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Why is it SO HARD to serve God these days? Everywhere I go, pastors and lay people tell me how discouraged they are. Congregational budgets are not being met; council leaders or influential members lurk and attack like crocodiles; volunteers are difficult to gather; there is always too much work to do and not enough time to do it, too many needs and not enough saints to meet them all.
Much of our discouragement in ministries of any sort probably arises because of the state of the world in which we live. History continues to show us that present-day aspects of the United States are in many ways similar to those found in the Roman empire prior to its fall. Spectacle and orgy dominate our society's entertainments. Talk shows specialize in the bizarre and obscene, the movie industry rarely lets us enjoy a good story without inserting gratuitous and blatant sexual scenes, and primetime television flagrantly mocks our morals and insults our intelligence.
Of course, sexual "liberation" is not the only contemporary aspect of entertainment that mimics the culture in Rome before its fall. The violence of our entertainments isn't directed at Christians, devoured by lions andslaughtered by gladiators in the coliseum or set afire as torches to light the Caesar's parties, but the amusements are similarly mind- and compassion-numbing, the victims are analogously marginalized, the brutality is equally gruesome, and the result is often death to the spirit (if not the body).
More important, our civilization flaunts its wealth, while poverty escalates. Laws favor the rich even as the safety net is ripped away from the helpless. I certainly don't advocate inept welfare that fails to equip citizens with skills for economic survival, but I also continually learned from the retired pastor of the African-American congregation to which we formerly belonged (until it closed) the profound harm that was befalling that parish's neighbors because of current governmental policies.
Several years ago my husband and I spent three weeks serving missionaries and nationals in Madagascar, where we were overwhelmed by the constant juxtaposition of elegant walled villas surrounded by ramshackle shelters, of aggressive beggars or the listless unemployed watching those hastily being chauffeured into their guarded estates. This prepared me sorrowfully to notice the recent influx of walled communities into neighborhoods further out than my own from our city's center. Kathleen Norris recounts how Tacitus asked, when wealthy citizens escaped ancient Rome's agonies by retreating into walled villas, "'Who will guard the guards?'" There is no ultimate safety in selfishness. There can be no peace without justice.
How incapable we seem to be of ending global disparity and inequity, no matter how much we care about redistribution of wealth and contribute our own resources for the sake of others! In Madagascar I was piercingly ashamed to swim at a pool that only wealthy foreigners could afford and to be driven there past the lines of marginal vendors trying vainly to entice us with their meager wares. That set up the agonizing conflict of regretting the privilege and yet needing the swimming for the exercise essential for my health - since it was totally unsafe for me, with my limited vision, nerve-dead feet, and crippled leg, to walk the uneven and pitted Malagasy streets.
This seems to me to be one major reason for low morale among committed Christians. We enter our professions because we feel called to use our gifts as pastors or other saints to bring the Good News of God's love in Christ Jesus to our neighbors and to incarnate it by reducing the needs, violence, anxiety, and bondage in our world, and yet we discover inevitably that we are inextricably part of the problems.
Far worse, we discover that the churches we serve are sometimes part of the problems, for they too easily get entangled in the entertainments and consumerism of the world (as we shall explore in Chapter 5). When the congregation down the street is growing like crazy because it caters to people's whims and hankerings after sensation, we struggle to hold steadfastly to the meaning of the gospel and its theology of the cross. We can easily give in to our culture's craving for happiness and miss the true Joy of genuine faithfulness.
Of course, the Scriptures frequently warn us to be vigilant against the particular temptations of present times. When we study one such text, 2 Timothy 4:1-5, with great gratitude we will find that it is stunningly contemporary, and with elation we will discover that the biblical witness gives us a sure hope for just such a time. We will also be honored that the text displays the urgency of our calling and thus reminds us that our struggles to be faithful are worthwhile.
1 In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: 2 proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. 3 For the time [Greek: kairos] is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. 5 As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.
This seemingly written-for-the-twenty-first-century picture sent to Timothy underscores the astuteness with which we must view our times by calling the days when "people will not put up with sound doctrine" a kairos time - not merely a chronological period, but a crisis time, an opportune time, an epoch when everything hangs in the balance. Because of the gifts the Church brings to such an era, it also becomes for us, God's present saints, a time that revitalizes our call to service.
