1 Peter 5:1-5 – Humble Service

To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.

In the same way, you who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.”(NIV)

Today’s New Testament lesson addresses two groups of people: Leaders and followers, the older and the younger, shepherds and sheep. Both have their distinct roles and places, yet both are to share together in the virtue of humility. Whether pastor or parishioner, mentor or mentee, humble service is to characterize all.

I spent a good chunk of my ministerial life working with college students and twenty-somethings. One of the reasons I like being around young adults is that they have a very well attuned barometer to hogwash coming from older folks. Unlike children and more mature adults, this group of people live in a nexus between an emerging awareness of the world without having yet been crusted over with bitterness or disillusionment. They can spot a disingenuous person across the room like an eagle eyes the difference between a fish and a rock at five-thousand feet in the air.

All of us have likely had the experience of not being able to explain why, but a certain interaction with a person just seems off – it smacks of being a bit too contrived and manipulative. The other person might talk a good line, yet your instincts tell you different. So, for example, if a church pastor or leader seems to be just going through the motions as if the work is a necessary evil, then there might be something behind it. It is always a good idea to stop and listen to your gut speak.

Difficult for many people is that life is not so much about learning a certain skill set, as if we were in a trade school. The skills approach relies upon learning to say certain things, do certain things, and press certain buttons in others, and then get a solid expected outcome. That kind of approach is where the finely attuned baloney meter goes off in others. They sense that this person talking to them is not bringing anything of themselves to the discussion; they’re just talking without listening; they just go on without a sense of dialogue in which they learn from you or reveal anything of themselves to you.

I genuinely believe humility is the cornerstone of all virtues and the foundation to effective personal interactions and group dynamics. Without humility, there is no sense of the majesty and dignity of the other person – there is only competition and a twisted hierarchy of those with power and those without. If humility is absent, life is a trade school in learning to get what I want on the backs of others.

However, with humility, who we are as people matters. I bring my feelings, my thoughts, my beliefs, my experiences, and my questions into the conversation or situation and seek to, in turn, discover what you think and feel. Then, together, we come to a third way of seeing that honors our collective sharing and consulting of one another with fresh collaboration which blesses the world. This is less a skill set, and more of just being a good human being.

Humility is a posture, not a skill to leverage for what we want. A humble disposition pursues learning, growth, and development. It sits with uncertainty and mystery so that genuine relationship has a real go at happening. Humility sits on the floor at Jesus’ feet and discovers something about self, God, and the interaction between each.

The humble emptying of oneself is necessary in awakening to a new awareness of God’s presence. It may not mean that shepherds and leaders have clear assurances and certain plans, yet it will surely involve living in the awkward in-between of assurance and uncertainty, being loved but not knowing where that love will take you, and following Jesus without a pre-negotiated plan. 

No one can malarkey their way through the Christian life; everyone needs the posture of humility. Jesus will be our Teacher, yet we will need to bring ourselves to the mix because Christianity is not dispassionately taking notes and then forensically regurgitating it all on an exam. Instead, Christianity is a dynamic spiritual encounter between God and self through the person of Jesus. It begins with humility. And the rewards of such living are permanent and eternal.

Jesus, the Good Shepherd of the sheep, give us the humility which realizes its ignorance, admits its mistakes, recognizes its need, welcomes advice, and accepts rebuke. Help us always to praise rather than to criticize, to sympathize rather than to discourage, to build rather than to destroy, and to think of people at their best rather than at their worst. This we ask for your name’s sake. Amen.

Acts 17:10-15 – Being Open-Minded

Frank Zappa quote

That same night the believers sent Paul and Silas to another city named Berea. When they arrived there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. The people in Berea were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica. They were so glad to hear the message Paul told them. They studied the Scriptures every day to make sure that what they heard was true. The result was that many of them believed, including many important Greek women and men.

But when the Jews in Thessalonica learned that Paul was telling people God’s message in Berea, they came there too. They upset the people and made trouble. So, the believers immediately sent Paul away to the coast, but Silas and Timothy stayed in Berea. Those who went with Paul took him to the city of Athens. They returned with a message for Silas and Timothy to come and join him as soon as they could. (ERV)

Everywhere the Apostle Paul went on his missionary journeys he experienced both acceptance and opposition. Determined to spread the good news of Christ’s redeeming work, Paul found a receptive audience and was able to establish churches. However, by doing this, he also upset the religious status quo wherever he went, as well. As a result, there were times when Paul and his colleagues needed to steal out of town before an angry mob could get their hands on him. Sometimes, the furious cabal got a hold of him, and Paul forever carried the scars of those beatings on his body.

So, it must have been a refreshing experience for Paul to arrive in the city of Berea (located at the base of the Olympian Mountains in southwestern Macedonia) and discover a different spirit than he typically found in other places – a willingness to investigate, scrutinize, and grapple with the message presented.

To spiritually thrive and flourish in this life we all must embrace the noble character of remaining open-minded with a teachable spirit. Just as the body grows, changes, and matures over time, so the human spirit does the same. This means there is continual spiritual development. To become closed-minded and believe all questions are answered and settled is to cut off oneself from truth and reality.

