Learning how to care

Welcome_Hands_1Caring for others is a habit to be learned.

One of the hardest classes I took in seminary was not theology or philosophy.  It was not even Hebrew or Greek.  It was pastoral care.

The aim of pastoral care is to teach students how to listen, confront conflict, counsel and give referrals, and have empathy.  In short, the class is a crash-course in cultivating a “pastoral presence.”

You might assume that having a pastoral presence–the ability to reflect compassion and care in every situation–is something that God gives every pastor as a gift.  That assumption is wrong.  It is hard to learn empathy and compassion, and such lessons must be honed over time.

In fact, everyone needs to learn how to care for others.  It is not a trait that we perfect just because we are human.

A recent article in the Washington Post finds that caring for others, being compassionate, and having empathy are critical values and practices that adults must teach children and one another.

Unfortunately, teaching people how to care is not high on the priority list of things to do.  We take it for granted.

The article highlights Harvard psychologist, Richard Weissbourd, whose research shows that nearly 80% of youths said that their parents were more concerned about their achievements than about how they–the youths–cared for others.

“Children are not born simply good or bad and we should never give up on them. They need adults who will help them become caring, respectful, and responsible for their communities at every stage of their childhood,” Weissbourd said.

Teaching people to care for others must be intentional and strategic.  It must also inspire sensitivity and curiosity about other cultures, faiths, and communities.

And if people have to learn how to care for others, then it stands to reason that churches need to learn the same.

Many years ago, Trinity had a meeting to discuss the direction of the church and its ministries.  In the middle of that meeting, a couple who had attended the church for less than a year spoke up:

“We have been here for some time now, but no one has invited us over for dinner or to an outing.  No one has taken the time to get to know us.”

The whole congregation was flabbergasted and left speechless.   It was embarrassing, but it challenged us to improve our care for each other.

The church made an intentional effort to learn how to welcome guests, build a community of care, and establish ministries that helped people connect with God, with one another, and with the larger community.

It was not easy.  We literally had to tell parishioners how to greet guests and what to say when they saw an unfamiliar face.

We also had to teach churchgoers that the chairs in the sanctuary were not theirs–they may be asked to sit in different places if a new family took up residency in their favorite spots.

Over time, the entire culture of Trinity changed.  I went from asking specific people to greet guests to simply watching people greet guests on their own initiative.

Effective follow-up also improved over time: when guests returned to church, people welcomed them back, not approached them as if it was their first time.

Caring for others had to be taught indeed.

Unfortunately, we live in an age in which the individual and the individual’s needs often trumps the needs of others.  Our policies reflect it, our rhetoric perpetuates it, and our economics thrive on it.

Yet, when we bow before our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, whose care for others set an example for how we are to live, practice community, and enlarge our compassionate embrace, we find that caring for others takes precedence over our own needs, wishes, and wants.

 

Jonah the Cranky: Zapping People with God’s Wrath since 700 BCE

My name is Jonah, but some people call me Jonah the Cranky.  I’m not sure why.  Maybe it’s because I tell people that if they don’t get right with God, I’ll zap them with His wrath.

Did I mention I’m a prophet?  Been one my whole life.  Once, in third grade, a little boy didn’t share with me.  That’s right, I zapped him with the wrath of God.

When I got old enough to preach publicly, the first thing I did was make two big poster boards.  One said, “Repent!”; and the other, “Or get zapped by the wrath of God!”

I remember my first day on the job.  I ran into a bunch of high school hoodlums, and I caught them vandalizing the village well.  “Repent,” I yelled, “Or else get zapped by the wrath of God!”  They didn’t heed my warning.  They got zapped.

Zapping was much-needed then.  You see, people have something like a jewel inside of them that represents God’s fingerprints, God’s image.  Sin covers those jewels and keeps them from shining.  It’s my job to help people polish that jewel and let it gleam for all the world to see.

I learned this when I got God’s first big call on my life.  I had to preach to Israel, which was an easy assignment.  The community got right with God and warded off those nasty Assyrians to the north. Israel’s jewels shined brightly that day.

I thought my ministry was over after that.  Once you speak on a national level, it’s about time to retire.  I was about to go on a Mediterranean cruise when God called me yet again.  God asked me to preach to Nineveh.  I’m not sure if you know this, but Nineveh is the capital city of Assyria, our enemy.

You can tell that I’m not a big fan of the Assyrians.  For one, they’re not right and we hate them as much as they hate us.  They’re warmongers and just bad people in general.  They are so evil that the sin covering their jewels is too thick to polish off.  In fact, I don’t think they even have a jewel at all.

