Friday, August 27, 2010

The Keeper of the Well--a Parable

Once upon a time a great and wonderful King created a thriving village called Ekklesia. The village was situated in a beautiful and fertile area that provided abundantly for the people of the village as they tended their gardens and fields. For a water supply, the King provided a remarkable well at the center of the village square that supplied far more water than the villagers would ever need. It was an artesian well that bubbled with life even in the driest of times.

Everyone in the village had full access to this amazing well and could draw from its rich supply of water whenever they had need. And because the people recognized that "life" was in the water, virtually family in the village was sure that the children learned to draw water (for themselves and for others) at a very young age.

Under this arrangement the village of Ekklesia prospered for many years, well cared for by their King and His abundant well. Each family delighted in drawing from the overflowing source, and laughter was a normal sound in the village as various people would gather at the well during the day. Drawing from the well became not just a part of fabric of the life but a part of the nurturing of the relationships in the village.

But one day, after a prolonged season of drought (even though the well flowed as abundantly as ever during the drought), some of the elders in the village became convinced that some regulation was needed as to how the well was accessed. Concerns began to be voiced that some of the families were not as careful about drawing out water as they should be and that some of the children were wasting the water as they played around the well. And so it came to pass that because of unfounded fear, the elders of the village decided to hire a professional “keeper of the well.” This well-keeper was especially trained to be wise and careful in the drawing out of water, and was put in charge of dispensing the water from the well. Villagers who complained about this new arrangement were assured that they lacked the expertise of the keeper of the well and that the best water could be had only if they allowed the keeper of the well to draw the water for them.

And so it came to pass that the free and spontaneous withdrawal of water by anyone at any time was replaced by regulated special times of the day and week when the expert well-keeper would draw out the water and distribute it to all of the villagers at once. The well was "closed" at other times (although a few brave souls continued to access it secretly from time to time!). In viewing this new arrangement, the elders of the village felt that they had served the others well: there would be no waste now, and over the ensuing years a succession of highly trained well-keepers was brought in to be sure that water was indeed dispensed in the “proper manner.”

But it came to pass that problems began to arise in the village. The limited access to the water resulted in poorer crop production and in sickness finding its way into many village households. This in turn led to strained relationships within the village. Even the atmosphere of fear surrounding the proper use of the well added to the strained relationships. Furthermore, the spontaneous gatherings at the well, whereby so many healthy relationship had flourished, disappeared, having been supplanted by the formal, rather stilted times when the well-keeper would perform his masterful work.

And so it came to pass that the village elders met to solve the problems that had arisen. They tried all kinds of solutions: they hired better-trained well-keepers, they adjusted the times and types of distribution of the water, they even tested the water to be sure it was okay (it was), and so forth. But the village still languished and failed to thrive as it once had. (Strangely enough, no one ever thought to explore the basic assumption about the well-keeper. After all, the well-keeper system had been in place for a long, long time, and people had long since stop questioning its effectiveness!)

But it came to pass that the great and loving King, becoming aware of this sad situation, sent a new well-keeper to town. And this person began to change things radically! He actually encouraged folks to access the well whenever they felt the need and even suggested that they train their children to do so! Many in the village were shocked and frightened by this, as you can imagine. But some of the families actually did begin to draw their own water, whenever they needed it, as much as they needed, and their crops and households noticeably improved. And some of these brave folks even took to gathering spontaneously at the well and found a joyful health returning to their relationships with the others who did so. The whole atmosphere of the town was beginning to change because of these courageous folks who dared to draw their own water. (They even discovered that they could train one another without the expert help of the well-keeper, and thus the movement of water increased noticeably as the months and years progressed...).

