Monday, August 30, 2010

If the Center Holds

I remember being involved in a church that was going through a wringer. It had had problems before I got there, including the exodus of a large part of the congregation. Soon after I got there the pastor, who was burnt out by previous problems, left, and a certain part of the congregation left with him. We got a new pastor, but many of the officeholders of the church dropped out, either entirely from the congregation or from the carrying out of their office (some later came back; others did not). At one point the active leadership in the congregation seemed to consist in the pastor and five other people, and one of them kept explaining how their family was soon going to move out of town. Things came back together, but we kept having periodic minor conflicts, losing a family here and a family there.

One day I was praying through the sanctuary during a time it was empty. And the thing God impressed on me was, "If the center holds, you will make it through." (I know this ultimately comes from a pagan source, but when God brings things to my mind He normally uses the baggage that is there.) I took this as meaning that if the core of the church would stick together, we as a church would make it through.

Later, I was in a different congregation that appeared to be doing well. I knew there were potential problems, but I thought we could avoid them. Then one day when I was walking through the sanctuary, I felt the familiar nudge, "If the center holds, you will make it through." And I asked myself, Are we in that much trouble? Not long afterward we were involved in a major conflict, resulting in the loss of about half the congregation. Later, the pastor was promoted to a position in the denomination, and the new pastor had to deal with a series of problems and aftershocks. But we stuck together and made it through.

I do not want condemn people who switch churches. I have switched churches myself for various reasons on more than one occasion. But I think there is too much tendency to desert simply because things get difficult. Now there are things worth splitting a church over, and there may be individual congregations where it is just as well if they close their doors. But I do believe the Biblical exhortations to unity imply we need to stick together and work out our problems, where possible, rather than leaving at the first hint of trouble (Philippians 2:1,2; Ephesians 4:1-6; Colossians 3:12-15). One of the great innovations in ancient warfare was the shield wall. Instead of each warrior fighting for himself, they made a row of interlocking shields so they protected their neighbor's flank. We Christians need to do this for each other. Perhaps then more ministries would make it through, rather than collapse.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Trust in Horsemen and Chariots

It seemed the reasonable thing to do. The Israelites were faced with the Assyrians, the chief superpower of the day. It made sense to ally with the Egyptians and trust them to supply the military resources needed to fight the Assyrians. But God rebuked them from trusting in the resources of the Egyptians rather than trusting in Him (Isaiah 31:1-9). What are we trusting in? Our great programs, our organizational ability, our clever advertising? Francis Schaeffer once asked the question, If God were to come and remove from our Bibles every reference to the Holy Spirit and prayer, how would our life be different? Would this make a difference, or would we just go on living the way we did before because we never really put much stock in these things anyway. Sometimes I wonder if we have not followed the rest of our culture in totally discounting the supernatural, if not in principle, at least in practice.

Psalms 46:10 has been used to suggest that we should stop in the middle of our daily pursuit and recognize God is God. This is a good application, but it does not really fit the context. Rather, we are told that when the world is falling apart around us, we need to realize God is God (Psalms 46:1-3). We have no idea of the historical context of this psalm. But the picture I get is of the king of Judah running up and down upon the ramparts of the city, making sure his archers are ready here and the gates are secure there. Then there comes in the midst of His hurry the divine interruption, "Stop and know that I am God." Do we really believe that God is God? Do we live like it? Or would we rather trust in horsemen and chariots.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

What Does "Nothing" Mean to You?

How do we understand it when Christ says that apart from Him we can do nothing (John 15:5)? I once had an experience that helped me understand this.

I was involved in a discussion with the elders about whether some of the things I had done on the worship team were too charismatic. It had not gone as I wanted it to go. They encouraged me to continue on the worship team, but within certain boundaries. Now I did not regard the boundaries themselves to be that big a problem. But I was concerned that the issue would be divisive in the congregation, which had various opinions on charismatic issues. However, I enjoyed being on the worship team. So I convinced myself that the discussion was not over and I could still manage to convince the elders to see my point of view. The bottom line is I am stubborn and sometimes God has to do something to get my attention.

Often on the worship team I would feel the power of God flowing through me. That morning what I felt was God slowly pulling His power out. It was like God was giving me just enough for that morning . At the end of the service I felt like a dead battery, sucked dry of its last reserve of current. I had never felt a more desolate feeling in my life. I do not believe God personally ever left me, but any feeling of His power working through me was gone. I do not know if this is how King Saul felt, but if it was and it was permanent, I am not surprised he went crazy, even ignoring the help of a demon (see 1 Samuel 16). One of the elders, a very sensible man, when I said I was considering resigning from the worship team, suggested I wait a few weeks and see if I still felt that way. But there was no way I was going back up on that platform. Not without His power. Now do not get me wrong; I am sure if I gritted my teeth I could have physically walked up on the platform. But I do not know and do not want to know what the results would have looked like.

I am convinced the presence of the Holy Spirit is always with the genuine believer in Christ (Romans 8:9; 1 Corinthians 6:19) and is at work in them to transform them into who God wants them to be (2 Corinthians 3:18; Philippians 2:13). But He also gives power to meet specific situations (Acts 4:23-31; 13:9-12). Now you cannot prove doctrine from personal experience, but I feel mine does illustrate the fact that apart from Him we really can do nothing. And while my feeling that God is working through me has returned since I resigned, this puts in perspective the times I simply feel dry and am not aware of God working through me as strongly as normally.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

I Cannot Take It Any More.

"I just can't take this any more." Have you ever told God that? And has it ever not gone away? I have been there, and God has brought me through. But He did not take the problem away. Romans 8:28 unfortunately has become a cliche. Something that rolls off the tongue of those who do not want to take the time to care. But it holds an important truth: that while God is in control of our lives, His goal is not to make us happy but to conform us to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29,30).

Now pressing this home to a person undergoing great suffering may not be the best strategy. (I know you are miserable now, but just think of how much better a person this is going to make you.) But on sober reflection, this is a helpful perspective. If we see the basic focus of our life as us and God as someone who is there to make us happy, every problem and setback seems enormous. But if we understand that we belong to Another (1 Corinthians 6:20; 2 Timothy 2:3,4) and our job is to carry out His purposes in this world (Ephesians 2:10; 2 Corinthians 3:4-6), then we will look at our difficulties with a different set of eyes. This will not take the pain away when we are in a position where we feel we cannot take it anymore. But in the long run it will help us see our troubles as part of the plan of the One who controls all things (Ephesians 1:11).