Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Feast of Mark: A Saint for Ministry Rejects

Yesterday was the Feast of St. Mark, the Evangelist, who was also known as John Mark. His narrative of the life of Jesus was the first to be written, and was chosen by the Church to take its place among only three other Gospel accounts considered accurate and genuinely God-inspired.

It was the home of Mark and his mother where Peter went after being released from jail by an angel (Acts 12:12). Church tradition claims that Jesus appeared to His disciples in Mark’s house after His Resurrection, and its large upper room was where the Holy Spirit was poured out upon believers gathered on the Day of Pentecost.

Nineteen years after Christ’s ascension, Mark traveled to Africa and founded the Church at Alexandria. The pagans in Alexandria resented his efforts to turn the populace from their traditional gods. In 68 AD, they captured John Mark, put a rope around his neck, and dragged him through the streets until he was dead. He is honored by the Coptic Church as the founder of Christianity in Africa, and his symbol is the lion.

What a courageous witness for the Lord…so courageous that the Church chose a lion to symbolize Mark’s ministry!

But Mark’s first attempt at ministry ended in disaster. In fact, he made such a mess of things that Paul refused to have anything to do with him! Mark was considered unpredictable, unreliable, and a liability to the Church. A lion? Really?

Mark and his family played prominent in the early church. They were closely acquainted and worked side by side with the Apostles, even hosting meetings in their home. Therefore, it seemed normal for Paul to choose Mark as his promising new assistant for his first missionary journey.

However, something went wrong along the way. We’re not told exactly what happened, but when planning a second trip, Paul adamantly refused to add Mark to the roster (Acts 15: 36-41). In verse 38, Paul uses a strong word, stating Mark “departed from them in Pamphylia, and went not with them to the work.”

Many translations use the word deserted, but a look at the original Greek word gives us insight into how seriously Paul perceived the abandonment. It comes from the same root as “apostasy”. He considered Mark a total write off in terms of serving God.

Arguing on behalf of giving Mark a second chance was his uncle, Barnabas. His name means “Son of Comfort, Encouragement.” Forget the fact that he was a relative. His name denotes the prevailing motive behind his words and actions: He was an encourager. On the other hand, Paul was a “get with the program or get out” apostle. Although he tempered in his later years, he was known to run a tight ship and had little patience for floundering.

All sorts of people have weighed in over the years as to why Mark dropped out on the adventure of a lifetime. The Scriptures show Barnabas taking a back seat to the converted Paul once he arrived on the scene. Initially, Barnabas headed up several mercy and evangelistic tours. He was the one who introduced Paul to the Apostles in Jerusalem. Barnabas was one of the first teachers of the church at Antioch. When the work grew greater than one person could manage, Barnabas chose Paul to be his assistant for a year. Some scholars suggest Mark was troubled over Paul’s rise to prominence over his uncle. Other people believe he simply got homesick. I tend to favor the notion that Mark was just not ready for the hardships he encountered.

It’s one thing to say you are prepared to face persecution and troubles; quite another to encounter them. The area they traveled was riddled with bandits, and Paul’s message attracted both political and religious enemies. Dangers lay at every turn with no promise of a decent meal or lodging along the way. Mark was probably overwhelmed. As the journey progressed, fears and self-doubts increased.

Let’s return to the intense argument between Paul and Barnabas in Acts 15. Verse 39 records that the contention was so sharp between the two of them that they “departed asunder one from the other”. (Again, there’s the English word departed. However, it is a different word altogether in the Greek, meaning “to part company”. As a result, Paul chose Silas as his ministry companion and headed toward Syria and Cilcia; Barnabas and Mark went to Cyprus.

We hear nothing else from the Bible about the outcome of the Cyprus mission. Apparently, it went well. Barnabas is traditionally identified as the founder of the Cypriot Church. He is also mentioned briefly by Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:6 as a fellow laborer for the Lord. It is generally believed that upon Barnabas’ death by stoning in 61 AD, Mark privately interred his body.

 Church tradition states that Mark became Peter’s scribe and interpreter. (How appropriate for Mark to sit at the feet of another man well acquainted with failure AND redemption!) Many historians agree that the Apostle was the source of information for Mark’s Gospel account, which was penned right before his own martyrdom in 68 AD.

Are you a ministry reject? Has a church, denomination, or Christian organization disqualified you because of a failed mission? Do you believe the Lord has written you off, as well?

You didn’t commit adultery; you didn’t steal from the coffers or misrepresent the Faith…you were in over your head. Perhaps you grew afraid. The battlefield was very different from the classroom. Maybe your resolve wasn’t as tough as you confessed for such an assignment.

