Burden and Rest

Some of you might have noticed that blogging has been awfully light here at Route 5:9 recently.  That’s because our staff was away on a retreat last week (and this week was taken up with having a number of visitors in town, plus catching up from last week).  During our retreat, we had a really refreshing time of fellowship, an enlightening overview of some of our key strategies, and an exciting teambuilding “Peacemaking Race,” but the highlight for many people was the morning of teaching that a local pastor shared. 

That’s what I want to take a few minutes here to focus on, both to remind myself of his great words, and also to give you the opportunity to have a window into how the Lord encouraged us — through Pastor Stacy Gaylord — last week.

Stacy based his teaching out of James 1:2-4

Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

I’m not sure that I would have intuitively thought of this passage as an ideal passage for teaching on “Rest,” but Stacy really hit the nail on the head.  After all, any burden that inhibits us from resting in the Lord is a “testing of our faith.”  So what’s a test of faith?  It can come in many forms, but ultimately, it’s something that reveals what our faith is in.  Stacy defined a “test of faith” as “whatever tends to lure you toward a hope other than Jesus.” In other words, in moments of temptation/testing, we will always be declaring our loyalty … to Jesus or to something else. 

One angle I’ve never thought about before was that, at the heart of James’ exhortation to his readers is the fact that circumstances were not going to get better … he doesn’t offer them hope based on their circumstances changing. I tend to default to offering people hope based on changing of circumstances, but James doesn’t go there; the hope he offers is rooted in eternity.

A few facts about “The Christian’s Burdens” that Stacy pulled out of James 1:

  1. The Christian’s burdens are inescapable.  American pragmatism tends to say, “You can fix this,” but the fact is, we WILL encounter trials of many kinds.  James isn’t writing to an unfortunate few; he’s writing to all of us.
  2. The Christian’s burdens are in many forms.  The hope and promise that we find in God’s Word applies to the wide array of challenges that we face throughout our lives.
  3. The Christian’s burdens are purposeful.  Scripture has testimony after testimony of God turning trials to good — I think of Joseph, for one.  The ultimate example of God using an evil event for good is, of course, the cross.  When we believe in the power of the cross, we will come to believe that God can and will work bad for good, even when we don’t have the opportunity to “connect the dots” on this side of eternity.  If you treasure the truth that God works evil for good, and you treasure the things that God calls “good,” this passage is full of promise.
  4. The Christian’s burdens are temporary. By the grace of God, you don’t have one problem that is permanent.  Even though particular trials can feel like they stretch on forever, and that testing can be exhausting (which is how we develop that perseverance of which James speaks), it’s so encouraging to know that they are, from an eternal perspective, actually quite short-lived.

After describing these four aspects of the Christian’s burdens, Stacy pointed out that how we respond matters.  James says, “Consider it pure joy…”  or other versions like the ESV say “Count it all joy…”  A few points about counting our burdens as joy:

  • Casting our burdens on the Lord isn’t an automatic, magical process.  We tend to think that casting our burdens on the Lord is a one-time event — we pray and are relieved of our burdens (or at least we should be!).  But counting it joy is an ongoing process, where we go to the Lord again and again with our concerns.  Stacy also pointed out that we need to give the Lord equal air time — in other words, when we’re really under fire, a few minutes in the Word and prayer every day aren’t going to cut it.  We’ll be battered by our tests all day long; we need to be spending ample time hearing the rock-solid, life-giving, eternal truth of God.
  • Burden-bearing is seldom a solo problem in the Christian life.  Don’t even try to do it on your own; seek others who will “fulfill the law of Christ” and share your burdens with them.  Stacy and I were chatting informally over one of our breaks, and we both agreed that this is one of the most neglected aspects of the Christian life in the American church today.  We do a poor job of bearing one anothers’ burdens, both because we’re too busy managing our own lives, and because we’re too proud to be vulnerable about where we are struggling.
  • “Counting it joy” is like a matter of accounting.  If you are familiar with accounting, there are debit and credit sides of a ledger.  Every burden or test that comes in is on the debit side of the ledger — it costs something.  You have to actively put it on the credit side by valuing what you receive more than what you lost. Doing this is such an act of faith; as Stacy said, “You have to actually trust God to pull that one off!”  And it’s a determined act of faith that says, “I will not waste it: I will learn, submit, trust and know that God’s hand sustains me.”

