Life Giving Water

Life-Giving Water

There is nothing quite like a rainy Spring day.  Sure, you can choose to notice that the clouds are gray, hate the feel of wet clothes, or resent the extended commute.  But all I can see this day is how quickly the grass turns from a lifeless brown to a vibrant green.  All that I can see is newness of life.  Truly amazing…awe inspiring…magisterial.

Staring out at that vista of life I get lost in the connectedness of life.  “No man is an island,” words from a song, leaps from the deep recesses of my brain to my frontal lobe.  Suddenly I find my vision widening out from the rain drops to see a little broader.  I can make out houses and neighbors busying themselves protecting their basements from flooding or sheltering their prized flower beds or covering that car they polish every Saturday afternoon.  I can see birds of every sort hiding beneath our parked cars to escape the heaviness of this particular storm, all the while scanning the newly fertilized soil to see where the grubs will surface (yummy). I can see children playing in the newly formed–ever expanding–puddles in our yards.  Filled with excitement at their good fortune–God made them a new pool!

What I see is this crazy, disjointed, yet intimately connected, dance of life.  Faces of wonder, hunger, distraction, determination, single-mindedness, survival, hope…

And, as is so often the case with me, my thoughts drift from this mortal plane into thoughts about God and how, if at all, this vision mirrors what it means to be a child of his in this world.  Is there a message for me in this moment?

This time I find that there is something for me to notice.  I find the steady rhythm of the rain pouring its way into the inner recesses of my soul and I feel quickened in a way that I haven’t felt in some time.

I am immediately reminded of the story in the New Testament of the woman at the well and recall Jesus asking her if she would be interested in partaking of a kind of water that satisfies in a way that she has never experienced before.  It is a story that I have read countless times yet I find suddenly resonates with me in an entirely new fashion.  

Never before had I connected with the woman at the well. But now…she is me.  An outsider, a shameful past, an imperfect present, in need, always thirsty but never sated,

Then Jesus is said to have offered her an alternative to her life as she knows it.  Her world can change.  She can be satisfied if she partakes of a life-giving water that he has to offer.

I am transported some 20 years in the past and, vaguely, I recall that time when I tasted that water and felt satisfied for the first time.  I recall having clarity, peace, and purpose.  It is a memory that brings a small smile to my lips and a wistfulness to my soul.  For that satisfaction has long since passed.  Somewhere the water that springs forth into an eternal kind of life has been suppressed back down into the dark recesses of that deep well that is my soul.

Life happened. Brokenness happened.

I wonder if it is as simple as going back to that person I was back then, but I know that I can never go back.  I am not the same person that I was then.  There are layers and layers of life in the way. I know more. I ache more.  It has been too many years.  By now that period in my life has moved from reality to memory to myth.  There are no glory years just glorified partial memories.

And so–back in this present moment–I find that I am the woman at the well, drawing water that does not satisfy out of that deep well. Daily. An outsider. Caught in the grind of life.

Then I recall that Jesus asked the woman about her spouse and relays to her that she has had 5 husbands.  I don’t know that his words were meant as anything more than a sign of his intimate knowledge of her and a demonstration of his power and status as more than a simple Jewish man. But, due to my own story, I find myself feeling judged by her string of failed marriages.

You see, I went through a divorce 5 years ago after 10 years of marriage.  I never thought I would experience such a thing and had no idea in how many ways that experience would come to define me.  How it would scar my perception of my self.  How I would let it derail me from my God-given gifts and consign myself to the mundane.  How it would seal away that life-giving water…deep within me…

Yet, now, like the woman at the well, I find myself encountering this Jesus character once more and, like her, am excited at the idea of an alternative to this daily grind.  I find myself asking “Can you give this water so that I do not have to keep coming back to this place?”

In the silence that follows I realize that the only thing preventing this explosion of life is my own self.  My doubts.  My fears.  My scarlet letter. My perceptions. My weaknesses.

I look back outside my window and it dawns on me that I am too much like that guy covering his car–preoccupied with mundane tasks–and not enough like the kids playing in the mud with nothing but wonder and excitement on their little faces.

