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"...faith that moves mountains."
If only, we think, we had such faith.
Jesus was very gentle with His disciples when they humbly and simply acknowledged their lack of faith in Luke 17:5: "Increase our faith." Jesus' response was encouraging--"If you have faith as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, 'Be pulled up by the roots and be planted in the sea,' and it would obey you."
Cryptic as this sounds, it is the same response that Jesus gave to the father of the demon-possessed son in Mark 9:14-29. This father was at his wit's end; exhausted from the emotional rollercoaster the disciples had put him on--getting his hopes up yet again, the bitterness of disappointment, the hopelessness of failure, the pain of seeing his son suffering still. He was hurting. He was confused, broken, and needy. "But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us."
He wasn't even asking for healing, now. He did not know how much he could expect--or how much more disappointment he could take.
Like that father, many of us struggle with disillusionment, disappointment, bitterness, pain. Perhaps we feel betrayed by the church or let down by its people. Perhaps it seems foolish to cling to the belief that God is good, and will continue to be good, when our lives seem dark and hopeless. Perhaps we have been hurt deeply. Perhaps we feel like we have to sacrifice our desires and dreams to follow Christ. Perhaps we feel like God has not provided for us, has not blessed us, has ignored our most heartfelt prayers.
The answer is not looking for an explanation in reason, in theology even. Feeling guilty for struggling to trust, for struggling to have faith, yet being unable to emotionally and mentally reconcile what we feel and what we claim to believe. Becoming cynical and bitter, and telling ourselves we were naive to expect anything else. Or shrugging it off in despair as "something only reallyyy spiritually mature people will be able to have."
Jesus challenged the father directly on the root of the problem. Not assuring him He could heal his son, not explaining why His disciples couldn't, or demanding why he couldn't trust more, but probing him to examine his heart. "If you believe, all things are possible for those who believe."
At times like this, there is no shame in coming to Jesus exactly as we are. Confessing our doubts, our wounds, our lack of faith--but most importantly, our desire not to stay this way.
"I believe; help my unbelief!"
And with that--more of a plea for help, a confession, than a declaration of faith as we might expect--Jesus answered him. He healed the boy, with one sentence.
At first, the healing was not obvious. A terrific struggle. A brief moment of stunned tension.
"Then the spirit cried out, convulsed him greatly, and came out of him. And he became as one dead, so that many said, 'He is dead.'"
Is my son dead? Has God, after all, shown that He cannot be trusted? Has God, after all, struck me with the blow I cannot bear, shown a merciless hand to me at my most vulnerable point?
"But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose."
The dramatic effect of this line reminds me forcefully of that other (famous) verse in the Bible: "Weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes with the morning." (Psalm 30:5)
It is not "how much" faith we have, as we tend to think. In both cases Jesus' reply subverted what we would expect by reinforcing that it was not how much, but more of are you willing. It was not an equation, a recipe, where x amount of faith was required to produce a reaction; but an attitude of the heart.
Even if it is only as much as a mustard seed. Even if there is a good dose of unbelief struggling mightily with it. Are we willing to bring it all humbly before Him, to show it to Him, to ask Him for his help to supply not just our need but the faith we lack?
image by Ian Dooley from Unsplash
"For he supposed that his brethren would have understood that God would deliver them by his hand, but they did not understand."
When we read about Moses our go-to is usually the original, factual Exodus account. However, Stephen's account of Moses's story in Acts provides some new light on it, giving a more personal perspective into Moses the person.
According to this verse, Moses was already clear about God's purpose for his life. At that point in time, young as he was, he already recognized that his unique position as the adopted son of Pharoah's daughter not only preserved his life, but enabled him to have the skills, education, and power which his Hebrew peers would not have. He probably considered how he could use his position to negotiate with or influence Pharoah, or how one day he might rise to an even more powerful rank in the palace...
At any rate, it seemed clear to him that God's plan for him to rescue his people would inevitably rely on his privileged position in the palace. Why else would God place him there, right? Who else among the Hebrews had this much power, wealth, and ability, was as well-equipped?
