Young man, juust who do you think you are talking to?!?

If I told you only what I said, I would be giving you half the story.

Consider, for example, “You idiot!  Get out of my way.”

It doesn’t actually tell you much, to consider what I said.  If you don’t know who I said it to, you are left with a mystery.

If I say that to a cute toddler who happened to veer too near toward me as I was walking into a liquor store, you are left with the indication that I, at best, am a jerk.

On the other hand, if I mutter that quietly to myself when I am cut off, you might think I am a pretty ordinary guy.  If I shout that because I have figured out the secret to saving somebody, and precious moments are ticking by, and maybe I won’t get “there” in time, you might even call that quote heroic.

Perhaps at the top of the list of “The most obvious statements ever made” is this: context matters.

What we are saying is important.  But who we are saying it to?  That is more important.

I serve in the Children’s ministry at the fantastic Fellowship Church, New England.  The awesome directors of the ministry are having as watch a series of videos by Francis Chan.  I am… ambivalent about Francis Chan.  Sometimes he is a wee bit old-school, traditional, and black-and-white for my post modernist, emergent church sensibilities.  A thing I am keenly aware of: sometimes the people I am most ambivalent about are the people I need most to hear from.

Last Sunday, we watched this video where Chan made a bunch of great points.  But the one that I really carry with me is this:

When we pray, we ought to be really aware of just who we are praying to.

With out meaning to, with out being aware of it, I have been, for a while, just praying to pray.  People more spiritually mature and experienced than me tell me I am supposed to.  It makes me feel good, some times, to pray.  The bible tells me that I am supposed to.  And so I do.

But the thing is, Jesus is really clear about some things.  One of them is that whenever we do things just because it seems like we are supposed to, whenever we get legalistic, whenever we go through the motions… we cheat ourselves.

I cheated myself.

I have been working hard, this week, as I pray, to be aware of the context.  Context matters.  Who we are talking to?  That is as important as the words I say.  And so my heart-felt prayers, the content matters.  But also, the “person” I am addressing these prayers to?  He matters to.  At least as much.  When I pray really thinking about the fact that I am praying to the creator of the universe, the artist who crafted my soul, my biggest fan and deepest lover….  This changes everything.

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Hope Part II

This is the second portion of the message I shared Sunday:

In the book of Romans, Paul says this: in chapters 8 verses 18-25:

18I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. 20For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that[i] the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.

22We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? 25But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

I wonder what it was like, in Paul’s sexist society to read those words.  In his world, there was all sorts of segregation between the genders.  There was something that looks like fear of the biological difference between men and women.   Basically, the grown men acted like a 5th grader who’s grown up with out sisters, in terms of how comfortable they were with the reality of women’s biology.   Even today, most guys, myself include, feel a little goofy about being compared to women in labor.  In his day, this suggestion must

have been almost scandalous.

But there is brilliance in this comparison.  Despite the cultural baggage, this is such a powerful phrase.  Paul is saying more than just all of creation—including us—are suffering.  He could have provided plenty of examples of things that both genders experience that are painful.   Notice, for example that he doesn’t say, “The whole of creation is groaning as in the pains of a kidney stone.”

Kidney stones hit men and women.  We expect him to have gone this route, avoided the whole uncomfortable thing and gone with something relevant to men and women.

If you focus on this specific experiences and not the wider picture, there’s not much difference between passing a kidney stone and having a baby.  They both involve a painful process of getting something inside a body outside a body.  They both involve receiving medical support.  They both tend to happen to adults.  We know what causes both and often can predict when they are coming.

The thing is,  nobody gets all emotional about passing a kidney stone.  Nobody calls the experience beautiful and video tapes it.  I’m hoping nobody names the little stone and feels a connection to it.

It’s the end of the story that makes child birth beautiful.  It’s the end of the story that accounts for the meaningful differences between child birth and passing a kidney stone.  It’s  the wider context.

Every pain you feel, every struggle you have, every challenge you face, whether you experience that as beautiful, like a child birth, or painful, like a kidney stone…

So much depends on what we see as the wider context.

When Paul describes us as groaning in child birth, he’s evoking this idea that there is an end to our suffering that is worth waiting for.   Interestingly, he mentions that this end is felt both by the whole world and by individual people.

This particular groups of verses highlights a tension.  It highlights dangers going in to either one of two extremes.

At one extreme are people with out anything to hope in.  They are people who don’t believe that there is anything wider than the story.

Do you watch lost?

