Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Great Sadness

Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). We spend a lot of time and money trying to avoid pain in order to secure a happy and carefree life. But have you considered the possibility that mourning and sadness might be one of God’s greatest gifts? Today, I want to speak to those of you who are sad and grieving, and are tired of apologizing for it. I also want to share a word with those of you who are not grieving...but who are called to love those who are.

Let's begin with a simple truth we can all agree on, that sadness has a place in every human life. Ecclesiastes 3:4 says “There is a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance." We will all experience sorrow. In Wm. Paul Young’s novel, The Shack, it’s called "The Great Sadness" (always written in capital letters) and we first learn about that Sadness when Mack walks down his icy driveway to the mailbox and finds a cryptic note: “Mackenzie, It’s been a while. I’ve missed you. I’ll be at the shack next weekend if you want to get together. – Papa.” A wave of nausea rolls over Mack as he reads, because the shack is the dark symbol of his grief. That the note is signed “Papa” (his wife Nan’s favorite name for God) makes it all seem like a sick, disgusting joke.

That's because in the first four chapters of the book, we learn that The Great Sadness was the abduction and murder of his six year old daughter, Missy, on a Labor Day camping trip. The murder, as we discover later, happens in an abandoned shack in a remote wilderness area. We read: “Shortly after the summer that Missy vanished, The Great Sadness…draped itself around Mack’s shoulders like some invisible but…heavy quilt … slowly tightening around his chest and heart like crushing coils” (The Shack, p. 27). Now, as a pastor, I prefer to focus on joy, peace, and happiness, not sadness; but as Gary Thomas points out in Authentic Faith,“There is no spiritual sensitivity in this world without a corresponding pain and sadness." It’s too easy to become indifferent to the pain in this world, if not our own. Jesus was not indifferent to pain and suffering. We're told again and again that “Jesus wept” as he did at the grave of Lazarus. And if Jesus wept…so should we.

Of course, sadness and grief have many faces. One of the biggest misunderstandings about grief and sadness is that it must look a certain way; that there is a right and a wrong way to grieve. In fact, grief has many faces…and many expressions. When David’s traitorous son Absalom is killed at the hands of his own men; he is overwhelmed with sorrow and regret: “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would that I had died instead of you….” (2 Samuel 18:33). Regret is one of the most common emotions that we feel at the death of a loved one, the loss of our health, a job, a relationship, or a dream. We feel the weight of what might have been; what we could or would have done differently. “It’s so easy to get sucked into the if-only game” Mack thinks to himself. “If only he had decided not to take the kids on that trip; if only he had said no when they asked to use the canoe; if only he had left the day before; if only, if only, if only” (The Shack, pp. 66-67). Is there anywhere to go from “if only”? Is there anywhere to go from regretting what we can’t change? Consider Ruth & Naomi...

The Book of Ruth begins with a triple tragedy. An Israelite woman named Naomi, and her Maobite daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, all suffer the death of their husbands and the loss of everything of material value in Moab. When Naomi decides to return to her homeland, she urges Orpah and Ruth to stay behind: “Go back each of you to your mother’s house….it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the LORD has turned against me. And they wept aloud” (Ruth 1: 8-13). In response to the grief of losing her husband she withdraws from her daughters and from God…and concludes that God himself has turned against her; that God is punishing her.

For perhaps most of us, it’s easier to “trust” in God’s goodness when things are going smoothly and life is trouble free. So, we’re not surprised that Mack feels a growing rift between himself and God; and tries instead “to embrace a stoic, unfeeling faith…He was sick of God and God’s religion” (The Shack, pp. 67-68). Have you ever felt like Mack, sick of God and God's religion? What Mack was sick of was a religion that seemed to make no real difference in people’s lives. His personal tragedy made him hungry for the true God; a God who was alive and real; and a faith that made sense of a hurting world. In his pain and grief, Mack withdrew from people and from the God he thought he knew; but withdrawal is not the only expression of grief....

Like her mother-in-law, Ruth also suffered the death of her husband, but she refused to leave Naomi and vowed to follow her with words of lasting devotion: “Where you go I will go” she tells her, “Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1: 16). Was the pain of Ruth’s grief less than that of Naomi’s? No. But instead of drawing away, Ruth chose to draw near. Instead of questioning her faith, it was reborn in the act of loving Naomi. Sometimes the best thing we can do is to focus all the energy of our grief into a deep compassion and love for others who are suffering like we have suffered!