However, the way I see it, Moses's rash murder of the Egyptian was an indication that he had become too complacent. Too self-assured. So sure that he was the chosen one to deliver his people, all the more so because it was so obviously a righteous cause, he took things into his own hands. In typical Lone Ranger/vigilante style. But the murder--despite all his good intentions--was still a murder. And to Moses' shock, he wasn't immediately hailed as the saviour he had seen himself to be.
Reality check: his fellow Hebrews were suspicious of him. To them, his Egyptian upbringing made him not fully "one of us." They rejected him and kept him at a distance, resentful of his privilege, wary of how he could straddle both cultures/races/and the power dynamics. "Who made you a prince and a judge over us?"
And at once, Moses went from prince to criminal. The next thing he knew, Pharoah was after his life. Now he was even worse off than other Hebrews; he wasn't a slave, but he was a fugitive and an outlaw. His life was worth even less than those of the Hebrew slaves labouring in the fields.
To Moses, this must have been devastating. How was he going to rescue his people and accomplish the mission he was so sure he had been born for, when he had officially sunk to the lowest strata of society? Now he was an outcast from Egyptians and Hebrews alike, a man caught between two cultures and belonging to--or wanted by--none.
At this point, it would be only human for him to experience some sort of depression and despair after going through such a drastic erasure of self-identity. Everything he was familiar with, everything he had assumed about himself, was gone. So it looked like he wasn't the chosen one to save God's people, after all.
Despite Moses' zeal and clarity of God's purpose for his life, he had to accept that God would work out His plan in His own way. God took him out of the palace, as simply and surely as He had put him there. God purposefully gave Moses those years in the desert, learning how to farm and care for livestock, the routine, daily duties of a husband, father, shepherd. Preparing him. Changing him. Equipping him, as surely as the prince's education he received in Egypt.
And most importantly, learning to place his life in God's hands.
By the time God spoke to him through the burning bush, he was a different man. When he finally returned to Egypt, he was no longer the naive, sophisticated prince, the foreigner the Hebrews were so suspicious of. He was a man who had experienced hardship and hard labour as they had, who had struggled to survive in the wilderness, who had experienced first-hand what it was like to be at the very bottom of the social system, to be the underdog, the oppressed. Moses was qualified to lead and represent the Hebrews--in a different but equally crucial way.
We may be so sure of God's plan for our lives. We may think it's so obvious, how God is going to use us. And even if we're not wrong--as in Moses' case--God may have major lessons for us to learn first. A path which isn't as straightforward and smooth as we expect or feel entitled to. Like Jeremiah, sometimes we may cry out in frustration and despair: "He has blocked my ways with hewn stone; He has made my paths crooked." (Lamentations 3:9)
What Moses learnt and experienced during that phase, even as he learnt to accept God's providence for his life, even as he had to humbly come to terms that yes, perhaps he wasn't God's chosen one after all--was what made him into the man and leader he eventually became. The Bible calls Moses the humblest man on the face of the earth, and perhaps those years in the desert were the reason why.
image by Ihor Malytsky from Unsplash
Having grown up, come to faith, and become a member in the same church, I've only known what it's been like to be in a small church, all my life. Even after so many years, we're nowhere nearer to outgrowing the "small" category. I like to watch the expressions of Christian friends when they tell me their church "isn't very big, couple of hundred only," and then ask me "how about yours?"
There are many challenges to being a small church. I would be the first to say that. For those of my readers who come from large churches, please don't misunderstand. This article is not a weird flex, an awkward attempt to feel better or appear superior or holier. Not by any means. I just want to challenge the unquestioned sense of pity that we (myself included) associate with small, struggling churches. To challenge the mentality that being small and struggling means that God hasn't blessed us. The temptations to feel envious of more "successful" churches, to wallow in self-pity, or fall into discouragement and despair stem from this mindset.
We all struggle. Struggling is not an indication that God has forsaken us, or cares less about us. When we focus too exclusively on the (inevitable) struggle we can end up blind to the gifts that He just as surely gives.
1. being in a small church = desperate lack of manpower = opportunities for us to realize--constantly!--that we need God's help and cannot rely on ourselves.
I'm aware that this is a problem that all churches face--on different levels. We always need more people to serve, we always fear that all the work is being thrown on the shoulders of a faithful few, the "core group." However, in a small church, this problem takes on whole new proportions. It's a looming problem constantly in your face, the first consideration of every decision. We're talking about every Sunday's worship service; managing to survive week by week, not having any backups, having to cancel or modify plans simply because there isn't enough manpower, or that one key person isn't available.
