Hope for the Barren Church

19 06 2014

Thursday Re-mix:

Because the Lord had closed Hannah’s womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her. This went on year after year. Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the Lord, her rival provoked her till she wept and would not eat. 1 Samuel 1:6-7

http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-image-cracked-land-image22328576In ancient times, being barren was a major affliction.  I suppose it probably still is in many parts of the world.  But for Hannah (and for all the other women in the Bible whose stories begin with being barren), it meant no security at all for their future.  Once their husband was gone, with no children of their own and with no ability to own property or earn a living, they would be destitute.  Desperation, then, does not even come close to describing the state of being for them.

Churches often go through seasons of desperation as well.  Maybe you know well what I mean. After years of budget shortfalls and then an economic crisis, there is suddenly a severe conflict and families leaving the church, and then the sudden death of a key leader and then a moral failure on another’s part and so on and so forth…the desperation can all pile up pretty quickly.  Then there are the anguishing cries to the Lord, “How long will you allow this to continue?!”  Month after month of praying can turn into year after year.  The landscape of the church turns into a parched, dry, barren land. Heretofore strong, faithful members begin to question whether the Lord has simply lifted his hand from the church…His glory has departed…He has written “Ichabod” across the door.

In such “barren” circumstances, hope for the future is all but waned completely.  It becomes impossible to even imagine a future.  Only the most faithful few even remain.  It can feel awfully destitute…much like Hannah no doubt felt in 1 Samuel 1.

It bears remembering during such a season that the same God who answered Hannah’s desperate cries (as well as the desperate cries of the other barren women of the Bible) hears the cries on behalf of your church.  That same God whose timing for Hannah’s pregnancy was perfect also has the perfect timing for accomplishing His purposes through your church’s barren season.  Why did the Lord close Hannah’s womb? So that He would be glorified when Samuel was born.  Why has He permitted your church’s curent struggles? So that He will be glorified when the blessings come.

Keep the faith, my friend.  He has not forsaken His church.  Humbly cry out to Him, seek His face, and He will hear and will answer.  In His perfect time.

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




Meanwhile, Until We are Truly “Abiding in Him”…

29 04 2014

Tuesday Re-mix:

If you say, “The Lord is my refuge,”
    and you make the Most High your dwelling,
no harm will overtake you,
    no disaster will come near your tent.  Psalm 91:9-10

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”  John 15:5

Holy Scripture is filled with amazing promises.  But almost all of them come with conditions.  You know the formula…“IF my people…will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, THEN will I hear from Heaven and…” etc.  Or…“Trust in the Lord with all your heart…and He will make your path straight.”  Most of God’s awesome promises come with a condition of some kind or another, or at least an assumption or implication.  It seems to be one of His many wondrous ways.

I read all the wonderful promises of Psalm 91 in that same light. Those promises of God’s protection and provision all hinge upon the very first line (repeated in verse 9): If you make the Most High your dwelling.

baby feet in heartWhen I deal with conflicting parties within the church, I often hear both sides invoke the name of the Lord for their positions.  I hear both sides claiming that God is on their side, that He will prevail and that He will bring about what they want.  But I also hear both sides in very much a “win/lose” mindset, wherein they will not be satisfied unless they win AND the other side loses.  I recall working with a church some years ago wherein one group was very much wanting to get rid of the pastor.  They were acting as “God’s agents”.  Midway through the process, the pastor accepted a call to another church and resigned, whereupon that group became  angry!  They had won…but they also wanted him to lose, and he did not.  At that point, I’m afraid their true motives, their true hearts, became crystal clear.

Meeting God’s criteria for enjoying His promises is never as simple as merely doing something for God.  It will never be enough to say, “I have prayed about this” and therefore expect God’s armies to go before you and to smite anyone who gets in your way.  The criteria for God’s promises, more often than not, have something to do with abiding in Him…DWELLING in Him.  You cannot hold a handful of prayer meetings with those who all agree with your position and come away claiming God’s anointing and a superior handle on God’s will.

