Thursday’s Column: Captain’s Blog
Traditionally, people have pursued greatness by achieving prominence in politics, athletics, entertainment, business, and the like. The names of such stand outs live on through the records the world keeps–halls of fame, history books, registers, even buildings and monuments that “immortalize” them after they’ve gone. Every community has its men and women who are held up as paragons of greatness.
How often do we stop and how much do we focus on what God considers greatness? Interestingly, He has quite a bit to say on the subject. The word is found 49 times in the New Testament and is a word from which we get our English word “mega.” As it is used in the Bible, it refers to a state of greatness and preeminence in quantity, quality, intensity, importance, and excellence (BDAG 623-625). You have God through His inspired writers trying to get our attention, saying, “Here is how you grab My attention and stand out in My eyes.” It is important to know what makes God’s list because “that which is highly esteemed among men is detestable in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15). Surely, the opposite is true, too (1 Cor. 1:26-28).
God lists the ingredients that, when incorporated into one’s life, renders her or him truly great. Do you want to be great?
While Jesus is speaking of the Old Law in context, the application lives on. Jesus ties greatness to having a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees (20). Without that, one cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. He goes on to demonstrate the difference between their righteousness and true righteousness. How do I handle what God’s Word tells me to do? By submitting to His authority in my life, I will become great.
Ironically, the point of discussion in this context is, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (1). Surely, Jesus blows their mind by placing a little child in their midst and saying, “Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (4). They were “little ones,” dependent upon others for their care, looking to others for guidance and instruction, and not concerned with status. Do I see my utter dependence upon God? If so, will I be arrogant and haughty in my dealings with those around me?
Those frivolous disciples were frequently looking for prominence and recognition. It’s a good thing we don’t fall prey to that today, huh? These very men who walked with Jesus every day, seeing His power and greatness, succumbed to the temptation to want others to esteem them as great. In Matthew 20, James’ and John’s mother comes asking for places of distinct greatness (20-23). The other ten “became indignant” (24; was it because they struggled with the same tendency, Luke 22:24?). Jesus explodes their idea of greatness by saying that “whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant.” About this time, Jesus models this principle by washing their feet. He does so to give them an example, then says, “A slave is not greater than his master, nor is he who is sent greater than the one who sent him” (John 13:15-16).
Let’s make that practical, especially in the church context. Who’s the greatest in the Lord’s church today? You’ll find them steadfastly, conscientiously striving to follow Scripture. It’s what brings them “through the doors” to assemble, but it’s also what drives them out into the community and into the lives of others leading righteous, godly lives against the tide of the culture. You’ll find them respectfully listening to others ideas and concerns, not having to be the center of attention or constantly propped up and petted. You’ll find them doing for others, looking for ways to encourage, help, and support them. Obedient, humble, unselfish servants make great elders, deacons, preachers, teachers, soul-winners, parents, children, and disciples! Fill a church with great people and it will turn the world upside down (Acts 17:6).
Let’s be great, God’s way!
Tomorrow, most of us will be able to celebrate the Labor Day Holiday. That means, ironically, that most of us will have a day off from–well–labor. Schools and workplaces across the nation will shut their doors and many will be off for their last “summer vacation.” Friday, an anticipated 3 million passengers took to the friendly skies to enjoy the long weekend. We can either thank Peter McGuire or Matthew Maguire for being the mastermind of this holiday, both secretaries for New York labor unions who made significant efforts to recognize a day for American workers.
The U.S. Department of Labor has published a lot of useful information about this holiday, which it states was started as a “national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country” (dol.gov). It was a local observance in the northeast at the height of the Industrial Age, though Oregon was the first state to pass statewide legislation to observe the holiday. That same year, 1887, Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York followed suit. In 1894, Congress made it a legal holiday to be celebrated the first Monday of September.
In the early days, there were picnics, street parades, speeches by prominent men and women, and “Labor Sunday” which was “dedicated to the spiritual and educational aspects of the labor movement” (ibid.). The first parade, in New York City in 1882, had up to 20,000 marchers as well as “Windows and roofs and even the lamp posts and awning frames…occupied by persons anxious to get a good view of the first parade in New York of workingmen of all trades united in one organization” (ibid.).