One more example of grief from Scripture is that of Job, whose entire family is taken from him along with his health and worldly possessions in one chapter. He is famous for saying “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” but that doesn’t mean he stops wrestling with God. Through 42 chapters, Job teaches us that we can question God and wrestle with God, that we can cry out to God, “Why? Why?” and still surrender to him, still accept his sovereignty over all of life (Job 1: 13-21). Jesus' cry from the cross was "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46). He knew the loneliness of the desert and the isolation of the cross...yet he expressed that loneliness in the act of prayerful surrender, saying not only "Why?" but "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit" (Luke 23:46).

The Bible illustrates many tasks in the process of grief (anger, regret, drawing away, drawing nearer, prayer, pleading, doubt, faith and acceptance). None of us can avoid the tasks of grief; but we can choose how they turn us. We can let a tragedy be the catalyst for despair, or hope; resentment or forgiveness, cynicism or compassion; for giving up or standing up. No one said it better than the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 4: 7-11:
But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body.

We’ve been focusing on the different faces of grief…but I want to end by talking about how we can give special grace to others in their sadness. Consider the fact that the Son of God (our Savior and Lord) on the night of his arrest, “said to [Peter, James, and John] ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me’” (Matt. 26:38). There are 3 gifts Jesus teaches us to give to the grieving.
The first is the gift of simply being there. Jesus shows us by his example, that our presence with those who grieve is a tremendous gift. There is a powerful scene early in The Shack when Mack must walk into the very place his daughter was murdered and identify her clothing. It’s unimaginable…but we read: “Although Mack didn’t hear anything, he suddenly felt Emil and Tommy each take one of his arms as they turned and followed the special agent down the short path to the shack. Three grown men, arms locked in some special grace of solidarity, walking together, each one toward his own worst nightmare (The Shack, p. 65). On the night of his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemene, Jesus needed friends who would simply “stay awake” with him. Each of us needs “the special grace of solidarity” – the gift of “garden friends” who will be solidly with us and for us. Some of us have suffered grief alone. We were hurt, or judged, or abandoned in our sadness. That can leave a deep scar of anger and bitterness. We need to be reminded (by garden friends) of the truth that Jesus was there, and is with us now.
The second gift we can give to the grieving is the gift of our patience: Many of us to try to fix people who are heavy with grief…to help them “get over it.” Why? Often it’s driven by our discomfort. The grief of others can bring our own fears and anxieties to the surface. Read carefully: the last thing the grieving need from us is pressure to “get over it” or someone to talk them “out of it.” Give those you love the gift of your patience as they work through their grief; knowing that you will need the same one day.

The final gift we can give is the gift of our faithfilled prayer: When we are in grief, it’s often hard to pray alone. We need others to pray for us or with us. In Mack’s life, Nan was the spiritual anchor. At the loss of their daughter, we read that “they held each other and wept as Mack poured out his sorrow and Nan tried to hold him in one piece” (The Shack, p. 56). Whether it’s the loss of health, a job, a relationship, a family pet, a dream etc., my prayer is that you will take the opportunity this week…to share that burden in a small fellowship group…with a spouse or a garden friend; pray, and experience God’s comfort.

We’ve been considering the gifts that others can give us in our sadness; but don’t forget that sadness itself is a “special grace” from God; that God can do miracles through those who mourn their losses, their sins, and the wrongs of this world that God wants to make right. My wife Lisa, whose father died 4 years ago, now leads a special grief group for middle school children; and a grief group in our church. Her personal experience of grief has given her a new sensitivity and compassion for those who mourn the death of a parent or loved one; and she knows how important it is to have someone who can listen and pray for us.

Gary Haugen, the President of International Justice Mission, loves his own children very much…but it’s his grief and sadness over the Missy’s of this world, over the abuse of other people’s children, which moved him to take action. At a White House address, Sharon Cohn of IJM said this: “While there are millions of girls and women victimized every day, our work will always be about the one. The one girl deceived. The one girl kidnapped. The one girl raped. The one girl infected with AIDS. The one girl needing a rescuer. To succumb to the enormity of the problem is to fail the one. And more is required of us" (cited in Gary Haugen, Terrify No More).

