Obedience to a Whisper

As I walked into the first church I served as a pastor, I wandered through an old office located just behind the sanctuary. Years before, the heavy stained glass windows had been replaced with large clear panes of glass. These windows invited those inside to look out at the surrounding community. When I looked out the window, I saw a series of small wooden homes near the church. A few of these homes were obviously older. Some hadn’t been cared for in years, and most had a dilapidated car or two in their gravel driveways.

One of these homes stared me in the face every time I walked from our parsonage across the street to my office, which was next door to the church. When the weather was nice, the family who lived there could often be found sitting on the porch. I would feel the tug of the Holy Spirit saying, “how can you preach and not reach out to the people I’ve placed directly in your line of sight day after day?” Finally, I stepped out of my comfort zone and into obedience. I walked the few steps next door, introduced myself as the pastor of the church, and engaged in small talk before telling them they’d be welcome to join us in worship anytime. I learned this was a rental property, and later found out that the people who lived there shifted almost seasonally. This family moved not long after.

One night as we slept, some bored teenager decided it would be a good idea to spray paint our sidewalk with a few choice words. Of course, it wasn’t long before I was kneeling alongside a friend from the congregation who doubled as our treasurer, mission director, and pianist. As we cleaned the graffiti off the sidewalk, a little boy who had just moved into the house next door came and stood beside us. He asked, “who owns this church?” We both laughed as I said, “well, nobody really. It belongs to God.” He said, “oh no, that’s not right. Somebody owns it. Every building is owned by somebody.” I tried to find an analogy and pointed to the high school across the street and said, “it’s like the school. Who do you think owns the school?” to which he replied, “the principal owns the school!” My friend pointed at me and said, “then I guess he owns this church!”

It wasn’t long after this conversation that the kid began attending on Sunday mornings. It was fascinating to see how a young man who’d never stepped foot in a church experienced everything in worship on a Sunday morning. I looked out during the sermon one day, and he had his feet propped up on the pew in front of him. One day as we made time for the congregation to greet and shake hands, a watchful member noticed he’d made his way to the front where our traditional church had candles burning on the altar. He was moving his hand quickly back and forth over the flame! To our church’s credit, people didn’t get worked up and gently helped him understand what to do and when.

My wife worked for a local dentist with a generous soul. He told her that he enjoyed giving out bikes to kids at Christmas, and she immediately thought of our new young friend. I walked back to the house next door and knocked on the door. The boy lived with his grandmother and she came to the door. I reintroduced myself and asked her how she was and told her how much we enjoyed having her grandson at church. Then I asked her if she had any plans for Christmas. She began to choke up a bit and told me that she was raising him and a granddaughter and it wasn’t going to be a year she could afford much for them.

I proceeded to her about how a local dentist, who wanted no credit, would be willing to buy both of her grandkids a bike and that I would place them in her storage shed a few days before Christmas. She immediately began to cry, thanking me for this blessing. But I knew. It had nothing to do with me. It started first when the Spirit nudged me and invited me to reach out to the house next door. Every tale of grace and blessing starts with obedience to a whisper

God’s Grace in Jackson Creek

As a child, my bedroom overlooked Jackson Creek. On rainy days it would overflow its banks and, at least in my childhood imagination, it would look like the epic floods of Noah. During the summer, it was the perfect place to wade, catch crawdads, and find a swimming hole or two that were just deep enough to find relief from the scorching Oklahoma summer sun.

Even though we lived in the country, we had a few neighbors with kids around my age, and we would spend hours playing in and around Jackson Creek. One day, my neighbor Kyle and I were swimming in the creek, and somehow our conversation turned to faith. Unexpectedly, Kyle asked me if I would baptize him. Even though I attended church every Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night, I felt immensely unqualified for what he was asking me to do. I told him I didn’t think I was supposed to do that. 

Even though we were both still in grade school, I had talked to Kyle about Jesus. We’d be in the middle of a fierce G.I. Joe battle and I would abruptly stop and ask, “are you saved?” He must have known the right answer to change the subject, because he would say something like, “yeah, I guess,” and we’d go right back to playing our game. I’d breathe a huge sigh of relief because I had no idea what to say next. Once again, standing there in the creek, I had no idea how to respond!

