Tuesday, July 30, 2013

“What Is Our Identity?” ...Expanded Transcript for Study

Transcript [i]

This is the transcript for the sermon I preached at Saint Simons Community Church (SSCC) on July 29, 2013 (Watch sermon here). I actually wrote the transcript after the sermon so that I might adapt it for reading and study. Therefore, it is not the exact wording I used in the sermon, but it is a close approximation, expanded somewhat for the sake of study clarity. Moreover, this sermon is part of a much larger project that I am working on tentatively called, “Surprised By Purpose: The Story of Our Identity.” I want to extend a special thanks to SSCC for allowing me the opportunity to share what God has placed on my heart.

All Jason has in his possession is a bag with a few items from his past, and, as he looks them over for clues to his identity and reflects on the fragments of things that he can actually remember, he cannot help but feel a sense of dread, as if something is not quite right, beyond having amnesia of course. When we meet Jason Bourne, he is unconscious, set adrift in the Mediterranean Sea and left for dead. He is pulled aboard a fishing vessel. Upon being revived, he quickly realizes that He does not know who he is.

At this point, Jason is left with one of two options. He can take Marie’s advice, his newly found friend that we see him speaking with in the clip we just watched. She suggests that he is just paranoid; perhaps his amnesia is the result of an accident. He could just calm down, stop concerning himself with the past so much, and just get on with living life. Perhaps Jason could have gone back to the boat captain of the fishing vessel that saved his life, asked for a job, and perhaps he could have figured out his life in time, or even just started over.

This is not what Jason does. Instead, he chooses another option. He stays on his guard and fights to find out who he is, and, as the story unfolds, we find he makes the right decision. If he had convinced himself he was being paranoid and tried to forget about his past, his past would have soon caught up with him and ended his life. It turns out that Jason was a secret agent, and it was a botched mission that left him in the predicament he now found himself in. The agency that had sent him on the mission was out to wipe Jason Bourne from the scene of history, so that they might cover their tracks.

If you have ever heard the story of humanity told from the Christian worldview, you might hear something of Jason’s story echoed in ours. This is especially true when you are familiar with common testimonies of converted Christians. It goes something like this: “I awoke one day to realize that I did not know who I was, but there was something wrong.” As a matter of fact, the question, “Who am I?” is a question that humans have been asking as far back as our histories can remember. However, the Christian story does not stop with just this strange sense of a lack of identity. Instead, as I already noted, the question is coupled with a fear.

We awake to realize that we have a hole in our chest. We feel as if we are as good as dead. Even though we are not quite sure who we are, as we reflect on the fragmentary clues we do have, we end up feeling that sense of dread, and like Jason, we are faced with a choice. We can say to ourselves: “The past does not matter. I am my own man or woman. I can make my own identity. I’ll just start over.” And what does the Christian story say will happen? Soon enough our sin will catch up with us and drag us down. That agency, Sin, that has left us lost, is out to finish the job.

Now, this is really where our story diverges from Jason’s. Jason has no help, and he has to go fight for his identity alone. Sure, he has met Marie, but she is just as lost as Jason. She is having an identity crisis of her own. She might not have amnesia, but she is a drifter that cannot even get her visa straightened out. To know what happens to Jason and Marie, you will have to watch the movie. For us looking at the story of humanity from the Christian perspective, the Bible story tells us that we cannot fight for ourselves. In fact, sin has not simply left us for dead, like Jason was left for dead. In a real sense, we are already dead in our sin. But, there is still a fight for your identity, and that is the story the Bible tells us.

The Bible is not merely so, but it is the story of us, the story of the fight for our identity. It informs us about our past and how we got to where we are now. One of my favorite theologians, John Wesley, once said, “If I were to write the story of my life, I should start before I was born,” and that is where the Bible begins: in the beginning, which is a good place to start if you ask me. So, that is going to be our task for the rest of this message, to tell the story, but, in order to be able to do so, we must get over what I like to call Sunday School Syndrome.

Sunday School Syndrome is not limited to those programs that are explicitly labeled “Sunday School.” It can be any program that is dedicated to bringing a small group of believers together for a limited amount of time to discuss the Word of God. If you have ever been a part of such a program, and even more so if you have ever been a leader or teacher of such a program, you might get a better sense for what I am about to say.

