Saturday, March 9, 2019

Shame On You!

One of the burdens we were not designed to bear.

The last verse of Genesis 2, just before the Fall, tells us of the state of the first man and first woman having been brought together and set loose in God's garden to create and shape and play and love and fill it. It says "the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed (Genesis 2:25)."

As a kid, I remember when that would be read and thinking how silly that was, walking around without clothes outside! And then as a bit older kid thinking that they may not have been ashamed but what about embarrassed. My juvenile self felt that reading this story made us witnesses and somehow that was embarrassing to them. And besides, all the angels were looking!
I now understand so much more about that statement, and the profound truth it holds. Adam and Eve were naked and that speaks of having absolutely nothing to hide from God or each other. Total exposure that was totally safe.  Most significantly, it says they were "not ashamed." I don't think this means they had a good body image of themselves, although they did since there was nothing to lead to anything else.  I think it lets us know that there was nothing in their lives that would generate shame. That was as it was meant to be. But that would change.

After the Fall, Adam and Eve know evil--eating the forbidden fruit gave them that experience. Knowing evil in this way led to a state and an emotion that came with it. The state was "guilt." They were now guilty of violating God's command to them. They had transgressed their one law. But this led to an accompanying experience no one had ever felt before. They were ashamed. Now, they didn't identify the shame with the guilt, but with their nakedness.

The connection of material and immaterial in our creation is so strong that the apprehension of guilt led to identifying shame with nakedness--they no longer sensed the freedom to be seen by God as they were, because they were no longer what they had been. This is seen when asked by God where they were (and the accompanying appearance they make trying to cover themselves with leaves). When Adam answers, he says they hid because they were naked--something that had previously shown their lack of shame. Now, nakedness could not be endured before God. They were now doers of evil, and their created state carried the awareness that this meant something stood between them and God. They knew they were guilty, and they felt shame.

Much more could and should be said about all this entails, and the relationship between guilt and shame, the existence of false guilt, the fact that in our broken world we can feel shame about things where we are not guilty of wrong, and so on. But what got me thinking about this was listening to a couple different podcasts talking about guilt and shame, and the power that shame continues to have over us.

One particular woman I was listening to talked about having survived years of sexual abuse, but in her survival feeling great shame over what happened to her. That shame led to years of destructive behaviors which were often guilt-inducing because they were evil, which would then add more shame to the mix. She talked about confessing her own sins, finding forgiveness, but still struggling with shame over abuse, not realizing that this was Satan's tool to keep her in bondage. She didn't understand that such sins committed against her were not hers to confess, and that the shame was something she could bring to God and seek freedom from. She posed a very interesting question. Pointing to Genesis 2 and the lack of shame in our creation, she said we were never meant to experience shame, and yet it dominates so much of our lives. We are ashamed of the people we have been, but also of the things that mark us over which we have had no control. She wondered at the negative power of shame to continue to plague us, even when any guilt for sin has been atoned for by the sacrifice of Christ. How many of us still feel the shame of sins forgiven and forsaken? We believe we are forgiven, but we know the pain we've caused others.

And how many of us still feel shame at things done to us or that were a part of our lives, not by choice--the young man ashamed that he still can't read, the girl who feels broken and unworthy because of unspeakable evil done to her and being told she deserved it, the men and women who hate the lusts that continue to plague their minds even as they beg God for deliverance, the parent who has confessed to God their failures in child-raising but continues to feel the shame of their wayward one as a personal diminishment of worth to God and the church?

Shame is a good thing when it leads to our seeing where guilt abides brings us to confession. But it can be a barrier to our growth in Christ and our relationships with others--we cannot be relationally "naked" with anyone, even our loving Father, because there is still too much shame over our failures. In part, this is exacerbated by our pretending things are good, and our assumptions that what others present as a healthy and whole fa├žade is real.

Is shame still at work in you? Is there still that memory of a past failure that haunts you too frequently, or a battle you fight that you fear would make you "less" in the eyes of others you love? Do you live in fear that your shame will be exposed?

Let me encourage you to remember that your Savior has taken your guilt. By grace, you are declared not guilty, and the righteousness of Christ is yours by gift. The Father who sees you "naked" also sees you as righteous. This happened because your redeemer Jesus hung naked on a cross for you--"despising the shame" as the writer of Hebrews puts it. He felt about that shame what you feel about yours. And he endured it to set you free from it.