Gary Thomas tells about a man named 'Mark' who made an unusual confession of faith: “I’m a Christian because for once I feel pain. For the first time in ten years, I feel sadness. That’s why I’m a Christian” (Authentic Faith). Mark was a man who lived a ruthless, self-indulgent, pleasure-seeking life. But when his heart was awakened by faith he experienced two things that were strangers throughout his life: mourning and sadness. “I’m a Christian because for once I feel pain.”

What Scripture seems to be saying and what experience confirms is that great sadness is one of God’s greatest gifts, that it has an important place in every life, that it has many faces, many expressions; and that God offers special grace to those who mourn, through us. One day, Isaiah says, God will wipe every tear away from our eyes...but that day has not yet come. Until then, sadness and sorrow are a gift from God. It would be a frightening world indeed where there was no sorrow over death, no sorrow over the pain we’ve inflicted upon others, no grief over our sin, no sadness over the wrongs which God wants to make right. "Godly sorrow," says the Apostle Paul, "brings repentance which leads to salvation and leaves no regret" (2 Corinthians 7:10). Godly sorrow and sadness...are often the first fruits of a life that can be used by God to bring healing in a hurting world.

In his grief and sadness, Mack received a message: “It’s been a while. I’ve missed you. I’ll be at the shack next weekend if you want to get together. – Papa.” Or as Jesus said, “Blessed are you who mourn for you shall be comforted.” May God grant us to know the blessing….of both.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Missy's Questions...and Ours

Over the next several weeks, I'll be writing and reflecting on The Shack, by Wm. Paul Young, and the Scriptures that I believe underlie and help to clarify its main ideas. Young has been often asked why he chose something so painful as the premise for his book. Without giving away the plot, his answer was this: “The worst pain asks the best questions.” The Shack acknowledges what Scripture confirms…that pain often causes us to ask some big questions of God. We wrestle with God in our pain because we know that if God isn’t real in the most painful situation we can imagine…he isn’t real anywhere. In The Shack, Mack’s six year old daughter Missy had three big questions that needed answers….

The first big question that Missy raises with her dad is the truth question: Is God real? On the way up to the mountains of Northeastern Oregon for Labor Day, Mack and his kids stop at Multnomah falls (see picture), where he tells them the legend of the Multnomah Indian Princess.

As the story goes, the entire village is being ravaged by a terrible sickness. A prophecy says the sickness can only be stopped if a pure daughter of the tribe leaps from the top of the waterfall and gives her life away for her people; but as the tribal leaders gather no one can imagine asking his daughter to make such a sacrifice. When the Indian Princess discovers that her husband-to-be has also become deathly sick, she decides to climb to the top of the waterfall, pray and give herself to the Great Spirit, and then leap over the waterfall to her death. The next morning…there is grief and sorrow, but also awe and gratitude for what the Princess had done to save her people. That evening under the stars, Missy asks her Dad about the Indian Princess again…

“So, did it really happen? Did the Indian princess really die? Is the story really true?
“It might have, sweetie. Sometimes legends are built from real stories….”
“So, is Jesus’ dying a legend?”
“No honey, that’s a true story. And do you know what? I think the Indian princess story is probably true too”
[Wm. Paul Young, The Shack (Newbury Park, CA: Windblown Media, 2007), pp. 32-34].
The author grew up in a missionary family that worked among a remote tribe in Papua New Guinea. Many missionaries believe that there are “redemptive” keys in every culture that unlock the gospel. Don Richardson writes about the story of the Peace Child circulating among the Sawi Indians of New Guinea that enabled an entire tribe to understand how Jesus came to bring peace between God and humankind through his sacrifice. The story of the Indian Princess is similar to that; a tale of sacrificial love and redemption. The question that Missy asks…about the Indian Princess and, by extension, about Jesus’ death, is “Did it really happen?”

I think it’s always worth noting that scholars like Harvard historian Jarislov Pelikan have no trouble affirming that Jesus lived and that he had an unprecedented impact on human history. The Bible portrays Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection not as a legend, but as an actual historical event. John has this to say about Jesus: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands concerning the word of life” (John 1: 1).
In other words, John is saying, “We didn’t make this stuff up. Jesus was and is a real person whom we have heard, seen, and touched. And we have come to the conclusion that he was and is the One who is from the beginning, God come in the flesh… who lived among us, died on a cross, and rose from the dead .” The Bible invites us to wrestle with that claim…to accept it or to reject it, but not before looking at the evidence ourselves. If it is the truth, then it should be like the missing piece of a puzzle; the one fact that makes sense of everything else.

