keep on delaying what we know would be good for us.
We keep asking for someone to confirm the truth of a matter to us, even though many people have already confirmed it. We are too comfortable with the undesirable reality to have to reach out and embrace the more desirable reality that might be available.
We deny that something is possible only because we have not yet seen it ourselves. This type of blind denial often leaves us looking more foolish than ever.
Let’s get even more specific. The apostle Paul says asking what the resurrection body will be like completely misses the point. Here are other questions we are likely to ask that are all too familiar, and which keep us from enjoying the fullness of life granted because of the resurrection of Jesus:
Tithing? What if I run out of money?
Volunteer for the church? What if it requires too much of my time?
Who would I be if I stopped (choose one or more of the following: holding grudges, feeling sorry for myself, letting my illness be an excuse for my behavior, letting my druthers rule my happiness, etc.)?
Get married? What if the one who loves me gets all ugly or gets sick and cannot work?
How can God really love me given all the bad I have done?
How will I know this is the job God has for me?
Is peacemaking really possible in this violent world?
These are foolish and misdirected questions because you and I cannot know the answer on this side of the question. To find the answer we must live into them.
–We cannot know the blessings of God’s provision until we first begin living a firstfruits lifestyle.
–We cannot know the joy of sacrificial service among God’s people until a church family is our first family.
–We cannot experience transformation as a person without letting go of the old, familiar self and the way it operates.
–Spouses cannot know the fullness of giving and receiving in marriage until they actually begin doing so (This is a word of advice for married and for those considering it). We can also point to those who determine to enjoy the single life as a chaste servant of God. We can’t know what that is like until we begin living into that enjoyment.
–We cannot know the full extent of God’s love if we still hold to our will and our self as the chief master.
–We cannot know how God will work through us in our work–any type of work–until we seek to do God’s will–what we already know to be God’s will–wherever we are and whatever we are doing.
–The quiet strength of peacemaking will be unknown to us until we give it a try in the face of violence.
It is Easter. Now is the time we remember that God conquered death and the grave. We cannot know our resurrection body yet, but we can start living according to what we already know about life on the topside of the tapestry God creates for us. As people of faith we can embrace what we do not yet know and be people who not only have hope, but offer hope to the hopeless, strength for the weak, and good news to those who think they are too lost or too broken to be rescued. A-men.
-mark l vincent
*Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: a Journey Through Yugoslovia, New York: Penguin, 1940
More with Less is a phrase Mennonites converted into a widely-loved cookbook franchise and spiritual guide to eating. I borrow that phrase here in thinking about the resurrection of Jesus.
The Apostle Paul writes 1 Corinthians 15 twenty-five years or so after the Sunday morning when Jesus rose from the dead. His account of this resurrection precedes the written accounts recorded in the four gospels. He tells his readers that the gospel of Jesus makes no sense without a resurrection (of which Jesus is the first to be resurrected), and that if we embrace this gospel we need to live as people of hope.
So if we are going to be people of the resurrection, we need to return to a more with less:
- Less self-preservation and more God exaltation.
- Less Condemnation and more commendation.
- Less self-deception and more holy conception.
- Less diet in trash, slash and clash, and much more class.
- Less fear of tomorrow and more hope for today.
- Less navigating through life by what we don’t like and more steering toward our calling.
- Less suspicion and more permission.
- Less critique and more applique.
- Less aspersion and more conversion.
- Less destructive behavior and more consulting the Savior.
- Less hedonism and more paying heed to our sins.
- Less gossip, slander and sharing our “concerns,” and more praise, encouragement and doing of good turns.
- Less treating our body as a god and a temple and more treating our body as a temple for God.
- Less lust for possessions and more trust for provisions.
- Less titillation and more telling the nations.
- Less unwillingness, reticence and unavailability: more inspiration, preparation and perspiration.
- Less hoarding and more rewarding.
- Less spiritual blindness and more merciful kindness.
- Less complaining, infighting and judgment and much more penance, repentance and recompense.
- Less consternation and more communion.
- Less sorrow over our loss and more anticipation of reward.
- Less holding the line and more going where we are sent.
- Less supervising others and more loving our neighbor.
- Less hovering, worrying and wringing our hands and more embracing, praising and bending our knees.
- Less grouchy-gripies and more joyful smilies.
- Less of the grave and much more of the resurrection.
It is our ability to keep bringing life into death, light into shadows, and hope in apparent hopelessness that brings notice to the message Jesus taught his followers and offers to all. Unless our hope is meaningfully lived in front of others, it is as if the stone at the tomb remains firmly in place.
-mark l vincent
There once was a family–a Mommy, a Daddy, and 1.3 children. They and their pets lived in a suburban home with a deck, an entertainment room and a high-powered lawn mower.
Unfortunately, the economy tanked and the Daddy lost his job.
Fortunately, health insurance was provided through Mommy’s work.
Unfortunately, the benefit package changed and all employees at Mommy’s work must now pay 50% of the premium, with a much higher deductible.
Fortunately, nobody in the family is sick at the moment.
Unfortunately, Mommy is seven months pregnant.
Fortunately, the family wants this new child and Daddy is now available to be a stay at home parent.
Unfortunately, the family can no longer afford payments for the mini-van to haul everyone around.
Fortunately, the SUV is already paid for, and they can sell it to make up the difference.
Unfortunately, gasoline now tops $4 a gallon and nobody wants to buy a used SUV.
Fortunately, the family has been living in their suburban home with a deck, and entertainment room and a high-powered lawn mower for some time, so they can borrow against the equity in their home to refinance the mini van.
Unfortunately, house values dropped drastically and all the equity in their home disappeared.
Fortunately, they are willing to sell their home and move closer to Mommy’s work. By living in a smaller home and driving less, they can make ends meet.
Unfortunately, nobody wants a suburban home with a deck, an entertainment room or a high powered lawn mower because they are all doing the same thing.
Fortunately, the family kept setting aside money for a rainy day. They took the advice of their financial planner, not to make frequent trades or worry about short-term ups and downs in the market. They took the long view.
Unfortunately, when they looked at their portfolios, many of their investments had names like Enron, WaMu and British Airways.
Fortunately, they were young enough to file bankruptcy and start over.
Unfortunately, bankruptcy proceedings have been made more restrictive and the numbers of bankruptcies are clogging the courts. Everything is still tied up.
Fortunately, the Daddy’s parents lived nearby and everyone moved in together just in time for Grandpa’s stroke and loss of his pension.
Fortunately, they still have each other.
-mark l vincent
Reflections from 1 Corinthians 15:1,2
An often told fable within Islam is when the cat said “I am going to take a hajj.” The hajj is the pilgrimage to Mecca that good Muslims desire to complete as one of the pillars of Islam. Upon the cat’s return from his hajj, the mice wondered whether the cat really had transformed from his former sinful ways. The king of mice decided he should pay his respects, but the other mice remained suspicious and did not go. The mouse king found the cat in prayer, but upon seeing the mouse the cat pounced. The king barely escaped.
When the mouse king returned, the mice asked him if the cat had changed his ways. The king said, “The cat prays like a hajji, but he pounces like a cat.”
This fable reminds us how hard it is for true transformation to take place. Each of us is born a pagan, and the pagan remains close by, even as we grow in faith and practice.
The word pagan can mean a person without religion, and that is the sense in which I use it here. Even though I am a Christian, there are moments I think and act as if I have no faith in the saving power of Jesus Christ. I act as if no transformation is present in my life. In truth, all too often, I pray like a Christian, but then pounce like a pagan.
This uncompleted transformation is the Apostle Paul’s concern for the Corinthian church as he writes the letter we call 1 Corinthians, and especially the passage we mark as 15:1-2.
Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. (NASU)
I’ve already mentioned that pagan can mean holding to no religion. The word also refers to belief in many gods and practicing this belief in ways that monotheistic religions consider unholy—such as child sacrifice or ritualized sex. Both definitions of pagan surrounded the Christians in Corinth. Outside the church walls were many temples to many gods, and many prostitutes who served those gods. Inside the church walls were people who distorted the gospel in many ways—from forcing competition among church leaders that led to church division (ch. 3), to celebrating their tolerance of an incestuous relationship (ch. 5), to suing each other and thus ruining their testimony to pagans (ch.6), to not understanding the place of marriage within the Christian community (ch.7), to disputing whether food offered to idols made one more or less of a Christian (ch. 8), to a myriad of issues about the reason for, the order or and the appropriate conduct of worship services (ch.11 ff). Like me and like you, there were many ways for the Corinthian Christians to pray like Christians, but to live as if they did not believe in the God who makes salvation possible in Jesus Christ.
Several times in this letter, Paul points to our Christian faith as an integrating and transforming principle for all of life, each time appealing to the pervasive power of the gospel message. One of the best known is found in 10:31 at the conclusion of his discussion about food offered to idols:
So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. (NIV)
And here, as Paul opens his great discourse on the resurrection of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 15, he reminds this church he loves so much that the gospel is the center of whatever they do.
