Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Send Your Rain, O Lord...Just Not When I'm Painting

The temperature in the Southeast over the last few weeks has been stifling hot. While the actual temperature has been in the 90's, the heat index pushed the virtual mercury well over 100. Leaving the mechanically cooled air of inside facilities, it has felt as if you've strolled into a convection oven.

Many have been the days when I've prayed for a cloud to provide a brief shower, or at least to give some shelter from the sun's direct rays. Yesterday was an exception to this daily desire.

Our house is in desperate need of a coat of paint (probably two coats). This became very apparent several weeks ago when we noticed a rotting window sill on one of the front, dormer windows. Each time I drove in the driveway, the exposed, black wood framed by pealing paint seemed to beg for my attention. With great resolve, I simply looked the other way.

Yesterday, I finally took some action. I purchased a replacement sill from Lowe's (these home improvement stores have everything!), cut it to size, removed the rotted sill, and installed the new one. Just as I was carefully applying the second coat of paint, a dark cloud moved in. I began to pray, "Please, Lord, don't let it rain." Now, I don't know if my prayer was ineffective or if someone else's was effective, but the cloud opened up and dropped it's liquid treasure on the parched earth.

I learned a few things yesterday. First, if you need rain, just start painting the exterior of your house! Second, and more seriously, I tend to view the world through the narrow lenses of my own, immediate needs. What I'm doing at the moment, ought to be as important to everyone else--especially God--as it is to me. Surely God could hold back the rain until I finished painting these newly installed window sills. After all, this task was as urgent a world hunger! Third, I'm grateful that my greatest worry yesterday was a rotting window sill. For, it implied that I had a window, which was attached to a house. On that same day, I saw a homeless man with a shopping cart loaded with his worldly possessions huddled under an overpass, trying to get some relief from the hot sun. I wonder if he welcomed the rain that I had so cursed? Perhaps the rain that streaked my newly painted window sill was intended to bless one of the "least of these" brothers of Jesus?

Send your rain, O Lord, to your people!

Thursday, August 18, 2005

WWJD: Beyond the Bracelet

For centuries, Christians have excelled in iconography as a means to remind them of their core beliefs, express their faith, and motivate them to a faithful walk with God. Crosses. Fish. IHS. Various symbols and monograms have been used in association with the Christian faith. These icons have both positive and negative potential. On the positive side, they can accomplish the purposes described previously. On the negative side, they can become mere pieces of jewelry or art with little or no practical meaning (ever seen someone with a fish on the car's trunk flip somebody off?). They can become things we admire, rather than reminders of the One Who we worship. Also, they can be used as near talismans as attempts to manipulate the divine for our own prosperity or protection.

I remember a few years ago when the various colored WWJD bracelets were the fad. And, I actually liked them. I went through several of these, never taking them off until they literally deteriorated (or became so dirty I had to remove them). That says a lot for a guy who still can't bring himself to wear a watch--I just can't stand something on my wrist! As you recall, this bracelet was to remind its wearer to ask the all important question before taking any action: "What Would Jesus Do?" Admittedly, I often failed to ask myself the question despite the reminder that donned my wrist like an ancient phylactery.

Recently, I re-read the book that gave rise to the WWJD bracelet craze. Bearing the title: What Would Jesus Do?, Garrett Sheldon retells in contemproary language the phenomenal book, In His Steps, written by his great-grandfather, Charles Sheldon. While the book is fictional, it's informed by actual events in the lives of believers. As I read through this book once again, I was deeply convicted.

Though written over a decade ago, the message rings with relevance. It begins with a description of a busy pastor, leading a very large, successful church. Quite frankly, it describes to a "t" any number of American churches in suburbia. The pastor enjoyed a comfortable existence, in an afluent church that boasted large attendance numbers and, more importantly, huge contribution figures. Everything is "well" at First Church...until. Until a needy, pregnant, black woman interrupts the well-managed lifestyles of the pastor and the church members. At first, the church simply sends her away, not knowing what to do. The desperate lady attends church the following Sunday, pleading for assistance when she begins hemorhaging and faints before the church. Subsequently, she dies, leaving a small little girl behind.

This tragedy begins a spiritual odyssey for both the pastor and the church. He challenged the church to take a year-long pledge that, before anyone would make a decision, they would ask the question: What would Jesus do? What I like about this book is two-fold. First, it moves Chrisitanity from the realm of theory to praxis. It focuses, not on doctrinal nuances, but on actual service in the name of Jesus--something the church in America is in desperate need of. It challenges the insidiuous hubris that so grips our churches, and calls for self-denial and humility.

Second, the book is not a thinly-veiled strategy for prosperity in Jesus name. In fact, the folk who dared to make decisions based upon the life of Jesus met with severe opposition. Job losses. Economic reversals. Personal opposition and criticism. Why, there was even a movement within the church to fire the preacher over his new, fanatical views. Following in the steps of Jesus, remember, ultimately leads to the cross.

