Monday, September 13, 2010

I Am Still Lord of all You Do

This title may seem strange at this juncture of the story of my trip to Sudan. It came to have a very important meaning to me toward the end of my time of preparing for the talks that I would be giving. The decision to go to Sudan and the preparation to go over the next several months brought a number of battles or points of struggle. I could gloss over these, but then the story would not be complete. I initially thought that once I decided to go on the trip the struggle would basically end. I was wrong.

Almost immediately I was hit by a life-long struggle of a sense of inadequacy. I began teaching in Sunday School shortly after I got out of college and entered the United States Air Force. Over the years I spent many hours studying God's Word. It was not like I had never taught or had limited knowledge and yet when the reality of what I would be doing in Sudan begin to dawn on me, this old sense of inadequacy came back. This new manifestation of the struggle related to our teaching assignment. I learned that each member of the team would be writing two papers of at least 25 pages each and then teaching about two hours on the topic covered in those papers. This was to be followed by a question and answer time. All of the talks would be through an interpreter which meant - well, I wasn't quite sure other than somehow we would have to speak in a way that accommodated the need for translation.

In order to understand this phase of the journey, I have to digress and look at something God was doing in my life at the time. Even now when I think about it I am astounded.

Through much of my life as a Christian, I had an incomplete view of the place the gospel had in the life of a believer. I had no doubt that it was the key to the entry into salvation. I discovered much later how far short that view came to the real truth. I have written about this in more detail in an article entitled, "What Does It Mean to be the Clay?" That post includes an unpublished May 23, 2009 post explaining how I had spent many years understanding that the gospel was primarily for the unsaved. I never heard about the on-going importance and relevance of the gospel to my life as a Christian. There was some irony in this discovery. I had been hearing this truth since we became part of The Village Church in July 2008. I am sad to say that it took awhile for me to grasp this new understanding - at least, to me it was new. At about the same time I began to pick up on phrases like, "gospel centered living." I did not understand living in those terms for the simple reason that I saw the gospel as primarily relating to one's entrance into salvation. I remember trying to formulate questions to ask men like Geoff Ashley and Josh Patterson, pastors in our church. Those questions were very ineptly worded. I was wanting to know how did you live a gospel centered life and what did that look like. Was I living such a life and didn't know it? I am not sure what day I came across a book by C. J. Mahaney, entitled, "The Cross Centered Life." It was within several months of departing on this trip to Sudan. I know that when I began to read it, I couldn't read it fast enough.

Little did I know that some things were converging in my life at this point. God was about to show me more than I ever expected concerning the gospel. I was going to learn and witness first hand gospel centered living. I was going to be part of helping a group of Sudanese pastors understand, in greater detail, the gospel and its ramifications. I was going to learn much from them what gospel centered living was all about. It turns out that it was going to involve a process that would immerse me in the gospel both in terms of studying, the presenting of the lessons and seeing the gospel at work in the lives of people in a different part of the world who were really living regardless of their outer circumstances.

At our first team meeting in July 2009, I learned that each member of the team would be teaching two topics. Those topics related to the foundation of the gospel, the matter of first importance Paul referenced in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8. Geoff Ashley told each of us to "think of yourself as the team's subject matter expert on your particular nuance of the overall theme of the gospel." That is when the weight of what I would be doing started to grow. Each of us were asked to name four areas out of the 14 topics that we would like to present. The list of 14 included: the gospel at 30,000 feet (a version of a sermon by our lead pastor, Matt Chandler); of first importance or thinking through 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; God is the Gospel (based on a book by John Piper); the atonement, part 1 (multifaceted aspects) and part 2 (penal substitution); consequences of the gospel (putting off the flesh and dying to sin), sin (part 1, Genesis 3) and part 2 (Romans 1); the incarnation, consequences of the gospel, part 2 (Christian unity), part 3 (social engagement, evangelism and good works); justification by faith; the importance of regeneration and the resurrection. If that wasn't enough I learned that we also would be helping lay a foundation for future trips by teams from our church. I had no idea what that meant.

After praying and thinking about which topics I would choose, I submitted four. One involved the history of redemption - similar to our pastor's message on the gospel at 30,000 feet. A second one related to the atonement and the aspect of penal substitution. From my perspective, I think part of the reason I chose these particular topics had to do with my love of history and the nature of my work as a judge in the criminal justice system. As it turned out these were the two topics Geoff Ashley assigned to me. The months of August and September became a blur as I began to read, study and write. Many times it seemed as if my head was spinning from all the reading and thinking. I am not sure how many "completed" drafts I came up with only to discard and revise them. My days were literally consumed with reading and writing - no arithmetic, other than adding up the few hours I had left to finish the project. It was like I left on the trip two months before I actually did. My wife, Betty, was very gracious and never made me feel guilty about the time it was taking me to complete the work. She was praying and had others praying as well. I could not have made it without her prayers and support. In a real sense she was and would continue to be part of that trip. That is another story that I look forward to sharing.

In the midst of all of this writing effort, I came under attack with another sense of inadequacy. Not only was I struggling to put all the vast amount of material together in a very short time, I became burdened by a new form of inadequacy. The more I learned about the pastors to whom we would be speaking the more I started to realize the extent of what we would be doing. Each of these pastors with whom we would be teaching and worshiping, were prepared to lay everything on the line for Christ and the advance of the gospel - including their lives. They were willing to and probably were already suffering for that purpose. I learned how true this was after we arrived in Sudan. I began to think about the fact that I would be part of helping them do that - that we would be equipping and encouraging them to make that kind of sacrifice. I never taught a group who would face such adversity. The gravity of it all began to weigh on me. I struggled with thoughts about whether I could make the kind of sacrifice they were willing to make. On July 24, 2009, I wrote Matt Elkins, the Mission Pastor, at The Village Church, about this struggle and what I had concluded. "I have been trusting in my own adequacy. I was reading how Paul, when he was contemplating the mission of presenting the gospel, had asked, "Who is adequate?" I agreed with him that no one is adequate. It has taken me awhile to move to the peace that Paul had in his conclusion that God is adequate. He is our sufficiency. I am thankful that the opportunity to go is uncovering areas of my life that need to be brought before God. I am glad that he is allowing me to see that He is working in my life. I am grateful to God for the role of the leadership of our church in making this step possible in my life."