When God called, I did what any sensible prophet in my position would do: I ran away and went on that cruise after all.

When a storm broke out over the water, I knew it was God.  God made everything, and I was a fool to think I could run.  So, when the opportunity came, I let those sailors throw me overboard.  I’d rather drown than go to Nineveh, that’s for sure.

God didn’t let me off so easily, and a big fish swallowed me.  Can you believe that?  Three days in the belly of a fish.  And you think fish smell bad on the outside?

After I prayed, that fish spit me out.  I thought I got off easy, but just as I was about to head home, God stuck out His big finger and pointed the way to Nineveh.

When I finally got there, I preached my usual message about repenting or getting zapped.  Since I didn’t like them no how, I threw in some ridiculous requirements for good measure:  “And your animals have to fast too!”

Something started to happen.  People listened.  The king heard my preaching, and he made the whole city repent.  He made everyone, even the animals, fast.  I thought they were joking, but they weren’t.  Not only were they serious, but God took them seriously too and He spared them.  Can’t believe it, even to this day.

No fair! I thought we were the promised people.  The Assyrians don’t even look like us and they certainly don’t believe like us, but they still got saved.  And I was looking forward to a good zapping!

God once told me that He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.  But, you know, I only thought that was reserved for the people who look like me and think like I do, the people who follow right doctrine and know their stuff.

Apparently, that isn’t the case even though I don’t like it.  Hey, they don’t call me cranky for nothing.  I still wouldn’t mind having those Ninevites get zapped, but I guess God had something else in mind.

Being a People of Biblical Vision (part 2/4)

This is the second sermon in a five-part series at Trinity Baptist Church entitled, “A People of Vision.”

“Lord, you are my God; I will exalt you and praise your name, for in perfect faithfulness you have done wonderful things, things planned long ago…

You have been a refuge for the poor, a refuge for the needy in their distress, a shelter from the storm and a shade from the heat.

On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine–the best of meats and the finest of wines.”  (Isaiah 25:1, 4, 6)

“Blessed are those who are invited to the supper of the Lamb.” (Rev. 19:9)

I.

We have been talking about vision: God’s vision–a picture or image–of the future.  For us.  For our church.

We believe that God has a vision for each one of us and for our church because God is in the revelation business.  We serve a “self-disclosing” God who knows us intimately.

One of the ways God reveals Himself is through the Bible, the inspired Word of God. Too often, the Bible is used as a weapon of the faith–a sword with which to thump, something to throw at people who are living in sin.

The Bible has been used to divide churches.  The Bible does say that the Word of God is sharper than any two-edged sword, to separate bone and marrow, but that does not mean it is to be used to divide God’s people.

Nor should we reduce the Bible to a set of absolutes, rules, and principles.  The Bible is not simply a rule book; nor is it something that outlines a bunch of “dos and don’ts.”

II.

The Bible is inspired.  It is authoritative.  Our church’s constitution affirms that the Bible is to be the “basis of all our beliefs.”  Our earliest Baptist forefathers made the Bible a central aspect (and in some cases the foundation) of our faith.  As early as 1654, we have a confession that declares that Scripture must “therefore be the rule of thy faith and practice.”*

As early as the mid-1600s, Baptists set out to define how we are to interpret the scriptures.  In that day, they spoke out against the Quakers, who emphasized illumination, or the “inner light” of the Holy Spirit.  Baptists, like Thomas Collier, argued that Christians must balance illumination by the Holy Spirit with the “letter” of scripture (revelation).  To emphasize one at the expense of the other is dangerous and in many cases unreliable.

We, therefore, take this Book to be authoritative, and we echo our Baptist ancestors when we confess that every believer has the right to read and interpret the scripture under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

III.

But that brings us back to the “how” of the Bible’s authority, especially when it comes to each church’s calling in God.    For Trinity, we have always seen the Bible as the story of God’s interaction with His creation–the Biblical story is one not made up of abstract principles, but of relationships.

It is within God’s relationship with all creation that God casts a vision for all of creation.  God paints a picture for us in Scripture of what our future holds.

IV.

We catch a glimpse of that vision in the book of Isaiah.  Isaiah’s ministry came about during a turbulent time in Judah’s (the southern kingdom of Israel) history.  King Asa was trying to hold a fragile nation together while warding off attacks from both the Israel kingdom and the Assyrians. 

