Mark Twain once said, “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”
The point of course is that older we get, the greater our perspectives change. I remember my 9th grade English teacher telling our class that the older a person gets, the faster time goes by. I thought it was a fascinating statement at the time.
Well, she was right on the money. As a high school kid, summers felt like half an eternity. Today, they seem like a half-an-hour.
On that score, I can remember the early 1990s as if they happened last year. Particularly 1992. That year marked a turning point in my life and ministry. The direction of the church took a turbulent twist, and I discovered what a cross was. I’m not speaking about the event of Calvary and the Lord’s sacrificial death. I’m speaking about the principle of the cross . . . where God comes to break you, to shatter you, and to devastate you.
The cross is not comfortable. It’s painful. Sometimes painful beyond measure. But herein lies a mighty truth: Strength doesn’t bring us to God, weakness does.
And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong. En. 2 Corinthians 12:9-10, NKJV.
Pain and suffering provoke us to stretch our hands to the hem of Christ’s garment. An ancient proverb says, “Out of the muck, the lotus grows beautiful blooms.” The famous portrait photographer Yousurf Karsh echoed the same thought when he said, “Character, like a photograph, develops in darkness.”
To accept the cross is to sit under the breaking of God and not be destroyed. That means taking the hurt, the pain, and the suffering that others have caused us to Calvary and leaving it there.
As I’ve watched the passing parade, I’ve observed some Christians confuse repressing hurt feelings with going to the cross. When this happens, the hurt feelings and the repressed anger are still present in the person’s heart. But they come out in passive aggressive behaviors. They will leak out in the form of sideways jabs at other people nestled under the cloak of humor. And if a sore spot is touched, the person will explode in a torrent of uncontrollable rage and deafening clamor.
Point: If a person hasn’t dealt with their own hurt feelings, those negative emotions will end up controlling their behavior in some pretty bizarre ways.
God always deals with us in His Son, and He always deals with the problem of evil in the cross of His Son. The cross has a substitutionary side (He took evil for us), and a participatory side (He gives us His righteousness). But it also has a conformity side (the cross shapes our lives.)
The years 1992 to 1994 were pure hell for many of us in the church. One of the most important lessons I learned during that speck of time was this: The Lord builds His House through death, suffering, and dying.
You can find this principle all throughout Scripture.
It was a pretty traumatic three years for me. But when the smoke cleared, I had learned one of the greatest lessons in life. It was this: As high as God plans to elevate someone is as deep as He will bury them first.
Many (if not most) of us have a false image of what a spiritual leader should look like. We expect them to be without flaws and mistakes. I used to put leaders on a pedestal just like many of us do. But when I began to read the Scriptures carefully, I realized that every person whom God used mightily made mistakes. Some of them were colossal. This includes Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, Peter, Paul, and every leader in church history that I’m aware of.
Consequently, the mistakes we make do not define who we are. Nor does the pain we experience. What defines who we are is how well we rise after we have fallen. What defines us is if we can rise again after we have suffered and gone to the cross. In that connection, I don’t trust leaders who don’t walk with a limp.
It is for this reason that God comes to shatter the lives of those whom He wishes to use. They must be broken bread in His hands, for that is what He feeds His people with. En. Luke 9:16-17.
This is one of the main reasons for the cross. To make you and I useful for God’s service.
Always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. En. 2 Corinthians 4:10-11, NKJV.
Do you remember the tabernacle of Moses? The first thing that was built was the brazen altar of sacrifice . . . an apt picture of the cross. The actual tabernacle, a depiction of God’s House, was built after the altar. When you come over to the New Testament, you find the same principle. First it was Calvary, then Pentecost. First the cross, then the church.
Organic churches attract two main types of people: High commitment and high maintenance. If you ever hold your nose and take the plunge of churching with others in an organic way, I can assure you of this one thing. God will send you some of the most . . . interesting . . . people your way. And when they arrive, please don’t make the convenient mistake of concluding that these people were sent by the devil. Your God is sovereign, and He authors every person who comes into your midst. In time, you will discover that everyone who comes in, especially the “difficult” ones, are for your transformation.
Sometimes He will send those whom I call “black holes of ministry.” Do you know what a black hole of ministry is? It’s a person who you pour your life into . . . a person who you spend hours upon hours of your time counseling, encouraging, instructing, cajoling, serving, correcting even, and yet . . . week after week, month after month, year after year, there is absolutely no change whatsoever in that person’s life.
Most churches run such people out of the narthex in a few days. But if you’re part of a church that is inclusive and open to all people, you will meet the black hole of ministry. And how you treat them is going to test the limits of your compassion, your patience, and your wisdom, and even your sanity.
I remember one Sunday evening, a sister in the church called me on the phone. She was crying hysterically. Her words were simple: “Frank, you must come over here immediately.”
I replied, “What’s going on?”
She said, “I can’t tell you. Come over here right now, please.” And she hung up the phone.
I got dressed and drove over to her home. When I opened the door, her husband had a shotgun aimed straight at his oldest son. This sister, who was the man’s wife, and her four children were crying hysterically.
That scene is seared in my mind.
I remember silently asking the Lord to be my wisdom. I spoke softly to the man and told him to put his gun down and to come outside with me, assuring him that everything was under control. Thankfully, with a little bit of gentle prodding from me, he dropped the gun and we talked outside.
Every time I look back on that night, one sentence comes floating through my head repeatedly: Welcome to the Lord’s work. This phrase has become a favorite saying of mine. I use it whenever I encounter those who have laid their hand to the plow of God’s work and have come unglued after finding out what it entails.
Those of you who aspire to serve the Lord’s people, especially those of you who feel called to plant organic churches, please reflect on that story. I’m not going to rehearse the gory details as to why this man wanted to shoot his boy in his own home, but the story isn’t pretty. I wish I could tell you that this was the only crisis that fell into my lap in that church life experience. It wasn’t . . . welcome to the Lord’s work.