If you have never read Andrew Murray’s devotional book, Abide in Christ, you really must. It should be a part of every Christian leader’s library.  He does such a masterful job of exploring just what it means to “abide in Him”.  It is a mindset…a condition of the heart…a way of being…a lifestyle…and so much more.  I believe a person who is truly “abiding in Christ” actually does have a leg up in terms of wisdom and understanding God’s heart and God’s desires.  I know a few people whom I believe fit that description.  I trust them implicitly in matters of discernment.  But the rest of us will just have to continue doing our best to seek God’s will together and will continue to see “as through a glass dimly”.  We will just have to continue to rely on the cumulative effect of hearing God speak through his Word, through prayer, through His people and through the church.  And it will NOT be an nice, easy process.  It will take time…more time than we want to take.  It will require uncommon humility and extraordinary patience.

And when it is all said and done, you and I will both be better for having waited on the Lord and for having walked through the process together.  And if we step carefully and prayerfully, at the end of the discernment process, we may well find ourselves one step closer to truly “dwelling in Him.”

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




Pursuing Peace

8 04 2014

Tuesday Re-mix:

Turn from evil and do good;
    seek peace and pursue it.  Psalm 34:14

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.  Romans 12:18

dove

I am still thinking here about the very difficult debates raging through the church today over the same-sex issues and what scripture says (or what it does not say) about the issue. It occurs to me that seeking peace with each other around this issue has less to do with WHAT we have to say and much more to do with our HEARTS as we engage each other in this conversation.

Peace can be a tricky thing.  As high a value as scripture makes it, as many times as we are instructed to pursue it among God’s people, the way toward peace and the way toward conflict often move in the same direction.  That makes it tricky.

Peace, you see, is NOT necessarily just the absence of conflict.  As long as people are involved, there will be conflict…there will be disagreement…and there will be hurt feelings.  In the midst of those things, peace does NOT require moving away from each other.  Rather, peace requires moving toward each other.  It requires having difficult conversations…even painful conversations.  Avoiding those conversations may bring a temporary peace, at least it may feel more peaceful for a short season, but the long term result is just the opposite of peace…it is chaos and frustration and complication.

So, the first point here is that “pursuing peace” often requires moving toward the conflict rather than away from it…moving toward the difficult conversation rather than waiting in the wings and allowing the pain to fester over time.  The problem, then, is how to tell the difference between “pursuing peace” and fueling a fight.  Both are moving toward the conflict, both involve a confrontation.  How do we distinguish between them?  How do I make sure I am on the right track and not a harmful track?  That brings us to our second point.

It is a question of the heart.  The Arbinger Institute, in The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict describes the distinction between a “heart at peace” and a “heart at war”.  The former is relating to the other person as a human being with needs and with fears and with pains.  The latter has “otherized” the other person and treats them as an object rather than a human being…an object to be pushed away, to be disregarded, even hated.

Jesus describes the distinction in terms of our ability to see clearly.  He says,

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”  Matt. 7:3-5

Seeing clearly, as it turns out, is the difference between a heart at peace and a heart at war.  Having that difficult conversation with the person who has hurt you requires that you have prayerfully sought the Lord’s perspective on that person, so that you can see him/her as God sees him/her…you can see him/her as a child of God, with fears and insecurities and needs.  Your desire is not to push him/her away, as some undesirable object; rather, it is to pull them forward with you toward peace.  It is to pursue peace together.

If you are thinking, “Well, that seems awfully difficult,” then congratulations…now you are seeing the truth.  Genuine Christian community, our life together as the body of Christ, was never intended to be easy.  It was intended to be peaceful.

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




We Should Have Credentials to Talk About Love

31 03 2014

Monday Morning Quarterback – Encouraging God’s people to be responsible, encouraging and uplifting in their use of social media.

