Tag Archives: service

Asset or Ally?

married-handsIn our early years of marriage, my husband and I faced a mish-mash of assumptions and theories about what our relationship was supposed to look like, especially in regard to my role as his wife. Before marriage we had been classmates, peers, and debate partners, enjoying the freedom of a relationship built on mutual admiration for each other’s opinions, abilities, and unique contributions to the world. But having said “I do,” I suddenly felt a nagging theological pressure to change the way I related to the same man.

Intruding into our easy friendship came the idea that I should drop a step back and start following him, that I should lay aside my goals and dreams and replace them with his, and that I should suppress my natural tendency towards critical thought and assertive action in order to make sure that he always came out on top. While introducing the element of hierarchy into our heretofore cooperative partnership seemed unnatural, I felt that it was the right thing for me to embrace as a Christian wife. Despite my husband’s protests that this is not why he had married me, I felt that I should live out my created purpose as a woman to be his “helper.”

Much of my confusion came from the way I had always heard the story told of why God made Eve. Looking back on the story from this side of the fall, I assumed that a “helper” is someone of inferior social status who exists for the purposes of someone higher up a chain of command. In a world of hierarchical pecking-orders, it was hard to imagine a working relationship without clearly delineated and regularly exerted indicators of who is in charge. But leaving behind these social assumptions and looking with fresh eyes at how Genesis 2 tells the story of husband and wife, I now see a refreshingly different sort of relationship from the one I had pictured.

4 This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the LORD God made the earth and the heavens. 5 Now no shrub had yet appeared on the earth and no plant had yet sprung up, for the LORD God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no one to work the ground, 6 but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground. 7 Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
15 The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.

Long before the lack of a helper suitable for the man comes up in our story, the Bible points out that there was no helper suitable for the ground. God had created the earth and the heavens, but without someone capable of taking care of the ground, there wasn’t much point in planting a garden. So out of the substance that was in need of help, God created a man. From within this telling of the story (which obviously does not encompass the whole range of God’s purposes for humanity), the man’s primary created purpose in being made was to meet the earth’s need for a “helper,” someone who would enable it to fulfill its created purpose and to maximize its full creative potential.

18 The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” 19 Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. 20 So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals. But for Adam no suitable helper was found. 21 So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh.

Similarly, within this telling of the story, the woman’s created purpose was to meet the man’s need for a “helper.” Though the nature of the man’s need was quite different from that of the earth’s, God’s manner of meeting it was surprisingly similar. First He took the man through an interactive learning task to help him discover his need for himself. The man exercised his authority over the animals by determining what they would be called, in a sense assigning them an identity. But as he set about his work, a realization about himself began to dawn. All these other creatures formed from the earth had two versions of themselves. In fact, it was through this diversity that they were each able to fulfill their calling to be fruitful and multiply. Where was his “other?”

So just as God had done for the earth, He completed what was lacking in the man by creating a helper from the very substance that needed help. From the man’s wounded side emerged a version of him more beautifully capable than anything he could have imagined. The word used to describe what she would be to her husband (ezer) is the same word used throughout the Old Testament to describe what God is to His people: a helper or ally (for more on this see Carolyn Custis James’ insightful book Half the Church). She would come to his aid in shouldering along with him the enormous task of governing the rest of creation and of filling the earth with more little images of themselves (and of God).

23 The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.” 24 That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh. 25 Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.
Genesis 2:4-25

And waking from his death-like sleep, Adam recognized just what a gift he had been given. This wasn’t another animal to rule or govern—her being was of the same substance and nature as his. He acknowledged her equality with himself in what he called her, embracing her as a treasure worth letting go of everything else (including parents) to gain.

Far from the picture of subservience and inferiority that I had assumed, Genesis 2 paints a picture of loving partnership and empowering mutuality between husband and wife. My role as helper to my husband doesn’t lower my status any more than God’s role as our Helper or man’s role as the earth’s helper lowers their positions. If anything, it emphasizes my God-given power, capacity, and responsibility in working alongside my husband to lead and to serve our shared corner of the earth. Yes, it will involve laying aside my “rights” and my independence just as much as God’s service to us required His sacrificial death-to-self, but it does not make me the second-class citizen or the passive follower that I had assumed. Rather, being the kind of wife God made me to be calls me forward to throw the full weight of my gifts, aspirations, and man-power into our shared calling as servant-leaders of God’s creation, whether in our home or out in the world.

