‘Tis the season for funerals. Over the past few weeks, my family and I have been to three visitations/funerals: two for relatives of Jackson Heights members, one for the infant daughter of some friends of ours. The two men who died were not Christians; our friends are Christians, very much so.
The differences between the first two and the last one were striking. What, after all, does one say at the funeral of an irreligious man? You look backward. You have to. You talk about what a good friend and coworker he was. You talk about the memories his children have of him. The songs you play are half religious (like that country & western song about going to heaven and petting a lion, which I had never heard before moving to Tennessee and now have heard quite a bit), half not. Then the funeral is over, and you are left with your memories. That’s it.
It’s different if you’re a Christian. Admittedly, these were folks we knew better than we knew the others, but we talked to them for nearly an hour. We certainly talked about memories, but we also talked about meaning. We grappled, as Christians do, with understanding the work of God in a fallen world. We talked about what it means to be a person of faith in a time of despair.
We talked too about their daughter in the present tense. From her perspective, now is much better than a month ago was. We anticipated a tomorrow that would be better for all of us, not least because we will see her again. We will.
Between these two spiritual landscapes, a great chasm is fixed. Mourning with hope is no fun. I’ve grieved for my parents and my daughter that way. However, it is infinitely preferable to mourning without hope. It is much better to grapple with the meaning of tragedy than to be forced to admit that tragedy has no more meaning than anything else.
I know that my friends will grieve incessantly for months and periodically for as long as they live. Some wounds do not completely heal this side of Jordan, and we should not expect them to (or worse, expect the wounds of others to). Our society’s discomfort with sorrow is part and parcel of its refusal to confront the grim realities of life under the sun. We know better, and we should be wiser than that.
Neither, though, should we deny or disparage the comfort that we have been given. Christians are blessed with many gifts. The right to mourn with hope is one of the most precious.
Let me give you a list of some of the men in the brotherhood whom I most admire. Max Dawson. L. A. Stauffer. Mark Russell. David Maravilla. Andy Diestelkamp. These men (and others like them), in addition to having a blameless character, are also preachers who have worked with the same congregation for several decades. Max, for instance, began with the Dowlen Rd. church in Beaumont, TX, in 1978, the same year I was born.
I don’t have to know anything else about you. If you’ve been in the same work for 40-plus years, you’ve been doing something right.
Over the past several weeks, I’ve continued to reflect on Terry Francis’s series of posts about preachers being treated as hirelings. The more I think about it, though, the more I wonder if part of the problem is that preachers act like hirelings.
Recently, I ran across a quotation that urged, “Work like you own the place.” Obviously, no man can own a church belonging to Christ, but there is still a difference between a hireling, even a hard-working hireling, and an owner (or, to use the John 10 language, a good shepherd). Back when I worked for Wal-Mart, I worked hard until the managers told me I could go home, but I didn’t stick around to lock up. Hirelings don’t do that. Owners do.
In the same way, I suspect there are subtle differences in the behavior of a preacher who is determined to remain with a congregation, come what may, as opposed to the preacher who says in his heart, “If worse comes to worst, I can always find someplace else to preach.” If you know you are going down with the ship, you’re going to work a lot harder to keep the ship from going down.
I think this is particularly true when it comes to relationships with brethren. Most preachers who have been preaching very long have accumulated their share of stories about shoddy treatment by members of their congregations. However, none of these stories occur in isolation.
Sure, there are so-called brethren out there who are eaten up entirely with malice. However, I don’t think that most Christians who sin against preachers are like that. Instead, I think they are generally good people whose relationship with the preacher somehow gets caught in a death spiral. Those situations give the devil an opportunity.
Yes, ordinary Christians bear their share of responsibility for failed relationships with preachers, but preachers often do too. It’s easy for preachers to focus on the sin, and get all righteoused up about being sinned against, while overlooking the years of folly and neglect that allowed sin to flourish. Complaining, “It’s not my job to cater to everybody in the church,” is simply another way of admitting, “I am a hireling and act like it.”
I do not mean to suggest that preachers who leave their congregations for another work have sinned. Far from it! However, if we don’t want to be treated like hirelings, we need to quit thinking and behaving like hirelings. If we want commitment and genuine relationships from the leadership and the congregation, we first must show that commitment and build those relationships ourselves.
The Bible is rich in paradox, but one of my favorites appears in Revelation 5:5-6. John begins this text by recalling, “And one of the elders said to me, ‘Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.’”
This is a text that creates all sorts of expectations in the listener. We’re about to be introduced to somebody who is simultaneously the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, and a conqueror. Each of these descriptors is rich in imagery and Scriptural resonance.
Let’s start with the lion. Even the irreligious recognize lions as ferocious, majestic creatures. The Biblically literate are reminded of Jacob’s blessing of his son Judah in Genesis 49:9.
Second, the Root of David is an offshoot of Israel’s greatest king, the warrior who killed giants and led his people to regional preeminence. In order for the title to apply, the candidate had better have the right Davidic lineage, be kingly, and be a victorious war leader.
Third, as we would expect, this leonine Root has conquered. The Jews of Jesus’ time would have been in no doubt about what to expect here. They’ve been under Roman domination for too stinkin’ long; it’s time to start dominating the Romans instead!
However, John takes all these expectations and subverts them in the very next verse. He says, “And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.”
Whoa! This is like expecting a steak dinner and getting a cube of tofu instead. The heroic victor over the enemies of God’s people looks like a baby sheep. Worse still, He looks like a DEAD baby sheep. This is an animal with zero capacity to conquer, who in fact clearly has been conquered. And yet, the elder says, “This is the One who has overcome.” What gives?
That’s exactly God’s point. In literal terms, Jesus didn’t look like anybody’s idea of a victor. He spent His whole life as a Jewish peasant. He never led armies in battle; indeed, He told His followers to sheathe their swords. He didn’t kill His enemies; they killed Him.