I find it interesting that we honor work with a day of rest and that the holiday itself has seen a shift in emphasis and expression. That’s neither a complaint or criticism. I intend to enjoy Labor Day with Kathy, taking the vacation day given to me in my working agreement.
But, as we celebrate this national holiday, it’s fitting to recognize the hard work done by so many in this congregation. When you teach Bible classes, lead in worship, decorate bulletin boards, provide transportation to services, stock our pantry, do work on our facilities, engage in soul-winning efforts, practice hospitality, serve officially as church leaders (whether elders, deacons, or someone else tasked with some work), prepare the communion, clean the kitchen, organize the teacher’s work room, go on mission trips, make visits, handle church finances, coordinate worship, serve as ushers and greeters, host youth devotions, or the many, many other things you do, you are doing honored work. Jesus taught that greatness comes through service (Mat. 20:25-28; Jn. 13:12-17). New Testament writers honored those who work among us, Paul urging us not to “be weary in well doing” (Gal. 6:9) and to “always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58, NIV). Often, Scripture speaks of the Godhead working. It instructs us to be “to the work.” Enjoy the holiday tomorrow. Yet, in the general, ongoing sense, “We must work the works of Him who sent Me as long as it is day; night is coming when no one can work” (Jn. 9:4). Labor on, brothers and sister!
Jesus showed the greatness of service by washing the disciples’ feet (John 13:12-17). As they fought over who was the greatest, Jesus revealed that He came to serve and not to be served (Mat. 20:25-28). God refers to Him in the great prophesy about His suffering as “My Servant” (Isa. 52:13; 53:11). Why, then, are we more apt to jockey for prominence, position, power, and prestige? Is it not that, in such times, we’ve lost our focus and stopped “looking unto Jesus” (cf. Heb. 12:2)? What are some practical ways we can reflect Jesus through service? Consider the following as a pump-primer:
There may be profound ways we can serve, but realize that any act of service may be far more profound than we think. We may not know in this life how a simple act opens a heart and opens a door of opportunity for Christ. Think like a servant and seek ways to serve! The greater others think you are, the greater your need to serve. But however much or little you think of yourself, think of others. Then, serve them!
It could be one of these individuals, but despite and not because of the specifics just mentioned. But, we so easily fall into the trap that causes us to think that those criteria are what make one greatest. Such can cause us to vest blind trust in them or put them in a higher place than is right. Worse, we can try to be motivated to define and promote ourselves as greatest through these means.
The tendency is so fundamental. Jesus warned against it in places like Matthew 20:25-28 and 23:12. His disciples, like James (4:6-10), Peter (1 Pet. 3:8; 5:5-6), Paul (2 Cor. 10:12-18), Jude (16), and the rest, at least implicitly, address the same trap. We all fight the desire to be seen so as to be admired. We may do so through our marriages, our children’s accomplishments, our economic status, our apparent importance, our having it all together, our professional prowess, or any other asset we feel responsible for having. If we use these things to place ourselves above and/or push others below, we are disqualifying ourselves for greatness in the only way that matters—God’s way. False modesty isn’t the answer, either.
We must look at ourselves as dependent creatures. It’s all His and without Him we’d have nothing!
We must look at ourselves as devoted stewards. It’s all His and He expects us to use it wisely, on His behalf!
We must look at ourselves as divine instruments. It’s all His and He works through us to do His will!
We must look at ourselves as dutiful slaves. It’s all His and so are we, living and serving at and for His pleasure!
The warning and disclaimer is that this transformation must happen at heart-level, rooting out thoughts and attitudes that, while fleshly, are so easy to embrace. If the weeds of pride aren’t dislodged from deep within, this effort will prove impossible. But, if it could not be done, God would not have spent so much time instructing us to live and walk by the Spirit rather than by the desires of the flesh and mind. It is the old song, “None of self and all of Thee.” To the degree we adorn that mindset and make that transformation, to that degree we will achieve greatness God’s way!
Bob Russell tells the story of Dwight Day, a UPS pilot who had come back to church after many years away. Russell walked into the auditorium one day to catch Day scrubbing grape juice stains off the pews. This pilot was an important man with sufficient money to hire someone to do the job, but there he was scrubbing. He “wasn’t too important to clean the pews” (When God Builds A Church, 178).