This is far from ideal by any human standards, of course. It leaves you in a state of constant instability and uncertainty, that can easily spiral into anxiety and discouragement. But instability and uncertainty are God's fertile grounds to grow faith, truly strong, tested faith. When you can't rely on your own planning, on people, on backup plans and strategies, you're forced to realize from the sheer bleakness of your resources that yes, you're not doing this with your own strength and ability. You're constantly aware that every Sunday, every prayer meeting, every event and every sermon, is enabled by God's sovereign will and power.
Too often we reduce the church to an institution, especially when we get lost in the multitude of admin/logistical needs and worries. And institutions are built on human effort and human ability--they look to human effort and ability for maintenance and progress. For any institution to improve, the humans running it try harder. Plan better. Purposefully expand. It's the recipe for success which we unthinkingly apply to so much of life.
But churches are so much more. They are the living fruit of God's Spirit working in God's people; each church in its unique context, with its unique abilities and needs. It is an organic, ongoing growth of the individuals within a community, and the relationships they have with God, both on their own and as a body. (yes, this is heavily influenced by the concepts of fellowship, or koinoinia, as developed in True Community by Jerry Bridges)
The kind of growth that cannot be defined in numbers, in graphs, or KPI.
A church that lost its pastor, or had a major split, or by all human standards seems to be struggling, may be spiritually thriving more than at any other "successful" point in their history.
This is not to say that we can only experience blessing/spiritual growth in the midst of trials, of course. But God delights to subvert the human ideals and standards for success, often to challenge them directly with how He works out His.
After all, He is the One Who reminded us that His strength is made perfect in our weakness.
2. pressing needs/urgent limitations = motivation to pray more
When you're face to face with your limitations and needs, you don't forget to pray. It's as simple as that. We are proud creatures; we don't like asking for help, or acknowledging that we need help, unless we absolutely have to. Often it completely slips our mind that we need help, in fact. We just get so used to managing, to getting by, that we let ourselves get entrenched in self-reliance. We take it for granted that we can manage, and that we can.
However, when the odds seem impossible, when you're faced with your own insufficiency, when you have nothing to find reassurance in--you don't forget to pray.
Prayer meetings became a much more personal, intense affair for me when I started seeing how urgent the needs of the church were. It truly became God's people meeting to pray together, to confess our neediness and unworthiness, to plead with Him for His help, to seek to grow in faith as we try to obey Him and serve Him amid many reminders of our inadequacy.
In our worst times, we come closest to Him. In our neediest situations, we glimpse His abundance and power, far more clearly than we could when we are contented and flushed with success or prosperity.
3. less excuses, and less barriers, to form friendships and relationships; to practice Biblical fellowship.
I've heard from so many friends on the challenge of being in a big church, where you don't even know where to start, where you feel lost, and where--in too many cases--you end up settling for coming jusssst in time for the sermon and sneaking away the moment it ends, in order to avoid the mass of people and inevitable initial awkwardness. (I can relate to this, almost every time I visit a--comparatively--large church. Guilty as charged.)
Sadly, this means we miss out on the huge blessing and privilege that Christian fellowship is meant to be. And even if we try, we often end up settling for smalltalk over coffee and snacks as "fellowship."
One blessing about being in a small church is that you have a much better chance of knowing everyone's names, and of seeing the same people each Sunday. There are more opportunities, so to speak, to build deeper relationships, simply due to the lesser number of people.
But just to be clear, nothing--not the most conducive environment in the world--can replace the genuine desire to reach out, and purposefully acting on that desire. If our hearts aren't in it, there will always be reasons (perhaps excuses would be a better word) to keep us from reaching out.
