MINISTERS ALL

And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…. [Ephesians 4:11-12 (RSV)]

alstromeriaWe tend to think of our pastors as the ones who do the ministering and we, the congregation, as the ones to whom he or she ministers. Indeed, our pastors do care for, comfort, aid and support us but their main job is to equip us: to train, outfit and prepare us to go out and be Christ’s ministers to the world! Rather than them being the players in the game with us being the fans who show up on game day, our pastors are more like the coaches and athletic trainers who prepare their team to go out on the field and play with skill and enthusiasm! Too often, however, we act like onlookers rather than members of the team.

Paul’s 1st century words continue to apply to the 21st century church. Those saints who are to become ministers are normal everyday Christ followers like you and me. Ministry is what being a Christian is all about and it has little to do with a pulpit, church, seminary, or ordination! When we became Christians, we were ordained as Christ’s ministers. Rather than preach with words from a pulpit, we preach with our lives: our words, demeanor, lifestyle, finances, and even our appearance.

The work we do every day is a gift from God and a way to reach out and touch people with the voice and hands of Jesus. We minister from behind the counter when we’re patient with the difficult customer, when we hold a nervous patient’s hand before surgery, or take the time to chat with the lonely widow whose room we’re cleaning. We minister when we volunteer at the charity resale shop, open the door for the woman with the stroller, or bring flowers to a new neighbor. We minister when we set good examples, listen, help, invite, welcome, encourage, offer assistance or smile. We minister when we use social media to God’s advantage. We minister when we quietly say grace regardless of where we are. We minister when we send an encouraging Bible verse to a friend. We minister when Bibles are present in our workspace and homes (and we know what’s in them).

There should be no division between clergy and laity—we all are ministers of the Gospel! I remember the words of a visiting pastor who, following the closing hymn, exclaimed, “Our worship has ended, let our service begin!” It’s time to get out of the bleachers and into the game!

We are all missionaries. Wherever we go we either bring people nearer to Christ or we repel them from Christ. [Eric Liddell]

He has enabled us to be ministers of his new covenant. This is a covenant not of written laws, but of the Spirit. The old written covenant ends in death; but under the new covenant, the Spirit gives life. [2 Corinthians 3:6 (NLT)]

In everything we do, we show that we are true ministers of God. [2 Corinthians 6:4a (NLT)]

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FREE WON’T

Live like free people, but don’t use your freedom as an excuse to do evil. Live as those who are serving God. [1 Peter 2:16 (ERV)]

red-bellied woodpecker“Get Fuzzy,” a comic strip drawn by Darby Conley, chronicles the life of Rob and his somewhat eccentric pets: Bucky Katt, a temperamental feline with “cat-attitude,” and the gentle Satchel Pooch who frequently is the butt of Bucky’s jokes and the target of his bullying. In one comic, Satchel pondered the concept of free will. “Having free will means you also have the freedom to not,” says the dog, who then resolves, “I choose to exercise free won’t and not get mad.”

In studying the human brain, neuroscientists have discovered that there is a brief instant between when the brain tells the body to get ready to act and the action itself. That nanosecond is when our mind can implement its veto power—when it truly can exercise “free won‘t”!

We are usually so busy touting all of the things we’re free to do, that it is refreshing to consider the things we’re free not to do. Unfortunately, we don’t exercise that freedom nearly enough. Eve and Adam tasted the forbidden fruit, the Israelites worshipped a golden calf, David pursued Bathsheba, Jacob stole his inheritance, Judas betrayed Jesus, and Lot’s wife took a last look. Sadly, they didn’t exercise their freedom to say “No!” Admittedly, I frequently fail at implementing my “free won’t.”

The ability to not choose a thought or action is as important as the ability to choose them. We don’t have to indulge our every notion or whim. Remembering that we can veto as easily as we can approve, all of our choices should be conscious ones—ones where we deliberately choose between will or won’t.

Unfortunately, by the end of the comic strip, Satchel, who had been sorely vexed by Bucky, exclaims that, “I’m starting to get a little free maybe-the-*@#!-I-will after all!” His frustration sounds a bit like us when we try to exercise self-control solely on our own. Fortunately, unlike Satchel, we have a secret weapon: the Holy Spirit. Through God’s power, when tempted, we can exercise the freedom to not respond and make our free will become free won’t!

So, my brothers and sisters, we must not be ruled by our sinful selves. We must not live the way our sinful selves want. If you use your lives to do what your sinful selves want, you will die spiritually. But if you use the Spirit’s help to stop doing the wrong things you do with your body, you will have true life. The true children of God are those who let God’s Spirit lead them. [Romans 8:12-14 (ERV)]

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SHEEP, SNAKES, AND DOVES

rat snakeLook, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves. So be as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves. [Matthew 10:16 (NLT)]

Matthew tells of Jesus calling the disciples together, giving them the authority to cast our evil spirits and heal all kinds of illness, and then sending them out to announce that the Kingdom of God was near. Preparing them for persecution, Jesus said they would be as sheep to the wolves. Helpless against predators like wolves, sheep also were used in religious sacrifice.  Jesus made sure the disciples understood they would encounter opposition, danger, trials and floggings by likening them to these vulnerable sacrificial animals.