Teachers and leaders of such programs often feel obligated to have a succinct and comprehensive message that wraps up by the end of the talk. You don’t want to leave the group feeling as if they did not get anything out of the study. So, we rush over to stories in Scriptures like David and Goliath, and we pull out some moral nugget and say, “Now, go and live it out.” After years and years of this, we end up with a bunch of stories in our head. We know about Noah and Jesus and Adam and Eve and Lazarus and Moses and Paul and Gideon and Elisha and Elijah and Rahab. The list goes on.

I got very good at telling the stories of Scripture, but I realized one day that I could not tell the story of Scripture. How did all these people impact each other, or did they? Is the Bible just a collection of Ancient Near Eastern fables or is it a bigger story. I began to ask myself this question as I was leaving for seminary, and it was not some sort of moral quest for me. I just thought to myself, “You know, you’re going to be in ministry one day. You better learn this stuff so you don’t get caught with your pants down.”

You know what I found out? I found out that it was a bigger story, and it was not just a story of an ancient past. It was my story, a story that has defined my life, and it is the story we are now going to tell. But, since this is such a big task, we will have to give ourselves some boundaries boundary, lest I wander down every rabbit trail there is. To keep us on task, we are going to end our conversation by answering a question about Matthew 28:18-20. How this relates to the story of our identity will become apparent in a moment. This is, as you are already probably very aware, the Great Commission:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Notice what Jesus does not say here. He does not say, “Now behold my Great Commission: All authority in heaven and on earth…” No. It is the Church that has through the ages called this passage, “The Great Commission,” and we have to ask ourselves, what makes it so great?

Another question that we must ask that goes along with the first is this: “How do we go from waking up one day with that hole in our chest, realizing we are as good as dead, to the place where we can believe such a calling from Christ is possible?” Indeed it would have to be a great commission if it implies what it seems to imply: that we can be His disciples, that we can be God’s right-hand men and women.

In order to answer that question, we go back to the beginning, specifically that part of the creation account when God begins to create us, Genesis 1:27 and 28. I am often humored by the modern usage of these two verses. These are two very well known passages in the Bible, but they are seldom told together as they are written.

Verse 27, naturally enough, is used to speak about our identity. In essence, you were made in the image of God. The text says, “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Of course we all know the caveat of the fall, but we use this verse to speak about what God did in the beginning. However, we never seem to ask the question, “Why?” God created many other things, but humans He made to bear His image. Why?

The answer to that question we should get by moving quickly over to the next verse, but often we just end the discussion there. Genesis 1:28 says, “God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’” There is our answer, but v 28 shows up in a different discussion altogether. Of course we love that first part about being fruitful and multiplying. That sounds fun, but we then take the discussion to some strange places, like population control.

Something to this effect is said: “The world is filling up with people. Should we keep having babies?” To which the reply comes: “Well the Bible says, “be fruitful and multiply,’ so keep it up.” Now, this verse might have something to say to this modern conversation. I don’t know, but I do have to imagine that when the writer was inspired to write this those thousands of years ago, he wasn’t thinking, “You know what? People a few thousand years from now will be wondering what to do when the world starts to fill up with people, so I better write this now.”

Let’s do ourselves a favor and place this verse in the context in which it was written, that is in conjunction with v 27. What happens when we pull them together? What does the text say? Verse 27 says that you were made in the image of God, and, then, in v 28, God commands you to be fruitful and multiply. In other words, God in essence says, “You are made in my image. Now, go and fill the earth with my image.” This is where the story of our identity starts. We are called to fill the earth by being image bearers, and what is God’s image: Among other things, it is goodness. We were meant to fill the earth with God’s goodness.

Soon enough we get to Genesis 3, the story of the fall. We all know the story. It is another story affected by the Sunday School Syndrome. Out of context it is simply a story with an apple—at least that is the fruit we have chosen to depict—a snake, a tree, and two naked people that whenever a snapshot is taken of them, they are in perfect alignment with tree limbs and bushes to have their private bits covered up. It all seems sort of silly. We want to laugh at it. But, when you place this story into the context of the bigger story, it is so frightening that it can take your breath away.