The Apostle Paul, I believe, is a good model of what it takes to be open-minded and a lifelong learner. The following are some ways he kept alive to spiritual truth:

Paul found his motivation. He went on missionary journeys because he wanted to make Christ known in places where he wasn’t. “It doesn’t matter if people are civilized and educated, or if they are uncivilized and uneducated. I must tell the good news to everyone. That’s why I am eager….” (Romans 1:13-14, CEB)

Paul went to new places. Getting stuck in a rut comes from never doing anything new or going to new places. We don’t have to be missionaries like Paul to do some movement and discover personally unexplored places, both literally and spiritually. Habits and routines are good. Sometimes we just need to create new ones so that we see a different perspective and have new experiences. The inability to see another’s viewpoint comes from an unwillingness to entertain any kind of change.

Paul avoided speculation. He did not superimpose his own experiences onto others. Paul was remarkably open to people everywhere he went, instead of being afraid and expecting trouble and/or abuse. In other words, the Bereans were open to Paul because Paul was open to them. Paul avoided looking at them as Thessalonians or Philippians, both places where he got into loads of trouble just before coming to Berea. A contemporary way of stating Paul’s attitude and practice is that he was free of prejudice and discrimination.

Furthermore, notice the intellectual characteristics of the Berean people:

  • They were curious to hear what Paul thought.
  • They were able to have their ideas challenged.
  • They didn’t get angry when new ideas were presented.
  • They practiced both intellectual humility and mental empathy.
  • They believed Paul had a right to share his arguments, beliefs, and thoughts.

Today, in our intellectually and politically polarized world, far too many people are uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. So, they are unwilling to wrestle with spirituality by eliminating all mystery from their religion. When that happens, oppression is born. These are the folks who could not tolerate Paul’s ideas and gave him such a hard time. By rejecting alternative ideas that might challenge the status quo, people may be able to minimize uncertainty and risk – or at least their perception of risk – yet, the closing of their minds to other’s thoughts opens them to abusing the bodies of those same people.

When people are intellectually and spiritually proud, they wrongheadedly believe that they already know all there is to know, and so, they refuse to listen. At best, this limits the potential for learning; at worst, it forms a cognitive bias which blinds them to their own ignorance and blunts their ability for compassion. Instead, it is imperative we be humbler about our knowledge and that there is always more to learn.

Almighty God, in you are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Open our eyes that we may see the wonders of your Word; and give us grace that we may clearly understand and freely choose the way of your wisdom. As the source of all light, enlighten our spirits. Pour out on us the spirit of understanding so that our hearts and minds may be opened. Amen.

Hurry Up and Listen

 
 
“My dear friends, you should be quick to listen and slow to speak or get angry.  If you are angry, you cannot do any of the good things that God wants done” (James 1:19-20).
 
            Rarely does anything go as planned in life.  Yet we all have certain desires and expectations about how things should go in our lives.  When things go sideways, tempers flare.  People do not listen well and are quick to blame and jump to conclusions.  Difficult life circumstances can lead to pointing fingers and giving heated opinions about problems.  Verbal jabs can take over in the church.
 
            Inside of all our heads we have higher brain functions, and lower brain functions.  We need both of them.  When there is danger, the lower brain immediately kicks in and puts us on a hyper-vigilant state to resist and deal with the threat.  This works great when a burglar is in your house, or you jump in to help someone in a car accident, or any number of things which threaten life.  Adrenaline is great for danger but not so great when there is simply things going on we don’t like.  The problem with the lower brain function is that it operates more on instinct and not on rational, logical, and reasonable thought.  When the lower brain is functioning the higher brain function is not so much.  If you have ever seen someone all worked-up about something and that person does not listen to any kind of reason, you are observing a person who is operating in the lower brain function.  Most of our contemporary problems are not solved through the lower brain’s activity of responding to fear and threats of danger.
 
            We need to hurry up and listen.  People caught in their lower brain function do not listen because all they can see is what upsets them.  There is a great need for listeners today.  Very little productive communication takes place because there are so many people in a hyper-vigilant state going on and on about their opinions and what’s wrong with everything and what we should be doing.  We just talk over and on top of each other because we already have our minds made-up about how things really are.  Nobody is listening.
 
            On top of all this, there are a number of things which distract us from any kind of ability to listen well:  our busy-ness; constant background noise of the TV, radio, tablet or computer.  And these often just appeal to the lower brain with no substantive thoughts.  This all has major implications when it comes to listening to God.
 
            Bible reading is the primary source for Christians to listen to God.  But reading the Bible is too difficult and dull for far too many believers.  Sitting quietly before God and slowly reading the words of Scripture, and giving focused attention to Him in prayer has been relegated to the super-spiritual among us, as if it is not normal to read the Bible and pray.
 
            I haven’t even said anything about preaching yet.  It is little wonder why so many preachers today think they need to be showmen with such little listening that actually occurs.  Then, there are always people who think they already know what needs to happen, so they check out during the sermon.  In order to hurry up and listen to God’s Word, it needs to be a priority in our lives.  We must say “no” to some things in order to make room to listen to God.  We must prepare for worship and listening through deliberate preparation.  Listening is not just going to happen.  It has to be looked at as a skill just like anything else in life, and purposefully cultivated.
 

 

            A teachable spirit which is attentive to the words and ways of Jesus is a listening spirit.  A place to begin is to allow some space for listening within the worship service.  Cramming the time with as much stuff as possible is not conducive to hearing from God.  But through slow and deliberate speech, times of silence and contemplation, and careful planning can spawn an atmosphere of listening to God and his Word.  Let the church model for parishioners how to listen well.  For straining out all others voices in order to hear God might be one of the best things we can do today.