One of the negative impacts of social media on our society is that anyone who knows how to communicate well is automatically accepted as an expert, or at least as someone to be followed and quoted.  In truth, maybe all they really need is an opinion that happens to fit well with other people’s in order to get followed. There are no credentials necessary. There is no life experience necessary. Credibility is “earned” merely by being a particularly gifted or innovative communicator. That notion is both refreshing and scary at the same time. And nowhere is it becoming more of a nuisance than in the church.

love credentialsLast week’s Christian social media posts were filled with comments about World Vision’s President, Richard Stearns’ comment to Christianity Today that his organization would now be willing to hire legally married gay couples to work there, and then the organization’s subsequent quick reversal of that decision.  As you might imagine, Facebook posts and blog posts (and Christ-followers’ comments on both) lit up the internet.  No surprise…it was just the next in what has become a long series of school-yard brawls around LGBT issues within the church. They always draw a crowd. And, of course, the damage to the church is immeasurable. You can hear the chorus of those outside the church: “And THAT is why I will never go to church again.” 

Terrific.

There are a lot of reasons why Christ-followers are going to be on opposite sides of the LGBT issues for some time to come…too many reasons to get into here.  Maybe we will explore all those reasons in other posts.  In the meantime, it is this Christian mediator’s professional opinion that agreement on all the issues is not going to happen within the church in my lifetime, and perhaps not in my children’s lifetime either.  There are just too many forces both within the church and especially from outside the church to allow for agreement.  Political and social agendas have hijacked these issues, making genuine agreement impossible.

The question, then, which we must answer (and quickly) is how we can live together within the church while disagreeing so strongly on these issues.  How do we even converse? How do we minister side by side? How do we worship together? How do we learn at least some modicum of mutual respect for each other’s positions in order to be able to co-exist?  Maybe in the final analysis, all of these questions can be summed up in one poignant question which begs our full focus and attention: In our conversations around these issues, what does love look like?

We know that is the right question. I know that we know it, because we all keep assuring each other that we are speaking the truth in love.  We all talk about how much we love the people on the other side of these issues from us, though we strongly disagree with them.  But based on so many of the comments I saw last week from folks whom I know to be Christ-followers, I’m just not convinced that all of us are the “lovers” we profess to be.  If love has something to do with meeting the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of our brother, I am just not convinced that we are all truly spending much time really loving those on the other side of these issues from us.

And so it is from this place of frustration and fear for the church’s testimony that I propose a simple fix: the church needs “love credentials”.  These are not credentials you can get from a seminary or from a Bible college…all the studying and reading in the world will not earn these credentials.  And they are not credentials even a local church can offer…sad but true.  The credentials I propose are only available and can only be earned from one source: people on the other side of the argument from me.  I propose that, before I publish a comment or a tweet or a blog post talking about how much I really do love “those people” even though I disagree strongly with them, I should be able to point to two or three or four of them who will attest to that fact…just a handful of people on the other side of the argument who will all testify that, yes, I really have loved them well.  These credentials are earned by sitting face to face with people whom I love on the other side of these issues and actually listening to them and understanding their concerns, their feelings…because that’s what love looks like.

That will be my credentials test from now on. Have we had this conversation face to face with people on the other side of these issues who will vouch for our “love” for them? I am just not going to waste any more of my time reading posts from people on either side of this issue for whom I cannot find those credentials. But much more importantly, I won’t be posting my own positions or opinions on these issues either, until I have first had the conversation with friends whom I know disagree with me and have assured myself they will vouch for me.  It seems to me I have some credentials to earn.

How about you? Ready to earn yours? BEFORE you publish that post?

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




Get Outside Your World

27 01 2014

Monday Morning Quarterback – Encouraging God’s people to be responsible, encouraging and uplifting in their use of social media.

baby and worldOne common problem with conflicted congregations (a dynamic I can almost always count on being present) is what I call the “shrinking universe” phenomenon.  It is a simple concept, really.  When the only people we choose to listen to are the ones we agree with and who already think like we do, our “reality” becomes smaller and smaller and becomes more and more biased.  If I stand squarely on one side of a conflict and I surround myself with others on that same side, and we continue to have our little “pep rallies” where we spout off the same version of the “facts” over and over again, that version eventually becomes the only version I can accept.  My universe has shrunken down to accommodate my bias.