Paul commenting on sins entrance into human history said in Romans 3:23: “…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Scholars tell us that, especially when speaking about God, the word glory can be interchanged with the world image, since God’s image is glorious. So, what is Paul saying? He is saying that we have all fallen short of the image of God, that image we were meant to carry out into the world. In other words, we have all fallen short of our privilege as image bearers. Like any good story, there is conflict, and this is where the story of our identity becomes the story for the fight for our identity.

At this point in the story, I am going to need a favor from you. I know that you probably already know much more is going to happen before we get to a solution for sin. You know we have to meet Jesus before we get close to a solution, but you also probably know how to suspend what you know to enjoy the tension of the story being told. You know how it is when you are watching that movie with that great car chase scene you have seen a thousand times. You know what happens, but you are still on the edge of your seat, worried for the hero, asking yourself, “Will he make it?” You are able to do this, because you are able to suspend what you know to enjoy the story.

So, for the rest of this discussion, as you watch the story of the Bible unfold on the theatre screen of your mind, pretend that you do not already know the end of the story and enjoy the story as it is meant to be heard. We are now at Genesis 6. Here we are introduced to Noah, but before we talk about Noah, let’s talk about the world in which Noah lived. The Bible tells us that humanity did begin to multiply (see v 1), but that humanity was wicked (v 5). Do you see the literary awe here? Now, what we have been studying so far is surely real history, but it is artfully and frighfully told.

In Genesis 1:28, we are told to fill the earth with God’s goodness, and only five chapters to follow, what have we done? We have filled the earth with wickedness. Do you see the juxtaposition here? Do you see the sheer magnitude of the conflict that the Bible is telling us about? We are so broken, so fallen, that we are doing the exact opposite from that for which we were created. We need a hero, and onto the scene of history walks Noah, a man that the Bible says was a righteous man (v 9). In fact, compared to all other people of his time, Noah was seen as blameless. Perhaps he is the key, right? God wipes the earth clean from all others, save Noah and his progeny. Maybe he can raise children that will raise children that will fill the earth and glorify God.

We now turn to Genesis 11:1-9.  By this point in Scripture, much time has passed between Noah’s story and the story being told here. It is the story of Noah’s offspring. By this time, the world has repopulated, enough to have the amount of people needed to begin civilizing yet again, and are they filling the earth with God’s glory? Genesis 11:4 tells us that while humans were indeed busy with projects to shape the world, they were trying to create for their own glory, the glory of fallen and selfish man, not God. Can you feel the tension build? Even from the most righteous of men come a people that are falling short of their calling. If the most righteous of men cannot raise up a people to fulfill God’s task, has God’s plans failed?

In Genesis 12 we meet Abraham for the first time, at this point called Abram, and this is were the story starts to turn towards hope. This is were God steps in and becomes a controlling character in the story of the redemption of our identity. Upon calling Abraham out to follow Him, Yahweh reveals why He has chosen this man:

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (vv 1-3)

While in Genesis 1 God had called humanity out to ensure the earth was blessed with His glory, here He begins to proclaim how He will ensure the success of that mission. Notice that God does not scrap the human project. Instead, He enters it as the insurance for its success. Notice the echoes of Genesis 1: In Genesis 1:27 and 28 God plans for humans to multiply, and upon doing so they will bless the world. Here Abraham’s seed will become many and through this nation, all the nations of the world will be blessed, and any one who tries to get in the way of this mission, God will see to it that they are dealt with.

Moreover, God does not just make any promise with Abraham; He cuts a covenant with Him. In Genesis 15, Abraham is looking for some assurance, and God tells Abraham to gather some animals. Abraham does so. He cuts them in half, and awaits God. Time does not permit me to go into great detail, but what happens here is a covenant ritual. A covenant is the entering into of relationship, and the covenant itself stipulates what is expected from each party. As we see in this ritual, it is God, not Abraham, that is the main participant, as he, represented by a torch and oven, passes through the blood of the sacrifice. This was a sign that said: “I will die to keep my promise.” In other words, God binds His very life to Abraham’s, and Abraham’s children. His willingness to die is a foreshadowing of the cross, but we are getting ahead of ourselves. (For further understanding of covenant, specifically the covenant with Abraham, click here.)