Who visits the elderly members in the nursing home? Who participates in the workday? Who takes the poor, ill member to a doctor’s appointment? Who prepares the communion? Who teaches the cradle roll class? Who grades the correspondence courses? Who gives a lift to someone who needs a ride to church? Who does the many “invisible,” thankless tasks that must be done for the church to grow and meet its many responsibilities? The servant!
The serving Christian is not necessarily the one-talent, lower-class, uneducated person ill-equipped to do something more “sophisticated” and “important.” These are the kinds of things anyone can do, but only the servant does them. Lest we consider such tasks too menial and such people meaningless, we reflect on John 13. That chapter records the all-knowing, all-powerful Creator of the universe (you can’t one-up that) pouring water into a basin, washing the disciples’ feet and drying them with a towel he had put around Himself (v. 5). They had to have been baffled, this group who had been jockeying for a seat on His left and right hand in the vision of Kingdom greatness they had imagined (cf. Mat. 20:21). What were they thinking as Jesus tells them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” (12b-17).
This was a gut-punch to them and to so many of us. We can be more interested in getting the good seat than stooping to wash the dirty foot (or scrub the grape juice-stained pew). But we will miss the heavenly definition of spiritual greatness unless we lower ourselves. Jesus told the Sons of Thunder and their mother to remove the worldly gauging of greatness out of their thinking (Mat. 20:25-28). Perhaps He’d have that conversation with you and me, too. May God grant us the humility to see the opportunities and serve as stain scrubbers and every other, similar task that allows Him to use us for His glory. If that spirit permeates a congregation, it will turn the whole world upside down (cf. Acts 17:6)!
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly all the top 1o most common U.S. occupations are in the service industry—retail salespersons, cashiers, fast food workers, office clerks, waiters and waitresses, and customer service representatives, just to name a few (http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/ocwage.pdf). But one of the most common complaints you hear is about poor customer service, rude or unhelpful customer service staff, being overcharged or neglected, or a bad attitude. There may be a great many reasons behind this, but one may well be that our culture is not conditioned to serve, but to be served. Those in positions of service may just be reflecting the culture.
This is not a new problem. Jesus addressed that mentality with His followers in Matthew 20:25-28. In a world insistent upon being the chief and asserting their own rights, Jesus’ message does not play well today. Yet, it did not play well even when He taught it on earth. Jesus was very clearly the suffering servant (Isa. 53:11), and how did the masses ultimately react to Him? They shouted, “Crucify Him” (Mark 15:13-14).
The concept of serving others turned out to be a struggle for the church at Philippi. To that end, Paul urged them to adopt a better mindset, a proper attitude (Phil. 2:1-4). Paul reminded these Christians that they were in the spiritual service industry. It was their job to serve one another. We can understand why this teaching is a bitter pill to swallow. We all know those members of the spiritual family who are difficult to deal with, the ones who can be like fingernails on the chalkboard to us or who set our teeth on edge. We might enjoy doing for the benign brother, the sweet sister, or the friendly family. The real test comes in serving someone who does not make serving a pleasant, happy task. A servant heart was lacking among some at Philippi (cf. 4:2), and an unwillingness to put others first will have a dangerous, negative impact on a church if such a spirit is allowed to grow unchecked.
Gordon MacDonald said, “You can tell whether you are becoming a servant by how you act when people treat you like one.” Paul is urging a united, humble, and serving attitude on Philippi and on us. Our task is not to gauge how others are growing in service, but to examine self. May we live what we sometimes sing to God, “Make me a servant, Lord, make me like You, for you are a servant, make me one, too!”
It was such a joy to accompany the BVBII students on campaign to Greensboro, Georgia. Chuck Ramseur, one of our graduates, is doing a great job with Brianna and their four children, and the church was so warm and hospitable. Yet, one of the things I’ll remember the most from this trip was the continual service displayed by Bonnie Saldana. Her husband, Mario, is a freshman and we had the same host family. Throughout the week, Bonnie would jump up and clear the dishes from the table and clean the kitchen. Our hosts, Dean and Karen, would urge her to sit down, but you could tell how much they truly appreciated it. She made no fanfare about it, but quietly and diligently worked.
