Monthly Archives: October 2014

Changing Culture — a Long Term Project

Are we willing to build relationships to bring people to Christ and change the world around us?

In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he says that he has become all things to all people in order to bring them the gospel. He says, “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law, I became like one under the law. To the weak, I became weak to win the weak.” (1 Cor. 9:19-23)

Paul is establishing himself as a prototype for peer ministry and the example that missionaries have followed for centuries. Build relationships, serve needs, be an example, and then share the gospel message.

Jesus suggested similar instructions when sending out the seventy-two. He told them not to move around from house to house, but stay in one house, extend it their peace, serve needs like healing the sick, and then tell them that the Kingdom of God is at hand. (Luke 10:1-12)

Today, we live in a fast food, instant messaging world. In business, we look for quit hits, relying on robo calls to customers instead of real conversations. But changing lives and transforming culture are long term projects. Let’s look at a real life example of how this works.

Barbara worked as a clerk in the juvenile court of Sacramento, California. While she was willing to witness to the Lord when she had the opportunity, she found it hard because of the negative environment stemming from the nature of the cases before the court, the people involved in the cases and the court employees. “Part of my prayer on my way to work every day was to ask that others would see Christ and his love in me,” Barbara said. “While I invited people to my church and shared stories about how God helped me during tough times, I did not see any results.”

When it came time for the court clerks’ Christmas party, Barbara did not plan to attend, but her fellow clerks kept insisting that she had to go. Finally one of them whispered in her ear, “You have to go. You have been elected ‘Clerk of the Year.’” At the presentation, Barbara learned to her surprise that Christ’s presence in her had come through. Some of the things said in her honor were:

“I have never heard her say anything bad about anyone.” “I know better than to bad-mouth people around her. She just looks at me and I think, ‘Oops! Can I reword that?’” “I know if I need help with my work, she won’t get mad or make me feel stupid.” “If you tell her something it won’t get spread all over Juvenile Hall.” “If I need advice, I know I can talk to her. She sees both sides and helps me see the other side too.” “I know she prays for me.”

Barbara was being all things to her co-employees at Juvenile Hall in order to bring God’s presence and the gospel message to the people there – a long term project.

Signs of God’s Presence

In several of St. Paul’s letters, he often begins with encouraging words to the recipients and thanks God for their faithfulness to the gospel he had taught them. To the Thessalonians, he says that he knows they were chosen by God because the gospel came to them not only with words, but with power, the Holy Spirit, miracles and strong conviction. (1Th. 1:5, CCB)

We see in both Jesus’ ministry and the ministry of the apostles that signs and miracles often accompanied the proclamation of the gospel. Mark, at the end of his gospel sets forth various signs that will accompany believers including the casting out of demons, speaking in new tongues and the placing of hands on the sick that get well. (Mark 16:17)

We might ask ourselves if we experience the gospel as only words or do we experience it with power through the Holy Spirit, and with miracles and signs. Ironically, Jesus criticized those who came to him to see miracles, but he nevertheless performed miracles throughout his ministry. He forgave a cripple his sins, but to show that he had the authority to do so, he visibly healed the cripple of his physical condition. (Luke 5:17-26)

In the late 1970’s my wife and I were prayed with for the baptism in the Holy Spirit. We each experienced a renewal of our faith and the presence of God in a way we had not before. A year later we attended a Jesus ’79 rally in Shea Stadium in New York along with several friends from our parish prayer group. After listening to a talk on healing, the speaker asked the 30,000+ people in attendance to turn to one another and pray for any needs of healing.

Our friends, said, “Let’s pray for Bill’s eyes.” (I had been previously diagnosed with glaucoma and the loss of about 30% of my field of vision.) They laid hands on me and prayed that my vision would be restored. The following Monday morning, I just happened to have one of my quarterly examinations with my ophthalmologist and he just happened to conduct a yearly field of vision test. As he conducted the test I began to hear him say “hum” repeatedly. After about the fourth “hum” I asked if there was something wrong. He said, “Well, you seem to have a full field of vision.” I said, “I thought you told me I could never recover the vision I had lost. He said, “Yes, I did.”

I then told him where I had been on Saturday and how some friends prayed with me for healing, and he said, “I will take all the help I can get.”

To me, my wife and friends, it was a physical affirmation of God’s presence in our lives, a sign of the power of the Holy Spirit working in us and the world today. We weren’t looking for a sign in order to believe. We believed and would have continued to believe even without the sign. But it built up our faith, and affirmed the reality of God’s presence and love for us.

