Have you been guilty of telling others to go to Hell?
The very phrase for many Christians sends a bolt of indignation through our gut. We don’t like hearing people tell one another to “Go to Hell”, because it is a defaming and derogatory statement of derision.
Paul takes the metaphor of body parts to express what I am attempting to say:
14 For the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. (1 Cor 12:14-16)
Do you see the picture that Paul is painting? The foot is feeling undervalued because he isn’t a hand. He doesn’t get noticed for what he does. He isn’t used to make grand gestures, or perform meaningful tasks. It even seems that he is treated as an embarrassment because he is hidden away, tied up in a horribly smelly leather contraption.
Or the consider the ear — It doesn’t get noticed like the eye. The eyes have these beautiful colors, which people often complement. The eyes are used to communicate our anger, our excitement, our joy, and our sorrow. The eyes are even lauded as the window to the soul. But no one ever notices the ear, unless, perhaps, they are monstrously large. The only recognition the ear seems to receive is as an appendage upon which one can display spangles and dangles.
Some of you fear that you are a foot or an ear. You have been relegated to the backstage, and feel that your talents because they do not shine like the talents of others are needless and irrelevant. Perhaps, you have even wondered at times if God overlooked you in the distribution of gifts for ministry. If that is you, listen to what Paul has to say as he continues …
17 If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. (1 Cor 12:17-20)
We are all necessary parts of the whole. God didn’t overlook you. The Holy Spirit has placed a gifting inside of you that is necessary to the functioning of the whole. You are valuable. You are important. You are a 10 in some area of ministry. Without your involvement and engagement, the church is incomplete.
I have to admit, it confuses me? What is it that confuses me? God’s presence, or is it our recognition of His presence?
You have probably heard yourself, or maybe even made the statement – “The Spirit was present today in worship!” Usually, I hear that statement from those who tend toward a more expressive demonstration of worship … the music was energizing and inspirational, the prayers were moving shouts and cries to God, or the preacher was much more excitable and expressive than usual. Hands get clapping. Feet start moving. Voices raise.
What bothers me with the statement, “The Spirit was present today in worship!”, is not what is said, but what remains unsaid. You see the emphasis is – God’s presence visited that particular worship service because some, or all, of the conditions were met. Here is where the problem arises. Let me phrase it as a question: Does that mean that God must be visiting some other church on Sundays when the energy level is sagging, when the excitement is missing, or when the music, prayers and message seem to fall flat?
Here is the problem with that observation – it can cut both ways. People inclined toward a more conservative expression of worship, might feel God just blessed the gathering with His presence at precisely the point when others feel “God has left the building”. They are accustomed to God revealing His presence in the songs that inspire through soft meditative melodies, a thought-provoking word from the speaker, the solemnness of partaking of Communion, or a simple softly-spoken prayer … no tears, no cheers – just God quietly working on their hearts.
While some people recognize God’s presence when the energy of worship is high, others may feel like God’s presence evacuates the premises because the music, prayers, or preaching get too loud. Screams and shouts, driving drums and shredding the guitar, not to mention yelling preachers, may interrupt their worship and leave them feeling like they missed their time with God.
This is what gets me so confused. Do you see the problem? Both feelings can’t be right. They are mutually exclusive. What about when others feel His presence and I don’t – are one of us wrong? The problem can quickly devolve into accusations that the expressive worshipers are just showing off, and the reserved worshipers are not even worshiping.
In 1 Kings 19, Elijah had just experienced the most exhilarating time with God. God answered His simple prayer to make His presence known during the showdown at the Mt. Carmel corral. Four hundred and fifty of the nastiest hombres on this side of the Jordan faced down “the lone prophet”, and when the smoke cleared one man of God was left standing.
The thrill of victory soon gave way to the agony of defeat. Once Jezebel heard the goin’s on, it didn’t take her long to print up a slew of wanted posters – “Prophet Elijah wanted dead or alive, preferably dead.” Needless to say, Elijah high-tailed it from them there parts liken a hog after slop.
When Elijah held up in cave, God came a callin’. God told Elijah to go out and stand at the mouth of the cave because He would soon be passin’ by. First, a cyclone came by a bustin’ up rocks, but God couldn’t be found there. An earthquake a got to rattlin’; and finally, the prairie was set ablaze. Yet God wasn’t to be found in them either. But then Elijah picked up on the voice of God in the whisper of a gentle breeze.
Does God’s Spirit only show up when I am feeling it? Is His presence there only when He arrives in the manner that I assume He should?