I hope there’s something in here that’s encouraging to you … as I’m looking back over my notes, I’m seeing a variety of ways to apply things that I’d already forgotten! (oh, how quick we are to forget the powerful reality of God’s grace in our lives.)  What do you think?  Does James 1:2-4 apply to burdens that you might be bearing today?  Can you “count it all joy”?

Teens as Peacemakers

I sat down with Ken Sande this week to discuss his new book, The Peacemaker Student Edition: Handling Conflict without Fighting Back or Running Away. Peacemaker Ministries has been trying to develop materials for teens for a long time, and so we’re pleased to finally have such a quality resource available for this oft-overlooked demographic.

The Peacemaker Student EditionI think that I often have too low of an expectation of teenagers. I went into the conversation thinking that this book would simply help teenagers learn to stay out of conflicts. While that’s a good thing, being a peacemaker means more than just avoiding conflicts yourself. It also means helping your brothers and sisters live in peace together (like the loyal yokefellow in Philippians 4:3). And teens are capable of doing this, perhaps to a much greater extent that I was ready to give them credit for. Ken vividly demonstrated this with a story of Jay, a teenager who built a reputation as a peacemaker in his school–so much that he was often late to class because he was helping his peers resolve their conflicts!

Listen to the whole interview and get the whole story. (MP3 download)

The Peacemaker Student Edition is specifically written in a way that teens can easily grasp and relate to.  For a taste of the writing style in this book, take a look at the sample  of Chapter 1 (and Table of Contents) that’s also available online.

We’re excited by the availability of this book, and pray that it would be a blessing to many teens, parents, youth pastors, and young adults. If you are interested in getting a copy for yourself or your church, visit our online bookstore or call us at 800-711-7118.

Remember the Grand Truths

A good reminder from John Piper on Desiring God’s blog, and hopefully an indirect consequence of this here blog:

“It is essential to say the grand old truths again and again. There is ample evidence in the Bible that they are quickly forgotten.

Remember, there are different kinds of forgetting.

One is that great truths are gone out of the mind never to return. The other is that they are gone out of the mind for a season (a day, a year) while we languish in discouragement and sin.

Don’t follow Israel here:

‘And the people of Israel did not remember the LORD their God, who had delivered them from the hand of all their enemies on every side.’ (Judges 8:34)

Rather, submit to Peter:
‘I intend always to remind you of these qualities, though you know them and are established in the truth that you have. I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to stir you up by way of reminder…. This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved. In both of them I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder.’ (2 Peter 1:12-13; 3:1)”

Succeeding in pride

I read this from Eugene Peterson’s A Long Obedience in the Same Direction over lunch today:

Every day I put love on the line. There is nothing I am less good at than love. I am far better in competition than in love. I am far better at responding to my instincts and ambitions to get ahead and make my mark than I am at figuring out how to love another. I am schooled and traind in acquisitive skills, in getting my own way. And yet I decide, every day, to set aside what I can do best and attempt what I do very clumsily – open myself to the frustrations and failures of loving, daring to believe that failing in love is better than succeeding in pride. (pages 76-77)

That’s a big challenge to me, to believe that failing in love is better than succeeding in pride. It is, in Peterson’s words, hazardous. May God give me — us — the courage and faith to take the risk of loving the people he places in our path!

The Masele Plant and Reconciliation

We just got this great note from Dave Schlachter, the VP of the Institute for Christian Conciliation here at Peacemaker Ministries. Dave is currently travelling in Tanzania.

When you are in a conflict, do you take action to communicate a willingness to seek reconciliation, or do you tend to wait for the other person to come to you first? “I am more right, or more hurt, so they should come to me.” “I will try to resolve our conflict, but only when you first say you are sorry.”

Tanzania - waterfall This morning my daughter and I hiked to Mnabe Majestic Waterfall in Tanzania, East Africa. The falls are about 100 feet high, in the rain forest on the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro. The hike was like walking in paradise, with thick green vegetation all around, the perfect temperature, slight moisture, and quiet with the exception of some children playing along the trail.

As we hiked along the trail, our guide shared stories and information about the local Chaga tribe. The Chaga tribe is one of approximately 120 tribes in Tanzania, which is located on the slopes of Kilimanjaro. The Chaga have a tradition which uses one of their native plants, the Masele plant (Masele leaves look like small leaves on a corn stalk) in a unique way. They use the plant as a symbol of their desire to seek reconciliation.