This week there was this great exchange between Sawyer and the character who appears to be John Locke.  Locke says, “Do you know why you’re here”

And in a great, black comedy moment, Sawyer says “I’m here because my plane crashed.  And my raft sank.  And the helicopter ran out of gas.  And the submarine turned around.”

And Locke said, “No, that’s not why you’re here at all.”

Locke was a bit like a person who might tell me that I got the three little pigs story wrong.  When it wasn’t so much that I got wrong.  It was that I didn’t include enough.

Locke is basically telling Sawyer that he knows why all those things happened.  He knows the end of the story.  And what goes on at the end of the story changes everything.

These are people who, like Sawyer,  believe that the end of the story is what it appears to be.  As individuals we die with our bodies and then our bodies rot, just as the world is going to die in a nuclear war or get swallowed into the sun or washed away under melting ice caps.

David Foster Wallace was the writer of “Infinte Jest.”  He looked like he was going to be the next big thing.  His book was a tremendous bestseller.  He became something of a rock-star writer.  He was profiled in magazines like Details and Rolling Stone.

He was not  a Christian.

There are ways that he brings to mind, for me, King Solomon, who wrote “Eclesiastes”, the book that Marty preached from a couple weeks ago.  Wallace was smart, rich, and well connected.  On the surface, it appeared he had everything going for him.

He said “I think the reason why people behave in a really ugly manner is that it’s really scary to be alive and to be human and people are really, really afraid.  Fear is the basic condition… But the fact of the matter is, is that, is the that the job we’re here to do is to learn how to live in a way that we’re not terrified all the time… The face I’d put on that terror is the dawning realization that nothing’s enough, you know?  That no pleasure is enough, no achievement is enough.”

In short, there’s nothing within our story that makes it worth it.

I wish I could report that this was just a momentary thought of Wallaces.  I wish I could tell you that he found an end of the story to have hope in.  But a few years after that quote, the talk therapy and psychiatric medications he was taking stopped working.  After a long, painful decent, David Foster Wallace took his own life.

I am not niave enough to think that if David Foster Wallace had simply opened a bible once, that we can truly know that some sort-of instant and life changing transformation would have occurred.

But I do know that he was was a wealthy man who had access to the best health care in the world.  It’s clear that everything the therapists and psychiatrists were doing simply wasn’t enough.  It’s also clear that he tried to find a better end to the story of his own life, that he wanted to live in a story with a satisfactory ending.

Wallace had too little to hope in.

But at the other end of the spectrum is the idea that we become so full of ourselves that we think we can see exactly what it is that we’re hoping in.  We think we know.

Scripture tell us that Hope that is seen is no hope at all.

If God could paint a picture of exactly what our eternity is, he would kill our hope.  If we actually saw, it wouldn’t be hope any more at all.  There’s an idea implied here that’s spelled out elsewhere in scripture.  Hoping makes us better.  It grows our patience.

If we ask ourselves what we use to see, the first thing we answer is “our eyes.”  But if we consider it a moment, we’d realize that we use our past experiences and our limited concepts as much as we do our eyes.

Anthropologists have this interesting story to tell about aborigines.  There are people who spend their whole lives in the jungle.  The largest open spaces they ever see are smaller than this stage.  They never experience the effect that things that are further off are smaller.

When you take these aborigines into a plain, and they see an elephant several miles away, they assume that the elephant is tiny.  The aborigine is seeing.

When we see something new, we always base our responses on what we have seen before.  Have you ever had a friend who shaved off their beard or radically changed hair styles, and you didn’t even notice because you just projected what you expected to be there?

If we think we can see our eternity, we’re using only our past, limited, and fallible experiences in a fallen world.

There are people who call themselves followers of Christ, I think, who go to this extreme.    They believe that they can see.  And they kill hope.  I was one, when I was stingy with the water with that kid.  I believed that I was following Christ.  I placed my hope in him for my salvation.  And yet the salvation I was longing for, it wasn’t a whole lot.  I thought that I could still see that the world was the sort of place where you should give people what they deserve.  I should have held on to the hope that it was more.

Some times I watch my brothers and sisters in Christ.  And I squirm on the inside.  I want to disassociate myself from them.  They look at the economy of the world: things are bought, things are paid for, you get what you deserve and you deserve what you get.  And when they talk about life like good deeds earn us God’s frequent flier miles.  If you can only earn enough of them, you get to redeem them at the end to take a plane ride to heaven.