And it’s about time I sorted that out–my poor husband has been waiting long enough!

Separate but Equal?–Sacred Sexes

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“If we are a holy community, each of us touched by the presence of God, then why do you set yourselves above the rest of us?”

The question could easily have been asked by any of us who wrestle with the question of gender and roles. I read the equivalent sentiment in much of the literature I am sifting through in preparation for the Women in Leadership and Ministry course I will be teaching this summer. Its underlying assumption is that if we distinguish between groups of people, reserving certain roles for some (and withholding them from others), then we are necessarily introducing a hierarchy in which some people will be attributed greater value than others.

And it doesn’t take long to find painful examples that support this assumption. The appalling treatment of African-Americans under the banner of “Separate but Equal” unmasks the self-serving intentions of those who promoted it. But is the position itself untenable?

Does differentiation necessarily result in subordination?

They came as a group to oppose Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the LORD is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above the LORD’s assembly?”
Numbers 16:3

Korah, Dathan, and Abiram certainly thought so. This was the essence of their complaint against Aaron and Moses. If the whole nation had been set aside as a kingdom of priests, then why were only Aaron and his sons wearing the special robes? If God was with all of them, then why could only Moses speak authoritatively to the assembly on His behalf?

Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife, for he had married a Cushite. “Has the LORD spoken only through Moses?” they asked. “Hasn’t he also spoken through us?”
Numbers 12:1-2

Funnily enough, the same complaint had been raised just a few chapters earlier, this time by Miriam and Aaron against Moses. Each of these three siblings had played a significant role in leading God’s people out of Egypt. And each of them had a significant ongoing role in the nurture and oversight of the assembly. But the fact that certain roles were being withheld from them made Miriam and Aaron feel threatened and inferior.

All three of them had partnered together and risked much to give birth to this fledgling nation, but now Moses was acting like he was in charge of everyone, including his older brother and sister. Sure, Moses was the one God met with face-to-face. He was the one to whom God had given the law. But hadn’t God spoken through them in powerful ways, too? Somehow the authority invested in Moses, no matter how humbly executed, made them feel like he was being treated as better than them.

“Have Aaron your brother brought to you from among the Israelites, along with his sons Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, so they may serve me as priests. Make sacred garments for your brother Aaron to give him dignity and honor.
Exodus 28:1-2

Moses could have felt the same way when God picked Aaron and his sons to be the priests, not him. All this time he had been functioning as high priest for the nation, offering up sacrifices on their behalf, instructing them in the law of God, and carrying their needs into God’s presence. He could have felt threatened or demeaned when God bypassed him and gave this special honor to Aaron and his descendants.

Likewise, Aaron could have been jealous of the way that God revealed Himself to Miriam in visions and dreams. He could have been threatened by her powerful woman’s voice, speaking God’s word and leading the multitude in Spirit-filled songs of worship.

At once the LORD said to Moses, Aaron and Miriam, “Come out to the tent of meeting, all three of you.” So the three of them went out. Then the LORD came down in a pillar of cloud; he stood at the entrance to the tent and summoned Aaron and Miriam. When the two of them stepped forward, he said, “Listen to my words: “When there is a prophet among you, I, the LORD, reveal myself to them in visions, I speak to them in dreams. But this is not true of my servant Moses; he is faithful in all my house. With him I speak face to face, clearly and not in riddles; he sees the form of the LORD. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?”
Numbers 12:4-8

The point was that each of these siblings had been chosen by God to function in a particular role, no one greater than the other but each one distinct from the other. God spoke directly to each of them, but that didn’t make all of them equally prophets, priests, and kings. The authority invested in Moses had come from God, not himself. His use of it was a faithful outworking of His service to God, as were Aaron’s privileged position in the tabernacle and Miriam’s intimate encounters with the Spirit. God answered definitively: To question or deny the distinctions He had set up was to go against Him.

Thankfully things ended better for Miriam than they did for the families of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. And I trust God looks mercifully on us as we wrestle through similar questions. So much social oppression has been perpetrated in the name of God and authority that I think it fitting for us to step back and question the basis of the role restrictions we have traditionally assigned to women. To the extent that these are man-made distinctions, fabricated by our historic cultural values rather than assigned by God, we reflect God’s heart for the oppressed when we question and tear them down.

