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Celebrating God's Presence #3

Show Us Your Glory! (#3)

[Preached as a dialogue between John York and Rubel Shelly]

John York: Last week, Rubel, we ventured into our January theme of “Celebrating God’s Presence” by daring to suggest that our Father shows himself in unlikely settings. He is not only to be experienced in formal worship settings or in the spectacular glories of nature but even in what Paul called the “groaning” of the created order and in our fumbling experiences as a flawed church. In our struggles and discouragement. Even in our personal failures!

Rubel Shelly: I think it is appropriate to begin our continuation of that theme today with a disclaimer: Celebrating the presence of God in weakness, discouragement, and failure is not a romantic ideal but the real experience of people who have our eyes open and don’t harden our hearts against him.

You read from Romans 8 on this point last week. Let me read part of that chapter again – this time from The Message – where Paul compares our waiting with discomfort to a woman’s experience in pregnancy.

“If we go through the hard times with [Christ], then we're certainly going to go through the good times with him! That's why I don't think there's any comparison between the present hard times and the coming good times. The created world itself can hardly wait for what's coming next. Everything in creation is being more or less held back. God reins it in until both creation and all the creatures are ready and can be released at the same moment into the glorious times ahead. Meanwhile, the joyful anticipation deepens. All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs. But it's not only around us; it's within us. The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We're also feeling the birth pangs. These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance. That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother” (Rom. 8:17b-24a MSG).

John: I really like Peterson’s understanding of the text, and I agree with you that we must not trivialize or romanticize this theme of growth through pain and learning to “celebrate” God in the hard things of life. This is not to claim that Christians don’t hurt as much as unbelievers. That we don’t moan and groan – both with physical pains and spiritual struggle. That we don’t have our incredibly low moments. But it is to claim that the present triumph of faith is to look through and beyond the grim times to the promises we believe God will keep. So, to cite Paul again, we live in hope – confident expectation of the faithfulness of our sovereign God.

Rubel: Just a word here, if I may, about the sovereignty of God. Some people understand the concept of divine sovereignty to mean that God is behind everything that happens to any of us. That he decides you will have a car wreck Thursday or that I will get a diagnosis of terminal illness when I have my annual physical tomorrow. I don’t. I understand a variety of biblical texts – including Jesus’ passing comment about how rain and sunshine come randomly to both the righteous and the unrighteous (cf. Matt. 5:45) – to mean something quite different from God as the immediate cause of every life event.

To the contrary, I believe that sunshine and rain, being born in North America or Sri Lanka, and good days and bad are essentially random in nature. Thus good people may suffer and bad people can prosper – at least to all outward appearances. Beyond the “outward appearances,” though, something much more significant is going on. And that is where I believe God’s sovereignty is at work. People who live by faith in him are promised not that everything in their experience will be advantageous and pleasant but that they will “work together for good for those who love God” (Rom. 8:28). Sovereignty, at least on my understanding of it, has more to do with outcomes than with specific events along the way.

John: I agree with you, Rubel, that some people take the idea of “meticulous providence” too far – that God already has mapped out and decided all of the moments and outcomes of the universe before they happen. That because the Bible says the hairs on my head are numbered, God already has determined which day they will fall out. Too many texts that talk about God changing his own mind at times have to be ignored, if that is true. Too many texts that call for human decision have to be mere rhetoric. Prayer as petition for God to act and change becomes nothing more than a psychological game we play with ourselves as we try to connect with what God already has determined.

On the other hand, as you know from our conversations together, the word “random” scares me just a bit even in the context you’re placing it, because – at least in my head – it creates a strange distance between Creator and Creation. Some events in our lives don’t seem random at all, even as they are unfolding. Others clearly seem random from beginning to end. But I often can’t tell the difference.

My conviction about God in the flesh as Jesus Messiah and then the outpouring of the Holy Spirit means God is closer than that, more connected to my life than that. It does not mean that God protects my human existence from human frailty or the horrible atrocities we humans can commit against one another – just as we did to Jesus Messiah himself. It means God is present in the blizzard and there is the promise of spring after the winter. In the end, I guess I prefer the word mystery – I don’t know how to match up the language of free will and God’s sovereignty; I can’t explain why bad things happen to good people or good things happen to bad people. But I trust in a God who is ultimately involved and bigger than all that.

Maybe this God-mystery side of difficult circumstances and purposeful outcomes can be illustrated easier than explained. Take, for example, a story that Tony Campolo tells about the reorientation of his family’s spiritual life. He tells how his grandmother came to this country from Italy. She married not long after arriving here and had three children – with Campolo’s mother the oldest of the three. Campolo’s grandmother and grandfather scratched to make a living and were getting by on their limited income. Then tragedy struck the family. His grandfather was killed in a trolley car accident in Philadelphia.