Signs of God’s presence can take many forms. Perhaps the most powerful and lasting is a changed heart. Jesus’ self-invitation to Zacchaeus’ house was not accompanied by a physical sign of healing, but it did result in a changed heart with a far more enduring effect on Zacchaeus and no doubt the people in his life. (Luke 19:1-10)

Seeing God’s Glory in Our Midst

Jesus is about to raise Lazarus from the dead and asks that the stone covering his grave be removed. Lazarus’ sister, Martha, protests that it has been four days since his burial and that there will be a stench. Jesus says “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God.” (John 11:38-43)

Martha is looking at the physical reality of the situation as she knows it. No one has ever walked out of a grave four days after being buried and dead bodies start to smell from decay soon after death. Jesus, however, is looking beyond the limitations of physical reality to demonstrate God’s glory by raising Lazarus from the dead.

How often do we minimize the glory of God by not being able to see beyond some present day physical reality? We may be trying to cope with a difficult boss or a lost job, the prolonged care of a loved one who is ill or who has died, or any number of circumstances that consume all of our energies and leave no room in our perspective beyond the present reality in front of us.

When our daughter, Emily, was born with Down syndrome I was shocked. I didn’t know anything about Down syndrome children, and thought only the worst. After having three older daughters, followed by an eleven year gap, and then a son, we were hoping for the son to have a sibling to grow up with like his older sisters had with one another. Now our plans seemed to be thwarted. I could not see beyond the present reality and cried out to the Lord for understanding.  He responded in varying ways, calming my fears and giving me peace.

One of the ways in which he shared his mind with me about his love for his special children was through the words of author Morris West in his book Clowns of God, a book I just happened to pick up randomly and begin to read at a rented beach house when Emily was one. It was a novel about a Pope who had seen a vision of the end times, the imminence of a nuclear war between the U. S. and Russia, and the return of Jesus in the form of a care giver to the Pope. The care giver identifies himself as Jesus the night before war is to break out and he is challenged to prove who he is. He picks up a little girl with Down syndrome, sets her on his lap and says:

I know what you are thinking. You need a sign. What better one could I give than to make this little one whole and new? I could do it; but I will not. I am the Lord and not a conjuror. I gave this mite a gift I denied to all of you–eternal innocence. To you she looks imperfect—but to me she is flawless, like the bud that dies unopened or the fledgling that falls from the nest to be devoured by the ants. She will never offend me, as all of you have done. She will never pervert or destroy the work of my Father’s hands. She is necessary to you. She will evoke the kindness that will keep you human. Her infirmity will prompt you to gratitude for your own good fortune…More! She will remind you every day that I am who I am, that my ways are not yours, and that the smallest dust mote whirled in the darkest space does not fall out of my hand. I have chosen you. You have not chosen me. This little one is my sign to you. Treasure her!”

In the twenty-eight years since this moment, Emily has taught me as much about God and his ways and his love as anything I have ever read or experienced. When I look back and see the joy, love and understanding she has brought to our family and all who encounter her beautiful smile, her greetings of love and purity of heart, I see the glory of God in our midst.


Are We Good Tenants?

As tenants of this life, are we producing fruit for the Landlord?

In Luke 20, Jesus had just entered Jerusalem in a triumphal way. He had cleared the temple of the moneychangers and was teaching in the temple courts. A few days earlier, he had raised Lazarus from the dead. The chief priests and elders were challenging Jesus and asking by what authority he was doing all of these things. Jesus responds with the parable of the tenants.  (Luke 20:9-19)

A man planted a vineyard – God created all that exists.

The man rented the vineyard to some farmers – God entrusts creation to us and gives us dominion over it with the specific instruction “to take care of it.” (Gen. 2:15)

At harvest time he sent his servants and subsequently his son to collect some of the fruit, but tenants beat the servants and killed the son, claiming the vineyard to be theirs.  Just as the tenants attempt to claim ownership of the vineyard, so has the human race attempted to claim ownership of creation, denying the creator and determining for itself what is right and wrong, true or false.

The response of the vineyard owner was harsh. He killed the tenants and gave the vineyard to others. The chief priests and elders realized Jesus was talking about them.

What kind of tenants are we of the responsibilities God has entrusted to us? He gives each of us a lease of time in this physical world with varying durations. He entrusts us with various talents. He puts people in our lives. He has a job or work that is to be our contribution to taking care of his creation. He expects some fruit to come from his lease to us.

Recently I was rereading a book of letters our children had put together from family and friends to celebrate a milestone birthday of mine a few years ago. In the letters from the children were various memories of when I spent time with them while they were young, playing a game, taking a hike, building something, making a trail through the woods or sharing some advice which they had requested of me. Most of these moments I had forgotten, but they had not. While I may not have realized it then, these times given to me by God in my lease from him were bearing fruit, and may have contributed in some small way to where our children are today, all Christian adults with families of their own and bearing fruit in their turn. Our special needs child, now also an adult, simply reflects the face of God in her smile, simplicity and greetings of love.

Time, spouse, children, work, friends, ministry and faith — all are part of the lease God gives to each of us. All are precious seeds waiting to bear fruit for the Lord under our tenancy.