Friday, January 27, 2023

Minister Shortage

 But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it….

     So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up (Ephesians 4:7, 11-12, NIV)

My friend Bobby Ross, Editor-in-Chief at the Christian Chronicle, has put together a series of stories about a shortage of ministers — the role Christians from other “tribes” often refer to as “pastors” — in Churches of Christ. In an editorial, Bobby lists some reasons for the shortage: lack of money (especially in small churches), lack of faith (“Many adult Christians have lost their heart for the Lord’s work, and their children can see it. Why would anyone expect those kids to view ministry as a valuable pursuit?”), lack of unity (“Who can pass the litmus tests imposed by many congregations? And who wants to try?”), and lack of respect (“Way too often, we treat ministers in harsh ways that must make our children and even strangers in our communities shudder.”) 

     The stories specifically address the situation in Churches of Christ, but I think Christians in other fellowships will recognize the shortage as well. 

     While I appreciate Bobby’s editorial, and know that it does describe some real issues in our churches, I can’t really relate personally. I’ve been well-cared-for and well-treated, with love and grace. I’m surrounded by people who want to do the Lord’s work. I’ve almost never felt disrespected, even by those who disagree with me. 

     But I do know good ministers who loved the Lord and his church who have been slandered, gossiped about, and whose spouses and children have been embittered toward the church by the way they were treated. 

     I know ministers who have stuck with churches where their every mistake is magnified, even though in doing so they’re ruining themselves financially, only to be fired over some ridiculous “issue.”

     I know ministers who have had severance packages withheld if they don’t agree to tell the church they resigned instead of that they were fired. (That’s more common than you think.) 

     I know ministers who are never allowed to miss a Sunday. (It’s not a vacation if you have to preach Sunday!) 

     I know ministers who have left, and who say they’re treated far better by the companies they now work for than they ever were by the church. 

     Every job has its challenges. Everyone works hard at their job and sometimes feels unappreciated. But ministers have a job that merges with their faith, and it can be hard to separate their role with the church from their acceptance by God. They’re always on the clock. If they get divorced, in most cases their job ends. If they live in a church-owned home, and their job ends, they have to move. Many struggle to find decent healthcare, or buy a home, or save for retirement.

     Sometimes, the problem is just that churches can’t really afford to pay a livable salary, but think a full-time ministry pro is a necessity for growth, or for outreach in the community, or for ministry to get done. Sometimes I see churches’ posts as they search for a minister. Some say that they can provide “some support,” which means the minister will need to get a second job, or spend a lot of his time fund-raising. Fine, but the job descriptions always sound pretty full-time. Some describe a salary range that you could get at jobs that are a lot less spiritually and emotionally draining. Almost none include health care. I think many churches count on the fact that their applicants will be people who have a calling to serve the Lord and his church and will accept less than they legitimately need, convinced that the Lord will take care of them.         

     I saw one recently, no kidding, where use of a riding mower was included as compensation. Which makes me think that church is also trying to hire a groundskeeper!

     So here’s a suggestion for one possible solution to the minister shortage in Churches of Christ….

     Let’s recognize that a full-time, compensated staff person is not an absolute necessity for every church. 

     What if smaller churches did what they do well, instead of worrying about having a professional to do ministry? Need someone to preach a sermon or two a week, or teach some classes? There may be some people in that church who would thrive if they had that opportunity. Pay them something for their time and work, if you can, and then turn that responsibility over to them. Oh, you might hear some clunkers some Sundays — then again, you probably will from a pro minister as well!

   “But who’ll visit people in hospitals,” you ask? I’m so glad you asked that question! You will! Not just you, of course, but the church takes care of one another — we shouldn’t be paying someone to do that work for us, anyway. Same goes for reaching out to unchurched people. Studying the Bible. Teaching classes. Running service ministries. We have almost-limitless resources literally at our fingertips for all of those things. Churches could turn money they’d put into a lower-than-average preacher’s compensation package into outreach efforts, college- and post-grad level Bible classes for those who preach and teach, service ministries, kids’s classes, missionary support, help for the poor, a strong youth group, and so on. The possibilities are limited only by our imaginations.

     I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with a church having a professional on staff. I have, after all, made a living as a ministry professional for almost 30 years. I do think a pro can be a blessing to a church, in many ways, and there’ll always be a demand for people who can fill that role. 

