Friday, May 31, 2013

The Heart of Ministry

This past week, I had the privilege of volunteering at a local outreach to the homeless. Various churches volunteer on a regular basis to hand out clothing and provide a free meal to people who obviously appreciate it.

I got to help out at the coffee station. And this gave me the freedom to engage several people in conversation.

One conversation was interesting. A rather intimidating figure came to our area, obviously angry with some interaction he had just experienced. The leaders have the guests sit at tables and wait to be invited to get in line for the food table. He had arrived and gone straight into the food line. Someone asked him to find a seat first and then get in line when his table was released. A reasonable request.

But he was someone who was filtering everything through "victim" lenses. You see, when you are living on the edge, it is common to encounter a pattern of authority figures saying, "No" or just pushing their weight around. Add to that, a childhood marked by abusive authority and abandonment, and you have a recipe for disaster. The food line worker was trying to help everyone get served. But this guest thought, "Here's one more power-hungry authority figure who thinks they can just push me around." And he got triggered.

The leader working with me decided to help him get served. She personally helped him through the line. And having received TLC, this brought him out of his foul mood.

I have heard pastors say, "I love the ministry--it's people I can't stand."

I can't begin to tell you how wrong-headed this attitude is. You see, ministry IS people. That is, Jesus did not die for fame or glory, He died for people. God loves people and the proof of that is Jesus.

"Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. This is how God shows his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another" (1 John 4: 7, 9-11).

If we are going to pick up the ministry of Jesus, we will love people. How do we know that? Jesus loved people. And He demonstrated that by going to the cross. "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends" (John 15: 13).

As the evening was wrapping up, the guest came back to the coffee station to talk. I could see that he was grateful for being treated with respect by my co-worker. As I engaged him in conversation, I began to see in him a hurting person who needed someone to listen and talk to him with dignity and respect. Perhaps he also needed a male authority figure to do that. So, I engaged him in conversation.

As we went deeper, I realized that there were a lot of painful childhood memories that were coming up. So I invited him to sit with me and talk. I merely asked questions and gave him the gift of listening and affirming. What had been a kind of power-defense position was now melted. He had been resistant to acknowledging God at all earlier in the evening. Now he allowed me to pray for God to bless him. I knew that this was a holy moment for him and perhaps a breakthrough. Only time will tell.

As we were preparing to leave, one of the leaders asked me with a sense of wonder, "What did you do?"

"What do you mean? I just listened to him and prayed for him."

"He has never been open to that kind of ministry. In fact, he has always come with an angry attitude and brought others who caused trouble."

I don't think there is anything special about me. The answer is simple: I had the opportunity to simply love someone in a way that they could feel it and God got his message of love through.

The challenge to all of us is to remember that the ministry is about people. God loves people and He calls us to love them too. Let us not get so caught up in external and material activity that we lose touch with the heart of ministry.

Friday, May 24, 2013

The Re-education of Mark Maki

I told the team of leaders who have joined me in The Journey Vineyard that the theme of this last year has been "The Re-education of Mark Maki."

It was on Monday, February 20, 2012 that God spoke clearly to me to shut down the church that I had planted in 2000 and plant a new church in Brea, California.

Looking back at the series of messages that I preached in those final weeks of the old church, all of the basic issues were there in my words. But I realize now that I didn't really understand the implications of my words. Somehow, deep in my gut, I needed to let go of my old ways and begin to embrace the new DNA that God was trying to impart to me.

God has been dragging me kicking and screaming into "missional" church planting. But I have constantly tried to grab onto the old, familiar "attractional" model--only natural, since that has been the history of my pastoring experience. When I let my own fears take hold, I tend to gravitate to the familiar. But when I let God calm my fears, I get back on track.

The only way that I could actually change was through one trial after another--accompanied by gut-wrenching pain.

Paul says in Romans: "Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope" (Rom. 5: 3-4).