Some of us have doubts about the existence of God, the truth of the Bible, or what it claims about Jesus. The truth question is an important one for all of us, as it should be…but for many, like Missy, there is another question lurking behind it… the moral question: Is God good? The conversation between Missy and her dad continues:
“Is the Great Spirit another name for God – you know, Jesus’ Papa?” she asks.
“I would suppose so. It’s a good name for God because he is a spirit and he is great.”
“Then how come he’s so mean?”
“What do you mean, Missy?”
“Well, the Great Spirit makes the princess jump off the cliff and makes Jesus die on a cross. That seems pretty mean to me.”
Mack was stuck. He wasn’t sure how to answer. At six and a half years old, Missy was asking questions that wise people had wrestled with for centuries.”
A lot of people have stayed clear of God and organized religion because of the problem of pain. They see the God of the Bible as cruel or indifferent. The argument goes like this: “If God were truly all-powerful and all loving, there would be no suffering because a truly good God would not permit suffering and evil on the scale that we witness. Thus, the suffering we see in the world disproves the existence of an all-powerful God who loves or cares about us.”

To some, the Bible may indeed seem to portray a God who is capricious and cruel…a God who tells Abraham, for example, to take his son and sacrifice him on Mount Moriah; or a God who sends his only Son, Jesus to die on a cross. In the story of Abraham and Isaac, we read that “God tested Abraham. He said, “Abraham….Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you” (Genesis 22: 1-2).
Now this is a story that has troubled many people. Why would God ask Abraham and Sarah to sacrifice their one and only miracle son born to them in their old age, this child whom God had solemnly promised them twenty-five years before?! On the face of it, this sounds absolutely insane, but one thing we can say: Abraham knew God’s heart. Abraham knew that God had promised to bless him and make of him a great nation (Gen. 12). Abraham knew that God would never destroy the innocent, as was the case when he questioned God about his plan to destroy the City of Sodom (Gen. 18). And when Abraham went up to Mount Moriah with Isaac he said to his servant, "Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you" (Genesis 22: 5). I believe that Abraham held on to hope as he trusted that God would do the right thing...despite this strange command. Abraham knew God's heart.

And, of course, Abraham was not to be disappointed: In Gen. 22: 10-14, the angel stops Abraham from sacrificing his son, and provides a ram for the offering. At a time in human history when child sacrifice was commonplace, this lesson would never be forgotten by Abraham or his descendents: It is God who will provide the atonement sacrifice for sin, not Abraham, and not his children. That’s a consistent message throughout Scripture…that the problem of evil will never be fixed by human beings alone; but by the mercy of God; and Christians see that mercy and love most powerfully visible in Jesus, God’s own Son.

The message of Scripture…and the message that The Shack will explore, is not that God intends evil but that God redeems it. In the words of Joseph to his brothers who had sold him into slavery years before: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today” (Genesis 50: 20).

Missy began by asking the truth question, “Did it really happen?” Did Jesus really live…and die for us? Is God real? Then she asked the moral question, “Is God really good, and if he is good why do bad things happen? The last question Missy asks is the hardest of all because it’s the personal question: Does God care about me? As a father of young girls, it's hard for me to read this paragraph without welling up with tears.
“Daddy, will I ever have to jump off a cliff?”
“No, honey, I will never ask you to jump off a cliff, never, ever, ever.”
“Then will God ever ask me to jump off a cliff?
“No, Missy. He would never ask you to do anything like that.”
Up until now, Missy’s questions had been theoretical and theological. But now they had moved from theology to biography… where the problem of pain becomes real and personal. Because it’s one thing to talk about God or suffering or the doctrine of the atonement, in the abstract…it’s another thing to persevere through trials and tribulations, or to come face to face with evil one’s self. Pat answers and trite phrases seem to wilt under the personal experience of suffering.
Psalm 10:1 begins with a painfully personal question for God, “Why, O LORD, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in trouble?” All of us, at one time or another, feel this sense of forsakenness...even Jesus experienced it when he cried out, "My God, My God, why....?"

