I’ve been being tenderized in a heartbreaking manner by awesome people I’ve met in Memphis. They haven’t said anything to me. I have just watched them.
The fact is, on many days, especially writing on this blog, I wrestle with how blunt to be, how serious a picture to paint, or how much to tone things down to make it easier for people to listen. I wrestle with how strong to be with those who are almost there, not quite willing to take the step over the line to total abandonment to God. Amy Carmichael once wrote a very stark book on that last step called The Way Things Are, but that story will have to wait for a different day.
One principle I have tried to live by for decades is never to compromise God’s truth, even if it condemns me. This leaves me often deciding where to be gracious and where to be blunt. I just want to tell you one story, from this morning, that touches on that constant decision I face.
I love … uh … most of the writings of T. Austin Sparks, and I get a newsletter from Austin-Sparks.net every day. Today it starts with something I have had experience with both in my life and the lives of others.
The Cross is applied according to every man’s make-up. What would be the Cross to me would never be the Cross to you, and the Cross may mean something different for every one of us. … That is our challenge of the Cross, and then it is a matter of whether we, in what we are, will come and allow the Cross to deal with us.
I don’t know what I’ve told you, but in 1983, I read Gene Edwards’ The Early Church, and from then on I longed for the life he described there, which was taken from the first few chapters of the book of Acts. I looked everywhere I could for people experiencing that life for the next 12 to 13 years. I looked in Germany, Italy, Spain, Holland, Belgium, Texas, California, Florida, and Tennessee. I saw tastes of it in Belgium and Florida, but moving to Belgium was not an option at the time.
Finally, in 1995, I threw my lot in with what is now known as Rose Creek Village … come hell or high water (literally). I lived in a 17-bedroom house with 60 other people, surrounded by RV’s and a chicken coop that had been turned into a 2-bedroom house. 120 people ate out of the same kitchen. We called the big house “Mash ’em Inn.”
When we ran out of room, I moved at the drop of a hat with 35 other families to a 100-acre plot with nothing on it but one small farmhouse and a lot of fences and cow vertebrae (really). We turned our buses, RV’s, and mobile homes into a beautiful trailer park over the course of about 6 years, but along the way we lived in any makeshift home that we could, including a small playground covered in tarps, as well as tents we bought from an army surplus in Waco, Texas (of all places).
I now live in Memphis, with about 150 feet of shore on a small lake in a house we just bought, fellowshipping with four other families and some single people—scattered around Memphis each in our own homes—all formerly from Rose Creek Village (and all still in close relation with RCV), interacting and participating with several other ministries here in the big city.
In other words, my fellowship is no longer just with those who have experienced what I experienced.
The Experience of Christian Community with Disciples
In the 15 years I spent at Rose Creek Village, before my year-long battle with leukemia and my move to Memphis to give myself to the work here, I watched a lot of people try to join us in radical Christian community.
It’s nothing like you would expect. It’s nothing like I expected. It’s nothing like any of us expected or could have predicted.
There was love; rich, abundant love, and deep friendships that will never be broken, no matter what we go through, in this life or the next. We know because we’ve been through so much together already.
There were people. Deeply committed, deeply flawed people. We couldn’t make them go away. We kept looking for brilliant, organized, godly people who could help guide us without making any stupid mistakes, without making us look bad, and without driving us into financial ruin in the middle of one of the poorest counties in one of the poorest states in the country.
We couldn’t find them. We kept getting people who loved God, loved us, and were untrained in the Tony Robbins school of how to motivate everyone and the Martha Stewart school of running everything right. (And you know where Martha Steward ended up!)
At some point, we decided we just had to live with flawed people, and watch God transform them into amazing, loving, merciful, patient … flawed people.
Family is flawed people loving one another and sharing their lives together. God’s family is transformed, growing, flawed people with an immense capacity for speaking the truth to, enduring, and embracing other flawed and hurting people.
For 15 years we waited for God to cure other people’s most annoying faults. Those were astonishingly pernicious. They rarely went away. In the background, though, patience, kindness, tolerance, and wisdom that encompassed the best and worst situations were growing in all of us.
Not long ago, a friend told me, “I like talking to you. You always give me a different perspective.”
Everyone who has endured the messy church life we have lived for 20 years and counting at Rose Creek Village can do that. That life produces a wisdom, a tolerance, and an ability to look past circumstances for God’s role in those circumstances.
The Cross and T. Austin Sparks
In the quote at the top of this blog, T. Austin Sparks talks about the unique work of the cross in each of us.