- He preached this gospel to them. That is why they even exist as a church.
- They received this gospel. That is why they formed a church.
- They took their stand on this gospel. That is why their church was different than the many pagan temples around them.
- They were being saved because of this gospel. Paul deliberately uses a form of the verb “saved” to demonstrate that their salvation in the gospel was an ongoing process. They were saved and they were being saved. Their church fellowship and unity needed to be strong in order to keep a proper focus on the gospel. Paul states they must hold firmly to it.
If these Christians lost sight of the gospel, the work of preaching it, and the results of belief in it would be in vain.
Paul repeats the gospel message frequently in his writings, and he does so here in 1 Corinthians 15:3ff so that there is no mistaking what he means before he launches more fully into his discourse on the resurrection of Jesus. Paul serves as an example for all leaders of why frequent repetition of a mission statement is so critical to getting that sense of mission into the fabric of an organization. The gospel is the mission, and living it out is the core of all mission-related activity for the Christian. By taking our stand on it, repeatedly; by calling it to mind repeatedly; by reminding each other of what it is and what it means, repeatedly, we are more likely to stop pouncing like pagans, and to keep praying and serving like Christians.
For now, let’s note that the gospel is a little different between how Jesus preached it and how the apostles preached it.
- Jesus and John the Baptist: “The time has come . . .The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15 NIV).
- Peter at Pentecost: “ God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of this fact. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. . . .Therefore, let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ. . . .Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2:32-39 NIV).
- Paul at Athens: “. . .now [God] calls all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17: 30,31 NIV).
When John the Baptist and Jesus, preached the gospel, they looked forward to the act of salvation God was bringing. When the apostles and early Christians preached the gospel, however, they looked back to the events of the crucifixion that brought salvation, the resurrection that showed God’s power over death, and the ascension that exalts Jesus as part of the Triune God, who intercedes for us, pours out his Spirit upon us, and is preparing a place for us. Thus, once the act of bringing salvation was complete, the content of the gospel expanded naturally and accordingly.
In essence, Jesus says, “Here I am!” For the apostles and we who represent this third generation of Christianity[i] the message is “the resurrection happened!” This is especially important to the Apostle Paul and for his conversation here as he sets down the resurrection as the reason the gospel is reliable. For Paul, if there is no resurrection there is no gospel. If the Corinthians stopped believing in the gospel, then, they might slip all the way back into paganism.
Further discussion on this subject can dip deep into theology and quickly lose those of us who don’t make a habit of reading 2,000 page books in a 10 point font. Here is a diagram I developed to try to convey it in a simpler fashion:
Each of us has a region of what we care about. For the non-religious person (pagan) or the person whose religious impulse is to try to stay out of a god’s notice, the region is care of self. While this sentiment exists in all places, times and cultures, never has it been so refined a notion as the philosophical work of Fredrick Nietzsche in the 19th century, and the economic theory offered by Milton Friedman and the Chicago school alongside Ayn Rand’s utopian writings such as Atlas Shrugged in the 20th. The influence of the individual self as over and above all else held great sway in both U.S. and global economic policy since the Reagan years. It serves as at least one significant contributing factor to the economic turmoil we have faced recently—especially the emphasis on short-term results at the expense of long-term relationships with customers, workers and vendors.
The pagan cares about their welfare and will sacrifice yours without thought in order to feel more secure and to get what they want.
A higher level of care is when one cares about their progeny. This might be direct, biological descendants, or people with whom you have significant relationship because you hired them or taught them. In this sense, progeny might also be a thing—such as a business you built or a book you wrote. This is the approach taken by the Sadducees in Jesus’ day. It is also the impulse behind loyalty to the clan or tribe or ethnic group we see continuing to operate in much of the Middle East, the Balkan region and throughout Africa. And for those of you, who like me, share Scotch-Irish ancestry, let’s not forget that the Hatfields and McCoy’s continued their clannish feud here in the U.S. until at least the 1890’s.
The Sadducee doesn’t believe in the resurrection, or at least it doesn’t matter to her or his values. The closest thing to eternal life they can see is the importance of continuing their family—passing along the values taught by their ancestors. Thus, the Sadducee is deeply concerned that enemies are sidelined or even vanquished so that the people they are part of are not threatened and their way of life continues.
In contrast to the pagan and the Sadducee is the Christian whose region of care rises higher still, to that of one’s neighbor, and we know from the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10) that our neighbor can be the very person who threatens our self-preservation, or the enemy who threatens the well-being of our people group. According to Jesus, his followers love their neighbors as themselves (Luke 10:27). According to the apostles, those who received the gospel feed their enemy and slake his or her thirst, overcoming evil with good (Romans 12:20,21). And according to what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15, the fuel underneath it all—that which makes it all real and worthwhile—is the evidence of Jesus’ resurrection. Because it is real, and because we immerse ourselves in it, we keep preaching and living the gospel as servants of the world, not just ourselves or our families. It is because of this resurrection that the entire universe gathers around the throne of God and sings this song of praise to the Resurrected One:
“You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals,
Because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God
From every tribe and language and people and nation.
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
And they will reign on the earth.”
(Revelation 5:9,10) NIV
In v. 2, Paul states his concern that to lose this perspective is to lose the power of the gospel. Postmodern thinking and culture is also moving into a post Christian way of thinking and living. Moving beyond the gospel, we regress to thinking at best about our progeny, and at worst, just about ourselves. Paul contends it is much easier to move forward and up than it is backwards and up. Remaining resident with our Christian calling, then, requires a persistent articulation of and reflection upon the gospel. It is difficult to claim it again if we once chose to abandon it.
The understanding we should hold after considering all this, is that the resurrection is proof of God at work in redeeming the world, and that it gives us a reason to keep articulating and reflecting upon the gospel. The power within the gospel saves me personally, satisfying my pagan interest. It brings hope for my family and peoplehood, satisfying the love held by the Sadducee impulse. And, it places me in a position to see as God sees and act as God acts.
Friends, I want to remind you of the gospel. It has been preached to you. You received it. You chose to make a stand on it. This gospel brings you salvation and keeps you oriented in the place you truly belong. Hold firmly to it. Don’t let go of it, or all this effort is in vain.
[i] The first generation is those who witnessed Jesus on earth. The second generation is those Christians reached by those who were witness to Jesus. We in the third generation are those who did not witness the life and ministry of Jesus, and did not learn about the gospel from those who did.
The Lord’s Prayer comes to us in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount. More specifically, it is in the middle of Jesus’ instruction about the spiritual practices of those who repent of their sins and enter the kingdom. Those practices are:
- Showing charity (Matthew 6:1-4) – Now that we know God’s mercy, we don’t say “Look everyone, I’m giving someone a handout!” Nor do we say, “Everyone must look away so that I can help this person.” We just show mercy, uncomplicatedly, because we received mercy.
- Praying (Matthew 6:5-15) – Now that we know God’s mercy, we are no longer concerned whether anyone hears us, that we are in the best possible location, or that we are righteous enough to approach God. We just pray, because God made the way possible for us to pray, and we are grateful God did.
- Fasting (Matthew 6: 16-18) – Now that we know God’s mercy, we do not make a display of fasting in order to impress someone. If we are led to fast, we just do it, aware that God already sees and loves us. The hunger pangs remind us to pray, not to tell someone we are fasting.
Perhaps we once thought the appearance and the method had to be righteous enough or displayed properly in order for a spiritual practice to be meaningful, but now that we received God’s mercy we know a religious display does not win favor with God. Rather, we have God’s favor already. God loves us and shows us his mercy without our earning it. So, our expression of religious life is now about the relationship we have, not the one we are trying to earn. Now we can approach God on the most intimate of terms, as children do when they are properly bonded to and loved by their parents.
As we consider this prayer Jesus gives us, we do well to notice the focus of the prayer is on God rather than self. Even though human desire is acknowledged in the words of the prayer, it is clear the prayer helps the human conform their desire to God’s desire.
To help us better grasp how this prayer is one of moving closer to what God wants, I’ve paraphrased the prayer, line by line thus:
Our Father (Loving authority,)
who art in heaven (who resides in our true home,)
Hallowed be thy name (we give you all our reverence.)
Thy kingdom come (We want to live in the society you create.)
Thy will be done (We submit ourselves to you,)
on earth (in what we see,)
as it is in heaven. (and in what is beyond our ability to perceive.)
Give us this day our daily bread, (We entrust ourselves to your supply,)
and forgive us our sins (and throw ourselves on your mercy,)
as we forgive those who sinned against us (because we show mercy to others.)
and lead us not into temptation (Spare us from desire to choose what is wrong,)
but deliver us from evil (and spare us from the wrong others would do.)
for thine is the kingdom (Our allegiance is to you.)
and the power (Our submission is to you.)
and the glory (Our worship is offered to you,)
Forever and ever, (for all time and beyond.)