Little did I know that Kyle, even as someone who rarely if ever entered the doors of the church, recognized something that God had placed in my identity before I was even aware of it. It wasn’t until years later that I learned how to account for this reality.

God’s Holy Spirit is not just active in the lives of those who have already entered into saving faith in Jesus Christ. God’s Holy Spirit is living and active, pursuing all men and women, in order to bring each of us into a relationship with Him. Scripture tells us, “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men…” 1 John 4:19 shows us, “We love Him because He first loved us.” And Romans 2:4b shows us, “God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance.”

Without the grace of the Holy Spirit, active in our lives even before we realize it, we would never have the potential to turn to God, love Him, and experience the life-changing love that saves us from sin and death. The Holy Spirit was already active in my neighbor creating a hunger in him for the things of God, such as baptism. Because of the reality of the Spirit’s presence working to pursue him, I believe he even sensed something of God’s call on my life long before I was aware of it. 

Looking back, I know I was just a child, so I’m not hard on myself for not knowing how to respond. However, I wish I had known how to translate that conversation into a deeper encounter with the Lord. In these situations now, I realize that the burden is on God, rather than my own knowledge. While knowledge matters, it is far more important to discern how God is working in a spiritual conversation and to find simple ways to point them to Jesus. 

Maybe you will find yourself in a similar situation with someone like my old neighbor. First, be open to finding people who are hungry for God in the most unexpected places – maybe even chest-deep in a creek behind your house. You are likely around people who are spiritually hungry all the time. Ask the Lord to open your eyes to this hunger and He will.

Second, take comfort in knowing that the Holy Spirit is at work in people long before you enter the picture. Because of this truth, you can have confidence that you don’t have to be the smartest or most experienced Christian to point that person to Jesus. One of the best things to do is to help them recognize that even their curiosity or hunger is from the Lord.

Next, pray and ask the Lord what the appropriate next step might be. Sometimes God will give you a word to share or the perfect question to ask. If you’re at a complete loss for words, it might be as simple as saying, “I am so happy you’re really seeking God. Can I take you to a friend who might be better able to answer your questions?”

Finally, rest assured, we follow the One, “who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us” (Ephesians 3:20). God is more than capable of leading and guiding you as you offer his deep and abiding love to those hungry for an encounter with Him! 

Prayers Bold Enough to Go Unanswered

After church, our men and women would linger in the parking lot while the kids played in the lawn next to the white-framed building where we gathered for worship. One Sunday after church, I remember very clearly a group of men gathering and talking as they looked at Buffalo Mountain, which was located about half a mile north of our church building. Screen Shot 2019-12-07 at 9.58.07 AM

One of the men shook his head in wonder and said, “Can you believe it? If we had faith the size of a mustard seed we could move that mountain.” We had just heard a sermon referencing Matthew 17:20 in the service which had just dismissed. I remember the sense of wonder and amazement in the man’s voice even to this day.

Years later, in seminary, I was introduced to “more sophisticated” readings of Scripture. And since that parking lot experience, I have heard a variety of theories about what Jesus meant when he said, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” However, none of those theories contain the awe and wonder of a handful of men and women in a gravel parking lot trying to enlarge their faith to embrace the vibrant expectancy of Scripture.

Over the years, I’ve made the conscious decision that when I err, I’m going to err on the side of expectancy. I’m going to err on the side of taking Scripture to heart, even when my personal experience has yet to match the expectations or experiences revealed in the Bible. Some will scoff and call me a biblical fundamentalist or literalist. I’ll take those labels, in spite of their inaccuracy, in exchange for living with the expansive hope formed by taking Scripture to heart. I’ll take that every day of the week over sterile objectivity. I’d rather approach God’s word with awe and wonder than to approach it like a freshman biology student approaching a frog with a microscope and scalpel.