So, again, suspending what we know, if we were reading this for the first time, we might be able to sit back and relax, especially after that whole big wait for Abraham to start having children. When he does, we must let out a sigh of relief, right? God says Abraham’s children will be the ones to right the ship, right? We would think so, but when the book of Exodus opens, Abraham’s children are enslaved in Egypt. The story quickly picks up in Exodus with Moses (Exodus 2 cf), who delivers God’s people out of Egypt.

Moses leads the people of God to Mount Sinai, and starting in Exodus 19, Yahweh begins to reveal His law to Moses and consequently the people of Israel. Perhaps this is the answer. Perhaps this is how God is going to bind Himself to Israel, through the revelation of the law, His revealed will. Noah, he was a good man, but He had no guideline, no way to teach His children the righteousness that seemed to come so easy to him. He just wasn’t a good teacher. That’s the real issue, right? But, now we have the law. Now we can just go through our checklist and do A, B, C, and D, and presto, we will usher in the glory of God upon the earth.

Is this what happens to Israel after the giving of the law? Sadly, it is not. Instead, we simply fast-forward to Numbers 14. Here those who have received the law are called to trust in the Lord, and instead they rebel, and in their rebellion, they are punished by having to wander the wilderness for forty years. And this is sort of the story for Israel that repeats time and time again. They are given grace. God picks them up. They are excited and do well for a time, and then, they fall into rebellion.

Now we get to I Samuel 16, the anointing of King David. Sure they had the law, but they were a loose confederation of tribes with no real oversight. They had the judges for a time, but no central head. Now comes a king, David. Now the tribes of Israel are unified. We have someone to uphold the law, to oversee. And, in David’s day, things seem to go pretty well. A monarchy is born, but even David is concerned that this might not last forever, so we get to the conversation that God has with David in II Samuel 7:1-17. This is actually another covenant, made with David this time.

David had asked God if he could build him a house. You see, David was thinking to himself, “We need to ensure God stays put.” We have a land now; now all we need to do is keep God here and we are good. So, let’s build a temple. God chastises David and in essence is saying, “David, you are not the one to ensure the success of Israel. I am, and I tell you what: I will build you a house.” Now God is playing with terms here. David was talking about a physical house, but Yahweh is speaking of a household, a lineage. In vv 12-17, God speaks of one to come who will rule forever, one who will bring peace.

Now, again, we should be able to sit back and relax. God promises David right here that His dynasty will be an everlasting one, and, since David is on the throne, well, does it not stand to reason that it can only go up from here? David’s rule goes pretty smoothly. His son, Solomon, does a decent job. After that, Israel is in civil war. David is not gone for anytime before his nation is split in two, and it never fully recovers.

By the middle of II Kings at chapter 17, the Northern nation, called Israel, is conquered and exiled under the Assyrians. Judah in the south is still there. Perhaps they will be able to hold it together. But, by the end of II Kings at chapters 24 and 25, they too are conquered, this time by the Babylonians, and exiled. Forget the Davidic monarchy. There is no nation, let alone a throne. God has failed, has he not?

In this dark time arises men called prophets, and they are still talking about this one to come from David. If you are an Israelite looking over your past and you hear these men talking about the one to come, you have to be thinking to yourself, “These prophets have been out in the sun too long. They have lost their minds.” How is one to come from David if there is no real monarchy? And, have we not seen men called out, and each time they seem not quite able to do it. But, the prophets continue the foretelling of this one to come.

The prophecies abound, but there are a few that I wish to highlight, because they reveal something of the Messiah that is especially important in the context of this discussion. The first two come from Isaiah. In chapters 11 and 61 the prophet tells of one to come who will carry with him the Spirit of God. In chapter 11 the prophet continues the theme of the lineage of David (v 1).  The Spirit of God will direct his life (vv2-5). This one to come will bring peace (vv 6-9). Finally, he will be a blessing to the nations through his glory (v 10). Can you hear the echo?  God plans through this man to bless the nations through His glory. Chapter 61 is like 11. Here the Messiah speaks of his purpose for being anointed with the Spirit of God. He will bear the Spirit so that he might bring peace.

