The Spirit of Gentleness

Format Image

Yesterday morning, Brandon and I were walking through the farmer’s market downtown when suddenly before us was a man holding a gigantic sign. As people passed by, averting their gaze, he shouted out condemnations and warnings.

“Don’t return to church,” he said as I crossed his path, “Return to the Lord!”

Most of you haven’t met my husband because he is not a churchy person. He had some bad experiences with the church as a younger man and they have forever left an impression upon him. In many ways, he left the church because of people like the man who stood shouting in the middle of the street.

I don’t doubt for one second the sincerity or faithfulness of that man.

I don’t doubt that he is standing there in the street out of an honest desire to bring people to Jesus Christ and to share the message with salvation with them.

But today we are going to talk about not only the message, but the method for how we share God’s saving power with others, and how we should respond when that message falls on hostile ears.

For most of this summer, we have used various biblical characters to exemplify the fruits of the spirit that God has given for ministry. From the healing powers of Peter to the patience of Esau, these ancestors of our faith have been witnesses of how God equips us for ministry.

Today, we are going to learn from example what NOT to do.

As Andrea and Noah just shared with us, the prophet Elisha is a man of God, but he is also a very human being.

In a moment of frustration and embarrassment he lashes out at a group of young boys.

Every time I hear this story, I am reminded that this kind of conflict and tension between grumpy old men and rude young boys is timeless.

From Mr. Wilson in Dennis the Menace to the character of Walt Kowalski, played by Clint Eastwood, in Gran Torino we catch a glimpse of Elisha’s mindset in this story. Like Eastwood’s character, Elisha is overcome by recent grief, which only complicates his violent response.

But we also have seen the impertinence of those who jeer the elderly, mock the disabled or anyone different from them. Sometimes we try to excuse the behaviors, thinking that boys will be boys, but bullying in any form, at any age, is inexcusable and it hurts.
As I shared with the children, sometimes our first instinct to bullying or frustration is to push back – through words or actions.

And so many of us has let a curse slip out of our mouths in a moment of anger or pain.

Elisha is only human and that kind of response is understandable.

Yet, Elisha is also filled with the Spirit of God and he is new to the whole business of being a prophet. Just days before, his mentor Elijah had been carried away up into the heavens and the mantle of God had been left to HIM.

And Elisha doesn’t quite have this power of God figured out yet. He doesn’t understand, like the prophet Nathan did last week, that his ability has tremendous power to harm as well as help.

Aristotle once said that a person who displayed gentleness would be angry, “only on the right grounds, and against the right persons, and in the right manner, and at the right moment, and for the right length of time.”

Elisha let his anger get the better of him.

He might have been hurt because he had been teased, but these were children and rather than an “eye for an eye” – his curce called out bears from the woods and killed those children on the spot.

We can look firmly at his actions and state without a doubt they were anything BUT gentle.

The same Spirit of God filled the first disciples when they were sent out on their first steps of ministry. Jesus called them and gave them this charge in Matthew 10 and Luke 9:

“Go to the lost, confused people right here in this neighborhood. Tell them that the kingdom is here. Bring health to the sick. Raise the dead. Touch the untouchables. Kick out the demons…”

Along the way, they were sure to encounter their share of hostile glances and threats. He tells them to not be naïve, because “some people will impugn your motives, others will smear your reputation – just because you believe in me.”

So Jesus also added these instructions. Knowing that they were still new to this work of God, he told them:

“When you knock on a door, be courteous in your greeting. If they welcome you, be gentle in your conversation. If they don’t welcome you, quietly withdraw. Don’t make a scene. Shrug your shoulders and be on your way.”

We imagine they might have followed his advice and performed much better than Elisha had with this power of God within them… yet by the end of the chapter in Luke’s gospel the disciples have already forgotten that Spirit of Gentleness.

When a town will not welcome them, James and John turn and ask Jesus if they can call down fire from heaven to destroy the people.

Again, we discover rash, arrogant, and excessive behavior, which Jesus quietly rebukes and they move on.

So, what is gentleness and how are we supposed to live it out in our lives.

The The Full Life Study Bible defines gentleness as “restraint coupled with strength and courage.”

Aristotle says that it is halfway between excessive anger and indifference.

It is the kind of restraint that Nathan showed when he confronted David in our text from last week, the same that Paul tries to emulate as he writes to the Corinthians. He asks them: “What do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a whip, or in love and with a gentle spirit.” (1 Cor 4:21).

He could be angry. He could be harsh. As a teacher, he probably knew something about discipline… but he wanted them to repent and transform their lives not out of fear… but out of the love and gentleness that was shown to them.

