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Monday, May 31, 2010

The Holy Spirit and the Meaning of Life

I just started reading Ecclesiastes, a book of the Bible I've read before but never studied closely.  Ironically, the Preacher's point in Ecclesiastes is that life has no point.  All human activity is for nothing (though he traces complications to this assertion as the book proceeds).  For example, in 1:3-11 he says that everything is pointless because nothing ever changes, so no person really leaves a mark on successive generations.  In 1:12-2:23 he says that all human activity is pointless because not only can you not really enjoy it when you have it, but when you die you lose your whole life's work anyway and someone who did nothing to earn it gets it.

So I was pondering the pointlessness of life if nothing about life ever really changes and if each of us is an isolated individual essentially unconnected to anything or any people beyond ourselves.  And while I was doing this, I picked up the 2009 annual report of a missions organization I support, Gospel for Asia.  And I read about how women's groups in GFA churches in India are alone among native Indians in reaching out to illiterate "Untouchable" (Dalit) and low-caste women as sisters and teaching them to read so that they can be grounded in the word of God and get an education.  And when I read this I spontaneously started weeping.  At a deep level in my soul, I knew without a doubt that this activity involving these people that I did not know thousands of miles away meant something very important.

How did I know this?  The Holy Spirit.

What the Preacher of Ecclesiastes did not possess is the Holy Spirit dwelling within who makes sense of life by connecting the children of God to God's purpose that extends beyond themselves and to each other.  (Perhaps when I've finished studying the book I'll blog about Ecclesiastes' place in the biblical canon.)

Paul teaches that "when you heard the word of truth (the gospel of your salvation)—when you believed in Christ—you were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit, who is the down payment of our inheritance, until the redemption of God's own possession, to the praise of his glory" (Eph. 1:13-14).  That means that the Holy Spirit is the living proof in the hearts of believers that there is something more out there that in the future we will inherit—that things are not always going to be this way, that there is a purpose, a telos or goal, for this life we're living: that we're going somewhere.  The Holy Spirit himself living in us is our first portion of that Something and Somewhere.

But also, the same Holy Spirit lives in me and in that precious Dalit sister in a village I can't name learning to read today.  He connects us even though we don't know each other.  So I know instinctively through him that I'm not alone.  I'm an individual, but I'm not only an individual.  As essentially as I am an individual I am part of a People—the People of God.  To say that this People is no more than a collection of individuals is to cut in pieces the one Holy Spirit, into whom we were all baptized, and to dismember Christ, whose body we are.

The Holy Spirit is how we know that we know that there is a meaning to life and how we gain the first taste of what that meaning is.  If you don't have the Holy Spirit, you can never be sure that the alienated Preacher wasn't right, that life has no point, no matter how much you try to drink or drug or work or study that thought away like he tried.

For us Christians, even in our churches and our Christian activities we can sink into a "what's the point?" attitude.  Good and religious activity carries that potential in it just like all other human activity.  For me, I don't want to prepare all week for Sunday, have worship, then do it all over again the next week and wonder apathetically, "What's the point?"  I want our worship, our acts of service, and even (God helping us) our meetings be so infused by the presence of the Holy Spirit that defies comprehension that we know for certain that There Is A Point, and that we are working for it.

Monday, May 24, 2010

What's in a Name?

A good name is to be chosen rather than great wealth,
good favor more than silver or gold (Prov. 22:1).

As my wife and I are waiting for Kid No. 4 to enter the world this fall, it’s back again to the question of what to name him or her.  There are a bunch of approaches one can take to this, one of which is perusing name books (or today, websites) for a name that not only sounds decent but has a deep, old, dead-language meaning that suits your child.  The idea is that the meaning of the name, even if no one knows it, will actually affect the child, and the child will grow into it.  As impossible as that seems, we all know eerie cases where that’s what seems to happen.

As readers of the Bible know, this was a very important concept to the ancient Israelites (and traditional peoples generally), and the Bible is replete with examples of significant, prophetic names, from Abram (“exalted father”)/Abraham (“father of many”) to Joshua-Jesus (“Yahweh saves”).  But the Bible doesn’t just talk about how a name impacts the person who wears it but also how a person impacts their name.