My prayer is that we will become a people who, having been freed from the guilt of our sin, would walk in holiness that keeps us from experiencing guilt and shame, but also that we would lay the shame of already confessed sin at the cross. And we would recognize the places where Satan is seeking to control us with a sense of shame over things that we did not do, that are not our moral responsibility, rejecting Satan's lies and taking hold of the truth that brokenness is not always our fault, that shame is not always the right response to it, and that we can see ourselves as God sees us.

To get there, we may need the help of the Body. If this is where you are, begin to pray that God gives you someone you can trust that can bear this burden with you. That's what we are meant to do, and often it is hearing someone else speak words of grace and truth to us that help us hear what we cannot seem to hear from ourselves.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Faithful God, Unfailing Grace

Musings on the only way through our fallen world.

Dementia. Cancer. Parkinsons. ALS. Heart failure. Leukemia. 

I'm watching friends of all ages battling diseases and conditions that seem such cruel robbers of health and vitality. 

Divorce. Estranged Children. Broken friendships. Betrayed trust.

Friends and family are experiencing the gamut of relational collapses and calamities, with little hope in sight.

Dreams dashed. Plans abandoned. Efforts failing. Requests denied.

So many people I care about are dealing with losses and disappointments over hopes that will never come true.

If you've read this far, you must have a strong constitution, because the realities I've just listed about this fallen world are hard to stomach. And the longer you live, the more of these you encounter more often.

How do we make it in such circumstances? How can we carry on?

The only way I know is to cling to what we know about God and about grace.

God is faithful.

Grace will never run out for us.

There are no easy answers for any of the things I've just listed. But if, in the occurrence of each, we can keep reminding ourselves that the God who is love and who has called us into his family is always faithful to his stated plan, we can continue on. He has determined to set us free from the power and presence of sin by making us like Jesus. Any or all of these things can be the very needed to move us that much closer to that goal. And in those trials we discover both God's provision of and demonstrations of his grace.

A friend with ALS has lost her ability to move and is about to lose her ability to speak. Her husband is about to lose his partner of nearly 50 years. But she posts about thankfulness, as she sees her husband and family's care for her, or her opportunities to share the gospel with medical workers through tracts, and her requests for prayer that she keeps her eyes on the Lord and not on her failing body.

A faithful God gives parting grace.

A sister who has survived years of abusive treatment speaks of the blessing of learning to trust spiritual leaders to help her when circumstances would leave her vulnerable and when others' counsel was often to go her own way. She is grateful for those who helped her along the path of faithfulness and accountability.

A faithful God gives guiding grace.

A brother I care for has experienced brokenness, loss and, at times, despair. Life was disrupted and trajectories changed. But he tells me he has also seen God sustain and bring healing as he does the work of daily repentance (what we talked about during our 40 days of fasting and prayer). He says he is learning to let go of dreams for the future to experience the joys of a very different but meaningful present.

A faithful God gives daily grace.

Where are you hurting right now? Have your dreams or desires been thwarted? Are your plans in shambles? Is your future uncertain or your past filled with shame? If you are God's son or daughter, know this.

Your God is faithful to his plans and purposes for you. He will see you through.

And every day, he will give you the grace that is needed for that day, that moment, that circumstance. And as you receive it, others will see it and marvel, just as I have been over these dear ones and the grace they have shown.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Marie Kondo's Messy Approach to Tidy-ness

What the Netflix sensation gets right, and gets wrong

A very winsome and kind demeanor characterizes Marie Kondo, TV host from Japan whose "Tidying Up with Marie Kondo" is a huge "thing" right now, thanks to Netflix. This petite wizard of cleanliness comes into American homes that are stuffed to the gills with stuff and helps them manage to sort through it all, purge much, and after at least one cathartic moment leave the family rejoicing for being freed from the weight of so many clothes, kitchen utensils, books, or other possessions.

Kondo promotes minimalism--a long taught philosophy in Japan that seeks to limit one's possessions to what is necessary. Her approach is blended with an eastern view of life that considers objects as having some kind of consciousness. Thus, she gets on the floor and prays/greets/thanks the house for its shelter. She encourages holding objects to see if they "spark joy" (her big catchphrase)--if so, you keep them, if not, you thank them for what they provided you before discarding them. She is non-judgmental in the choices people make, and through her guidance, it seems that each week's family manages to shed a lot of excess baggage (literally).