Maybe that is why I am so troubled by the good and faithful folks who stand in the middle of the street at places like the farmer’s market, shouting out dire warnings at all who might walk by. Because I believe that change comes when we approach one another with a spirit of gentleness and not fear.

In John Wesley’s writing, we see that gentleness in his command to “do no harm.” As our former, Bishop Reuben Job reflected on that command, he writes: “I have found that when this first simple rule was remembered, it often saved me from uttering a wrong word or considering a wrong response.”

He adds, “this simple step, when practiced, can provide a safe place to stand while the hard and faithful work of discernment is done.”

Maybe that is the key. Gentleness invites us to take a step back and to determine proper response.

And I think that if we are faithful to the scriptures we will find that gentleness should be our response to the world.

In Luke, chapter 9, the disciples remember times when the power of God was unleashed on the people and on communities unwilling to repent or upon people who don’t appear to be on their team. They think that they might be justified in doing the same.

Maybe, they are even thinking back to the horrific mauling of those children by the prophet Elisha.

But “vengeance is mine” says the Lord (Deuteronomy 32:35).

And as Paul encourages us,
“Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”says the Lord. On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12: 19-21)

Jesus responds to the anger and pain of the disciples and gently rebukes them and in doing so, he shows us how we should respond when threatened or encountering injustice.

He is aware of the power of the Spirit that lives within him and he uses it to be gentle to those in need of transformation.

As Stanley Horton writes, “The broken reed He would not crush but would fully restore. The flickering wick of a lamp He would not put out but would cause it to burn brightly again… [Jesus] gently takes the sinner and makes him whole.” (http://enrichmentjournal.ag.org/top/fruit8_gentleness.cfm)

That man who stood there in the farmer’s market is correct in naming that there will be a time of judgment. After all, our God is great. God is strong and mighty and I truly hope that there will come a day when all things are made right and justice comes to those who have harmed and destroyed on this planet.

But I also know that only God knows how to unleash that power “on the right grounds, and against the right persons, and in the right manner, and at the right moment, and for the right length of time.”

And so the spirit of gentleness we are called to embody is to take a step back and allow that work to be God’s.

Elisha tried to be the judge, jury, and executioner when he encountered wrong in this world.

Instead, God’s spirit calls us to embody gentleness by remembering that we are all sinners.

We are all broken.

We are all filled with the power to lash out or shut out.

And way the message of God’s good news of saving grace is shared is just as important as the message itself.

For my husband, the words shouted out in the street did not open up new possibilities for God’s grace to enter, but probably closed him off even more.

As we live out a spirit of gentleness in this world, let us instead do no harm and in gentleness and love give God time to transform the lives we encounter.

Cries for Healing

“I alone am left. “

That was what Elijah had started to believe in his heart, as Trevor shared with our congregation last week.

But Elijah was not alone.  He was not the last of the faithful prophets.

In fact, right there in that very cave, Elijah hears the name of the one who would succeed him – Elisha.

Elisha was no one special.  He was the son of a wealthy land-owner but not immune to labor and work.  And so when he is called, he tells his family goodbye and follows Elijah. For seven or eight years, he serves as his apprentice until Elijah is taken up into heaven by a fiery chariot and Elisha takes up his mantle.

And all summer, we will be exploring the everyday people who received an extraordinary calling to serve God in their time and place.

 

Lest we forget that these are simply every day people, one of the very first “miraculous” acts that Elisha performs is to get revenge on a bunch of kids that call him “Baldy.”

In 2 Kings chapter 2 – Elisha is walking down the road when a group of young people start taunting him for his lack of hair… “Get going, Baldy!  Get going Baldy!”

So, he curses them and bears appear out of nowhere and attack the youth.

No one is perfect.

 

Elisha answers his call to guide the people by warning the kingdom of ambushes, and has a role in the downfall of the house of Ahab.  He speaks God’s word about who will be king in both Israel and in Syria.

In the midst of political intrigue and the constant fighting between nations, Elisha’s story is also deeply woven with signs that the power of God was present in the lives of the people.  He was a great wonder-worker and filled with the Spirit of God he brings healing and resurrection, he multiplies loaves and creates food in the midst of famine. Water springs forth with a word and a song. And these miracles are for both the leaders and for the overlooked and downtrodden.

I find great comfort in that.

Because in our time and place, like Elisha’s, famines and disaster, war and politicking are an ever present reality.  The problems of this world are so big and seem so out of our control.