Social media not only has its own version of this phenomena, it is philosophically (and brilliantly) designed to further it.  You have already experienced this if you are a Facebook user.  Using some of the most sophisticated analytical tools the marketing world has ever known, Facebook has become remarkably intuitive, reading all your preferences (from the pages you like to the friends you message…from the type of computer you use to the cookies you may permit it to see in your cache…from your demographic info to your career info).  Facebook is constantly analyzing all of that information about you and then it is deciding for you which friends’ posts to show you and which friends’ posts to hide from your newsfeed.  So, if you have “liked” Fox news and you tend to message your conservative friends mostly and your posts are full of links to conservative blogs, etc., guess what posts Facebook is going to show you? Guess what ads show up on your feed?  Your “universe” has just shrunken down more and more to meet your bias.

And it’s not just Facebook which does this.  Pretty much every social media vehicle has similar bents built in to it.  Ever wonder how LinkedIn knows who you should know?  If you think about it, this is actually one of the things we love about social media.  It has made it easier than ever before to find other people interested in the same things you are interested in.  It is by design.  In one sense, it creates community.  But in another sense altogether, it only deepens the trenches already dug between factions in our community…because all of us have shrunk our universe down to meet our biases.

But it is not just social media which does this.  Search engines do it too.  Google and Bing and whatever other search engine you prefer are all reading you just like your social media site is reading you.  When you type in a search request, your search engine is accumulating all the possible answers and is then sorting it and giving you FIRST the answers it has determined you are looking for.  If you and I each key the identical search query into Google, we will get very different results…because Google reads us as very different people, deserving of very different answers.  It may ultimately be the same answers, but they are in an entirely different order for each of us.  So, even the instruments we are counting on for the truth are giving us bias according to what they think we want, i.e., a version of the truth which fits our demographics.  Sounds a lot like our current news syndicates, right?

So, how can we, as Christ followers, prove ourselves to be the kind of “listeners” and compassionate conversationalists and lovers of ALL people which Jesus was?  How do we accomplish that when our online world is filtering out so much of what we really should be listening to and understanding?  We have to be intentional about getting outside our world.  We must open our hearts and open our minds to genuinely seek out opposing viewpoints in order to truly understand not just the contentions, but the interests and the human beings behind those contentions.  We must get outside our shrinking universe and walk among those with other perspectives.  We must begin seeing the world through others’ eyes and feeling the world through others’ experiences.

You have to admit…it’s what Jesus did.

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




The Heart of Your Conflict

21 01 2014

Tuesday Re-mix:

“What comes out of a person is what defiles them.For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.” Mark 7:20-23

If you’re a peacemaker, you need to have read The Anatomy of Peace, a publication of the Arbinger Institute. My first time through it,  I also happened to be working through the gospel of Mark in my church’s regular Bible study. As so often happens, both lessons converged for me.

By far the most difficult task before me in any mediation of any conflict (church or otherwise) is getting a conflicted party to quit pointing to all the flaws in the other party and to look inward, at his/her own heart and how he/she has contributed to the conflict. So difficult is it, in fact, that when it does happen it almost always represents an important “a-ha” moment in the peace process.

I think that, for people who value the Holy Scripture, it has the power to bring about that kind of reflection. Words like Jesus’ in Mark 7 can cause us to reflect a little deeper than just our surface “position” on a given issue, and rather consider our “heart” and how we have chosen to express that position. The writers of The Anatomy of Peace refer to it as our “way of being” or as a “heart at war” as opposed to a “heart at peace”.

I see it in every conflict. It is not so much a party’s position or stance on an issue which causes conflict to escalate. Our position is external to us. What escalates the conflict (what “defiles” us) is our heart…our “otherization” or even demonization of the opposing parties. When we speak to or of the other parties as something other than human…when we categorize them as a nameless, faceless, impersonal collective…when our expressions ignore the humanity of the other party…THAT is what escalates the conflict, making it nearly impossible to discuss solutions which may actually honor the Lord.

