All Things Are Possible...On the Narrow Path

I recently attended a conference where the theme was "Mission Possible." The corresponding scripture reference was Jesus's statement in Matthew 19:26: "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible." This verse is found in the context of Jesus's conversation with a man known as a "rich young ruler," found in 3 of the 4 gospels with slight variations (Matthew 19:16-30; Mark 10:17-31; Luke 18:18-30). In Mark and Luke, he says to Jesus, "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" (In Matthew, he asks, "Teacher, what good thing must I do..."). Jesus, in some comments that don't jive well with traditional Christian doctrine, first distances himself from God and "goodness" saying that "no one is good, except God alone," and then answers the man's question about attaining eternal life by telling him to "obey the commandments." The commandments that Jesus specifically mentions are five of the Ten Commandments (plus "love your neighbor" in Matthew), which deal with person-to-person relations. The rich man affirms that he has never broken any of these commandments, and in Matthew asks, "What do I still lack?" Jesus then tells him to go and sell everything he has and give it to the poor, and then to come and follow him. Saying nothing, the man walks away "sad." Jesus then says, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." A puzzled group of disciples ask, "Who then can be saved?" It is at this point that Jesus makes the statement: "With man this is impossible, but with God, all things are possible."

(By the way, you may have heard the idea that there was a small "gate" or hole in the wall in Jerusalem that was known as "the eye of the needle." Interesting, but probably not true.)

During one worship session at the conference, an area pastor and friend of mine gave an excellent narrative sermon that drew a connection between the challenge Jesus posed to the rich young ruler and the challenge posed to this organization of Baptists. In the sermon, he retold the gospel story from the imagined perspective of the rich young ruler, and paralleled it with a fictional story of "Wilbur," a modern day Baptist in our region. Both men asked, "Why don't the old ways work?" You see, staff in the region has been dramatically decreased, and we continue to face budget shortfalls. In the sermon, both the rich young ruler and "Wilbur" are faced with the challenge to do ministry in a totally different way, to not only leave old ways behind but discover a new adventure. Just as the rich man was challenged to take on a whole new way of being a disciple, the fictional Wilbur was challenged to rethink ministry at this level; how we give, who's involved, and most importantly, how to do it without the money we used to have.

A business meeting followed. The budget was presented and discussion ensued about how to increase giving...in the same way, with the same structure, with the same people. I don't want to talk disparagingly about my brothers and sisters in the region, but I couldn't help but wonder if the sermon had fallen on deaf ears. There we were - talking about how to raise money while using a Bible verse found within a story of a call to part with material wealth. The irony is worth exploring.

Perhaps it's not so much the call to actually "be poor" (actual poverty has destructive consequences), but to at least get the dollar signs (and head counts) out of our eyes so that we can clearly see what we're doing, and why. When we have this vision and know what the essence of our call is, we may not panic as much when things are tight. Turning our attention away from the numbers does at least two important things:

One, it enhances creativity. When you don't have funding to rely on, you have to get creative, and in the process of doing so, you might accidentally end up using people's God-given gifts and talents rather than just their portfolio. I've seen this kind of thing happen with an initiative called Advent Conspiracy that a group in my church focuses on every Christmas. This initiative partially calls people to make and give gifts in more relational ways, which not only takes care of money issues but people end up doing things that last and actually build relationships (like making gifts together, etc.). A colleague of mine once said in a business meeting that the proposed budget, which had suffered drastic cuts, was a true "faith budget." We usually think a leap of faith is when you budget high and have "faith" that people will give. But my wise colleague pointed out that it is when we decrease our dependency on resources and rely on people to engage with their gifts and talents that we truly make a leap of faith.

Secondly, breaking our dependency on money enhances personal involvement. It's a long process that's easier said than done, but once people can't throw money at a problem anymore, you have a chance to actually engage them personally and foster a faith-stimulating encounter with people in need who had only before met their wallet. Example: when well-off people from the states go on a mission trip to an impoverished country, their life and priorities are changed forever. When we stay home and give money, the best thing that happens is we feel vindicated and put it out of our minds with the self-assurance, "At least I did something." Couldn't the same transformation happen right here at home when we--pardon the baseball analogy--step out of the press box and onto the field?