Tanzania - Masele plantWhen someone offends another person and desires to seek reconciliation and ask for forgiveness, he takes a leaf and presents it to the other person as his request to reconcile. The Chaga will often wrap blades of grass in the leaf–signifying a desire to sit on the grass and discuss the conflict. In a marriage, one spouse may even wrap a small gift in the leaf, such as a perfume or scented flower, as part of the request. Upon receiving the leaf, the other party is expected to honor the request and enter discussions to seek reconciliation.

The leaf is also used as a way to ask for forgiveness when a person needs food (e.g., after taking bananas from their neighbor without permission). A Masele leaf is folded and left at the foot of the banana tree, as a “message” to the owner that the neighbor took bananas to eat and is asking that they be forgiven for not paying or receiving permission first. Upon seeing the Masele leaf, the owner of the banana tree overlooks the taking, understanding that his neighbor needed the bananas more than he at the time.

Tanzania - wrapped leavesAs I walked down the trail toward the waterfall, I began to think about our actions, wondering if we communicate a desire for reconciliation when we are in a conflict. Do we continue to demand our rights and talk to others about the other person’s offense? Or do we tell others why we were right to do what we did? Or do we act in a way that communicates how we want to seek reconciliation and the unity God calls us to? If so, what would such actions look like?

We don’t have Masele plants back in Montana, but maybe the action is as simple as a kind word to the other person (even though we have been offended or know that we have offended him/her). Or it could be continuing in fellowship with the person rather than separating from them. Maybe, with a desire to confess your wrong, it is giving a gentle but clear request that the other person meet with you. Or perhaps it means leaving your gift at the altar and going to your brother or sister.

The next time you are in a conflict and feel the tension in your relationship, remember the Masele plant–take action that communicates a desire to seek reconciliation, and in faith, go to the other person.

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your bother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother, then come and offer your gift.” Matt. 5:23-24

Increase our Faith

A couple of weeks ago Fred posted some thoughts on the difficulty of forgiveness. That got me thinking about Luke 17. In 17:3-4 Jesus tells his disciples, “Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”

Then Luke 17:5 records one of the few instances in which the disciples seemed to “get it.” Immediately after Jesus commands them to forgive indefinitely, their only response is, “Increase our faith!”

Upon hearing Jesus’ requirements for forgiveness, the disciples come up with only one possible solution: Lord, increase our faith. Their  response to Christ’s admonition for forgiveness was that Christ would have to be the source of such a difficult obedience.

Forgiveness on this level is not only difficult, it doesn’t always make sense to us.  All the more reason to fall at the feet of Christ and cry out for Him to increase our faith.

Discontentment: An Autobiography

Fred has been posting on 9Marks’ “Living as a Church” lessons, and has challenged us to do the same.  Alright Fred, here you go.

Lesson VII is titled “Discontentment: A Test of Unity”:

“What is discontentment? It’s a desire for something better than the present situation. Now, on the one hand, it’s inevitable that people in a sinful world will be discontent. This world is broken by sin and should be better. On the other hand, it’s also inevitable that sinful people like us will often put our hope in circumstances rather than in God. That’s why discontentment with the church can bear such bitter fruit.”

When my wife and I moved back to Billings from the Twin Cities, one of our first priorities was to find a good church. We began by helping with a church plant in our neighborhood, but after one year we knew that it wasn’t to be our church home. After a short stint of church hopping, a friend invited us to his congregation on the other end of town.  The atmosphere was warm and inviting, and several people welcomed us into the church.  Although there were some things that we weren’t entirely sure about, we felt a strong desire to commit to a church body.  We jumped in with both feet.

Three years later, we are still struggling with being content in our church.

We assume that when we are discontent our reasons are either entirely righteous or entirely sinful.  But people are messy, and as my wife and I have examined our own sources of discontent, we’ve discovered a mixture of righteous and sinful sources: 

The sinful:

  • Our discontent comes from prideful judgement- we can be critical and condescending when the church doesn’t do or teach what we think it should.
  • Our discontent comes from a lack of personal growth. The worship can be less than rich and the sermons are often superficial. Although our church should contribute to our relationship with God, we can neither blame nor condemn our church for our own lack of growth. 