However, this meek Lamb of a Savior proved to be a lion. He overcame not through brute force and hatred, but through lowliness and love. His enemies thought they had defeated Him on the cross, but through His death and resurrection, He defeated the greatest enemy of mankind, the devil himself. He will stand for eternity as the greatest conqueror of all time.
God’s lions are lambs. We should remember this not only about our Lord, but about ourselves. We find personal victory not by asserting our will, but by submitting to God’s will. We prove our worth in the kingdom not by insisting on our own way, but by humbly serving others. We bring others to Christ not through domination and coercion, but through patience and love.
To worldly wisdom, this is and always has been foolishness. Surely, anybody who acts like that will get trampled on and despised! Surely, a people that acts like that will be shoved aside and forgotten! However, the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and His path leads not to irrelevance, but to triumph. If we are led by the spirit of the Lamb, we will share in His glory too.
Lots of people binge-watch TV shows. Recently, I’ve been binge-reading personal-finance blogs. One of their favorite topics is asset allocation, in other words, where you should put the money you’re saving for retirement.
Of all the possible investments, the one with the highest returns historically is the stock market. However, most financial gurus will tell you not to put all your money in stocks or stock mutual funds. It’s too risky. What do you do if you’re invested in 100 percent equities, and the market tanks the day after you retire? Your portfolio may never recover.
Instead, the gurus recommend putting part of your money in stocks, another part in bonds, maybe another part in cash or T-bills. The overall returns probably won’t be as good, but those safer investments will protect you from disaster.
This divided strategy makes a lot of sense financially, but a lot of Christians try to apply it where it’s not appropriate. We have examples of men and women of faith who were 100 percent invested in God: Joseph, Moses, Daniel, Paul, and many others. They gave up substantial earthly rewards and faced severe trials for righteousness’ sake, and they were all rewarded.
However, too many brethren look at these examples and say to themselves, “Oooh—too risky!” They try to hedge their investment in God. God promises them inexpressible joy in Christ, but they’re worried that they won’t be happy without their alcohol habit or porn habit, so they cling to it. God promises them eternal fellowship in heaven, but they’re worried about losing friends here if they’re too vocal about their faith, so they remain silent. Rather than being 100 percent invested in God, they’re 75/25, or maybe 50/50.
This diversified spiritual portfolio may seem wise to earthly reasoning, but it’s an invitation to spiritual disaster. As Peter tells us in 1 Peter 1:13, we are supposed to set our hope fully on the grace that is to be revealed. Fully. That’s 100 percent. Not 90 percent on grace, 10 percent on pleasure. Not 75 percent on grace, 25 percent on friends. Nope. Fully. Otherwise, we will fail to achieve what is most important.
Our journey to heaven isn’t like a retirement account: passive, under the influence of forces beyond our control. Instead, the Scripture compares it to a race, in which a partial investment can only lead to disaster. NASCAR drivers don’t race to economize on gas. They race to win. Athletes don’t jog through the 100-meter dash so they can have a comfortable walk to the car afterward. They run to win.
We need to run to win too, and we need to recognize those “diversification opportunities” not as ways to avoid risk but as encumbrances that will keep us from winning. Many of the problems that we worry about never actually come up, but even if they do, so what? 5000 years from now, nobody in heaven will be saying, “Man, I really wish I hadn’t given up my drinking habit!”
In that day, there will be regrets in plenty, but to find them, you’ll have to look someplace else.
This week’s Bible reading has many, many verses in it that stand out to me. Of them all, though, the one that most fired my imagination was Colossians 2:8. There, Paul writes, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.”
Contrary to what we might think, in this verse, Paul makes clear that being captured is not a bad thing per se. Instead, we’re supposed to avoid being captured, or indeed capturing others, with the wrong thing. Being taken captive by philosophy, empty deceit, human tradition, or the elemental spirits of the world: bad. Being taken captive by Christ: good.
Our first application here must be to ourselves. We can have other hobbies, interests, and concerns, but the One who owns us must be Jesus. Our minds and hearts must be turned to Him above all others.
Second, in our efforts to win the lost, we must be careful of using anything but Jesus to appeal to outsiders. There are some obvious applications here. The congregation that attracts unbelievers with a worship service that sounds like a rock concert has made converts to the rock concert, not to Jesus. The church that gets people on its church bus by taping a five-dollar-bill under one of the seats might be bringing those people to services, but it isn’t bringing them to the Lord. Rick Warren to the contrary, “Train up a child in the way he should go,” is not sufficient authority for a church to establish a potty-training ministry! The gospel, not earthly appeal, is what brings the lost to Christ.
However, we must look to ourselves here too. It is possible for us to adhere to the form of Bible authority while defeating God’s purpose and intent. Consider, for instance, song worship. It is entirely possible for a congregation to raise the rafters in four-part a-cappella harmony yet not take visitors captive to Christ. Only the word of Christ, first dwelling within us richly, then expressed to one another in heartfelt singing, can do that. If our song worship is not about the message, it is missing the mark.
So too with preaching. A man can command the pulpit in one of our churches with all the skill of Apollos but not bring anybody closer to Jesus. A sermon built on human tradition and political prejudice can be “not unscriptural” and still have nothing to say about the gospel. The hearers of such a sermon may well amen every word without having brought their lives into submission to the Lord.
To succeed in carrying out God’s will in this evil time, we cannot abandon the word of Christ for any fleshly expedient, no matter how alluring. Instead, we must focus everything we do: singing, preaching, teaching, and personal work, more and more tightly on Jesus. We must repeatedly proclaim His mercy as our Savior and His authority as our Lord. If we want to bring others to Jesus, nothing but Jesus will do.