     I’m just saying that there’s nothing wrong with a church that doesn’t have one. I think too many churches tie up too many resources in securing the services of ministers who can’t afford to stay for more than a year or two, or who probably shouldn’t be there at all. 

     Not having a professional minister on staff motivates churches to find and develop local talent. You may discover potential and opportunity you didn’t know you had already in the pews — if you have a reason to look for it. Not having a pro on staff gives you a good reason.              

     In Ephesians, Paul points out that it’s grace poured out by Jesus that equips the church for works of service — “service” there being a form of a word that we often translate “servant” or “minister.” So it’s Jesus who creates ministers, not a salary and compensation package. Jesus, of course, said that those who are great in the kingdom of God are “servants” — same word, sometimes translated “ministers.” He goes on to say that this is following in his example, since he came not to be served, but to serve. Jesus came to minister. And equips his church for ministry.

     My guess is, then, that you already have ministers in your church. You already have people who know that service, ministry, is the highest value in the kingdom of God, and who have received God’s grace in the form of gifts and abilities. All they may need is some trust, a little investment in their growth, and the opportunity to use the grace Jesus has given them to serve — minister — to the church and to the community.

     It we take that seriously, we’ll make a large dent in the “minister shortage,” even if we don’t increase enrollment in seminaries at all. Because we’ll all be doing ministry.

     And then we won’t have to worry that we’re paying ministry professionals with lawn equipment!  

Friday, January 20, 2023

Feeling Compassion in Our Guts

 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. (1 John 3:16-18, NIV)

I ran across a story this past week that makes me think artificial intelligence isn’t quite ready to take over the world just yet.

     In a book about AI in the military, a former policy analyst in the Pentagon tells about a week DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) spent with a group of Marines training an AI military robot. For six days, the Marines basically walked around the robot while engineers tweaked its programming. On the last day, they tested it all.

     They parked the robot in a traffic circle, then had the Marines try to approach it. If any of them were able to touch the robot without being detected, they’d win.

     Two of the Marines tried somersaulting for 300 meters to get to the robot. Two literally hid under a cardboard box — “giggling” the whole way, according to the author. (I didn’t know Marines giggled.) One Marine cut down a fir tree and approached hidden behind the tree. (Well, if it fooled MacBeth, I guess it could fool an AI.)

     The robot didn’t detect any of them.

     The reason is obvious. The robot had been taught to detect human beings walking, or running, or whatever. It hadn’t been trained to notice a cardboard box or a tree creeping up on it, or a couple of guys doing somersaults. These things would have all been obvious to a five-year-old human being, but seemed irrelevant to the sophisticated AI robot. 

     A couple of things came to mind as I read that story. One is that, just maybe, if we’re going to use AI, DARPA needs to train their engineers that threats don’t always look like human beings walking.

     But the other thought I had was how like that robot we can all be when it comes to noticing need around us.

     Maybe, like I do, you live in a place where people beg for change at intersections. How often do we drive or walk by without really paying much attention? How often do we pass by the same people, yet couldn’t describe them if someone asked us to? They blend in. They’re just part of the background.

     Or maybe that’s not where you live. Still, it’s easy to let need just slip by us. That single mom with the rowdy kids at church, who maybe you haven’t seen in a few weeks. That older man trying to get by alone on Social Security. That disabled landscaper. You know what I mean, right? People who maybe don’t talk about the fact that they can’t afford both groceries and medications, or that they’re working two jobs and still foregoing meals so that their kids have enough to eat. 

     Ask any teacher about the kids who come to school and try to learn while their stomachs rumble for their school lunches. If they could, your church’s leaders would tell you about the needs the people who sit around you every Sunday have. 

     And what about people farther from home? Do we think of the need people at our southern border have, the tyranny and poverty they’re trying to escape? Or do we think more of what they’ll cost us? We hear about Ukrainian refugees trying to escape the fighting in their home, but sometimes it’s hard to really see the need that they have, and how we can help. We hear about failing schools or overcrowded prisons and we think in political or economic terms instead of feeling compassion for hurting, struggling people. 

     We’re like that robot sometimes: unable to see what we should and act appropriately.

     Did you know that a New Testament word that’s often translated “compassion” in most English versions of the Bible is actually the word for intestines? Guts. It’s what the book of Acts says spilled out of Judas when his body “burst open” in the field he bought with the proceeds from betraying Jesus. But it’s also where compassion was thought to be located, probably because of the way you can sometimes feel compassion in your gut. Compassion is something we feel. It doesn’t come just from duty or religious observance, but from that feeling of sickness and sorrow we get when we see someone suffer.