Daniel 7: 13 and 14 is another interesting prophecy of this one that is to come. The Scripture says that he comes like “a Son of Man” (KJV). In other words, this Messiah comes as a human being, and he goes before the Ancient of Days, God, and to him is given “glory;” we’ve heard that word a few times now. In other words, he will bear God’s image, right? He is given power and “dominion.” We have heard that word too, right. In Genesis 1 we are given dominion. Here now is one who is supposedly going to come and lead the right way (as we see in the NT, Jesus’ mode of leadership is service). What is God thinking? Yet, another human being… Haven’t we seen that we cannot seem to get the job done?

The Old Testament ends with no real resolution. The prophets’ voices drop off the scene of history, and this Messiah is nowhere in sight. When the Old Testament comes to a close, the Israelites are back in their homeland, but they are not in control. Other empires rule over them. It would seem that if they were ever to resurrect the monarchy, a revolt must take place and succeed. A Messiah must rise up to lead the people yet again out of captivity. But, for 400 years, nothing…

Nevertheless, onto the scene of human history walks Jesus of Nazareth, and the last of the Old Testament prophet types, John the Baptist, introduces Christ’s ministry by speaking of Christ as the one who baptizes with the Spirit (Matthew 3:11, Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; John 1:33). Now this adds a new dimension to the discussion. Not only is Christ the one that bears the Spirit, He plans to pour His Spirit out, to wash us in the Spirit, to baptize in the Spirit. In case there is any confusion about Christ’s thoughts upon His own mission, He quotes Isaiah 61, now speaking of Himself (Luke 4:18). He sees Himself as Messiah, the one with the Spirit of God.

But, there is a problem: Every time Christ has the opportunity to raise up an army in revolt of the powers that be, He doesn’t. He claims that this is not why He is here, even though that was the explicit expectation of Messiah, and He certainly saw Himself as Messiah. Perhaps He should have read His Bible. Paul comments on Christ’s strange behavior in His first advent in Philippians 2:5-8. Here Paul states that while Christ was (and is) fully God and fully man, when He came in His first advent, He gave up His divine power for a time, and He subjected Himself to human limitations. He became a slave.

If you are still with me, and you are enjoying the story as it is being told, watching it on the theatre screen of your mind, you might want to stand up and scream, “Jesus, don’t do it. Don’t be like me. Don’t come as a human. Haven’t you read the Old Testament? Every time God calls out humans, we either drop the ball, or we just can’t quite get there. How does He respond? He comes to tie all these seemingly loose ends together. Jesus says, in essence, “I am going to show you that it can be done. I am going to show you how to live the human life as it is meant to be lived.” And how does He live?  He lives in full submission to God.

What does He say? He says in John 5:19 that He does nothing on His own. He only does what He sees the Father doing. Moreover, notice how He says He performs miracles, such as exorcism. In Matthew 12:28, He does not say, “If I by my own divine powers do this.” Instead, He says, “If I by the Spirit of God…” Remember, He gave up His divine rights to live like us, to be like you and me, so that He could show us a better way.

And how do we respond? We say, “Yes, Jesus. We see, but, you are without sin. We have to bear its weight.” And Jesus says, “I know, and that is why I am going to die for you. I am going to take on your sin so that you might bear my Spirit. I am going to die so that I might pour out my image upon you. We are now approaching the answer to our question that we asked nearer the beginning of this discussion: “How can the Great Commission be so great? How can we go from lost, as good as dead individuals, who are then called to be God’s right-hand men and women in His mission?”

Hebrews 1:3 tells us something of what Christ accomplished once He died and was resurrected. It tells us that after He had defeated sin, He once again sat at the right hand of the Father. There is now a difference in Christ’s work and all the other works God did through men to lead to this point in time. No longer are we looking forward to a promise to come, a “One day, it will come to pass” scenario. Instead, we are now looking back. Christ has won. He has defeated sin. So, now He is no longer the Messiah who is going to do something. He is the Risen King that has done it.