Sometimes, we even treat Jesus like he’s some sort-of pack animal.  We think of him as the instrument of transportation, not transformation.  He’s going to give us a ride to some destination, and then we’re going to dismount, leave Him behind, and go run amuck in some sort-of theme park that’s been waiting for us.

The focus is on escape.  And the reason for all the good they do is called into question.  Their lives of goodness were simply an attempt to bribe God.  Their acceptance of Jesus is really just a plan to get him to take us to Heaven.

Hope

I’ve had the honor to speak at church a few times now.  Today, was the time I did the best job, I think, of getting out of the way so that what God wanted me to say could get said.  This is the first chunk of what I shared:

So, There were these little pigs.  They were ready to grow up and build homes of their own.

The first made a house of straw.  And along came the big bad wolf.  And he said “Little pig, little pig, let me in,”  “And the pigs said, ‘not by the hair of our chinny-chin-chin.’ And the wolf said, “Then, I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your house in.”  And he took a great inhalation, and then he roared, and he knocked the pigs house down.

The end.

I hope you’ll notice there’s something missing from my take on that story.  If you’d never heard that story before, what would you think of it?  And more importantly, if you’ve never heard that story before, what would you infer happens after the house got knocked down?

If we don’t know the end of the story, I think we’d assume the Wolf had himself a BLT for lunch.  If we don’t know the end of the story, I think we’d consider that a pretty lousy story, and a rather tragic one.

If you did know that story, on the other hand, you’d probably tell me I got it all wrong.  I could say, “Well, did I get the beginning part wrong, where the pig moves away.”

And you’d probably say, “Well, no, you didn’t get that part wrong… You over simplified, because in my version, there are 3 pigs.  But mostly that’s right.  The pigs grew up and moved away.”

And I could say “What about the wolf?  Did I get that wrong?”

And you’d have to say, “No, there’s a wolf in my story, too.”

And I could say, “How about the dialogue.  I mean, it sounds kind of stupid, chinny-chin-chin”

You’d have to say, “No, they talk that stupid in mine…”

And we could keep going.  And you’d have to admit that there was no one specific part of my story that was wrong: it was merely that I took too narrow a view, I wasn’t willing to pull back far enough to share the end of the story that you would prefer.

I’d like to suggest that the person who determines what scene counts as the ending is the person who determines what kind of story it is.  The message of “Three Little Pigs” is “Life stinks” if you stop it where I did.

If you end “Romeo and Juliet” after their wedding, around act 2 or 3, it’s a cute little Romantic Comedy.   This seems to be the version that ___ listened to before she wrote the song.   If you stop “The Princess Bride” before they find out Wesley is only mostly dead, it’s a pretty tragic tale.  Or you could go the other direction.  If they added a scene onto….

If you take any story, and end it in a different place, you have shaped a very different story.  Notice how you don’t need to change the facts of the story itself.  You just need to change what counts as the last scene.

One of the reasons that this is so significant is that what we believe about the story we are in shapes the sort of characters we are in a huge way.  We wouldn’t put bumbling air heads in an action movie.  We wouldn’t put ponderous philosophers in a comedy.  Once we figure out what kind-of story we are in, we work hard at being the sort of characters who populate this story.

I was trying to work these questions out  around the time I came to Christ.   The church’s intern put together this battle of the bands at the opening of a skate park at the YMCA.  My wife and I and a few members of our small group ended up supporting them by selling hot dogs, nachos, waters, and stuff.

It was a hot summer day.  And there we were, representing the church.

This cute, sweaty, skate boarding kid came up to me.  And he asked me if he could have a water for free.  I pointed him to the water fountain inside.  And when I turned around, my wife was looking at me quizzically.

There was this sort-of awkward moment between myself and everybody else.

She’d been a Christian most of her life.  And to her, it went with out saying.  In a situation like that, you just give the kid a water.  For me, this was a pretty mind-altering idea.  I’ve been a left wing hippie sort my whole life.  Then and now, I’m not one to put much faith in Adam Smith’s invisible hands… and yet, I was living in a story with a certain sort of ending.   I was living in a story where the order of things, the way things were ones where you earned and deserved what you got.  Kiley, on the other hand, lived in a story where you deserve more than you got.   She had a belief that the old order would pass away. At the end of the story.  And she was living these changes out in the here and now.

One of the things that I think is worth noticing is that this issue wasn’t one of beliefs.  I was taking baby steps, but at that point, I had taken steps.  If you had asked me about heaven, I would have told you I believed in at that point.