A-men. (May it be so.)
In essence, the prayer proclaims, “Do what you will God. Do what pleases you. I’m ready to bear witness to it. I’m ready to participate in it.” To pray that the Lord’s will be done is to tell God that you want his decrees to be enforced, God’s inclinations to win the day, and God’s transforming power to keep transforming.
When we pray this prayer, we can hear the echo of Psalm 19:7-14:The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul; The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; The judgments of the Lord are true; they are righteous altogether. They are more desirable than gold, yes, than much fine gold; Sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover, by them Your servant is warned; In keeping them there is great reward. Who can discern his errors? Acquit me of hidden faults. Also keep back Your servant from presumptuous sins; Let them not rule over me; Then I will be blameless, And I shall be acquitted of great transgression. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart Be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer. (NASU)
Praying for the Lord’s will is not easy. Two errors can creep in:
1. A growing number of Christians believe that being loved by God means God gives them what they want, if they want it hard enough or if they think it is their right to receive it. They aren’t much interested in serving a Sovereign Lord who has wishes, decrees, inclination and who does what he pleases. Sometimes people like this even expect that you will not bring your troubles before the Lord, because that somehow validates them or brings them into being. “Don’t express your doubts!” they say, believing that it somehow grants power to evil. The only acceptable prayer, in their view, is to repeat the promises of God, not the anguish of their heart.
But the bible not only tells us we can bring every anxiety before the Lord (1 Peter 5:7), it provides examples of anxiety, grief and even anger –laden prayers, especially in the Psalms. The book of Lamentations—an entire book of the bible—is given over to such prayers, prayers that became part of the prayer book for God’s people.
2. Some Christians are too disappointed to pray. If they pray it all it is hostile or tinged with bitterness. Perhaps such a person is on the backside of the first error, and still believes God should have given them what they wanted. Maybe they discovered what God’s will is and they rejected it. Perhaps their life is so filled with disappointment or pain that they cannot imagine a loving deity. Maybe they are just dry. No words come any more. No matter what brought the disappointment, the person believes God’s will is not something they want—not any more.
The result of these two errors is that a family of faith like this one can have people in it who want to tell God what God’s will should be, and those who are pretty certain they don’t want to do God’s will now that they have had some experience with it.
Let’s return to where we began this sermon for some perspective: praying this way is part of the list of spiritual disciplines Jesus discusses in the Sermon on the Mount. People who do God’s will give alms, fast and pray. People who do God’s will don’t keep anger against a brother. People who do God’s will strive to stay in their marriages, seek to show love for their enemies and refrain from judging others. Putting it bluntly, people who want to see God’s will be done enter into the hard stuff of life, helping God in God’s work of redemption. It’s no wonder that many would rather pray only for what they want or stop praying altogether. I say it again, praying for the Lord’s will is not easy.
Let me try to put it into story form. Lorie and I have been working on a manuscript for the last couple of years on her long journey with cancer. We expect to send it to the publisher in the next week and to see the book in print by the fall. Here is an excerpt that I think touches on this act of aligning ourselves with God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven:
“Lorie is occasionally asked to preach in a church or speak to a group about her faith and approach to suffering. She has often needed to back out due to yet another cancer diagnosis that compromises her immunities and makes her housebound again. When she has been able, however, she often refers to the story of the man born blind–a story found in the 9th chapter of John’s gospel.
She finds that in nearly every audience there is a group of people who think illness or suffering is a sign that God is displeased and that God’s judgment is somehow the source of the illness. There is also a group of persons who think it is presumptuous or selfish to ask God for miracles. Maybe you do not know anyone who holds to either point of view, but we can assure you such people are legion and they make life difficult for the suffering person. One group tells the sufferer they need to confess their sins if they ever want to be made whole again. The other berates the suffering person for being selfish and asking big things of God. Making use of the John 9 text, Lorie points to the words of Jesus as a means to move beyond these tired and silly perspectives and invites her audiences to see matters differently.
These diverse religious perspectives were characteristic of how people thought in Jesus’ day too. The followers of Jesus thought sin—either by the blind man or his parents—was the reason he had been struck blind. After Jesus healed him, the Pharisees took Jesus to task for violating what was proper and performing a miracle on a Sabbath day. Because he did so, they viewed Jesus as the sinner in the story and certainly not a servant of God.
The verse that guides Lorie’s own responses to suffering are these words of Jesus:
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned . . .but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” (John 9:3 NIV)
Lorie inserts her own diagnosis into these words and invites the suffering person and their families to do so as well.
“My leiomyosarcoma did not happen because I or my parents sinned . . . this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in my life.”
Perhaps this sounds ridiculous. To some ears it might even sound as if the person who speaks it credits God for inflicting them with something. Consider it a statement of faith and hope, however, a belief there is some purpose and benefit rather than none at all. Understood that way, it is far less ridiculous and perhaps more sane than giving up, ranting at the heavens, or believing that nothing more can be done.
From our own circumstances we know this to be true. Lorie is now believed to be the longest lived person with the disease. Her experiences and course of treatment now benefit others who share her diagnosis. New patients are able to progress to more advanced medicines and surgical procedures and skip the more traumatic ones because Lorie bears the stripes in her body that truly are a means of healing for others. They are able to prolong their lives and perhaps outlive Lorie because she chose the orientation of letting the work of God be displayed in her life.
-excerpted from Fighting Disease, Not Death,
©2011 Lorie and Mark L. Vincent
And here are words from Joni Eareckson Tada, now more than 40 years as a quadriplegic, whose latest book A place of healing: wrestling with the mysteries of suffering (David C. Cook, 2010) details her more recent battle with chronic pain and the diagnosis of breast cancer. She tells of Shantamma, an 18 year old woman in India, born without use of her legs who became a Christian after a pastor gave her a decrepit copy of the book Joni. In the amazing way God works, it so happened that the ministry of Joni and Friends arranged for a wheelchair for Shantamma without knowing the back story. In her joy, she told one of the team members, “I am ready to go wherever God leads me in this wheelchair . . .just like Joni.”
“…this is one of a million reasons why I am grateful God didn’t heal me of my paralysis. What if God had answered my prayers as a 17-year-old, released me from my paralysis, and returned me to a normal life of a woman on her feet?. . . .There would have been no Joni book for the pastor to give this young woman with so little hope and so few prospects, and there would have been no Joni and Friends or Wheels for the World to do a wheelchair distribution for impoverished people in Ongole, India.
“…. I can’t know what would have happened . . .if there had been no quadriplegic girl in America named Joni to inspire her and lead her to faith in the one true God . . . .I only know that because I wasn’t healed, because God had plans for my life that were wider and higher and deeper and more profound than I could have ever imagined, a teenage girl named Shantamma from the slums of urban India will be with me in heaven. In glorious new bodies that will never tire and never fade, we’ll explore the high mountains of that place, and the wide, green meadows, and we will laugh out loud for joy over the goodness and grace of our heavenly Father.
“What will those decades of disability have meant to me then? What will those few years of chronic pain, tears, and frustration add up to then? That’s enough right there to cause me to say, “Thank you, God, for this wheelchair.” (pp. 191ff).
What more can be said after stories like these? We can only pray as Jesus taught us. Often. Repeatedly. Conforming our will to the will of the Father. On earth as it is in heaven.
-mark l vincent
The first was a black walnut whose trunk was twisted by a wind shear and hung precariously over three houses in our inner-city neighborhood.
The second was an enormous old elm in the far corner of our backyard. It had survived Dutch elm disease, but not the storm that careened through our neighborhood, tearing every mature tree – and some young ones – up by their roots.
One tree-sized limb hung suspended in our neighbor’s now ruined cherry trees. Nearly half of the tree broke off ten feet up, landing in two neighbor’s yards, smashing bushes, fencing and two lawn sheds on its way down. The remaining half towered over our house, threatening to come down at any time.
We were blessed to have friends help us clean brush for three straight evenings. Even then we only got half of it moved before the professionals came in. Needless to say, there was no shortage of firewood, even after what we gave away.
Our beautiful, shade-bearing, life-giving tree was gone.
God made trees to live in forests, with competition for space to make them grow tall and straight. Without it, trees grow larger, wider and heavier than their trunks can support. Eventually, the tree comes crashing down under its own weight, often with memorable, destructive force.
Likewise, God made us to live in communities. Those of us who have great gifts, or maturity beyond our years, often stand as the tallest trees in such a forest. Without the shaping forces of accountability, family, community, regular worship, and spiritual disciplines, we might take on more than we should, and grow larger than our character can support. When this is the case, a lifetime of productive service can come crashing down in an instant, often destroying other lives along the way.
And the worst part is the momentary but spectacular crash will be remembered far more vividly than the many other good actions that came first.