I deliberately leave this story unfinished! ☺

Tom, one of Abba's children

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Fear, Faith and Peace

     Once again I find myself writing from the midst of our own journey through the valley. Today's big thought came this morning as I realized that exercising faith doesn't automatically make fear go away. Rather we walk through our fears based on the decision to trust God. Fear eventually goes away as we surrender and pray our way (by faith) into the place of rest in Papa's embrace. But even if I don't get to peace all the time, I can still trust Him in the midst of my fears.
     So...the following is straight out of my journal from this morning (slightly edited). I don't often do this but felt led to share transparently what's going on right now :-)
     Papa, I am not sure why you are having me re-read Hinds’ Feet on High Places, but I suspect it will read differently now. The last time I read it, I didn’t even notice that the two companions who escort Much-afraid are named Sorrow and Suffering! Papa, for sure the na├»ve, Pollyanna-like attitude I had in the past has been blown away. Jesus, you said that we would have tribulation in this world, but somehow I thought there was a way to avoid it and still get to the high places. Yet you have told me all along that there would be challenge!
     Papa, this thought just came to me: I keep expecting faith to take away the feelings of anxiety that I sometimes wrestle with, but that doesn’t always happen, I guess. Certainly it appears that the apostle Paul wrestled with anxiety at times. On the other hand, there is a peace that passes understanding that we can get to, but faith merely opens the door to that place. We surrender ourselves all the way to the place of rest after choosing once again to transfer our confidence back from us to you. But one of my challenges continues to be my unawareness of my emotional state (or unwillingness to stop and deal with it). I think of how much fear came into me as I read yet another book on how to deal with cancer. Papa, what should I have done differently? I know you will show me because you love me and want to show us your ways. And even as I write this I realize that I had no clear leading to read the book at all! Sigh…but I am smiling as I write. “Listen, listen to me…” (Isaiah 55:2-3) comes to mind. Ah, Father. I get afraid and then I seize control and then I become even more afraid. Only you can rescue me from this vicious cycle, but I am grateful that I am not nearly as enslaved to it as I used to be!
     Ah, Father. I know this, I think. But I still try to make it more complicated than it is!
     Father, more now than ever I see that you are massively re-adjusting a paradigm I have had about suffering. Somehow I have unconsciously thought we could be exempt from pain and suffering. I am confused, Father, in some ways, because I don’t know how it is that we can pray for healing, etc., with conviction yet also accept everything as permitted by your hand. The Shack seems to have a better handle on this than most other things I have read, yet even there the suffering is unspeakable. How have I missed this? And where do we go from here? I know it’s not going to change your promises to heal, but clearly I should at least get over my surprise that bad things happen! And surely I should look for you in the midst of the storm and for how you are going to work. Beyond that, I wait for you.
     Papa, thank you for reminding me on the walk that healing is ultimately a spiritual thing, not just a physical thing. You always have to over-rule the natural things to bring miraculous healing, of course, and that helps me not fret so much about eating, etc. We want to be wise, Papa, but we can trust you to guide us just as you have promised. It’s amazing how even “good things” and/or well meaning things can take our focus off of you and put it back on us or our problems. Thank you for beginning to rescue me from this once again!
     Thank you, too, Father, for reminding me yet again that your answer to our fears is always, “I AM with you” or “I will be with you.” We look for solutions, for relief, and you offer yourself, a far more precious gift!

Thanks for listening to my heart poured out to Papa today,

Tom, one of Abba's little boys

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Useless but priceless!

My office is filled with useless, priceless treasures. They include a picture of a Ferrari my son Jon drew for me when he was little; a pipe cleaner twisted into "I love you" from Kendall, a precious young girl in the last church I served; countless pictures of various quality drawn by grandchildren; little trinkets given to me by my precious Jettie; and many more. And if you go to other places in our house you will find more of these treasures: boxes of rocks and sticks collected by my sons when they were little and we would walk the beaches of Whidbey Island together, assortments of other "finds" by my sons; all of Jettie's love letters to me from the summer before we were married, etc.

In addition to these tangible and visible things around me, my mind is filled with countless memories related to these treasures and many memories of acts of kindness, love and generosity.

Why do I value these things so highly? Because without exception they are expressions of love for me and often for others as well. It is love as the motive that gives "useless" things infinite value.

Not too long ago (January 13) I had an epiphany about these treasures as it relates to God and recorded it in my journal. Here's what I wrote: "Wow, Father, as I go back to November 13, 2008, and read the words about doing everything because of love for you, you bring to mind the little 'useless treasures' that little children bring to their parents. It’s the love that gives them meaning and value—the motive behind them—not the perfection, appropriateness or intrinsic value! And that’s how you are with us, isn’t it? Wow! No wonder you tell us to live with no regrets and no wonder Brother Lawrence encouraged us to do everything out of love for you!"

I suppose this whole line of thinking may not mean much to some folks, but as my life has been reduced to what really matters through the journey we have been on, I am more aware than ever that whatever I offer to my Abba is from His perspective remarkably imperfect. The best of us is able to offer God something He doesn't really need (He needs nothing) and that falls far short of His infinite perfection. But whatever we offer in love is of immeasurable value to Him. This is so liberating to me! There's something that gives me great hope about being able to offer God something that brings Him joy not because it was perfectly executed but because it was given because of love for Him.

God, of course, has made this clear in more ways than one. First Corinthians 13:1-3 especially comes to mind. "Without love..." Love for whom? Perhaps love for the other persons, but most certainly love for God given that the Great Commandment is to love Him with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength!

It is possible, of course, to offer something to someone else for motives other than love. And as we all know, it's certainly possible to offer God even our obedience because of motives other than love for Him, but my guess is that these offerings bring Him little joy. What parent wants to be served, given gifts, obeyed because of fear or self-interest? But what parent doesn't rejoice when a gift of love, however imperfect, is offered? And I wonder if this is true most of all because when love is the motive what we are really offering most of all is ourself to the other person. Yes, I think that's it, isn't it? The most "useless" gift when given in a love that gives myself along with the gift is the most precious treasure I can give...