Nevertheless, not wanting them so naïve that they became perpetual victims or so timid they couldn’t accomplish their mission, Jesus then told the disciples to be as shrewd as snakes. We rarely think of these reptiles as canny or perceptive but, when we consider the snake Eve met in Genesis, the simile makes more sense. That cunning serpent certainly had a way with words as he convinced Eve to sin. Imagine what he could have accomplished if, instead of deception, he’d used his skill with words for good rather than evil! Jesus wasn’t telling the disciples to deceive but it would appear that He was telling them to use their wits.

There are other parallels between snakes and the disciples’ instructions. Snakes, being cold-blooded, adjust their body temperature by moving out in and out of the sun and shade to find a safe and comfortable resting place. While Jesus wasn’t suggesting hiding under a rock, He did tell the disciples to find a hospitable place to stay and, if a place wasn’t welcoming, to go elsewhere (as a snake does when the temperatures gets inhospitable). Unless attacked, most snakes are not aggressive; they prefer slithering away to a confrontation. Just as snakes know how to evade trouble, the disciples were told to do the same. Nevertheless, like a snake, they were to stand their ground and defend themselves when threatened. Rather than using venom, however, they were to defend themselves with the words of the Spirit.

Immediately after telling the disciples to be like snakes, Jesus told them to be as harmless as doves. Like sheep, doves were vulnerable and sacrificial animals but, even in 1st century Palestine, they were a symbol of peace and love. The story of the dove returning to Noah’s ark caused the Jews to associate the dove with peace. Because of Greek and Roman mythology, it also symbolized love and devotion and, because the Spirit of God descended like a dove at Jesus’s baptism,  it also signified the Holy Spirit to His early followers. As Jesus’s representatives, the disciples were to find a balance between prudence and self-preservation on the one hand and compassion, peace and love on the other.

In the free world today, we don’t face floggings; the wolves are far more subtle. I think of a friend who would never demean the ethnicity, culture or sexual preferences of her co-workers yet she frequently finds herself the object of their ridicule for her Christian beliefs. She has to be both a snake and a dove in her response to them as do the few conservative Jewish and Christian students in my grands’ California high school. Their free-thinking anything-goes classmates have disparaged their belief in God, purity, right and wrong, sin, and the Bible’s truth. While we don’t risk imprisonment, as Christians, we may still find ourselves targets with our beliefs mocked, challenged, or threatened in subtle ways. Jesus did not send us out as sheep to the slaughter but as ministers of His word. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can avoid confrontation while fearlessly and skillfully standing our ground with love and peace.

You will stand trial before governors and kings because you are my followers. But this will be your opportunity to tell the rulers and other unbelievers about me. When you are arrested, don’t worry about how to respond or what to say. God will give you the right words at the right time. For it is not you who will be speaking—it will be the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. [Matthew 10:18-20 (NLT)]

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JUST LIKE US

All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing people what is wrong in their lives, for correcting faults, and for teaching how to live right. [2 Timothy 3:16 (NCV)]

St. Matthew - Cathedral of St. Francis - Santa FeWhen I was a child in Sunday school, we’d color pictures of David, Daniel, Samson, and King Solomon and sing songs about Zacchaeus, Noah, Joshua, and the trio with the fun names: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. As I learned their stories, they all seemed to be the Biblical version of super-heroes like Batman or Superman. Larger than life, invincible, almost indestructible, they seemed to overcome their obstacles effortlessly. Appearing perfect in their faith and actions, they weren’t people to whom I could relate. In reality, however, they were real people facing real challenges who sometimes made mistakes or struggled with their faith.

David may have killed Goliath, but he was an adulterer and murderer whose son died because of his sins. Rather than the strapping youth we picture, Daniel was an old man when thrown into the lions’ den. Samson was an impulsive braggart with incredibly bad taste in women. The wise Solomon disobeyed his father, erred in his choice of wives and over-worked and over-taxed his people. Zacchaeus was a corrupt collaborator and even the righteous Noah had a drinking problem. When singing about Jericho’s walls tumbling down, it’s easy to forget the faith it took for Joshua to obey God’s illogical plan of marching around Jericho with the Ark for seven days. That brave threesome were captives in a foreign land and defying an egotistic king; in spite of their words of faith, they had to have been shaking in their sandals as they faced that fiery furnace.

A real woman, the barren Hannah struggled with her sense of worth. Because of sibling rivalry, Jacob stole his brother’s birthright and blessing and Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery. Timothy’s youth made him timid and insecure, the publican Matthew probably had been a cheat and, to save his own skin, cowardly Abraham gave his wife to another man not once but twice! A weak leader, Aaron yielded to the people’s desire to make an idol of gold and Moses let his anger get the best of him. The great prophet Elijah prayed for death in the depth of despair and Paul persecuted Christians!

When we look at the heroes and heroines of the Bible with the eyes of an adult, we see real people who struggled with challenges, pain, and even their faith. In the midst of their difficulties, however, they met God and, through His power, accomplished incredible things. If God could use these flawed people to accomplish such great things, think of what He can do with you and me!