And sometimes it is hard to even imagine that God would listen to the cries of someone like me… like us.

But in the midst of even our individual pain and brokenness… God is present.

 

One of the most famous of these miracles of healing done by Elisha was that of the Aramean military commander, Naaman.  He was a great warrior and helped to lead raiding parties into Israel to capture and conquer.  Yet he lived with leprosy, a skin disease that greatly bothered him.

In our text for this morning, we discover a number of ways in which God works to bring healing to our lives… in spite of our preconceptions, our pride, and our inability to see the providential love of God at work.

 

First, God brings healing through providential bystanders.

Donald McKim describes God’s providence as “God preserving creation, cooperating with all creatures and guiding or governing all things toward the accomplishment of God’s purposes.”   Or, as Carrie Mitchell puts it:  “God employs ordinary people to act in extraordinary ways.”

 

In the story of Naaman, it is the voice of a young Israelite woman, a servant in Naaman’s household that points his way towards healing.

She has no name in this story and she had been captured and taken far from home, against her will.  And yet, in spite of her lack of power or agency, she allows God to use her to bless another.

I’ve been thinking a lot about bystanders this week, especially in the wake of the national conversation about the Stanford sexual assault case.  Two young men, who happened to be passing by, made a difference in that young woman’s life.

One of the realities of our human story is that we are not immune from pain and violence, tragedy and illness.  Our bodies our fragile, our spirits are bent towards sin, and we harm one another through our action and inaction.

But we also have the fantastic capacity to help.  In those moments when we become aware of the pain, suffering, and tragedy of another, God is guiding us, directing us, shouting out for us to hear the call to be a difference maker and work towards healing and hope in another’s life.

It is the prompting of the Spirit that causes us to turn around when we would have walked past.  It is that tug of the heart that calls us to speak a word of comfort or to reach out with a personal touch.

And that is exactly what the young servant girl did.  She knew the power of God was with Elisha and so she used her voice to speak a word of good news to her troubled master.

You may be an ordinary person, but wherever you are, if you are paying attention, God can and will use you to bring healing and hope into another person’s life.   Maybe God is calling you to visit someone or to pray for them.  Maybe God is inviting you to point someone in a different direction or refer them to someone who can help.

Pay attention to where you might be in just the right place at just the right time to bring healing and hope.

 

Second, God’s healing is bigger than our faith.

One of the fascinating parts of this story is that it is about the healing of an enemy.

That young servant girl is only in Naaman’s household because she was captured on a raid.  There is conflict and distrust between Israel and Aram… further evidenced by the way in which the King of Israel tore his clothes when the request for healing came.  He thought it must have been a trap, an enticement to war… rather than an opportunity to show the power of his God.

The king’s distrust in this moment put both his enemy AND his God into a box.

When we look upon another person and are not willing to see the possibility of transformation in their life, it is easy to write them off.  We do it with enemies, but we also do it with people who have disappoint us, or who are different than us.

And when we are not willing to see God work in the lives of the people we have written off, then we miss the opportunity for transformation in our own lives.

Last fall, I was part of the Right Next Door conference and we explored what it means to really listen to the stories and lives of people who are just down the street.  Sometimes, the label we attach to another person:  poor, felon, addicted… keep us from sharing the transforming love of God with them… AND keep us from seeing how the transforming love of God is already at work in their lives.

When we read this story of Naaman, what we discover is that the point is not even the healing of Naaman, but the way that Naaman is brought to faith because of the healing he experienced.  Elisha offers to heal him, even though he’s not part of the elect of Israel. Even though he is an enemy.  Even though he doesn’t believe in Elisha’s God.  And as Naaman returns from the river, he declares:  “Now I know for certain that there’s no God anywhere on earth except in Israel.”

And if we refuse to see God working in the lives of the other, we miss the opportunity to be transformed ourselves.

 

Finally, God’s healing doesn’t always look the way we want it to.

This is perhaps the most important lesson of our scripture this morning.

As Naaman finally got the opportunity to meet Elisha, he was greeted by a servant instead of the prophet.

The instructions seemed too simple and Naaman stomped away in anger.

When we pray for healing, we are initiating a conversation with God and the answer we get back is not always the answer that we want.

Healing does not always happen according to our plans and I have no simple answers as to why that is.

Sometimes we get miracles.  Sometimes we are invited into a difficult journey that is full of joy and sorrow.  Sometimes healing comes in the next life instead of this one.

All that we know is that this scripture, as Haywood Barringer Spangler puts it: “discourages our tendancy to look for God’s work in terms of our own desires or expectations. Naaman’s healing does not occur as he expects, but as God chooses.”