Names take on the meanings of the people who carry them.  It is not unusual for parents to name their child David or John, but it is exceedingly rare to find a child named Cain or Judas.  But this doesn’t just apply to biblical names.  Have you found that there are names that for you have the permanent scent of someone who carried it—a beloved grandparent, an old flame, a bitter enemy—so that you cannot hear the name, even if borne by someone else, without the aroma of the old relationship floating back?

When you leave someone’s life, how does your name smell?  First, does it smell like anything, or have you lived a life of such unimpactive blandness that it leaves no trace?  If your name does bear a permanent scent to the people who knew you, what is it?  Most importantly, does your name smell like Jesus?  Because if you are a Christian, you carry Christ’s name.

We can’t completely determine whether people like our smell.  For example, I can’t stand the smell of cooking sauerkraut, but that’s not the sauerkraut’s fault; it’s just being itself.  It’s the fault of my nose, which differs from the noses that like sauerkraut.  Likewise, Paul writes,  “[God] makes known through us the fragrance that consists of the knowledge of him in every place.  For we are a sweet aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing—to the latter an odor from death to death, but to the former a fragrance from life to life.  And who is adequate for these things?” (2 Cor. 2:14-16).

You can’t determine whether your name is considered good by everyone you meet.  You can choose for your name to leave the same impression as the name of Jesus, whether those impressed know it or not.  And to God, for eternity, you will have a good name.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Small but Exceedingly Wise (4)

A lizard you can catch with the hand, but it gets into the palaces of the king (Prov. 30:28).

I wish we had a panoramic picture of one of the sieges of Jerusalem that took place during Judah's monarchy, such as by the Egyptians, the Assyrians, or the Babylonians.  What an awesome and fearful sight it must have been to stand by the invading general or king among his entrenched ranks ringing the entire, heavily fortified city.  How many mornings did those generals wake up and gaze on wall upon wall up the steep hillside until, at the very top, the temple of Yahweh stood with the Palace of the Forest of Lebanon in which sat the king of the line of David?  How often did the general rub his beard, wondering how on earth to get inside?  How many useless volleys of arrows did he order to be fired, how many fruitless assaults with the battering ram against the gates, and how many times did he shrug his shoulders and decide to wait it out another day?

And all this time, while the most formidable armies on earth stood outside looking in, in the very center of Solomon's citadel, a lizard skitters silently across a wall.

The lizard is wise, because it proves that access is not guaranteed by size and strength.  In fact, sometimes great size limits access, and something much smaller can reach where the big boys can't.

This is good news for small churches.  From the perspective of a small church, big churches seem to have all the advantages when it comes to reaching people.  They have a big building or "campus" beside a busy road.  They have an advertising budget that puts their message on billboards all over town.  They might have a radio or TV program.  Their preacher might even be a minor Christian celebrity.  Everyone in town knows who they are.  A small church could easily conclude, "If that church isn't reaching them, they can't be reached—certainly not by us."

But the lizard shows us that small churches can reach people with the gospel, because the small-but-wise take advantage of the access that is unique to them.

Imagine that you could draw up a list of every unsaved and lukewarm-Christian acquaintance, worldwide, of every individual in your church.  Probably a lot of names, isn't it?  That list is "the palaces of the king" for your church, the inner sanctum, the sweet spot.  That is where your church can go despite its size.  The big church down the road may also have personal access to some of those people, but not to all of them.  In fact, some of them may not be accessible to any church but yours in the form of the one member of your church who is friends with that person.

Mass-media advertising (including the least expensive and increasingly essential medium, the internet) does help establish what might be called "brand awareness" for your church and what it proclaims.  But rarely does such advertising seal the deal.  Even in our often impersonal, highly marketed culture, most people connect with a church for the first time because someone they know invited them.  A successful invitation and a successful welcome when the invitation is accepted requires an investment of time and attention, but in financial terms it's pretty cheap.

As a matter of fact, it is here once again that a small church actually has it better than a large church.  The larger a church gets, the more publicly attractive it gets, to be sure, and the more unsaved acquaintances it has among its members.  However, its difficulty making guests feel at home and part of something, not just a face in the crowd, becomes greater and greater.  By contrast, an intentional small church can make the seeker feel loved from the get-go, and that love may very well till the soil of his or her heart that allows the seed of the gospel to be deeply—and fruitfully—planted.