I fear that sometimes we attempt to put God into a box, expecting that the Spirit should operate in the way we dictate … that God is somehow confined by the silliness of our expectations of how and when and why he should act. But the story of Elijah tells us that sometimes God will surprise us, and show up in the most unexpected ways and places.
Here he was kicked off the mountaintop high that he had just been on, licking his wounds, feeling sorry for himself. He expected that God was going to show Himself in a mighty way. The King of the universe was going to put his power and majesty on full display. God’s going to show who’s boss. But God wanted to be heard, so He whispered.
God is not subject to my feelings. He doesn’t have to work by my rules. He is not confined by my expectations.
So what does this have to do with Worship services?
God is not there sometimes and absent on others. God is speaking through various voices and various times, and I need to learn to hear him in the gale of the storm and in the gentle touch of the breeze. When I wrap myself too tightly in a certain manner of worship, be it expressive or reserved, I just might miss what a tremendous opportunity to see what God is doing, and to celebrate Him in it. If I am listening for God’s voice to be heard only in the manner to which I have become accustomed, I might miss out on the message He has for me. Is it possible that God most wants me to hear Him in what I would most likely miss His voice?
But it is also that God is calling me to sensitivity and understanding of those whose worship manner is different from my own. You see, when we talk about ministry, we recognize that God has wired each of us differently, with differing personalities, emotional makeups, experiences, etc. Yet, when we talk of worship we often seem to forget to allow for these differences.
Expressives shouldn’t cast aspersions on authenticity of the conservative worshiper because what God is doing in their heart is not being shown in a demonstrative manner. Join them in that time of solice, quietness, and peace, letting them hear God’s gentle whisper. As an expressive, you might just hear from Him yourself.
But the more conservative worshipers need to understand that an expressive might be experiencing a unique touch of God that is setting them free and renewing their hope in ways that they might not realize. Unless you have taken the time to walk in their shoes, you may never understand what victory God is shaping in them, so take the time to battle for them and celebrate with them.
So, I guess it is not God’s presence that it is the problem. It just might be us. But we can learn to appreciate the manner in which the other encounters God without, intentionally or unintentionally, expressing that the other’s worship is unacceptable to God. And as we do, we might feel God’s presence as He shouts to us in the storm, or experience He is there through His gentle whisper in ways that would otherwise surprise us!
All of today’s major sports miss the spiritual point — In baseball, you run 90 feet at a time. In basketball, you run back and forth on a 75′ court. In football, you may be pushed for 100 yards.
We are stirred by the moment … by the spectacular demonstration of an instance of athleticism. A dunk or a block in basketball, an acrobatic catch in football, a hard hit in hockey, and an amazing catch or long home run in baseball.
Quadrennially, the summer Olympics is spotlighted by the track and field events. The largest attention is given in America to the shortest races – the 100 meter and the 110 meter hurdles. It seems that as the distances increase, the interest in the race by the American media decreases proportionately. Historically, that was not always true.
In the 5th century B.C., the Persians invaded Greece, landing at Marathon, a small town about 26 miles from the city of Athens. The Athenian army was seriously outnumbered by the Persian army, so the Athenians sent messengers to cities all over Greece asking for help.
The traditional origin of the marathon comes from the story how a herald named Phidippides ran the 26 miles from Marathon to Athens to announce the Greek victory and died on the spot. Phidippides was sent by the Athenians to Sparta to ask for help; a man named Eukles announced the victory to the Athenians and then died. Later sources confused the story of Phidippides, also called “Philippides,” with that of Eukles. Although most ancient authors do not support this legend, the story has persisted and is the basis for the modern-day marathon.
It is this kind of marathon that is in the mind of the writer of Hebrews when he pens: “Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” Hebrews 12:1. Or later, as he add: “Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees” (12:12).
The Christian life is more like the Boston Marathon, than a 40-yard sprint. Annually, thousands leave the starting line exhilarated at having begun the race, but as the miles added up the course would take its toll. Just as these runners would begin hitting the wall at the 20.5 mile mark, they would face their most menacing challenge, Heartbreak Hill. The next half mile, an incline that would be hard enough to run on its own, but after 20 miles is a battle. They would either determine that they would keep moving forward, or the hill would win. Many a runner has found themselves quitting, defeated by the Hill.
While some Christians may act as if the Christian life is a leisurely walk in the park. It is not a even 40-yard sprint. It is a grinding marathon that tests the endurance of our faith. As he continues on with the chapter he draws out the implications of the perseverance that must be necessary to complete such a race. It is a race fraught with challenge, pain and suffering.
