Ministers or Mimics?
We seem to have thousands too many people queuing for nineteenth-century-style ministries like preaching, while the devil almost monopolizes modern methods of communication, and virtually no one seeks the Lord of all knowledge for truly innovative ways of portraying the nature and message of God. I am not taking about gimmicks, but of being channels of God’s splendor, free, like the prophets of old, from the straight-jacket of human tradition; willing to carry obedience to the extreme of appearing the greatest oddball since John penned Revelation. (John, by the way, was locked up before he wrote his bizarre book. In our era, he’d be put away after he wrote it. It was non-Christians who had him put away. Today it would be – no, I won’t say it.)
If we’re less than ten years behind the world we’re considered worldly. If we’re a century behind, we’re ‘model Christians’. But if we’re bound to the Timeless One, why aren’t we ahead of the world?
One of my university lecturers in psychology compared humans with various subhuman species. It’s a sign of unintelligence, he concluded, to always act the one way in roughly identical situations. Let’s not insult the inexhaustible fountain of creative genius, the Creator, by implying he reigns from a rut instead of a throne. He doesn’t even make two fingerprints the same.
Part of us recoils from a God so superior that his acts take us by surprise. It’s unsettling to have a God so vibrant, so bursting with life and creativity and personality that in comparison the most dynamic of us seem listless and boring. We’d much prefer God to be a machine; as coldly predictable as a lump of metal trapped by a simple law of physics. There’s something reassuring about an idol. Within us lurks a desire to fashion a god in the image of a cuddly teddy bear that says ‘I love you’ when we press the right button and never disturbs us by doing or asking the unexpected.
From cover to cover the Bible demonstrates that God’s character is wonderfully predictable and his methods wondrously unpredictable. When Jesus healed, for instance, you could never be sure whether he would visit, heal from a distance, or initially ignore the person. You would never know whether he would address demons or the illness, speak of sin or faith, bless, ask questions, spit, lay hands, or tell the person to wash or stretch or pick up a bed or see a priest. Lest we try limiting God to the vast array of Jesus’ earthly methods, the rest of Scripture shows the Most High healing by the use of shadows, handkerchiefs, oil, fig paste, a dead prophet’s bones, an image of a snake, lying on the afflicted, dipping in the Jordan – and if you want a full list you have still missed the point.a For every impossibility the Almighty has unlimited possibilities.
So let’s not think that service must conform to our petty notions before it can sparkle with divine greatness. Let’s cut the ropes and let God express his boundless creativity through us.
We are so tradition-bound as to confuse ministry with mimicry. Unless we are called to a musty, second-hand vocation we conclude we’re not called at all. Don’t be a buzzard circling the corpse of a worn-out ministry when you could be an eagle soaring with the Spirit to fresh expressions of the grandeur of God.
I feel like the preacher who after a moving sermon about sin was asked how he knew so much about the subject. Narrow-minded? I blunt my comb whenever I part my hair. Fleas shuffle single file across my cranium.
Every human mind is chained to established practice and custom. All that distinguishes any of us is the length of our leash. The implications haunt me.
Had his devout father succeeded, David Livingstone might never have left his indelible mark on human history. His father, believing books on travel and natural science to be incompatible with Christian service, tried to prevent David from reading almost anything other than theological works. For the rest of his life, this famous missionary was dogged by Christians who wanted to shackle him to a more conventional vocation.48 He was forced to declare, ‘So powerfully convinced am I that it is the will of the Lord . . . , [that] I will go no matter who opposes . . .’49
When William Wilberforce teetered on the edge of conversion he assumed he should abandon politics and become a clergyman. He would have made a great preacher, but his childhood hero and father-figure, John Newton, talked him out of it. And millions have benefited. The abolition of the slave trade was just one of the accomplishments of this devout politician whom John Pollock labeled ‘the moral leader of the Western World’.50
After Cliff Richard became a Christian, he felt he should quit show business and become a full-time teacher of religious education. Someone had the insight to show him that he could more effectively minister to this needy world as a pop star. Does that curdle your brain? It makes sense to me. In heaven’s sight, a truly Spirit-led entertainer could be as much an ordained minister (i.e. divinely ordained to minister) as any pastor, bishop or missionary bearing impressive church credentials.
I’m going too far. I see you warming to this book as it burns in your fire. Nonetheless, I’ll step over the edge because I ache for the tiny minority whose sacred mission clashes with our sense of decency.
To underline the reality of this problem, I cite specific examples, though I do not claim to have the mind of God on them. I have enough difficulty discerning my own direction. Instead, employing the wisdom of Gamaliel, I refuse to hurl stones whilst a doubt remains, lest I be found opposing a work of God.a
What would you think of a man who felt divinely commissioned to spend countless hours viewing hard porn? Dr James Dobson is such a man, even though he is thoroughly convinced of the evil of pornography.b Do you question Florence Nightingale’s call to nursing? You might in her day, when nursing was renowned for gross immorality and drunkenness. Simon Peter had to fight his conscience to preach to Cornelius. Fellow Christians were aghast.c
‘Ill-natured, wicked, mistaken – deserves punishment . . .’ wrote the West Indian press about James Ramsay, a sensitive Christian who had inflamed public decency to intolerable levels. He was guilty of the ‘absurdest prejudice,’ roared men in England. Ramsay had published a book suggesting that the slave trade was wrong. Earlier this parson had had the gall to insert into the service a prayer for the conversion of blacks. The church was outraged. Some stalked out. The Churchwarden presented a formal protest against Ramsay’s ‘neglect of the parish’.51
Not everyone assuming the ‘higher moral ground’ should be trusted.
