Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Words For Difficult Economic Times

By 21st century standards, the furniture in the room seems a little sparse.

According to 2 Kings 4: 10, the addition built onto the flatroof home of the Shunammite women and her husband to show hospitality to the itinerant prophet Elisha only contained a bed, a table, a chair, and a lamp.

This wealthy, devout couple saw holiness, integrity, and possibility in God's spokesman and wanted to provide a place of privacy and rest and refreshing for him when he would occasionally pass through their village. We admire their generosity. But why were the accomodations so Spartan?

Perhaps it was the Lord's way of reminding his servant that we really don't need as much as we think we do. These simple furnishings met his needs for sleep and solitude and study and sustenance. There was no reason to expect to lead a lavish lifestyle while busy in God's work.

Today's prosperity, health-and-wealth, name-it-and-claim-it preachers ought to camp out in this Old Testament story for awhile. Their followers, who almost demand material blessings and an affluent existence from the Lord, should likewise pay attention to this narrative.

Now don't misunderstand. There's absolutely nothing wrong with being rich. It's okay to dream. Taking initiative and making plans and working hard is a good thing. Many Christians are given great wealth and lots of possessions, and that's wonderful. But to assume that abundance should be ours by divine right, and to make the acquisition of prosperity the driving force of our lives, is to completely get out of God's will. Contentment should be our aim. You don't hear many sermons nowadays on that topic. The old Puritan preachers in the 1600's and 1700's used to discourse on it frequently. Their ideas came from a good source--the Bible. There you find Paul talking about "learning to be content" regardless of his circumstances. You hear him saying that if he just has "food and clothing" he'll be content with that. And you discover that Jesus spoke on this subject many times, such as in Matthew 6, where He said that we shouldn't be anxious about life's provisions or Matthew 13, where He stressed that an inordinate concern for riches could choke out genuine spiritual passion in us. Then here, in Elisha, you have this terrific example of a man who wasn't put out or frustrated by the kind offering of simple decor and basic necessities but rather viewed them as ultimately coming from the tender hand of a giving God who sees to it that our needs are always taken care of as we walk with Him.

Maybe Elisha would've gotten lazy and comfortable and complacent if he had been showered with a luxury suite. Maybe his mission would've gotten off track. Perhaps he would've slowly developed a greedy, condescending, take-it-for-granted pattern of living. He might have decided to retire early and enjoy ease or get to the place where he took his eyes off the Lord and come to believe that his personality or his talents or his attainments had brought him all the good things in his grasp instead of the unbounded benevolence of the Heavenly Father. If he had been granted abundance, he might have been one of those who turn their backs on God when, in the inevitable vicissitudes of life, some or all of that fortune is lost. Certainly he may have lost sight of the fact that, really, the simple things in this world are the best anyway. Sunsets. The aroma of a cup of coffee. The smell of new mown grass. Flowers in a vase on the table. The laugh of a child. A lovely painting on the wall.

Our prophet, however, learned the principle of patience and humble gratitude and contented acceptance of whatever God chooses to provide for us. So much so that, when he had the chance to strike it rich in 2 Kings 5:15-16 after participating in a ministry miracle, he turned down the opportunity. He refused to allow avarice to lodge in his soul.

It'd be a good idea to be more aware of, and more thankful for, the simple, ordinary beds, tables, chairs, and lamps that the Lord has seen to it that we have. We'd probably be a lot more relaxed. Our credit card debt wouldn't be nearly as high from trying to impress and keep up with everybody else in the neighborhood. Who knows, maybe then we'd have a lot more freed up money to give to God's work in reaching this world for Christ!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Getting Along In Church

It seems to me that a short verse by Paul is packed with insights for congregational life.

In Romans 12:18 the Apostle writes "If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone."

In a day of church tensions, divisions, fractures, and splits this old text is particularly relevant.

For one thing, it reminds us that God is interested in our relationships. This statement is a command, not a suggestion, and it was written at the Holy Spirit's inspiration. God Himself exists in beautiful relational intimacy and mutuality in the Trinity and models for us the unity that should be found in our connections with fellow believers. Some Christians appear to think that God is only concerned with how we worship or whether we tithe or if we fill a slot of service in the organization of the fellowship. They don't realize that the Lord is intensely interested in how we get along with one another in the body of Christ.

Anger, quarreling, resentment, gossip, backbiting, and negativity among the saints all grieve the Holy Spirit. He longs for there to be peace, joy, harmony, and patience in our churches.

This verse hints that occasionally we need to be willing to make compromises and concessions. We certainly must become better listeners. Learning to forgive is paramount. Doing the sometimes hard task of working through issues and negotiating and discussing and praying until resolution is reached is absolutely crucial. Regrettably, so many church members nowadays want to hop off to another congregation at the first sign of a problem or a difference of opinion rather than hanging in there and sticking with a matter until a solution is discovered. They miss the faith-building, maturity-developing process of intense interaction with other Christians in conflict management by walking away and linking up with some other local fellowship that probably has just as many unsettled issues. Getting rid of a pastor or dropping out of church or sitting on the sidelines taking shots at those who are committed to dealing with crises and conflicts doesn't really accomplish anything and just contributes to greater tensions within the congregation. It just prolongs the anxiety.

It's time we all grow up.

Paul isn't sugar-coating the truth here, though. He offers a realistic view. Sometimes we will work feverishly for peace and unity and will not get cooperation from the other side. We do still live in a fallen world. We are part of a movement that Satan likes to torment and would love to defeat. As friendly and as kind as we may be, not everyone is going to like us. You can't please everybody. Some in your church not only may not want to be close to you but may actually enjoy being at odds with you. If you have to have everybody's approval to feel good about yourself, you're in for a rough ride. If you're a people-pleaser, understand that the apostle is conceding in our text that it's probably not accurate to think that you can make everybody happy. Live humbly, graciously, truthfully, and openly but realize that regardless of your efforts to labor for progress or to work for reconciliation or to demonstrate a godly lifestyle there will probably always be some who just won't accept you or agree with you.

Our mandate in these days is to do everything we can in our congregations and homes and neighborhoods to show forth the Kingdom way of life as salt and light and to illustrate that relationships can be lived on a much higher plane than what we see in the world around us.