Jesus is elevated as the model for our running. He pioneered the faith trail that we run, and ran it to completion. What does that mean? He never quit. When he reached his Heartbreak Hill it was called by another name, the hill of Golgotha. Even when reaching the finish line meant running through the most demeaning form of execution of his time, his pace never flagged. He continued to pick them up and put them down.
But we can find it easy to shift our focus off of Jesus, and onto other believers. We exchange the excellence of Jesus completed race for settling for beating out others, or even worse, just aspiring to run with the pack. I can come out looking pretty good, if I compare my spiritual fitness to those around me. But in comparison to Jesus, I am reminded of the training that I still need to complete.
That is why the author wrote, “Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (12:3). Here he is talking about “hitting the wall.”
I have never run a marathon. The most I ever worked up to was 6 miles when I was a freshman in college. But I remember as I was beginning to stretch it out, I would hit the first wall at 3 miles. My legs would begin to ache, and my breathing would get labored. The thought would hit me, “Just stop”. But I would keep on running. At about 5 miles I would be confronted with wall number 2, my legs would begin feeling like jelly, and my steps would be a bit less sure. I was feeling the Hebrews writers “weak knees.” Again, I would hear that voice whisper, “You’ve gone far enough. Walk the rest of the way.” But I would keeping pushing on. And the more I ran, the softer the whisper became, until it was completely hushed.
Some of us have run through our Christian life as if it were a series of sprints. We run for a bit. Get off the track. Grab something to drink. Catch our breath. Work out the aches, or let them have time to heal … and if we get around to it we might take another jog around the track.
The Christian life is about perseverance. It is about pushing past “the wall.” It is about continuing to step forward in faith when every voice around us is screaming, “Just give up.”
Our “walls” are different. Our walls may be the emotional pain of a past that haunts us. They can be the opposition that we receive to our faith by our family. It may be the ridicule heaped on by fellow students or co-workers. It may be the struggle to leave behind some sins that have dug themselves deeply into our soul. It may be trusting God is faithful when circumstances don’t seem to give you any evidence that he can be trusted.
What is your wall? When you seem to be running well, what is it that pops up in your way … that presents a challenge that drains you and batters your faith leaving you fighting for the energy to take one more step? What is it that pulls you off course, and out of the race?
You can run the course. You can finish the race. It will not be easy. It will take hard work. Sometimes you will feel like quitting, or wonder whether it is worth it. But keep on going … no hill can defeat you if you chose to persevere.
I was surprised last week at the push back that I received when I reposted “An Open Letter (from a non-mother) to Pastors” on a FACEBOOK page dedicated to those serving in vocational ministry. The letter is a plea for Pastors to be sensitive to the pain that some women can experience related to the celebration of Mother’s Day. This woman was taken to be a self-centered, malcontent who was envious of the attention and praise that was being given to other women. Comments were made that being sensitive to those who find Mother’s Day a painful day would be tantamount to failing to observe the Lord’s Supper or baptism, or preaching about sin. Others expressed that these women “need to grow up and get over themselves.” One comment even suggested that women like that “need to meet Jesus.”
What surprised me so much wasn’t comments that were made. I was not even surprised that the comments came from Christians. Let’s face it – some professed Christians can be the most heartless and blood-thirsty people out there. Non-Christians will vouch for that, but also many Christians who have fallen victim to the sharp claws and vicious bite of other believers.
What surprised me was that these comments were made people who are or have served as the senior staff in churches, those who Christians see as lead shepherds of the flock.
It was interesting that this non-mother, and any woman that she might speak for, was branded one of those people looking to be “offended” (a term she never used in the letter). Any possibility that the existence of real pain existed was summarily dismissed.
I’m wondering if we’re looking at a blind spot.
Now, I am well aware that we are living in an era when many people are seeking to be offended … that some people are more than willing to be put off by nearly anything that somebody can say. Living in the location I do, I am especially aware of the likelihood of someone being offended by what could largely be construed as an innocuous statement that is misunderstood due to the assortment of cultural lenses through which it must pass in order to be received.
I am, also, well aware that the “offended” can be found within any church. They can be a minister’s worst nightmare, especially when they are given the ear of some of the Elders within the church. Single-handedly these “offended” can hijack, and even halt, ministry progress. I have even had one of those “offended” serving as an Elder.
But the more I thought it through I had to wonder, “Is this more about a blind spot?”
