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Monday, November 9, 2009

Taken to task?

Thursday I posted that I was "not sad for the current conflict Central is experiencing." One of my readers was apparently quite offended by that statement because I received a bit of a thrashing over it. She understood me to be saying that I was standing back and gleefully watching the whole spectacle like it was a football game or something. I don't think she quite understood what I was trying to say, however, so I thought I might clarify just a bit. This is a hard distinction and one that we don't usually handle very well within American Christianity.

If she had read carefully she might have understood that the "heavy heart" I described was exactly what she thought I should have -- a deep concern for the people of Central and for the way they were acting toward each other. But I will hold to the statement I made that I am not sad for difficult circumstances.

Our culture is so far in bondage on this issue it's hard for us to think straight. We believe at such a deep level that if things are going right for me that I will enjoy lack of conflict (we call this "peace") and easy circumstances. In John Steinbeck's words, we will be "livin' off the fat o' the land." Preachers preach this all the time -- that you can have what you want, that if you're right with God you WILL have what you want. Some of us are sophisticated enough to make it more subtle -- we believe that if I'm just doing what God wants, he'll take care of the rest and I won't have to struggle.

This whole debate has been about biblical authority -- so let's ask the question, What does the Bible say about this?

This is where Christianity -- real, biblical Christianity -- becomes a hard-edged critic of American culture and American religion. Because from start to finish, the Bible says things that are hard for us to accept and harder for us to live out.

Start with Abraham. God told him that he was chosen, special, elect, God's own instrument of blessing. So what next? Leave everything you know. Leave your homeland and your father's people. Go to a land I will show you where you will live as a pilgrim, a stranger, an alien, for the rest of your life. By the way, your descendants will be enslaved in Egypt and about 400 years from now they'll be set free. We could go on and on about what Abraham endured because he was God's chosen one.

We could go through each character in the Bible this way, but skip ahead to Job. The way Job functions in the Old Testament is that this is a story specifically crafted to deal with this question: If I'm right with God, will my life be easy? Job's answer is an emphatic NO. Job loses everything and suffers from boils, a difficult wife, and meddling, religious friends specifically because he is right with God.

How about David? He could have enjoyed a peaceful life as a shepherd in Bethlehem but God chose him. So he had to fight a giant singlehandedly, survive multiple assassination attempts at the hand of the king, and be chased around the wilderness for years, living among the rocks and sand. All this happened because he was chosen by God.

We could go on -- the prophets? Many of them tried desperately to avoid being chosen because they knew it would cost them their lives. Even if their circumstances were okay, they had the terrible burden of speaking for God. Jeremiah lamented, "Your word is like a fire shut up in my bones." Difficult stuff.

The New Testament is no different. Near the end of his life, Paul looks back on a record of shipwrecks, stonings, arguments, conflicts, narrow escapes, and imprisonment. All this happened because he was specially chosen by God.

Somehow in this country, even in our churches, we have fallen prey to the idea that being chosen by God means everything will be sweetness and light for me. Where did we get this crazy, unbiblical idea? I think we confused the 1950's idea of the "American dream" with the biblical idea of following Jesus. If I just live a good life, work hard, and raise a good family, everything will be good for me, God will be happy, and I'll retire in peace. That might indeed happen, but that life has little or nothing to do with a biblical call to follow Jesus.

So what about the recent conflict at Central? What is a biblical view of this difficult time, these agonizing questions, these painful-to-the-bone rifts between those who should be brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ? Read the New Testament. Suddenly parts of it begin to jump out that have never made sense before. Try James. "Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything." Be honest -- we like the idea of being mature and complete, not lacking anything, but we don't like the idea that we get there through trial and tribulation. Right?

At the risk of stepping up on my soapbox, we have a plague in this country of bad parenting because we try to raise mature kids without ever letting them suffer. Not only do we avoid disciplining our children in a way that causes them trials, we pad and protect their lives so they don't experience any difficulty. Then, deep down recognizing that something is missing, we pay hundreds of dollars and thousands of hours to enroll them in team sports that will provide a sense of discipline and character that we have been unable to give them. We don't know how to face pain and difficulty in a biblical way.

So no, I'm not sad about the conflict Central is enduring. I have seen already that God is bringing a new depth and a new maturity to people within Central through their suffering. Sunday morning about fifteen people were on their faces before the altar, spontaneously, during public worship. They just started streaming up during the offering time (this was at the traditional service!) to pray for their church, praying in agony before the altar of God, asking him to work his will at Central. This kind of thing doesn't happen where life is easy. About forty others voluntarily got up earlier than is reasonable to come and pray at the entrances to their church before people started arriving for worship. Last week about 30 men gathered in the sanctuary for prayer, praying not for a certain outcome to the vote but asking God to work his will at Central. And here's my favorite part -- none of these things were suggested or anticipated by the staff. This was God's Spirit moving the hearts of his people, using difficult circumstances to grow a new depth and maturity.

So how can I be sad for these circumstances? My heart aches for broken people, but I know that if we allow it, God's Spirit will use brokenness to grow us more and more into the image of Jesus. How can I be sad for that?


  1. I whole heartedly agree Jeff. Through this storm, the roots of this church body have grown deeper and more secure. Why? Because we are listening to God's calling and we are taking action.

    God does not affect change by creating difficult situations. Rather, by our own free will we can either take the earthly path and ‘go with the flow’ or listen to and abide by what God tells us through his word. Thinking about it this way, stepping out of our comfort zone is what God wants us to do.. which might mean a significant hardship or sacrifice. It’s like letting your child fail because you know that it’s best that they “learn”. Boy, is that heart wrenching as a parent and so it is with God. He loves us and does not intercede because he wants us to grow in him. Even if we plead with him to do so.. and by no means does he gleefully watch the whole spectical.

    2 Corinthians 12:7-10
    To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

    God Bless you Jeff, you were chosen, you have taken a stand, and I’m here to support you brother.

  2. In the not too distance past my (our?) church went through a very similar conflict. I can, therefore, have empathy for my friends at Central. It is painful to see others hurt by church trials. It is also painful to see some folks leave. But I can testify to the words written in James 1:2-6. Be encouraged in knowing that the perserverance is happening and that it WILL result in maturity and completeness. Both individually and as a church. God is working at Central!