Would You Like Fries with That?

In my more cynical teaching days–also known as weekdays–I have desired to toss certain words at some of my low-achieving students. The exchange that I pictured went something like this:

Me: You’re just not writing at a college level here.

Them: But that’s just the way that I write.

Me: Oh, okay. Then you should practice this phrase: Do you want fries with that?

Related to that response is the long-considered, never-deployed idea of stapling a McDonald’s application to someone’s pitiful paper. These are the mental tricks that get some teachers through the long, dark days of the semester.

Let’s be clear that there’s no shame in somebody working at McDonald’s. My first job was at a fast-food place. I met my wife working there. But what if either Penny or I had been content to just keep slinging tacos and asking the Taco John’s equivalent of “Do you want fries with that?” Would that have been okay?

In exploring my “Better than Amazon” idea recently, I shared my encounter with “Megan” at Sutherland’s. You might recall that Megan was a little clueless in seeking out the two items that I wanted to buy. She simply couldn’t see one of the things and wrote the number down wrong on the other.

What Megan did possess that many people who will work their lives away in “Do you want fries with that?”-level jobs was some initiative. She wanted to help me. She wanted to find stuff for me. Granted, she failed on that afternoon with me, but she’ll know where the miter-saw stands are next time. She’ll take better care writing down the number next time. Unless I miss my guess, Megan will be more helpful when next I enter her store.

Look around your church and hopefully you’ll see people of various different ages, from children to grey-heads. What’s not so obvious, though, is the range of spiritual ages. We have far too many people in our churches who have been Christians for 40 years yet have only a year or two of maturity to their credit. These people sprang up in enthusiasm at some point but then stopped growing. These are the sort that Paul spoke to in 1 Corinthians 3:

For my part, brothers and sisters, I was not able to speak to you as spiritual people but as people of the flesh, as babies in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food, since you were not yet ready for it. In fact, you are still not ready,

When fast-food joints hire people, they frequently start them on the register, which makes sense. You can’t burn the register, and you’re unlikely to cause food poisoning from there. Those are the people who learn to ask “Do you want fries with that?” Ideally, they will master that task and then move on to other, more demanding assignments. Many fast-food workers “graduate” to other employment that requires more skill and discipline, paying better also.

For a new follower of Jesus, there is no shame in working the church’s equivalent of the fast-food counter. There is shame, however, in not doing that to the best of our ability, of not growing beyond it if we have the ability. There is shame in, 30 years after our salvation, still complacently asking, “Do you want fries with that?”

Did I Write Anything Today?

It’s 4:15pm as I type these words, recognizing that I haven’t written anything today. I shouldn’t feel bad, since I’m now about three months into a string of daily postings. In fact, I have actually written ahead some seven days (which explains why my entries each day seem so hopelessly out of date).

Why does it matter if I have written anything today? Wouldn’t it be okay for me to give things a rest for a day or so, what with the summer beginning and school out? I could offer a lengthy and thoroughly thought-out response to these questions, but instead, I’ll just pluck a two-word answer from Jesus’ own lips.

“You fool!”

In the parable of the rich fool, which I visited a little over a year ago, Jesus tells about the farmer who, after bringing in a bumper crop, decides to coast on his wealth, to “Take it easy; eat, drink, and enjoy yourself.” All of this is lurking in Luke 12:13-21.

Back in 1998, I published my doctoral dissertation. That was nice, seeing a hardback book with my name on the cover. Feel free to pick up copy if you like: Haunted by Waters. I’m proud of that accomplishment, but 20 years later, I have to recognize that it doesn’t amount to a great deal today. The royalties stopped coming my way pretty soon after it was published, and you don’t find the title on the shelves at Barnes and Noble. If I were to point to this accomplishment when conferring with my dean for my annual review, he might well say,

“You fool!”

But he’s too polite for that. He’d just redirect my attention and ask me what I’ve done lately.

The sacrifice of Christ, was perfect, performed once and for all time:

Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.–Hebrews 9:28

But my acts of worship, my living sacrifice, if it is going to have any real meaning, must be acknowledged as imperfect. It must be done day by day. In short, I need to write today.