But the heaven I believed in?  It wasn’t much of a heaven.  I began with what I could see, and assumed that the future would be pretty much like that..  It would have been very easy for me to get stuck where I was.  Many of the problems I have are because I do get stuck back there, some times.  I box in God.  I put these limits on the end of the story.  I believe that the end of the story I’m living in isn’t much better or different than the world is now.

I think it’s also clear that this dynamic is relevant for people who don’t call themselves Christians.   As you might have noticed, we’ve been experimenting with something new here at FC.  We’ve created a story about a fictious family, the Elliots, and we’re following them through a season of their life.

The Elliots have been given reason to wonder what sort-of story they are in.  The story began with a funeral, and it brought with it questions.  One way to express these questions: What sort of story are we in?

None of us can deny that death happens.  But when families experience the death of a loved one, the question on everyone’s mind is “What happens next?”  Is death the end of the story?  Or is there something after?

This question plays itself out in two different ways.  There is the question for the individual.  In the case of the Elliots, there is the survivors are wondering: Does Jonah still exist?  Is he living on?  Will he be reborn?

And today we saw Sam grappling with the other portion of the question.   He noticed this connection between himself and Pastor Rick.  Though Sam never new it, Rick was in some way responsible for Sam’s love of the music of Peter Murphy.

There’s a much more important side to this question.  Do we impact the world around us?  Does our influence spread beyond us?  Or does it die with us?

There are other questions going on, in the Elliots, about where the story ends.  We hope you’re a little bit curious about the interaction between Hillary Elliot and Pastor Rick.  You might have guessed they have some shared mistakes in their past.   It’s an incredibly important question: when we make mistakes, when we get hurt, is this the end of the story?  Or is there something that comes after this?

I’d like to spend our time together exploring this today.  What is our hope in?  What do we hope for?  What is the end of the story we’re living?  When we know the answer to that question—what kind of story are we living in—then there will be significant changes in the sort-of characters that we’re going to be.

In the book of Romans, Paul says this: in chapters 8 verses 18-25:

18I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. 20For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that[i] the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.

22We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? 25But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

Intentional Apprenticing and Chocolate Chip Cookies

Fellowship Church is currently discussing its core values.  One of these values is intentional apprenticing.  I’m really looking foreward to doing that message with Pastor Marty.  What follows is the beginning of what I’m going to share.  More will come later.  But I’m hoping that you’ll share your observations and thoughts about this topic… Maybe their is something I’m missing.  Maybe I’ve got it all wrong.

Like all our services, it’ll be broadcast live on August 2nd, and archived for about a week, at http://fellowshipholden.com  if you’re interested in checking it out.   At any rate, here’s the beginning of my part:

I think we can find a lot out about intentional apprenticing by thinking about making cookies… And more specifically, with a kid. I’ve asked _____ and his girl _______ to come up, and to get the dough going for some cookies while I’m speaking. As we watch them, I hope maybe it will be an object lesson for us, a way to focus in on the ideas that I’m talking about.

What we all know is that when we want to spend time with my kids, when we want them to learn something from us, we love to bake with them.

However, when we just want to eat something yummy, when I want it to go quickly and efficiently and when I want to have a better chance that everything is going to turn out right, it’s easier to do just do it myself.

The most obvious way this applies to what we’re doing is to realize that when we intentionaly apprentice, it might get a little messy. It might take a little bit longer. Perhaps, in the end, the cookies won’t even quite turn out as good. One thing to do, when we think about the topic of intentional apprenticing, is to to grab on to the idea that the mentor is the dad, and the apprentice is his daughter.

And so, of course, the implication of all this is that if the parent simply makes the cookies, the kid never learns how.

That’s all true, as far as it goes. It’s true that, if we don’t apprentice people, then they won’t learn. But let’s look at this illustration a little bit differently. Because we’re all apprentices when it comes to God. We’re all sons and daughters, when it comes to the person who we’re working for.

Have you ever thought about that: God’s has this mission that is close to his heart. And if he did it himself, he would do it perfectally.

God doesn’t seek us out because we’re more talented. God doesn’t seek us out because we’ve got more time on our hands. God doesn’t want a second opinion, or because he’s bored with the same old thing time after time.

Whatever it is you do to fufill God’s mission on earth, he could do it better. He could play a better guitar. He could preach a better sermon. He could love the fatherless, he could care for widows, he could nurture the Earth, he could witness… all of them, he could do better than us. Infinitely better than us.

