This weekend we were in Newark, DE where I attended college and was first connected to the PCA (Presbyterian Church in America) – my denomination. We participated in their annual missions conference and it was a great time in so many ways. I’ll probably write a few posts related to our time there and some other networking visits, but here’s the initial salvo.
When you are trying to generate interest and raise support for the ministry you’re headed towards, you rightly believe that what you’re doing is of great importance. You hear God’s call, make sacrifices and put yourself out there to follow. Then you run into a bunch of other people doing a similar thing. And it is easy to try and justify in your head why your cause is the most worthy. Or on the other hand to be despondent because you’re at the bottom of the list.
But you listen to each person’s story, hearing the call of God in each of their lives and thoughts of comparison fade. In God’s service every work is incredibly significant and of inestimable potential. It really comes back to the cross, which seemingly is the low point, the weakest, most insignificant point of ministry in Jesus life. Yet, in God’s hands death turns to life and this ministry of suffering and sacrifice is the greatest of all. So, thinking about Jesus’ ministry and hearing about the work of others both humbles me and lifts me up. I am reminded of my limited perspective on what is significant and encouraged as I remember incredible power of God at work in weakness. I’m glad that whatever ministry I’m called to is not “worthy'” because looks better at certain points in comparison with others but because God himself is calling and working.
I think of St. Patrick who had an incredible impact on Western Civilization and how it all began with his enslavement to “barbaric” celtic people. If you’re not familiar with the story you should check it out.
This past Friday and Saturday I was in Boston for a regional conference of The Gospel Coalition. When you take in a solid 12+ hours of teaching in a day and a half there’s a lot downloaded in the memory banks. So here are some highlights.
Saturday was an amazing day in Boston. Walking to the Back Bay Conference Center from the T you pass towering office buildings, beautiful homes and one of the highlights of Boston churches, Trinity. It is fun to be in a city with such a mix of architectures woven into a coherent whole. The main drawback to the beautiful day was being inside the auditorium of the conference center where it is always dawn or dusk. The lighting is bright enough to see but never fully day.
One of the speakers, Tim Keller, a pastor in New York City and author spoke at the first two sessions. He stressed the nature of the gospel as “news.” In contrast to religious (or secular) advice on how one should live, the gospel is news of what God has done for us in Jesus. This may sound pretty basic, but it is an incredible point for reflection. When I hear again, of Jesus living, dying, and rising again on behalf of a corrupt humanity I am reminded of how little I understand the gospel. I see the ways in which my life is out of line with the path Jesus makes and it is both a rebuke and an invitation. God is showing me my blindness so that I would again look to him for sight. God is showing me that I have no qualifications or strong points to stand upon and must flee full to his grace.
On the other hand, God was encouraging me through the conference, as I listened to some of the speakers and said “I’m actually doing, to a large degree, what they are pointing out. Two of theses instances were in the area of communication and it was encouraging to hear that I’m starting to get it and grow in my ability to speak with individuals from many backgrounds about Jesus. I’m seeing progress here and I’m glad its not merely in my head.
I’ve spent a lot of time on the phone recently, as our cell phone statement can attest, and have had a lot of great conversations. A week or two ago, I was talking with a friend from seminary who is now serving in a church and he was telling me about his wife’s work for an international Christian organization.
She is a fundraiser and spends a lot of her time asking people for money. On the other hand, when she volunteers at the church, she leads the missions team. This team helps fund Christian work both nationally and internationally. So she is in the interesting position of both asking for money and deciding with others how to give money. Here’s what was passed on through this conversation, that has been of great help to me as I raise money for our church planting efforts:
When I am asking others to support our work, whether financially or prayerfully, I ask as one under authority. I am under both human and divine authority and am bound to ask. By accepting the job offer at Trinity, I am come underneath the authority of Trinity’s leadership and commit to the path we have agreed upon. So, I must ask. It is my job to ask. Even more though, at the heart of the job offer and my acceptance is the belief that God himself is leading us together. Ultimately, it is God himself that is calling me to this work and this means raising money for the work. So when I ask, I do so because it is my calling, both from God and from man.
Just as the one asking, is under human and divine authority, so the the person being asked. Every church that I approach has a budget, some set of priorities and commitments in place. So when I ask a missions team their response must take in account the human authority they are under. Even more though, whenever I ask a church or individual, that person is under God’s authority, as the one who gives us all we have. Just as I must faithfully use the resources God has entrusted to me, by asking for money, so must the person being asked, faithfully use the resources God has entrusted to them. So even though it may feel like there is this large power differential between the person asking and the person being asked, they are both in the same position. Each must follow the human and divine authority which they are under.
This is quite freeing. I need to do the best I can in being faithful the human and divine call on my life, but it is not ultimately on my shoulders to draw together a team for prayer and financial support. So this image of the ladder, disappearing at the bottom and top, is helpful. It preserves the distinction that some of us are higher or lower rungs, but points to the big picture that we’re all underneath somebody. There is no autonomous rung floating out there above it all. So when I talk to people about the work ahead of us, I need to trust that God will equip each of us to be faithful to his calling.
One of the unexpected benefits of being laid off from my position as an assistant pastor, was the opportunity to preach much more regularly. Now, this may not seem to make sense and in retrospect I’m not sure exactly how it worked out, but over the course of a year I probably preached twenty five times. Preaching with such regularity was an important way in which God helped clarify his calling in my life and it helped provide for our family.
I’ve cut back quite a bit on the preaching, doing so about once a month, so I can focus more on our upcoming work with the church planting fellowship. This sunday though, I preached at First Congregational Church of Pomfret (pictured above) and it was good for my soul. Pastors talk about the privilege of preaching the gospel and after having a few weeks “off” from preaching it was wonderful to communicate the message of Jesus. If Christianity is true, then it is an incredible privilege to speak on God’s behalf.
Another enriching aspect of this Sunday was the story of the church, which began in 1715. Preaching and worshipping there, I was standing on almost three hundred years of struggle and endurance by God’s people. It reminds me of the amazing narrative in which every Christian participates. Lastly, as you may be able to imagine. New England is beautiful this time of year. It was a country drive along wooded roads and in the cool, quiet of the morning.
There is a sense in which construction paper and poster board is classic. It brings back the days of elementary school and fun art projects. So in that vein, and because it’s what we had around the house, we now unveil…. (drum roll)
Our magnificent fundraising barometer…
Well, it’s not actually a barometer, but lays out where we are and where we need to be. As you can probably guess there are a larger number of smaller gifts at the bottom with a smaller number of larger gifts at the top. Wesley has helped with the stickers and it is good to have a visual that represents our progress, the work ahead of us, and our complete dependence on God.
This week I’m preaching from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth in the 1st century and he says, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong…” Our chart reminds me of our weakness, foolishness, and seeming insignificance. It also reminds me of the power of God who is bringing together people to pray and give so that somewhere lives will be changed. Through your praying and giving a community will be reshaped by the presence of Jesus through his church. Each sticker on this chart is part of God’s promise of grace and transformation taking root in a new place. Some days raising money, making calls, and sending emails feels pretty lame, but when when I remember what we’re doing, where we’re heading, and ultimately the saving purposes of God I know that it is a privilege. It is a privilege to be one of the foolish, weak people that God uses to show his own wisdom and strenght.