Years ago, Penny struggled to recruit children’s Sunday School teachers in our former (not so enthusiastic) church. With call after call, she heard people say, “I’ve done my time.” In those people’s mind, they’d made their sacrifice, apparently perfecting it with a few years teaching the second graders. But there’s another answer to those people:

“You fool!”

My age of service should never end. My age of worship must never cease. It’s like that repeated line from the D-Day movie The Longest Day. When British glider troops capture a key bridge, they are ordered to “Hold until relieved.” My work with the children of my church should be done until I’m relieved. My service as a deacon should persist until I am relieved. I should pick up my pen (or my keyboard) and hold until relieved. Granted, God might shift my efforts to some other endeavor, but He has not set a date for my retirement that does not coincide with my inability, through death or disability, to function. To think otherwise, would earn a rightly scornful response:

“You fool!”

Never-ending Studies

Martin had the office across the hall from me during my one year as a teaching assistant at the University of Kansas. He was practically an institution at the school. The most long-standing graduate students in the department reported that Martin had been an old-timer when they began their studies. Supposedly, he had been there, finished with course work and working toward completing his dissertation, for so long that his foreign-language qualifications expired and he had to retake them.

What is the point out going to school endlessly, paying your fees and supposedly making progress on the degree for year after endless year? It took me five years to complete my doctorate, which seemed like too long to me. Martin must have had about 15 years in when I last saw him.

It strikes me that many churches have people who are a lot like Martin. These people go to Bible study classes every week. They sit and nod appreciatively as a teacher shares whatever nuggets of wisdom are available. Then they go home and await the next week’s class.

Is there something wrong, you might ask, with going to Sunday School? Isn’t that what good Christians are supposed to do? I’d like to argue the answer to both questions might very well be “yes.” Yes, there might very well be something wrong with going to Sunday School. And yes, that just might be what Christians should do. Confused? Let me try to unconfuse.

Imagine if you will the Apostle Thaddeus. We always think about Peter and James and John, but nobody says anything about Thaddeus, so lets consider him. He probably sat with Jesus at the Sermon on the Mount. He listened attentively and perhaps even asked questions. Maybe he asked Jesus who sinned, the man born blind or his parents, in John 9:2. In short, we can picture Thaddeus going to his version of “Sunday school.”

But then, in Luke 9, when Jesus sent the twelve out “to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick,” what if Thaddeus had said, “You know, I think I’d rather stay here and just keep learning from you”? In short, what if Thaddeus had just decided to keep going to Sunday school rather than serving?

Christians should continue, from the day of salvation until the day they die, learning more about God’s Word. It’s important, but if that’s all we do, then what good are we? What is the point of being a Martin, learning and learning and learning but never actually putting all of that learning to use.

I mention this today, because I know of many people who should be going out of their comfortable and comforting classes in order to serve God. Are you not quite ready? Guess what? Neither was Thaddeus or the other disciples. Jesus didn’t send them out because they were ready. He sent them out to help get them ready.

For all I know, Martin is still lurking around the bottom floor of Wescoe Hall at KU. For all I know, he never finished that degree of his. We don’t need a waste of potential like that in the church.

A Colossal Waste of Time and Energy

They came. They ate. They listened to the music, and they left a mess behind them. That’s my slightly grumpy report on the 2019 Widows Luncheon at my church. Hosted by the deacons, this event is an annual thing, gathering several dozen widows and about 20 deacons and their wives. We feed these ladies, provide moderate-quality musical entertainment, and then clean up after them. That, all in all, is the colossal waste of time and energy–not to mention resources and talent.

Honestly, what benefit is there in this production. The deacons are asked to toss money into the till to cover much of the cost. We give up a high-quality spring Sunday afternoon. We make awkward small talk with women that, in many cases, we’ve never met before. And what do we have to show for it at the end of the day?

“Is there going to be a program?” one lady asked me when I finally stole a moment to eat a bowl of soup.

“Yes!” I wanted to say. “Don’t we always have a program?”

“You should do a dinner next year,” another woman said. Really? Then we’d have to run a taxi service for all those ladies who don’t drive after dark. And it would cost more, because she was thinking of more substantial food.

Apparently somebody told a lady–a friend of mine–that she couldn’t sit at their table. This pushed her over the edge and out the door. I think she drove through Arby’s on the way home.