-mark l vincent
Early in ministry I wrote a graduate school paper on women in ministry. I learned what wading into controversial waters meant because my professor flunked half of my paper for the theological pre-supposition of starting the argument with eschatology, although he gave me an “A” for my logic from there. At the same time, my conference minister made the paper available to the pastors of the conference because he found it to offer refreshing insight. Go figure. It was about this time that the theologian Tom Finger published his two-volume theology that started with eschatology. Go figure again.
Although the argument of gender roles in ministry is well settled for some into either conservative or progressive camps, it continues heartily for other congregations. Here is a sermon presented recently for one such family of believers:
WHO GETS TO SPEAK FOR GOD?
In our Scripture readings this morning, two texts are placed side by side. Acts 2 presents the apostle Peter’s explanation of what the Holy Spirit did and will do. People of all genders and ages who are filled with this Spirit will prophesy, proclaiming the good news of God’s saving work through Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit’s action was the fuel behind the spectacular wonder of the Pentecost event. The second text, near the end of 2 Corinthians 14, comes at the end of a substantial lecture from the apostle Paul on the use of spiritual gifts so that orderly worship might be maintained. Corinthian Christians, to whom he writes, had numerous issues that affected worship-competing over their favorite teachers, abandoning their marriages and getting drunk at the Lord’s table, for instance. Plenty of disorder there! Apparently some women were disorderly as well, although we are not told the why or what in a direct way. To address this Paul wants women not to speak and to restrict their discourse to conversation with their husbands at home. He appeals to the order of creation and the penalty of sin handed out at the Garden of Eden as the reason why.
Studied individually, these texts might seem to provide entirely different pictures. Studied side by side, we end up with a question: Who gets to speak for God, especially when the church meets for worship?
A pastor faced with controversial questions in their congregation knows immediately that their relationships are in jeopardy. No matter what they say someone will take offense. Say nothing and someone is offended. Say something and people in the congregation look to have their views confirmed. If not, there is offense.
With many such questions, Christian people are uninterested in how the Bible is interpreted in a faithful manner. They simply want their views confirmed. We are considering such a question today. As we work through the material it is important that we proceed with your understanding that I intend to be faithful not provocative, and with a commitment on your part not to be easily provoked. Together we might then consider the witness of Scripture.
The accompanying chicken-scratched diagram taken from one of my journals shows three ways many faithful Christians approach scriptural interpretation. Each one leads to a different response to the question, “Who gets to speak for God?” A fourth, that of disregarding the biblical text altogether, is not for our consideration in this study even though this is an approach many of us take for many dimensions of our lives.
I. This first approach tends not to trust human experience as a reliable guide. Instead, the Bible provides a corral fence that governs one’s life. This type of biblical structure helps many people whose lives were wild and godless find forgiveness, health and help. This corralled point of view looks for biblical commands and tries to follow them without question because a person gets better results following these instructions than when they were their own moral guide. It isn’t necessarily legalistic, although a corral can become like a second type of law for some, and an inappropriate platform from which to judge the faithfulness of others.
II. The second approach (the middle one in the diagram) brings a person’s life experience or their important questions to Scripture, looking for principles that helps them understand what happened to them, how they should live, or what answers they might find. You might map this as life–to faith–to life. the person starts with life experience, moves to the Scriptures for specific counsel, then seeks to apply what they learn (which makes for new life experiences). The Scriptures, then, are a funnel through which a person passes, hoping for guidance. This approach can get very topical and subjective, especially when the interpreter slices and dices rather than stepping back to look at the overall guidance of Scripture.
As a preacher, I normally avoid the second approach because I am committed to explaining biblical passages far more than preaching on pet topics. Even still, important concerns come before us that drive us to discover what Scripture says–this question of who speaks for God, for instance. As I trained for ministry, Dr. David Biberstine taught me a method of working with the whole of the biblical message in such a case. Once the related passages are considered in their entirety, the student of the scriptures drills down to guiding principles. This style brings this second style of biblical interpretation into the orbit of the third which I will show you now.
III. The third style can be described as faith to life (the bottom picture in the diagram). In this case the Scripture funnels through me as I make myself open to receive it. Rather than conform myself to the Scriptures without discernment as in the first style, or choosing which Scripture to study based on my felt desire or need as in the second style, the Scriptures form me as I systematically study, ask questions, discern and am open to the insights of others.
This third style has its own danger–that of reverencing the Bible ahead of the God who gives us its message. Someone with my commitment to biblical exposition must keep their guard against bibliolatry.
To use this third style well I start with the whole of scripture, not parts in isolation. Even when working with a specific text, I labor to keep the perspective of the larger scriptural narrative. I must also do my best to suspend my preferences and pray for insight that God’s Spirit will guide my preparation.
This style works well with systematic exposition of the Scriptures, The difference between it and the first style is that style 1 expects questions to be settled and no longer questioned, whereas style 3 assumes we are never done learning, discerning and finding new light. The difference between it and the second style is that style 2 expects that my questions determine which Scriptures will be studied, whereas style 3 puts the Scriptures in the position of examining me.
All three come with intentions to be faithful but lead believers to different conclusions about our question of who speaks for God. The first approach usually concludes that until Jesus returns men do the speaking for God–especially among a worshiping community. Paul tells women to keep quiet after all. The second approach tends to follow the dominant set of experiences within the congregation, often alienating those who do not share those experiences. If there are no women leaders, then men continue to lead. If women have positive experiences in leadership elsewhere, and tell the stories of how they sensed God working through them, then over time the Scriptures begin to be discerned differently. The third style, which I admit is my style of preference, offers an alternative I invite you to consider this morning–especially as a way for faithful Christians of many preferences to live together in unity and common mission. Let’s dig a little deeper.
Rightly or wrongly, here are three principles of Biblical interpretation I follow as I prepare to preach and teach. They are especially useful when dealing with what appear to be differences within various Biblical texts. I find them to be a consistent and faithful framework. I share them knowing that someone here might disagree with me, and fully aware that other competent Bible teachers use different frameworks in their desire to be faithful.
1.Distinguish between direct and indirect references.
2.Rely on clear intent over implied meaning.
3.Defer to Jesus.
Let’s consider each more carefully.
Distinguish between direct and indirect messages. Let’s return to the two passages we are considering. The Acts passage gives a direct message of explanation of the events of Pentecost: people of all ages and genders are going to be filled with the Spirit and prophesy. Paul’s long treatise on spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12-14) offers a repeated and direct message: orderly worship takes precedence over the exercise of YOUR spiritual gift. Each correction Paul asks for is in light of this direct message. Paul expects a servanthood that promotes the gospel, even if you or I must set aside our rights to do so. These direct messages are the heart of these texts and should be the heart of our faithful interpretation. They take precedence over any other message we might find there. Indirect messages we draw from passages, such as the role of women or men in ministry, should not be the base for doctrinal teaching.
Rely on clear intent over implied meaning. This is especially true in trying to understand the connection of a specific text within the full scope of the biblical narrative.
CLEAR INTENT– in Acts 2, Peter’s words about who will prophesy did not originate with him. They come from the prophet Joel, looking ahead to the time after Messiah lives on earth and brings redemption. Passages like this one in Acts and the one that precedes it in Joel, point to God’s redeeming work and how it overcomes the penalties of sin given to men and women after the fall. One of my favorite such passages is Isaiah 65:17-25. It too points to God working to undo the results of Eden. One can even find the apostle Paul preaching this theme:
Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law. You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 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 3:21-29 NIV).
I cannot locate the original source, but I have a quote written in my bible next to the curses of Eden in Genesis 3. It is from a favorite author of mine, Em Griffin, a former communications professor at Wheaton College. He writes, “there is no question women were relegated to a submissive role as a result of the fall. Pain and childbirth and hard toil in the fields were also tragic outcomes. But there is no reason to perpetuate the fruit of sin. We don’t object to anesthetic during labor or tractors to till the land on theological grounds, why then gulp hard at women giving direction to men?”
By laying these passages of God overcoming the penalty and curses of sin beside one another, we find a clear understanding that the genders are deeply similar but not completely identical. The different genders experience sin and overcoming sin in similar and differing ways. The God we worship offers salvation and the filling of the Holy Spirit to them all.
IMPLIED–Someone studying the Pentecost event of Acts 2 might notice that public, marketplace preaching was effective in 1st century Jerusalem. This is an implication, however, not what the passage was written to convey. That same student, if considering 2 Corinthians 14, might notice that something gender related was happening in the worship services of congregations Paul founded, because Paul otherwise models Jesus’ approach (see below). Even still, trying to use 2 Corinthians 14 to prove or disprove who gets to speak for God moves into implied meaning and away from messages that are direct and clear. The message about God redeeming women and men that they might carry his message far outweighs the secondary themes of marketplace sermons as a technique, or just what it was the Corinthian women did that was so disruptive.
