Sunday, November 30, 2014

Advent 2014

Christmas as it is experienced in our world is an invitation to hurry and get things done.  Advent is that season which calls us to slow down, learn again the value of waiting, and to ponder the reality that God has been at work in the world through the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.  With these things in mind it is easy to see how we find ourselves being ushered into an uncomfortable time.  The world is beckoning us to use these days to satisfy ourselves and others and the Advent tradition calls us to focus on satisfying a heart that is hungry for God.
Always God can be counted on to accomplish His will in His time.   In Galatians 4:4-5, the eternal Word says, "But when the fullness of time had come, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that they might receive adoption as children."  How did God know the fullness of time had arrived?  How did He know at that moment to do what He did through the birth of His Son into our world?  How does He know what the right moment is for any of His intervening acts which impact our lives?  What makes the moment full and ready?  Is there anything we can do to make it full so that He will act, or is it true that all we can really do is to anticipate and wait for the signs of His activity in our behalf?
Of course, the thing for which we are always searching is the thing we cannot do.  What we want to know is what we can do to hurry God along.  What we know to know are the magical prayer words which bring God into a responsive mood.  Advent reminds us that such a search is not only futile, but speaks of a heart out of step with the purposes of God.  Advent tells us not to manipulate, or even try, but to wait and to anticipate the hand of God coming to rest upon the circumstances of our life in a time which God determines to be the right and full time.  Such moments are never easy for us, but then Advent is never  rightly observed if we experience comfort and ease.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Gary of Talbotton

This afternoon when I got home, I turned on the answering machine and heard a voice from a long way back in my past.  The voice I did not recognize since she was a child when I went to the Talbotton Church to pastor her family's church.  Now she is grown and was calling to tell me about the death of her father.  When she identified herself, I knew why she was calling.  As she spoke, I  sensed this sadness and loss even though it had been a long time since I had seen Gary. 
When I was his pastor, he gave me a gift that he continued to give me over these thirty years.  It was the gift of encouragement.  He was that kind of man.  While he was wrong when he predicted I would be a bishop, it was simply his way of encouraging me to be the man God was calling me to be.  He was certainly not blind to my shortcomings, but he always seemed to call forth from me a desire to live well.  I enjoyed being in his company back then and I enjoyed hearing from him and his wife over the years.  When I started blogging, I included him in my list of ten people who would automatically receive each posting.  I included him because he was a person of value to me and because deep down I knew he would read what I wrote and encourage me to keep at it.  We all need those kind of people in our lives. 
I am thankful tonight that Gary has been a part of my life.  He enjoyed his life, loved his wife, adored the houseful of daughters, and was faithful to God.  It is strange thinking that he is no longer a part of our world and that I shall not be able to see him again on this side, but it gives me joy to know that while he is not here any longer, he is there with the Father.  His legacy of encouragement has blessed me and it is my prayer that I can be a giver of the same gift to those around me.   

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Risk Taker

Of the ten "soul shapers" on my list, only two have I actually seen.  E. Stanley Jones is one.  Bruce Wilkinson (1940-    ) is the other.  It was at a National Convocation on Evangelism in the Washington, D.C. area that I heard Bruce Wilkinson give a several day presentation on what was then his newest book, "The Prayer of Jabez."  At the time it was the rage to read book, but I had turned away from it because of some personal perceptions that it was all about trying to manipulate God.  But, when I heard Wilkinson speak, I sensed his passion for Christ and heard the author's point of view, I found myself going back to the book and devouring its message.  As a bigger picture of God emerged in my mind, new doors of desire for God were opened in my prayer life.
When I took a deeper look at the man who wrote about Jabez, I discovered a man whose life with God modeled a risk taking faith.  Way back in the'70's I first heard of Wilkinson as the one who put forth the "Walk Thru the Bible" ministry.  It was a Word centered ministry which led many into the pages of unread scripture.  Then he stepped forth from this successful endeavor to write books for believers.  Two which touched me in powerful ways were "The Prayer of Jabez," a book on prayer, and 'You Were Born For This," a book which enabled me to live with new expectations of being used by God.  And then with enough success to sit back and coast the rest of the way, Wilkinson picked up his family and move to Africa for still another dimension of ministry.
Unlike many of us, Bruce Wilkinson never seems to have gotten stuck.  It is always about "God, what do You want me to do today?"   I, too, ask the question from time to time, but he appears to be a man who is constantly asking and expecting not the tried and true comfortable answers, but the new and fresh ones which take him to a place of deeper dependence on God.  All the other "soul shapers" have finished the course and their accomplished work can be seen as a whole.  Bruce Wilkinson is still on the journey.  Thus far his journey of faith has greatly enlarged my journey and caused me to understand that it is not yesterday, but today that I can be useful to God.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Reckless Faith

