Steve’s Letter – August 2013
AUGUST 1, 2013
Have you ever read something so true that you couldn’t understand why it hadn’t been said more often?
I recently read a blog like that by Anthony Bradley, associate professor of theology and ethics at The King’s College in NewYork and a research fellow at the Acton Institute.
Bradley writes that being a radical and missional Christian has become the new legalism of the church: “Today’s Millennial generation is being fed the message that if they don’t do something extraordinary in this life they are wasting their gifts and potential….For too many Millennials their greatest fear in this life is being an ordinary person with a non-glamorous job, living in the suburbs, and having nothing spectacular to boast about.”
He goes on to write that we are creating a “missional narcissism” where “living out one’s faith becomes narrowly celebratory only when done in a unique and special way, a ‘missional’ way. Getting married and having children early, getting a job, saving and investing, being a good citizen, loving one’s neighbor, and the like, no longer qualify as virtuous. One has to be involved in arts and social justice activities—even if justice is pursued without sound economics or social teaching. I actually know of a couple who were being so ‘missional’ that they decided to not procreate for the sake of taking care of orphans.”
What? Are you against orphans? You probably don’t give a rip about injustice or about the poor and oppressed…and after all that Jesus has done for you.
Well, maybe. There is some of that in me and I repent of it when I see it. But still, I feel uncomfortable with the call to live out a radical lifestyle for Jesus so that the world might be impacted…when I have trouble paying the bills, trying to be faithful to the place where God has called me, and mowing the yard.
A number of years ago, one of my favorite authors, Thomas Sowell, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, wrote a book, The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy. That book is a sort of “secular” version of what Bradley wrote.
Sowell writes about “verbal inflation” where “the mindset of those with the prevailing vision is a more general tendency toward verbal inflation among the anointed. Thus the ordinary vicissitudes of life become ‘traumas.’ Any situation which they want to change becomes a ‘crisis,’ regardless of whether it is any worse than usual or is already getting better on its own.”
Does God call us to live radically for him? But of course. To say otherwise is sort of the moral equivalent of speaking out against motherhood, the flag and apple pie. I’m sensitive, and generally supportive of sermons and books that challenge us to “do great things for God,” to “make an impact on the world,” to “change the world” and to “do acts of great compassion and sacrifice.”
Let me give you word from Paul: “Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more, and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may live properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one” (1 Thessalonians 4:9-12).
As I’ve probably told you a dozen times, my life’s verse is Ecclesiastes 9:10, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might…” For some that means selling everything and moving to a Third World country or moving into the city and changing the world for Christ politically, economically or spiritually. But I also think that for most of us faithfulness has to do with changing diapers, going to work each morning, paying one’s bills, supporting the church and its mission, being a reasonably good dad/mom/husband/wife, loving others, and being faithful in the place where God has put us.
My late mentor, Fred Smith, was once approached about being “radically” involved in supporting a major work of charity. At the time he ran a large business. Fred responded that his “mission” was providing jobs for hundreds of his employees so that they could put food on their tables, clothe their families and not have to live in poverty. That was his mission. In other words, he was saying, “I’m going to do what God told me to do and that’s about all I can handle.”
Let me tell you a true story.
Early in my ministry, one of my closest friends was a dentist, Ed Tinney. He was an elder in a church I served in the Boston area and one of the most faithful Christians I’ve ever known. I loved him deeply. Later, when I was in Florida and Ed was dying in a Boston hospital, I phoned him and prayed for him. After that conversation, I wept, knowing that I wouldn’t see him again until we got Home.
Ed was driven by guilt most of his life. When he was a teenager, an evangelist challenged him to follow Christ to the mission field. At the invitation, Ed stood and pledged that he would give up everything for Christ and live a “missional” life.
Things hardly ever work out the way we think they will. Ed’s life and circumstances went in directions that he had not planned. There were family commitments, places and people who needed his support, and other obligations that needed to be met. So Ed never fulfilled his pledge and felt guilty—really guilty—about that for the rest of his life. He didn’t share that with many people; but we were friends and he would sometimes talk about it to me with great sadness.
Back then, we had a Sunday evening church service with time set aside at the closing for people who wanted to stay and pray. After the service, all the lights in the sanctuary were dimmed except for the light on the cross, the organist quietly played (at least for awhile), and people were invited to come forward. For as long as people wanted, they kneeled at the altar and quietly prayed. That time was quite meaningful to me and to a lot of folks in the church.
Generally, I would kneel and pray for a few minutes, and then go up to my study on the second floor to read a book and wait until everyone who wanted to pray had left. Then I would go back down to the sanctuary, turn off the lights, lock the doors and go home.
One Sunday evening during the prayer service, I was in my study reading and thinking that it was about time for me to go back down when I heard someone running up the stairs. It was loud and rather jarring. Then the door of my study flew open and Ed was standing there crying.
Do whatever Jesus tells you to do and it will be enough.
“Steve,” Ed said through the tears, “let me tell you what happened. You’re not going to believe this! I stayed a long time tonight praying. I stayed until everybody left and I was telling Jesus how sorry I was that I had been unfaithful to his call and asking him to forgive me.
“That’s when I felt a hand on my shoulder. I thought it was you and you were going to tell me that it was time to go home. I turned around and was going to say to you, ‘just a minute and I’ll be finished.’ But when I turned around, nobody was there.
“It was Jesus!
“He told me that I had been faithful, that I was always forgiven, and that I was loved.”
That incident changed Ed’s life. All that guilt, all that pain and all those sleepless nights were from the pit of hell and smelled like smoke. It didn’t come from Jesus; it came from the dark side, from a manipulative preacher who should have known better and from a “church” culture suggesting that we never do enough, serve enough or are committed enough. And for the first time in years and years, Ed was free.
If God calls you to walk in the hard places, to live a “missional life” with the poor of Calcutta or New York, by all means do what he tells you to do. But if he tells you to do the best you can as a parent, to be faithful in the small places, and to “live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands,” be faithful there too.
There, I’ve said it and feel better.
Just don’t let people manipulate you. Do whatever Jesus tells you to do and it will be enough.
He asked me to remind you.
In His Grip,