Saturday, July 28, 2012

Understanding the Heart of "Ministry"

Ministry in the institutional church is pretty clear cut since it usually has a job description attached to it.  Ministry may be pastoring or teaching a Sunday School class.  It can also be singing or playing an instrument as a "praise and worship leader" or it can be working in the kitchen to help prepare the fellowship suppers.  In the context of the institutional church, it's varied but it's usually also highly structured and it normally takes place in the building where the group meets.

Since ministry is clearly defined, you always know when you do it.  However, once you step outside of the institutional system, ministry becomes amorphous and not so easily defined.  Since there's no job description, you often don't know when you've done it.

Ministry outside of the religious system is simple but it's also complex.  As defined by Dictionary.com, ministry is "the service, functions, or profession of a minister of religion" which is how the institutional church views it.  However, the dictionary app on my Nook defines it as "the act of serving" which I believe is a clearer definition of how ministry takes place outside of the institution.  Basically, it's the act of serving others and that's a pretty simple definition.  However, it becomes complex when we try to determine what this ministry should look like.

Although the outward situations may look the same, everyone's needs are different and that's what makes it complex.  If we'll get to know each individual as they struggle in their particular situation, we'll see differences that require different ministry in order to help them.  For example, if we probe a bit when trying to help homeless people, we'll discover that there are a variety of reasons why people become homeless so helping each person may require a different solution.  Also, needs tend to change so what someone needs today may not be what they need tomorrow.

The word "ministry" tends to have a rather mysterious aura about it but I don't think it was ever meant to be something that is mysterious and that can be done by only a few uniquely qualified individuals.  I believe it's best walked out in the every day circumstances of life by loving and serving whomever crosses our path in that given moment.  Although some people may require long term assistance, I believe it can also involve touching the life of someone in a simple subtle way.  Although we may never see them again what we do in that moment may have a great impact on their lives.  It may be as simple as offering a smile and a kind word to a waitress or a cashier who is obviously having a hard day but it may be what they need to turn their day around.  Actions like that may not get us a lot of recognition but because for that moment we've offered loving encouragement to someone who needed it, it's become loving ministry.

As we examine loving ministry, I believe we'll see several important characteristics.  Unfortunately, much of what we call ministry today is done in order to gain recognition.  However, when there's a genuine desire to help without regard for any personal reward other than the joy of helping someone else, that ministry will be effective because it touches the heart of the person in need.  Although physical needs may be met, ministry is only effective when it touches the heart so, the sole motivating factor has to be serving others, not the possibility of any tangible reward.

Loving ministry also involves having a listening heart.  If all we have is a listening ear, we may not pick up subtle signals which will lead us to respond appropriately.  When we pick up on those subtle signals, we can then offer the best possible help for that particular person.  A listening ear hears the words spoken but a listening heart hears the unspoken cry of their heart.  People don't always tell us what they're dealing with or they may not even know but, when we have a listening heart, we'll know what is needed or we'll know that we have to probe a bit more in order to effectively help and encourage them.

Sometimes, when I ask someone how they're doing, they'll answer, "okay" but my listening heart lets me know that they're really not okay.  So, I'll stop and ask them what's wrong.  Sometimes they tell me and sometimes they don't.  If they don't, I let it go but hopefully, they've been encouraged that someone recognized their pain and cared enough to ask.

Another characteristic of loving ministry is caring.  The hurting person can't just be another notch on our ministry gun as we tally up all of our ministry successes.  If all we care about is letting the world know how spiritual we are, we won't always do what's necessary to encourage and assist.  Loving and caring for a person can be messy at times, time consuming and often very frustrating but, when we love, we'll go the extra mile.  I've found it helpful to try to understand why they behave the way they do by seeing the hurting child in them and, when I can do that, I genuinely love them and patience is no longer a problem.  It's automatically there.

I've heard it said that people don't care what we say until they know that we care.  That's true because people respond better to true heartfelt ministry that's founded on love rather than on works.  Often we may see no immediate change but loving ministry still should be given with no expectation of change.  So, the final characteristic that I want to talk about is that loving ministry is ministry that is given with no strings attached.  In the end, the person may never do what we want then to do and they may never change but love requires that we give them freedom to make their own decisions and live life however they choose.

We may feel overwhelmed when we see the needs around us but if we'll remember that as children of God, love is our nature and when we follow love, we'll touch the lives of those he brings to us.  So, ministry is simply us living our lives and sharing the love we've been given with those who cross our path and that can be done inside of a building or outside of one. 

