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Saturday, June 30, 2012

Calling


    Nevertheless, each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches....
    Brothers and sisters, each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.
- 1 Corinthians 7:17, 24 (NIV)

I don’t spend much time on Facebook, and almost every time I’m there I remember why.
    It’s the complaining. I know, Facebook can be a great tool, and I do enjoy using it to stay in touch with friends. But all the complaining: about politics, about spouses, about work, about kids, about...well, almost everything. Sometimes it’s even non-specific complaining, like posting “Worst day ever,” with no further explanation, for a status update.
    Worst ever? Now I have to know what made it so bad, because, let’s face it, there have been some pretty bad days in human history. I’d love to know what traffic jam or fight with a spouse or job situation made it the worst ever. And I’ve had more than one Facebook friend post those exact words.
    More than one worst day ever, among one guy’s 200-something Facebook friends? I mean, what are the odds?
    Not that I’ve never complained. And not that Facebook is responsible for the human propensity for whining. (Though it has given all the pathological whiners an audience, when before maybe their friends would just avoid them for a day or two.) Complaining seems to be something we do - some of, at least - almost instinctively. It becomes a habit, I think. Maybe it’s a way for us to include others in our suffering. We can’t always have our lives exactly as we’d like them to be, but maybe complaining about it is a way to get support and sympathy from the people around us.
    Of course, the difference between asking for support and sympathy and complaining is in how often we do it and how long we go on. And some of us are complaining marathoners.
    So it might surprise us to know that the Bible calls at least some complaining by another word - grumbling - and that God considers grumbling a pretty serious offense. When we grumble and complain incessantly, after all, it at least looks as though we’re forgetting or doubting that God is good, that he’s faithful, that he’s powerful, that he’s wise, and that he’s all of these things to a much higher degree than we are. Complaining and grumbling are for people who don’t know God and so can’t trust him. Those of us who know him are called to be content: to trust God to provide what we don’t have, or to help us get along without it.
    Paul knew a lot about finding contentment in Jesus - in the love he knew in Jesus, in the presence of Jesus in his life, and in the work Jesus had given him to do. He lived with persecution, hunger, imprisonment, disease, and the threat of death. Still, somehow he refrained from leaving “worst day ever” in his writings. Instead, he wrote about how he found contentment and strength in difficult situations through Jesus.
    He expected other believers to model the same contentment as well, and that’s where he speaks to me. I have to ask myself how many times I’ve wished that this little thing or that little thing was different in my life. How many times in my life I’ve thought about how it would be nice to live somewhere else, or do something else.  As though it’s just about me.
    “Each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them,” Paul wrote to some Christians in the town of Corinth. He told them that Gentiles don’t have to be Jews, and Jews don’t have to be Gentiles. Single people shouldn’t be obsessed with finding someone to marry, and married people - even if married to a non-Christian partner - shouldn’t try to get out of their marriage. “Brothers and sisters, each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.”
    Even for slaves, the rule doesn’t change. That’s the tough one for me, with my American self-determinism and individualism asserting itself. But Paul even tells Christian slaves not to waste a lot of time trying to get released (though he relents by saying it’s certainly OK if it happens!).
    See, none of those life situations necessarily has any bearing one way or the other on the one most important life situation - being “in Christ.” In Christ, a slave is free and a free man is a slave. In Christ, all other relationships, loyalties, and identities become background for our real identity. In Christ, every person is on equal footing and equally responsible to the same Lord.
    So, in whatever situation we find ourselves, our primary question should not be how to get to a different or better one, but what the Lord has for us to do right where we are now.
    So instead of grumbling about our jobs, maybe we should look around at the co-workers God has placed around us. How can we be a blessing to them? How can we share our faith with them? How can we make their lives better?
    Or, instead of wishing all the time for Mr. or Mrs. Right, maybe those who are single should think about the opportunities their singleness gives them to work for the Lord on short-term mission trips, or in supporting a missionary or relief worker. As a single person, what can you give to the Lord and his people that a married person couldn’t?
    And those of us who are married should maybe worry less about making our partners the way we want them to be, and instead think about being the kind of spouse the Lord wants us to be. We can think about how to love our spouses and our children as the Lord wants us to, and minister to them as he’s called us to.
    We’ll find ourselves complaining less, I think, when we see our lives - just as they are -  as a calling from the Lord to live for him among the people and work he’s given us. It may not be what we imagined when we were kids. It may not be as easy or as comfortable as the lives others seem to live. It may even be potholed with sickness, or heartbreak, or disappointment.  But it’s the life he’s given us, and faithfulness demands that we live it to his glory to the best of our ability.
    Until he calls us somewhere else.
    And you might even find, as you live the life he’s called you to for him, that you start to see little joys that you had missed before. And you may one day realize that the life you once wished fervently was different is what you actually wanted all along.
    If so, I hope you’ll post that on Facebook.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Time For Church


Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the LORD your God has commanded you.
    Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns, so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do.
    Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.
-Deuteronomy 5:12-15 (NIV)

Time is a powerful thing.
    If you doubt that, tell your spouse that you’d rather not spend so much time with him or her.
    Tell your boss that you feel you can get your job done in 20 hours a week.
    Tell your kids that you’ll only see them on birthdays and other special days.
    Tell your parents that you really think calling once every two months is enough.
    Time is perhaps the most reliable marker we have for what’s really important to us. Oh, maybe not over the course of a week, or even a month. The urgent asserts itself into even the most carefully-planned calendars. But the bottom line is that, over the course of weeks or months, we clear our schedules to protect the things that matter most to us.
    When I was a kid, there were a few things that were standing appointments on all our calendars. One was dinner together as a family. The others were church on Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night.
    I didn’t mind Sunday mornings that much. Really, I didn’t. Sunday nights weren’t too bad, though it meant I couldn’t see the end of the late games during football season. Wednesdays were tough, especially in the summers. I’d be out riding my bike, playing, running the neighborhood, and suddenly mom would call for dinner, and I knew after that I’d have to clean up and head for church.  
    But I don’t remember ever arguing much about it. I don’t mean to suggest that church was meaningful to me every week. I don’t mean to say that I didn’t act some days like I’d never been near a church. But that block of time always reminded me that being with God’s people was important enough - at least to my parents - that they blocked out time each week to be there. That standing appointment at church was a reminder that what we do with our time says a lot about what matters to us.
    Israel had the Sabbath to remind them that time was perhaps the best way to demonstrate their identity as God’s people. Say what you want about how healthy it is to take a day off, or justice for their slaves, or whatever; Israel took one day out of every seven off mainly because their God told them to. Whatever needed to be done, however far behind everyone was, once every seven days the economic and work life of Israel ground to a halt.
    Inconvenient? You bet. Destructive to the nation’s Gross National Product? Almost certainly. Alienating to the foreign merchants camped outside the city’s gates, waiting for the Sabbath to be over so they could trade with Israel? No doubt.
    And yet, Israel still did it. (At least sometimes.)
    I’m passingly familiar with the differences between the Old Covenant and the New. But doesn’t that old Sabbath law still say something to busy people like us about our use of time, and what our willingness to meet with the church - or not - might say about what matters to us most?
   I’ve heard the old line that going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than sleeping in a garage makes you a car. I’m somewhat familiar, thanks, with all the church’s failings. I’m aware that we can pray and worship and meditate on the Word and serve others any time we want, all by ourselves, if we choose. And yet the Bible still warns us against failing to meet together with the church. I don’t think that means we have to be there every time someone unlocks a door, but I’ve never seen anyone’s faith grow and thrive when they’re consistently choosing to be outside a mutually encouraging relationship with other believers.
    It sometimes seems that church has become just another option in our overcrowded schedules. It sometimes seems that church is something we do if there’s nothing else on the calendar for Sunday morning. (Forget Sunday and Wednesday evenings - those are becoming ancient history as fast as, well, my childhood...) If the stars align, if the kids’ games get rained out, if we’re not up too late Saturday night, if mom and dad don’t schedule a barbecue, then, yeah, maybe we’ll make it two weeks from Sunday. Hope to see you then.
    I don’t mean to minimize real problems. (I don’t want my son to think of church as the thing you do instead of all the fun things you want to do, either!) When I was a kid, little league games weren’t usually played on Sundays. My parents didn’t have to decide between fighting rush-hour traffic to get to Wednesday night Bible study or letting us stay home to do our homework. I get that work makes heavy time demands of some of us. I get wanting to spend family time together.
    And yet, I can’t help but think that church isn’t supposed to be especially convenient, any more than the Sabbath was for Israel. Any more than any other relationship that demands time and energy is.
    What does it say when we tell a friend that we’ll meet them at the Lake after church?
    And what does it say when we act as though there’s no conflict at all?
    In a time when teenagers and young adults seem to be staying away from the church in droves, I have to wonder if we’re reaping the fruit of a couple of decades of saying and modeling that being present and involved in a local church is a nice hobby for when we can find the time.
    So let’s carve out some old-school church time, and protect it. Most likely, you’ll have to make some sacrifices somewhere. Your kids might not like some of them, but that’s why you’re the parent. Make worship and Bible classes priorities, not fill-in activities. Invite someone from church out for lunch or dinner every month or so. Find out what opportunities your church provides for service, and get involved.
    I think God will honor your desire to honor him and encourage his people with your time.
    