     The King James Version rendering of 1 John 3:17 literally warns against closing our “bowels of compassion” against someone in need. If you’ll forgive the wording, John seems to think that “compassion constipation” is a real problem!

     Interestingly, the Old Testament  word we often translate “compassion” or “mercy” in English is related to the word for a different organ: the womb. Maybe that’s because compassion was, as it often is in our time, thought to be a feminine trait. If so, then we should embrace that — especially since it’s mostly used to describe God.

     Over and over, God is said to have compassion. The psalmist says, “The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made.” The prophet Isaiah says that God “longs to be gracious to you; therefore he will rise up to show you compassion.” Jeremiah’s lament affirms that, even though God may bring grief, his love is unfailing and he will show compassion.

     And so we see the same thing in Jesus. Three times in Matthew, Jesus sees crowds of people in need and has compassion. Literally, he feels it in his gut. It’s how the prodigal’s father felt when he saw his son coming home in a story meant to communicate God’s compassion to people who had only disdain for those they considered “sinners.” 

     Paul gives praise to “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort.” So, he says, “as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion….” As people who know God’s compassion well, especially through Jesus, we should feel that same compassion in our guts for those in need among us and in the world around us. 

     We should have learned compassion through Jesus. He taught us how to live in the world — by laying down our lives for others. He taught us to share what we have and feel deeply the hurts of those around us. Unfortunately, the church doesn’t have an unblemished reputation for compassion. Jesus taught us not to turn off feelings of compassion. But maybe we’ve allowed ourselves to get so jaded and desensitized to need that we no longer feel compassion in our guts. Maybe political rhetoric and not compassion have become our default for making sense of the need around us. Has our driving emotion become anger, or outrage, or despair, or resignation? 

     If so, then we need to hear again the Bible’s cover-to-cover emphasis on compassion.

     AI robots, apparently, need to be taught to see. But we’ve already been taught to see people around us the way Jesus did, the way God does — with compassion. That feeling in your gut when you see need is a good thing. A godly thing. May we never try to shut it off. May we always recognize need around us. 

     May our bowels be moved!

Friday, January 13, 2023

God Hates?

 There are six things the LORD hates,

seven that are detestable to him:

haughty eyes,

a lying tongue,

hands that shed innocent blood,

a heart that devises wicked schemes,

feet that are quick to rush into evil,

  a false witness who pours out lies,

and a person who stirs up conflict in the community.  (Proverbs 6:16-19, NIV)

One of the things I remember about growing up is that my mother did not like the word “hate.” Especially when applied to another person. If I came home mad at something someone had done to me, or mad at a teacher, or whoever, I learned early not to say I hated that person. At least not if I wanted sympathy from Mom!

     I could say I was mad at them, that was fine. I could say that they had hurt me or disappointed me. Mom would be on my side, no question, just as mad and hurt and disappointed as I was. But I couldn’t say I hated them. She had no tolerance for that. 

     You might say she hated that world.

     I’m glad. I think that by discouraging the use of that word, she forced my sister and I to find other vocabulary to express our feelings. Hate, for most of us, is too easy. Too simple. Someone does something we don’t like, takes a position we don’t appreciate, disappoints us in any way, and we too easily dismiss them with that word “hate,” instead of realizing that people and issues are more complicated than that.

     But when I see that word “hate” in the Bible, it makes me cringe. And when I see in the Bible that God “hates” — wow, I just really struggle with that. 

     But it’s there. God hates “all who do wrong.” He hates “robbery and wrongdoing." He hates “the wicked and those who love violence." 

     The Proverb-ist gives us a convenient list of seven things God hates. He says these things are “detestable” to God — language used for idol worship in the Old Testament. The arrangement — “six things…seven…” — are a poetic way of saying there may be more, but these seven you can be sure of. The list is given in the form of body parts — eyes, tongue, hands, heart, feet. Mouth, maybe — someone who lies, especially to defraud someone else. And then the whole person at the end whose misuse of all these parts of the body “stirs up conflict in the community.” 