After thirty years in ministry, I’ve seen so many Christian men and women resign themselves to the pews. They refuse to take noble risks. They are convinced that extraordinary adventures are for well-equipped, more spiritually mature Christians.

I truly believe Mark’s ministry blunder occurred because he just wasn’t ready to undertake such an arduous and extended assignment. Barnabas accurately discerned there was nothing wrong with Mark’s character or his calling. Three years after his first attempt, Mark took a smaller mission to Cyprus with Barnabas and helped start a successful church in that region.

Beloved, there is nothing wrong with your character or calling, either. But maybe you can’t hear this truth because of the stinging, blatant rejection of that “Paul”—that church, denomination, or organization. The solution is simple: Pray for God to send you a Barnabas, a “Son of Comfort, of Encouragement” to take you under his or her ministry wing.

I know how deeply this type of rejection hurts. When we moved into a new Communion, my previous ordination was considered invalid, but the leaders were willing to examine me for a new commission. I took a battery of tests along with four other candidates.

I’ll never forget the day I received the call from the bishop stating that my test results sent up some “red flags” among the committee members. They concluded that I could not be commissioned in good conscience for ministry at that time. However, the other four candidates were cleared.

I’m not happy when I say this because it hurts to see fellow Christians falter and go through hard times; but none of those four are in the ministry today!

It took me a long time to work through the embarrassment (I had already sent out my recommendation letters to friends and family) and the ever-present temptations toward seething in anger and bitterness. Yet, I NEVER questioned God’s call upon my life. That was settled years ago. I had navigated many shark-infested waters as a woman minister, and as one who grew up in the ultra-conservative Bible Belt!

I remained a member of that Communion, but realized that I did not need them to validate or commission me to serve God and His people with my ministry gifts. Instead of attacking their Paul-like approach, I remained positive and looked for people with a Barnabas heart. Barnabases seem to know when you’re ready to try again; and they’ll have your back when you do—even if it costs them their reputation or a friendship.

You see, many churches and ministries run predominately on man-made rules. Unfortunately, they measure a Christian’s success by how quickly they get their act together and enter some sort of service. Otherwise, you are not worth much to God or to them (or so it is subtlety implied).

You quickly volunteer for all sorts of things that you either don’t like or don’t feel equipped to handle because it pleases the leadership. They continue to expect more from you—more meetings, more training sessions, more “spiritual” activities—until one day you’ve had enough. You find the courage to finally be yourself, but lack the courage to face the stern jury.

Or perhaps YOU initiated all that volunteering. You signed up to be in charge of something big, and you misjudged the demands and complexities required. You found yourself over your head and beyond your abilities. You blew it—big time.

Regardless of what happened and how, you retreated into a cave. While offering some security, its walls always remind you of how you got there.  God forbid, but maybe even the Pauls in your life prefer you to remain a cave dweller—as long as you continue to tithe and such. But know this: God doesn’t like for His people to dwell in caves. Just ask Elijah. (1 Kings 19:1-18)

Again, let me say: There is nothing wrong with your character or your calling! God wants to partner with you in exploits that will greatly further His Kingdom here on earth—yes, YOU! Ask for a Barnabas that will provide the right environment for you to blossom and release your gifts to the world.

Will you spend the rest of your life thinking you failed God? Will you forever sit in the corner of the Church-at-large wearing a dunce hat that reads “Been there, done that, blew it”?

Make Mark your patron saint and example. Forgive and get past the estimations of man. Acknowledge that some people, like Timothy, flourish under the leadership of a Paul. Others do better under a Barnabas. There are diverse styles of leadership and ministries available to men and women called from all walks of life and temperaments. We’re in this together!

The goal is to see Christ’s redemptive work spread throughout the world. Who knows? Those who earlier disqualified you may one day recognize the value of your ministry. It happened to Mark.

Toward the end of his life, Paul was imprisoned in Rome, forsaken by many of his fellow ministers. He wrote to Timothy, asking him to bring Mark as soon as possible for “…he is profitable (in the Greek-“very useful”) to me for the ministry.” (2 Timothy 4:11).

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Oops! Have we lost our "Happy Church" Face?

Let's admit it. We all have days--even on those big and busy days like Easter, Christmas, First Communions and everything in between--when we act anything but holy. No, we don't feel "spiritual" at all! But it's really okay. (I bet God got a chuckle out of this little girl!)

Aren't you glad the security of your faith is not dependent on how you feel?

It's based on how God feels about His Son. And since you belong to Christ, the Father feels exactly the same way about you!

And aren't you relieved that faith doesn't work by YOUR performance--particularly by those "all I want to do is stick my tongue out at you" moments?

  It is wondrously made effective by the past performance of Jesus--graded by God as flawless and transferred to us who believe.

So today, just relax in and rely upon Christ (even if you are in a bad mood)!