Embracing Downward Mobility

Throughout my working life, I have often borne the title of “Assistant.” I’ve been a medical assistant, an administrative assistant, a loan assistant and a ministry assistant. My current title is “Associate Pastor,” which means I serve as assistant to the pastor, among other things. I am also an ordained deacon and, as such, one of my functions is assisting priests and bishops.

I came of age during a time when assistants were often thought of as second-class workers, people who couldn’t quite “make the grade” for anything more. Yet I was a member of the National Honor Society in high school, and made the dean’s list in college. Being an assistant has always been more about my personality than about my abilities. My natural dispostion is to help and to encourage; my spiritual gifts align with my dispostion, as do my learned skills and natural abilities.

There have been seasons in my life when I objected to the assistant title. I didn’t necessarily object to what I was doing, just to what I was being called.It felt like I was being relegated to a lesser role, to second chair. It precluded recognition as any kind of leader. I preferred to identify with Jesus the King rather than Jesus the Suffering Servant.downward mobility

What about Jesus? He certainly practiced downward mobility. God became man–Jesus–and came down to earth, where He willingly stepped into the role of  Suffering Servant. From God to man, to servant washing feet, to criminal nailed to a cross, to death. Downward mobility…in order that He could lead us out of death into eternal life.

I am reminded of the wisdom of two Anglican bishops. In commenting on his role as bishop, one said that it appears to the world that he is climbing the ladder of success. “In reality,” he said, “becoming a bishop has nothing to do with upward mobility but, rather, just the opposite. It’s about downward mobility, becoming more and more a servant.”  In the Anglican tradition, one is first ordained a deacon before he/she can become a priest; one must be a priest for years before being considered for consecration as bishop. Deacon means “to serve.” Which brings me to the wisdom of the second bishop. As he was preparing to ordain a priest, he said to the ordinand, “Remember, once a deacon, always a deacon.”

It has taken most of my life to embrace downward mobility, to realize that being an assistant is a good thing, and that I can indeed lead from “second chair.” This is who God created me to be; it is what God created me to do. And it is where I find true joy.

 

My part to play

David and Paul. Two very famous men in the Bible, each in his own right. Both were warriors, David employed slingshots and swords while Paul used words. One man remembered for his adultery, the other remembered for his zealous persecution. Both transformed by God’s love for them, and their love for God. Two men separated by hundreds of years, each instrumental in God’s plan for his Kingdom.

Did either of these men know the impact their lives would make? I doubt it. Scripture tells us that each knew that God was with them, guiding and empowering their ministry. They surely dreamed of the legacy they wanted to leave, but I can’t imagine that they could begin to comprehend how their actions–their very lives–would impact the Kingdom of God for all eternity.

I, too, have a role to play in God’s Kingdom. From where I sit today, I can hardly imagine that it is anything near the magnitude of David’s or Paul’s contribution! Nonetheless, by God’s grace, I still have something to give. To allow false humility, fear, or low self-esteem to dissuade me from doing my part is to throw a monkey wrench into God’s plan.

Surely Nathan knew that confronting the king was taking his life in his hands, yet Nathan responded obediently to the Lord’s direction. He went to David and pointed out that he had despised the Lord and done what was evil in God’s sight. Rather than killing Nathan, David confessed his sin, repented, accepted forgiveness (and the consequences of his adulterous behavior), and was restored to his role in God’s plan. While Nathan was a prominent figure in David’s life, in comparison to David, his role in God’s big picture plan is minor.

Or what if Ananais had submitted to his fear of Saul, rather than to God’s instruction that he go lay hands on blind Saul so that he would regain his sight? What a critical moment in God’s plan! Yet we never hear another word about Ananais.

Not all of God’s faithful are renowned.

I cannot clearly see the whole picture of God’s plan. Yes, I understand some of it and, the more I study scripture and pray, the more revelation I have. But I can’t fully realize the impact of my contribution to the whole of the story. I can only do what I can in this time and this place, obedient to God’s instruction. Today I can pray for someone to be healed. Today I can point the way back to God’s grace and forgiveness. Today I can trust that, whatever my role–whether it is known throughout history like David or Paul or Nathan or Ananais, or whether it is only known by those in my little corner of the world–it is an important part of God’s plan.

So is yours. You have a part to play, too. And when we all play our parts well, we join Jesus in bringing God’s Kingdom near.

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Believing Prayer

wisdom

There’s something exhilarating about a new Bible! Thumbing through my new ESV Study Bible, I found myself smiling with renewed interest and anticipation for digging into the scriptures, mining for God’s gold: wisdom.