Isaiah reminded King Asa that God was in the mix, and he reminded Asa that God expected faithfulness in the face of trails and tribulations: “If you do not stand firm in faith, you will not stand at all,” Isaiah warned in 7:9.

But God’s presence was also a promise.  Only five verses later (7:14), Isaiah promised Asa that God will be Emmanuel, “God with us,” and will save His people from certain destruction.

It is within this political milieu, when people are at their most vulnerable and unable to see the forest from the individuals trees, that God paints a picture of Israel’s future.

In Isaiah 25, God does just that.  The vision that God casts has certain elements.  First, God has plans for Israel that were formed early on in humanity’s history (v. 1): “things planned long ago.”

Second, God’s vision is universal and inclusive.  In it, Isaiah imagined Zion as a place where all people from every tribe and nation will gather around a great banquet table.  Those who are on the margins will have a special place in this banquet.

The vision is like that found in Psalm 23: “You set a table before my enemies; my cup overflows.”

While the poor, the marginalized, the outcast, and lame feast on God’s nourishing Word of Life, God will “swallow up death” in the final days.

V.

The image and vision of a great feast is found throughout Scripture.  It signifies the inclusive Good News in which everyone can find a place at God’s table.

Jesus embodied this very vision in his ministry.  For him, feasting with “tax collectors and sinners” was God’s way of bringing that vision to fruition.  In Luke 14:12-24, Jesus tells his followers to do the same; and, like God, invite the people who have no belonging in the greater society.

In Luke 14, Jesus tells a host to avoid inviting the rich and people-who-have-it-all-together.  They have no need of a feast, no need of God’s presence.  Jesus tells him to invite the poor, crippled, lame, and blind instead.

When this type of feast takes place with these types of folks, God’s vision breaks into creation here and now.

Jesus takes that vision further.  Not only does he feast with tax collectors and sinners, he also puts them in places of leadership.  Judas the Betrayer was treasurer.   Matthew the tax collector and Thomas the Doubter were disciples.  Mary the Prostitute was by Jesus’ side, even unto death.  Jesus told Peter, the very scoundrel who betrayed Jesus and whom Jesus called “satan,” that it was upon him that Jesus will build his church.

Imagine that?  God’s vision is one that is so radical, even sinners have a seat at the table and a place in the ministry of God’s kingdom.   The very people who are broken and in most need of God’s salvation are blessed, especially when they find themselves eating and serving with a “Lamb” who was broken on their behalf.

VI.

Since its inception in 1984, Trinity Baptist Church has taken on this type of biblical vision in its ministry to all people.  Our founding pastor embodied this type of vision when he initiated Bible studies at the local bar.  Two ex-drug users heeded this vision when they established our Narcotics Anonymous ministry, which still meets to this day every Thursday night.

And we have lived into this vision when we have included all kinds of people in our ministries, people not too dissimilar from the folks who followed Jesus.

These have been people who curse like sailors and meet Jesus in the throes of addiction and brokenness.  These have been people who are poor and are on the margins of society.  These have been people not welcomed in a large segment of our society because they didn’t “play the part of the good Christian.”

We at Trinity Baptist do declare that God’s Word is authoritative, but we also declare that God’s biblical–biblical–vision for our church is not always the most popular.

I must admit that we may fly under the radar in Baptist life in many aspects of our ministry.  Ours is too small of a church to be noticed by any of the big Baptist conventions in our area.  Yet, I can’t help but to say that our core values–as motivated and inspired by this type of reading of Scripture–may bring us critical attention one of these days.

I am not saying this to be controversial.  Nor do I need to define any particular position on any particular social or cultural issue–we are too theological diverse for that.

But I am confident that when we minister faithfully under our divine mandate as a church, serving, welcoming, and including the people whom we invite to the table and include in our circles of leadership, we will be doing God’s will rather than the will of any bureaucracy, creed, or the whimsical will of man.

VII.

In 1677, at the Second London Conference of Baptists, the messengers agreed that people can get too wrapped up in their emotions when interpreting Scripture.  They were afraid that relying on illumination too much, like the Quakers, may make human doctrine too subjective–in their words, humankind is too arbitrary, “tost too and fro” like a boat in a windstorm, to set boundaries that limit people’s experience of God.

We must balance the authority of God’s Word with the ongoing illumination that the Holy Spirit provides, and–like the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15–discern (as a community) how God still speaks to us today.

For Trinity Baptist Church, God’s biblical vision is one that defines the nature and the authority of our ministry.  It is a vision that includes a great banquet feast–a place where everyone has a seat.

Source:

H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness, (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1987), pp. 70-73.