Monday, July 23, 2012

Freed From a Rule Keeping Religion

A number of years ago, I became involved in a church that later became abusive.  I stayed there for three years and finally left hurt and confused.  I then became involved with a mainstream church and, as I worked through the healing process, I began to realize that the modern day church has become institutionalized and little of it resembles the church that Jesus came to build. 

As I began to understand grace, it surprised me to learn that Christ's death didn't do away with the law.  The law is still in the earth and very much alive.  However, when Christ died, we died too so now we're dead to the law but the good news is that we're alive in him.  So, because our connection to the law was ended at the cross, we no longer have to follow a bunch of rules.

Religion, however, would seek to re-establish our relationship to the law.  Therefore, we've now ended up with a religion that's a mixture of the Old Covenant and the New Covenant.  This combination of law and grace has resulted in a religion that's weak and, for the most part, is ineffective.

The Old Covenant was a works oriented covenant in which righteousness was based on what a worshipper did.  The Jews were required to make specific sacrifices at set times as well as follow proscribed laws.  Their righteousness was determined by how well they followed those laws.  On the Day of Atonement, the High Priest offered sacrifices that took away the sins of the people but, the following year, he had to offer those same sacrifices again.  He did this year after year after year but there was never a permanent cleansing of sin.  Instead, it had to be renewed annually.

The New Covenant under which we now live is based, however, on what Jesus has done.  It's no longer based on our works but it's based solely on grace.  Religion would tell us that "Jesus made us righteous but . . ."  However, under the New Covenant, there are no "buts."  Our righteousness is totally based on Jesus' finished work and nothing else!

Although we no longer sacrifice goats and bulls, our modern Christian teaching has added its own set of rules which we as believers are expected to follow.  We're expected to attend church regularly, pray and read our Bibles regularly and, of course, tithe.  If those rules are not followed as proscribed by the local church, we are considered to be out of fellowship with God and therefore out from under his protective covering.  Our commitment as believers is questioned and we're encouraged to re-commit our lives to God and to the church.  Other "shoulds" may also be added and the list of rules can be endless.

To make matters worse, we're never told how much is enough.  How much of the Bible should we read each day?  How much time should we devote to prayer?  Even 10% of our income, the tithe, is rarely enough because we're supposed to give to God "his tithe and our offerings."  I've heard it said that we don't really start to give until we've given more than the tithe and, of course, the tithe should always be given to the local church.  We can never follow our heart and give where our heart leads us to because the tithe belongs "in the storehouse."  

The New Covenant, however, is not a rule keeping covenant.  It's not based on us keeping the law because we'll never be able to keep it perfectly.  Old Covenant believers tried and failed miserably so God who is faithful even when his people were faithless established a new covenant.  This covenant is built on better promises which are fulfilled in Christ so, therefore they are now not just promises, they are facts when we enter into them by faith. 

As Jesus died, he cried out, "It is finished."  Well, what was finished?  I've heard it taught that he was declaring that the work of salvation was finished but that can't be true.  His death just started the process but it wouldn't be finished until his resurrection and the arrival of the Holy Spirit 50 days later at Pentecost.

No!  Jesus was declaring that the Old Covenant was finished!  It was over and now believers could enter into a new covenant that was based on his finished work.  Then, when the Holy Spirit arrived at Pentecost, he ushered in a new covenant of grace.  No longer do we have to follow a set of laws which are impossible to keep but now we can be led by the Spirit and, in his power, we can live in a new life free from the dictates of an impossible law.  

So, as I follow the Spirit, I can now confidently say, "The law doesn't apply to me!"  And that's the good news of our salvation.  

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Gift of Aloneness

I've spent most of my life alone.  I never had many friends and the friendships that I had never seemed to last.  Loneliness was a constant struggle that never seemed to go away for very long.  Even as a believer actively involved in a local church, loneliness always seemed to be right there beside me.  Then, as God began to set me free and I no longer participated in all of the religious activities, my feelings of loneliness increased.

A few months ago, in a conversation with Darin Hufford about loneliness, he said that loneliness is a gift.  Well, that was certainly a new concept for me and, since I wasn't sure about it, I decided to just let it sit and wait to see what God would do with it.  In a recent podcast, Darin also said, "I've spent most of my life all alone inside of myself."  Then, as he elaborated on that statement, my heart was saying, "Yes!  Yes!  Yes!  I understand!

I've spent many hours all alone with myself, thinking and processing or, as Mary did, "pondering those things in my heart."  Through that processing, I discovered that loneliness is indeed a gift but only because it leads to aloneness.  However, that journey is difficult because the only road to aloneness leads through loneliness.  There's no way to by-pass it.