That is one other thing I have seen in the last 20 years: the uniqueness of the cross in each person’s life.
Church life produces a safe environment. We experienced LOTS of people with LOTS of ideas and LOTS of flaws. In fact, we learned that for MOST people, their religious convictions are held, in a large part, to cover up those flaws. Their convictions both justify themselves to themselves and serve to keep others at a distance, lest their flaws be exposed.
Becoming use to flawed people means that flawed people, eventually, learn to feel safe with us.
Such safety produces an environment where God feels free to work deeply in people’s hearts, knowing that we will take care of them while the work is going on. That’s the environment that he has always meant to produce in the church.
Do you know what the most common flaw in men and women is? Fear. It may look like something else, but usually, it’s just fear. They don’t want to be exposed. They don’t want to look bad. They don’t want to be destroyed by the negative opinions of others. We claim not to care what others think, but that is true of almost no one at all. Instead, almost everyone has layers and layers of beliefs and behaviors that have one purpose, to protect us from the scrutiny and criticism of those around us.
Not too long ago, someone I met and really liked told me, by email, that he had read about Rose Creek Village and that we were guilty of “prying into each other’s lives in the name of accountability.”
If that is his definition of what we have experienced, I can’t deny it. I never heard from that person again.
Since I haven’t named him, and you have no way of knowing who he is, I will tell you my interpretation of his email. He saw the cross coming. He knew it would slash through all the layers of protection he had, and who he really was would come out to be seen by others and dealt with by God. He made sure right up front that wouldn’t happen.
He returned to a safer group of people with whom to fellowship. He was very dissatisfied before he met us. Afterwards, though? They would do just fine.
The Scent of Death and the Scent of Life
Lots of people, very excited about meeting us, suddenly lose their excitement when they “smell the savor of death.”
Paul talked about this. There is a fascinating passage in 2 Corinthians some of us have experience with, in churches of all stripes, but few of us think about:
Now thanks be to God, who always causes us to triumph in his Anointed King, and through us reveals the scent of what it is like to know him in every place. For to God, we are the sweet scent of the Messiah, in those that are saved and in that perish. To the one we are the scent of death leading to death and to the other the scent of life leading to life. (vv. 14-16a, slightly paraphrased, emphasis added)
To some our lives reveal a scent of death because entrance into the kingdom of God is a death to one’s old life. It’s buried. It’s gone. It’s crucified. Your dreams, hopes, and aspirations are thrown down, never to be picked up again unless your new King chooses to give them back to you. You agree to his dreams, hopes, and aspirations. His may be similar to yours. He may have been the one to give you your old ones, but when you call him King, you drop them all, come to him empty-handed, like a man fresh out of the grave, and you get your new life from him.
Some smell right past the burial of baptism and the scent of death to the new life in King Jesus and the scent of that life. Those long for it, and they plunge into the waters of the new birth headlong, wanting that life.
Others smell only the death. They see not just baptism, but the cross that will end everything dear to them. Those tiptoe forward, smell the scent, and some run for their life.
Others, in terror, knowing that Jesus is the Son of God, the one who will judge them on the last day, embrace that cross anyway. Usually, those are the disciples most likely to endure to the end and be saved.
You see, T. Austin Sparks is right. Everyone faces the cross, and it is different for all of us.
In most Christian clubs …
Pause here: I won’t call them churches because organizations and buildings cannot be churches. The church is people. When a group of people attend a Baptist “church” (or any other), it cannot be the church when those people go home. The church is people, not a building. That sign that says “church” on it is false. Those signs need to be changed to say, “Such and such church meets here at such and such times. We thought you might want to know so you could meet us and learn about King Jesus from us.”
No offense meant. Everyone agrees with me on the principle. I’m not sure why they don’t follow through on that principle and change their signs and the way they talk.
In most Christian clubs, you can’t tell the people apart. Some of those people have embraced the cross. They are painfully dying to self and joyfully longing for the transformation Jesus is working in them. Others, though, have rejected the cross. They attend “church,” but they are simply appeasing their conscience, slowly dying, deeply mourning the fear that stopped them from entering the kingdom of God.
What’s unfortunate is that so many preachers are helping them appease their consciences. They assure them of salvation because of belief, not realizing that these, who have rejected the cross, have not believed.
Or maybe they believe even more than the preacher does. They know that Jesus is confused by those who call him Lord and don’t do what he says (Luke 6:46). They believe that you can’t be Jesus’ disciple unless you take up your cross every day, and they know they have rejected the cross as too painful and too final for them.