Friday, June 15, 2012

Graduation Day


    But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses.”
-1 Timothy 6:11-12 (NIV)

Like a lot of people this time of year, I attended a graduation this week. My son starts high school in the fall, and this week his middle school, the place where he’s spent nine of his 14 years, had its commencement ceremony.
    In some ways, an eighth grade graduation is a little like a three-year wedding anniversary: I mean, good job, but you still have a ways to go. In other ways, this one felt pretty significant. For one thing, Josh has been with about ⅔ of these kids since kindergarten. They’re kind of like sisters and brothers to each other. In his speech, Josh told his classmates that they probably know him better than he knows himself, and he’s probably right.
    For another, they’ll be scattering to different high schools in the fall. Josh will go on to the next phase of his education with only two of the 28 kids he leaves eighth grade with. That’s a little different than in a lot of places, where kids pretty much progress from one school to another together.
    So graduation, for a lot of these kids, was an occasion for saying goodbye to people who have meant a lot to them, classmates and teachers and administrators and parents who have shaped them into the people they have become. (It was also a time for parents to say goodbye to each other. Laura and I are a little worried that we might not fit in with the other parents in high school...)
    But, though it was a time for goodbyes, the kids didn’t seem to dwell too much on that. They were more focused on the future.
    That’s as it should be, I think. The commencement speaker, an alumnus of my son’s school and now a legislative aide on Capitol Hill, told the kids they could go on archaeological digs, or do research, or be political leaders - and then pointed out that everything he listed was currently being done by members of his own graduating class. He talked about some of the things they’d need to remember and do to make the same kind of impact on society, but assured them that they had what they needed to take the next step successfully.
    He’s right, of course. They, and kids all over the world like them right now, are the future.  
    As a whole, I’m optimistic about the future. That’s because I believe that Jesus is the Lord of it, and that whatever else may change, the love and grace and power of God remains. I am, however, a little concerned about some aspects of it, and one of my concerns has to do with young men and women and their relationship to the church. Statistics can prove anything, of course, but one of the things the numbers show is that churches are losing their young adults. That’s always been the case, to some degree or another, but the difference now is that the data we can see suggests that they’re not coming back after they have their own kids, as previous generations of young adults have.
    I wonder if perhaps that’s because we spend too much time talking to parents about making sure their kids are involved in church education programs and youth group activities and such.
    So I want to take a cue from the commencement speaker at Josh’s graduation, and talk to young men and women in their teens and early twenties, young men and women who maybe aren’t sure if they have a place in the church, who maybe are marking time until they’re old enough or independent enough that they don’t have to go anymore.
    What I want to say to you is that your relationship with God isn’t supposed to be mediated by your parents or church leaders. While parents and church leaders are interested observers, and have a calling to help you grow in your faith, a lot of it is up to you.
    You have to make the choice to put your trust in Jesus or not, to make a choice about who you think he is, whether or not he rose from the dead, and the offer of eternal life he makes. It’s your choice whether or not to follow him, pattern your life after him, and live and lock-step with the Spirit he gives you.
    You will find time, ways, and means to pursue what you most want. You have to choose for yourself to flee from some things, and pursue others. You have to make the choice as to whether or not you want to be a person who treats others fairly and justly, who seeks God and to live by his values and priorities, who approaches life and death with faith in him and his love and power.
    The culture we live in applies the label “love” too easily and too indiscriminately. You’ll have to choose whether or not to buy into the easy, feel-good love of the culture around us, or whether to show God’s love to the people in your life - and not just to the ones who make you feel good. It will be your responsibility to treat people gently, as the valuable creations of God they are, and to do so over and over again, endurance being the chief difference between God’s love and the world’s knock-off of it.
    You will find that being a man or woman of God requires sacrifice, and you’ll have to choose whether or not to make those sacrifice. You’ll find that you can’t do it on a part-time basis, any more than a soldier can fight a war part-time. You’ll have to choose whether or not you want to fight the battles that faith requires and so take possession of the life you chose when you confessed your faith in Jesus.
    It’s time. You’re old enough, responsible enough, to make these decisions for yourself.
    Sometimes the church disappoints us. Sometimes we struggle to feel like we belong. You’re not alone in those feelings - anyone who has ever spent any amount of time at all with the church knows them.
    But it’s not about all that. You can’t use the human failings of the church as an excuse to dodge your own responsibility to the church’s Lord. He has given you everything you need to step forward with faith, courage, hope, and joy, and take your place in the church’s future alongside those who have taken their places in its past and present.
    Think of today as your graduation. Let the rest of your life commence.