A blind spot is the spot of vision in our cars which you are not able to see without additional effort when you are driving. When not noticed, you hit the car coming up beside you when you change lanes. Or worse, you could hit the person walking through the parking lot as you back up.
People with limited peripheral vision are plagued with dealing with the problem of blind spots.
But blind spots can also be a mental phenomenon. It is that thought that never dawns on you. It is the need that you never perceive.
Just like when I have begun to pull over into the next lane to be greeted with the honk from the driver who is feeling threatened by my maneuver, I have also found occasions when I have encountered blind spots in ministry. Those places where I didn’t adequately percieve all of the dynamics that were playing on what I did observe.
So, again, I wonder if I stumbled into a blind spot.
Jesus when talking to that Samaritan woman, made the disciples raise an eyebrow. They didn’t get why Jesus was talking with her.
Jesus spoke of blind spots when he said, “They say three more months until the harvest. But look, I tell you, the fields are white unto harvest.” I bet the disciples looked at Jesus, turned to the fields, and back at Jesus, with puzzled looks on their faces, and thought, “It is a good thing Jesus isn’t a farmer.” You think they have a blind spot?
Peter had a dream of spare ribs and pork chops, calamari and jumbo shrimp, and said, “Nah. Do you still serve from the kosher menu?” Three times God prepared Peter by sending that dream before He finally spoke up, and said, “Nothing I have made is unclean.” Blind spot?
But did he get it? Later on, when he was at Cornelius’ house, he finished his message, and was at a loss on how to close it out. Usually, he would have extended an invitation, but Cornelius was a Gentile. Blind spot! God had to reverse the normal order of conversion (baptism then Holy Spirit) to give Peter a sign that it was alright for a Gentile to be converted.
I wonder if “needs, hurts, and pain” could be a blind spot for many ministry professionals. Because so many people are inclined to be offended, are we too inclined to relegate the pain that people may experience to a trash heap of offense? Could we as ministry professionals become so calloused that we mistake a cry for a complaint? Do we get so busy getting our job done that we forget that the people are the job? Do we get involved with doing things a certain way, and responding to certain issues and needs that we fail to see and respond to the hurting before our eyes?
Does that blind spot get manifested by a promise to pray when someone asks for a moment to share the crisis they are experiencing, rather than taking the time to pray with them right then and there?
Are we more prone to passing someone in need to shuffle off to a meeting than passing on a meeting to shuffle off to meeting a person’s need? Or worse yet, do we even notice? I sure hope that we care.
When it came to Mother’s Day, I had to think through the assortment of women with the vast diversity of their experiences that I have come to rub shoulders with in ministry, and view the day through the lenses of their life experiences.
- I thought of the couple of women who early in life had abortions, one of which resulted in sterilization, still battling the guilt of their decisions.
- My heart broke again for the family who were unsuccessful in attempting to bear children, and after adopting a child from foster care had the child die in her sleep, and another foster child removed as the parents struggled with depression and grief.
- I wondered at the grace of the ladies who chose to value the life of their child that was conceived in violence over the option of ending that life as a painful reminder.
- I thought of the several adults that as children were abused by their mother, through physical and emotional abuse, or just plain neglect.
- I spent a moment thinking about the faithful unmarried, those who desired to get married and have children, but never had their lives unfold that way.
- I paused a moment to think of the blended families where the step parent has generously poured themselves into the lives of their non-biological children, only to be reminded that they weren’t their parent.
- I shed a tear for the mother who would be celebrating the day on the third anniversary of the death of her first born.
- I grieved for the family that shared during the previous week that their mother had been diagnosed with cancer.
Taking the time to turn my head, in order to get a good vision of that blind spot, helped me to grow in compassion for the flock to which God gave me charge.
I have not always been so good at checking my blind spots. Not taking the time to adjust my vision, I have missed numerous opportunities for ministry. I have caused more than a few accidents by not looking good enough at the traffic around me to get a good look at what is going on in the life of the other drivers on the fast lane of ministry. I am not aware that I have ever forced someone off the road by carelessly cutting them off. But more than once, somebody has had to “lay on the horn” in order to beep me back into observation (and just in case you missed it — I’m not really talking about driving).
But may I never grow blind to the real pain that other experience.
As an elder I think your point should be drummed into all who serve the church.
I have counseled with many mature Christians who simply opted out of attending on mothers day because they don’t want be marked as “the offended” simply because the day is spiritually and emotionally to painful for them.
Thank you for validating the Pain of many believers.