So, we can return back to Matthew 28:18-20 and understand what Christ means when He says of Himself that He has been given all power and authority. He has guaranteed our victory. He has made it possible for us to bear His image again through the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is what He means when He says that He will be with us always. He is calling us out to be disciples, and what is a disciple? Let’s look to John 15:8: “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.” We bring God glory? Do you hear the echo? We are those that bear the fruits of the Spirit. In other words, we bear the image of God.

The Great Commission says to us: You are disciples, those who bear the image of God, therefore, make disciples. Again, do you hear the echo? Genesis 1:27 and 28 says we are image bearers made to multiply that image in the world. Here Jesus says, you are disciples, image bearers, now multiply. Here we are, being restored to our image through Christ, and He gives us a call to “Go,” and make His image multiply yet again. What are we to do when we are called to go? Hebrews 11:8 tells us that when Abraham was told to “go,” in faith He went. You are called to go, what will you do?

The Scripture tells us that the canon is closed. In other words, the Scriptures will not have anything else written in them, but, while the canon is closed the story it tells is still open. In fact, it is a story that you are invited into. How will you respond?


[i] All Scripture cited from NRSV unless otherwise noted:
The New Revised Standard Version. Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA. 1989
[ii] The Bourne Identity. Dir. Doug Liman. Perf. Matt Damon, Franka Potente. Universal, 2002. DVD.

Monday, July 22, 2013

In Spite of Our Gifts: What I Learned During My Mission Trip.

There is a big hype in the church centered upon finding our place in ministry in light of our spiritual gifts. I think this is a great thing. Obviously enough if God has given us certain gifts, we are meant to use them. To ignore our God-given gifts is to be irresponsible with God’s grace. We need only look to the parable of the talents to see this as true. Even so, it seems to me that the Church’s obsession with gifts can and does often become reason to limit our ministry, instead of reason to do ministry.

While some might disagree, I feel that I have been given the gift of writing. I thrive in the solitude that sitting behind a screen offers. At times I know what I write is not of me, because, at least to me, it seems profound.  I am granted peace in the quiet of writing. I could be perfectly happy doing nothing but writing for the rest of my life.

On the other hand, I am not naturally gifted at being a team leader. I enjoy following instructions much more than giving them. While I do well at public speaking, there is a separation between the speaker and the audience when an actual speech is being given. However, being a public speaker does not make one automatically gifted at social engagement or at leadership. I have a bit of social anxiety, and I can be socially awkward. I do not like being in the midst of a large group of people, and I am certainly not gifted in ministry to children. So, who am I to lead a team out to the Navajo Reservation to serve a group of kids for VBS? This is not where I thrive.

If I was into the latest church trend, I would be able to show my skills assessment and get off the hook for this sort of job. I have taken two different and very well respected skills assessments and neither suggested I have the slightest gift for such a leadership position. I have heard so many other church goers say, “Well, that is just not my gift,” and it has seemed to get them a free pass. As a person who enjoys avoiding problems, I like free passes. So, I told God long ago that I was not to be a team leader for VBS missions. He did not accept the pass.

Why will this not work for me? I tried two years ago to do my best to have the mission trip canceled, and God kept pushing open the doors I was trying to shut. It made me so angry, and I protested that if He wanted to have me serve in such a capacity he should gift me with the skills I would need to confidently do the job. He gave me no such comfort. But, He called me out anyway. And guess what: The trip went just fine, in spite of me, the leader, and it has gone well ever since, even this year, when Murphy’s law was in full force.

The truth of the matter is that God calls us to use our gifts, but His call on our lives is certainly not limited to the gifts He gives us. If we were able to dismiss our calling on the grounds of insufficient gifting, no human would be in ministry. If we look to the Bible, we see several of its key figures coming up with very reasonable objections to His call in light of their own gifts. In fact, objection to God’s call on the grounds of lack of gifts is prolific in Scripture:

Gideon: “O my Lord, how can I save Israel? Indeed my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house.” Judges 6:15

Moses:  But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the children of Israel out of Egypt…suppose they will not believe me or listen to my voice… Suppose they say, ‘The Lord has not appeared to you’…O my Lord, I am not eloquent, neither before nor since You have spoken to Your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue…O my Lord, please send by the hand of whomever else You may send.” Exodus 3:11; 4:1, 10, 13

Jeremiah: Ah, Lord God! Behold, I cannot speak, for I am a youth. Jeremiah 1:6

Isaiah: Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; Isaiah 5a.