This leads to the question: Why does God do it all? Why does God intentionally aprentice us? The answer to this question is closely connected to the question, Why should we intentionally apprentice others?

It’s the same reasons we make chocolate chip cookies with our kids, rather than do it by ourselves. Because we want to teach them a little something. Because we want to spend time with them. Because doing something with somebody is better than having it done for you, because this action teaches and grows us.

Strategy? Or Manipulation?

I’ve been exploring questions of community and church.   Over the last week I’ve tried to adress two important questions connected to community.  Today, I’ll adress the third. 

That question is “What is the role of strategy in building community in the church?”

I think this question further breaks down into 2 questions, which I’ll adress seperately in this post:

A) Isn’t being strategic really being manipulative? 

B) How important is the specific strategy that Fellowship Church has chosen?

First question first:

I’m open to the possibility that being strategic could mean being manipulative.  It seems like there must be something about the point at which you’re decieving people is the point at which it becomes manipulative.

The thing I don’t quite get, though, is that somehow, the only people who have to justify themselves in this area are the people who talk and think about what they are going to do.  The bottom line is that everybody has a way of doing things. 

I hope you’ll forgive the fact that I’m doing the annoying church-y thing of starting each of these with the same letters.  But what it comes down to is this:

We can be stupid, we can be stubborn, or we can be strategic.  Perhaps I’m slanting each of these by my word choice.   Maybe it would be nicer if I said we can be random, we can be traditional, or we can have logical reasons for doing what we’re doing.  

Ultimately, though, we choose whether we’re going to be traditional, random, or have logical reasons.

And I would say if your randomness or if your tradition are getting you what you want, you ought to keep going in that direction.  My point is that this is still a decision.

People often say “I listen to the Holy Spirit.  That’s what guides me.  It’s not tradition.  It’s not randomness.  It’s not strategic thinking.”

I think this is true.  I think sometimes the church ought to make decisions that appear foolish.  I think that we ought to be open to the Holy Spirit’s prompting.

Here’s a problem, though, and I hope you’ll forgive me  if this sounds accusatory:

As a general rule, most people are very excited to ask others to submit to what they believe the Holy Spirit is prompting them to do.  Often times, the very people who believe  most in this idea are the least likely to submit when the Holy Spirit is telling some one us to do something.

In short, it seems to me that people who believe that the Holy Spirit frequently guides us in directions that aren’t strategic, often times these people believe the we ought to listen to these people, and not other people, about just what we ought to do. 

I’m so thankful that God is a God of order, logic, and rationality.  I am so very thankful that many times  the Holy Spirit’s promptings are justifiable in terms of logic and rationality. 

I would submit that The Holy Spirit’s promptings are cultivatived in a culture which is carefully exploring the rationale and reasons for what it does.

The other subquestion is: How important is Fellowship Church’s specific strategy?

Leading people into a growing relationship with Jesus is the point.  Community is the best way to get there.  We’re building community in the best way that we know how for the time and place we exist in.

A really great guy who attended our church was not attending a small group.  He said to somebody “Look, I’m not going to do something just because everybody else is.  My small group is this weekly gathering of men at Finders.  My small group is my friendship with Pastor Marty.  I don’t need to show up at the time I’m told and the place I’m told.”

He’s not wrong.   If he’s careful.

His argument isn’t altogether different from somebody who says “Look, I don’t need to go to church.  I can worship God in the forest, I should be worshipping him all the time, right?  Why limit myself to just once a week?”

My answer is that church doesn’t set an upper limit on worship– it sets a lower limit.  Similarly, small group doesn’t limit people into being in only one community.  But it does guarentee that the person is in atleast one community.

A person who thinks the forest is a better place to worship than church, he is likely to start with the best of intentions.  But I think it’s pretty easy for him to get off-track, and not worship at all.

And a person who isn’t intentional about community, I think it’s easy for him to drift from belonging to showing up to a group, to not showing up at all.

Our implementation of community is not perfect.  It’s somewhat relative to our culture.  But it is one valid way to reach the goal of community.  And the scary-dangerous things is that there are lots of imposters to community, lots of ways we can delude ourselves…

And while the specific form of community is a bit up-for-grabs, for my money, the goal of community in general is not up-for-grabs.  It is an essential.

Is Community Optional?

The last couple weeks, I’ve found myself involved with a number of conversations that were quite similiar.  Each of them was really about community, and the role of the church in cultivating community.