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord.
But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. …those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. …But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.
1 Cor. 12:4-5, 18-25

At the same time, I reject the assumption that to maintain any distinction between male and female roles is necessarily to slot one under the other. Is not differentiation possible without stratification? Rather than picture one particular role over another, with greater assigned value or superior spiritual power, I think the kingdom of God functions with both the distinction and equality of the Trinity. As we each function according to the particular gifting and unique calling God has placed on us, we do so in direct service to Him and, Lord willing, in humble love for each other.

What God has joined together, let none of us tear apart.

Priesting Lessons, or When God Invites Us to Dinner

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What does it mean for me to be a priest? Obviously some people are called into a specific type of priestly ministry, involving specialized training, recognition, and a particular leadership role within the church. But what about the rest of us? If a core part of our identity as believers is to be part of a priesthood, what does that actually look like?

Embracing our identity as priests should radically shape the way we go about our lives. Studying the Reformation with my children in our recent history classes has reminded me how life altering this doctrine was for the believers of that era. In a post-medieval context, it infused common people with a new boldness to approach God directly and to study the Scriptures personally. But how does this doctrine speak into an individualistic era in which we are more likely to think of our relationship with God as a personal matter and relegate our spirituality to what we experience in our private time with Him?

Then Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob …
Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’
Exodus 19:3-6

Like us, Moses had a long way to go in figuring out how to do this whole priest thing. He, like his ancestor Abraham, had been chosen as God’s representative on earth. But what started out as the not-so-simple task of confronting a powerful government and rescuing a group of slaves quickly turned into an even more complicated task of leading an unruly nation through its unpredictable adolescence and into its high calling of being a kingdom of priests. For starters, Moses needed a little training himself.

Listen now to me and I will give you some advice, and may God be with you. You must be the people’s representative before God and bring their disputes to him. Teach them his decrees and instructions, and show them the way they are to live and how they are to behave.
Exodus 18:19-20

Thankfully God sent along his father-in-law, a veteran priest from Midian (and a fellow descendent from Abraham). In addition to his invaluable advice about empowering those under him to lead, Jethro also charged Moses with the dual responsibility of taking the people’s concerns before God and of speaking God’s concerns to the people. More than that, he called Moses to live before the people in such a way that they could see what it looked like to be a priest in service to God and imitate his example. Jethro himself led by example, blessing Moses and ushering him, Aaron, and all the elders of Israel into communion with God through a sacrificial feast.

When Moses went and told the people all the LORD’s words and laws, they responded with one voice, “Everything the LORD has said we will do.” … He got up early the next morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain and set up twelve stone pillars representing the twelve tribes of Israel. Then he sent young Israelite men, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls as fellowship offerings to the LORD. …

Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.”
Exodus 24:3-8

Moses faced a steep learning curve as he was almost immediately called on by God to lead his people in a similar encounter. God was going to show up on a nearby mountain in His overwhelming power and glory. This was no small deal. It was God once again descending to inhabit a physical space on earth and to meet with His people. The first try at this on the mount of Eden had ended in disaster when the people-priests violated the terms of their employment and desecrated themselves with restricted food. This time around they would need to be more careful.

Moses went to great lengths to prepare his community for the day of God’s coming, telling them God’s words and ways, calling them to respond in obedience and faith, offering sacrifices of prayer and praise on their behalf, and teaching them to do the same. Using the same words our great High Priest would later speak as He introduced yet another communion feast, Moses applied the blood of God’s covenant to their physical bodies.

Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up and saw the God of Israel. Under his feet was something like a pavement made of lapis lazuli, as bright blue as the sky. But God did not raise his hand against these leaders of the Israelites; they saw God, and they ate and drank.
Exodus 24:9-11

And amazingly, the same holy God who had traumatized them with His life-threatening thunderclouds and earth-shattering voice now invited Moses and his companions to come to His place for dinner. Just as a select few of Jesus’ disciples would later get a mountaintop glimpse of His glory, God gave these mortals the opportunity to gaze on His beauty. Feet planted on earth and eyes gazing into heaven, they ate and drank with God.

