Monthly Archives: October 2006

The God of Missing Boxes

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(Thank you to my mom, Marilyn Ehle, for the title of this post. She is a far better writer than I, with numerous articles published online, including http://www.secretsofsuccess.com/article/superwoman.html and several at http://tmdevotionals.com/women/.)

I confess that I have often wondered whether God answers prayer. More specifically, I have wondered whether he answers my prayers. That’s a big confession for someone who has been a born-again, Bible-believing, conservative, evangelical Christian his whole life. I’ve heard all the Sunday School lessons and sermons and Bible studies on how, why, when, and for whom God answers prayer. I know the three standard answers (Yes, No, and Wait). Sometimes, though, it seems that the No answers outweigh the Yes ones, and my tendency too often is to question the God Who Answers rather than the one who prays.

There is a constant struggle in my mind about what to pray about, and even moreso about when I should solicit the prayers of others. So when we finally moved into a semi-permanent home after moving to Portland, and I couldn’t find a particular box, I waited a while before asking people to pray about it. Now this wasn’t just a box of kitchen utensils or DVDs that we wanted; it was a file box, and it held … well, in some respects, it held our whole lives, or at least the evidence of them. Everything that had been in a safe deposit box was in this file box: passports, Air Force discharge papers, birth and marriage certificates, Social Security cards, tax papers…pretty much every piece of paper that would prove that we existed! When I could no longer get the box out of my mind, I e-mailed a number of friends and family asking them to pray specifically for two things: my Greek mid-term exam and that I would find the box.

Seldom have I experienced a more clear, immediate, and positive answer to prayer! The next morning, after a final hour of study, I strode confidently into my Greek class, whipped through the mid-term, and waltzed out just as confident. Result: 79%. Considering the scores on most of my daily quizzes, that was a clear sign that God had smiled on me! That afternoon, my son asked for help finding the box with his GI Joes. As we searched the garage and cut open several boxes, I looked down into one and – to my exceedingly great delight – there was the missing file!
I confess that for a brief moment I wanted to go e-mail out a few other prayer requests, while the prayer engine was still warm! But that feeling passed quickly as I marveled, with an almost bewildered gratitude, at The One Who Hears, The God of Missing Boxes.

Inadequate

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Halfway through my first semester at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon, I am facing an acute and quite unexpected sense of inadequacy for the pastoral ministry. It’s not a particularly comfortable feeling for one who has enjoyed roughly twenty years of success in military, college, and professional experience. Interestingly – perhaps ironically – I remain strongly convinced that God has not only led me to seminary, but is continuing to lead me into ministry. So what is it that is making me feel so inadequate?

Let me say first of all that it is not my grades. I am enjoying all of my classes – even Greek, in spite of the challenge of memorizing dozens of finely-nuanced forms of verbs, nouns, participles, articles, and other grammatical elements that I haven’t thought about in any language for at least a dozen years. One of my other classes, though, is definitely contributing to these feelings of inadequacy. The class is focused on laying a solid theological foundation for pastoral ministry, and the first text we are reading (Pastoral Theology in the Classical Tradition, by Andrew Purves) looks at the thoughts and writings of five church fathers from the 4th through 17th centuries: Gregory of Nazianzus, John Chrysostom, Gregory the Great, Martin Bucer, and Richard Baxter.

These men clearly held the pastoral role in high esteem; so high, in fact, that the first two literally fled ordination before the conviction of God’s call led them eventually to assume the mantel of shepherd. They recognized the critical importance of the pastor’s life being morally blameless. Gregory of Nazianzus wrote that the men God calls to be pastors ought to “surpass the majority in virtue and nearness to God.” (Purves, p. 23) These pastors also took seriously God’s charge to Ezekiel, that if the prophet failed to warn someone in sin, that person’s blood would be on the head of the prophet (Ez. 3:18). They saw this as one of the responsibility’s that has been passed on to the pastor, who must diligently seek to warn people of God’s judgment.

After reading just the first few chapters of Purves’ book, I began to be convicted that my own life didn’t attain to the high calling these men recognized. Rather than fleeing ordination and the role of pastor, I have sought it out. Yes, I believe that my seeking is in response to God’s call; and no, I don’t take lightly the seriousness of leading a congregation, or even a particular ministry or other subset of a local church. Yet I confess that I have not reflected deeply on all the ramifications of being a pastor, beyond the superficial challenges of dealing with sometimes-messy people and the inconveniences to my family of life in a veritable fishbowl. This class is definitely causing me to do some of that deeper reflection.

Twenty years ago I adopted Philippians 3:10-11 as my life verse: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.” I have realized over the past few weeks that in my focus on those verses, I have neglected the broader context in which Paul wrote. Immediately preceding these words he comments on his tremendous religious heritage – in many respects similar to my own (missionary kid, born-again at age 4, a church leader) – and he shares that he has come to view that heritage as something lost to him. But it’s not just lost; it is something to be thrown on the garbage heap! The NIV and NASB translate the word as “rubbish”; the KJV probably has the more accurate translation, “dung.” One lexicon notes the strong connotation of Paul’s word: “to convey the crudity of the Greek…: ‘It’s all crap’.” (Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature. (3rd ed.) (932). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.) It strikes me, then, that Paul has deliberately discarded his heritage in favor of “the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus”. Yet he quickly lets his Philippian readers know that he’s not there yet. In spite of what at this point is probably more than 30 years of serving Jesus and proclaiming his name throughout Asia, Paul says that he doesn’t really know him yet!

It is influences such as these that are contributing to my sense of inadequacy. As uncomfortable and unwelcome as the feeling is, though, I think it can be spiritually healthy and I find myself thanking God for it. I realize that he is stripping down my misplaced self-confidence and is replacing it with confidence in him. Like Paul, I haven’t yet obtained this, but I do recognize that the work he began in me, he will carry through to completion.