The righteous:

  • Our discontent comes from  prayerful discernment- there are significant issues facing our church’s structure and direction that, after prayer and consideration, we believe need to change to create a healthier body.
  • Our discontent comes from our a lack of shared values between us and most of the rest of the congregation.  While this shouldn’t be a “deal breaker,” it is important to recognize when you don’t share some important things in common with the rest of your fellowship.

Regardless of where your discontent comes from, 9Marks has some great advice about how to handle discontent.  Here are a few snippets:

“When you encounter discontentment, pray.  You are entering into a struggle that you cannot win on your own…we as a church would honor God far more if we tried to fix things ourselves less often, and spent more time in despreate pleading for God to heal us.”

“Consider others more significant than yourself. It is not only humbling, it’s a great way to remind yourself of the unmerited grace God has shown you.”

“Any conversation you have should have as its goal either to confess sin or to constructively plan how you might engage the situation and encourage the church. If your conversation does not fall into one of these two categories, than it may well be complaining or grumbling.”

We’ve resolved to leave our church twice in the past year.  We even visited a few other churches here in town.  But each time we decided to leave, responsibilities in our current congregation required to stay on a bit longer. And that has given us time to really examine why God would or would not have us in this particular fellowship.

I can’t tell you how many conversations my wife and I have had on our way home from church about how this sermon or that comment was bothering us. But lately the after-church conversations have changed.  Debbie and I have separately sensed that God wants us where we are.

We’ve decided to stay, and we’ve decided, with the help of God, to be content with staying.  You see, us leaving our church doesn’t improve the church or benefit the Kingdom of God.  So we’re going  to invest our imperfect talents into an imperfect fellowship with the hope of being used by God in a worthwhile way.

Unity in the body of Christ absolutely depends on believers committing to their local church when that church lets them down.  Because it will. The challenge is how we respond to a church that doesn’t fit our Thomas Kincade image of what church should be like.  Whether we decide to leave or stay, we must make sure that our decision is made with integrity, and with the end goal of glorifying God and loving people.

Last Friday night we went to a “Family Movie Night” at the church.  A bunch of us brought our kids and watched “The Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe” on the sanctuary’s big screen.  As were were driving away from the church that evening, my wife said simply, “It felt like home tonight.”

Well said, wife, well said.

Worship and Unity

OK, I mentioned earlier this week that I wanted to spend a little time digesting some of the materials from 9 Marks on living together in unity. My colleagues don’t seem to be taking my challenge particularly seriously, so I guess I will have to take the first step.

The twelfth “class” from 9 Marks was on worship, and this is actually a pet topic of mine — I’ve led a workshop on this topic a few times over the last several years at our ministry’s Peacemaker Conference. Everyone has heard about a church that’s struggled with the “Worship Wars,” and I’ve found that it’s a topic that pretty much everyone has an opinion on. (In fact, I frustrated folks at my workshops by not giving them enough time to say their piece about worship.) And anyone who is part of a worship team, as I am, has no doubt been on the receiving end of one criticism or another about the worship music.

The folks at 9 Marks write:

There is a strong connection between worship and unity. For one thing, worship is one of the sweetest and most valuable fruits of the unity we’ve been discussing. Also, true worship will naturally foster unity. When we focus our hearts and minds on Jesus Christ, finding our greatest satisfaction in him, the Holy Spirit also fills us with a desire to love those around us. And that contributes mightily to unity.

But if there is such a connection between worship and unity, it’s ironic that worship is so often the cause of disunity. Disagreements over musical style are rampant in churches, and far too many Christians are even willing to leave a church because they are not getting a “good enough” worship experience.

Here’s the full article: Class XII: Worship

Christians tend to be quite passionate about their positions on worship. Worship is, after all, the language we use to communicate our love to God–imagine the struggle you’d have if you went to buy a Valentine’s day card for your sweetie and all the cards were written in Sanskrit! It would sure be hard to express your love and devotion in a language you don’t know.

But for all the passion we tend to have, usually conflict over worship styles ends up demonstrating that our passions are often misplaced. We raise what is a personal preference to the level of biblical mandate on others. Bluntly stated, “This is what I like, and everyone else better learn to deal with it.”

