Tuesday

Some Assembly Required

During the Christmas season, the most dreaded phrase to any mom or a dad buying gifts for their family, are the words, “Some Assembly Required.”
Some years ago, I bought something from Ikea for a gift. For two evenings before Christmas, I had my workbench covered with odd shaped pieces of furniture, screws, nuts & bolts, and really odd steel connectors. It was an… um… interesting time.
The most valuable thing in my shop during those nights was a package of papers with the title “Assembly Instructions” on the front. In spite of my innate distrust of instructions (hey, I am a guy!), I found those pages to be very precious while I was assembling a gift was to fall somewhat short of its claim that it was “Easy to Assemble.” There were several parts to the instructions: a list of all the materials that had been included in the package and how they were used, a step-by-step guide to the assembly process, and an exploded view of the finished product.
Think of this: if you had a project where you absolutely needed the assembly instructions, would you want all of the instructions? If you needed to build something that you had never seen before, would you want to have the Assembly Instructions?
In the church, we do this on a regular basis. We read the beginning of our Assembly Instructions and then put even those preliminary instructions away. And then we wonder why this thing called “Church” isn’t working the way we wish it would, not to mention our private lives.
We have been given three parts of our assembly and operation instructions. We’ve not been using all three to their full capacity.
The first part of the instructions is the Word of God, the Bible. “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” We must be taught, reproved, corrected and trained by “all Scripture.” We’re usually OK with this one.
But there is more that makes up our instructions. The apostles knew it; they wrote, “…it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” when they sent specific instructions to a group of believers in Antioch. I would argue that the rest of our Assembly Instructions are described here: the leading of the Holy Spirit and the counsel of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Speaking of the Holy Spirit, Jesus, who is the undisputed Head of the Church, taught us that the Spirit would “take of mine and declare it to you.” It is not a stretch to infer that one of the things that the Spirit will declare in the church is the leadership instruction of Jesus, or that He would declare instructions from our Lord and Savior to us individually. He was more direct when He declared that the Holy Spirit would “teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all things that I have said to you.”
Jesus modeled the principle: at his baptism, he was led both by the Word (“Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”) and by the Spirit (“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”).
The third part of our instructions is the input of our brothers and sisters, our friends in the Kingdom. Proverbs states it as a principle: “Where there is no counsel, the people fall; But in the multitude of counselors there is safety,” and “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, But he who heeds counsel is wise.” Even when God made you and me, it was in community: “Let us make man in our image…” (emphasis added).
My point is this: if we are going to have better success, either in our personal lives or in our leadership responsibilities with the Body of Christ, then we need to be well and truly led by the Word of God, by the Spirit of God, and by the counsel of Godly men and women.
In many congregations, we are quick to declare that we follow the Bible’s instructions, though in reality, many of us don’t often read those instructions ourselves; we wait for a pastor or teacher or conference speaker or even a Facebook friend to instruct us in the ways of using that instruction manual. But we honor the Bible and acknowledge its authority at directing our private life and the life of the church. We are willing to be directed by the Word, sometimes to the degree that if we can’t find “chapter and verse” to support a statement or plan, then we reject it out of hand.
In other environments, we are quick to follow what we perceive the Spirit to be saying to us, often without questioning whether such “leading” is consistent with the other half of the instructions: the Word of God. My objection is not against being led by the Spirit (quite the contrary!) or even with the concept that His leading is sometimes unfamiliar or strange. My frustration is when we follow such leading without testing that direction against either the Word or the counsel of our counselors.
It seems that in this day and age, God is re-emphasizing relational ministry, re-emphasizing the value of enduring friendship in the Church. Of course it’s easy to see that being led only by the counsel of others is unwise. Adam found this out in the Garden of Eden. His excuse that “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it” didn’t absolve him of blame as he had hoped, and it doesn’t today. “I was only following orders” is never an excuse.
Rehoboam serves as an illustration that we need counsel from leaders, elders (elders in the Biblical sense, not people who merely hold positions in church government), not just our friends and peers. At the same time, I have known congregations where individuals cannot take any initiative unless the “elders” (in the second sense) approve of it, regardless of what the Word and the Spirit say.
Here’s where I’m going with this: many of us – both as individuals and congregations – tend to focus on one of these three ways that God instructs us, and we tend to dismiss one or two of them.
  • Congregations and individuals who highly value the Word of God tend to functionally (not verbally) ignore the process of being either directed or instructed by the Holy Spirit. Some of them value counsel nearly as much as the Word; others overlook it. I find this attitude in congregations often; apart from the members of those congregations, I don’t often see this in individuals.
  • Individuals and congregations who highly value being led by the Spirit tend to value that leading so highly that it is above questioning, either by counselors or in the light of the Scriptures. I see this attitude in individuals and home groups more often than I see it in whole congregations, and the unhealthy emphasis seems to come from injuries sustained by members of the former group.
  • I am aware of a few folks who have difficulty making decisions without researching the opinions of everyone they know. They want the approval of every leader and as much prophetic input as they can find on the subject before taking action. To be fair, we’ve de-valued for so long this aspect of God’s input into the life of the individual and the congregation that there seems to be less of this error.
I propose that we work intentionally toward a relative balance of these three voices in our lives: that we sit under the Word, allowing it to speak to us; that we make time and opportunity for the Spirit to instruct us, and that we cultivate relationship with mature believers and that we invite them to speak into our lives. And I propose that we listen to the input of all three: that we take direction from them and that we learn from them.