James says something similar:  "Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything" (James 1: 2-4).

If we are going to mature, we will experience growing pains. Pain is necessary for growth. But I don't know if any of us feel anything like the "rejoicing" that Paul and James write about. In fact, sometimes I think they are just plain nuts. How can I actually rejoice in my suffering or consider my trials pure joy?

And yet, as I look back at the last year of difficulties, I begin to feel so thankful to God. And as I look forward to the new adventures that lie ahead, I feel a sense of hopeful expectation.

One of the things that God has shown me recently is that I must find a secular job in the community so that I can actually live out incarnational ministry in the same way I am teaching others. The problem for someone like me is that: 1. I have been in vocational ministry for so long, that I don't have a lot of marketable skills; 2. I have a resume that looks over-qualified (in terms of education and experience) for most entry level jobs; 3. I have a resume that looks under-qualified (because all my technical skills are so old). And I'm no spring chicken, so I am not particularly age-appropriate for entry-level work.

Yet, I feel a sense of hopeful expectation as I re-enter the work force.

God is good and God is faithful. No matter what you're going through, rejoice, for God is at work and He will ultimately produce maturity. Can you feel that sense of hopeful expectation yet?

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Prayer is Communion

"True, whole prayer is nothing but love" (St. Augustine).

My definition for "Prayer" used to be "communication with God." But I have found this definition to be shallow and a bit misleading.

Yes, when we pray, we are engaged in a kind of communication. Yes, we often use words and we are addressing God. Yes, we are also listening to what God is saying to us.

But communication makes us think about an activity that we do that competes with all the other activities that we do. If we successfully carve out time for this activity, we may feel spiritual pride, like the Pharisee in Luke 18. If we are unsuccessful and fail to carve out time for prayer, we may feel shame. Neither of these are good results.

Don't get me wrong. I believe in carving out time for prayer. I believe in making lists and praying for specific things. I believe in practicing spiritual disciplines in order to "exercise myself unto godliness" (1 Tim. 4: 7).

But prayer is so much more than that. Prayer is communion with God. Communion comes from the Greek word, koinonia, which means "shared life." Rather than thinking of prayer as a religious activity that competes with all other activities, we should think about it as the expression of our relationship with God. Prayer happens as we live our lives in relationship with our Father.

Prayer requires us to make the long 18-inch journey from our heads to our hearts. Prayer is not just thinking thoughts about God, but living in a relational link with God. "The crisis of our prayer life is that our minds may be filled with ideas of God while our hearts remain far from him. Real prayer comes from the heart" (Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart, p. 71).

When the disciples watched Jesus' prayer life, they wanted to know more. "Lord, teach us to pray..." (Luke 11: 1). The disciples saw in Jesus' prayer life something significant. It was different than the religious prayers they were used to--memorized prayers, proper body postures, ritual times. Jesus' prayer was vibrant and alive; it was about relationship with the Father; it was effective and powerful.

Prayer is primarily an exercise of love: my love for God and His love for me.

Because prayer is communion and heart-focused, it is mystical. I don't believe we should ever feel that we've mastered it, like it is just one more task. It is mysterious, alive and, to a degree, dangerous.

In The Last Battle, C. S. Lewis' conclusion to the Narnia series, the characters finally enter Aslan's country (heaven). They find themselves bounding forward on a journey towards Aslan. Always going "further up and further in." Prayer is a call to always go "further up and further in" our relationship with God.

And as we do this, God is allowed to go deeper into our own hearts.

"In the beginning we are indeed the subject and the center of our prayers. But in God's time and in God's way a Copernican revolution takes place in our heart. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, there is a shift in our center of gravity. We pass from thinking of God as part of our life to the realization that we are part of his life. Wondrously and mysteriously, God moves from the periphery of our prayer experience to the center. A conversion of the heart takes place, a transformation of the spirit" (Richard Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home, p. 15).

What would it look like to move from your head to your heart as the center of your prayer life?