I love the Psalms, and so I began there. Right away, I found a little nugget in the third Psalm. According to the study notes, in verses 1-2 the psalmist acknowledges what he sees. His enemies are many, and on the rise against him. They are taunting him, saying there is no hope that God will rescue his soul.

In verses 3-6 the psalmist acknowledges what he believes. He remembers that God has protected him, has answered his cries for help. He reflects on how he has been able to sleep peacefully, and he believes that it is God who has sustained him. And as he ponders his belief in God’s faithfulness, the psalmist’s courage and confidence are bolstered and he confronts his fear, refusing to let it deceive him.

Verses 7-8 are the psalmist’s prayer, calling again on God to save him, to crush his enemies, and to bless God’s people.

This pattern from the psalmist is one I need to practice consistently:

  1. Acknowledge what I see. Sticking my head in the sand is foolish. How can I effectively deal with something I refuse to see? Ignoring an issue doesn’t make it go away.
  2. Remember what I believe. Call to mind what God has already taught me, the wisdom I’ve already mined from God’s word. Reflect on God’s faithfulness, not just to me, but to all those who love him. There I will find the confidence I need to face the fear.
  3. Pray accordingly. I can either pray based on what I see or I can pray based on what I believe. 2 Corinthians 4:18 reminds me which is the wiser choice: “the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”

Imagine our fate if Jesus’ final prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane had been based on what he saw coming–torture, abandonment, and a cruel death–rather than on his belief that God would resurrect Jesus, conquering death once and for all.

What do you believe? Your prayers may provide insight.

The consummate question…and the second one that is like it.

“Who do you say that I am?”

Jesus asked this question of his disciples, and He continues to ask it today. It echoes through the ages, like a resounding bell. It is a rock that never erodes, over which everyone will stumble.

It is undoubtedly the single most important question we will ever answer.

I’m not sure what happens if we simply ignore the question, if we just turn a deaf ear. Perhaps it fades until we can no longer hear it. I’m guessing, however, that to choose not to hear is, in effect, an answer. To reply in any way other than Peter did is to endure a death that never really dies.

But if, like Peter, we profess Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, more questions will follow. Question after question will find its way into our hearts and minds every single day, and each one will hinge on our answer to that first question.

“Who do you say that I am?” is the consummate question.

The second question, “If you believe that I am the Christ, now what?” is like it.

No, you won’t find Jesus explicitly asking that question anywhere in the gospels. But it is implied repeatedly, as the follow-up to the consummate question. And Jesus asks it of us again and again. When we tune our hearts to His voice, each time we are about t0 make a decision about what to do or what to say, we hear Him ask that question. And slowly but surely, our life is changed, transformed into something more, something much better than it was before or would have been otherwise.

However we choose to answer the consummate question, the implications are question marklife-changing. To answer as Peter did, “You are the Christ,” is to grapple with the second question for a lifetime. But the prize for getting the right answer is truly priceless.

 

 

 

A wide-open space

Everything equips.

Several years ago a bishop taught me an important lesson. At the conclusion of a conference, while everyone else was standing around chatting, this bishop was walking around the room quietly collecting then emptying the garbage. No one else was even remotely concerned with cleaning up the mess, and here was our respected leader doing the most menial task. (Remind you of Someone?) I sent him a note later, telling him the effect his selfless act had upon me. His response was simple, “Everything teaches.”

After I wrote my last post declaring God has been giving me a new perspective, I thought I might be done with writing about “equipping.” That afternoon I decided to convert all my posts to PDF format for storage, thinking I’d begin with a fresh slate on which to write about this new perspective. Though I wasn’t taking the time to read those 148 posts, titles or phrases would catch my attention and I would nostalgically remember writing them. I was working my way backward from the most recent and, when I finally reached the first post, I was a little shocked to see I had written it in August 2010. Almost six years I have been writing about equipping and volunteer ministry. And I had been learning and teaching about it for 15 years before that!

In the early days, I had a pretty narrow view of equipping. I had many a debate with a friend over the meaning of Paul’s instruction in Ephesians 4:11-12 regarding “equipping the saints for ministry.” My friend would say that everything apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor/teachers do is equipping the saints. I would insist that it had to be more intentional, that leaders must teach and preach consistently on the importance of serving as Jesus served, modeling servant ministry themselves, and refusing to perpetuate the clergy-centric ministry mentality so prevalent in our churches today.

As God changes the focal point of my service, I find myself wondering if my equipping days are past. And so I bring that question before God, confessing to a measure of worry and confusion. Who will I be? What platform (soapbox?) will I stand upon if I’m not admonishing and encouraging everyone everywhere to serve like Jesus? And I can feel God’s smile, his reassurance that I will always be an equipper, because everything a deacon does has the potential to equip others. I think I finally get my friend’s point!