When we approach scripture with our hearts wide open, and an active expectancy, we are more likely to experience the reality described in Hebrews 4:12, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”

One of my favorite quotes, often attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes, states, “For the simplicity on this side of complexity, I wouldn’t give you a fig. But for the simplicity on the other side of complexity, for that I would give you anything I have.” There is a simplicity in believing that when Jesus says we must forgive our enemies, that’s what he means. There is a simplicity in believing that when Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” that the man’s ankles inexplicably strengthened and straightened and he leapt to his feet, “walking, and jumping and praising God!”

Early on in my ministry, I went to the house of a family where the husband had just been diagnosed with a serious illness. The wife asked me to pray, and I prayed the perfectly sterile prayer of a newly minted pastor. I asked God to “be with them” and “bless them” and a number of things that would be true whether or not I had actually prayed. After I finished, the wife said, “but we wanted you to pray that he’d be healed!” I was struck to the heart. I realized that the low expectations of my prayer were grounded in my fear of how I would look if the prayer didn’t happen just as I’d hoped. At that moment, I decided that I would choose to pray with boldness, trusting that God is big enough to handle the disappointment if things don’t turn out exactly as I pray.

Unsurprisingly, for those of us who stubbornly believe the Bible is true, prayers for healing often lead to healing. Prayers for provision and transformation often lead to those very things.  If I had any advice to offer myself as a young pastor when it comes to prayer, it would be this: cast off your fear. Take God at his word. Pray prayers bold enough they could go unanswered!

Appointments Made by God

Ministry has a way of interrupting our tidy schedules. It never fails to amaze me how many of Jesus’s opportunities to demonstrate his identity and the kingdom of God happened at unscheduled times. As Jesus taught in a crowded home, some intrepid men lowered their paralyzed friend through the roof and interrupted Jesus’s teaching. Instead of being caught off guard, Jesus used this opportunity to heal the paralytic and teach a powerful lesson about his authority as the Son of Man (Luke 5:17-26). 

As Jesus stood beside the sea of Galilee, surrounded by a crowd of people, Jairus threw himself at his feet and begged him to come and heal his daughter. Even as Jesus walked to Jairus’s house, he encountered yet another person desperate for healing, and he cleansed this woman of a discharge of blood that had lasted twelve years (Mark 5:21-34).

All too often, we decry the lack of an orderly schedule in our lives as pastors and Christian leaders. However, I am convinced this can often be a sort of godly serendipity, led by the Holy Spirit, to put us exactly where we need to be at a time that makes perfect Kingdom sense.

Early in my ministry, I struggled to figure out what to do and when to do it. There were endless tasks that were never completed. In this chaotic season, I learned an important lesson about attention and obedience to the Holy Spirit.

One morning as I planned my day, a family became lodged in my mind. This couple helped each week in worship. The wife played the piano and her husband led our singing. They were not emotionally needy and required little attention. And yet, I couldn’t get them out of my mind. Finally, I stubbornly began to see that this might be from the Lord, so I called the wife to see if I could come by their house to visit. She sounded surprisingly excited, and I made my way over.

As I entered the door, she and her husband treated me like royalty. They ushered me to the kitchen table. They had made coffee and had snacks sitting out. At the same time, there was an atmosphere in their emotions and home that I couldn’t quite understand.

Across the table, the wife choked back tears as she asked, “how did you know?” I was mystified. “What do you mean?” She continued, “well, we assumed someone told you,” as she began to share the story of how this was one of the most difficult days of the year for them. You see, 20-something years earlier to the day, their son had been tragically killed by a baseball in a little league game. My heart broke. But I also realized something powerful. Even though I had no idea, God knew. As I shared this with them, the peace of Christ settled into the room.

I will never forget the lesson I learned that day. We have no way of knowing what is going on in the lives of the people we are sent to love, lead, and serve. But God does. Only by listening to the whisper of His voice will we be able to manifest His loving presence in their lives. Only by obedience to the Holy Spirit will we be able to minister in the midst of interruptions and chaos.

A Preacher with Nothing New to Say

I was recently visiting with a pastor friend who told me one of his core commitments in ministry is to “have absolutely nothing new to say.” 