If you are a member of a small church, God has given you access to souls that he loves that he has given to no one else.  Are you being faithful to the access he has given you, or are you distracted by how seemingly powerful a large church is?  No matter how impressive they appear, they are still outside the walls of the heart in which you can enter like a lizard.  It's not our size but our lack of wisdom that limits us.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Small but Exceedingly Wise (3)

"Locusts have no king, but they all go forward by ranks" (Prov. 30:27).

Locusts, including the desert locust of Africa and the Middle East, are grasshoppers.  They are basically the same as their other grasshopper relatives except that when they bump into each other frequently, the coloration of their bodies change (as in the picture of the desert locust nymphs below) and they give off a pheromone that attracts other locusts.

When locusts smell this pheromone they gather from everywhere to swarm.  Hungry locust swarms search for food, consuming approximately their body mass in green vegetation each day.  These swarms can travel an enormous distance—60 to 120 miles in a day—with apparent singlemindedness of purpose on their search for more to eat.  There is no "queen locust," much less an "alpha male" like in a society of mammals.  They just know what they're looking for, and they go, together.

Does a small church want to be like the rather gross-looking, immensely destructive locust?  You bet, because locusts are wise.  Locusts act in concert without being ordered what to do.  This makes them enormously efficient collective eating machines.  There are no locusts hanging back to help the other locusts from the rear and no locusts hovering to direct the traffic of fellow locusts.  Every locust flies straight and eats what is in front of it without being told, as one.

Imagine what a small church could do if its sometimes painfully limited resources of time, energy, money, and personnel were all devoted to accomplishing its mission instead of precious resources being siphoned off to manage the mission.  What if every member of a small church was engaged effectively and cooperatively so that everyone just did the work rather than create layers of bureaucracy to coordinate action and prevent mistakes?  Wouldn't that be great?

Of course not.  Or rather, it would, but getting to that point means going out on edges.  Edges are scary, and small churches (like anybody) tend not to like to be scared.  But here are three possible edges that, if a small church goes out on them, could give it the power of the locust.

1. The edge of a God-given vision.  I talked about the importance of vision when I wrote about the lesson of the ants.  In fact, there is a close connection between the seize-the-day nimbleness of ants and the concerted movement of locusts.  In both cases, if we all know who we are and what God wants us to do, things move a lot more quickly.

Though much could be said on the topic of what a vision is and how to develop it, I don't want to digress too far here.  But one point that I think is key is that people, especially leaders, trust the vision to lead the people.  I think the best thing we leaders can do is to communicate with others about the vision, whether that means, "This is what the vision is," or, "This is what I think the vision is," or, "What do you think the vision is?" depending on one's style, role in the body, and actual level of knowledge of what God has for one's church.  If the vision once developed is in people's heads, we have to trust that people motivated by that vision will do the right thing more often than not and don't require us looking over their shoulders.  If we can't trust that, our problem may be doubt in the vision itself, no matter how much we've been promoting it.  And that connects to . . .

2. The edge of the leading of the Holy Spirit.  Paul's description of the church as the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12 reminds me a lot of the locusts.  In both cases none of the doers is calling the shots, and yet they all act together as if coordinated.  1 Corinthians 12 explains that this is because God has organized the church as a body with Christ as it's Head, it's Director.  But how does the Head direct the body?  God through Christ has given each member the Holy Spirit, who enables each member to do his or her part under the direction of the Head.  If the vision is from the Head, the Holy Spirit leads and empowers each member to do their own distinctive part.  He is the Coordinator, the invisible King of the locusts.

Believe me that I know that what I'm about to write is simplistic and requires more sophisticated treatment, but I think there is fundamental truth that we must not avoid: In the body of Christ, no earthly human being is in charge.  If someone is, we've switched heads.  If two people are, we're a two-headed monster, usually not as cooperative as these guys.  I don't care if you're the founding pastor of the church or the one guy who's been a board member for longer than most members have been alive, you are not in charge of Christ's church, because if you are, it ain't Christ's church no more.

Alternate heads arise in the church because they do not trust the Holy Spirit to do a good job telling people what to do.  Alternate heads also believe that they can do a better job than the Holy Spirit or at least serve as a Plan B.  But believe me, if the Holy Spirit does not appear to be directing someone according to God's vision, you can't.  Leadership is indeed essential, but it is not about making people go the right direction and/or excluding them if they don't.  It is about going the right direction oneself in a way that gives people the most compelling example to follow.  Which leads to . . .

3. The edge of emotional maturity.  You've heard the tried-and-true principle that in any voluntary organization, 20% of the people do 80% of the work—a very unlocusty division of labor.  This is invariably observed by the 20% doing the most work.  The 20% blame the 80% for not doing their part—"I'm so tired and busy; if only those other people would take their responsibility as seriously as I take mine then things would be great and I would get rest," whine-whine-whine, etc.  But in any organization like this—especially if the organization has an understood vision that ought to be compelling—the number-one reason for 80% deadbeats is the dysfunction of the hardworking 20%.  That's right, 20%: it's your fault.  But that's good news for you, because if it is your fault, then you have the power to change it.

Family systems theory (see related posts) posits that one kind of dysfunctional relationship is the overfunctioner-underfunctioner.  Superficially, the overfunctioner appears to be with-it, put-together, successful, high-achieving, responsible, and diligent—an A-student.  The underfunctioner appears to be listless, underperforming, irresponsible, lazy, and even literally sick.  So we naturally assume that the underfunctioner is the one with the problem, and if he would just get his act together, everything would be fine.  But what's really the problem is the relationship between the two parties, in which the overfunctioner functions both for herself and for the underfunctioner and the underfunctioner doesn't function for anyone.  The overfunctioner takes responsibility for her underfunctioning partner, which the underfunctioner is willing to yield, and never gives it back.  Both are miserable, and both contribute to the problem.

The thing is, at least nine times out of ten, for this situation to improve the overfunctioner deliberately has to stop functioning for the underfunctioner, no matter how much the underfunctioner whines about how uncaring and selfish the overfunctioner is.  Because the underfunctioner will not take the initiative to function for himself in the face of the overfunctioner's intrusive "care" and "responsibility."  What makes it so hard for the overfunctioner to pull back—indeed, what drove her to invade the underfunctioner's space in the first place—is fear of failure.  She is afraid of the world collapsing if she doesn't step in.  And the reason she is so anxious is she believes that if the world does collapse it will be her fault—she will take the blame.  It is the fear of that personal devastation, embarassment, and loss that drives overfunctioning behavior.

If the small church is going to act with the concerted, every-member action of a swarm of locusts, then the 20% who do all the work are going to have to risk maturing, which means admitting fault and allowing things to fail, go bad, and look embarrassing if no one does them.  For example, if cleaning the bathroom is someone else's job, and that person might not do their job, they are willing to risk letting the bathroom get yucky indefinitely with all the embarrassment that creates toward guests in order to compel the system to address the issue rather than rushing in as the stop-gap and allowing the cleaner to go on not cleaning.

Before concluding I'd like to point out one more thing.  Notice that a locust is small, and in my comparison a church is small.  Therefore if locusts are wise because they go forth in ranks without a king, then churches are wise if they go together too.  See, the actual application of the principle isn't to an individual church.  The application is to a swarm of churches who, though they are small, work together to do great things.  I provide these "edges" above in a local-church setting because if individual churches don't learn to do it within themselves then they will never apply it working together.  But it is at the associational/denominational/ecumenical/network levels that this really works.  The locust swarm is what those extrachurch entities must become.

It is not our size but our wisdom that limits us.  I think I'm on to something here, but we could go a lot further with it.  Thoughts?

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Small but Exceedingly Wise (2)

"Rock badgers are creatures with little power, but they make their homes in the crags" (Prov. 30:26).