God has brought me out of that narrow place to–borrowing the language of Samuel, Job, and David–a “broad place.” I can plant my feet here. I can spread my arms wider. I can grow here in this wide open space, while I encourage others to grow, too.

What about you? Are you in a narrow place, too? Are you afraid to make a change, fearful of losing your “self” in the process? Bring your confusion and fear to the Father-heart of God. He longs to lead you into a wide open space where you, too, can be free to be who he is creating you to be. I’ll meet you there!

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The Problem With Commitment

I hear it over and over again:

He didn’t show up to serve on his scheduled Sunday.

She signed up for the retreat, then cancelled at the last minute.

Everyone thought hosting the event was a great idea, but no one showed up to help.

Culturally speaking, we have a problem with commitment. Perhaps it’s a problem with definition. Oxford Online Dictionary offers these definitions for commitment:

  1. The state or quality of being dedicated to a cause, activity, etc.
  2. An engagement or obligation that restricts freedom of action

I find this to be something of a paradox. It’s hard to be dedicated to a cause, activity, etc. that restricts one’s freedom. Yes…exactly. It’s hard. Keeping a commitment sometimes requires making a hard decision.

If we are honest, perhaps we might acknowledge that…

  • The problem with commitment is that it requires showing up to do something when I would rather be home relaxing, going out with friends, spending time with family, or any one of a hundred other things.
  • The problem with commitment is that it requires me to be responsible to those who are depending on me, and I don’t want that responsibility.
  • The problem with commitment is that it often requires some sort of sacrifice–and I don’t like to give sacrificially.

I can absolutely own any one of those statements on any given day! I don’t know a single person who is not tempted at some time or another to renege on a commitment. We can chalk it up to our innate desire to serve self.

But here’s the problem with failure to keep our commitments: it undermines trust and tears away at the fabric of our families, our church, our communities, and our world.

It’s not rocket science. Before we say “yes,” we need to stop and ask whether we really mean it. Better to say “no” and do it commitmentanyway than to say “yes” but not keep the commitment. (Matthew 21:28-32)

Before we give in to the temptation to renege, we should ask who will be effected by this decision–who will be inconvenienced, disappointed, left “holding the bag?” (1 Corinthians 12:25-27)

Before going back on our word, it is wise to ask whether the sacrifice of our character is worth it. (Acts 5:1-5)

I don’t want to communicate judgment or unforgiveness. Of course there are times when something unforseen arises that necessitates breaking a commitment. Let’s be sure, however, that this is indeed the case and not a refusal to prioritize, to make the hard decision.

Motivation to Serve

What compels people to serve? It’s a question every ministry coordinator asks when trying to attract volunteers. Some people serve because it makes them feel good. Others serve because they believe in the “cause,” whatever it may be. Some serve out of a sense of obligation. A few serve because they don’t have anything better to do. Figuring out how to motivate people to serve is like trying to hit a moving target!

But there is one common denominator for every Christian, one thing that should motivate every one of us to serve: Gratitude. Lavish gratitude for the countless ways Jesus has served us should be what compels each and every Christian to serve. Stop and think: When has Jesus served you?

Remember the story of Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law? Mark says that Jesus, along with James and John, heads to the home of Andrew and (Simon) Peter following a time of teaching and casting out demons in the synagogue. There they find Peter’s mother-in-law in bed with a fever. Now, it’s helpful to know that back in Mark’s day, fever wasn’t understood to be a symptom of some disease–it was just considered a disease in and of itself. So it’s a safe bet to say that this woman was very sick with some disease that brought on a high fever. So Jesus does what Jesus does: he heals her. Immediately Peter’s mother-in-law gets up from her sickbed and fixes the evening meal for Jesus and his companions.

If you’ve ever had a high fever, you know that when it breaks, you are spent. No way do you feel like getting up and fixing a meal! Yet this is what Peter’s mother-in-law does! Jesus has not only healed her, but he has strengthened her as well. No residual lethargy, no lengthy recuperative period. She’s fit as a fiddle and good to go! I’m guessing that she was so grateful healing vesselthat she couldn’t wait to serve Jesus! Her response to the lavish love of Jesus was to allow that love to flow through her and out of her as she prepared the meal and met Jesus’ need for nourishment.

If you are a ministry coordinator looking to motivate people to serve, here are three questions to ask of them:

  1. When has Jesus served you personally? (I’m not talking about Jesus going to the cross and saving us from our sins. I’m talking about something more uniquely personal: being spared a near disaster, something needed that was miraculously provided, an instance of physical or emotional healing, etc.)
  2. How do you feel about that?
  3. What is your response?

The lavish love of Jesus compels lavish gratitude, and an appropriate response to lavish gratitude is following the example of Jesus and serving others as He has served us.