Sunday

The Family of God

I am a man of many talents. I can be many things at once. Simultaneously, even.

I am a husband of the most wonderful woman who has ever walked this planet. At the same time, I am the father of three of the most amazing children of this generation. And while doing both of those, I am also the son of an awesome man and his awesome bride of nearly sixty years. It’s an honor to be related to them.

In other words, I’m part of a family. It’s an odd family, really, though I suppose most families can make a claim of that sort in one way or another. Ours is a very diverse bunch.

This Thanksgiving, we had – sitting side-by-side at the dinner table – the (successful) campaign manager for a very liberal politician and a (successful) football coach with unrepentantly conservative political views. We had passionate proponents of the social gospel sitting with evangelical bible thumpers and next to others whose credo is, “eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die!” and still others who preach that any road is a road to whatever god you want it to be.

When we gather for a meal, we share the responsibility for giving thanks. More than once, I’ve watched some folks cringe as others prayed; I’ve done it myself, and I’m quite certain that family members have cringed when it was my turn.

But none of that gets in our way of being family. Grandma and Grandpa are the matriarch and patriarch of this clan, and the clan knows it. They have knowingly raised a bunch of “rugged individualists,” and they’re not ashamed of it. In this family, if you’re family, you’re family! Deal with it. There is nothing you can do to revoke your family status. One of the family divorced his wife, but she’s still family. She comes to the campouts and the gatherings, and she’s well and truly loved.

We’re family because, whether by birth or by marriage, we all have the same father and mother. We don’t need to agree to certain conditions to be family. We don’t need to believe the right things, join the right groups, vote in a particular way. We’re family because we have the same father.

I have another family: the Family of God, sometimes known as The Church. In this family, we all have the same Father (though the mother part has me scratching my head). I’m part of that Family because I have Father God as my Father. In this case, I was adopted into this Family, but His commitment to me is no less than the commitment of my biological family.

Similarly, I don’t need to believe the right doctrines, follow the right traditions, hang out with the right people in order to be part of that Family. I’m family because I am a child of the same Dad as the rest of the Family.

I’m part of another family too, a third one. I’m part of a local fellowship of believers, a local church congregation.

I would suggest that the same rules apply in this family as in the other two: I am not a part of this family because I believe the right doctrines, follow the right traditions, hang out with the right people. I’m part of the family because the guy who leads us does a pretty darned good job of fulfilling the role of a father in our family. It’s odd, because he’s a young man, young enough to be my son, or the son of many of the leaders among this group. Yet it’s clear: he’s the father here.

He’s not a hireling, selected and contracted by some committee in order to fulfill the requirements of a job description. He’s a father among us because God has placed him in our midst and given him a fathering anointing. He’s a good leader, and he’s growing to be a better one, but that doesn’t change his calling as a father among us.

In the natural, biological realm, it’s not possible to be a father unless you’re a male, and your children – if you have any children, are younger than you by a fair bit, usually by decades. In the Spirit, there is no male nor female, that’s not an issue.

The other isn’t an issue either: I don’t need to be older than others who see me as a “father” in their lives. I usually am (partly because I’m older than most people I hang around with, I suppose), but that’s not required. Paul told Timothy that his youth didn’t disqualify him.

I have come to believe that families gather around fathers. Religion gathers around beliefs, doctrines.

This is a big deal because unity is a powerful thing in the Kingdom of God. But I guess we have forgotten that “unity” and “uniformity” are not the same thing.

If you and I have relationship because we’re in the same family, because we look to the same father, then there’s nothing you can do that has to separate us. But if you and I have relationship because we believe the same things, then when one of us does something as small as question a belief, then we can no longer maintain our relationship. One of us has to go.

That is not the way of the Kingdom. We don’t accept or reject people because they conform to the right beliefs, the right doctrines. We don’t cease to be family because someone hangs out with the “wrong sort” of people. Heck, Jesus was famous for that. Messed up the religious folk in his day too.

We're in the middle of the "Holiday Season," when families gather together. So let’s be family. Let’s not be religious. Let’s love each other because we have the same Father, not because (or if) we have the same beliefs.


