Workers, Not Spectators

Lately, I’ve been thinking about our Lord’s parable of The Generous Landowner (Mt. 20: 1-16) in preparation for a presentation I will deliver soon at a Chicagoland assembly.  And, with this parable in mind, I’ve also been thinking about roles and expectations in the Lord’s church.  What does the Lord expect of us?

The main point of this parable is not that God expects those under his rule to work in his cause.  But if parables are multivalent, this is surely one lesson to be found here: God has called us to be more than spectators, but workers in his vineyard. Hence, the rebuke of verse six: “Why are you standing here idle all day?”

I’m wondering if this is a message today’s church needs to hear.  I’m wondering if there is a need for us to change our expectations in the body of Christ to more closely align them with Scripture.  To raise the bar, if you will.

For example, what if our elders said, “We want to embrace our God-given role of shepherding this flock.  So, our primary emphasis will be upon feeding and protecting you.  We will be ‘pastors and teachers’ (Eph. 4:11) and will ‘devote ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the word’ (Acts 6:4).  We will oversee this flock, but we refuse to be merely a board of directors.

“Also, we want to challenge our ministers to focus more on evangelism.  For too long we have treated them as if they were the CEOs of the church and the ones hired to develop and implement programs.  Part of their role is to ‘equip the saints for the work of ministry,’ but we are encouraging them to see as primary the task of announcing the good news of Jesus.

“Likewise, we want to change the perception of what it means to be a member of the church.  Following Jesus is more than believing a set of doctrines and practicing certain rituals, and God demands more than pew-sitting and spectating.  We will help you find your niche and train you to fill it.  But if you want to be a member of the body of Christ, you will be expected to actively serve.”

Surely, this would be part of what the Lord expects of each of us since Christianity is not a spectator sport.  At least, it shouldn’t be.


“Do Not Be Afraid”

One of the most fruitful studies in Scripture is the “fear nots” of the Bible.  That phrase is found some seventy times in Scripture.  Just consider some of the many times Jesus promoted fearlessness.

“Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Mt. 10:28).

“Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people” (Lk. 5:10).

“Do not fear.  Only believe . . .” (Lk. 8:50).

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the                                       kingdom” (Lk. 12:32).

Consider this.  When Jesus was born, an angel said to shepherds in their fields, “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Lk. 2:10,11).  Now, stay with me as I try to squeeze something extra out of this text.  I suppose that what struck fear in the shepherds’ hearts were the sudden appearance of the angel and the glory of the Lord shining around them.  They must have been terrified by what they saw.  But, I like the thought that for those shepherds and the rest of us the birth of a baby in Bethlehem sends fear packing.  Since Jesus entered our world, we don’t need to be afraid.  Of anything.

I wonder what life would be like if we lived without the fear, for example, of enemies, or reaching out and becoming vulnerable to others, or rejection, or failure, or suffering, or pain, or death, or the unknown, or taking risks for God.  If “No fear!” was the motto we lived by, we might just learn what the abundant life that Jesus came to provide was all about!  (Jn. 10:10)  Let’s live without fear, for Heaven came down, and we are more than conquerors through him who loved us! (Rom. 8:37)

Be Strong in the Lord

Having finished a thrilling study of the Gospel of John – high-fives all around! – I began a study of Isaiah November 1.  Let’s see.  If it took me thirteen months to work my way through John’s twenty-one chapters, I may be a tottery old man by the time I work through Isaiah’s sixty-six!  That’s alright.  I’m in no hurry.  My practice is to work my way through a book by writing out the text word for word, paraphrasing it as if I were relating it to someone sitting at our kitchen table, and then applying it to my own life.  Before jumping into the text, though, I like to read an introduction to the book.  So, I am reading John Oswalt, an author recommended by Gordon Fee’s How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth.  (If Fee’s book is not in your personal library, I heartily recommend it as it has made me a better Bible reader.)

Oswalt notes that in the first section of Isaiah, Assyria is the dominant world power, who, after squashing Israel, marches south.  To protect herself, Judah turns to Egypt, a choice Isaiah rails against!  “Alas for those who go down to Egypt for help and who rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are very strong, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel or consult the Lord!” (Is. 31:1)

This started me thinking about some of the foolish alliances we make.  Hoping to find strength and security in alliances we hope are strong enough to overcome pennilessness, sickness, failure, or other maladies, we tie our fortunes to the stock market or the family doctor or education or something else just as surely to disappoint in the long run.  Isaiah’s message to us would be: Your strength is in the Lord!  That’s a reminder I need.

“Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.  He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.  He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.  Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (Is. 40:28-31).

We Just Can’t Forget…

Last week I was able to talk to a sweet lady as she waited for surgery.  I noticed an accent and inquired about her home country.  It was a simple question really.  But her answer will long live in my heart.

She was a baby when WWII began.  One night when she was two years old her daddy left home to purchase some milk for her.  He never returned and they discovered that he had been arrested by the Nazis and taken to Auschwitz where he was executed.  As I held her hand I was riveted to her words as she unfolded events of her life.  The story of her childhood was filled with pain, abandonment, abuse, and terror.  It broke my heart.

Suddenly she said, “I’m sorry.  I am talking too much.”  I quickly assured her that she was not and thanked her for sharing her life story with me.  I told her how deeply it had touched me.  She leaned up on one arm and, dropping her voice, said in broken English, “Do you know some people don’t believe this really happened?  The Holocaust.”  I knelt down to where we were eye to eye and I called her by name and said, “Please hear me my friend.  I believe it happened.  And I am so sorry how it hurt you and your family.”  She began to weep.  After 70 years it still makes her cry.  I also said, “Please don’t stop telling your story because if people forget that the Holocaust happened we are at risk of letting it happen again.”

She squeezed my hand tightly and said, “We just can’t forget.”

It is beyond my ability to understand how a group of people can target another group of people and incite such unspeakable atrocities.  It is also beyond my ability to understand how people can actually say that the Holocaust didn’t happen.

Denial.  Forgetfulness.  They can be dangerous things.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was also executed by the Nazis when he was only thirty-nine years old, said “Satan does not fill us with hatred of God, but with forgetfulness of God…”

How can we EVER forget God?  Talk about another atrocity!  How can I ever forget how good God is to me?  How much he blesses me – even in dark and difficult places of life.

It strikes me how important it is to also keep sharing the stories about God’s precious work in people’s lives – in days gone by (Hebrews 11) – in my life today.  We must keep sharing the stories of God.

Because we just can’t forget.

Upon returning from an early morning walk yesterday I initiated a conversation with a Korean lady (or, was she Chinese?) who was picking up yellow fruit which had fallen from a tree just outside our apartment.

“What is that?”  I asked.

She smiled and replied, “It’s ginkgo.  In China, this fruit is used in medicine,”  she offered.

“Is that what you plan to do with it?  Make medicine?” I asked.

“Oh, no,” she said.  “I will remove the skin and the seeds and make soup.  I just wish I had a bag for this fruit,” she said.

“You know, I have some bags you can have, ” I offered.  I motioned behind me and said, “I live right here in this building.  Let me run up and get you a bag.”

In a few moments I was running down the stairs and out the front door with two white, plastic Target sacks in my hands which I gave to this lady.

“Thank you,” she said.

“You are very welcome,” I responded.  “I hope you have a great day.”

Starting conversations, asking questions which demonstrate an interest in others, and showing small kindnesses.  These are things I believe followers of Jesus do.  They are not praise-worthy.  They are not sensational.  They are just simple, natural, and everyday actions that followers of Jesus do, often without thinking and often in response to the people they encounter in the course of an average day.  Of course, I am wishing that my conversation with my neighbor is but the first of many.  I am wishing that somewhere down the road my wife and this lady and I may become friends.  I am wishing that at some future date we will have the opportunity to share our love of God with this woman.  I am wishing that perhaps, God may use us to help her draw near to God, and her to help us do the same.  If my conversation and two Target bags are but a “cup of cold water” given to someone, and it ends there, so be it.  But, I will wish and pray for more.

“Father, thank you for allowing me the opportunity to converse with one of our neighbors yesterday and for the opportunity to show her a small kindness.  Please open my eyes to the opportunities to love and serve others in your name.  And, please work through those opportunities, encounters, and conversations to the end that your will is accomplished.”

