Thursday, February 27, 2014

A Plentiful Harvest

The harvest is plentiful . . . (Matthew 9:37)

Everything I know about crops and harvests I learned in the great state of North Carolina. Let me hasten to add, I know very little.

I learned mainly by watching and listening. As I recall, the most common crop in western Wake County at that time was tobacco, but the tobacco fields were beginning to disappear. Growers were having a harder time making money with that particular crop and developers were poised to buy the land.

On one occasion Marnie and I offered to help with the work of harvesting, or ‘priming’ tobacco. We lasted less than an hour. We were so slow and inept at the task that we were hindering the crew that actually knew what they were doing. It didn’t take long to learn that harvesting tobacco is not for the faint of heart or soft of hands.

Summers were not always kind to tobacco crops. When the skies were stingy with rain and the sun was brutal with its heat, the tobacco would wither and turn brown in the fields. An older member of my church told me that there was a time when the church held specially called prayer meetings to ask God for rain. She said they would come to those prayer meetings bringing their umbrellas – a bold act of faith. You didn’t need an agriculture degree from NC State to spot a bad crop, and there was something heartbreaking about the sight of an entire field of pale drooping plants.

Watching that annual rhythm of ‘setting out’ and ‘putting in’ tobacco comes to my mind when I read Jesus’s words about the harvest that God is bringing in.

Jesus used harvest language as he looked at crowds of people, crowds that were harassed and helpless, suffering with every disease and every affliction. But in the eyes of Jesus those afflicted masses of people were not expansive acres of a failed crop. Jesus looked upon them and saw a plentiful and healthy harvest.

So what do you see when you look at the world?

You don’t have to look too hard to be discouraged. Harassed and helpless masses along with every kind of affliction – economic, political, and social – are seen all over the globe. But Jesus tells us the fields are ‘white unto harvest.’ They are ripe and ready. I recently heard someone make the point that the harvest is just fine. God has long been at work in the world and the harvest is plentiful, ready to be gathered. What is needed are laborers.

But before the laborers are sent there are people praying. “Ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matt. 9:38).

Bringing in the harvest requires people in the fields and people on their knees. Ideally, those who are in the fields are also on their knees and those who are on their knees get up and head to the fields. Either way, whether by praying or going, all of us are involved in bringing in this harvest.

God is at work in this world and the fields are ready. The harvest is healthy. Two questions remain: What do you see when you look at the world, and what will you do about what you see?

We ask you, O God, to send out laborers into the harvest. And help us to listen closely enough to know when you are sending us. Use us as you will, whether praying or going, and give us eyes to see a plentiful harvest in this world, we ask in Jesus’s name. Amen.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Exemplary in Affliction

. . . for you received the word in much affliction with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia (1 Thess. 1:6-7).

While people will applaud your triumphs, they are far more likely to be helped by your troubles.

Our triumphs, however, get all the good press. We want people to know about the win. We’re quick to speak of the favorable circumstances, the success, the blessing that unexpectedly comes our way or the achievement that follows our hard work.

This is not to say that we’re prone to obnoxious boasting. That our triumphs are so easily shared is no surprise. We naturally delight in good news, and even if we’re selective in how we share it we want others to get in on the celebration. Our joy is heightened when others are around ‘in-joy’ it with us.

Not so with our troubles. As easily and as often as our triumphs are shared, our troubles are quietly tucked away, relegated to some remote corner of the soul.

There is a familiar proverb that says a companion can double your joys and halve your sorrows. Of course this assumes that that our sorrows are shared in the first place. That we too often keep them too ourselves is both a detriment to us and a loss to others. While people will look at our successes with admiration and sometimes envy, they are far more helped by seeing our afflictions and how we deal with them.

When Paul wrote to the Christians in Thessalonica he remarked on how they had become an exemplary church for the region. Their reputation had spread quickly not because of their power or wealth or great numbers. Rather, they were exemplary because of their troubles. They had borne up under pressure and endured affliction in a spirit of confident joy.

For this very reason the global church is exemplary for us today.

They are a model community for the affluent and technologized church in the western world. They model for us courage in the face of suffering. They evidence joy in the simple gift of community because they often do not possess the things in which we take joy. When we look around the world, especially today in places like Syria and Iran, we see Christians who know what it is to be afflicted. And we see Christians who are joyful nevertheless.

What was true of the Thessalonians, what is true today of the persecuted church, is true of your life. Your most powerful witness to the goodness and grace of God will not likely be seen in your wealth or your perfect family or your latest triathlon or your recent promotion. All of these things are wonderful and worthy of celebration. But people are most deeply impacted when they see affliction with joy.

Whatever affliction you’re carrying today, someone else is sharing that same struggle or one very much like it. You need not loudly flaunt your miseries – but don’t mask your troubles behind your triumphs.

Your affliction, mingled with the grace of confident hope and joy, is a powerful witness that others need to see. This is true in our world, and it is true where you live.

Grant us grace, O God, to bear affliction with a spirit of confident joy. Comfort us in trouble so that we can comfort others. And use our troubles as a powerful witness to your faithfulness and love, we ask in Jesus’s name. Amen.

Monday, February 17, 2014


For we are God’s workmanship . . . (Ephesians 2:10)

What is it about kneeling that we do it so rarely?

A middle ground is hard to find. Some churches expect people to kneel often and provide a kneeler on every pew. Other churches pray every week without ever bending the knee.

Pastor and author Calvin Miller once quipped that God never looks bigger than when you’re on your knees. So in our church’s prayer room there is kneeling bench. On the bench there is a cushion. The bench is there because sometimes the weight that drives us to prayer can only be borne by kneeling.

For that reason a small group gathered a couple of months ago to ask God’s blessing on the prayer bench. The real focus of this gathering was the completion of the needlepoint cushion on which people would kneel.

The needlepoint work involved fourteen people and roughly nine-hundred hours of labor that spanned a year and a half. This doesn’t include the time required for an artist to create a sketch for the design that became a painted canvass that then became a stitch guide. The panels of the cushion were passed from one careful stitcher to the next. Each of them focused on a piece of the design until finally the stitching was completed, the panels of the cushion were assembled, and the cushion was mounted to the prayer bench.

On the day we gathered for our service of blessing and dedication several of the people who had worked on the cushion were present. Any one of them could have easily pointed to the section of the cushion they had helped bring to life with color. Without a doubt they remembered the meticulous labor, patiently pressing a thread into the design, pulling it through, practicing their art in precise repeated motions. One might safely say that an attention deficit disorder of any degree would make it nearly impossible to enjoy the craft of needlepoint.

What I noticed as I listened to this group of artisans admiring the finished cushion was that none of them spoke of the section they had done. They could have told if you’d asked – but nobody pointed at their own work. Instead, they all took pleasure in the whole.

Had a single thread stood out it probably would have been regarded as a flaw. No one boasted in a single thread. What they took delight in was the totality of thousands of threads, whether their own hands had pulled the needle or not.

God is a master craftsman. His work in the world is a great design and our lives become meaningful and beautiful when we belong to that design. Life is distorted and tiresome when we insist on calling attention to the one thread that is ‘me.’

For a couple of weeks we’ll be thinking about God’s mission in this world, his great design for all people, all nations. What does that design look like, and what would it mean for you to be a thread in God’s hand, woven into the work he is doing?

Maybe the best way to find out would be to ask; and as you ask, you might consider kneeling.

Gracious God, help us to see the larger picture, the great design of your work in this world. Bring us in on what you’re doing, pulling us into the fabric of your mission by the power of your Spirit, we ask in Jesus’s name. Amen.