(Church here meaning both the global church in general and Fellowship Church in particular.)

I identified three questions that were worth looking at.  The one I’m focused on today:

Is community optional?

I think the answer to that question is “No.”

In one of the conversations I’ve had about community, the other person said, essentially, that they felt like a community-oriented church is o.k.  for people who are into community.  But they suggested that others might prefer a church that wasn’t focused on community.  Perhaps they’d be into a “Spirit-filled” church.  Maybe they’d prefer a church which was more doctrinally-driven.

First off, I think that The Holy Spirit works through community and lives in the space between them.  Secondly, I think that one of the most important doctrines a church can have is an emphasis on community.  Therefore, either a community-focused church will be spirit filled and a doctrinally based church must emphasize community.

I am not saying that every church should be like my church in most ways.  There are countless negotiable aspects of a church.  I would go so far as to suggest that there is more solid scriptural support for the importance of community than there is for having music at all in a worship service.  I would go so far as to say that there is more solid scriptural support for the importance of community than there is for the idea that a church ought to have a building, than there is for the idea that a service ought to fit the music-sermon-music/offering format.    I bet I’m going to make some people mad on this one, but I’ve even say you have to work harder to find the notion of the trinity in the bible than you do to find the importance of community.

I am not saying that scripture does not support any of the above ideas, particularly the trinity.  I am saying that the evidence seems more clear and plain for the importance of community.

I am also not saying that community is all a church needs.  But it’s almost all.  I haven’t studied this question, but tenatively, I would venture the position that worship of God, recognition that Christ rose from the grave, and community are the only true essentials for a group to be called a church.

I would submit that you can’t have love without community, and that you can’t have community with out love.  If I’m right on this, then some of the support I’d offer for the importance of community follow:

* Jesus saying that the most important thing is love of God and love of neighbor.

* Jesus saying that by our love they show know us.

* Paul saying that speaking in every language, prophesying, understanding everything, these are essentially meaningless without love.

I think it’d be easy to find verses that discuss the importance of other things.  I think it’d be quite difficult to point to verses that establish other things as more important than love.

Blessings, oppurtunities, and gifts

One of the things we do at FC is create a worship environment before the service for our volunteers who would otherwise miss out.  We sing a couple songs and share a few words, generally these words are a shortened version of the sermon.  Once a month, I’m the speaker dude for this.

Currently, rather than taking a shortened version of the sermon we’re focusing on chapters of Bill Hybels’ Axion.  The title of my chapter is: Explosive Growth Means Dramatic Meltdowns. 

The idea is that often times we pray for God to do amazing things, and often times we’re not prepared for what happens when God delivers these prayers.  He gives examples about churches who prayed for growth and had these prayers answered.  And when people began showing up, they didn’t have enough parking spaces, volunteers, etc., to handle the influx.

As I pondered this statement, and I prayed about what it means to our volunteers– who may not be directly involved in big–picture questions around church growth– I realized something.

I don’t know if I’m struck by this realization because it’s so obvious that I should have noticed it before.  For whatever it’s worth, the realization is this:

God is much more likely to bless us with oppurtunities than he is to bless us with gifts.

Oppurtunities are possibilities that we have to work on in order to achieve their full potential.  Gifts are neatly wrapped, self-complete packages that we can enjoy the fruits of without doing much about.

I have the oppurtunity to speak to our volunteers this morning.  This is an oppurtunity because it only becomes something good if I do a little work to prepare.  On the other hand, I might recieve a gift of an iced soy mocha.  All I would have to do is drink this right up.

Gifts are easier.  But they don’t grow us.  This is probably why God doesn’t often give them to us.  He gives us oppurtunities instead.

In that particular chapter, Hybels quotes acts 2:47.  This is a verse about the early church.  It says that the Lord “added to their number daily those who were being saved.”  Interestingly, though, if you read the earlier portions of the chapter, you find the disciples have been working hard and practicing obedience.

God could have wiped the Egyptians off the face of the planet.  He could have erased all the people who came to live in Israel.  He could have teleported his people straight from slavery and into the promised land.  If he had done these things, he would have given them a gift.  But what he gave them was an oppurtunity.  They had to leave their slavemasters.  They had to follow behind God.  They had to make their own home among hostile peoples.

And so it seems like one of the ways this applies to us is that so often we pray expecting gifts from God.  But instead, what he blesses us with are oppurtunities.  We partner with God.  A pretty amazing thing.