In Campolo’s words, here is the desperate situation to which his grandmother was reduced:

“With no money for basic sustenance, my grandmother sought help, but none was available. There was no government welfare system back then. There was no safety net for decent people who fell on hard times. My grandmother feared that her children would starve. She begged from every charity she could, but to no avail. The only possibility for saving her children was to put them into an orphanage, and for this to be possible, the children had to be without both parents. My grandmother made a fateful decision. She decided that she would leave her children, either by committing suicide or pretending to do so. Then, she figured, the orphanage would have to take them. She wrote out a suicide note, gave it to my mother, and instructed her to wait awhile, then take the note to the nearby police station. My grandmother hugged my mother and her brother and sister good-bye, sure that was the last time she would ever see them. Then she left her frightened children in the small basement room where they lived and started down Federal Street in Philadelphia toward the Delaware River, crying hysterically” [Anthony Campolo, Speaking My Mind (Nashville: W Publishing Group, 2004), p. 126].

Rubel: Let me interrupt the story at that point to inject the issue of God’s sovereignty. It is difficult for me to think God caused the male breadwinner for that struggling family to die. It is practically impossible for me to lay the emotional anxiety and desperation of that frantic young mother at his feet. And it is simply impossible for me to look at the situation of that tormented family and trot out words like these: “It was just the will of God for that to happen” or “Everything happens for a purpose” or “God was trying to teach the Campolo clan something back there.”

I think it is critically important for us to be very careful about the things we sometimes attribute to God. For example, suppose a five-year-old child loses her beloved grandmother to a massive heart attack. And suppose that good-intentioned parents tell her, “Sweetheart, God made Granny’s heart stop beating and took her to be with him.” Now I don’t doubt the intention of those parents, but I question both the theology and wisdom of their explanation. What kind of God takes away a little girl’s grandmother? Her favorite babysitter and adult playmate? If anybody else had taken her life, we’d want him arrested and charged! We’re supposed to attribute these things to God? When we do, we shouldn’t be surprised that children sometimes respond, “Then I hate God!” and grow up fearing him the same way we fear terrorists and people who lurk in alleys along unlit streets.

But there is more to the Campolo story than you’ve read so far. There is a shaft of light into that dark narrative that made a huge difference.

John: Here is how things played out in that situation:

“Whether she was really going to commit suicide, or simply disappear from the neighborhood forever, was something my grandmother would never tell me. What I do know is that, crying and mumbling, she caught the attention of W. Everett Griffiths, a student at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. It was this young man, serving in a Baptist mission among the Italians in South Philadelphia, who saved my grandmother’s family. He found out what the trouble was, took my grandmother home, gave her some money for food, and figured out how they could survive. He got my nine-year-old mother a job polishing jewelry for the owners of some stores on that block in Philadelphia known as Jewelers’ Row. With what my mother earned each week, the family eked out a bare-subsistence lifestyle.

Because of the kindness and efforts of that young seminary student, my family became Baptist. The whole family joined the little Baptist settlement house where W. Everett Griffiths served as pastor”[Speaking My Mind, p. 127].

Rubel: And so a family of Roman Catholics became Baptists! Not from a revival under a tent in Philadelphia. Not from debate or Bible study. But from a young seminary student who saw anguish and mediated kindness. From a young man who had enough of God’s compassion in his redeemed heart to see pain and respond to it, to sense desperation and offer love. And Tony Campolo celebrates the presence of God in his family through that unlikeliest of circumstances. So many of us can tell similar stories of God’s presence being revealed in our lives unexpectedly – through unlikely situations, unlikely people, unwelcome pain.

John: Let me tell you about one of those events in my life, if I may. I can look back on so many encounters Anne and I have had at critical moments in our lives. The days of early marriage and babies being born with no health insurance and anonymous tuition grants for me to continue in graduate school seemed to be continuous announcement of God’s presence in those days. I remember completely running out of money a month after our son Brad was born – we were living in Stone Mountain, Georgia, at the time – having no idea where the groceries or gas money would come from, and I got a call from the minister of the Hillcrest Church, saying they had heard I might be interested in a youth ministry position. Ray and Jeanna Sissom were members of that church, and Ray just happened to be the deacon in charge of youth. I got the call on a Monday night, was interviewed and hired on Wednesday, and they paid my salary in advance! We not only survived financially, but the time spent with that wonderful interracial church was the best training I ever received in ministry.

Rubel: It sounds like some days that have played out in my life as well. I remember only too well a day in Memphis when Myra and I were so discouraged in ministry that we were ready to sell hardware or teach junior high school. It was in that “previous life” of mine – as you, John, sometimes call it – and I believed with all my heart that the legalism I embraced was the gospel. And it had backfired in the context of an equally legalistic church. Because I believed in the personal indwelling of the Holy Spirit, my life there had become miserable and any hope of ministry a fantasy. So I resigned that work on a Sunday morning, and Myra and I still remember sitting in the floor that afternoon grieving and wondering how we would live and pay the mortgage on the first piece of property we had ever owned. It was that very same afternoon when the Whitehaven Church called, asked me to interview for the opening they had for a preacher, and wound up inviting me to follow Jim Woodroof. In the context of a church that knew the gospel of grace, a godly shepherd named Smith Howell took me under his wing. He drank coffee with me. He asked me questions he knew my legalism couldn’t answer – and just let me struggle with them. He put me in the context of life with hurting people who trusted his gentle, caring heart – and believed both in the power of God and the integrity of my arrogant heart. He and God gently proceeded first to heal me and then to humble me and finally to teach me the meaning of the gospel of the grace of God.