I'm convinced that this is the kind of thing Jesus was thinking of when he spoke of "the narrow path" (Matthew 7:13-14, or see especially the context in Luke 13:22-30). Jesus, in a word, called people to do things the hard way. He approached potential followers and converts in the exact opposite way that marketing departments and church evangelism committees do. When people came to Jesus willingly and ready to follow, he warned them of how hard it might be and told them to count the cost. Doing ministry through personal engagement and relationship building is harder. Being challenged and facing hardship, which is really the only way we grow as disciples, is harder. But it's better. Too many people, when they hear the word "missions," immediately think of giving money to missionaries or helping organizations. What would it look like to personally engage in the ministries carried out by the organizations we simply give money to, whether it's here at home or abroad? Great things are possible...on the narrow path.

Financial giving to religious organizations is tanking. Will we continue to swim upstream in our desperate search for dollars, or will we embrace a new calling? Is this "decrease" exactly what the Church needs in order to let Christ "increase?" (John 3:30). Is this part of a "cleansing" of today's churches, many of whom would find that they don't have a sense of mission beyond getting butts in their seats? Could it be that constantly striving for growth is the worst way to achieve it? Do we have the faith to see success even when we're not raising a dime? If and when Jesus calls us to be poor, will we take that leap, or will we, like the rich young ruler, walk away?


I Saw the Light?

There's a great Christian revivalist phrase, so familiar that it's often used even by Christians themselves in light-hearted conversation: "I have seen the light!" In order to say it correctly, of course, you have to stay on the word "seen" for an incredibly long time, and put your hands up in the air as a bonus. "I have seeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeen the light!"

Indeed, this is how believers think and talk about the difference between belief and non-belief. Supposedly I, as a Christian, have come to see something that those who believe differently from me have not seen. I have knowledge of the truth, I have come into contact with the divine, etc. The focus seems to be on me. I made a change, I redirected my gaze, and now I see the light. Therefore, we approach life and faith with certainty. I know. I have truth. I see the light.

Light is a common metaphor in the Bible. It is equated with God's truth or presence. People who had a special encounter with God radiated with light (e.g., Moses). It is an important theme in the gospel of John, as Jesus refers to Himself as the "light of the world" (John 8:12, 9:5). So, it makes perfect sense for a follower of Christ to use "light" in reference to their faith.  

But if we take this light analogy seriously, a very different way of thinking emerges. Think about "physical" light...that which is detectable by the human eye at 380 to 780 nanometres on the electromagnetic spectrum. Do I see light? Or is it light by which I see?

Go into a dark room or closet. Make it completely dark so that you can't see anything. Now, turn on a light. Are you seeing light? Or is it the light by which you see? Would you and I be able to see anything if not for light? If it's completely dark and we want to be able to see something, we are completely dependent on finding a source of light. Light is not just one of the many things in the world that our eyes can see; it is the very agent by which we see at all.

Think about it: our sense of sight is useless without light.

Bringing this metaphor back to the spiritual realm, we can see nothing apart from God. We do not see God, we do not find God. It is only by God's light and truth that is present in the world that we see, understand, and experience anything at all. I do not see God's light. God's light enables me to see.

This is very much in line with passages we find in the Bible that seem to unequivocally place all revelatory initiative with God. In other words, in many parts of the Bible, humans are completely dependent on God to reveal anything to them.

We're told of Samuel before his encounter with the Lord that he "did not yet know the Lord; the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him" (1 Samuel 3:7). The great prophetic oracle of Isaiah 65 begins with the words, "I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me; I was found by those who did not seek me. To a nation that did not call on my name, I said, 'Here am I, here am I.'" Jesus prayed in Matthew 11:25-26, "I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure." Or consider what he said to Peter after his confession of him as the Messiah: "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven." (Matthew 16:17). The apostle Paul made several references to the notion that still much has not yet been revealed, or cannot be perceived by humans (Romans 8:18-25; 1 Corinthians 13:9, 12). He also said, "The mystery of Christ was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God's holy apostles and prophets" (Ephesians 3:5).

But the interesting part is what happens in these biblical narratives when people get that glimpse of God; that moment of clarity with the divine. What happens? Did they burst into "hallelujahs" or walk away with confidence and vindication in their beliefs? No; often, it was a traumatic experience that left them reeling. At the very least, those called felt unworthy and looked for a way out (Exodus 3-4; Jeremiah 1:6; Jonah 1:1-3). Paul was left blinded (Acts 9), and Isaiah ended up berating himself and his people (Isaiah 6:1-5). Even an encounter with an angel would always reduce the biblical characters to debilitating fear.

 I tend to think we take too much credit. Am I reduced to humility when I think I have a special revelation from God, or do I flaunt it and revel in new-found self-vindication? We don't see light; light allows us to see. And we don't know God; God allows us to know. Consider this question: Do you see your faith as simply one worldview among (and sometimes against) many others, or do you believe in a God who is bigger than that; a God whose light informs all worldviews?