The rock badger is most commonly known today as the rock hyrax, an animal that looks kind of like a guinea pig the size of a groundhog.  Rock hyraxes live all over Africa and parts of the Middle East in colonies in cliffside crevices.  These social animals communicate noisily with each other and coordinate their movements by posting sentries to watch for predators.  The sentries alert the rest of the group when a threat comes near.  Despite their small size (only about a foot and a half long), their inaccessible habitats and sentry system enable them to spend about 95% of their lives resting.  In Israel, land predators almost never touch them.  (Thanks for the info, Wikipedia.)

So, what can a small church learn from rock hyraxes?  The genius of the hyrax is that it makes its home where threats cannot reach.  So the logical question is, where does your church make its home, and can threats reach it there?

The immediate and natural response is to look at the church's physical address and come to one of two conclusions (this is grossly oversimplified).  The one is, "This is a great area for ministry!  Look at all the people moving in!  And it's pretty affluent; I think we can hook some big givers here.  Let's invest in our building and grounds to make it as attractive to them as it can be."  The other is, "This is a scary place for ministry.  People are moving in that are of a different culture, and they're not interested in what we have to offer.  Actually, we don't even live near the church anymore.  Property values are tanking.  Let's get our money out of the building now and relocate to where the potential is greater."

Now in one sense these responses mirror the hyrax.  They both have to do with looking at the surroundings to find the least threatening home.  But here's a question: what if the church's "home" has little to do with where it's physically located?  In fact, what if this way of looking at the church's threats and opportunities guarantees that the church will make its "home" in certain danger rather than in the crags of the cliff?

Where is your church's home?  I don't just mean your address.  I mean, where does your church believe its security lies?  Where does your church believe its identity lies?  What has to be eliminated from your church's life for it to cease to be itself, or to be a church at all?  However you answer those questions, that is your church's home.

Is that home safe from the church's biggest threat?  Actually, do you know what is the biggest, most dangerous predator threatening the security of your church?  The answer may surprise you.  It's God.  Really!  Look at what the author of Hebrews warns:
Take care not to refuse the one who is speaking!  For if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth [at Mount Sinai], how much less shall we, if we reject the one who warns from heaven?  Then his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, "I will once more shake not only the earth but heaven too" [Hag. 2:6].  Now this phrase "once more" indicates the removal of what is shaken, that is, of created things, so that what is unshaken may remain.  So since we are receiving an unshakable kingdom, let us give thanks, and through this let us offer worship pleasing to God in devotion and awe.  For our God is indeed a devouring fire (Heb. 12:25-29).
Did you see that?  God is a devouring fire.  He gobbles up whatever is not made to last.  God is the one who uses the shifting tastes of the consuming public, changes in culture and expectations, demographic sea-changes, economic booms and busts, and generational turnover to shake to annihilation all that the church relies on of this world so that only what it relies on that is not of this world remains.  His kingdom is the only thing that lasts; all else will fail.  So the kingdom of God—his will, his way, his concerns—is the crag in the rock.  It is the only safe place for a church to make its home.

It is amazing how churches are prone to define their existence, their "home," by anything other than the kingdom of God.  Addresses, property, and buildings are a perfect example.  So is a fat endowment or a media presence or a charismatic leader or friends in high places.  God grants success to those who put his kingdom first, but ironically, with success, growth, and fame comes increasing temptation for a church to make other things its home and make its kingdom-obedience secondary.

Tragically, small churches often learn exactly the wrong lesson from outwardly successful large churches.  They see the trappings of success and conclude that those are the things that make those churches secure.  Then they either give up in despair or fruitlessly try to emulate them, for example, by their own obsession with how near and dear and lovely their quaint buildings are.  But the small church can become as secure as or more secure than the large church by identifying its "home," its place of existence, as the action of obedience to God that is the essence of the kingdom.  As long as the small church defines its "home" as obedience to God's will alone, God will never devour it.  He will always and only protect it.  It will be safe forever.  The building can burn down and the land be stolen, its leaders can be thrown into prison and the flock driven underground, and the bank account balance can be a big, fat zero, but as long as the church, wherever it is, continues seeking the kingdom first, it cannot die.

Small churches can do great things if they, like rock hyraxes, make their "home" where threats cannot reach—namely, by defining their existence by the unshakable kingdom of God.  It's not our size but our lack of wisdom that threatens us.  How have you seen small churches put this principle into practice?