I've watched a couple episodes, and here's what I have taken away.

First, she has any number of practical pieces of advice for any of us who need to organize or purge our homes and closets. She has some pretty nifty ways of folding and storing things--full disclosure: I used her method to organize a bunch of t-shirts and now can access what I want more easily. And the process of going through them all caused me to eliminate some that I realized I had not worn for a while and had no plans to do so. So, she has some good advice.

Some of her advice is much more preferential. For example, she recommends limiting the number of books you keep in your house. For some of us, her 30 book limit might require a few purchases to add more, but many of us have more books than that in each room of the house, and couldn't imagine getting rid of some of these treasures. I say this not in praise of books, but in noting that one person's easily "pare-able" possessions are another's priceless ones. She has a whole system for what to do with sentimental objects, but I'm not sure my library would qualify.

Is there a problem with the program? Well, yes. It isn't tidying or even a more minimalist approach to possessions that is bad, it is the idea that things can be thanked or produce joy for us. It seems bold (and perhaps harsh) to say, but this very likable lady is encouraging a form of idolatry that most of us would not see as such. Thanking a house for its protection may seem quaint, but seeing a house as personal and not as a provision of God for its occupants is a biblically condemned error. I can't "thank" a house, because "thankfulness" can only be experienced by a personal being. I can thank the God who graciously provides a house or any other shelter for this kindness he has shown, but when I give thanks to the created thing rather than the Creator, I am doing exactly what Romans 1 says is the mark of sinful human rebellion against the knowledge of God. This is idolatry--making a good creation a source of blessedness and not a result of it.

Similarly, the idea of an old sweatshirt "sparking joy" is a mistaken notion of ability given to inanimate fabric. Perhaps that old sweatshirt reminds me of my glory days as an intramural sports champ (that is definitely not my old sweatshirt, by the way), and wearing it is not only comfortable but a source of good memories. That's fine. But that isn't the same as being the source of joy. The joy comes in the memories of life lived, the people we were with during those special moments, and perhaps the comfort is linked to having been washed a few hundred times. The joy is not in the shirt, even if certain joyous moments were linked to wearing it. And her idea is much more visceral, You hold the shirt (or other object), close your eyes, and see if it "sparks joy." Frankly, if that actually happens, you may be holding a demon-possessed sweatshirt! (I'm kidding but trying to make a point). It isn't the shirt, but the circumstances, the history, etc. Her instruction really is more about whether you have any good associations with an object--that would be a more legitimate way of talking about it. But she sees the object as "subject"--because before you can discard it, you must say "thank you" for what is has provided for you while you've had it. Trouble is, it didn't "provide" you with anything--it was a "provision" of a giving God.

Does this mean I couldn't watch the show without becoming an idolator? Of course not. But if you watch with a careless attitude, and start thinking of your things more like "beings," or allow yourself to lose sight of the unbreakable connection between your possessions and their true Source, you will begin to live out a view of reality and the world that is idolatrous. And that would be very dangerous indeed. Are people really doing that? Just watch the tears and emotions flow as people look at their piles of clothes, and their talk of being controlled by them. Watch people assert a sense of greater self-worth because they tossed out kitchen utensils, but thanked them before they were thrown away.

Marie Kondo was a worker at a Shinto shrine in Japan before she became the Netflix queen of cleaner closets and kitchens. Hers is a worldview that is far from biblical reality and she has no hesitation preaching it in her gentle, winsome way. Some aspects of what she espouses touch up against biblical truths about life not consisting in our possessions, and the danger that overcame the rich fool who only built larger barns for his stuff. But it never embraces the existence of the Great Giver of All Good Gifts, diminishing the divine to that spark of joy your favorite slippers might give.

So, I'll take her folding tips, and listen to her strategy for reducing clutter, but my joy and my thanks must head in a very different direction. 

Monday, December 17, 2018

Christmas in the Dark

Candles and lights aren't just pretty, they're pretty symbolic

While I have seldom put up lots of Christmas lights outside, and been pretty "simple" (others might say "lame") when I have, I do appreciate the beauty of them. I can look out my back windows and see an illuminated pond and a couple houses with radiant and colorful lights. Looking down my street I can see more such houses, including lights along a VERY long driveway. They are beautiful

We will have our Candlelight Christmas Eve Service this Sunday night, and I always look forward to the end where we light our candles and dim the other lights--the beauty of that moment is moving to me. And other than the wax drippings making life harder on our cleaning crew, everyone seems to enjoy it as I do.