In the last six weeks or so I have been reflecting upon what has come to be known as the “Lord’s Prayer.”  This is probably the best-known and most often-recited prayer in Christendom, and yet, it is a prayer that I seldom pray.  Why is that?  Perhaps I want my prayers to be original and do not want to use standard prayers that others have written.  Or, perhaps I am afraid that frequent recitation of the Lord’s Prayer will lead to meaningless repetitions, which Jesus condemned (Mt. 6:7).  Of course, a prayer need not become meaningless just because it is oft-repeated.  And, surely I may assume that God appreciates a prayer that is thoughtfully pre-planned, especially one that our Lord told his followers to pray! (Lk. 11:2; Mt. 6:9)

My time in Matthew 6:9-13 has convinced me of the value of this prayer.  One benefit is that I want and need our Father to answer the requests of this prayer.  I want God to be respected and reverenced, for his sovereign rule to be established, and for his will to be done in my world.  And, since it is “in him that we live and move and have our being” I desperately need him to supply my present necessities, forgive my failures, keep me from tests of faith which I am unprepared to pass, and protect me from a real and powerful enemy.

But, I have learned that there is another very significant benefit that comes when I immerse myself in this prayer.  It centers me, focuses me, and at times, reorients me.  To reorient oneself is “to find one’s position again in relation to one’s surroundings.”  Do you ever need to find your position again in relation to your surroundings?  I know I do!

I often need a reminder of who God is and to recommit myself to living in a way that demonstrates the respect and reverence that is due him.

I often need to be reminded that I live under and enjoy God’s reign, that he is my king, and that consequently, I am not the center of the universe.

I often need to re-focus on my purpose in life, which is to do my Father’s will, and not my own.

I frequently need the reminder that I am dependent upon God for life, that I need to trust him to provide what I need for now, and that I should be thankful for his gracious provision.

I frequently need to recall that I stand in constant need of God’s mercy and that I must show the same mercy to others.

And, I often need to be reminded that in certain situations I am spiritually-weak, that I need God to defend and protect me, and that the evil one is real and powerful.

What I have learned is that one of the most significant reasons to pray is not that my prayers change God, but that they change me.

I wish I had the wisdom of Solomon, because there are many times when I could surely use it!

Today, I was standing in the checkout line at Walgreen’s.  The man in front of me was dirty, dressed in ragged clothing, and smelled as if he had not taken a shower in a week.  After he pulled a $20 bill out of his billfold and paid for his brats and other items, he grabbed his suitcase and walked away.  I judged that he was homeless, but I could have been wrong.

After I paid for my items, I walked to the Post Office.  Forty minutes later I was walking by that same Walgreen’s and there waiting at the bus stop was that same smelly man I stood behind in Walgreen’s.  “Mister,” he said to me, “can you spare a dime?”  I stopped and said to him, “I just saw you pull a $20 bill out of your pocket.  I don’t think you need a dime.”  Then, I told him, “No,” and walked away.

Yesterday, I was walking out of another Post Office when a middle-aged woman asked me if I could spare some change.  Immediately I told her “No” without breaking stride, and as I walked away, I heard her say that she had hungry children to feed at home.  Well, she knew what to say.  I guess I’m a sucker for children.  And, babies in strollers.  (Months ago, Becky and I were stopped by a young woman who was pushing a baby in a stroller.  She said she needed money to ride the bus.  We didn’t even ask her any questions.  We just gave her $5, said, “God bless you,” and went on our way.)  As I was walking away from that middle-aged woman who claimed she had hungry children at home I got to thinking about those children and what Jesus might do if he were in my shoes.  Twenty yards later I did an about-face and returned to the woman.  “How do I know that I can trust you?” I asked.  “You can trust me,” she replied.  “My husband is out of work, and we have nine children at home.”  She may have been another panhandler, but I opened my wallet and gave her a $5 bill.  Now that I think about it, I probably should have given her a $20 instead.  She said to me, “God bless you,” and I walked away.

I have been approached by so many beggars since moving to Chicago, and more often than not, I look at these people, judge them to be panhandlers, and think, “I will be a poor steward if I give this person any of my money.”  I seldom trust the pleas of these people, some of whom may really need my help.

Yes, I need the wisdom of Solomon for a more discerning heart.  And, forgiveness.  I need that, too.