(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on June 4, 2017)
Back in 2002, for the six months before I became lead pastor here, Ron Woodward served as the interim pastor.
I was grateful that he encouraged the church to take an inventory called “Natural Church Development.” Many people from the church answered a series of questions that were designed to measure 8 key characteristics of healthy churches, an assessment that had been tested and verified over time and in many churches.
Natural Church Development used the analogy of a barrel with wooden staves. The theory was, the shortest barrel stave was going to limit how healthy your church was, like in this picture: the shortest one is where the water is going to pour out. So the most efficient way to help your church as a whole was to give attention to the characteristic which was the lowest; improve that, and the whole church would improve.
For us, “Functional Structures” was our minimum factor, as they called the short stave, for two years running; it guided our attention for quite awhile, with Sherry Macy working on our publications and systems, and it began the thought process which led us to create an administrative pastor position and hire Elizabeth Sherwood.
But the reason I bring it up today doesn’t have anything to do with our minimum factor. Even though Natural Church Development is really explicit about reminding churches not to focus on your actual scores for the different factors, but instead focus on their relationship to each other, on which is the least; even though they told us not to focus on the actual scores, that’s what a whole lot of people did.
One of the first things I did as pastor was meet down in the social hall with a whole bunch of the leaders and committee members of the church as we went over the results of the Natural Church Development survey. Each factor or characteristic was assigned a number between 1 and 100…and NFC’s results were all between 39 and 48.
The numbers said we were an average church.
This did not sit well with people. Many were so convinced that NFC was an exceptional church that there was immediate resistance to the entire Natural Church Development process. Why should we work on the minimum factor if it was so clearly mistaken about what kind of church we are?
It was a little bit funny, to see people’s indignation. But mostly, it was concerning. People were so convinced NFC was a great church, so proud of who we were, that it was causing them to not want to address important areas that were being brought to light.
Over the years, other instances have brought to light that one of our corporate issues is pride. We were the first church in town back in 1878. For decades, we were the largest church in town. We’ve built a beautiful facility and we’ve had people serve and minister in countless ways in this community.
In our best moments, we are conscious of the way God’s Spirit has been the initiator and instigator of all these things. One of the best examples of humility is when we rightly celebrate God’s work through us, when we attribute to God the beautiful, loving, powerful things we do in obedience.
And in our not-really-best moments, we forget that focus on obedience and dependence. We take matters into our own hands, and can then be tempted to see success as “our” work. I’m not saying our work or efforts are always wrong, nor that we shouldn’t celebrate and recognize that part of life with God is the beauty of being co-creators with God. I’m not one who believes in that false dichotomy that human work is always filled with evil and only God brings anything good.
But I bring this up to get us thinking about how to distinguish between humility and pride, issues that are front and center in the part of the bible we are looking at today.
Humility is perhaps best described as a dependence upon God, an orientation of life with God at the center. Humility is perhaps best illustrated in the surrender of our right to decide the direction of our lives, but instead to submit to God’s ends and God’s means.
Humility is the attitude which gives permission for God to do the kind of Spirit-work in our lives that we’ve been talking about the last two weeks; it’s a willingness and trust for God to make us “strong, firm and steadfast”…words that come from 1 Peter 5:10 and are the title of today’s message.
Turn with me to 1 Peter, near the end of the bible. 1 Peter chapter 5, beginning in verse 6.
Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.
Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your fellow believers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings.
And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 5:6-11, TNIV)
“Humble yourselves” is probably better translated, “Allow yourselves to be humbled.”
In the original Greek, the verb is in the passive voice, and when that occurs in the New Testament it is often called a “Divine passive”, with the assumption that it is God who is the actor and subject, not us. The word humble has as its root “being made level, smoothed down.” But the clear focus of verses 6 and 7, which form one sentence in the original Greek, is not on God bringing us down.
Rather, as we allow ourselves to be humbled, as we allow God to do God’s work in us, God’s activity is to lift us up in due time. We actually do the work of allowing ourselves to be humbled by casting our cares, our worries, our efforts to take care of the things that are stressing us…we actually do the work of humility by letting God shoulder our cares and anxiety. Why is this worth it? Because God cares for us.
God desires to lift us up. God cares for us. The Holy Spirit’s power, as we saw last week, works to make us a space or a vehicle for God to do good work. As Jesus taught, as is taught in so many places in the bible, Peter reminds us that dependence, humility, submission, obedience to God is the way to give God space to do amazing work in our lives.
Last Thursday was the 139th anniversary of the start of our church.
The beginnings of our church is a story I’ve come back to many times in my years here, and it isn’t just the anniversary three days ago that has me thinking about it again. It is the dependence on God, the humility, the willingness to be open to God working in different ways that stands out in the early years of our church.
William Hobson is the man who came to Oregon from Iowa, looking for a place to start a new settlement of Friends. He came here to the “grubby end” of the Chehalem Valley in 1875, and our church began as Chehalem Monthly Meeting on June 1, 1878.