I sing a song of the saints of God, patient and brave and true,
who toiled and fought and lived and died for the Lord they loved and knew. …
they were all of them saints of God, and I mean, God helping, to be one too. [Lesbia Scott]

Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us. The Scriptures give us patience and encouragement so that we can have hope. [Romans 15:4 (NCV)]

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HE CAME DOWN (Zacchaeus – part 2)

Look! I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in, and we will share a meal together as friends. [Revelation 3:20 (NLT)]

black-crowned night-heronConsider the determination of Zacchaeus, the despised little man who, unable to shove his way through the crowd to see the rabbi from Nazareth, doggedly ran ahead and climbed a tree just to catch a glimpse of Him. Running and climbing were undignified behavior and certainly inappropriate for a wealthy businessman like Zacchaeus. Do we desire Jesus so much that we’d push our way through obstacles or risk looking ridiculous for Him? Are we as determined as the publican to learn about the Lord or do we use any flimsy excuse to miss church, Bible study or time in prayer?

If Zacchaeus thought he’d escaped notice hiding behind the broad leaves of the sycamore, he was mistaken. Jesus saw him as did the crowd when Jesus called out, “Quick, come down! I must be a guest in your home today.” The crowd must have loved seeing the hated man embarrassed as he exposed his legs while climbing down the tree. But, it wasn’t just the tree from which Zacchaeus needed to descend; he had to come down from his “high horse” and humble himself before the Lord. In the presence of Jesus, Zacchaeus was no longer a rich powerful tax-collector; he was just a lowly sinner.

When Jesus invited himself to Zacchaeus’ home, the man didn’t say he had previous plans, the house needed cleaning, or his wife had nothing ready for dinner. The tax man immediately (and joyfully) welcomed Jesus into his home and life. Are we that quick (and happy) to meekly respond when God calls us or do we grumble and find a dozen excuses to delay?

As happens when we humbly encounter the Lord, once Zacchaeus met Jesus, he repented of his ways. He promised to give half his wealth to the poor and make full restitution to those he’d cheated by giving back four times the amount owed! The story of Zacchaeus, the man who almost instantaneously went from greed to generosity, shows us the amazing transforming power of Jesus. Zacchaeus, however, knew that what he was being offered by Jesus was far greater than any riches he could amass as a corrupt tax collector. The lost sheep had been found!

Jesus responded, “Salvation has come to this home today, for this man has shown himself to be a true son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost.” [Luke 19:9-10 (NLT)]

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SEEING INSIDE

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Don’t judge by his appearance or height, for I have rejected him. The Lord doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” [1 Samuel 16:7 (NLT)]

crab appleAfter God rejected Saul as king, He sent Samuel to the home of Jesse, telling him that one of Jesse’s sons had been selected as the next king. Samuel was sure he’d found the new king after taking one look at Eliab, Jesse’s eldest boy. Like Saul, Eliab must have been tall, muscular, and handsome, but mere good looks hadn’t served the people well with Saul. Telling Samuel not to judge by outward appearances, God said that He judges by what’s in the heart. In Samuel’s day, only God could see into the heart; that’s not so today!

I recently had an echocardiogram. During this test, high-frequency sound waves, combined with Doppler ultrasound and color Doppler, provided images of my heart’s chambers, valves, and blood flow. The cardiologist then evaluated the size, structure, movement, and strength of my heart to detect any damage, defects or disease. Nevertheless, in spite of being able to actually observe the way my heart functions, she couldn’t see into my heart any better than did Samuel into either Saul’s or Eliab’s.

Although the cardiologist’s report gave the exact dimensions and thickness of each part of my heart, she really doesn’t know if I am big or small hearted, or if my heart is pure, true, honest, compassionate, meek, wise, joyful, willing or good. Although the cardiologist knows my blood flow velocity and cardiac output, she doesn’t know if my heart is hard, cold, haughty, deceitful, broken, bitter, rebellious, stubborn, wicked, heavy, or in need of cleansing. While her conclusion was that, in spite of a few abnormalities, my heart is fine, God is the only one who can truly evaluate it. Moreover, it is He, not a cardiologist, who determines whether or not anyone needs a whole new heart!

As used in Scripture, the heart is the origin of our behavior, expressions and words: our soul or essence. The center of our physical and spiritual life, it does more than pump blood. Holding our beliefs and faith, it is the source of our imagination, inclinations, affections, intentions, desires, ideas, passions, morals, concerns, purposes and will. No matter how skilled the sonographer, how sophisticated his equipment, or how knowledgeable the cardiologist, an echocardiogram can’t show any of that!

Having read my echo report, I know what the cardiologist saw when looking into my heart. The more important report, of course, is what God sees when he looks there. Is it just fine or is there some work that needs to be done?

Put me on trial, Lord, and cross-examine me. Test my motives and my heart. [Psalm 26:2 (NLT)]

Create in me a clean heart, O God. Renew a loyal spirit within me. [Psalm 51:10 (NLT)]

But I, the Lord, search all hearts and examine secret motives. [Jeremiah 17:10a (NLT)]

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