I think every church in suburbia ought to re-read--or read for the first time--this compelling book. In fact, I'm working on a strategy to get this book into the hands of every family at CrossBridge. We need to be reminded of our true mission. We need to be reminded that God's heart is with the poor, the disenfranchized, the outcast. Too often we've shielded ourselves from the mess of the world and in so doing have failed to work with God toward it's redemption. In the end, the book moved me to repentance. Perhaps it will do the same for you as well.

WWJD. It's more than just a bracelet...or is it?

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

5 People in a Tent for 4

Tomorrow, our kids return to school. It always feels as if summer flies by. This year, it seemed to break the sound barrier. This was one of those summers whose frenetic schedule prohibited a vacation for the Brantley family. And, I'm really not complaining. Trying to find time for a trip is a problem that most people in the world never face. So, we're blessed beyond measure.

At the same time, we look back with regret when we've not been able to spend focused, extended time with our kids. Facing this reality, Carol and I did something we've never done before. This past Sunday evening, we loaded up our small tent, fishing gear, a few groceries, and what little camping equipment we have (basically a flash light and sleeping bags), and took off for an overnight camping excursion. My oldest son, Allen (who's home from Oklahoma Christian for a few days), our youngest daughter, Miranda and I left first to set up camp. Carol remained behind until our youngest son, Zach returned home from an overnight trip to a friend's lake house. By 7:30 p.m., they joined us at our camp site.

We pitched our small tent on the banks of a beautiful, 3 acre lake owned by Steve Wilson, a great friend and brother. This lake is teeming with large mouth bass. We fished late into the evening, built a fire, and ate our fill of beanie weanies (this may be a uniquely southern dish).

Around midnight, we ambled in the darkness to our tent for a night's rest--at least that's what we thought. Now, please understand. Carol purchased this tent for $40.00 at Academy Sports a few months ago. The occasion was a father/daughter campout at this very sight. This tent claims to sleep four--but they must have meant four small infants! Somehow we managed to sandwich all five of us into this little tent.

I learned a few things that evening. First, it's nearly impossible to sleep when you're cheek to cheek with the people you love. Second, there's no greater feeling in the world than to be cheek to cheek with the people you love. Third, there's no place I'd rather be than cheek to cheek with the people I love.

In the stillness of the night, and the squirms of 5 uncomfortable people trying to sleep, God speaks powerfully. He reminds us of what's important. He reminds us of who's important. The enemy delights in distracting us from the important, attempting to nudge us toward the urgent. Sometimes, it takes 5 people jammed in a tent for 4 for God to get our attention. Thank you, dear Lord, for speaking to me in this extraordinary way through rather ordinary means. Grant us all eyes to see, and ears to hear you in unexpected ways.

Monday, August 01, 2005

The Wilderness: A Place of Refocusing

I haven’t posted a blog in quite some time. While I could blame this blogging lacuna on mere lack of creativity, I know there was a deeper reason for it. I simply haven’t had the spiritual energy to produce much worth reading—as if I ever have!

The past several months have been particularly difficult on me. The death of my beloved father-in-law in March, along with a number of staffing issues over the past several months have left we bewildered, wondering about my own ministerial focus. For several months, I’ve been in the wilderness and have felt the hot breath of the lion that constantly prowls around seeking whom he may destroy. Some of you know what I mean.

These have been painful, confusing, and frustrating days. In this process, however, I’ve discovered several things. First, time in the wilderness, while frightening and frustrating, is an essential part of our spiritual formation. Strangely, immediately after God issued His divine pronouncement of approval at Jesus baptism, the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted. Now, please don’t misunderstand. I am not attempting to equate my, or anyone’s, ministry with Jesus’ mission. At the same time, this story says something about the essential tutorial nature of wilderness moments. These lonely times force us to face the reality of our human weakness, and to clarify our ultimate allegiance. Will we follow our own pursuits or will we seek God’s will above our own?

Second, I’ve learned how easy it is to allow peripheral issues to distract us from kingdom business. Satan has the uncanny ability to use our concept of church to his own, devastating advantage. The American church seems to struggle with a collective hubris fueled by our consumerist culture. When we infect church with our consumerist mentality, the body of Christ is reduced to a Christian corporation whose purpose is to serve its patrons. Rather than increasing the kingdom of God, this mentality causes us to focus on keeping the Christian customers pleased so they will continue to patronize us. Satan has a hay day with this. Ministers who desire to preach the good news, and see souls save become disenchanted as they are forced to become managers of our Christian malls.

Finally, I’ve also learned that most Christians are equally dissatisfied with the status quo. Over the past few weeks, God has demonstrated that the people at CrossBridge are searching for ways to serve others in substantive ways. Rather than bemoaning the state of the church, God is calling bold leaders to invite others to travel in the way of the cross. I am grateful that God has, and is bringing, new focus, not only to me personally, but to the CrossBridge church collectively. I await with great anticipation the new thing God is birthing among us…and to see it come to maturity.

I’m so blessed to be in this community of faith whose heart stands poised in the direction of the fatherless, widows, and strangers in our world.