Thursday, October 11, 2012

What Floats Your Boat...or Church?

In the Bible there is a story of a guy who was chopping wood, and the axe head flew off into the water...and sank. This is a fairly bland, normal story until a prophet makes the metal object float to the top of the water much to the relief of the guy who had borrowed it from a friend.

I will hopefully come back to our axe example but first allow me to fast-forward a few millennia where the science of buoyancy has been seemingly mastered even in churches. Someone mentioned to me recently what they saw as the tendency of some North American Christian leaders to not readily ask for advice, much less acknowledge that they need help with church issues. At the same time, leaders in other parts of the world more readily ask for and are able to receive input. As a missionary who has lived on both sides of the fence this caught my attention. Is it cultural pride that hinders some of my countrymen? I venture to offer an alternative explanation.

When I became a missionary in Ukraine in 1993 I had been married for a little over two years, and we had a 9-month old daughter. I was out trailblazing every day while my equally gifted and adventurous wife initially had to stay home in a small apartment in a foreign land. Not only this, but she had no friends, there were no malls, we had no car, we could not find a crib - the kid slept in the largest suitcase, open of course - we had cloth diapers and the soviet washing machine - probably a former tank engine - was broken.

Much of what helped to make my wife happy in the US was now missing, so she had to look to me for it all. I admittedly fell short, and any illusion that I had of being a great husband was sorely put to the test. The fact of the matter is that what "floated" some of our family health and happiness in the US was now gone, and we had to swim a lot harder to stay afloat.

Now we are back in the US for a season, but we are still passionate about The Great Commission and a wee-bit wiser after 19 years in missions. I have also come to see something in my sending country that I could not have seen unless I had left and returned. There is an unnatural buoyancy caused by North American Christendom that makes us think we can swim better than we can. Like a child in the deep end of the pool wearing water wings we are relying on something that if never removed can delude us into thinking we are better swimmers than we really are.

In fact, there is enough buoyancy - latent Christianity - that I can start a church based on flimsy strategies, clever advertising and still expect some level of success. People love new stuff, and "if you build it they will come." Easter Sundays and Christmas service spikes can fuel the illusion, and the church-split down the road can bring in a much needed second wind of new people for the weary swimmer.

There are even growing churches that have little or no evangelism, few baptisms and zero discipleship. The Titanic just steams ahead, rams through icebergs and with so many neighboring ships who needs serious help or an S.O.S. call?

But when I am facing a post-Christian or alien culture - and this is happening in the US of A - there is no buoyancy, and I will sink or float based on the power of the word of God and the faith He has given me to carry out His Commission based on His principles. Without God's involvement my tendency is to sink like the axe head even on my best days, so I become very eager for God's people to speak into what I am doing. It actually comes quite natural after a while even for an American. Even healthy and pleasant.

On a personal note I cannot bear the thought that God might show me on that final day that all I did in life was to move around and repackage the remnant works of other men. I am compelled to reach those who do not know God, and in this quest the mirages of men and the allusions & delusions of recycled works will never satisfy.

The stakes are too high for me to be self-confident in my Christian water wings as the untold millions for whom Christ died are yet to be reached. The axe head in the grand scheme of things is the work of God, and I must return it to Him one day. I don't want to have to say, "oops, it flew off the handle and sank." Before this happens you still have the opportunity to ask a man or woman of God to help save what you are trying to do for Jesus.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Ranks, Titles & Clean Feet

While reading "Bonhoeffer" by Eric Metaxas this week I was struck with one account of how Bonhoeffer - to the astonishment of his seminary students - insisted that they call him brother Bonhoeffer rather than director. This may sound like a moot point to us, but in that day titles were very important and a way of showing due respect.

I recently encountered something similar when a friend of mine, Bishop James, was referred to in public by his little grandson as "Jimmy". Brother James had indeed earned his stripes - respect - but it must have caused the "blue screen of death" to any legalistic people who overheard the familiar way his grandson addressed him. However, my respected friend seemed to be quite happy with his grandson. By the way, the blue screen is what a PC does when Windows goes really wrong. Get a Mac...

Trivia question here: Which US president insisted that his wife call him "Mr. President"? The winning answer qualifies you to be in a free drawing for my old Dell PC which - you guessed it - is displaying the "blue screen of death".

Titles and ranks are in the best sense earned in the course of service, but they are not who we are as believers. They denote honor and function on a team, but those who see them as goals totally miss the mark. Titles should serve the goal as we pursue the goal, but in God's kingdom they are not the goal.

I do not believe in knee-jerk reactions to such questions, but I would pose a heart-probing question to those who go off track on this. Isn't it ironic that Jesus descended to become like us so we could know Him as brother and God as Father, yet some leaders do the opposite and ascend while putting unbiblical barriers between themselves and those who don't have titles? They are essentially undoing what God did, or it might be more accurate to say they are redoing what God undid.

One misguided pastor I knew on the mission field held to the idea that leaders should only relate upward, but that begs the question as to whether those above want to relate downward to him? What nonsense! God related downward and actually went there...down. Because we could not go up.

I do respect my leaders, and in different contexts I refer to them as pastor, bishop or just friend. But I shy away from those who would ascend the ladder of Christiandom's who's who, taking only themselves. In much the same way a common soldier might be cautious with a superior who they see pursuing self-promotion verses battle-earned promotion among his Band of Brothers.

The soldier instinctively knows if a leader might fail him in battle, and I am thankful to say I have friends and leaders who have gone into the trenches to save my neck. My respect, honor and thanks towards them is deep and long-lasting.

I would be remiss if I did not mention that Jesus did eventually ascend... into heaven, to sit at God's mighty right hand. But He did not do so alone. He takes us there to sit with Him and at how great a cost of personal sacrifice? This is leadership, leading us to the Father, and He is worthy to be called Lord.

Pastor Mike ;-)

You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you. John 13:13-15