Pastor Bruce Humphrey of Rancho Bernardo Presbyterian Church tells about a time when his teenage boy was in the hospital: “I’m thinking of the words a pastor said to me in the hospital lobby while our oldest teenaged son lay in a coma. “You know Bruce, God has a purpose for this.” You want to know the truth? I wanted to hit him. Of course, I believed this at the level of head knowledge. I knew that God could redeem any tragic situation into something good. But his words seemed trite and unhelpful at the time. Contrast his theology words with another pastor friend who just wrapped his arms around me and held as I let down and began to weep. No words, we just wept together. One gave me theology. The other gave me connection.”

Lee Strobel writes, “The answer to suffering cannot be just an abstract idea, because this isn’t an abstract issue; it’s a personal issue. It requires a personal response….” Psalm 10 ends with the affirmation that though we may feel at times alone and abandoned by God...we are not: “You do see! Indeed you note trouble and grief, that you may take it into your hands….” I like that last phrase. It sounds to me like the God of our Lord Jesus Christ...a God who holds our troubles and our grief in his own hands, a "hands-on" God who is deeply and personally involved the pain of this world.

John describes this "hands-on" God when he says, “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son …..” (John 3:16). And Paul echoes this verse when he says that “In Christ, God was [personally] reconciling the world to himself….” (2 Corinthians 5:19). The Scriptures are all about God’s personal involvement in our hurts…and so is The Shack, which is why I'm interested in its fresh but familiar spin on this most important topic.

We can sum up Missy’s questions this way: First, is God real? Then, is God good? And finally, does God really care about me, and my deepest pain? If these questions are important to you as well…then I would invite you to join me in an exploration of The Shack, and the Scriptures as we journey together to the heart of God.

Join the conversation! Your questions, comments, and reflections as you read are valuable to me....

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A Labor of Love

Over the past several weeks, I've been thinking about a few choice words and phrases that we use in the English language which have biblical origins. There are literally thousands, but I have one more...“the labor of love" - a phrase that has come to refer to any act done out of the motivation of lovingkindness. The words come from Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians v. 3. "We always give thanks to God for all of you...remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ."

Recently, I listened to a fascinating introduction and reflection on the bestselling book, The Shack by author Wm. Paul Young. You can listen to this introduction by downloading the link that I provide on this blogsite (top of the page, right column). One of the stories he shares centers around his mother Bernice when she was a nurse in training in Canada…it was 1948 when there was no neonatal care for premature infants available. As it happens a mother, who was also the wife of an Anglican priest, came into the hospital bleeding internally. The doctor on call decided that the baby would have to be taken to save her life. He removed a fragile one pound baby from her womb, put the tiny life on a kidney tray, and instructed Bernice to dispose of it.

As a nurse in training Bernice wanted to be professional and respectful toward this doctor, but she was also a woman of deep faith. And so in that moment she performed a labor of love; that labor which love requires: she wrapped the tiny life in a towel, still barely alive, and set it in on a warm sterilization unit as she continued to attend. Later she began feeding the baby with an eye dropper. When the doctor discovered what she had done he was furious…he had already told the family the baby was dead. “You’re responsible for this. You created this problem and you’re going to take care of it,” he said. So, she proceeded to nurse the baby to viability for weeks until mother and child were able to go home…a miracle of neonatal care in 1948. There’s more to this story, but let me say this… Bernice knew that while we can be professionals in many areas, we must never be professional Christians. She knew that there’s a difference between laboring with our hands and what Paul calls, “the labor of love.” On this week after Labor Day, let's try to understand that difference.

The labor of my hands is my professional occupation. The Bible puts great value on daily labor. Genesis 2:1ff. reminds us that God calls us to a rhythm of work and rest, and observed it himself in the act of creation. Jesus affirmed the call to work, “My father is still working and I am working” he says in John 5:17. And again, “Blessed is that servant whom his master will find at work when he arrives” (Matt. 24: 46).
Nevertheless some like the Thessalonians, who awaited the Second Coming, thought they could just "chillax" until Jesus returned. It became a license to be lazy. Against this view, Paul reminds this young church of his own example: “Remember our labor and our toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you….” (1 Thess. 2: 8-10). Then, in 1 Thess. 4:11 he has this advice: “Aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we directed you, so that you may … be dependent on no one.” And just in case they didn’t get the point, he says it again in 2 Thess. 3: 10-12: “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord and to earn their own living.”
Why is work so important? I can think of several obvious reasons:
  1. Our work enables us to earn a paycheck and provide for our families. In the depression era, putting food on the table and a roof over ones head was the overriding concern.
  2. Our work may enable us to pursue a lifelong passion; and contribute to the greater good of society.
  3. Our work may add to our sense of self-worth – and give more meaning to our daily lives.
  4. Our work may bring future rewards, like a paid vacation, medical benefits, or a pension.

