Rev. Norman Neaves told a wonderful story years ago when he was the pastor at Church of the Servant in Oklahoma City. It was about a devout Jewish woman named Mrs. Feinstein, who was really struggling to make ends meet in her life. One day when she was in the synagogue, she prayed to God and said, “Lord, you know how poor I am and how very much I need money. And you also know how faithful I am and how I come here every day to pray to you. So, Lord, I want to ask you a favor. I want you to help me win the lottery.” But when Mrs. Feinstein got through praying, there was nothing at all from the Lord – just dead silence.
The next day Mrs. Feinstein came back to the synagogue and prayed again. “Now, Lord,” she said, “I’m serious. I need help winning the lottery, for I am poor and desperately need money. Why haven’t you helped me yet?” But, again, the heavens were silent, and there was no reply from the Lord.
So, Mrs. Feinstein went back to the synagogue a third day, and this time she was really angry. “Lord, I’m sick and tired of this! I’ve been faithful to you! I’ve come here and prayed every day! And what has it gotten me? Nothing! Absolutely nothing! Now, why haven’t you answered my prayer and helped me win the lottery?”
All of a sudden, the heavens shook, the synagogue trembled on its foundation, and bolts of lightning shot across the sky. And the Lord spoke and said, “Please give me a break, Mrs. Feinstein. At least go out and buy a lottery ticket.”[i]
I’ve never bought a lottery ticket in my life, so take heart! I don’t share this story to assure you that God approves of the lottery. Rather, I tell it because it points out the fact that in order for God to work in our lives, we must meet God half-way.
One day Jesus told a parable about the importance of never giving up and about the need to pray continuously and not be discouraged. 2 He said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him, asking, “Give me justice in this case against my adversary.” 4 For a while he refused but finally said to himself, I don’t fear God or respect people, 5 but I will give this widow justice because she keeps bothering me. Otherwise, there will be no end to her coming here and embarrassing me.’ 6 “The Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 Won’t God provide justice to his chosen people who cry out to him day and night? Will he be slow to help them? 8 I tell you, he will give them justice quickly. But when the Human One comes, will he find faithfulness on earth?’” (Luke 18:2-8 CEB)
As Christians under construction, we don’t just stand around and wait for the Lord to do something to us. We have to respond to God’s initiative in our lives. That response is faith, which in turn shows itself in good works. And it’s a life-long process. In the United Methodist tradition, the goal of the Christian life is sanctification, to be made holy after the pattern of Christ.
We strive to be perfect in Christ; to build our life so that it is without flaw or blemish. Of course, we know that we humans can never be completely without sin, but with the Spirit’s help, we keep seeking to be perfect in love and keep God’s commandments.
During these last several blogs, we have seen that the Christian life is similar to building a house. Before the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright made a final contract with a client, he gave them four pieces of advice about how contracting and construction work would disrupt their lives. He said, “One – the project will take longer than you planned. Two – it will cost more than you figured. Three – it will be messier than you ever imagined. And four – it will take more patience, perseverance, and determination to get through it than you ever dreamed.”
Just as it almost always takes longer than expected to complete a building, so the Christian life is a journey that lasts our whole life. We don’t have it made the day we decide to give our life to Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. That’s not the end – it’s the first step, the beginning of a long and beautiful and often difficult journey, with ups and downs and peaks and valleys.
But the Christian life also costs more than expected, just as a new building often has numerous add-ons. The cost of Christian discipleship involves giving up everything to follow Jesus. It could mean forsaking money, job, family, or friends. If we’re United Methodist, it may mean receiving a new pastor. Or, if we’re clergy, it may mean being appointed to another church before we’re ready to move.
Third, the Christian life is messy. As Christians under construction, we know that we cannot avoid all the pain and suffering of this world. But if we build our lives on the solid foundation of Jesus Christ, we can withstand any trials and temptations by holding on to the rock.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s last bit of advice is that construction is going to take more patience, perseverance, and determination to get through it than we ever dreamed. That advice is an excellent description of our Christian journey. Over the years, I’ve learned how contractors are really at the mercy of their sub-contractors. Contractors hire other people to do the concrete, electrical, plumbing, heating work, and so on. The contractor has a master schedule of when everything has to be done, but each step in the process of building is contingent upon the finishing of a previous task.
When a subcontractor doesn’t show up at the proper time, the completion of the project is pushed back, the client is unhappy, and the contractor gets the blame. Building is a stressful experience all around.
Let me tell you about a lesson I learned in Christian construction. In one of the projects in which I was involved early in my ministry, the building project supervisor arrived at the church before 8:30 a.m. because he was going to meet with one of the sub-contractors. When I arrived at the office at 10:00 a.m., he was still waiting around for the sub, and when another building committee member swung by the church at 12:30 p.m., the building supervisor was still waiting.
It turned out that the drywaller was jailed that day for non-payment of child support, so it was all-hands-on-deck to “get ‘er done.” I couldn’t help but marvel at the patience, perseverance, and determination of the supervisor and contractor. Materials would not arrive on time, workers would not show up, and subs would not come when they were supposed to. Still, they had a smile on their face.
Have you and I learned the lesson of living with patience, perseverance, and determination in such a time as this? Well-known church consultant and author Herb Miller tells about a trial that was beginning years ago in a small county-seat town. When officials prepared to swear in the first witness, they could not find the Bible they had used for years. A quick search revealed nothing. Finally, the judge called the bailiff forward and whispered in his ear. “Go down to county clerk’s office and get Ed.”
Ed had been an elder in a local church longer than anyone could remember. He was a shining example of what the Christian faith is all about. In a few minutes, the bailiff approached the bench with Ed in tow. The judge said, “Ed, you have communicated more of the Bible to more people than most of the Bibles in this town. You will make a good substitute for the Bible we can’t find.” And so, the first witness placed his hand on Ed’s head, swore the oath, and the trial began.[ii]
As Christians under construction, perhaps one day we also might have a hand placed on our head because we embody the witness of Christ. A well-known African American spiritual that arose during the time of slavery in the southern U.S. asks a very timely question: “Who’ll be a witness for my Lord?” The Christian life is a journey, and it will take more patience, perseverance, and determination than we could ever imagine. God chooses each one of us to be God’s precious children. Now it’s up to us to respond. Each one of us is meant to be a witness for our Lord. Here I am, Lord. Send me!
[i] Dr. Norman Neaves, Church of the Servant, Oklahoma City, March 1, 1992.
[ii] Dynamic Preaching, March 1992, p. 12.