The large number of light displays we see go far beyond the number of people who may understand what they mean. That is true with many of the elements of our culture's more secular observances of Christmas. They have manger scenes, but don't understand their significance. They sing "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" (a very theologically rich carol) but pay little attention to ideas of being given "second birth" by the "incarnate Deity." And they put up all sorts of lights without understanding the historical and theological content.

Tim Keller reminded me of this in his book, Hidden Christmas. Our celebrations took their shape in the Mediterranean world, where late December has the shortest and darkest days. Lights didn't just add beauty, they made it possible to see! Large numbers of lights would make the darkness diminish--in some cases overcoming it temporarily. And this is the idea behind Christmas lights. Isaiah 9:2-9 tells us about people walking in darkness. That is a terrible position to be in. I've had a few walks in pitch dark, moonless nights and I gained a few bruises on some of those occasions. The darkness in Isaiah's context was spiritual, and is described in chapter 8 as turning our gaze earthward rather than heavenward--looking for "light" in the wisdom of other teachings and religions made by people."  The promise of chapter 9 was that a day would come where a great light would shine. This light is revealed in verses 6-7 as a child born, a son given, who would be "wonderful counselor, mighty God, everlasting Father, Prince of Peace." Everything would change for the better through seeing him.

We know this Child has come--He is the light that enlightens people, and that cannot be overcome by darkness--a great light indeed (see John 1). And Christmas candles and lights are silent but visible testimony to the coming of the great light in the great darkness--a light that brings hope and life to the world.

You cannot grasp the significance of Christmas until you realize that you live in a dark world, and that any ideas you may have about finding light or creating your own light are not only wrong, but deadly. Many people simply prefer darkness since it lets them hide their own shame (John 3:19). But faith in Jesus means that we realize that he is "the light of the world. Whoever follows [him] will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life" (John 8:12).

Let the lights and candles remind you not just of the darkness around them, but of the true light that leads us through and eventually out of darkness into the light of life. Follow the light!

Monday, December 3, 2018

"Hoping So" or "Hoping In"?

Two different uses of "hope" that mark two different kinds of people

As we are in our first week in Advent and thinking about "hope" as it relates to the promised coming of a Savior, I'm reminded that we use this word in very different ways.

When I say, "I hope so," I'm usually expressing a wish or perhaps and uncertainty about what is coming. I want it to happen, but I'm not sure it will happen. So I "hope" it will.

But the hope we talk about with the coming of Jesus, or the salvation he has provided, has nothing to do with an uncertain wish--it is the expression of a confidence about the future that is based on the believability or certainty of the object.

As a great example, my hope in Christ is not that "I hope he will save me," because I know that he saves the one who believes on him and calls upon his name (Acts 16:31, Romans 10:13). I know that he knows me and will never let me go (John 10:27-30). He will save me. My hope is the assurance that, as good or bad as the present may look, as powerful as evil may seem, and as final as death presents itself to be, Jesus has promised me a future. It is with him, in a place he is preparing, and it involves not only the forgiveness of sins that I have received, but the removal of any effects of sin that were a result of the Fall. It involves resurrection from this dying (and someday dead) body into a glorified, immortal body. It includes final victory over all God's enemies, the ability to stand before God's throne and be justified then (as I am now), and to enter into an eternally glorious existence in a totally remade New Heaven and Earth. This hope is what I receive in Christ.

A "hope so" faith isn't really faith at all, is it? What we are offered in Jesus is a hope--a promise--of much more than I deserve, could imagine, or ever obtain on my own. Place your faith in the Savior of the world, and you no longer have to have a "hope so" approach to your future!

Monday, August 27, 2018

The Pope and I

For a Baptist pastor to respond negatively to  pronouncements from the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church may seem to be one of a number of things:
  1. It's predictable--after all this thing called the Reformation set out some pretty significant differences, and they haven't been solved.
  2. It's pointless--my people will like what I have to say, and the Pope's "peeps" will be all for Francis!
  3. It's presumptuous--he has half a billion or so people in his congregation--I'm a little short of that.
That said, I want to weigh in on the current controversy surrounding him, then recent theological change he has initiated, and why I believe he is not only wrong but is demonstrating exactly why some of us think "popery" (not potpourri) is a bad idea.