Hobson was what would best be described as a Conservative Friend. In a time where Friends were being greatly impacted by revivals and preachers, Hobson held to the old ways. The meeting he started here was like our open worship time for the whole service. They gathered in silence, and they spoke only when led by the Spirit. Hobson and some others were recorded ministers, and offered leadership, but it truly was God in charge: a quiet, reflective, calm faith.
At the 25th anniversary celebration for our church, Doctor Byron Morris shared a memory of when things first began to change. The young people wanted things to be different. They wanted revival meetings! Here’s what he said:
“Some of the younger members thought it was about time to hold a revival meeting…We finally got permission to hold a Bible Meeting at the church…We started in… We prayed and sang and it was so fine we had another one next night…When the fire got to burning that way the older people began coming. Why they did not start in when the balance of us did I am not able to say…Revivals were not so much in evidence in those days. At any rate Uncle “Billy Hobson’ as he was familiarly called came in and apologized like a man…”
Just let that sink in.
Completely different worship! Singing, loud, fire, new ways, new energy. This wasn’t what Hobson had started! This wasn’t Conservative Friends worship! It seems at first the older ones didn’t like it so much that they stayed away.
But led by Hobson, they apologized for their resistance. They recognized the power of Jesus at work. They celebrated, rather than squashed, this new way of worshipping the Lord. And people, new people, began coming to the Lord. Dozens, and dozens more at future revivals. You can read the minutes and you can see the records of new people with lives transformed.
Hobson’s humility…his recognition that God was at work…his lack of pride in insisting things be his way…this, I believe, is exactly the thing that allowed God to move in a huge way through someone else: John Henry Douglas.
Douglas came to the frontier town of Newberg in July of 1890, and God moved mightily through him. He held meetings every night for a couple of weeks, and the Newberg Graphic wrote a front page article describing the large attendance and the great movement of God to change lives:
“The reverend gentleman has certainly sustained his reputation as an able expounder of the bible. For forty years he has been engaged in his present work and in all his efforts he has been remarkably successful. Combining a pleasing presence, an expressive face, a wonderfully good voice, and a kindly, earnest manner, he commands attention from start to finish. As the result of his work here a large number have been converted.”
Hobson celebrated how God was changing lives through Douglas. He was nearing the end of his life; the following winter, he would fall ill, and he passed away in June of 1891. But rather than be bitter at the changes, rather than being jealous that Douglas and other revival leaders brought more people to faith in Jesus than Hobson ever did himself, Hobson was thankful and grateful that God was planting a beautiful garden of the Lord.
Hobson and the church invited Douglas to come again in 1891, and this time hundreds, literally hundreds of people in a town of less than a thousand, accepted Jesus Christ. The Graphic news story is almost breathless, describing how the meetings stretched to three weeks in length. “Such an awakening Newberg has never had before and the enviable reputation our town has had for morality is being strengthened in a very marked degree.”
Lack of humility could have come in so many ways.
It could have caused Hobson to never show up at the youth revival, or in doing what he could to stop Douglas and his methods. Douglas could have seen hundreds of people have their lives changed by God, and claim that as his own work rather than God’s work…or see Hobson and the earlier ones as failures with their old methods, and take over the church completely.
But each of these men demonstrated the kind of dependence on God, the kind of willing obedience, the kind of humility that allowed God to work through them and to create a unique, growing, vibrant church that sent people all over the Pacific Northwest, creating 30 other churches in the first 25 years of our church’s existence.
When I think of verse 8: “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour”…when I think of that verse, there are probably lots of examples of what that can look like.
The enemy can push us away from humility toward pride; toward an unwillingness to see God working in a different way than we think, toward thinking we’ve created this and we must protect it.
As we’ve struggled through the last few months, watching much of our church be battered beyond recognition, the enemy can use the opportunity to push us to defend, to take matters into our own hands, to fix and preserve. Or the enemy can cause us to push for the change we think must occur, that is right, that isn’t backward, push us to disregard everyone else in the quest for our vision of what is right.
Pride can come in more than one way: a pride in seeing the stuckness of an old church and breaking all relationship to move forward; or a pride in heritage and how things have always been done. There are many dangers in many directions.
What would it look like to allow ourselves to be humbled?
To cast all our anxiety on God, and depend on the lifting up of God’s mighty hand?
The last months and years have leveled me, humbled me. I’ve become so aware of all I don’t know, of all I cannot do. Passages like this in 1 Peter have pushed me to place myself at the feet of Jesus; to name my inadequacies and cry out for wisdom. To yield my desires and ask to be led in obedience. To name my hurt and ask for healing. To name my wrongs and ask forgiveness.
Just Friday, Elizabeth and I once again prayed in this room. We prayed for our community, casting our anxiety on Christ. Our tears fell on the floor once again as we did our best to yield ourselves to God.
Because it is in humbling ourselves that we give God the opportunity to work. It is in humbling ourselves that we stand firm and resist prideful striving. It is in humbling ourselves that we act out our trust and hope in these words:
“The God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm, and steadfast. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.”