Friday, June 1, 2012

The Extra Step


Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters,  since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.
-Colossians 3:23-24 (NIV)

    I don’t remember the commencement speaker at my high school graduation. That’s not necessarily a reflection on, well, whoever it was. It’s just that the commencement speaker is honestly not the highlight of most high school seniors’ graduation exercises. It’s the end of twelve years of hard work, after all. Most graduates are thinking about old friends and new experiences, remembering the past and thinking about their futures. The person who says a few (too many) words in the middle of the ceremony just doesn’t stand out in their minds.
    Quinton Anderson will remember.
    He’ll remember partially because the speaker mentioned him by name. Quinton graduated May 21st from Joplin (Missouri) High School, a year after a tornado devastated the town and killed 161 people. Among the dead were Quinton’s parents, members of the 26th and Connecticut Church of Christ in Joplin. The speaker had this to say:
In a city with countless stories of unthinkable courage and resilience over the last year, there are some that still stand out – especially on this day. By now, most of you know Joplin High senior Quinton Anderson, who’s probably embarrassed that someone’s talking about him again. But I’m going to talk about him anyways, because in a lot of ways, Quinton’s journey has been Joplin’s journey.
    When the tornado struck, Quinton was thrown across the street from his house. The young man who found him couldn’t imagine that Quinton would survive such injuries. Quinton woke up in a hospital bed three days later. It was then that his sister Grace told him that both their parents had been lost to the storm.
    Quinton went on to face over five weeks of treatment, including emergency surgery. But he left that hospital determined to carry on; to live his life, and to be there for his sister. Over the past year, he’s been a football captain who cheered from the sidelines when he wasn’t able to play. He worked that much harder so he could be ready for baseball in the spring. He won a national scholarship as a finalist for the High School Football Rudy Awards, and he plans to study molecular biology at Harding University this fall.
    Quinton has said that his motto in life is “Always take that extra step.” Today, after a long and improbable journey for Quinton, for Joplin, and for the entire class of 2012, that extra step is about to take you towards whatever future you hope for; toward whatever dreams you hold in your hearts.
    Quinton will likely remember his commencement speaker, President Barack Obama, for the rest of his life. Hopefully, he’ll also remember what President Obama said: “that extra step is about to take you towards whatever future you hope for; toward whatever dreams you hold in your hearts.”
    Human beings tend to make one mistake or the other when considering the way that God works in our lives. On the one hand, sometimes we don’t give God enough credit. We start to think that what we want to accomplish, what we dream about and hope for, whatever success we might have, depends entirely on us. And so we make decisions, set value, and take action without his participation, or even without considering the possibility that he might want  to participate.
    On the other hand, sometimes we sit back passively and wait for God to act, as though God’s will is fatalistically sealed and our effort has no bearing on the events of our lives whatsoever. But often - it’s probably best to say usually - God acts through human effort. He accomplishes his will, brings about good, cares for the hurting, opposes evil and injustice, through the work and prayers of men and women like us. Springsteen puts it this way:
“Freedom, son’s a dirty shirt
The sun on my face and my shovel in the dirt
Shovel in the dirt keeps the devil gone...”
    Often, God does his best work when human beings take that “extra step” President Obama referred to. When people “are determined to carry on; to live [their] li[ves], and to be there for” others - to keep their shovels in the dirt - God sometimes changes the world.
    So it only makes sense, doesn’t it, that Paul would tell the church that formed the original audience for the letter we call Colossians to work at whatever they found themselves doing “with all [their] heart[s], as working for the Lord, not human masters.” It has to be pointed out that this particular piece of instruction was originally aimed at slaves. If even so immoral and unjust an institution as slavery couldn’t get in the way of the energy released when human beings work hard in an effort to please the Lord Who works in them, with them, and through them, then what can he accomplish with the work he gives us to do?
    Paul told another church that he saw himself as God’s “co-worker.” While God’s work of salvation and redemption comes first, and gives meaning to our own, he’s chosen human work as his preferred method for intervening in the world. He’s chosen to make us his co-workers, and through us to reveal himself.
    As his people through Jesus, then, we try to bring our hopes for the future and the dreams we hold in our hearts into line with his own heart. Then we pursue those hopes and dreams -  work for them and pray about them - with everything that’s in us. God will take our efforts, along with our desire to please him and honor him, and do something in the world that wouldn’t exist without our willingness to work hard and please him.
    Remember, a life spent like this is never lived in vain. When human beings finish spilling sweat and blood in working for him, God goes to work. And he weaves our work together with his into something that’s world-changing.
    And when we’re done, and we can rest, God has something for us that will outshine our hopes for the future and the dreams of our hearts as the dawn outshines midnight.
    May we start today - whether our lives are just beginning or moving toward their end - to take the extra step.

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