It seems pretty clear to me that, among believers, NO SOLUTION will honor the Lord if it comes from a heart at war with other believers. Again, it is not the position in and of itself which is the problem. Indeed, the position is itself just a thing. It has no good nor evil value in and of itself. Rather, it is the heart beneath the position which determines its value in the eyes of God.

I am going to remember this lesson, mostly for my own life. I am going to learn the process of examining my heart (rather than just rehearsing my position). I am going to be wary of my own propensity toward a heart at war…my own tendency to have an attitude which escalates the very conflict I am cursing. I am going to rely more and more on Christ’s Spirit within me to dictate my heart’s response. It may change my external position…it may not. But I have no doubt it will change the life of the conflict.

What about you and your conflict? Are you interested in calming the waters and actually discerning God’s path? You have that choice. It comes from within you…the heart of your conflict.

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




Parting and Going Our Separate Ways

9 07 2013

Tuesday Re-mix –

Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord.  Acts 15:36-40

I honestly cannot even imagine how difficult being on a mission trip with the apostle Paul would have been.  It seems to me you would be hard-pressed to find a more driven, intense “missionary” in the entire Bible than Paul.  He seems to have worked tirelessly through very long days and he seems to have pushed himself and his fellow laborers to extremes.  Being on mission with Paul would not be for the faint-hearted.  So, just between you and me, I don’t blame young John Mark one bit for bailing on Paul in Pamphylia.  I am sure that young man felt utterly overwhelmed by it all.

But oh what I wouldn’t give to have been a fly on the wall during that later conflict between the two teachers, Paul & Barnabas, over this very incident.  Paul would have argued vehemently that the mission field is no place for quitters and that he had no time to be babysitting when he could be out teaching.  He would have pointed out that John Mark literally left them holding the bag when he quit on them in the middle of that mission trip.  Barnabas, ever the encourager, would have argued that everyone deserves a second chance (and he may have even asked Paul if he wasn’t glad that Barnabas himself was the one who gave Paul his second chance at teaching–oh, the irony of this conflict!).  Barnabas would have asked how in the world John Mark would ever grow in his spiritual walk as a leader if someone were not willing to come along side him and mentor him.  Of course, neither Paul nor Barnabas could have known that this young man would eventually write an entire gospel under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

While we do not know all the specifics of what Paul said or what Barnabas said through this “sharp disagreement”, we can at least pull some eternal truths out of it for our own application:

Parting and going our separate ways is sometimes the right solution. The results of this split by Paul and Barnabas changed the world.  God brought about some amazing things as a result of it.  New churches were started, many more lives were impacted, and a gospel was written.  I am sure we cannot even begin to fathom all the ways God used this split to accomplish His will.  While I would be very careful about using this example as an easy excuse to run from conflict in your own life, I do believe there is a time and a circumstance when parting and going our separate ways just makes sense and honors God.

There is a limit to how much of our resources we can expend on trying to resolve a conflict amicably.  I have seen churches completely paralyzed by conflict.  Individuals as well.  It can have that effect on us.  We can try and try and try to reconcile our differences and examine ourselves and each other and work to find common ground, but there is a point where we must look at all the ministry we are foregoing in order to do that…we must count the opportunity costs we are paying in order to try to find some common ground.  At some point we may end up realizing that, for now, there does not seem to be any common ground and there is much ministry out there to accomplish and what we must do is split up and get back to work.

Reconciliation is as much about right timing as it is about right hearts.  There is evidence to indicate that Paul and Barnabas eventually reconciled and came together on the topic of John Mark.  Very late in his ministry, from prison, Paul wrote to Timothy and said, “Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry.” 2 Timothy 4:11.  It seems that a reconciliation did eventually take place.  Perhaps they just needed time to gain perspective, or time to grow, or time for John Mark to grow, or some other time-based reason.  The point is, when the right time finally came along, so did reconciliation, because reconciliation has much to do with timing.  That is an eternal truth.

So, again, I would be careful about pointing to Paul and Barnabas as an easy excuse for your desire to just run from your conflict.  Nevertheless, there is a right time and right circumstances for parting and going our separate ways.  May God grant you the wisdom to recognize it!

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com