In a move as bold and glorious as his original creation of the music, Handel took a composition which might have merely given goose bumps to fat Christians and turned it into a channel to flood the lost with the warm love of Christ. Yet even this involved a moral risk.
The first performance of Handel’s Messiah secured the release of 142 people from debtor’s prison. Subsequent performances authorized by Handel achieved so much in aiding the poor that one biographer wrote, ‘Perhaps the works of no other composer have so largely contributed to the relief of human suffering.’ What’s more, this composition – thought by some to have done more to convince multitudes of the reality of God ‘than all the theological books ever written’ – was bringing potent Scriptures in a powerful manner to the unchurched. I’d hail this use of his work as a magnificent achievement, but I lack the discernment of Handel’s Christian contemporaries. The church castigated him for not restricting performances to the hallowed confines of its buildings. For John Newton – of Amazing Grace fame – Handel’s ‘secular’ use of his Messiah was such a scandal that he is said to have preached ‘every Sunday for over a year’ against it.52
Like the Pharisees of old, we can be horrified at the actions of our spiritual forebears – adamant that we could not possibly be so blinded by religious prejudice as to oppose a work of God – and yet make grave misjudgments of the same magnitude that God-fearing people have been making for millennia.
I make no plea for blind tolerance. That’s one of the fad heresies of our age and even the bigoted Pharisees wrongly tolerated temple money-changers. But whether they erred on the side of acceptance or rejection, the Pharisees’ error was always the same: they let the accepted norms of their group ring so loud in their ears that they couldn’t hear the heartbeat of God. Like us, they were sure they would never make such a mistake. So though I don’t preach mindless acceptance, I urge caution – especially since God’s primary concern is to enlighten me concerning his leading for my life, not his personal leading for everyone else.
Cristina, claimed a Christian monthly, beams the light of Christ into darkness so oppressive it’s shunned by nearly every Christian. She’s a regular act at a strip club. No, she doesn’t remove her clothes – she repeats her act before children at circuses. As Australia’s leading contortionist, she takes her audience’s breath by twisting her body, not her morals. At what she is convinced is God’s command, Cristina teeters on the precipice of hell, plucking souls from Satan’s fangs.
When I saw the impressive write-up in a leading Christian magazine, I assumed Cristina’s daring exploits, spiritual power and soul-winning success had made her a celebrity in Christian circles. After months of feeling an unusual prayer-burden for her, I finally yielded to the urge to contact her. I was shocked when Cristina confided that she felt rejected by 98% of Christians and couldn’t find one church where she felt accepted. The godly treat her like a Samaritan, though she alone is neighbor to the man wallowing in the gutter. Strategically placed in Satan’s heartland, Cristina loves drug-addicts, prays for strippers, witnesses to transvestites, and gives back-sliding Christians a fright. Yet few uphold her in prayer. God uses preachers, singers, maybe even nurses, but a contortionist? In a strip joint? Next you’ll be saying God could anoint the skills of a butterfly collector, save souls through scuba diving, be glorified by doll restoration, heal the sick with a handkerchief,a feed a throng from a boy’s lunch box, become a Man denounced by religious leaders for his ‘low’ morals . . .b
For years Cristina battled with what seemed the call of God burning within and buckets of water thrown by well-meaning Christians. Being endowed with a rare skill nurtured from the age of four was not proof God wanted her to continue. Jesus called fishermen to forsake abilities burnished by years of experience.
The moral tangle is daunting. I couldn’t enter Cristina’s work place without grieving God. Scripture teaches, however, that a few issues are not settled by an immutable law but by an individual’s purity of motives, conscience, and personal leading from the Most High.c This applies only to breaking rules of human origin – though, like pharisaical laws, such rules could be designed by well-meaning Christians to put a protective hedge around God’s law. The fearfully holy Lord would never break his written word or smudge his awesome purity by calling Dobson to lust, Miss Nightingale to drunkenness, or Cristina to immorality, though flocks of halo-studded angels in psychedelic jumpsuits herald the call. Neither would God assign them such precarious tasks unless they were exceptionally resistant to the type of temptation they would face.
We are often so conscious of sin being like leaven that we forget Jesus’ teaching that the kingdom of God is also like leaven, which starts as a speck and transforms everything it touches.d A potent Christian on a mission from God is a far greater threat to the Enemy than the Enemy is a threat to the Spirit-led Christian. It is quite another matter, however, when a Christian wanders aimlessly or sinfully onto enemy turf.
So, though it will always be rare and subject to stringent conditions, God’s leading could challenge a man-made moral code, even one that has protected millions of Christians. I have faced a moral dilemma in even raising the matter. Someone might twist it to their own destruction to excuse sin, yet if I stay silent others might quash God’s leading by considering themselves holier than God.
We must bow before the Holy One whose ways are not our ways. All our joy is to be found in the perfection of his will, no matter how it clashes with human tradition.