Why should it matter so much whether people will stomach healthy doctrine? It is indeed critical that all of us who serve the Church recognize how much our culture's inability to digest wholesome dogma is the source of its ills. If people have no sense that there is a truth larger than themselves, their individual self-interest reigns supreme; without ethics the social fabric of society deteriorates, and random violence and polarizing rhetoric, sexual obscenity and public incivility, rampant greed and disregard for the common good escalate; without a workable philosophy of life beyond themselves people find no lasting meaning; without purpose there can be only intensifying anomie and passivity and rage that erupt into more violence.
As Alasdair MacIntyre made clear in his deservedly oft-quoted book After Virtue, our present society's agnostic critics, who make moral claims and arguments about such things as the environment or multiculturalism, do so without having any coherent framework out of which to argue. The Enlightenment project abandoned the classical view of humankind and therefore destroyed any possibility of discovering rational foundations for an objective morality. Long ago Friedrich Nietzsche compellingly articulated the problem that morality simply becomes the expression of every individual's own will. Each person decides for his or her own self what is good. Reflecting on this present cultural moral situation, Philip Yancey recognizes that "the real question is not why modern secularists oppose traditional morality; it is on what grounds they defend any morality."
However much society in general is characterized by the lack of any morality, the real problem, as Yancey's discussion demonstrates, is that the effects of this ethos in our culture have invaded Christian communities. As an example, he describes a "committed Christian" who was planning to leave her husband and who also claimed that she rose early "to spend an hour with the Father." When Yancey questioned whether that hour had anything to say about her decision to leave her husband, she responded, "The Father and I are into relationship, not morality. Relationship means being wholly supportive and standing alongside me, not judging."
When churches lose or fail to develop their doctrinal bones, such disjunction between spirituality and ethics becomes possible. Moreover, parish conflicts escalate because there are no standards larger than personal opinions; the working philosophy of the congregation can easily become mindlessly utilitarian; the lack of a genuine mission engenders anomie and passivity. Then the members resemble the people described by 2 Timothy 4, with "itching ears," who "accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires" and who "[on the one hand (Greek men)] turn away from listening to the truth and [on the other hand (Greek de)] wander away to myths." The result is the kind of anything-goes religion described by Wade Clark Roof and Robert Bellah, among others.
Both sides of that Greek men-de phrase are equally evident and similarly crucial today. "Truth" has been shunned and demoted from modernistic relativism to postmodern absolute negation - whatever truth there could be has to be constantly reinvented by each person alone. This might seem liberating, but it is the false independence of the isolated self, the incohesion of a fragmented persona constantly revamped. On the other hand, our increasingly postmodern world specializes in individualistic, personally concocted amalgamations of assorted beliefs. Without any larger story in which to locate one's own narrative, the human psyche has no point of reference, no means to know what matters, so that the personality is endlessly trivialized as it wanders aimlessly among the zillions of myths.
On the one hand, turning away from the truth of God's transcendent moral authority, and on the other, turning to the myths of our society, we discover with Nietzsche that if there is no external moral source, anything goes. Some denominations now wrestle furiously and are threatened with major splits because there no longer is a commonly held basis by which to ask moral questions.
In the midst of such cultural and religious confusion, we seek to serve the Church and the world beyond. What resources do we have to negotiate the rapids and avoid the shoals? How do we find the courage even to try? The rest of this book attempts to offer some suggestions for finding the spiritual wholeness we need to fulfill our calling.
The Trio That Frees Us to Serve: 2 Timothy 4:1
How can we go on serving in a culture that is such a moral mess? How can we serve the Church if churches have lost their common moral basis? God gives us a strong starting point for our difficult work in the text cited above, for it proposes a triple source of motivation and meaning. In counterpoint to the culture described in verses 3 and 4, Timothy is solemnly charged in verse 1 - as are all of us who follow him as God's servants! - to fulfill his calling "in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom." That trio, of judging (the Greek present infinitive krinein), appearing (epiphaneia), and Kingdom (basileia), offers us the enormous gift of exactly what we need to recover the sense of our call in this kairos time.