I like to say that conflict over worship style isn’t really about worship — there’s usually something else going on: interpersonal conflict, generational issues, deficient leadership, conflict over scarce resources, etc. But in a very real sense, conflict over worship styles is absolutely about worship, just not in the way you might initially think. It’s not about style X vs. style Y. It’s about what we are esteeming most highly in the moment we say, “I am much more concerned about my worship experience than yours.” In that sense, our own preferences are reigning on the throne of our lives. We are ultimately worshiping self, ironically enough, while we think we are worshiping God! 

We’ve got to remember that unity is to precede worship. Matt 5:23-24 reminds us: “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.” In this passage, Jesus makes the rather shocking statement that unity (bringing peace to brothers who are unreconciled) takes precedence over worship (the offering of a sacrifice).  Reconciliation comes first. Then worship. We often forget this, but I think it’s instructive of our Lord’s desire for us to live in unity, even (and especially) in our worship.

I could say much more about this, but I’ll stop here. But I know you have thoughts. Add them to the comments, and someday I might take a stab at going deeper on the topic.

Bearing an Offense

At World Magazine’s blog, Andree Seu has some great words about how much she was blessed by a friend’s recent approach to a way that she had offended him.  Rather than respond immediately out of his pain, he “refrained from telling me my offense until he could deal with it sufficiently in his own heart to avoid sending me a hurtful letter.”

I love the lesson she drew from it:

In order to pull off that soul transaction, he had to suck up the pain himself, take on my debt himself rather than handing me the bill.

It’s short; take a minute to read the whole thing!

Wednesday Morning Devotions at the Peacemaker Office

Fred, I’ll take your challenge … but not yet.

While it’s still fresh in my mind, I want to write about the guests we had at our staff devotions today — Pastor Howard, Luther and Howard’s mom.

Howard and Luther both have dramatic testimonies of the Lord saving them from the grips of drug and alcohol addiction and are involved in a ministry to bring the hope of the gospel to people with the same struggles.  Luther sang several songs that he has written, and Howard shared a devotion from Romans 5.  He did a great job of putting Romans in its historical context (the utterly godless lifestyle of Rome that Paul describes in Romans 1 is very reminiscent of life in the US today!), and the great contrast that God’s peace is to that chaotic and destructive lifestyle.

If you remember, Paul starts Romans 5 by applying what he’s been teaching thus far:

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.

I loved that reminder: We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith.  And we have hope and can persevere because the Spirit is there working in and through us.  What a powerful truth that we can’t hear enough! 

A few other things have stuck with me from what Howard shared (besides his infectious humor):

  • The gospel is so radical, so transformative!  I loved how passionate Howard was about the work Christ is doing through him in the lives of the people he serves … he is a relative newcomer to our ministry, and he is just overflowing with excitement for the way that our materials and training have transformed his ministry.  Since he does a fair number of drug and alcohol interventions, he said he’s seen some serious conflict — we’re talking people coming to meetings with guns and knives!  But it’s the same Scripture and the same biblical principles that we use in any conflict, and he sees God working in peoples’ lives in tangible ways.
  • Like Paul in Romans 5 and following, Howard challenged us to think about areas in our life where we are not applying the gospel, where we haven’t been crucified with Christ.  So I extend that challenge to you: where are you living as though Christ did not die and rise again?  Are there areas in your life where you are acting out of unbelief, whether through doubt or rebellion?  Do you have anything in your life today where you are holding onto something (your own glory, something that brings you comfort) in such a way that it minimizes Christ’s death and resurrection?  Heavy stuff … but to recognize this, repent and turn to Christ is so freeing in the end!
  • Howard concluded by telling us about a miracle that we were witnessing right before us!  He is driving through Billings in the process of moving his mom from California to live in his city and work alongside him.  While he was living in rebellion from God for many years, he also made his parents’ lives miserable, capping it off by stealing everything his parents owned and selling it to support his drug habit.  Now, because of God’s grace, their relationship — especially the trust between them — has been restored.  He has gone from robbing his parents blind to being the executor of her estate.  What a beautiful picture of grace; it brought tears to my eyes to see them joyfully anticipating his mom spending her last days serving the Lord alongside her prodigal-come-home.

Thanks, Howard and Luther, for encouraging us and sharing yourselves with us!  May the Lord give you safety as you travel and may he continue to bless the work you are doing for his Kingdom.

 UPDATE: Thanks to Jerry for the picture of Luther, Sherylynn Laich (PM Director of Training), Nancy (Howard’s mom) and Howard.