Is this sort of work really worthwhile? Wouldn’t it make more sense investing ourselves in evangelism or in discipling kids–you know, people who have a longer potential span of ministry ahead of them? Sometimes I think the problem with the church is that we just don’t run it on sound business principles. I’m proposing a cost-benefit analysis on the widows luncheon next year.

But then I pause and reflect for a moment. When, in John 21, Jesus tells Peter to “feed my sheep,” I notice that there aren’t a lot of conditions or modifiers attached to that directive. He doesn’t say

  • Feed them if there’s a profit in it.
  • Feed them if they’re nice to you.
  • Feed them if it makes sense to you.
  • Feed them if it fits into your strategic goals and enterprise objectives.

No, he just says, “Feed my sheep.” So that’s what we did yesterday afternoon. That’s what we’ll do next year, I’m sure.

And in reality, most of the ladies were polite and appreciative. The work was light and shared by many hands. The time invested was redeemed when I got to play with my granddaughter during the evening, and the twenty dollars I put in the hopper didn’t keep me from driving through Arby’s on the way home.

When I started writing this, I didn’t intend to bring it back to Matthew 6:33, but there it is again. When we seek God’s kingdom, even when the means of seeking seems pointless, good will flow out of it and all of our needs will be added to us as well.

A young man unjustly murdered on a Roman cross. That would seem an even more colossal waste, but it seems God made something out it. Who am I to hold back my efforts?

 

Who is this Phoebe?

Recently, the question of women serving as deacons came up at The Gospel Coalition with one article answering “Yes” and another answering “No.” I’m not nearly erudite enough to take on the two writers, both heavy-duty seminary professors at evangelical institutions, but I would like to camp out a little bit on this question. Happily–from my selfish perspective–this question hasn’t been raised in any serious way at my church. If I have any luck, that hornet nest will not be kicked until after I have served out my year as deacon chairman in 2020. Still, a well-informed member of the church ought to be able to offer some reason as to why women are or are not ordained to this role.

PhoebeFor today, I’d like to start with Phoebe. In Romans 16:1, we read of this woman who was, it is assumed, entrusted in carrying Paul’s letter to Rome. Here’s what Paul says:

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church in Cenchreae.

Phoebe is a servant of the church, and, of course, that word “servant” is diakonos. (If you look in the small Greek print just to the right of Phoebe’s neck in the painting, you’ll see the word printed there.)

So was Phoebe a servant or a Servant, a deacon or a Deacon. In other words, did she simply serve the church or did she hold the office that Paul talks about in 1 Timothy 3? If she holds the office, then we have to believe that Paul approved of female deacons. Let’s consider the possibilities.

I normally appreciate the work of David Guzik, whose notes for the whole Bible are available online. Here’s what he says about the key word:

Bible translators have a habit of translating the ancient Greek word diakonon as “deacon” when it speaks of men and “servant” when it speaks of women.

Is that true? I’m not going to survey every Bible translation, but let’s look at a handful of examples.

  • In the NIV, we find the word translated as “deacon” only five times and three of those are in 1 Timothy 3. The other two are the Phoebe verse, Romans 16:1, and the generic usage in Philippians 1:1.
  • The NASB uses “deacon” five times, adding one in 1 Timothy 3 and omitting the Romans 16:1 usage.
  • The CSB has the exact same five usages as the NASB.
  • The ESV provides five usages and, you guessed it, they are the same.

In reality, far from having a “habit of translating” in a sexist manner, I have yet to find a single case where a man or a collection clearly composed of men is translated as “deacon.” Instead, Tychicus in Ephesians 6:21 and Epaphras in Colossians 1:7 are both described as servants or ministers.

So why should we insist that Phoebe is a deacon rather than a servant? Thomas Schreiner, in the article linked above, reads it this way:

With so little to go on, the decision could go either way, for the word diakonos in Greek may refer to a servant without having the idea of a particular office. Nevertheless, the addition of the words “the church in Cenchreae” suggests an official capacity. Verse 2 supports this understanding, since Phoebe is designated as a “patron” (ESV) or “benefactor” (CSB), which means she regularly helped, perhaps financially, those in need.