Christ's judging puts us in our place. His cross eclipses any possibility of pride on our part. We admit that we are not wise, strong, or courageous enough for the tasks of our impossible ministries. We regret that we have blown opportunities for service, that we have mistaken our role at times, that we have let our own interests and desires deter us from ministry, that we have been lazy or too hurried, cynical or oblivious, petty or nasty. We acknowledge that our moral reasoning has been marred by sin, that our perceptions of others have been judgmental, that our ideas and plans have been too full of self, and that we need God's transcendent wisdom and authority beyond our own. Most of all, we recognize that the root of all our problems is unbelief - we simply don't believe God for who God is; we don't trust God enough. (Or at least I'm sure I don't.)
It has become fashionable in theological circles these days to deny the necessity of Christ's atoning work on our behalf, to accuse the Father of patriarchal oppression in the Son's death, to view the doctrine of atonement as destructive of our dignity, or to reduce the complex subject to only one or a few of the numerous biblical motifs. If we are truly trinitarian, we recognize that Christ's death on the cross did not reveal the Father as an oppressive sadist; instead, Christ's death demonstrates the immense agony of each Person of the Trinity. Indeed, the Son willingly accepted the Godhead's righteousness, which necessitated being abandoned as He bore our sin; the Father grieved for the Son who chose to take into Himself the consequences of human rebellion; and the Spirit held the Trinity together in the tearing apart of Father and Son.
God's atonement actually frees and upbuilds us, for it lets us acknowledge that we cannot be, say, or do all we desire, but that we have been forgiven. The penetrating Joy of forgiveness can't be ours if we euphemize away our grave (pun intended) need for it. Christ's judging puts us in our place and then confers the ineffable Joy of delivering us from it because the Magistrate Himself got off the bench and took our place.
That is why Christ's coming has to be the middle element of the trio of motivations in 2 Timothy 4. Christ's judging propels us to our knees in penitence; His first epiphany drowns our remorse in the flood of His grace; His coming again sets us free from the sorrows of this age, for we know that they are not the last word.
I love how the readings in the Epiphany season of the church year span the implications of Christ's coming - with Gospel texts ranging from the widening of the Christ Child's worshipers to the Gentile magi on January 6, through the trinitarian affirmation at Jesus' baptism and His working of signs and wonders in His ministry, to the expectation of Christ's future glorification in the Transfiguration account on the final Sunday before Lent. At our house whenever possible we have a great celebration for Epiphany, because that holy day gives us courage for our work - the light of redeeming grace, the invitation to offer our gifts no matter how humble, the promise of God's sovereign care no matter the Herods in our lives.
The final element of the trio, in view of which Timothy is urged to be faithful, is the Kingdom. Since this image is pivotal in the Bible, we will consider it more extensively here, as a basis for much of our understanding of biblical wholeness and how to experience it as workers for the Church and the world.
Bruce Chilton and J. I. H. McDonald have convinced me that the primary focus in Jesus' teaching was not God's love, but God's rule. It is critical that we understand this, for it affects how we make sense of our call and do our work - how we preach or teach, the ways in which we function in daily tasks, even the choices we make for the music we play and how we play it in worship.
The notion that the basic message of Christianity is love can too easily be turned into sentimentalized mush. Even if we keep in mind that the love God commands (agape in Greek) is intelligent, purposeful, and always directed to the needs of the other, still the notion of "love" does not bring together all that Christianity means.
Chilton and McDonald demonstrate that Jesus spoke about love as the greatest commandment only when He was asked about it. In contrast, much of His teaching and many of His parables focus on the meaning of the Kingdom. The two scholars recognize that in Jesus' teaching the Kingdom is not some utopian regime, but "God's decision for salvation, which he has taken, and will effect in the future" (9). Because God is already at work, human beings respond actively, participating cooperatively in what God is doing in the world, in the expectation that God's Kingdom will be ultimately disclosed in the future (36), and meanwhile fulfilling the commandment to love in its various forms out of an underlying understanding that God is eschatologically active (114-15).
Against the nationalistic, localized, cultic, legalistic, or apocalyptic kingdom myths held by the contemporaries of Jesus, His teaching - especially the parables - shows in true prophetic tradition that God's action is operative in the world of everyday experience. Jesus' witness and work make it clear that what God is has normative implications for what people should be. He teaches what God had always meant by telling Israel in their earliest days, "You shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation" (Exod. 19:6).
Excerpted from The Sense of the Call by Marva J. Dawn Copyright © 2006 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company . Excerpted by permission.
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