The intimacy of this absolutely floors me! And yet this is the very sort of communion that we get to share with God each time we break bread and drink wine together in His presence. Not only do we eat and drink with God at the Eucharistic altar, we also dine with Him each time we invoke His blessing on our meal and receive our daily manna with thanks. In a very real sense, when we pray over our food we are functioning as priests.

And just as communion is by nature a communal act, our priestly calling is anything but something to be limited to our private lives. We are those whom God has called into relationship with Himself so that we might represent Him to others and others to Him. His blessing on those around us is mediated by our faithfulness to intercede on their behalf before His throne and to speak on His behalf into their lives.

As we consciously live and serve in the presence of God, we become the bridge between heaven and earth, between God and man. That is what it means to be a priesthood of believers.

Identity, Purpose, and a Reason to Get Up

IMG_0795“Name one thing worth getting out of bed for.” It was one of those rare mornings (for me, anyway) in which I just couldn’t summon the motivation to wake up.

Actually, this has been one of those unusual seasons in which the immediate is less pressing and the eternal has more space to come rushing in. I’m not generally happy with anything less than an overfull diary and the adrenaline-inducing challenge to clear hurdle after impossible hurdle, awakening each day with a sense of urgency to get up and accomplish some goal. But removing some of those roles on which I hang my sense of importance has allowed me to gaze deeper into the question of identity.

When I teach on identity formation, I begin by asking learners how they introduce themselves. Inevitably, the answers cluster around kinship and roles. A second glance at the surnames our ancestors adopted confirms this is not a new phenomenon: John-son and Jack-son, the Mac’s and the O’s (meaning descendant of), and our many occupational names like Smith, Hunter, Barber, and even Clark (derivative of clerk, variant of clergy).

I remember once being led through the helpful exercise of listing all the ways that I identify myself, the point, of course, being to guide me back to my relationship with God as the bedrock of my identity. While cognitively I found this concept very satisfying, it has really been in the times of losing or struggling in those roles and relationships that I have been compelled to clear away the rubble that obscures the ever-present bedrock of my identity.

What does it actually mean for my identity to be based on God? Is this simply a cliché way of stating that I am nothing apart from Him or that I find my worth in belonging to Him? While all that is beautifully true, it doesn’t actually give me a goal to pursue other than investing in our relationship (which is of central importance to who I am). But surely there is more to life than simply sitting alone with God, loving and being loved. Surely there is a role that this identity entails.

This is the story that I have been searching for. It begins with a man and a woman in a garden, commissioned to fill the earth with babies and plants. Of course that would take time and work, but their goal was clear and satisfying. And their role bore far greater significance than simply clocking in and out each day as gardeners and caretakers. They were functioning as priests in the garden-temple of God. Eden was His home on earth, the physical space where He came to meet with His people. Their work of filling, beautifying, and tending it was a sacred service to Him. They were His holy homemakers!

As the story too often goes, these original priests misallocated the temple resources, taking for themselves a portion that didn’t belong to them and disqualifying themselves from ministry in God’s presence. The garden temple was desecrated and decommissioned, but God didn’t abandon His plan to create a physical space where He could dwell with His people. If anything, their failure made way for a bigger, better floor plan.

The LORD had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. 
“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” 
The LORD appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the LORD, who had appeared to him. 
From there he went on toward the hills east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the LORD and called on the name of the LORD. 
Then Abram set out and continued toward the Negev.

Genesis 12:1-9

Abraham’s call to the priesthood came without a temple already provided. But he still understood his role as a mediator of God’s blessing to the rest of creation. He set about filling the land that God led him through with altars and worship, calling on God’s Spirit to come and inhabit that place. And he was meant to extend the presence and blessing of God into that sacred space, representing God in the way he cared for his family, his flocks, and the many “neighbors” with whom he came in contact. Though at times he failed to protect his wife or speak truthfully to neighboring kings, for the most part Abraham used his privileged position with God to intervene on behalf of his oppressed and even wayward neighbors.

And this is where I begin to catch a vision for the role we are playing, too. Though I am far from finished with tracing the themes of priesthood and temple through the Bible (shoot—I haven’t even made it out of Genesis yet), I already glimpse the significance of the seemingly mundane tasks that fill my day. That stack of essays I need to read and respond to, that neighbor I need to call, that mess in the closet I need to sort out—all of this is part of the high calling God has placed on me. As one of His priests living in the earth He has chosen to fill with His Spirit, the daily work that I do of tending, beautifying, and blessing my immediate surroundings is a sacred service to Him.