The Current Controversy.
We cannot miss the storm created over the weekend when a high placed archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church charged that he had informed the current pope, Francis, of the history of abuse allegations and accusations lodged against former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington. Francis was already known to have ignored credible accusations while in charge of his archdiocese in South America. This news, along with the detail that the previous pope, Benedict, had sanctioned Cardinal McCarrick but Francis removed those sanctions, makes for a huge scandal. The accusations, published by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, also state that there is a "lavender Mafia" within the hierarchy of the church that protects and even promotes sympathy with homosexual behavior. This group is said to support Francis but was largely opposed to the previous Pope and his moves to limit such influence. The existence of such a group of clerics has long been talked about, but this is the most public statement offered about its existence in the controversy.

Ironically, this recent news broke as the Pope was returning from Ireland, where he was apologizing to the nation for the abuse scandal that rocked the Catholic Church there. When asked if the charges in this latest report were true, Francis refused to comment. 

Francis, you cannot remain silent on these accusations if you hope to have any credible future in any role representing historic Christianity of any stripe. You must answer. Many are already calling this the greatest scandal in the Roman Church and potential catastrophe in the modern era.

The Theological Change.
Pope Francis announced that he is changing the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church to reflect an absolute ban on the death penalty--that it is never permissible or moral in the age of the gospel. This changes the previous stance which allowed for it when no other punishment was appropriate--and that was in very rare circumstances then.

What makes this interesting is that while the Pope can make pronouncements that are binding on the Church, such pronouncements are supposed to be clarifying, not contradictory because the Church is supposedly the guardian as well as the authoritative interpreter of the scriptures. It's hard to see how "allowed/not allowed" is anything other than contradictory. More than this, his predecessors not only allowed the death penalty, they encouraged and enforced it in previous eras of church history. Were they wrong in doing so? Roman Catholic dogma makes papal precedent (not just infallibility) pretty significant. 

My bone to pick is that Francis is very willing to ban something that the Bible does not. He knows (or at least has some pretty smart people around him who do) that the command, "You shall not kill" was not an absolute ban on taking life, but on murder. The same writer--Moses--who records the command also records the earlier introduction of capital punishment in Genesis 9 for the wrongful taking of human life. And in the theocratic nation of Israel, there were quite a number of crimes (sins) that led to capital punishment. While the New Testament introduces the gospel in the fullness of Jesus Christ, it is not as if there was no grace or forgiveness in the Old Testament. And the New Testament encourages a fear of the power of governing authorities that "bear the sword" (Romans 14). This wasn't just an ornament, it was the Roman means of execution for citizens and speaks of the power of life and death. While no nation is a theocracy, and the church is not given the right to exercise capital punishment, the practice is nowhere condemned in the New Testament, and the right is acknowledged by its writers. 

My own understanding of scriptural teaching would be that governments still have the right to exercise capital punishment if they so choose. Only in those cases where life has been wrongfully taken (murder) would I encourage its use (echoing Genesis), although a case could be made that certain activities might not be the actual taking of life but lead directly to it (sabotage of an airplane or treasonous lowering of defenses for an enemy attack could be two easy cases) would also be appropriate.

Why is it appropriate? Because this is a matter of societal justice. Justice requires punishment that is commensurate with the offense ("let the punishment fit the crime"). The principle of justice established in Scripture and universal among people cannot be avoided. Others point to capital punishment as a deterrence of crimes. I just heard today a report on a study that showed fear of capital punishment actually kept a significant percentage of criminals from escalating their evil deeds to the point of murder. And of course, a murderer who is executed is not likely to kill again. 

I do not think that those crimes listed under the Mosaic Law that called for the death penalty require it today--we are not, after all living in a nation where God is acknowledged as King (the evidence strongly suggests that even Israel was not very consistent in applying all of God's rules in the covenant). That many of those actions were evil and immoral is beyond question, but those laws were a part of a civil society and code that does not exist today, and no government can claim to speak for God and execute his judgments. This would leave murder as the remaining case where the Scriptures would call for capital punishment as the appropriate response.