But while being a professional may be biblical and certainly beneficial -- it’s not the best way to be a follower Jesus. Why? Because our walk with Jesus is not a 40 or 60 hour/week job…it’s a 168 hour/week way of life. I’m a pastor; but God save me from becoming a professional Christian. John Piper pleads with pastors, saying, “We are NOT professionals….There is no professional childlikeness; there is no professional tenderheartedness; there is no professional panting after God” (from John Piper, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals). Though I need the paycheck, I don’t want my deepest convictions and beliefs to be reduced to a paycheck.

In reflecting on this truth, it's occured to me that the biggest measure of my desire to follow Jesus is not how hard I work at my sermons; or how many people I visit in the hospital, or how well I provide leadership to our Session. The biggest measure of my desire to follow Jesus is probably how I act when I walk through the front door of my house at night; how I treat my wife and children. The other, might be the level of compassion I have for people when I am away from the church; or my desire to pray and to listen to his voice when no one is looking.

Most of you reading this right now are not “professionals” in ministry like I am, but I think there is a similar temptation for any follower of Christ to treat his/her spiritual life like a 40 hour/week job, what we do when we’re at church or around church people, instead of a 168 hour/week eternal calling. So it’s not surprising that in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, he makes a distinction between two kinds of work…the labor of our hands, and the labor of love. Listen to Paul's words again from 1 Thess. 1:3 - “We always give thanks to God for all of you… remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 1:3). Paul calls their faith and service to Christ “a labor of love.” What does that mean?

The labor of love is my voluntary cooperation with God in his work. The labor we do for God is always a labor of love or it is nothing at all. We do it freely, voluntarily, in response to God’s freely given love for us. Unlike the labor of our hands, it is a work motivated not by profit, prestige, or personnel reviews, but by God’s love for us; and our love for God and other people.
Friends…we are not called to be professional Christians. We don’t follow Christ for a paycheck…but out of love for God and compassion for the lost.

Can we be professionals (teachers, nurses, builders, writers, caregivers, domestic engineers, students, pastors)…and Christians? Not only can we be, WE MUST BE. We can be certain that God desires Christians who are professionals; what he doesn’t desire is Professional Christians. God desires those who will join hands as his “fellow workers” (see Timothy's example in 1 Thess. 3:2); follow him out of the church, and into every arena of life.

I began by telling you the story of Bernice who stepped out of her professional role to perform a labor of love; that labor which love alone requires. Flash forward to 2005 when Bernice had discovered that the tiny baby whose life she saved had grown up to be a healthy, 6 foot 4 Anglican priest in British Columbia named Harold. She and her sister decide to visit Harold at his parish on a Sunday. What a meeting that must have been! Before the Communion Service, Harold identifies Bernice and says, “This woman saved my life”…and tells the whole story. As communion is served, a woman sitting next to Bernice apologizes: “In our tradition you are only allowed to receive communion if you’re a member of our church.” Bernice was very gracious, and conveyed her understanding.

But then, as the service came to a conclusion, Harold removed his outer vestments, and with the bread and cup in hand he walked to the back of the sanctuary where Bernice and her sister (who was not a believer at this time) were sitting. Harold knelt down before Bernice and said with tears, “Bernice, this bread is Christ’s body, broken for you…and this is his blood poured out for you.” Do you see what Harold did? Harold loved someone more than his profession or his power. He loved Jesus and this woman more; and so he removed his outer vestments, these signs of his profession and priestly authority, and (for Jesus' sake) honored this woman who saved his life so many years ago for Jesus’ sake – truly a labor of love.

My wife Lisa reflected on this story with me as we were talking the other night and pointed out the fundamental question that it raises: What are the vestments and the outer trappings of professionalism and power and pride that Christ is asking us to remove or lay aside in order to serve and honor and love someone in HIS name? Jesus set the example! He humbled himself, he took the form of a servant, laying aside the power and privilege he shared with the Father before the world began…so that he could live with us and lay down his life for us on the cross – the greatest labor of love this world has ever seen. God save us from becoming professional Christians; and like our Lord, help us to do the labor that love requires.