What finally got my identity-questioning, vision-lacking self out of bed the other morning was His gentle response to my search for purpose.

“Do it for Me.”

Scrubbing the Competition

competitionI’d like to think that I am not competitive, that I have learned to love others to the point that I can pursue my own personal excellence while rejoicing when they achieve the same. But then I run smack into the glass door of reality. The truth is that I sometimes look around a room and find fault with each person present. I struggle to celebrate when my peers get recognized or promoted beyond me. And I find ways to justify in my own mind why I am more deserving than they.

At the heart of all this I recognize a deep selfishness which hinders true community. As long as my self-interests are not threatened, I am free to love, to affirm, and to promote those around me. But as soon as their success impedes my agenda, the warm fuzzies evaporate and my green-eyed monster is laid bare.

Despite my life-long efforts to fight this tendency, I am ashamed to discover it still at work in me. O wretched friend that I am—who will save me from my critical, competitive self?

All of a sudden the disciples incessant bickering about which of them was the greatest doesn’t seem so ridiculous to me. They were merely saying out loud what I valiantly try to mask. At least they weren’t hypocritical about it!

It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love. The evening meal was being served, and the devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus.
John 13:1-2

But our jostling for position must put a dagger through Jesus’ heart. After all, isn’t the kingdom all about Him? There He sat at the table the night before He died, grieving over His impending suffering, savoring His farewell dinner with His friends, and predicting one’s betrayal, and all they could talk about was which of them most important.

The road towards greatness in God’s kingdom is paved by laying down my self.

The answer was staring them in the face. God was sitting there in the flesh, the Creator of the Universe passed them the bread. But rather than exert His position as Potentate of Time or rebuke them for their petty arguing, Jesus simply got up from the table and silently made His point.

Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist.
John 13:3-4

He knew who He was. As painful as it was to be perpetually undercut by His leaders, misunderstood by His family, questioned by the masses, and even doubted by His friends, Jesus’ identity was firmly rooted in who the Father said He was. He didn’t have to put His disciples down to establish His worth. Because He was secure in His own position, Jesus could voluntarily lower Himself to elevate others.

After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
John 13:5

And that is exactly what He did. Jesus made His way around the table of squabbling subordinates, kneeling before each one and serving him in the most menial way possible. The hands that flung stars into space scraped the scum from between their toes. The back that would soon bear the weight of the world bent in bared effort before His uppity inferiors.

Jesus answered, “A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” For he knew who was going to betray him…
John 13:10-11

Not even His betrayer was excluded from Jesus’ tender service that night. Who could fault Him for refusing to stretch out His neck before the man who had already sold Him to His murderers? But Jesus showed the full extent of His love by washing the feet of both His competing friends and His conniving enemy.

When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.
John 13:12-14

Having made His point with His hands, Jesus reinforced it with His words. Yes, He was rightfully their superior, and it was important that they all remember that. But His exalted position was merely a platform from which He chose to raise up those around Him. If His disciples wanted to honor Him, they would have to do so by imitating His example of honoring each other.

I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.
John 13:15-16

And this is where Jesus’ words lodge with me. There is nothing wrong with desiring greatness. But I am going about it all the wrong way if I seek to promote myself at other’s expense. There is no room for that sort of competition in God’s Kingdom. If coming out first involves putting others down (even in my own mind), then I have effectively made myself last.

My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.
John 15:12-13

The road towards greatness in His kingdom is paved through the laying down of my own self. My pursuit of excellence in His eyes should lead me to wash my competitor’s feet, not trounce them under mine. Jesus calls me to pursue the enhancement of the whole Body, of which my fellow disciples are an integral part.

After all, I am not the Bride of Christ.

We are.

Originally posted on Bread for the Bride

Beyond Giving Tuesday: A Service that Can’t Be Bought

IMG_0834Am I my brother’s keeper?

In a Christian culture marked by boundaries and balance, we can start to sound like Cain in the way we ask the question. While we are quick to decry abuse, we feel minimal responsibility for those outside the scope of our immediate friends and family. Sometimes even that circle may be too broad. When the chips are down or our resources run dry, we look out for number one.