And in that moment of wonder my observation of the connectedness of things starts to take on a whole new life for me.  Pieces that seemed random before start to coalesce into a coherent picture of the life before me. Before us.

This is going to seem a little disjointed but bare with me…

That life-giving water that you may have partaken of was never meant to be bottled up within us.  It was meant to spring forth, to come bursting out, to make its way to the world around us thereby bringing that life to others.  I don’t meant this as a call to evangelism.  It’s more personal than that.  What I mean is this…In the Old Testament God entered into a relationship with a specific group of people and in that relationship he called them to practice justice.  Not the kind of deeds-consequences justice but the kind of justice that looks out for one another.  The personal, interrelated, risky kind of justice.

They were to look out for the disenfranchised: the poor, the orphaned, the widowed, the stranger.  Policies were created to ensure that these things took place and to discourage individuals from succeeding at their expense.  So important was this idea to this relationship that it embeds itself in their worship and sacred text for centuries.  It was an enduring, foundational idea, woven into the fabric of their eternal relationship with God.

In this way they were to be guardians and givers of life; to one another in the name of their God.

I see now one of the biggest impediments to this life-giving water within me.  In life we either give or we get.  For too long I have been a taker and not enough of a giver.  I think that when we receive this life-giving water that it becomes our responsibility to act as conduits of this water for the world around us.

To bring life to our families. To bring life to our neighbors. To bring life to our work places, school mates, cities, country, and world.

GIVERS.

Giving a kind word, a much needed hug, a helping hand, a smile, reassurance, guidance, time, patience.

The second that my gaze moved from within to the world outside of myself I began to feel that life-giving water stir within me.  Ready to be used for the betterment of those around me.  I think that is what Jesus was calling people to be.  I think that is why he made the deposit within us of that kind of living water.  The church should be a place where people are showered with life. And it starts with each and every one of us extending our gaze outward and pouring life into others.

Do you want to enliven that personal relationship with God? Then take care of those around you who are in need because he loves them. Start SEEING people, truly seeing them.  Be a conduit of that life-giving water today.

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Who is Worthy to Lead the Way?

If you have done any job searching recently then you are familiar with the long lists of “Required” and “Preferred” experiences that employers provide.  These give you a sense of the bare minimum required, as well as some idea of what may set a candidate apart.  What is incredibly frustrating is that it is very rare to find a job listing where I meet all of the required specifications and a majority of the preferred.  Inevitably, I meet half-to-most of the former and quite a bit of the latter.  Unfortunately, this quite often discourages me from even applying!!  What if I am the best candidate for that job but reading those lists–and taking the word “required” seriously–takes me out of the running without even an interview? 

Early in my life of faith, about 15 years ago, I had an interesting conversation with my father.  My father, who had 20+ years of experience as an elder and teacher in the church at the time, posed a hypothetical situation for me.  “Son, lets say that we need to expand our church’s leadership team to account for our growing membership.  Given the fact that we (as church leaders) desire to be true to the teachings in the New Testament, and specifically its description of who is qualified to be Elders (e.g., 1 Timothy 3:1-7), what do we do if no one fully meets the requirements?  What if they meet all but one of the listed specs for leaders but they fail to lead their family well, or they are a relatively new Christian, or they have a temper, or they are divorced and remarried?  Do we choose the best available or do we wait until the proper candidate comes along?”  If no one meets all the criteria then must we confess that “No one is worthy to lead!”?

To take the matter a step further, what if we assume that the list Paul provides to Timothy was meant to be interpreted as a guide, a list of preferences rather than requirements? If that be the case then are there portions of the list that are of greater relevance than others? Are any of them deal-breakers or is it simply a matter of personal preference and prayer? What’s the criteria for deciding which item should be ranked higher on the list?  Whether he knew it or not, my Father had stumbled upon a crucial dilemma for Evangelical Christians, for at the heart of my Father’s question lies the uneasy marriage of the Evangelical’s desire to be “true to the Word” (matters of interpretation & the moral life) and the messy realities of life (sin, loss & redemption).

Over the past 15 years I have discovered that Evangelicals are perversely preoccupied with this question of “Who is Worthy?” and we ask it in a multitude of ways.