Does the mention of the church really suggest an official capacity? I suppose it might, but might those two descriptors be more in parallel: she’s a servant and she’s from the church in Cenchreae? And the patron material from verse two does not seem to prove anything at all. Phoebe certainly could be a deacon, but it doesn’t seem the open-and-shut case that Schreiner suggests.

Sam Storms, in a recent writing, suggests that Phoebe holds the office, but he provides exactly zero support for this position. He quotes the verse and then notes that some think it merely means “servant.” Then he adds this:

Although others hold a different opinion, it seems to me that the primary reason they resist speaking of Phoebe as an office-holder is the prior conviction that the role of deacon is gender specific, that is, it is restricted to males.

Is it possible that some immediately reject Phoebe as a deacon simply because they reject female deacons? Of course. Does that predisposition make Phoebe a deacon? No. If I determine that Starbucks has bad coffee because I don’t like coffee (or because I have a prejudice against the company), the existence of my bias does not make their coffee good, bad, or indifferent.

On the other hand, Guy Waters, writing the counterpart entry to Schreiner, takes the same verse and the question between “servant” and “deacon,” opining:

It is doubtful the word here bears the more precise sense of “deacon.”

Really? Why is it doubtful? Just as those inclined in one direction can offer no definite reason to insist that Phoebe holds an office, those opposed have similarly flimsy evidence.

So what is the bottom line? Who was this Phoebe? Was she a servant or a deacon? The bottom line, I think, is that anyone who claims to know with any degree of certainty is employing smoke and mirrors. The supposed sexism noted by Guzik is non-existent, at least in Bible translations. (But there’s plenty of sexism in the church, so let’s not feel too smug.)

What we can know is that Phoebe played an important role with the church at Cenchreae. She was trusted and productive. She possessed a servant’s heart. Whether she carried ordination is a question we cannot with any certainty answer, but we can with confidence know that she was what local gatherings and the wider church have valued for 2,000 year, a dedicated woman.

And for now, that has to be enough.

 

A Sluggish Tongue?

ordinationLast night, I got to participate in the ordination of a friend, Chris, as a deacon. Our new addition–the guy in the tie in the photo–went from being a servant to being a Servant. And my guess is that not much will change about this man, despite his newfound capital letter and a nifty ordination plaque.

Before the ordination prayer, Chris had an opportunity to share his testimony. I don’t think he really looked forward to that. He’d probably agree with Moses from Exodus 4:10: “my mouth and my tongue are sluggish.” Nobody wants to hear Chris preach a sermon next Sunday, least of all him!

Despite what I think any honest hearer would describe as a labored presentation, Chris’ friends and family on social media thanked him for his “excellent testimony.” As I reflect on it, his words, although not eloquent, were all the right words.

But honestly, those few minutes of public speaking, his notecards shaking in his left hand, were not Chris’ excellent testimony. His testimony is as a gentle father, a devoted husband, and a man who takes on some of the most difficult children that our church has to offer. Over the years I’ve known him, he continually has shown everyone the individual attention, love, and discipline that they require.

If a deacon should happen to be a good teacher or preacher, that’s wonderful. It’s a bonus, but eloquence is not in the job description. Read 1 Timothy 3:8-13. Unlike the overseer in 1 Timothy 3:2, the deacon need not be “able to teach,” but he must be able to serve. As we’ve seen before, service is in the very name of a deacon.

The eloquent testimony that Chris has given was not in the five minutes or so that he spoke to us last night. His testimony is in how he deals humbly and faithfully with DJ and LJ, a couple of the challenging children that others might just dismiss. He seems to honestly enjoy those interactions. Just don’t ask him to give a speech about the work.

Waiting Tables

basin and towel.jpgWhat is a deacon? That office means different things in different settings even within the realm of Christianity. For over a thousand years the office of deacon (as a permanent thing rather than a stepping stone to priesthood) disappeared in Roman Catholicism. But that’s not what interests me about the office. In my own faith tradition, the deacon has a long history as one of the two ordained offices within the church, deriving that doctrine from Philippians 1:1 and the provision of qualifications for only two positions in 1 Timothy 3:1-12.