     God hates it, the list tells us, when human beings use the bodies that God has created to do evil to other human beings who he has created. People are made in God’s image. His creation is good. God hates it when we wreck his creation and harm his image-bearers. He hates people who do that. Maybe it’s better to say that he hates people who are doing that

     One thing you can say with certainty is that God’s hatred doesn’t cancel out or displace his love. I think it’s possible for human beings to hate and love at the same time. (I think of the woman I know of who left her husband a note detailing how he had hurt her, and ending with the sentence, “I hate you.” And then she signed it, “Love,….”) But for us, hatred makes love hard to maintain. We all depend on the hope that God can love even when he hates, that even though we may have been and even will be guilty of doing the things he hates, we aren’t doomed to the absence of his love. 

     That’s because, for God, hate and love aren’t primarily — or at least not only — feelings. When we feel hate, it’s hard to feel love, and the habit of hatred will erode our ability to love. That’s what Mom knew. That’s what, in our world, we need to learn. But for God, neither hate nor love are something he feels. Or, at least, something he only feels.

     In Malachi, a message from God to the prophet is — “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.” In Malachi’s time, people are asking how the prophet can say that God loves them. They’re in exile, their homeland a wreck. God points to the land of Edom, whose inhabitants were thought to be descendants of Jacob’s brother Esau. Their land is a wreck, too, but God is against them and won’t allow them to rebuild. Israel — “Jacob” — will have that chance. God “hates” Esau in that he is against Edom because of their wrongdoing and on the side of Israel. It isn’t that he despises the Edomites as a people. 

     That’s a very important distinction because God’s hatred has been twisted by believers for centuries to justify violence toward and oppression of Jews, Muslims, minority races, homosexuals — a convenient excuse to exclude those we wanted to exclude. I remind you of the fact that one of the things God hates is violence. Another is injustice. 

     And I’ll remind you of this: God’s hate is never used in the Bible to tell people that he doesn’t love them anymore. Through Amos, God tells his people that he “hates” their religion — and then he tells them, “let justice roll on like a river, righteousness  like a never-failing stream!” He hasn’t given up on them. He wants them to live up to his love and hate the things he hates. 

     Scripture doesn’t say that God is hate; it says that God is love. God can be trusted with hate, because what he hates doesn’t negate the love that he has for all of us, every one of us, the love that we see in Jesus. While he may hate some of the things we do, he still reaches out us with love, faithfulness, compassion, forgiveness, and grace. His hate should drive us to repentance, and to try even more faithfully to live in the love he never stops showing us. His hate is even a facet of his love, a response to our rejection of the only way we have to life. It wants to change us by inviting us to hate the things he hates.

     Jesus tells us, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you….” And he goes on to give us the reason why such an elevated ethic is required of us: “Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful,  just as your Father  is merciful.” 

     We love even those who hate us because that’s what we ought to have learned from God.

     So, yes; I apologize, Mom, but God does hate. And he wants us to hate the things he hates, as well.

     But God’s hate does not cut us off from his love. 

     And God’s hate does not give us an excuse to write off anyone as being unreachable by his love.

     God’s hate should turn us from our destructive ways. It should turn us back to the love he still, always, everlastingly has for us. The love we see and learn in Jesus. 

     If God’s hate makes you hateful, you haven’t learned the right lesson. If you respond to those who hate you with more hate, then you haven’t learned from the God who is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.

     May we hate what God hates. And may we never stop loving as God loves. Without question or qualification.

Friday, January 6, 2023

Feeling God's Love

      If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God, And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.

      God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. (1 John 4:15-18, NIV)

I had a conversation recently that I’ve had before. The person I was talking with expressed their doubt that God loved them. They believed that God is love. They just didn’t believe that his love was for them, too. 

     I think this feeling arose from unresolved guilt about some things in their life that they didn’t feel good about.  Whatever the reason, the effect was simply that this person honestly had their doubt about God’s love for them.

     That’s not the first time I’ve had that conversation, and it won’t be the last. It’s a common feeling among many people I’ve talked with over the years — they believe that God may love other people, they even believe that God is love, but they doubt that God could love them. 

     So where in the world does this idea come from? 

     It’s easy to say that guilt is the reason people don’t always believe in God’s love for them. After all, none of us are perfect, are we? All of us have regrets, things we wish we’d done differently, or hadn’t done at all, or had done. And those of us who are mostly likely to know about God’s love through our families or churches or our own study of the Bible are also likely to know about the reality of sin — and its presence in our own lives. “Sure, maybe he loves some people,” we reason. “But not me, not with the things I’ve done.”