Of course, we aren’t completely heartless. We remember to include Giving Tuesday in our annual shopping binge. We donate to projects for feeding the hungry, raise awareness for victims of sex-trafficking, and pray for refugees. But somehow our care for our global neighbors manages to stay buffered enough to be safe.

Taking on projects protects us from loving people.

Taking on projects protects us from having to love people. Caring for media-mediated strangers buffers us from being impinged upon by those whose physical and emotional proximity might place unwanted demands on us. We want to manifest God’s love to a hurting world, but we want to do so without getting hurt ourselves.

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.”
John 10:11-13

Though our intent may be to act like Jesus, we end up acting like the hirelings He defined Himself in contrast to. These are the ones who do a good job of caring for the sheep as long as it doesn’t cost them too much. But when the stakes are raised and the job encroaches on their personal time, safety, or sense of well-being, they make excuses and run. At the end of the day, they would rather sacrifice the sheep than be sacrificed for the sheep.

Perhaps the reason we behave like hirelings is that we still think like them.

It was in that sort of crisis situation that Jesus proved the veracity of His love. He didn’t retreat from danger and leave His sheep to fend for themselves. He didn’t save His own hide at the expense of theirs. He lay down His life for those under His care because He saw them as irrevocably connected to Him. His long-term well-being was bound up in theirs. After all, they were His inheritance, not someone else’s.

Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
John 21:16

Perhaps the reason we behave like hirelings is that we still think like them. We see ourselves as servants of God, looking out for others on His behalf. And there is an element of truth to that. The people around us are His sheep, precious in His sight. Though we may struggle to value them the way He does, we still feel responsible to care for them out of a sense of obligation to our Master. We prove our loyalty to Him by the way we tend each other.

My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.You are my friends if you do what I command.

I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. …This is my command: Love each other.
John 15:12-17

But the level of commitment God demands of us exceeds the limits of a mere servant. He calls us to love Him with all that we have and all that we are. And He calls us to love each other until it hurts, to take up each other’s financial, emotional, spiritual and physical burdens as if they were our own.

The point is that we are no longer hirelings. No amount of payment could make such personal sacrifice worth it. We are God’s friends, and what’s more, we are His kids. Our status as co-heirs with Jesus means that His sheep are our sheep, His inheritance our inheritance.

If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.
Philippians 2:1-4

According to our new identity, we have a vested interest in looking out for each other’s interests. We are no longer many individuals each scrambling for survival. We are a conglomerate, individually rooted in and communally bound by God’s Trinitarian love. Whatever hit one of us takes for another, we all benefit from. Whatever need remains unmet in one of us, we all suffer the lack of.

Paradoxically, Cain’s question reverberates through the relational ages and finds expression in our own excuses. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” and “Who is my neighbor?” may get rephrased as “That’s not my responsibility” and “We need to look to our own national security,” but God’s answer remains the same.

As true children of our Father, we are called to look out for those around us as proactively and sacrificially as He does. We are responsible to notice the silently suffering member of our church, to provide for the financially struggling member of our community, and to protect the politically vulnerable member of our race—no matter what it costs us.

This kind of service isn’t for hire. It can only be generated and bound by love.

In God’s Kitchen

IMG_0294If you would have told me five years ago that I would be professor and spiritual mentor to Christian leaders across the developing world, I probably would have groaned.

At the time I was firmly entrenched in my life in South Asia, up to my elbows in teaching responsibilities, counseling duties, prayer needs, and ministry demands. I was doing what I loved, but somehow my delight had turned into duty. I began to resent the knocks on the door and the requests at the church, feeling like I was overstretched and underappreciated. I was tired and wanted to be let off the hook.

Sadly, I got my wish.

I think I am not the only one who has struggled with self-important exhaustion. I hear it in those conversations at church when people one up each other with the lists of all they have to do. I read it between the lines of my students’ journal submissions describing how close they are to burn-out and yet how there is no one else whom they can trust to handle some of their ministry responsibilities.

At the heart of all these well-intentioned servants is the false assumption that we are the only ones capable of carrying out God’s all-important work. We feel that if we don’t do it, it won’t happen. Shouldering such an emotionally laden burden on our own leaves us exhausted and (dare I say it) just a bit resentful.