Things finally started to come together in September although, I was being pulled in other directions. There was a new home group leaders' orientation class that Betty and I had to attend. We were starting a home group and it was necessary that we first complete the class. Our new home group began preliminary meetings in September. We also had to finish several interviews of new covenant members in our church. There was a meeting with Vernon Burger of His Voice Global. From my understanding Vernon had been instrumental in opening up this opportunity of partnering with the churches in Southern Sudan. My work as a senior judge was requiring time in court and I was also trying to complete necessary medical examinations. In the midst of all of this, our team had to have the final drafts of the talks, outlines, bibliographies, footnotes and discussion questions ready for printing by September 25, 2009. Late on the evening of September 19, 2009 I finished the two lessons and saved them on the computer. I normally would print the revised work; but it was late so I saved the printing for the next day - a Sunday - our last day to meet as a team before departure. I went to bed and felt relaxed for the first time.

As I write this I can still feel the tension of what happened. My calmness was short lived. I had a rude awakening on Sunday morning when I turned on the computer and attempted to open the talk on Penal Substitution - a talk that had turned out to be the hardest and most complicated of the two. I discovered that I had unknowingly deleted the paper the night before. The last thing I saved that night was the outline of the talk. I didn't realize that the outline had the same title as the paper. When I received a message "did I want to replace," I click "yes" thinking that I was replacing an earlier version of the outline. Instead the talk was overwritten. I can't begin to describe how upset I was when I realized what I had done. The weight of the last two months came crashing down on me. To say that tears came to my eyes is putting it mildly. I can remember crying out rather loudly, "No," No." "It can't be." I may have even pounded the desk with my fist. No, I did do that. Betty came rushing into the study to find out what had happened. To her credit, she stayed calm and when I told her what I had done she immediately began to pray. She started calling different members of our home group to pray. For me, all I saw was a hopeless situation. She saw much more - something you could only see by faith. She told me, "Well, maybe this is not the talk God wants you to give." I didn't want to hear that; but within about an hour, I started to have peace about the matter. I started to accept that it was very possible God wanted something else. It turned out He did; but not another paper. Betty suggested another thing to me that morning. She said, "When you get to your meeting this afternoon, ask Kent if there is anyway to retrieve the deleted talk from the computer." I said I would, but I didn't believe it was possible. By then, I had arrived at the conclusion that I would just start over and see what happened. Kent Rabalais was a member of our team and also knowledgeable about computers. I had received some training from him during the time he had worked at the local Apple Store.

By the time I got to the meeting that afternoon, prayers were being answered. I was resigned to starting over and actually had a peace about it. I was learning something else or being reminded of something else. It is embodied in the title of this post. I have found that it is very easy to lapse in my trust in and reliance upon God. I was secure in the fact that I had completed the talk. God had just reminded me, though, how fragile that sense of security can be and that there is no real security in anything apart from trust in Him. There is not a point when trust is no longer necessary - even if I was actually holding the papers of the talk in my hand. I realize in looking back, that I needed this reminder on the eve of my departure to Africa. There is no real substitute for trust. That was how I was to make this trip and carry out the assignment given.

With that peace and with the seemingly insurmountable task facing me to complete a new paper within a few days, I went to the meeting. I am thankful that I could go with renewed trust and with a fresh reminder from God that "I am still Lord of all you do." I am especially glad for that state of things because as it turned out I was able to retrieve the paper. A feature on the computer called "Time Machine" had saved the paper, without me knowing it, and I was able to restore it. It caught the paper a few moments before I deleted it. Of course, that is the explanation from a human perspective. I know otherwise. Had God intended for me to rewrite the paper, no human technology in the world could have altered that fact or have saved that paper. Yesterday (September 12, 2010), our pastor, Matt Chandler, in introducing a new series of messages on authority, cited the following passage from Psalm 115:3:

Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.

I have great need to always remember that truth. It has been nearly a year since that Sunday morning shock wave hit me concerning my misplaced confidence, i.e., a completed paper. I think about that moment quite often. I think how there is never a moment when trust in God is not needed. I can easily substitute what is seen for what is unseen. God can take away the seen. I can forget that ongoing trust is the heart of gospel centered living. I had wanted to know what gospel centered living meant. It was being answered in some very unique ways in this journey to Sudan. I had lost sight of the need of ongoing trust. God reminded me of it in a simple way by allowing me to carelessly delete a talk, the completion of which had left me feeling secure. He graciously said, " I am still Lord of all that you do." I am still mystified at how God works and I will, for sure, this side of heaven, continued to be mystified. And I yet I know that it is by grace through faith that my life in Christ unfolds. The cross will forever be a reminder of that truth. The gospel will forever affirm that truth and it will always be better than I deserve. In a few days, I would be standing before a group of pastor in Yei, Sudan and telling them that what we deserve is God's wrath, but instead, I could, because of the cross, by grace through faith, stand before them and join hands with them as one of God's children, because we had been redeemed by Christ's shed blood and forever delivered from judgment and the wrath of God. I deserved nothing but death and His wrath. Instead, I received mercy - not only when He gave the paper back to me, but more especially when He gave the life of Christ to me through faith and now sustains me in that life; but not just me-

“Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”

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