As I put together my list of "Soul Shapers," Hudson Taylor (1832-1905)  shows up because of his reckless faith.  When I read about the life of this 19th century missionary to China, I always find myself being called and challenged to go deeper in my own faith.  Actually, when I see the way this man trusted God, my own faith seems rather mundane, ordinary, and superficial.  Taylor was one of those men who put his life and ministry on the line by living as if God was utterly dependable and absolutely able to provide whatever is needed in life.  Me?  My faith has always seemed more cautious and calculating, one that wants to wait and see if God is going to come through before getting too excited about possibilities.
Hudson Taylor was cut out of the same cloth as George Mueller who was one of his contemporaries in ministry.  He, too, depended on God to provide what was needed to sustain his life and the work God called him to do.  As a child Hudson Taylor showed a concern for the "heathen" in foreign lands often telling visitors in the family home , "I mean to be a missionary and go to China."  When he did go to China, he went not just as a Christian missionary, but also as a medical doctor.  Stories of the reckless faith of this man of God are many, but all of them are laced with the belief that God's work is always done in God's time with what God provides.  Like Mueller, Hudson Taylor only asked God to provide and provide He did in countless miraculous ways.  When faced with what seemed to be impossible, this man whose life was devoted to Jesus would pray and sit and wait for God to act.  For him there was never any reason to doubt the faithfulness of God.
Hudson Taylor is regarded as a "soul shaper" because he will not let me be content with this faith of mine.  His story creates a thirst and hunger for a walk with God that goes far beyond the plain upon which I presently walk.  He makes me desire a deeper relationship with God.  The old gospel song pleads, "Lord, plant my feet on higher ground," which is exactly where the witness of this man of God causes me to want to live. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Man of Prayer

It is impossible for me to do a listing of "soul shapers" without including E.M. Bounds (1835-1913).  A compilation of his writing on prayer simply entitled "E.M. Bounds on Prayer" has for years remained as close as my Bible and "My Utmost for His Highest."  No writer has impacted my prayer life more than this this 19th century American preacher and writer.  His works have been a steady source of information, inspiration, and conviction.  Edward McKendree Bounds has ended more than just a few dry season in my prayer life.
A Methodist preacher before the American Civil War, he joined the Confederate Army as a chaplain.  But, actually, even before he enlisted he was arrested as a Southern sympathizer and put in a Union prison camp.  After the war he served several churches as pastor and began his writing career.  As a man who rose at 4 am each day to pray, he was not just a writer about prayer, but a practitioner as well.  He wrote and published writings on prayer as a way of encouraging the church and, particularly, its preachers to pray.  The last seventeen years of his life was lived in Washington, Georgia where much praying and writing was done.  Though not as well known as some who have dared to write about prayer, I am convinced that no one of the 19th or the 21st century has more to offer any believer who is hungry for a deeper life of prayer.

My favorite and most often read E.M. Bounds quote is:  "What the church needs today is not more or better machinery, not new organizations or more and novel methods.  She needs men whom the Holy Spirit can use--men of prayer, men mighty in prayer.  The Holy Spirit does not flow through methods, but through men.  He does not come on machinery, but on men.  He does not anoint plans, but men--men of prayer."  How the church of today needs to embrace this word written over a hundred yeas ago.  The church of today does many things well, but not always does it appear to have learned that nothing can take the place of people praying. 