Mario is a joy to be around, but his wife’s willingness to jump in and get involved will help raise his “stock” when he graduates and looks for a place to preach. Increasingly, I have seen women married to preachers who, in apparent protest at the thought of being part of a “package deal,” do little if anything to be involved (clean up, teach classes, otherwise volunteer, etc.) in the local church. This sends a powerfully clear message to the other ladies (and men) in the congregation. Rather than greatness, it shows gross selfishness.
Jesus proclaimed service as the way heaven esteems greatness (cf. Mat. 20:26-28). I wonder how He feels when He sees those unaware and unwilling to look around and assist where work is to be done. The particulars of the problem are not given at Philippi between the divided women, Euodia and Syntyche (Phil. 4:2), but an overarching solution to “church trouble” is to “do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others” (Phil. 2:3-4).
What is to be eliminated? (1) Selfishness (Louw/Nida—“What they do is just for themselves,” 88.167), (2) Empty conceit (“A state of pride which is without justification,” ibid.), (3) Personal interests (A selfish preoccupation with with one’s own affairs, O’Brien, NIGTC, np). What is encouraged? (1) Humility of mind, (2) Higher regard for others, (3) Looking out for the interests of others. Apply this to cleaning up after fellowship activities, babysitting, helping with workdays, providing transportation, practicing hospitality, listening to others’ ideas and input, doing security, greeting visitors, providing meals for those in need, visiting the hospitals and nursing homes, taking an interest in the youth through the elderly, teaching a class, nurturing a new Christian, and using your training and talents however you can to help the church grow.
There are many Christian women and men out there like Bonnie. May each of us look at examples like these and eagerly imitate them. In noticing them, we are following heaven’s example. In following them, we are following heaven’s advice.
Prayer is a very personal exercise, a life built between an individual and God. Thus, these suggestions may of themselves feel intrusive or foreign to some. However, through the years, I have heard many express some difficulty in knowing how to praise God or what to say in praise to Him when in prayer. Leah, in naming Judah, was the first to articulate the idea (through his name), “I will praise” (Gen. 29:35). Moses resolved the same at the head of his song in Exodus 15:2. The remaining six times the phrase appears, the psalmist pens the words (Ps. 22:22; 35:18; 69:30; 109:30; 145:2; 146:2). Twice in the Psalms we learn that “praise is becoming” (33:1; 147:1). In fact, it makes little sense to make the case for the importance of praise to anyone who professes a belief in God and has seen His blessings and assistance in his or her life.
Having said all of that, what are some specific things one can praise God for in the exercise of prayer?
Obviously, this is just a primer list of ideas. Contemplate God, His nature, His work, His personality, and you will have an ever-growing, ever-changing, and ever-deepening “praise component” to your prayer life. It is good to thank Him and petition Him, but take sufficient time to exalt Him by infusing your supplications with praise to Him! As David urged Asaph and his relatives to proclaim, “For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised” (1 Chr. 16:25a). Amen!
It was the late ’70s and I was spending the night with my best friends, Patrick and Jody Smith. We had just finished watching The Bionic Man on TV, and there was a special on Muhammad Ali. I can still remember his banter with Howard Cosell and the gifted boxer looking at the camera and saying, “I-am-the-greatest!”
“Who is the greatest?” is a burning question in men’s minds. We want to know who’s the greatest. Whatever the profession, endeavor, or skill, there are folks vying for the top spot. People once immortalized for feats and accomplishments, like Tom Courtney, Neil Armstrong, George Washington, Clara Barton, Florence Nightingale, or Muhammad Ali, fuel future competitors to meet and exceed their successes.
The disciples wanted Jesus to tell them, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matt. 18:1). On a journey to Capernaum, they argued among themselves about who was the greatest (Mk. 9:34). Here were twelve men who were selected by Christ to have a part in the greatest work on earth. That was honor and purpose enough, but they wanted more. If that was good, being the best of the best was better. Such thinking was way off base, which Jesus repeatedly demonstrated through His humility, sacrifice, and service for the good of others.
Today, we wrestle with the same affliction. Whether in our daily lives or even within our function in the church, we can get caught up in being recognized as the best. This is a destructive exercise and misses the point. If we are Christians, we are among God’s chosen on this earth. What a privilege! We have the highest, most important business to do. Let us do our best and work our hardest, but let us never get caught in the trap of showing others that we are the best. The very attempts disqualify us.