John: I also have had those moments when God brought me to my knees in repentance precisely when I thought I was called to be the voice of God! So many of these stories had to do with our horrible finances, I’m realizing as I tell them. It was a few years later, and our family had moved to Portland, Oregon, where I was teaching at Columbia Christian College. The school’s finances were horrible. As I recall, the faculty and staff got paid on time the first of September and never got a regular paycheck the rest of the school year. Once again we survived because people who loved us and wanted us to stay in Portland at Columbia gave us financial help.

Our primary benefactor was a medical doctor that I grew up with in Roseburg who was at that time director of emergency services for three of the hospitals there in Portland. Randy started giving us $400, then $500, then $750 a month to help see us through. Financially we were dependent on that help. But being the righteous person that I was, I began having a conscience problem – yes, I had a conscience problem with not being paid at work, but I soon lost my heart for my fellow employees and would demand my check at times regardless of anyone else getting theirs. But my real problem was the fact that I knew something about Randy. I knew he was gay. Randy would come to church and sit with the four of us every Sunday; he took us out to eat after church most Sundays – always paid for lunch of course.

I decided it was my duty to confront him and tell him I couldn’t take his money any more and demand that he repent. I even made an appointment to go see him at his hospital office and I marched in there one day as God’s spokesman to straighten him out – pun intended!

“Randy,” I said in my low, serious voice, “I can’t take your money anymore. I think you’re playing a crap game with God and you’re going to lose.” There was a long, deafening silence as he stared at the floor for awhile. Then he looked me straight in the eye and said, “Do you think I don’t know that? Do you think that I believe for a second that you and Anne condone my lifestyle or that God does? Do you think I’m trying to buy God off with the money I’m giving you?

“I’m giving you money each month because I love Anne and your boys and I believe in the mission God has given you at Columbia Christian! Do you think I’ve spent $25,000 on psychiatrists and tried to commit suicide three times because I don’t know something about my life before God? Why do you think I keep coming to church every Sunday – so I can listen to some elder get up and tell everyone that AIDS is God’s punishment on homosexuals?”

God spoke very loudly that day – about repentance. And he was speaking to me!

Rubel: Yes, I’ve heard that voice too – more than once. The specific circumstance that comes to my mind this morning is probably influenced by the fact that this weekend is tied to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Yesterday was his birthday, and tomorrow is the holiday in his honor.

I grew up a child of my times both in rural West Tennessee and in the Church of Christ. Both were racist. That is not a mean-spirited judgment but a simple fact. There were no African-American students in the first thirteen years of my educational career, and there were no black members in any church I attended for the first twenty-five or thirty years of my life! It wasn’t that there were no people of color in my hometown or in any of the neighborhoods where those churches were located. Blacks weren’t welcome. It is a horrible, embarrassing-to-remember time!

In the 1960s, I was not an activist for civil rights. I was a young Bible major and then preacher whose conscience was becoming increasingly uneasy with the status quo of racism in our country. John Allen Chalk’s Three American Revolutions was particularly unsettling, with its principled assault on racism in the church. Ready for my first full-time preaching job, Myra and I moved to New Albany, Mississippi. I was ready to take the world for Christ. I had all the answers. And then God began showing me the real questions!

Our time in New Albany ended in connection with the death of Dr. King. On a Monday. At an elders’ meeting. On April 8, 1968. Exactly four days after his assassination in nearby Memphis. You see, I felt conscience bound to preach on racism on Sunday April 7. In response to the murder of Dr. King and in light of the riots in more than a hundred cities of our nation that weekend, I held forth on the topic “The Attitude of a Christian in the Midst of a Race Crisis.” I re-read that sermon yesterday. It was so tame! Embarrassingly mild! But the little I did say on that fateful Sunday was enough to get me fired – unless I apologized for what a tiny group of men was not about to let that church hear.

That day set the course of my life in several ways. It forced me to take a public stand on the sinfulness of racism. It showed me not that I was brave and courageous but that I was fundamentally honest and teachable. It gave me the first major opportunity in my adult life and ministry to act with integrity and to pay a price for it. By telling you this story, I am not posturing as a crusader or even telling you it ended my personal wrestling with racism. I am simply telling you one of those situations in my life where God showed himself faithful – and allowed Myra and me to celebrate his presence in the context of being fired for doing a right thing. Where he carved out a concern that would continue to play out in my life and ministry to this day.

I thank him for his gentle, prodding grace – and believe he seeks to work in all our lives in similar ways to the ones John and I have explored with you today. May our eyes and minds and hearts be open to him!

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