You might be thinking, “well, that sounds pretty boring, never having anything new to say!” But the truth is far deeper. While we certainly don’t try to bore anyone, we work hard to stay completely faithful to God’s word. In fact, it reminded me of Paul’s words in 2 Thessalonians 2:15. There, Paul writes, “So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.” The more I thought about my friend’s statement, the more I realized how much I agreed with his statement. 

His statement made me think about the vows every United Methodist Elder takes at their ordination (in our tradition, fully ordained clergy are called Elders, no matter their age). The bishop, prior to laying hands on us for ordination, asks us a series of questions. Here are a few of those questions followed by the response of each Elder being ordained:

“Do you trust that you are called by God to the life and work of an elder?” 

“I do so trust.” 

“Do you believe in the Triune God, and confess Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?”

“I do so believe and confess.”

“Are you persuaded that the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments contain all things necessary for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, and are the unique and authoritative standard for the Church’s faith and life?”

“I am so persuaded, by God’s grace.”

“Will you be faithful in prayer, in the reading and study of the Holy Scriptures, and with the help of the Holy Spirit continually rekindle the gift of God that is in you?” 

“I will, with the help of God.”

At my ordination, I promised that, “the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments contain all things necessary for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, and are the unique and authoritative standard for the Church’s faith and life.” Anytime I deviate from the message of truth and grace contained in Scripture, even unintentionally, I distract from the power of God’s word.

Looking back at these vows, i realized I share the same commitment as my friend. Although I hope to present the message of scripture in creative ways, I am committed to adding “nothing new” to the message of God’s word.

In Jeremiah 6:16, the prophet writes, “This is what the Lord says: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.” I pray that we continue to seek the ancient paths of God’s word and find rest for our souls, no matter what comes our way.

Without God, This World is All They Have.

Last Wednesday I had the opportunity to do a Q&A with The Loft, the student ministry of our congregation. I really enjoyed hearing their questions and offering them my best understanding of how to answer those questions using scripture. While several questions stand out in my mind, one reminded me of a question I’ve often heard asked. To put it simply, I was asked, “why does it sometimes seem like those who have faith sometimes suffer while those without faith have so much in this world?”

When my mom was a little girl, she didn’t have much from a material point of view. One day, after seeing how affluent one of her classmates was she asked her mom, “why do they have so much when they don’t even go to church?” In her young mind, it was as though God was blessing them for a lack of faith.

This is a question as old as Scripture. In Psalm 49:5-7, 16-20 (CEB) shows us,

“Why should I fear in times of trouble?
The iniquity of my foes surrounds me.
They trust in their wealth
and boast of their abundant riches.
Yet these cannot redeem a person
or pay his ransom to God…

Do not be afraid when a person gets rich,
when the wealth of his house increases.
For when he dies, he will take nothing at all;
his wealth will not follow him down.
Though he blesses himself during his lifetime —
and you are acclaimed when you do well for yourself —
he will go to the generation of his fathers;
they will never see the light.
Mankind, with his assets,
but without understanding,
is like the animals that perish.”

My grandmother Pauline drew on this Biblical wisdom when she answered my mom. She said, “honey, without God, this world is all they have…” The truth is, no matter how much wealth or prosperity we experience in this world, if we don’t have a deep relationship with God (what the Psalmist here calls understanding), we are missing out on the one thing that matters most.

Faith in God through Christ transcends this life and leads to eternal blessing and infinite happiness and joy. We must always remember, no matter how much we may prosper in this life, knowledge of God is infinitely greater value than money or success.

With that in mind, how should we prioritize our lives? I believe we should make our relationship with God an absolute priority. Every second we invest in learning about God through his Word, every second we spend deepening our relationship with God through prayer, and every moment we spend in worship are never a waste. Instead, they are eternal investments that shape not only our experience of this world, but that lead to the everlasting blessing that awaits us in the world to come!

 

Writing @ Seedbed

One of my goals for 2014 is to write more. I’ve always loved to write, and yet I’ve drifted away from doing it on a regular basis. Thanks to Seedbed, I’ve been able to share a couple posts over the past month to get me back on track. If you’d like to read those, you can check them out here: