Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Numbers Game

“My people have a law never to speak of sizes or numbers to you…. You do not understand and it makes you do reverence to nothings and pass by what is really great.”

Oyarsa, an angel in C. S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet.

I recently heard someone say of a mutual friend, “He’s called to greatness,” by which he meant a crowded church, a large budget, a high profile work. I couldn’t help but wonder, what makes us think that God’s call is always upward mobile?

George MacDonald wrote in a letter to his father in 1847: “Perhaps the best thing for me would be a quiet country charge—small enough to enable me to attend thoroughly to all the pastoral duties, and intelligent enough to urge me to use my intellect and holy enough to make us advance each other in holiness. Ambition points to the metropolis—but is not ambition a terrible thing for a motive to the ministry?”

Are there not people in small communities who need to be taught and loved? Why wouldn’t God send some of his best workers to labor an entire lifetime in a small place? He’s not willing that any should perish. Is it not true that when difficulties mount and numbers are scarce a deeper a more lasting work may accrue?

Small churches make up about 80% of all churches here in Idaho. Most number 100 or less. Small is the rule, not the exception. It seems it’s always been that way. Paul, when he wrote to the Romans, mentioned four house churches, small enough to fit in someone's home. Their effectiveness was not hindered by their size.

Think of Jesus’ ministry: it started large—5,000 people or more—and grew smaller every day. “Many left him,” we’re told, a state of affairs that would throw most of us into panic.

Our culture equates size with success. Bigger is better. It takes a strong person to resist that craze, especially if he or she is laboring in a small place. As Piglet says, “Its hard to be brave, especially when you’re Very Small.”

It’s not that numbers don’t matter. The Apostles counted the Church in round numbers. There’s a whole book in the Old Testament that bears that name. Numbers represent unique individuals with eternal needs. We should work and pray for many to enter the kingdom, but we shouldn’t use numbers as a basis for esteem. We should treat them with the attitude of John the Baptist who mused as his congregation dwindled away, “A man can only receive what he has been given from heaven.”

John’s sense of worth did not come from his followers, but from the One whom he followed: “The friend (John) who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine.”

Our Lord does not call us to find joy in the amount of work we do, or the number of people who are a part of that work, but in doing our work—whatever it is—for his sake. Serving him in a small place is not a stepping–stone to greatness. It is greatness. Jesus himself set the example: Nazareth was a little place, and so was Galilee.


Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Taking Flight 

A coward will remain, Sir,
Until the fight is done;
But an immortal hero
Will take his hat, and run!

—Emily Dickinson

Some years ago I spent part of a Christmas vacation with our son Josh, who was then a commercial crab fisherman, living in a one–room log cabin in Girdwood, Alaska. 

One very cold morning I was getting dressed, standing as close to the wood-burning stove as possible, while Josh went outside to shovel snow off his driveway. His dog followed him. 

A few moments later I heard Josh shout at the dog and I looked out of the front door to see both of them sprinting for the cabin, hotly pursued by an outraged cow moose whose calf the dog had been pestering. Josh and the dog tumbled through the door and into the cabin in a wild flurry of ice and snow with the aggrieved mother hot on their heels! Fortunately, she skidded to a halt just outside the cabin door. 

In certain situations, it's best to take one's hat and run.

Apropos of which Paul writes: "Flee youthful lusts; but pursue righteousness, faith, love, peace with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart. Avoid foolish and ignorant disputes, knowing that they generate strife" (2Timothy 2:22,23).

Verse twenty-two is often quoted vis-a-vis sexual temptation, but the passion of which Paul writes has nothing to do with sex. In context, the text refers to flight from what Paul calls, "quarreling over words (14), "irreverent babble" (vs. 16), and foolish, ignorant controversies" (vs. 23), which things, he warns, "do no good, but only ruin the hearers" (vs. 14). 

Paul is saying something quite striking: We can teach the Bible in such a way that it produces ruin. 

The "youthful passions" to which Paul refers and from which we must flee are the inclinations of youthful (immature) teachers to dissect and debate the intricacies of a biblical text, and go no further. It is teaching that "circles 'round the head," but never pierces the heart. Not only does no good; it does great harm, producing a crop of quarrelsome, restive, contentious and competitive parishioners—devoid of love. [It's worth noting that Milton found the Devils in hell eternally out of sorts with one another, arguing about, "Providence, Foreknowledge, Will, and Fate—Fixed fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute, and found no end, in wandering mazes lost."  "Vain wisdom all," he contended (Milton, Paradise Lost: 2.ii.558-190)].

To quote Augustine, “A man who knows that he owns a tree and thanks You for the use he has of it, even though he does not know its exact height or the width of its spread, is better than another who measures it and counts all its branches, but neither knows nor loves its Creator.” Truth, when acquired, should lead us to love God and seek God-likeness. Put another way, the goal of our teaching is not knowledge, per se—that’s gnosticism—but "righteousness, faith, love, and peace" (vs. 22). 

Our hearers may go away understanding the grammar, syntax, historical-cultural background and theology of a biblical text, but if their hearts are untouched by love we have contributed to their ruin. 

From such we must "take our hat and run."

David Roper

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Row, Row, Row Your Boat

"Let a man so consider us, as servants (under-rowers) of Christ..." (1 Corinthians 4:1).

I recall a Far Side cartoon depicting two slaves, shackled together on a wharf, awaiting the arrival of a Roman galley. "That's a beautiful ship," one slave says to the other. "I wonder what makes it go?"

Larson’s cartoon calls Paul's analogy to mind. "You should think of Sosthenes (Paul's sidekick) and me as 'under-rowers'—just like the slaves that row Roman galleys." Everyone knew what Paul was writing about; it was a common sight in his day.

Slaves sat on benches facing the rear of the boat, deep in the hold, manning their sweeps and looking up at a helmsman that stood above them on the aft deck with the tiller in his hand. The helmsman's job was to call the cadence of the rowers, and determine the course and speed with which the galley made headway. Like watermen that row one way and look another” their  task was to fix their eyes on the helmsman and row. 

So it is that we serve as Jesus' under-rowers—subject to Him as the helmsman of His Church. He alone can see the horizon. He alone determines the speed with which we make progress and the direction in which we go.

Is this the time for a new direction? A new pace? If so, the helmsman will show me in due time. In the meantime, my job is to fix my eyes on Jesus and row.

David Roper


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