He came to a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die.
“I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.”
1 Kings 19:4

Two years ago, I began this blog with an article about Elijah needing some cave time after the intense demands that God had placed on him. Elijah’s condition connected deeply with my own at the time, as did God’s gracious provision of time and space to heal. But as I revisit his story in light of my own, I see a similar dynamic at work.

‪Then Elijah said to them, ‘I am the only one of the Lord’s prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets.‬
‪At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: ‘ Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. ‬
1 Kings 18:22, 36

Elijah had begun to believe that everything hinged on him. God had called him to perform some unbelievable feats: stopping up the heavens, confronting a hostile king, and taking on a high-powered, politically favored god along with its entourage of priests and devotees. Elijah’s special commission had also come with special provisions, but somewhere along the way he started believing that he was special, the only one willing and able to carry out these critical tasks.

‪He replied, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.’‬
1 Kings 19:10

Elijah’s bold faith in God’s accomplishments through him began to carry a tinge of assertive self-importance, and with it a note of self-pity. This really came out in the exhausted, post-traumatic laments he made to God.

The Lord said to him, ‘Go back the way you came, … and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet. … Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel – all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him.’‬
1 Kings 19:15-18

God’s first response to him was provision, not exhortation. But with time, God called Elijah back out of the cave with a gentle reminder that he was not the only one, that there were plenty of other arrows in God’s quiver. He sent Elijah back to work, this time with the assignment to mobilize and mentor his successor. Long after Elijah’s ministry was over, Elisha would carry on the same work with an even greater portion of capacity and effectiveness than Elijah had ever had.

And this is where I now find myself. After taking me through a multi-year attitude adjustment, God has recommissioned me as a mentor to classrooms full of Elishas. I marvel at these African leaders’ insight, maturity, and commitment to the kingdom. I am humbled and delightfully surpassed by their accomplishments and their godliness. With people like them at the helm, there is great hope for the global Church.

I feel as if God has invited me back to help in His kitchen. I used to serve here as if I were doing Him a favor. Now I realize that, like I used to do with my own young children, He is doing me the favor. He is letting me be a part of what He is making of the world. He could do it a lot quicker and easier without me, but out of His great love He is sharing the pleasure.

My response used to be “Must I?” Now it is “Please, may I!”

Antidote for a Servaholic

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Every once in a while I need to stop and take an upside-down theological exam. I’m not talking about a written checklist or statement of faith. I mean the sort of life evaluation in which I check my principles by my practice. How does my lifestyle betray what I truly believe?

If I am brutally honest with myself, I have to admit that I’m a servaholic. I find my kudos in working hard in service to God. I eat, sleep, work, and pray the Kingdom, finding it difficult to rest until it has come on earth as it is in Heaven. Who would fault me for that? And yet when I examine the assumptions that drive much of what I do, I see how very off I am in my understanding of what God wants of me.

I feel more comfortable waiting tables at the party than chilling out with the guests.

I am surprised to discover it of myself, but I am the older brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son. I don’t resent all those younger brothers who have taken God for granted and have blown their time and resources on pursuing worldly pleasure. I know well enough that those pleasures would never satisfy me and I am delighted when they come back to the Father whom I love and serve.

“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.
Luke 15:28-29

The older brother and I share a different problem. We are afflicted with a faulty perception of ourselves and of the Father whom we serve. Without realizing it, we keep turning ourselves into His slaves instead of His sons. We singlehandedly shoulder the burden of all that needs to be done for Him, unintentionally stiff-arming Him from sharing it with us. We wear ourselves out doing for Him what He never intended us to carry alone. No wonder His yoke seems demanding and His burden anything but light.

I run into this the most when I try to stop and have fun. I can’t. I don’t know how to. I know how to work. I have learned how to weep with those who weep. But in a world of unmitigated suffering and unfinished tasks, I am at a loss when it comes time to party with those who rejoice.

As a slave I may surrender my body,
but as a son I surrender my heart.

So when my Father invites me in to celebrate with Him, I balk outside the party. Like Martha, I feel more comfortable waiting tables at the party than chilling out with the guests. But that is not where He is content to leave me.

” ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ ”
Luke 15:31-32

God doesn’t want me as His slave. That’s not why He adopted me. What pleases Him is not my productivity nor my righteous rule-keeping. It is my sharing with Him all that He has and all that He is. He is not a rigid task-master, smiling only after the full harvest of the kingdom has been brought in. He is my Father, inviting me to run into His arms and be a part of His happiness just as all the younger brothers are.

Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “”Abba”, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir.

…But now that you know God–or rather are known by God–how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again?
Galatians 4:6-9

A part of me still hesitates. What if I get so relaxed in simply enjoying my Father’s party that I become lazy and presumptuous? Don’t I need some controls to keep me on task in the work He has given me to do?

But when I examine my hang-ups a little closer, I realize that they all have to do with control. As a slave I may surrender my body, but as a son I will have to surrender my heart. God is raising the stakes on our relationship. Can I trust His Spirit to govern me from within or will I still insist on my own rigid self-management?

Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?
Galatians 3:3

O foolish child that I am! Why would I want to remain in this exhausting, never-ending servitude? Why would I resist the invitation to come in and enjoy the good things my Father wants to share with me?

“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. … When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing.
Luke 15:22-25

So what is the prescription for a recovering servaholic? I think I need to observe 40 days of anti-Lent, a season in which I practice a daily dose of pleasure. The point is not to try to have fun apart from the Father, a mistake which both younger and older brothers tend to make. Rather I want to daily set aside time, resources, and space to enjoy something with God.

God liberates His servaholic child
with an invitation to celebration.

Good-looking clothes. Delicious food. Beautiful music. Frivolous dancing. These are the things that the Father prescribed for both of his wayward sons.

Frolics in the sunshine. Lazy moments of lying around. Extra cream in my coffee. Reading a book just for the fun of it. This is the sort of celebration that He is inviting me into, as well.

Who knew pleasure could be a spiritual discipline?

Letters from the Front Lines

Last weekend I received a letter from the front lines. It came from a man who is separated from his wife on their anniversary, who is missing out on the little milestones in his children’s lives, and who lives with a daily threat to his life as he helps to ensure legal justice in an area full of hostile militants. And yet his letter was full of gratitude for the privilege of serving his country. He considered spending the Memorial Day holiday in a war zone an honor, because it allowed him to participate closely in the sacrifice of those who have died serving their country. My eyes filled with tears over the strength of this man’s character and the depth of his devotion.

He loves his country much because he has given up much for its sake.

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. … He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers.
2 Corinthians 1:8-11

Paul wrote his friends a similar letter from the front lines. Things had gotten really tough on his last assignment in Ephesus, so much so that he had often wondered if he would make it out alive. He was exhausted, shaken, and still reeling from the intensity of battle. But his letter contained no hint of self-pity or suggestion of retreat. Rather, he wrote about how hard things had been so that he could convey the depth of his commitment and gratitude in being counted worthy to continue serving the cause.

Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger … with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on … beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.
2 Corinthians 6:4-10

That isn’t to say that it had been easy. Actually, things had been downright rotten. But the more Paul lost for the kingdom, the more personally invested he became in seeing it through. He began to count his hardships as proof of its worth, his trials as identification badges. Through combat and trauma, Paul’s identity as a servant of God was being forged deep within. It would become impossible for him to see himself as a regular civilian again. He would always identify himself as servant of the gospel, whether on the front lines or back at home.

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
2 Corinthians 11:23-27; 12:9

By suffering with and for God, Paul’s love for His kingdom grew to the point where it exceeded the bounds of reason. At times he sounded out of his mind, rambling on about the many horrors he had endured as if suffering were a good thing. And yet, in Paul’s mind, it was. Suffering made him weak. His weakness made way for God to show up and be the Hero, rescuing Paul and accomplishing impossible missions through him.

He loved the kingdom much because he had suffered much for its sake.

But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things… I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.
Philippians 2:7-11

This past weekend I also had the privilege of visiting with another brother of mine, one who is in the process of giving up much for the sake of God’s kingdom. I listened as he and his wife counted the cost of taking their toddler and unborn child to go serve the indigenous church in a country where local pastors have been beheaded for their faith. My heart wrenches with fear on their behalf, knowing from personal experience the trials and losses that they will face. And yet I also know from experience the privilege of serving the kingdom, of participating closely in the sufferings of Him who gave His life serving on the front lines.

I wouldn’t trade my losses for anything. They have gained for me a greater share in what I love the most.