Defer to Jesus. Jesus is the one to whom we defer when passages seem to offer different directions. Some Christian traditions defer to Moses as the means to interpret Jesus, some traditions start with the apostle Paul as the point of reference. Who you start with makes a difference in the conclusions you reach, even though each one takes Scripture seriously. Deferring to Jesus absolutely does not mean we throw away or disregard what certain biblical texts say, but that we seek to understand them in the light of what Jesus tells us and exemplifies for us.
Here is a practical for instance: let’s say I have an older sister who wants to be the boss of me. She tells me to mow the lawn and take out the trash because she knows these are my responsibilities, but my mother tells me to take out the trash, mow the lawn and make my bed. These are differing instructions and differing sequences, but they are not opposed to one another. I can do what either one says without being disobedient. Still, one of these voices is the more significant authority in my life and I do best by seeking clarity from mom. The biblical interpretation model I follow is that I seek clarity from Jesus.
Using this principle, we can look at passages like John 4 where Jesus meets the Samaritan woman by the well. We learn that Jesus:
•Engages women and men directly.
•Establishes and offers the kingdom, available to all men and women.
•Works to remove the penalties of sin for all men and women.
•Commissions his disciples to be witnesses and disciple makers everywhere. Although the twelve were men, we are given a clear picture that his community of disciples included many women, that the first witnesses of his resurrection were women carrying the message to the disciples, and that women and men formed the first Jerusalem congregation.
In the case of the Samaritan woman, she becomes the means by which her entire village is introduced to Jesus. She was the primary carrier of the message.
There are many aspects of this conversation we might consider. Perhaps you want to go further and carry this into who gets to be ordained to ministry, or the role of women and men in marriage. The topic at the moment is narrower, however, regardless of the implications. The purpose now is to consider who gets to speak for God, and using this method of trying to grasp the biblical scope and draw related principles before we answer, we discover the answer is those persons filled with the Spirit of God. This is not the conclusion everyone will reach. If you disagree it is incumbent upon you to join me in this search to understand the witness of scripture in our lives. No one need feel alienated or shut out if they want a more conservative or open approach than I have taken.
And let us remember for all controversial conversations such as these:
- Our competition is not Christians who reach different conclusions. Our competition is warmongering, poverty, the theft of freedom, sexual slavery, recruiting people into sinful and destructive lifestyles, and all that we might put in the register of evil.
- Congregations are made up of people who use different approaches to studying scriptures, sometimes even mixing and matching them to suit the conversation. We have to find a way of living together in our diverse approaches to being faithful.
- We bridge these differences in our embrace of the gospel, through submission to Scriptural direction and mutual accountability. Thus, a Christian congregation is well served to not set up an authoritarian structure (which historically has been filled by men), who lord authority over women and the congregation via lifetime appointments to the role. Neither is it well served by a laissez-faire structure where we all have a say to the point that each individual gets to be an autocrat and leadership roles are filled with people who must do what pleases ahead of what is right if they want to be effective. Instead, we must create structures that keep the gospel at the front of everything, and where women and men work together in mutual submission to Jesus Christ who teaches us to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves.
This is important for a congregation calling its next pastor. Who gets to speak for God here? Some of you feel it must be a man and you are quite vocal about it. Some of you are open to a woman and are far more silent for fear of bringing tension or offense. Maybe there are others who feel far more strongly on either side of this than I have described. The call from today’s sermon, is to remember that you serve Christ and one another before your own rights, to remember that faithful Christian might reach different conclusions based on the approaches they take to Biblical interpretation, and that we are responsible to find ways to live in unity and a unified witness in the face of hideous evil.
Let us do it to the glory of God who makes women and men and fills them with his Spirit that they might prophesy.
-mark l vincent
Last summer, as Lorie walked back downhill to our house under the trees after having retrieved our mail, she was startled by a hawk swooping to capture a chipmunk in our front yard. It was a confluence of creatures. Hawk, chipmunk and human nearly converged in their reverie of chasing game, enjoying maple seeds and considering the mail, respectively.
Each one had their world rocked in some way.
- The Hawk nearly lost its dinner because it passed so close to a human. It nearly had to alter course.
- Lorie found a much deeper appreciation for the power of beating wings—the hawk passed that close—as well as the circle of life as she listened to the squeaking chipmunk as it was carried away.
- The chipmunk found its life was at an end. It always knew, instinctively, such a thing could happen, but it had never happened to it yet in its brief lifespan. One careless moment of gorging on seeds, however, and its life flipped from joy to terror.
Life throws blocks at us like these. We cannot predict them. We cannot avoid them. They shape us without our permission and we are left trying to make sense of them. For now, let’s call it getting displaced. Displacement means we once were here, now we are there. Something moved us without filling out the proper requisition forms. Protest as much as we want, life is different from now on because that “thing” happened.
Sometimes, as for the hawk, we are blocked, or nearly so, from our desire.
Sometimes, as for Lorie, we are startled into new knowledge. Our peace is shattered by it, and we have to absorb what we just learned. Remaining shocked does not help.
And sometimes, as for the chipmunk as for us all, something pops into our life that cripples, maims or even snuffs out life.
We once were there, now we are here. What shall we do?
We could call the 42nd Psalm, a Psalm of displacement. The Psalmist once lived at the heart of worship in Jerusalem, or at least went on numerous pilgrimages there. This fits well with the title of the Psalm, telling us it comes from the Sons of Korah, one of the great Levitical families that led the worship of Israel. The Psalmist apparently had many wonderful experiences in leading worship, and being an important part of the worship of his people. He felt a strong connection to God during these times. Now, however, he was not in Jerusalem. He is somewhere beyond the Jordan River, north and east of the great city. He is no longer able to get there—whether through illness, aging or even oppression we do not know. It doesn’t matter, though, because the effect is the same. He feels cut off—displaced—from what he loves and from the connection to God he once had. He pines for it to the point of physical illness.
He compares the thirst of a deer looking for water in the middle of extreme drought to the thirst he feels for the God he thinks he may have lost. This comparison to physical and spiritual thirst occurs elsewhere in Scripture. Psalm 63:1 and Joel 1:19,20 are examples:
O God, you are my God,
earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you,
my body longs for you,
in a dry and weary land
where there is no water.
To you, O Lord, I call,
for fire has devoured the open pastures
and flames have burned up all the trees of the field.
Even the wild animals pant for you;
the streams of water have dried up
and fire has devoured the open pastures.
-Joel 1:19-20 NIV
The displacement felt by this Psalmist manifests itself in outright depression. Listen to the symptoms he lists:
- Crying instead of eating (v.3)
- Alienation from others (v.3)
- Wanting to recover the idealized past (v.4)
- Feeling downcast in spirit (v.5) –the word “soul” here refers to one’s life-force, as if one’s soul is giving way and is about to expire.
- Stuck, asking repeated questions: (vv.2,5,9,11)
The displacement felt by this Psalmist creates a divide between feeling and intellect. The Psalmist feels cut off, mourns over what is lost, wonders if God is with him. Yet, the Psalmist knows some information about God that contradicts what he is feeling:
- Songs like this pain-filled one, can be written and used in worship of the Lord.
- God is not subject to our direction. Our inability to see him, or for our enemy to see him, does not mean God is not there. In fact, the Psalmist knows that even though it feels like drought to him, that God is actually flowing all around him, doing a mighty work in his life. He feels like a dry land crying out for rain, but knows God is cascading and drenching him with water all the time. Reading this Psalm took me back to two travel adventures I had. The first was getting caught in the power of the surf at Embassy Beach in the Dominican Republic. Actually, I got caught twice. The first was the undertow, pulling me out to sea. I was strong enough a swimmer then to swim long and hard cross wise to the tow to fight my way back. The second, now sticking closer to shore, was doing backwards prone somersaults when a particularly nasty wave turned some awesome body-surfing into the largest salt water ingestion I ever had. The second water adventure was our family hiking up a tall waterfall outside of Caracas, Venezuela, following a trail behind the home of my brother-in-law and sister, who lived there at the time. We kept climbing and climbing and climbing, and never did get all the way to the top of that elegant cascade. There were so many pools and flows and drop-off points—always changing, always moving. I find this to be a rich illustration. We tend to think God doles himself out to us in little dollops and trickles. Perhaps the better image is for us to realize we are drowning in God. We end up resisting because we would rather have the little sips of God at the times of our choosing. We don’t know what to do with a God who doesn’t fit in the categories or the structures where we place him.
- The Lord is with him wherever he is, in all his days and all his nights (v.8)—even when he cannot feel God’s presence. The Psalmist can keep singing the songs and praying the prayers, whether he is in Jerusalem or not. The words of one of my favorite hymns get it as well as any other:
My life goes on in endless song:
Above earth’s lamentation,
I catch the sweet, tho’ far-off hymn
That hails a new creation.
Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul–
How can I keep from singing?
What tho’ my joys and comfort die?
The Lord my Saviour liveth;
What tho’ the darkness gather round?
Songs in the night he giveth.
No storm can shake my inmost calm,
While to that rock I’m clinging;
Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth,
How can I keep from singing?
I lift my eyes; the cloud grows thin;
I see the blue above it;
And day by day this pathway smooths,
Since first I learned to love it.
The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart,
A fountain ever springing;
All things are mine since I am his–
How can I keep from singing?
- He can continue to place his hope in the Lord. With this last piece of knowledge the Psalmist has, we find the strategy the Psalmist uses to deal with these depressive feelings of displacement. He meets each new round of interior questioning and exterior taunting with an affirmation of a faith he knows but may not feel. He seems determined to play this tape as often as he must until he has some return to joy—if he ever does at all. After all, we must remember that having faith while being displaced seldom means we will get placed back as it once was just because we confess a faith in God. God is more likely to help us see the waves all around us rather than return us to the trickling stream of our preference.
Another Scripture passage believers often turn to in seeking hope in the middle of feeling lost and displaced might help us here:
This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the Lord.
This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.” -Jeremiah 29:4-14 NIV
These words come from a letter Jeremiah wrote to fellow Jews living in exile. These are instructions God gives them about how to live in their displaced place. The promise given with these instructions is that there would be a return someday—for most people, long after they died. The hope that would keep them going was hope of the promise being fulfilled for their descendants.
All of us will feel displaced at one point or another. Life is not what it was. It is not turning out as you expected. The categories in which you placed everything in nice little boxes are exploding in your face.
- It might be your body and its failure to stay well that displaced you.
- It might be circumstances of someone mistreating you.
- It might be job loss.
- It might be disappointment and alienation with family members.
- Maybe choices your children make present predicaments for you that make you rethink your values, or even your faith.
- Maybe the preferences you have for church life and worship are challenged by younger people.
- Maybe you love the rural life and feel your heritage fading into oblivion as the rural fabric changes.
- Or, you thought adult life had a certain wonder to it, but now that you are entering your teen years, you are finding it brutal and hypocritical.
Displacement happens in all kinds of ways. It leaves us alienated and feeling abandoned by God—but mostly because we prefer to control the ways God comes to us. One of the great benefits of displacement—if we but choose to keep telling ourselves that our hope is in the Lord—is that we can go deeper into the waters of God. Instead of coming as a consumer, drinking when we decide we are thirsty in the manner we prefer to do our drinking at God’s stream, we place ourselves in the waters of God—letting God fill us beyond any capacity we thought we had, letting the waters of God spill out through us and becoming the source of living water from which others might drink.
I watched a Dennis the Menace Christmas movie with my nephews this week—an entirely cheesy mish-mash of Hank Ketcham’s cartoon characters and Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In this case it is Mr. Wilson (played by Robert Wagner of all people) who is Scrooge because he lost his Christmas Spirit. Dennis (or is it Tiny Tim?) fails spectacularly and causes much damage at Mr. Wilson’s expense in his attempts to retrieve Mr. Wilson’s Christmas Spirit. Finally Dennis begins to doubt peace and goodwill to men himself. Dennis’ child-like Christmas spirit is now in jeopardy. It takes an angel, the spirits of Christmas past, present and future mixed into one, to show Mr. Wilson the error of his ways and helps him regain his joy and wonder at the day.
I admit it, tears came easily and flowed readily for me as Mr. Wilson appeared on Christmas morning with the list of thousands of dollars Dennis’ parents owed him for damages Dennis had caused. As Dennis’ father attempts to apologize yet again and promises to repay Mr. Wilson somehow, Mr. Wilson breaks into a large smile, folds the list in half, tears it into shreds and throws it in the air. In that moment of that cheesy movie, I could feel the water of God flowing around me. It certainly flowed down my face.
And I needed it.
- I worry about my wife, my daughter, my son and daughter in law. I’m concerned for my nephews and nieces.
- I live in a place of last resort. Although I’ve learned to love Wisconsin as my home, we went there to face long-term illness and death, and away from twenty years of life and ministry in Northern Indiana.
- Six weeks ago a relative robbed me.
- This week my daughter was summarily fired from her first job.
- Next week my wife is scanned yet again to determine how we will treat yet another round of cancer.
In my darkest moments I feel I have good reason to act like Mr. Wilson or this Psalmist, yearning for the joy and standing I once had.
Or, I can throw myself in the waters of God, and take the list of all my bitternesses and sorrows and tear them up. I can decide, in spite of how I may feel, to keep stating my hope:
I’m trading my sorrows.
I’m trading my sickness.
I’m trading my pain.
I’m laying them down for the joy of the Lord.
Though the sorrow may last for the night, his joy comes in the morning.
mark l vincent
I’ve worked in enough congregations placed in the middle of farmland to be able to feel farmers feeling spring. Seeing cropland emerge from under snow cover changes the demeanor, adds to the sidelong glances to check how well the fields are drying out as you drive to town, and affects the subjects of coffee shop conversation. Farmers begin making comments about how busy they will be in just a few weeks. Speculation increases about the cost of materials and commodities.
Many other persons in rural congregations work in businesses that support agriculture. They too begin sitting a little more on the edge of their seat as spring looks like it might get sprung. It is a second skin that cannot be shed. Persons living in it might not realize how ingrained it is, but it is a rhythm they have learned to trust and live by. It is what they KNOW.
Working with congregational systems as long as I have I can sense where most congregations are in the cycle of organizational development. I get a good idea pretty quickly about what might be done, by whom and by when. This is my second skin. I sometimes don’t realize how deeply ingrained it is. It is a rhythm I’ve learned to trust and live by. It is what I KNOW. This is why I say I can feel farmers feeling spring. I feel it because I know the impact it has on church life when there are crops to be planted, crops to be harvested, the winter time when everyone goes on vacation. Important decisions that require broad conversation and widespread ownership have to be woven in between these times.
All of us have these deeply ingrained patterns that we trust. They are a base of knowledge for us. Our tendency is to trust what we know and to distrust what we do not yet know, because it might force us to adjust or reorganize the knowledge we do have. Even if we can observe the new knowledge to be helpful , we tend to distrust it because it means changing our assumptions or our patterns of living.
A graduate professor of mine, B. Wayne Hopkins, used to tell of a Texas oil refinery worker who hoisted himself across catwalks and up ladders to adjust a valve several times a day. It was the most boring of jobs, but he tolerated it because it provided for his family and it was believed spinning the wheel to adjust the valve was necessary for the refinement process. After thirty years his job was eliminated because it was discovered adjusting the valve had no effect on oil refinement. The man sunk into despair because he now felt unnecessary and as if the purpose of his life was declared worthless.
This story illustrates a good reason why we might distrust new knowledge! It might be accurate, but it can simultaneously dismember what we spend our lifetimes building.
Distrust of new knowledge might be rooted in arrogance (I know what is best and what works), or anxiety (I don’t know for sure if it will work and I certainly don’t want to fail), or even anxiety masked as arrogance (That is a stupid idea!). These reactions show up when we have hard decisions to make and differing operating patterns out of which we make them. Somehow, we have to move beyond what we know to what we do not know in order to embrace solutions that move us beyond stuck places.
Prairieview Mennonite Church is a good example of why moving to what you do not yet know is good and helpful. This congregation has now spent ten years already moving to an unknown place as two previously separate congregations merged to form one. Now, this congregation must move to the unknown place as a ten year old congregation whose people came from one of the previous two congregations, but everyone else now present and anyone else who comes to them did not. Having been two congregations is now the history. Living as one congregation is the present.
Here is a way of diagramming what being humble enough to move to new knowledge looks like:
I first learned of this diagram while working on my doctorate. I had to write a philosophical orientation that I bring to any research, revealing any biases I might discover. This provides a way for any future researcher to critique my work. If I reveal any bias I might have, it makes the work easier to build future knowledge later. One of the biases I wrote about was my strong belief that the more that is learned, the more we learn, exponentially, that we do not yet know.
Look at the diagram and you discover it is simple to grasp. Each of us an arena of knowledge (the upper left hand corner). For instance, I know how to lace a shoe. This is the arena of those patterns we have learned to trust because they work.
Next come the items we know that we do not know (lower left corner). There are other ways to lace a shoe. This I know. How to lace them up in that manner I do not.
Third, are the items I do not know that I know (upper right hand corner). This can be tougher to grasp, mostly because I am describing something of which I am not aware. So, in this discussion of lacing shoes, we could say that I’ve forgotten that I could figure out how to lace shoes up in different ways if I simply sat down and became creative. Of course, the minute I figure out an alternative way to lace up a shoe, it shifts over to the Known Knowns quadrant.