     I do think that unresolved guilt — especially over continual struggles with sin or injuries to important relationships — can affect our confidence in God’s love for us. But I don't think that’s the main problem. 

     Most of the time, I think, we don’t believe in God’s love for us simply because we don’t feel God’s love for us. We might know that God is characterized primarily by love. We might have been taught that he loves everyone, even those who aren’t particularly lovable. But we don’t feel it. We don’t feel God’s love for us personally. And because we don’t feel it, we doubt. 

     Especially when we’ve done wrong, or let someone down, or been neglectful in whatever it might be that we think keeps God loving us.

     This is a big problem in our world: we’re used to elevating feelings as the only reliable measure of reality. 

     How often do we hear that we should follow our hearts? Usually, that’s in contrast to our heads — to follow your heart is to do what you feel is right. To go where your emotions take you. I don’t want to discount intuition — but intuition and feeling are not exactly the same thing. I understand that God made us feeling people, and that sometimes the emotional response is the correct one. Feelings can protect you in the moment. They can heighten compassion. They help us connect. What they often can’t do is give us a clear picture of reality. Oh, they’re real to us. But we make a mistake when we think they tell us what’s objectively real and true and genuine.

     Come on; didn’t you have crushes in middle school that you were sure were true love, that you’d be with this person forever? Haven’t you had a person play on your feelings, only to find they were scamming you? Haven’t you had a passionate conviction about the truth of something, only to later find out it wasn’t true at all?

     Love is perhaps, for us, the most intense feeling of all. When people feel love, they can do unimaginable things. They can destroy their families. Destroy their churches. Destroy themselves, and the people unfortunate enough to be in their orbit. And they can do all this perfectly convinced that it’s right, because how can something that feels so right be wrong? 

     And, surely, if God loved us we’d feel it, wouldn’t we?

     There are times in my life I’ve felt God’s love. But the longer I live, the more I’m convinced that those times are the exception, not the rule, for most of us. I even wonder if the times I’ve felt God’s love had more to do with relief and joy and peace and maybe a touch of self-righteousness than any real perception of his love for me.

     For most of my life — and I’ve been in church and around Christians and reading the Bible for around half a century now — I haven’t really felt God’s love. 

     Here’s the thing; I think I’ve come to terms with that. I’m certainly not alone in it; many theologians and practitioners of a Christianity far deeper than mine have said the same.

     I think maybe the problem is that we’ve assumed that God’s love is like ours; characterized by intense feeling.

     Here’s what love is, for God — it’s a settled determination that he will do what we need him to do for us. I suppose God feels warmly about me, at least sometimes. I know the Bible talks about God feeling compassion for human beings. But, probably more often, God’s love is described as “faithfulness.” God is there for us, always. He can be trusted. Counted on. That is, in fact, what faith is — it’s counting on God. It is belief that, whatever else may be true, God will do what we need him to do. He will act in our best interest. 

     This is what the best friendships and strongest marriages become. They don’t depend on warm feelings every moment to make them go. They’re built on trust, confidence, and knowing that you have each others’ backs no matter what. 

     So, I don't think you’re supposed to always feel God’s love for you. Your feelings take you all over the place.

     I think you’re supposed to know God’s love for you. In your mind, and also in your heart. 

     John says that when we put our faith in Jesus, “God lives in [us], and [we] in God.” That’s objective. It is true outside ourselves. And then, John says, “we know and rely on the love God has for us.” He isn’t saying, is he, that we’ll know God’s love through a warm, fuzzy feeling. He says you can know and rely on God’s love for you if you’ve put your faith in Jesus. That’s the gospel, in a sentence. 

     Paul says something in similar in Romans 8. He says, for instance, that we can be confident that God works for the good of those who love him — which he defines as being committed to God’s purposes in the world. He says that God has always intended that human beings be “glorified” through his love. He asks, “if God is for us, who can be against us?” And he affirms that nothing “in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God  that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

     God loves you, and you know it’s true because Jesus died and was raised from the dead so that nothing can separate you from God’s love. 

     So — if you’ve put your faith in Jesus — you don’t need to spend an ounce of energy worrying because you don’t feel God’s love. You have something better than your feelings assuring you that he does. You have Jesus. You have the gospel. Nothing can ever separate you from his love. 

     Put your faith in the work of Jesus. Be assured of God’s love. And then go and live out his love. Because, if you’re convinced of God’s love for you, it’ll make you a different person.