Baptists are good at pointing to the Bible for our beliefs. Therefore, we tend to scoff at the idea of priests or of elders/bishops/pastors being three separate roles. While that is, I think, a correct approach, it’s of limited value if we allow those two positions to morph into something they weren’t intended to be.

So what should a deacon be? What should he do? What should his qualifications include? That’s much bigger fare than what this one post can include.

One thing that is utterly uncontroversial is that the Greek word that gives us the English word “deacon” is diakonos (that’s διάκονος, if you read Greek). Although that noun and its associated verb diakoneo do not always refer to the office that we call deacon, they do always refer to “servant” and “service.” Various Bible translations render the word as “minister,” which is fine if we remember what that word has meant in the past.

In Mark 9:5, Jesus tells his disciples, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be last and the servant of all.” That word “servant” is diakonos. Jesus, at the Last Supper, describes Himself as “among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:27). Again, no surprise, the verb form for “serves” is diakoneo.

Not every use of these words indicates the office of Deacon, but every time they are used, including the ones that speak of Deacons, they speak of service, servanthood, doing the grunt work that most of us would avoid if possible.

If you think you are important enough to be a Deacon, then you don’t really understand the role at all.

A Shortstop’s Kind of Readiness

I’ve just suffered through one of the worst seasons that the Kansas City Royals have ever played. The team that won the World Series in 2015, lost 104 games, topped (bottomed?) only by 106 losses in 2005. As painful as their season proved, they showed signs of hope with some promising young players.

Watch baseball for very long and you’ll see that there are players who are in the lineup mostly for their fielding and some mostly for their bats. When you see a powerful hitter who plays in the field like he’s competing in a sack race, that player will normally be positioned in right field, the spot where he’s least likely to do much damage.

On the other hand, a shortstop who cannot field is a terrific liability. Sure, you’d like him to be able to hit, but he absolutely must be able to range around the left side of the infield, snag balls hit his direction, and make long, accurate throws to first base. Without that talent, the team is sunk.

Any shortstop worthy of playing professional baseball wants the ball to come his way in critical moments. With the game on the line, he should be not just thinking, “What do I do when the ball is hit to me?” but also, “Hit it here. Hit it here. I dare you.”

On the other hand, that right fielder, the one who wouldn’t be on the team if he couldn’t smash the ball with his bat, might be excused for standing out there at the crossroads between victory and defeat, whispering, “Don’t hit here. Please don’t hit it here!”

Which player do you more resemble in the ballgame of Christian service? Are you the shortstop, eagerly wishing for the chance to start a game-winning double play or the right fielder hoping beyond hope that the ball goes somewhere, anywhere else?

Esther initially wanted to hide in the outfield. When encouraged to bring the Jews’ problems to the king, she tried to get off the hook. In Esther 4:14, Mordecai lays it on the line for her. Unlike in baseball, God’s tasks will get done if we don’t do them. But if we fail, if we try to avoid the play, then the glory will go to someone else.

In 1985, when my Royals won their first World Series, the right fielder, Daryl Motley, caught the twenty-seventh out in game seven, clinching the series. I’ve remembered that for thirty-three years. My guess is that I’ll remember it for another several decades.

While we might be frightened to see the ball coming our way, we need to overcome fear and get ourselves into the game. A bad season for a baseball team is no big deal. A bad season for the church is regrettable. And the individual Christian often gets only one significant season to play.

Hi, My Name is Mark and I’m a Blog Abandoner

Thanks be to God, I’m not an alcoholic or any other sort of addict that would lead me to a twelve-step program. I certainly don’t want to mock their patterns of speech or diminish their challenge, but in some ways, my behavior in maintaining this blog is like the addict with good intentions, the person who desires to remain on the path of constancy but all of a sudden looks up to find himself off the wagon and with a week’s worth of unwritten days.

As I consider my on-again-off again blogging fidelity, as I look at all those non-highlighted days on the WordPress calendar, I’m reminded of the letter to the church at Ephesus from Revelation 2.

I know your works, your labor, and your endurance, and that you cannot tolerate evil people. You have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and you have found them to be liars. I know that you have persevered and endured hardships for the sake of my name, and have not grown weary.  But I have this against you: You have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember then how far you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first.

