Prayer and the Ministry of the Word

When I was five years old, my family changed churches. We were a family of eight, but my mother, sister and I were the only ones who went to church with any regularity. To be honest, I don’t know what was behind the decision to move. But for whatever reason, we left St. Mark’s and went to the big church on the hill. Funny, what memories stick with you. I remember the car ride on that first Sunday we went to the new church. My mother called to me in the back seat and said, “Carolyn, now this is a big, fancy church, and we have to be very quiet during the service. You can not talk during church.” I didn’t remember talking during church before, but I can tell you, I was very quiet at the new, fancy church.

We must have liked it there because we stayed and you know, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Just like at the other church, we were still among the last to leave every Sunday because my mother would not go home until she had spoken to everyone.

Maybe that’s why I liked communion Sundays so much. It gave me something to do while I waited for my mom. After church on communion Sundays, while my mother talked, I’d go up to the altar and play with all the little cups that were left there. Now, remember – I was five years old. Five year olds eat dirt at home, so church germs were certainly not a threat.

You know how there is always a little bit of grape juice left in the bottom of those little cups? Well, I could take the leavings from two or three little cups and just about fill up another one. And I could usually down three or four shots before my mother caught sight of me. “You cannot play with the little cups!” she’d say, as she drug me off by my arm.

So I find it ironic all these years later that I make my living talking during church and playing with those little cups (though now, they are big cups).

It is a good thing, too, because I didn’t have a lot of other options. I am not particularly musical, not athletic, not brilliant, artistic or technical. I know a little bit about a few things, but not a lot about anything. But I do have one passion. I love the church. I love it! I love the Lord. He is the reason I live. But I am a pastor because I love the church. It fascinates me that Almighty God, in all his wisdom, chose this organism as his medium for sharing His revelation of Jesus Christ. And my passion is for seeing that organism, the Church, work in the way God intended when he passed the Body of Christ from the person of Jesus to the people of God. I don’t claim to know God’s whole vision for that kind of church, but I do believe he is looking for more than just somebody to talk on Sundays who occasionally plays with those little cups. In fact, I believe he is crying out for the people of God to be the body of Christ.

The apostles themselves laid it out. Instead of allowing circumstances to take their eyes off what was most important, the apostles figured out what makes the church powerful. And they defined it with profound simplicity. “Prayer and the ministry of the word,” they said, “are the center of what we do. Nothing should stand in the way of that mission. And secondly, the ministries of compassion belong to the congregation” (Acts 6:1-7, my take).

Folks, that is powerful. This was long before Paul wrote those amazing analogies about the Body of Christ. There were no consultants, no books to read. But the disciples saw not only God’s vision, but the immense danger of taking their eyes off that vision because of some pressure by some group or another to fill some need.

“Prayer and the ministry of the word are the center of what we do. And the ministries of compassion belong to the congregation.”

That’s the Body of Christ. That’s the Church being the Church – not just talking on Sundays and playing with the little cups – but all of us together bearing the good news of Jesus Christ to a world hungry for a clear vision and the honest-to-goodness gospel truth.

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Who gets to be Lord?

I was called by God to preach when I was thirteen. Forty-three years ago in Georgia, that was a strange thing to claim. I struggled to hold on to this call. In fact, by the time I reached college, I’d watered it down. I would go into Christian education since that would be more socially acceptable for someone like me. The only two problems with that were: 1) I’m terrible in a roomful of children; and 2) it wasn’t God’s call.

I tried anyway. And failed miserably.  Then walked away from my call completely.

I didn’t realize then that the call is intricately connected to faith. To abandon my calling was to play fast and loose with my relationship with God. I became an easy target for the enemy of my soul who tied my hands, kicked me down the street and threw me into the prison of alcoholism. Somewhere in there, I finished college, got married and began a career outside the church.

In fact, I quit church altogether for about ten years but let me be clear on this: I didn’t stop going to church because the church wasn’t relevant or didn’t meet my needs. I quit going because the enemy came and snatched me up and threw me into a prison that I was then unable to get out of on my own.

It would take twelve years for me to finally, fully come home to Jesus. It happened by mistake. A friend roped me into attending a Bible study and over time I got interested and involved. One day, the leader of this study invited me onto the leadership team, but told me in no uncertain terms that to accept the invitation I’d have to quit drinking.

I said, “I’ll get back to you.” Which was code for, “When hell freezes over.”

I had no intention of giving up drinking, but that invitation was the hook. Someone leading a Bible study had the guts to invite me to consider a different life and I took the bait. One day soon after, I realized the depth of the choice I’d been given: quit drinking and lead a Bible study, or keep the status quo and allow my life to continue floating without purpose.

That choice wasn’t ultimately a choice about leadership. It was a choice about lordship. The real question in front of me in that season was this: Who gets to be Lord of my life?

I had my last drink 27 years ago and that choice to quit was one of the best choices of my life.

This is the question every great story of transformation answers: Who gets to be Lord? Until you answer that question, nothing else matters. When you answer that question, everything gets redeemed.

Everything.

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When the brook dries up

I’ve not a fan of that old adage, “Everything happens for a reason.” Usually when people say that, they are blaming God for some bad thing they can’t explain any other way. They may not even realize they are doing it, but that’s the upshot. “I don’t get this and I don’t like it, but God let it happen so God must be behind it and so clearly, God wants to make me miserable for a reason.”

Really?

While it is true, technically, that everything does happen for some reason or another, some reasons stink. Some reasons are my own fault, the product of my own short-sightedness, ignorance, brokenness, neediness. Some reasons are the fault of other broken, needy people who are not thinking about my needs when they do the things they do.

True, some things happen for a reason. But some reasons stink. To believe otherwise — to say that everything that happens is the design (or fault) of God — is to deny human fallenness and the spiritual battle.

That said, I do realize God will sometimes make us miserable to move us on.  There is a story in the Old Testament of a time when Elijah experienced a change in circumstance that required interpretation. He was sitting in the middle of a famine, not a comfortable place to be. For a time, God provided miraculously for Elijah, even while others suffered all around.

Then one day, the brook dried up — literally. The brook that was keeping him alive. Elijah was forced by his own survival instincts leave the brook and to go in search of the river.

Sometimes, it is God at work.  Sometimes … but not always.

Sometimes the brook dries up because someone (not God) built a dam upstream. In those times, it takes great faith to cling to Jesus while others wreak havoc in our lives. Holiness happens in times like these, when I’m forced to practice patience and forbearance while God works all things together for good.  Times like these are what make Psalm 23 so precious to me.  It promises that after every valley, there is a feast.

And then sometimes, God dries up the brook so we’ll be motivated to move on. Because sometimes (not always) our misery is God at work.  Sometimes the brook dries up because God is trying to get me to move on to the river.  To move on. Let go.

Jesus once said that unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it won’t bear fruit. I wonder how often I’ve hung on to things long past good sense for fear of change, when God has been trying desperately to move me on from the brook to the river.

Sometimes, but not always, it is God allowing our misery.  When it is, then we can trust that it is always for our good. Holiness will always challenge us to interpret our circumstances with the character of a loving, life-giving God in view.

Is it possible that your spiritual dryness is connected to an unwillingness to let God do a new thing?

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