Monday, November 3, 2014

A Teacher of Trust

I was drawn to George Mueller (1805-1898) in the later years of my ministry.  I found him about the time I had become unbearably weary with what I perceived as the church's demand that I become engrossed in fund raising every fall.  No matter what program was used, it always seemed to be designed in such a way as to exert pressure and guilt upon people in order to raise more money for bigger budgets and larger buildings.  There was talk about the joy of giving, but there always seemed to be a greater measure of guilt for not giving more.
George Mueller was indeed a breath of fresh wind blowing in this world where giving to God was actually giving to the church so its institutional life would be sustained.  Mueller was a 19th century German who spent a lifetime caring for orphans in Bristol, England.  Starting with a few dozen children, he ended up taking responsibility for several thousand.  He made a practice of never asking anyone for supporting funds, but instead expected God to provide for the needs of his ministry of compassion to the children of Bristol.  Instead of becoming an institutional fundraiser, he simply trusted God to provide.  And the amazing thing was that it actually worked.  There were times when children sat down at empty breakfast tables to give thanks only to have an unexpected delivery of milk or bread.

George Mueller challenged me to take a hard look at this dimension of my ministry.  It was always easy to talk about, or even preach about God providing without really practicing what was being preached.  Inordinate amounts of time, energy, and resources were invested in making sure the church raised enough money to spend more next year than last year.  The practice seemed to make a lie out of much that preaching which had at its core the idea that God could be trusted to provide what was needed.  Mueller's life of faith kept reminding me of two errors.  One had to do with energizing people to give to the church instead of God.  And the second error was in trusting too much in human resources and not really enough in the faithfulness and the purposes of God.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Wounded Healer

When I started thinking about this listing of ten people who had significant influence on my spiritual journey, Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) was one of those who would not go away.  As I worked through the names, he kept making his way back into the group of "soul shapers" that I was trying to identify.  Like many people, my first encounter with this Dutch Roman Catholic priest was through one of his better known writings, "The Wounded Healer."  I remember that first read and the way what he wrote resonated with my journey in ministry.  It  became one of those books that was read several times and kept through the years.  He seemed to understand some of the struggles I claimed in ministry with such insight that I came to the conclusion that though different in many ways, our journeys of faith had much in common.

Over the years I read many of the thing written by Nouwen and learned much about the way he sought to live his life in places where he could serve some of the world's forgotten and pushed aside folks.  But, the other writing which really had an impact on my spiritual journey was "The Return of the Prodigal Son."  When I discovered this book late in my ministry, I thought I had surely read everything which could explain every angle of this parable of Jesus.  Of course, Nouwen proved me wrong.  The inspiration for the book was Rembrandt's painting by the same name.  His writing not only explored the painting, but also revealed Nouwen as a psychologist, theologian, and spiritual leader.  It, too, became a keeper.

While much has been written about this priest's journey of faith, what he wrote always revealed a man of faith who was praying and thinking.  His work had a way of calling me to go beyond the easy to see conclusions when doing scripture work and to understand that real ministry is never done at a distance.  Nouwen's life reminded me again and again that ministry and service cannot be done unless one is willing to risk dirty hands and broken hearts. 

Saturday, November 1, 2014

The German Martyr

My first encounter with Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1905-1946) was through one of his writings.  "The Cost of Discipleship" was required reading for anyone in seminary back in the early '70's.  I had no idea at the time how the faith journey of this German Christian would shape my own journey with Christ.  His was one of those books kept beyond seminary days and one that was looked at often.  It long ago fell apart from repeated readings and referencing.  Anytime a sermon text came from the Sermon on the Mount, his one of those books I pulled out. 
Bonhoeffer's world was the one Germany experienced between and during the two great wars.  As the church of Germany came under the growing influence of the Nazi government, Bonhoeffer was compelled to move toward a reformed church which sought to exist outside the state church sanctioned by the government and separate from ecclesiastical endorsement of church communities outside of his homeland.  At one point he came to the United States, but soon realized he could have no part in post-war Germany if he did not work from within it when it was in peril.  He returned to Germany and actively worked in unsuccessful efforts to remove Adolf Hitler from power.  His faithfulness to this task and to what he understood to be the calling of God cost him his life as he was executed by the Hitler regime shortly before the end of the war.
Bonhoeffer not only wrote about the cost of discipleship, but he lived it and died it.  Surely, his most quoted sentence is "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die."  I cannot begin to count the times I have sense that my journey of faith was being shaped by the German martyr's radical faith.  Neither can I begin to count the number of times I have held his life and witness up before my congregation in preaching.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer's years may have been few,  but he has shaped many a soul on its way toward God, including, mine.