Ah, Papa. I cannot offer much that is slick, polished, competent, but I will bring you my "trinkets of love" with the encouraging knowledge that the useless becomes priceless when I bring them to you in love!

Tom, one of Abba's little children

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Big Events--What's the Return on Investment?

I just finished re-reading Bo's Cafe this week and was again struck by how important life-on-life relationships lived in the context of God's grace and power are to transformation (individual and community). This led to one of my recent tweets on Twitter that also shows up in FB: "Although Jesus would speak to the crowds, He chose to focus on only a few. It is an illusion to believe that we can influence a crowd deeply." (You cannot make disciples in the context of a large gathering. You cannot disciple a crowd! Discipleship takes place only in the context of one-on-one or one-on-few or few-on-few).

The irony about this, of course, is that most of American traditional church activity focuses on "big events" whether we are talking the Sunday morning (or whenever) "service" or other types of large group meetings. So I have been thinking about this a lot, given the clearly documented failure of the western church to transform much of anything. What's up with all the focus on the "big event" and why should the focus be changed? Big topic, and I will only touch on a few thoughts at this point, but perhaps some of them are the bigger rocks.

Concerning Jesus and the early church and crowds. As noted above Jesus did address large crowds, but He appears to have done so primarily to invite people to become disciples. His parables were designed to obscure truth to those whose hearts weren't set on knowing God but create desire and curiosity in those whose hearts were. His frequent use of the term "the one who has ears to hear let him/her listen" is an invitation to draw closer and become a disciple. But yes, Jesus did teach the crowds at points, so what do we do with that? Two thoughts: first, the culture of that day was a "listening and remembering" culture, ours is a "feeling and forgetting" culture (think about it--we don't have to remember anything, but in Jesus' day people had to remember everything). The point here is that people in Jesus' day were far more likely to hear and remember what they heard. Second, even in His teaching large groups, it's clear that Jesus wasn't anticipating that this would transform lives apart from following Him and giving oneself to the Kingdom of God and those who are part of it.

So Jesus did address the crowds, and so did the early church (Pentecost comes to mind). But there seems to be no evidence that they expected to make disciples this way--instead addressing the crowds was designed to invite people to enter the Kingdom and become disciples. Nor does there seem to have been any effort put forth to "putting on an event" or "attracting a crowd." Indeed, the crowds were generally drawn because of the supernatural demonstrations that accompany the message of the Kingdom of God.

So why does so much effort in the traditional western Christian world go into big events? Part of it is cultural, I suppose. And certainly part of it us due to unquestioned traditions and assumptions. But after reading Bo's Cafe again (and reflecting on my own life) I wonder if a really big reason for doing the big event is that big events are so much easier and "safer" than living life-on-life with others. As a former pastor I can assure you that it's much easier and safer to hole up in your office with your books for 20 hours to prepare a message than it is to get in the trenches with people's messy lives. And it is easier and safer by far to plan the meeting than it is to live out the "one anothers" in a way that let's people see our flaws and failures. The sad fact is that very toxic, unwhole people can plan events, preach sermons, lead worship, etc., and continue to do so with the appearance of some success if they draw a crowd. Ouch! Did I say that? Yup, I sure did. You can be toxic and immature and do the big event, but you cannot make disciples in that condition, at least not disciples of Jesus!

But having written all of this, I am filled with hope. The fact is that "Bo's Cafes" are beginning to happen more and more, many of them under the radar and behind the scenes. God is stirring up a hunger in people both inside and outside church walls for authentic, grace-enabled, Spirit-empowered community. I don't have time to describe all of this, but the very fact that John Lynch, Bill Thrall and Bruce McNicol have written books like TrueFaced and Bo's Cafe is an indication that something good is stirring that is beyond all of us and inviting all of us to examine where our hearts are and where our efforts are going. And there are many other similar books and other stirrings out there as well. In fact, that wonderful "prophet" Dallas Willard has been saying similar things for quite some time. I close today with a quote from him in Renovation of the Heart in Daily Practice, co-authored with Jan Johnson).

"The reason most congregations fail to routinely produce children of light is distraction. While majoring on minors, they become distracted by things the New Testament says nothing about. They devote most of their thought and effort to sermons, Sunday school, style of music, denominations, camps or board meetings. Those matters are not primary and will take care of themselves when what is primary is appropriately cared for. Such matters are 'vessels' but are mistaken for the 'treasure.'" (p. 162)

Asking God to help me focus on the treasure...

Tom, one of Abba's children