Finally, there are the things I do not know and I do not know that I do not know them (lower right hand corner). Are you confused? It is okay to be confused about this corner of the diagram because we are describing not only a lack of knowledge, but a lack of awareness of that lack of knowledge. Perhaps there are other ways of fastening shoes that remain to be discovered and I’m not thinking about it at all. Now that I am, however, it shifts over to the Known Unknowns because I’m conscious of them.
Let’s put the same box to work in a church context—a church that is between pastors.
You might be further interested to hear an observation which I hold about people who prefer rural living and those who prefer an urban lifestyle. While everyone functions from what they know, it is my observation that urban people are much more comfortable with ambiguity, marked by the gold circle in the next diagram. They might even prefer to be in an environment that keeps forcing them to have new experiences, but remain uninterested in figuring it out. They often pay people who know rather than having to know themselves. Rural people, by contrast, often prefer a higher degree of self-sufficiency, wanting to master skills and doing without rather than paying someone else to do them until they either have the time or the knowledge to do so. You can see their arena marked by the grey circle.
So, while we have much in common as humans, we also have significant differences—differences that become more marked and distant in our culture. We emphasize the difference and choose to accentuate them rather than to find new ways of working together.
I point this out because those who are moving into the small towns around farm land may well reflect a more urban mindset than a rural one, and that is different from yesteryear. It will make discernment and decision-making more intricate because not only will people have different opinions, they will also use different words than those who are already present at the church. When they use the same words, they will often mean something different than what was meant before. How complex it all becomes if we are not humble servants!
Becoming a humble servant is what the Apostle Paul has in mind as he writes to an internally conflicted and externally persecuted Philippian church, even while he languished in prison. He writes:
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death — even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
-Philippians 2:3-11 NIV
It is good for us to hear him inviting those who lead the church and those who are called to be mature to move more comfortably and less anxiously toward the unknown unknowns we inevitably face.
It is also good for us to hear each of Paul’s instructions in isolation:
- Do nothing from selfish ambition. Life is not a homecoming game with losers you trample on in order to win. Instead, life offers a chance to build your succession. Each of us needs to matter less even as we raise the standing of others. This is what Christ does, yet look at the exaltation he receives.
- Do nothing from vain conceit. Remember, our resistance to moving into the unknown unknowns can sometimes be our belief that we know better. Conceit of this type is destructive and refuses to acknowledge that our unknown unknowns are well-defined known knowns that others possess.
- In humility, consider others better than yourselves. This is almost the same command as not acting from vain conceit. It is stated in the positive, however. Paul’s instruction is for us to stop being conceited and to pursue humility. We can start by deferring to the knowledge others have and we do not. This is what starts building succession as you raise the standing of others.
- Have the same attitude as Christ Jesus. This is the same word Paul uses when we calls the Philippian Christians to have the same mind. “Mind” and “attitude” are the same expression in Greek, referring to a disposition, a direction one points their mind. We can easily draw the conclusion that not only does Paul tell the Philippians to have the same mind, but the mind he has in mind is the mind of Christ.
As the Son of God, Jesus could lay claim to omniscience and omnipresence. There are no quadrants with him. It is all Known Knowns. Yet, we see him functioning in the place of unknown unknowns, trusting that God would complete the work of salvation, putting the welfare of all humanity ahead of his own, and being held up as the example for our trust in one another, our making decisions together and our offering ministry to others.
I recall the missiologist Ray Bakke telling of an urban Baptist church in Chicago he pastored as it decided to add a Spanish language worship service. It has become one of my favorite stories that depict change. Apparently this English-speaking church had a particular member who resisted any Spanish language service. She was the oldest member and blocked any vote with her defiance. “Let them speak English if they want to worship with us,” she would say.
Ray knew that the church actually once spoke Swedish when it was an immigrant congregation but made the change to English back in the day. He was sly enough to know this woman had lived through the change so he went to visit her and asked her to tell him the story, if she remembered it, when this church she loved so much had made the original change in languages.
It turns out she was the culprit. She had begun a bible study with women in the neighborhood, and of course, none of them spoke Swedish. When they asked if they could come to church and perhaps hold an English service there, the leaders said no. If they wanted to come to their church they needed to speak Swedish. So, this now elderly champion of English began holding English worship services anyway—to the point it could no longer be resisted and the change was made.
Half-way through her story the woman stopped, fixed her eyes on her pastor and said, “I know what you are doing! You caught me! All-right, I will support a Spanish service.” According to Ray Bakke, at the next meeting of the congregation, she stood, shared the story, repented of her resistance, and invited her sisters and brothers to join her as they marched into a new round of unknown territory.
A good number of people gather in worship services today who face a similar scenario. The next years are unknown unknowns for them individually, and for the congregations they love. Their readiness to assume the mind of Christ and to move into what they do not yet know and cannot foresee will make all the difference to the impact of their witness.
-mark l vincent
My memory of the event about which I am telling you is that Lorie and I were newly married—one of the first times we were able to rent a car. We filled it up as a gas station in Ft. Wayne, Indiana before we returned it, but it simply would not start again. Not even a growl.
It turns out it was a newfangled electronic chip that burned out, a precursor to electronic systems gracing our cars today. It was just a little chip, but its failure to send a signal made the whole big auto in-operational. It looked and felt like a car. It had gas in it. The steering wheel still tilted and the battery could still power the stereo. Air filled the tires. The upholstery was in fine condition and the exterior still gleamed. All appearances looked normal, but the car could not work unless that one necessary circuit functioned.
So many arenas of life work this way. A vacuum cleaner will not work if the plug comes out of the wall or a belt breaks. A well-bound book without the last chapter does not read. Or consider a musical scale minus the last note. It is no longer a scale is it? Even though it approximates a scale, it is broken and unresolved. Another example is the many organizations with which I work, trying to figure out what is next. They can do fine planning and work through complicated problems to discover new approaches, but if a key leader feels threatened or inadequate, the new and helpful initiatives come to a screeching halt, no matter how many times others circle back to try to kick-start the process once more.
In our verses today, the Apostle Paul adds to this little list, telling us that when oneness, what we might call agreement, goes missing, the church does not work.
“Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose.” (Philippians 2:1-2 NASU)
We can show up for services. We can go through the motions of giving, making decisions and trying to keep program alive, but it no longer functions as it should. In effect, our ability to agree is a circuit that makes the church engine roar to life. It is the way, this oneness, that Jesus tells helps others recognize our Christianity as something real and vital (John 17:20-26).
And here is another dimension we must consider: some broken items eventually become irreplaceable. If you misplay a scale, for instance, you can quickly fix it. But misplay it at a virtuoso performance and you can never get the moment back. Consider Christina Aguilera singing the national anthem at the 2011 Super Bowl. Web sites posted scathing attacks within minutes of her flubbed lyrics. Her forgettable performance there will live with her always, no matter how powerful her singing voice.
Perhaps you can live beyond a hazardous and tragic first marriage, or find a new and happy church home after abandoning an unhappy situation. Maybe you can retrain for an entirely new vocation. But if you make this your pattern of response to difficulties you reach a point where you can no longer recover. You will be abandoned even as you have abandoned. You will be alone precisely because you chose end of life aloneness over the current pain of working through difficulties in your relationships so that agreement might be reached.
The point here is how precious our relationships are: at work, in our families and most especially in our fundamental units of community—our houses of worship. If we fail to understand their purpose or fail to cherish them, not only do we lose their value for our well-being, but we are guilty of removing the potential of that well-being for others.
The church has been given us by those who struggled through and somehow made it work. Now it is our trust to take care of and hand off to others. It is not someone else’s task from which we benefit. Rather, it is our task from which others get to benefit.
To the heart of a congregation experiencing external persecution and internal conflict, Paul says, “Make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose.” From his pen and for our ears, Paul tells us the circuit along which the church keeps running is oneness. Our mental framework (world-view) needs to be the same. The spirit (passion, energy and perhaps the infilling of the Holy Spirit) needs to be the same. Our purpose (what we hope to achieve in our common ministry vocation) needs to be the same.
If these are not in place we must ask ourselves what is missing. We must seek to discover what is wrong. How shall we proceed to re-establish oneness yet again? And please understand: this is not just a discussion of a past, common experience of professing faith in Jesus Christ. We are pointing to a common focus as we face the future, a common commitment to make church life work, and a mutual encouragement of one another as we do.
Paul’s thoughts run the same here in these verses as he moves from past experience in Christ to the church’s agreement and commonly forged perspective as it does its work.
If you have been encouraged by Christ . . . .
If you have any comfort from love . . . .
If there is any fellowship of the Spirit
If there is any affection and compassion . . . .
If these are the foundation of Christian experience, then we must move forward in oneness, drawing on these things if we are to have any integrity. And if there is not a deep level of agreement like this, then we need to go back and re-establish the foundation.