Saturday

Full Time Ministry

“Full Time Ministry.” What an interesting phrase.

I hear a lot about Full Time Ministry. I hear it from my brothers and sisters in my church, and in pretty much every church, every conference, every home group I visit. I hear it on many of the blogs and twitter streams of brothers and sisters that I follow. I hear it most often among those who are most passionate about their faith. I hear it explicitly and I hear it implicitly in many of our conversations.

And the thing that I hear is this: a consistent desire to be in Full Time Ministry (and yes, it’s spoken with capital letters!).

This is what I hear: I hear so many believers that are frustrated with the limits of how well they’re able to express their commitment, their appreciation, their devotion to God, in their secular workplace, and they’re looking to Full Time Ministry as a means of satiating that need. “When I’m in Full Time Ministry...” they say wistfully. Some of them are tired of dealing with “Non-Believers” (as if “believing” is the thing that defines us) and wanting to work among Believers so they can let down their defenses. But mostly it’s a longing to serve Christ better.

First of all, I understand the desire for more freedom in living out our faith; I understand the desire to have a job that allows me to express my joy in the One who ransomed me from sin and judgment during my work day; I understand the frustration with feeling like so many of my hours working are wasted in the sense that they are building something that will make no eternal impact.

And so we have a large part of a generation of the Church longing to be on staff at a church, wishing they could be part of a Christian missions group, thinking and planning about starting some sort of ministry so that they can be in Full Time Ministry.

Here in America, we have a tendency to define ourselves by our jobs, our careers. We talk about “Pastor John” or “Dr. Miller” because of that force. When we introduce ourselves, there’s very often a need to describe what we do for a living, because that’s how we know each other in this country. It’s not the only way we define ourselves, but it’s a bunch of it.

And so we have a second motivation for wanting the Full Time Ministry position: it defines us publicly as someone who’s committed to Christ, who’s given themselves to the furtherance of the Kingdom of God. It’s not that we’re looking for public recognition (well, not usually), but that we want to see ourselves that way: I’m committed to the gospel, because I’m in Full Time Ministry.

I say again: I understand and I applaud the desire to serve God with our whole day. I need to make that clear because of what I’m going to say next.

Every time I hear about people wanting to be in Full Time Ministry, I want to grab them by the shoulders and shake them and shout, “You’re aiming too low. Aim higher!”

Yes, it’s true that for most of us, working 40 hours a week for a Christian cause would represent a larger fraction of our lives spent in furthering the cause of Christ. Assuming we get an hour a day in our “Quiet Times”, and that’s almost 50 hours a week! Fifty hours a week with God; what a wonderful thought!

Again I say, “You’re aiming too low. Aim higher!”

The standard that we’re given in the Word, the example modeled for us by Jesus and Paul and the rest is that we don’t limit ourselves to serving the cause of Christ a mere 40 or 50 hours a week. Fifty hours a week is an improvement, but it’s not our goal. Our goal is … (let’s see… 24 hours a day x 7 days a week…) our goal is serving Christ 168 hours a week. Every breath we take, every word we speak, every relationship, every conversation, every email, everything we do is part of our life in Christ.

My relationship with Christ is about who I am, not about how I spend my time. A friend of mine put it this way: we were made to be Human Beings long before we began to be humans doing. I am a Christian not because of what I do with my day, but because Christ lives in me, because I am in Him. Which means that all of my day is His.

When I worship, that’s an expression of the Kingdom of God, of course. When I help church volunteers overcome their technical challenges, that’s an expression of the Kingdom; I understand that. But when I talk to the mechanic who’s fixing my truck, I’m an expression of the Kingdom, because I am the ambassador of the Kingdom, perhaps the only one he’ll talk to today. When I go grocery shopping, or pay my bills, I’m doing the work of the Kingdom, because I am a king and a priest in this Kingdom. I’m not an ambassador only when I’m talking God Talk or doing God Things. I am an ambassador. That’s who I am. That’s who you are.

Let me be more direct: I don’t need to be doing something expressly “Christian” to be doing the work of the Kingdom. I am not an ambassador, a king, a priest because I happen to be talking about Jesus or about my church at this moment. It’s not about what I do. It’s about who I am.

The other end of the spectrum, then, is also true: when I snarl at my kids, when I grumble at the guy who cut me off in traffic, I am still doing that as a king and a priest of the Kingdom. Which leads me to change my behavior, but not because I need to do the right things, but because of who I am. I am a king, a priest, an ambassador. I need to live like that. I need to make choices based on who I am, not on what’s right and wrong. (We’re still eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, aren’t we?)

So here’s my encouragement: live like you mean it. Be who you are, you ambassador, you. Live in Christ 24/7 and be an ambassador in all you do.

And quit settling for the goal of only Full Time Ministry.