Must it be practiced? No--I think that a government may choose to do other things, especially if there is a history of wrongful convictions in certain cases, or if the judicial system seems not to function effectively. Societies may limit their governments in such cases, which may or may not prove wise. And I believe that governments and officials can exercise clemency in cases where the punishment has been pronounced but extenuating circumstances occur. Some (including Christians) argue that the wiser course for governments may be to set aside the death penalty as a tool of justice. But for Pope Francis to weigh in as he has not only is an intrusion into the sphere of governmental authority, it is one that contradicts Scripture and places him alongside those who, rather than take the Bible seriously, seem more interested in making it bend to more acceptable, contemporary understandings. 

The Underlying Bad Idea of "Popes".
If this were Francis's only recent error, I'd probably not be so concerned, but having flatly contradicted Scripture here, it brings to mind his statements same-sex relationships, divorce, the reality of hell, and the necessity of faith in Jesus. As clear as he has been on capital punishment, he has been obscure--that's putting it kindly--about these matters, saying things that have sent some Catholic theologians scurrying to ask him for clarifications,  and for others to rejoice and say, "It's about time--I think. Wait. What did he say?"

I hope you understand that as I write these things, I am not trying to attack any who are committed to the Roman Catholic Church or are sympathetic to it or its practitioners. I won't say "some of my best friends are Roman Catholics" but actually, I have had more than a few. Many Catholic scholars are important voices on matters of both the culture and faith. And I am convinced that there are many that we will see in Heaven--although I would argue that it will often be in spite of their church's dogmas rather than because of it. Roman Catholic believers still affirm the creeds and read the Scriptures which have a power all their own to be used by the Spirit to bring faith and eternal life. 

But the belief that one person (other than Jesus) can rule the church, speak in ways that cloud clear scriptural teaching or even set it aside in the name of theological progress in understanding, continues to be a dangerous dogma. And the concurrent danger of a hierarchy within the church that cannot be challenged or overruled is painfully manifested as the evil it is as we watch the headlines scream of abuse and coverup by that hierarchy over decades. 

The Reformation actually revolved around this central issue--where is the authority for us when it comes to what we must believe? The Roman Catholic answer was that the Scriptures only as interpreted through the established tradition and by the church's hierarchy--focused in the Pope--have that authority. Protestants, led by Luther, said the authority rests in the Scriptures alone--sola Scriptura was the phrase. 

These contemporary disagreements and disasters for the Roman Catholic Church remind us that these issues still matter. Our authority must be Scripture alone when it comes to what we believe.

That said, we cannot simply point fingers at the Catholic Church as if they are the only ones with scandals. Plenty of Bible-believing churches have had scandals and failures. Having the right authority, but not submitting to it, does not help. Let's pray for those being led astray by bad leaders, and especially for those abused by those they have trusted. But let us also pray with vigilance lest we allow similar disasters through failure to guard our heart's devotion to Christ and his Word.

Monday, July 23, 2018

"Look for the F.A.T. People!"

A mentor's odd sounding advice taken from the example of Jesus

It's pretty interesting to hear "experts" on health now telling us that fat is NOT the enemy when it comes to our health--sugar is! And that's because the sugar manufacturers spent boatloads of money to convince us that sugar was good but that fat was bad--there was no "fat lobby" to fight back. So we cut fat out of our diets and products, from milk (another lobby was fighting for its survival there) to just about everything else--"low fat" and "no fat" became very important, even if made palatable in many cases with lots of added sugars.

Now we are learning that fat isn't necessarily bad (after figuring out that sugar may be sweet but it's not healthy after all--and Mary Poppins' advice about that spoonful has been overdone). There is good fat and bad fat. And some of the fat we thought was bad isn't so bad after all. Just not too much.

Of course, this hasn't made the word "fat" pleasing, even if it helps the taste of some of our foods. We don't like the word as a descriptor--it means overweight to us, and little else. That's too bad, because the word used to mean much more.

It still does in a few contexts (and we're not talking about the more recent emergence of "phat"--I'm not cool enough to parse that). When someone has a "fat" wallet he has lots of money. The "fat" of the land was its bounty and surplus--something that everyone wanted to gain and that Pharaoh gave to Joseph's family (Genesis 45:18). Isaac blessed Jacob with "the fatness of the earth" (Genesis 27:28). And the psalmist complained about hard times of mourning when his body had "no fat" (Psalm 109:24), while times of blessing are marked by "fat" and "rich food" (Psalm 63:5). Even the LORD specifically asked for the fat portions in animal sacrifices throughout Exodus and Leviticus. Even today in cultures where scarcity is common, it is a compliment to one's prosperity and good looks to be called "fat."