For most of us, loneliness is a dark place filled with many tears.  It's a place of sorrow that's filled with much frustration and self-pity.  It was a difficult place for me but I've found that in order to connect more deeply with my heart and with the real ME, I've had to travel through the dark place of loneliness.  I think many believers confuse emotions with the heart but they are different.  I think of the heart as a deep place where the real ME resides and it's only in aloneness that I've been able to connect with the real ME. 

While in that place of loneliness, I would struggle to find ways to talk to somebody, ANYBODY!!!!  In my loneliness, I felt like I was dying so I tried church and all of the church activities.  I tried small groups.  I tried prayer meetings and Bible studies but nothing eased the loneliness that I was feeling.  When I would spend time with people, even when we were speaking about "spiritual things," I left feeling empty and dissatisfied.  It was like a drug that satisfied for the moment but, when the affects of "fellowship" wore off, the loneliness returned.   

I finally decided that loneliness would always be with me so I gave up trying to fight it and instead decided to accept that it was just a way of life for me.  Making that decision was a major turning point because after that, things began to change.  I discovered that too much activity and interaction had been a distraction that hindered me from connecting with my heart in a real way.  As I learned to accept my alone times, I discovered that I actually enjoyed them and that that it's okay to be alone and enjoy those times.  So, now I've given myself the freedom to do the things I enjoy doing, even if I have to do them alone.

I work in a public high school and the kids are always asking me what kind of music I listen to.  I tell them that I don't like music so I don't listen to any.  Since they don't believe me, they then ask me, "What do you listen to in the car?" and I tell them that I don't listen to anything.  Shocked, they then ask, "What do you do?"  My answer is, "I think."  By their silent response, I can tell that they can't comprehend of such a thing. 

Thinking for me has become a way of life and I enjoy connecting with the real ME in that secret place of my heart.  I'm learning more and more about myself and who I really am but that has only taken place because I've learned to accept and live in aloneness.  Now, I no longer despise my time of loneliness.  I accepted it as a gift when I discovered that it was the only path to the secret place of aloneness which for me has become a place of contentment for it is there that I meet with God and the real ME.

Hosea said it well when he described that place of privacy and intimacy with God.

"Therefore I am now going to allure her;
I will lead her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her.
There I will give her back her vineyards, and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. 
There she will respond as in the days of her youth, as in the day she came out of Egypt."   

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Examining the Lord’s Prayer Through New Covenant Eyes – Part 2

I received the following email in response to my post, "Examining the Lord's Prayer Through New Covenant Eyes."  Instead of praying the Lord's Prayer as a plea for God to do what he's already done, this prayer has become for the writer of the email, a prayer of thanksgiving. I believe this person is a perfect example of someone who has learned to see the Lord's Prayer through New Covenant eyes. 

She has given me permission to post it here as a followup to my original post.  I think you'll be encouraged by what she has to say. 


The Lord's Prayer

Father has used the Lord's prayer in my life as a vital tool to teach me not only about how to converse with Him, but how to live for Him in intimate relationship.

This is the way I see it:

"Our Father who art in heaven, hollowed be thy name", Praise draws me to Father and worship is how I live my life in praise. Doesn't mean I am always in the mood, but when all is dark and scary it never hurts to acknowledge how wonderful and good He is.

"thy Kingdom come thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven", this is me seeking relationship with Father, a hunger in my heart a longing to know Him.

"give us this day our daily bread", because His mercies are new every morning, I know I can ask Him to give me what I need to face life. This includes the financial provisions I need on a day to day basis. I ask Him not because He has to be reminded to meet my needs, but because I need to be reminded He does meet my every daily need.

"forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors", of course I am forgiven even before I asked. So why not practice the same grace given to me? And remember everyday I too have the power to forgive.

"and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil", help me to make the right choices, do not allow me to be deceived. Love casts out all fear and in a relationship with Father I know all is good (even what appears to be bad).

"for thine is the Kingdom and the power and the glory", what better place to be than in His loving arms? No matter how I might "feel" the truth is He knows where I am and meets me there. 

This is not how I've always viewed The Lord's Prayer. For years I would recite it without meaning and than a time came when I would pray it in my darkest hours, when I could even hardly utter any words. And then one day, I'm not sure when, this prayer became my way of being and I no longer needed to recite it. So I believe with all my heart,

Jesus taught that prayer to the old testament believers with the new testament believers in mind.