Of course, seeing one’s self as inadequate before God and in light of His call is not limited to these figures: Jonah runs, Mary questions how she can carry the Messiah, the Disciples are often showing their own shortcomings, the list goes on. But, what God sets out to do in the lives of these inadequate persons, He does.

I never feel more inadequate in my calling than when I lead a team to the Reservation. When I go by myself to teach pastor-training classes, I am fine. I am in my element. I know how to teach. When I am there to lead a VBS, I am out of my league. I do not know anything about organizing a team, or about children’s ministry. But, it is a calling I cannot escape. And, although I know that God is the one who has called me, and He will lead me through, I cannot help but to object in light of my own flaws, just as those who were called before me.

Before I left, I laid awake for several nights imagining all the possible problems that could arise, or so I thought. Two of the biggest concerns were no kids showing up, or having our vans get stuck in sand, like last year. What happened instead was a series of unimaginable events.

After the team arrived safely to Albuquerque and we all made the 6 plus hour trip to our destination, I thought I was going to be ok. But, that night, Esther, one of the Navajo ladies who helps us out during our week there said: “Tab, you better start picking kids up early, there is another VBS mission across the river that is competing with us.” I smiled and said, “If we are all doing Christ’s work, we are not competing.” She smiled back and said, “Well, they think we are.” That is when it hit me; my worst fear was coming true. No kids were going to come.

In years past, our highest number of kids was 70 on the last day, the highest for the first day being no more than 48, if I remember correctly. I was going to be happy with 30. We left the next morning earlier than expected to see if we could find any kids, by the end of it, we had over 60…on the first day. My number one fear was, even in light of unforeseen “competition,” no concern for God.

The pick up and drop off trips take a little more than an hour and take the drivers to really remote places on long dirt roads where it is easy to get stuck in the sand, but after making it through the first day, I thought my second fear had been done away with. So, after our first successful day of VBS had ended, I took my team for some much deserved sight seeing. Clouds coalesced in the distance, but nothing to be too concerned about. I mean, how much can it rain in the desert, right? When we made it to town to buy groceries for dinner, the bottom fell out.

It began to hail. We hurried to get groceries and rushed to the church, but when we got to the highway leading to the church, the rain and wind was sweeping down the plateau so fast that I could not see ten feet in front of me. We pulled over, but the wind was so strong it felt as if it was going to tip the van. We crept to the turn off to the church, and we turned down the little dirt path. There was a problem. For lack of a better term, a river had formed in front of the church.

I have never been in a flash flood in the desert before, so I thought to myself that perhaps we should wait it out. That is when the road around the vans began to wash out underneath. Sitting still was no longer an option, so I gunned it across the river, Bill, the driver behind me, following. We made it, and just in time. The river, just minutes after we drove across it, began to cut into the desert ground. It created a wash out about four feet deep and fifteen yards across and ran for as long as the eye could see as it swept the earth away, leaving a crevasse between the road and us. There was another river behind the church that met up with the one in front just beyond us. In other words, we were now stuck on an island.

When we got inside, the power was out, and reports came in from across the river, as we yelled back and forth to the locals on the other side, that the black top on the road had been washed out. If there were no road in the direction of the reports, there would be no way to pick up kids for the rest of the week. Moreover, there was no way to drive the vans back over the river. Stranded.

The next day, the sun came out and began to dry up the desert. My team made food for the local village and many were very appreciative since they were without electricity and had no means to prepare food. We also took the time to pack over 200 backpacks for many of the kids on the reservation. Road crews pushed the washed up mud from the road, revealing the blacktop had not washed, it had just been buried, and by the next morning, Bill, found a way to get both vans across the crevasse. The power came back on the next day (and went out again, and on again). We had another day of VBS.