For me, one special meaning of the word comes from a mentor who was teaching me how to choose people to train and to lead. He told me frequently, "Look for the FAT people!" He wasn't talking physique, though; he was talking about character. The word was an acrostic for three qualities he thought were essential and tried to emphasize. To be truthful, I can't remember if he came up with the acrostic or if I did, so if you think it's a bad thing, blame me, but it stuck. What are the three qualities? I'm glad you asked, because not only did he teach them to me, but we find them looking at the life of Jesus in his choices.

First, a good candidate for servant leadership (or any responsibility) in ministry must be faithful. Here the focus is faithfulness to what one knows to be right and true. It is faithfulness to the cause, not just personal affection for a teacher. This person is "all in," even if they aren't sure of all the ramifications. This is what makes a good friend, too--who "loves at all times"(Prov. 17:17) and whose occasional wounding of us is still faithful in seeking our good (Prov. 27:6). Gaius is commended by his mentor John, in III John for the "faithful" things he was doing. Faithful is not just believing, it is commitment to that belief.

Jesus chose his twelve, and the faithful eleven chose Judas' replacement, out of those who were with them from the beginning of Jesus' ministry (Acts 1:21-22). Long before they were the twelve, we see Peter and Andrew and James and John and others named as being with Jesus, learning, following, and serving. He was the teacher they were looking for, they believed him, and they stuck with him--admittedly not perfectly and with some glaring failures. But they believed and that belief led to commitment to him. My mentor's encouragement was not to try to build someone's faith and commitment by giving them responsibility, but rather to find people who were marked by faith in Jesus and commitment to the gospel as a start.

Second, someone must be available. The disciples' faithfulness to Jesus and his teaching was matched with availability. When Jesus invited them with the words "Follow me," they came. In fact the first "follow me" got them coming, but that was followed by the second, where Jesus said "I will make you fishers of men." Even after the resurrection, Peter's restoration included the reminder, "follow me" and don't worry about what happens to others. Good servant leadership begins by showing up, and then staying.

Not everyone accepts invitations, like those invited wedding guests who had just married or just bought a field or a team of oxen. Similarly, there are times when people we know are committed believers are not available to serve or lead. It may not even be their choice at the time; circumstances, the Spirit, and even Satan can hinder us from doing work we would choose to do. Availability may be limited for a time. But sadly, there are some believers who never seem able to make themselves available. If someone always needs exceptions to the expectations of ministry commitment, it may be like the man who wanted to wait until his father died to follow Jesus (Matthew 8:21). You may be, as Matthew records, a disciple (follower), but you won't really discover what that means beyond the most limited sense. My mentor encouraged me to probe potential servant leaders to discover if they were willing to be available to do the task required, or to go through the training needed. If not, whether it was what I thought was a good reason or bad, I should move on to candidates who will be available.

The mention of training brings up the third quality I was to look for--servant leaders must be teachable. A disciple of Jesus was, by definition a "learner." Learning requires availability, but some who may be available may not be teachable. They may always have a better idea, or believe that the instructions are just suggestions. Jesus' disciples followed his instructions in ministry, sometimes incredulous (think of getting ready to feed 5,000 with five loaves and two fish), and sometimes not understanding what they were doing (their reactions after feeding the five thousand and then the four thousand showed this).

Unlike Jesus, we can't be perfect teachers, and sometimes our learners will have insights that may improve what we do. Servant leaders are always learning. But my mentor's encouragement was to look for people who were ready to learn, often preferring them over those who were convinced they already knew what to do. In some situations, you may know that there are many ways a task could be accomplished, but current conditions and settings make one way favorable and you hope to teach your student that way for this moment. Teachability is a must in the varying circumstances of life.

I haven't always followed this advice, and it usually comes back to bite me. But, I am thankful for these pointers that have served me well in teaching and discipleship. My prayer today is that they might help you, too, as you either look to disciple or train others, or as you consider whether you are the right kind of candidate to serve. Are you faithful--not just "believing" in Jesus but wholly committed to his cause? Are you available--ready to put in the work and the time? Are you teachable--ready to learn, even in those areas you may think you know? Then you are ready to go, and it's time to step up and volunteer! You are the right kind of FAT!