Let us assume the foundation is in place for a moment. What would oneness look like for the congregation then? It isn’t hard! Any congregation would agree to a substantial effort to make a difference in the community where they are planted. They would begin to spread out and make new families feel welcome in neighborhoods where they reside. They would offer tutoring to student struggling to make it in school. They would lead neighborhood bible studies and pray for their neighbors. The church would go to people instead of demanding that people must come to church at a specific time and place for it to count.
A church living in agreement:
- Does not criticize nearby churches who may use a different approach to living out the gospel
- Tweaks its organizational structure when needed to keep matters clear and simple, especially to help invite new and younger leaders into positive ministry experiences
- Offers to work alongside the pastor(s) it calls to serve
- Readily enters the process of expanding and renovating facilities needed to carry out kingdom work
- Commits itself to find newer, deeper and more generous ways to offer to the Lord the first and best of income and all other life assets
A church living in agreement does all this and more with joy. Such a people know they received encouragement from Christ. Together, they now offer that encouragement to others.
Committing oneself to agreement is a key way we express our service to Jesus Christ. And if we cannot make such a commitment to agreement, we need to check the foundation of our house. A house might look like a house. It might feel like a home. But if the foundation is missing it cannot last long. How great a fall it will have!
-mark l vincent
Keep moving or die as a slogan for work and life never felt more apropos than now.
- Each advance we make in business procedure or consultative technique is quickly matched by competitors who are just as eager to live to see another day.
- Each dollar we squeeze demands to be squeezed even more.
- Technology just keeps making quantum leaps forward. For instance, I’m writing this in an internet-based word processing program we are testing with the hope to increase our company’s computing mobility.
- Few if any economic certainties allow us to rest on past patterns of procuring and retaining clients.
So we keep pushing on. But it isn’t because we must. It is because I’m privileged to work with a group of people committed to keep moving. We enjoy it. We relish the challenge to design betters way of operating organizationally. We believe it is the grist from which we can guide other organizations down the same path of a thriving survival.
You might be interested to know that these are matters that concerned Theodore Roosevelt, the 26 th President of the United States. His concern did not flow just from the politician or warrior that he was, but also connected to his deep interest and exploits in natural science. Speaking at the Académie de Sciences Morales et Politiques in France, following his presidency and a lengthy hunting safari in Africa to collect museum pieces, he said:
“It Is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”
-mark l vincent
Lorie and I began pastoral ministry in an urban setting–First Mennonite Church of Fort Wayne, Indiana, the congregation where the Ft. Wayne Rescue Mission began. Our congregation was populated in the 1950s and 1960s by young adults coming from Iowa, Illinois and Ohio farms to work in Alternate Service in Fort Wayne. A good number found their spouses and chose to remain in the city rather than return to the farm. In the 1970′s the congregation added to its population by assisting refugees coming from Laos and Chile. By the time I became the pastor in the 1980′s all that was over. No-one was having babies anymore and no-one was moving to the city from the farms. If our church was going to stay the same size or grow it needed to engage in outreach with the people in the church neighborhood.
So this is what we did . . .and with some success. We reached a number of people with no church connection at all, or just a marginal one they had abandoned after childhood. A good number of these folks had significant life agenda to address in order to follow Jesus with all their heart, soul, mind and strength. Many had been divorced multiple times, usually siring/birthing children each time. There was a good deal of former addiction. One particularly tough scenario was an unemployed couple who came to us pregnant with their second child, but the woman was not yet divorced from her previous husband.
This made my time with other Mennonite pastors quite interesting. Their churches were debating whether the rare divorced person that came their way could become a member of their congregations. Many of our newly baptized were divorced. usually more than once. They wondered whether a couple who had once lived together could be married in the church–even if they repented from it. I was a pastor for seven years before I had a wedding where the couple had not lived together.
In short, the people our sister congregations would not embrace as members were the ones we were reaching and preparing for leadership. Instead of trying to debate who was right, we decided the best thing was to return to scripture as the point for our orientation. We tried to study it without bias so we could learn what was appropriate to do in identifying and preparing new church leaders.
I’ve led some significant study in recent months where we did something similar. We returned to the early chapters of Matthew to reacquaint ourselves with Jesus because so many have differing perspectives on who he is and what he taught. In this study we learned Jesus was a person who did not care where the cross was hung on the church wall, who did not cut off relationships with others based on whether the church had an organ or not, and who sets the example of leadership development with people like Judas, Peter and Matthew by his side – all men who would be disqualified in many churches. The manner and method of Jesus give us good insight into what is appropriate and what is not when identifying, calling and preparing leaders. The scene of the early church in Acts 6 as it appoints its first Deacons gives us even more insight. Yes, Acts 6 yields many insights on many subjects, but none more than identifying church leaders.
A brief summary of the passage is that the Greek speaking widows were not receiving material support as were the Hebrew speaking widows. The Greek speaking widows shared the same ethnic heritage–all of them were Jewish– but their culture was substantially different from Hebrew speakers.The Hebrew widows were supplied better because they had natural connections and networks as long-time residents of Jerusalem. The complaints of the Greek speaking widows reached the apostles who met to deal with the situation. They determined that service (the Greek word is diakonia, where we get the word Deacon) is deeply important, important enough to appoint other godly leaders to oversee a more just collection and distribution of material support for the Greek speaking widows. They asked the Jerusalem congregation to identify such leaders and they did. The diaconate was born.
I believe there are at least five significant observations to make as we watch the apostles identify, call and bless new leaders to lead. I offer these observations with the suggestion that the method of leadership selection modeled by the early church is exemplary for us today. We do not need to make the task more difficult than it already is, and we gain no benefit by adding complexity to the simplicity of their method.
1. Ministry is emphasized and expanded, not diluted. The apostles make a distinction between their work of prayer/ministry of the word from “service.” They did not rank them as if one was more important than the other. Instead, they preserved both by expanding roles and identifying new leaders. Had they tried to include the work of service into what the apostles were already doing, ministry effectiveness would become diluted and dissatisfaction would have increased.
2. The expectations of leadership characteristics are high, not low. My daughter attends a church that takes this sort of high expectation seriously. Much like many other leading congregations have discovered, they expect significant training before people are recognized in service ministries of various sorts. My daughter is considering whether she wants to join her congregation’s Stephen ministry program. Her church will expect her to voluntarily participate in a year’s worth of preparation before she can represent the congregation in this ministry.
Similarly, the new leaders in Acts 6 were to be filled with the Spirit and connected to wisdom. The spiritual community surrounding them needed to recognize these gifts and call them out. Warm body slot-filling was of no use and would violate the process.
3. These high expectations were used to identify leaders, not to prevent them or remove them from leadership. Some people try to use these standards of Acts 6 (or also Titus 1 or 1 Timothy 3) to disrespect or remove current leaders. They tell fellow church members, ”I know what our pastor did when they were ten years old. So I can’t respect them as a leader.” Or, “I overheard an argument they were having. This means their marriage is troubled and they have no right to be a leader.” If these were the real standards and this was the way they should be applied, then no one could serve!
Others are sorely tempted to discard these standards because they feel they are so high that no-one will agree to serve. So they fill leadership spots with people who don’t know how to say no, or as a means to try to keep someone involved they are afraid might bail. Sometimes they even guilt a person into the role. “It’s your turn. The rest of us are tired,” they say.
Whether it is disrespect or discarding the standards, such actions set up new leaders for failure—a completely different experience from Acts 6 where deacons were called to the role because of their godliness.
4. The kingdom of God is grown, not reigned in or controlled at the apostolic level. This is the underlying mission and foundational impulse of apostolic choices throughout the book of Acts. Perhaps the most critical part of the decision to expand leadership to these new deacons was the apostles’ conviction that they must stay focused on the mission and let the mission guide the decision.
5. Money serves the kingdom, not the other way around. And how often have we seen it the other way around —-kingdom work set aside and “pay the bills” language inserted when we discuss money? When we make the kingdom serve money we delay important, life-giving and faithful action. Sometimes we even reduce the capacity for God’s people to be generous because we substitute fundraising speech for the more appealing invitation to expand ministry.
This text points at us and says “Follow our example!”
If we do follow their example we grow the kingdom instead of preserve a heritage. We identify and train leaders — taking the risk of their failure over the risk of their never having led. And, we keep the church a living extension of the ministry of Jesus Christ, rather than something we feel belongs to us alone.
I have now lived through my own growing up and the growing up of my children. In both these generations I witnessed many persons being called to and nurtured into leadership, including myself, my wife, my children and a good number of our friends. The bright and wondrous moments during all these years came in taking the risks to grow the kingdom. The dark and unhappy moments were when leaders and parishioners, both, gave in to concerns over getting what they want or preserving the kingdom they had built. In such dark moments the living body of Christ was turned into a tomb of memories.
So . . . let us count ourselves a living body, not an empty building, especially as we call out new leaders, prepare them for ministry, and let them lead.
-mark l vincent