On this day, a kid without a license pulled up to drop off some siblings, not an uncommon thing on the reservation, and he backed over a spigot, effectively knocking out water to the whole church. But, we had bought plenty to last us during our VBS, and Bill, again being the hero, fixed the line before the day’s end. Our final day of VBS went off without a hitch. We had a record number of kids show, many of which never heard the name of Christ until our visit.

The week went on to prove to be the best yet. The team made it home safe, and I stayed to teach and be a part of an incredible pastor training session. And, as I sit here in the airport, I cannot help but thank God for ignoring my objections. While the task and even more so, the disasters, seemed too much to handle, God accomplished what He set out to accomplish. Praise Him!

If He calls you, don’t listen to what your fears say, don’t listen to what the assessment test tell you that you cannot do. Only listen to Him.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Is the Bible a Weapon?

I have said it before, but I want to say it again, if only for my own sake—I certainly need to be held to the same discipline(s) I promote: To fully appreciate Scripture for what it is and what it is for, we need not simply read it against the world around us, but we also need to be able to read the Bible against ourselves.

If my Scriptural reflection only produces a sense of agreement, a collection of nods and “amens,” and never produces a sense of scandal or proffers a challenge against the self, then I am not approaching the text correctly. The Scripture, in conjunction with the Spirit, is meant to work towards the transformation of the self, at least for the truth seeker, much more than I, or any other truth seeker is to work to transform others by the knowledge of the Word that the individual has gained. In fact, I have no such power, even with all the Scriptural information I can muster.

This is not to say that my being transformed by His Word has no social dimension. To suggest such would be too selfish and antithetical to the Word itself. Even so, Scripture is not mine to wield, as I will.  I can work in love, as the Holy Spirit leads, to sow seeds by speaking Scriptural truths, but I am not the Redeemer. Too often, both the Spirit and the Word are seen as mere weapons to smite, not the Kingdom of the World, but those persons within. Too often both the Spirit and the Word are seen as weapons, not against the sin in myself and in others, but merely against others that I do not agree with.

The Bible is too often used to bash others, to merely criticize their lives. However, admonishment without love, without hope, without His guidance, is mere critique, for it offers nothing of a real solution. We are meant, not to attack our enemy, but to fight for them in love, to reach out by the proclamation of His Good News. Instead, verses of Scripture are wielded against others, and the sad fact is that many—and I have been guilty of this manner of abuse as well—who wield these fragments of the text do so without ever looking up the context for themselves; that is they do not research the author’s intent for saying what he said.

Many simply Google: "What does the Bible have to say about..." They then find the article that best suits their needs, the verse that they did not even know existed, but confirms their own opinion, and then without making sure that the segment the text is set in confirms the text itself, they attack. The verse is never used for reflection upon the self or for transformation, but instead is used merely as an argument.

 Don't misunderstand, there is nothing wrong with an internet search for that ever-elusive reference, but to find it and then scurry off to whatever blog wall we were wanting to comment on, without as much as looking it up in our own Bibles, meditating on it, and seeking His counsel upon it, that is nothing less than a sin, bottom line. We are not the sole interpreters of Scripture. We are called to read in the presence of others, not least the Holy Spirit.

The Spirit works in and through us, and without Him, we cannot truly operate. If we find a verse on our own and use it on our own, it will become as good as any work we do on our own, worthless. Again, I confess, I have worked on this level many times, simply to protect my own statements and worldviews when challenged. The Bible is not meant to simply insulate us from a sinful world. It calls us out into that world, for the sake of others.

The Bible is not merely meant to be the means by which I can say that I am right and others are wrong. It is meant to transform me so that I can lovingly serve those of the world who are in need of the same healing of which I am now a part by the renewing nature of the Word when the individual submits to it. 

The Spirit will not submit to me, nor will the Word. I can pretend that they can and do, but I will suffer for it. Moreover, the world will not submit to the Word, no matter how much I try to force it upon them. Instead, the Spirit will work through my own submission, and, as He transforms me to His Word, I can be a light to the world, so that some might forsake their old ways, leaving the world behind, and they too might join me in submission to Christ’s rule.

The Bible is a sword of truth, but the battle we fight is not like worldly battles. This sword is for my enemies. I am to fight for the lost and dying world. If the sword pierces the heart, it does not bring death, but life.