Jesus knew that this church had done some good things, that they had many positive qualities, but he also knew that the passion had faded away. This group of believers was not in danger of losing their salvation and being cast aside with the goats, but their lampstand was threatened. If they didn’t get back on track, Jesus promised in the next verse (Revelation 2:5), their position in his work would be taken away, perhaps relocated.

The church in which I grew up is defunct. It had been a growing, thriving place over several decades, but a couple of years back, whatever remnant of the congregation that still rattled around in that big building turned over the keys to a body less than ten years old. Their lampstand was removed and given to another.

In my own church, I see people who were, in the past, on fire for Christ. They knew their calling and they pursued it with a passion. Now some of those people limp along, half-heartedly, in Bible studies, in the choir, or among the ranks of the deacons. They’ve lost their first love. Still believers, still basically good people, they’re not achieving the good works they formerly knew. They risk watching their lampstand plucked out and handed to someone else.

God called me to write, among other things. Many of those other things are somewhat in the control of others, but my writing is something that is mostly within my control. I could be writing something, here or elsewhere, every day of the week.

But I don’t. I have abandoned the love I had at first. That Greek verb, aphiemi, is defined and translated various ways, but the preferred meaning, according to most scholars, here is to “give up or keep no longer.” It’s not a conscious sending away. It’s not resolutely quitting,  but more of, like the CSB translation, an abandonment.

I didn’t consciously decide to stop playing the guitar a few years ago, but I let it go and now rarely play. Frankly, I think God is fine with that. But this letting go of my first love for writing is more problematic. God’s not pleased.

What have you abandoned or let go?

What’s Your Song?

This morning, Alexa was kind enough to play some music for me. One of the songs in my get-ready-for-worship playlist is “The Stand” from Joel Houston of Hillsong. You’ll remember it:

I’ll stand with arms high and heart abandoned
In awe of the one who gave it all.
I’ll stand, my soul, Lord, to you surrendered.
All I have is yours.

The recording on my playlist is in a concert/worship setting, and toward the end, the singer/leader dropped out but encouraged the audience/worshippers to sing that chorus one more time. You could hear hundreds–maybe thousands–of voices singing as one, praying as one, worshipping as one. Cool stuff.

It occurred to me that it would be amazing to have a song that you’ve written or popularized that you could begin and then allow those listening to carry it for you. But then I realized that many artists can do that sort of thing. The Rolling Stones could do that with “Wild Horses.” It would be an intoxicating feeling, but perhaps hollow.

We know that for that experience to be more than just a good feeling, the song needs to be worthwhile. It needs to take people into the presence of God. That’s what I think I heard on that recording. And it’s something that I’m pretty sure I’ll never experience as the songwriters/singer/worship leader. (Sigh.)

In mulling over that bittersweet thought, I realized that every one of us is gifted by God to write such a song. More precisely, we’re called to do something that will powerfully bless others and help them draw closer to Jesus and to God the Father. My song isn’t a literal song with lyrics and melody. Yours probably isn’t either.

I’ve written some songs, and I’d love to be able to stand on a stage and lead people in singing them. That sounds great, but that’s not my calling, not my song. I could preach a good sermon, but that doesn’t seem to be my song either–at least not as a vocation.

What if I–or what if you–sat around lamenting that my songs don’t resonate with people in the way that, say, Michael W. Smith’s songs do? What if I couldn’t listen to sermons without wondering why I don’t get the chance to preach? If I allowed myself to get stuck in that way, I’d never create whatever alternate form of song that God has gifted me to fashion.

Paul addresses this thinking in 1 Corinthians 12:12-16

For just as the body is one and has many parts, and all the parts of that body, though many, are one body—so also is Christ…Indeed, the body is not one part but many.  If the foot should say, “Because I’m not a hand, I don’t belong to the body,” it is not for that reason any less a part of the body. 

What is your “song”? There’s something that you were created to do for the people (or the future people) of God that will be every bit as life-changing and amazing as having thousands of people singing your song by memory. It probably won’t be as dramatic, and it probably won’t engage thousands of people at the same moment, but it can be just as powerful.

But if I sit around listening to “The Stand” and pitying myself that my songwriting won’t rise to that level, then I’ll never write the “song” that only I can write.