As an academic, I attended a national conference of Evangelical scholars, a theological society if you will.  Nearly every one of the 7 years that I attended these conferences there was a (disturbingly large) minority of members that banded together to ask the Society to redefine who should be a part of this group and who should not.  Their rationale for this behavior was invariably their concern for preserving the faith from heresy (false beliefs), they were concerned with being true to the Word. But this kind of behavior, unchecked, only leads to one person, alone, standing on their soapbox preaching to no one. So the question is raised: What beliefs make one worthy?

For that matter, what makes one worthy to serve in the church in general? If you are a convicted felon can you no longer teach Sunday School?  If you suffer a divorce can you no longer lead worship? If you physically assault someone can you ever lead the youth again? If you are a pastor who steals from your church can you ever lead again? What about adultery, lust, serious doubts about the faith, depression….

The only answer to the question “Who is Worthy?” is: NO ONE IS WORTHY. What is needed is a little perspective.

I recall with incredible clarity the first time that I was called upon to preach in my college church.  As the day approached I had my sermon completed and knew what I wanted to say but an overwhelming feeling of unease settled over me.  It was dawning upon me that I was about to stand in front a room of my peers and pretend to proclaim a Word from God that they should heed.  Who was I to proclaim such a thing?  In a panic I phoned a close friend and mentor, and in a panic-induced sweat proclaimed that I was unfit to do this thing and begged him to replace me on Sunday.  I was too dirty, too shameful, too unworthy.

His response was simple but loaded with perspective.  He said, “If every preacher had to be worthy then no one would do it.  Own up to your failings as a man, beg their forgiveness, and lead with humility.”  And that is it in a nutshell folks.  Perspective.  That cold cup of reality-water dumped on our sleep-addled holier-than-thou heads.  At the intersection of your desire to be true to your faith and the filthiness of being human you should find a bright neon sign that says “Welcome to Perspective.”

After fifteen years, my biggest disappointment with Christianity it too often lacks perspective.  Do you remember when you came to your faith?  You came with a sense of your failings and need for something bigger than you to redeem you; you needed to be made new.  Then you were taught that the Christian life is a slow but steady growth that involves striving for godliness, failing, confessing, being renewed, and back to striving for godliness.  If we know that being a Christian, being human for that matter, involves failure then why do we allow failure to preclude certain kinds of service?  Abraham gave his wife up to Pharaoh to avoid trouble and yet was seen as having a faith that is in some way exemplary.  Jacob is the father of the 12 tribes and yet was a deceiving, double-crossing schemer.  Faith is believing in things unseen yet Gideon is listed in the hall of faith in Hebrews 11, even though he needed to see proof of God’s promise.  God didn’t let David build his temple because of the blood on his hands, but his son was allowed to and he turned out to be a polygamist who defied the requirements of a king, as laid down in Deuteronomy.

My point is this: If we are to believe that God used that messiness in the Old Testament (and I barely scratched the surface there) then how can we be so quick to eliminate people who are willing and able to serve on account of their failings?  We began seeking redemption and somewhere lost redemption and replaced it with a trumped up false morality.  Where is the morality in finding no place for redemption and reconciliation post conversion?

I often compare the Christian life to that of a blue chip stock. Blue Chip stocks can be counted on for a life-cycle of slow but steady growth.  Over a 40 year period you can have confidence that it will be more valuable than when you purchased it.  However, that line of growth is never a straight line.  There will be periods of decline and periods of growth. Some will be great and some will be small.  But you don’t react to a negative month, quarter, or year and sell your blue chip stock; you hang on to it, sure in the knowledge that it has value and will rebound to greater heights.

So, I ask you the reader, why do we sell off our Christian workers when they hit a period of decline, a bump in their road?  Unfortunately, there are too many divorcees who aren’t being allowed to lead anything, convicted felons who can never redeem themselves enough to look out for our children, people who have been unfaithful never again allowed to mentor our teens.  Sure, the church still has a place for them, it’s called the back row.  Such a shame.

If you happen to be in a church that has a program of reconciliation and redemption for its leaders then I invite you to share your stories to balance out my observations here. Signs of a healthy church  and a mature perspective are always welcome.