4. similarly--less excuses to get involved in serving. After my (already small) church went through a major split a few years back, we were even smaller than we were initially. Without the deacons who had been faithfully serving all those years, we suddenly faced manpower issues on a whole new scale. For the first time, the youths and young adults made the decision to step up and serve, despite our lack of experience. For many of us, who still felt that we were relatively young in the faith, we would otherwise continue assuming we weren't up to the responsibility, and settle comfortably for assisting in smaller, less "important" ways. Teaching Sunday School? Sharing at prayer meeting? Leading worship? Organizing camp? But I feel like I'm not up to such a big task! When are we, though? (in fact--feeling like we are may not actually be a good sign.) Again, it's a reminder that we don't serve because we're good at it, or because we're holy enough to qualify; we serve with the strength that God supplies. (1 Peter 4:11)
We get discouraged so easily. We think the answer lies in getting a church venue of our own--or a bigger, better one--in having more people--in having more funds--in having better pastors, teachers, leaders, structures, programs. We worry, sigh, feel sorry for ourselves, and lonely--when in reality He is among us.
I remember being struck by how the Christians under persecution seemed to be in touch with a strong, vibrant joy and sensitivity to Christ. Despite their very real struggles and trials, this joy and consciousness of God's presence only became clearer and more important. They were truly enabled to find out how much He loved them, and how precious He was--an overwhelming knowledge greater even than the fear and uncertainty of their circumstances.
How much more so us?
Whatever the size of your church is--there will always be anxieties. There will always be struggles. But that's not the main thing. How we respond to those struggles, how we learn to draw closer to God and see His presence in every situation... If I've learnt anything, it is that.
We worship a good God.
image by Nahuel Hawkes from Unsplash
"I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beseech you to walk worthily of the calling wherewith ye were called, 2 with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love..."
A thought-provoking sermon was preached on this verse, which challenged me to examine the qualities listed here.
Lowliness and meekness. These two words have almost vanished from our vocabulary today, yet they describe different aspects of humility which would do us good to think more on. The preacher emphasized that meekness does not equate with weakness, an important point given the popularizing nowadays of what I call an aggressive-defensive attitude. We're told to stand up for ourselves and not to take sh*t from anyone, that haters are going to hate, not to let anyone put us down... Which has more than a grain of truth in it, yet is imbalanced and incomplete as a mindset in itself, from a Christian perspective.
Biblical meekness as modelled by Moses--whom the Bible called the meekest man on the face on the earth--and of course, the Lord Jesus Christ, requires spiritual and moral strength.
Remember Moses' life work. Resisting Pharaoh and bringing the Israelites out of slavery to freedom. Leading and judging them through wars, food/water shortages, plagues, rebellions, etc. It takes a lot of moral and spiritual strength to stand up to a king, and confidently perform supernatural miracles--just as much as the less glamourous, but just as difficult job of dealing with the endless complaints, criticisms, and fears of the Israelites during their 40 year journey.
Far from being a weakness, Moses' meekness was what enabled him to stay stable (and sane, because I would have lost my wits) because he did not treat his role and his work (and the inevitable criticisms and challenges) as the basis for his identity and self-worth. His meekness and lowliness kept him grounded, kept him from self-pity, from entitlement, from greed and abuse of power, from many of the temptations that leaders face.
Likewise, Jesus demonstrated the same stability and strength in how He ministered, healed, taught thousands of people; dealt with threats and hostility from the established community leaders; patiently mentored His disciples; and endured the suffering and humiliation of the cross. This lowliness and meekness enabled Him--the Son of God--to love and relate to the social outcasts, the weak, the sinful:
"...for I am meek and lowly in heart, and you shall find rest for your souls." Why we can come to Him without hesitation or fears.
Both Jesus and Moses were the Bible's standards of God-honouring meekness and lowliness--men who did not seek their own honour and power, did not covet people's admiration and approval, who simply did what pleased God and served others, without wanting credit for it or seeing it as a way of establishing their identity.
And neither of them were anything close to pushovers, or doormats--what we tend to think of as the inevitable consequence of meekness and lowliness.
That's food for thought for us!
Lowliness and meekness as demonstrated by Moses and Jesus reflect how one's priorities, above all, are not on secular things. I've been studying Jesus' Sermon on the Mount in the book of Matthew, and I find myself understanding the "treasure in heaven" theme in terms of priorities. God's will, or ours? God's commands to live a holy life, or the desire to live out a sinful idea of pleasure? Spiritual values of righteousness, mercy, humility, or earthly values of wealth, possessions, power, affirmation, comfort?
Lowliness and meekness are only possible when our actions and mindset are directed by a different set of priorities.
to be continued in part 2
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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