It takes work to con people like this into believing that they will enter the kingdom of heaven. They know deep down what so many preachers don’t seem to know, that calling Jesus Lord is meaningless to Jesus unless you do the will of our Father in heaven. Since Jesus only spoke what the Father told him to speak, then the will of our Father in heaven is that we embrace the cross … every day.
You can’t be his disciple otherwise.
Which brings me full circle to my dilemma this morning.
I Love and Usually Defer to the Teachings of T. Austin Sparks, but …
In the teaching I received by email this morning, Mr. Sparks went on to address what might happen if don’t “allow the cross to deal with us.”
There is not one of us, I am sure, who wants to stand in the presence of the Lord later on, and for the Lord to say, “My child, I would have led you into something very much fuller if only you had given Me the chance.”
Is that what’s going to happen? Will Jesus say, “It could have been better”?
Or will he say, “Depart from me, I never knew you”?
Over the last 20 years, I have met some zealous, excited Christians, who have run towards Rose Creek Village, amazed by the love they see, amazed by the life they see, and longing for it with excitement.
Like the rich young ruler to Jesus, they come with joy, and like Jesus, we love them. We are excited about them. They say, “How do I get this life? I don’t have it, but I have wanted it for so long. I want this fellowship; I want this love!”
We have all kinds of things we say, but somehow God always manages to get his say in, immediately or later. At some point, they look up and see Jesus on the cross. Now, though, by the revelation of God, they do not only see the blood running down his chest, running from his head, wrists, and feet, poured out in love for them. They also see his eyes, calling them to climb up there with him, and terror begins to strike their hearts.
That’s what it looks like spiritually. In real life, it can look much different. Here’s some real examples.
1. Said to us: “You didn’t tell me you have people here who believe in evolution. Uh, I have to go home. Thanks.” He was actually excited about the excuse, it took only four hours of visiting to see the scent of death flaring his nostrils.
2. Said to one of our members: “Brother, you act simple, like you don’t know how to do things, but it’s becoming obvious now that you just don’t want to work. It’s time for you to find a job, even if you choose a simple one that we now know you are overqualified for.” That brother left that very night.
3. Another person came to visit and asked, “Why do people says such awful things about you guys? I’ve been here for days, and you’re not only perfectly normal, you’re the kindest people I have ever met.” He went home and told his wife about Rose Creek Village. We never heard from him again.
4. A dear friend of mine (and my wife’s) went running out of a ladies’ meeting in a public place, crying and demanding that the ladies leave her alone. The ladies couldn’t figure out what had set her off, but they were familiar with the invisible cross when it appears in front of a seeker’s eyes. They knew that sometimes it’s impossible for others to see what the cross looks like for a person. God was after something deep in this friend.
That was in my early days at RCV, and I asked about how to help this friend. I was told, “God’s involved now. He’ll take care of the work himself. Just be there and be merciful.”
My friend stuck around for the work. She embraced the cross. It’s almost 20 years later, and she’s as invincible and faithful as a person can be now. She’s not afraid. She laughs at herself, and you can always count on her. Nothing rocks her.
That’s the cross. We all face it. It is much easier embraced in the midst of those you can comfortable call the family of God, those you know will love you like Jesus loves you. They don’t condemn, they heal, sometimes with painful honesty, but always without even a faint hint of rejection.
5. For me, it was standing up for what I think is right, even to people whom I respect and would normally follow. That was so hard for me, it was basically impossible, but one day God demanded it of me. It took me months to comply.
I wanted to run. I had been at Rose Creek Village for a few years, so I was confident I’d learned some things. I could go somewhere else, start something on my own.
I knew, though, that God didn’t want me to do that. I asked myself, “Paul, do you really think that if you go somewhere else, you’re going to find people different than these? Better than these? No, humans are humans, and I’m going to find humans everywhere. Yes, they’re being dealt with by God, they’re growing, but they’re all at different stages of growth, and it will always be that way. I am always going to face this, and I better not run.”
In the end, I was frightened enough to complain to someone I knew would “tell on me,” rather than directly confronting the person I had a problem with. Still, it was the first step toward being delivered from a deep-rooted cowardice that was horribly painful to remove. Even after that initial dealing with God, I can remember literally sitting in a corner in my room for two days, trying to submit, obey, and get over my rage at God for forcing me to talk bluntly to a person I did not want to face.
This is the cross. If I were not to take it up daily, would I hear, “My child, I had so much more for you”? Or would I instead hear, “Depart from me. I never knew you”?