We are not immune from tragedy and we cannot always see God’s picture of this world.

Prayer is not a magic word.  Rather, it is a relationship where we both cry out and we must be silent and listen.  When we pray for healing we stay in the conversation, in a relationship with our God so that we might be comforted in our suffering and so that we might start to hear and understand God’s will is in the midst of our pain.

 

Today, we have the opportunity to pray for one another.  We have the opportunity to bring our prayers and concerns, our hurts and pains and to place them in God’s hands.

May we be the answer to another’s prayers.  May we look for God to work in unexpected people and places.  And may we listen as much as we speak so that we can understand God’s healing presence in our own lives.

 

Amen.

 

Momentum for Life: Who is your Elisha?

This morning, we continue to explore what DRIVES us… the momentum that Christ is trying to build in our life to help us keep following him.

 

Today, our focus is on how we INVEST IN RELATIONSHIPS. How are we reaching out and building up those who will be the leaders of the future? How are we teaching and mentoring our children so that they might carry this faith forward through the ages?

Just a few minutes ago, Doug/Pam shared with us a piece of the story of the prophets Elijah and Elisha.

Elijah knows that God is calling him away from this earth and he has been trying to prepare his protégé Elisha for the task of carrying on his work.

Elisha doesn’t think that he is ready and so he keeps clinging on to his master, his teacher. He isn’t quite sure that he can do it without him.

Most of us have had a mentor or a teacher, a parent or a family member who helped to shape us in our lives. One of mine was my youth pastor, Todd Rogers. He knew the lyrics to all the rap songs and would bust out in rhyme while we stood in line for events… which was a really strange thing for a tall, white guy to be doing. But he had this way of helping every person feel connected and important. He took our questions seriously… In fact, he helped me understand that the questions are just as important as the answers.

When I headed off to college, I wasn’t sure if I would find that same kind of love and support. But Todd laid the foundation, helped me to have confidence in myself I didn’t know was there, and had prepared me. I discovered, just like Elisha, that God was with me in this new phase of my life, too.

 

As we grow and mature in our faith, one of the tasks we are called to is to nurture the next generation. Like Elijah, like my youth pastor, like your own mentors…. We are now called to pass on the faith and share what we have received with others.

 

Our psalmist for this morning focuses his words on how we can do this in our families. So many of you have shared with me how your grandparents or parents faithfully brought you to church and formed in you the convictions that you have today.

One of the ways we are helping to equip parents to share faith with their children is our new children’s church curriculum. The truth is, we only get to see your children and grandchildren for an hour or two a week. You are the ones who are helping them to learn and grow every single day. And so our new curriculum provides some easy ways that you can reinforce the message we share on Sunday mornings. We send home with the children these sheets that include scriptures, prayers and thoughts so that together, you and your kids can grow together in faith.

 

But we are also called to mentor people outside of our families.   In every aspect of our lives… whether it is our work or our area of service, we can be on the lookout for those who are our Elishas.

While we might love what we do, we can’t do it forever.

We get to a point where we retire, or take a break, or transition to a new ministry and at every one of those points, one of the marks of our legacy is not what we ourselves have accomplished, but how we have prepared others to carry that work forward.

And that means we need to invest in the lives of other people.

This is one of the lessons I am learning as I grow in my ministry. It probably won’t shock you to learn that I’m not an expert at what I do…. And I’m grateful for how you have been patient and graceful with me as I learn what it means to be the lead pastor of a church like this.

Last November, I was at a continuing education event where I was reminded, just as Michael Slaughter was in the book, that I need to set aside more time to strategically invest in the work of our leaders in the church. There are so many tasks on the to-do list… but it doesn’t matter what we accomplish if we are not mentoring and moving together.

So one of the commitments I’m making this year is to meet one-on-one with the leaders of each of my committees and teams each month. And I’m encouraging each of our staff to do this with their leaders as well. My hope is that all of us will grow in our faith in the process.

And I started living out that commitment these past two weeks by setting aside time to sit down and talk with some of you about your ministry here at the church. So far, I have had about 30 of these one-on-one meetings and I certainly have been blessed in the process. I’m excited about continuing this work and want you to know that you don’t have to wait for a phone call or email from me… I’d love to sit down with you and talk about whatever is going on in your life!

 

Slaughter writes that there is an “invisible line of people standing behind you” who have helped to shape your life and your ministry.

But you also are called to stand behind others. “Who are you parenting, mentoring, coaching, encouraging, managing, or leading?”

Who is your Elisha?