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Picking Up Sticks

Throughout history few leaders have accomplished as much as the apostle Paul, yet he endured an astonishing number of traumatic events: imprisonment, beatings, sleeplessness, hunger, thirst, and many other forms of suffering. Almost matter-of-factly Paul mentions, “Three times I was shipwrecked” (2 Corinthians 11:25). In Acts chapter 27, Luke tells about one of those shipwrecks and includes dramatic details about a terrifying storm at sea that broke the ship apart.

In the aftermath of the shipwreck, Paul and his fellow passengers scrambled for safety onto the shore of an island called Malta. Luke recalls, “The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold” (Acts 28:2). Remember what happened next? “Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand” (v. 3). Onlookers were amazed when the poisonous snake’s bite caused Paul no further harm.

It’s a minor point, but notice: Paul was a leader who was willing to pick up sticks! He didn’t sit on the sidelines and say, “Someone needs to build a fire. I’m an apostle, not a stick-gatherer. You guys go gather sticks while I sit and watch.” He didn’t consider the menial task of gathering firewood beneath his dignity. He didn’t excuse his own inaction by saying, “Look, I’ve got more important things to do—sermons to prepare and letters to write.” He simply saw a need and pitched in to help build the fire. Paul saw himself as an example, not an exception—a coworker, not a prima donna demanding special treatment.

Professors or Practitioners? Jesus unleashed some of his harshest criticism on leaders who did “not practice what they preach”—who put heavy, cumbersome loads “on other people’s shoulders” but were personally “not willing to lift a finger to move them” (Matthew 23:3, 4). These hypocritical leaders were professors, but they were not practitioners.

We call teachers who serve on a college faculty “professors” because of their ability to pass along knowledge and expertise to others. More broadly, “professor” refers to anyone who professes opinions and beliefs in a way that instructs others. In this sense, all Christians are professors, for we all have God’s good-news message to share and teach. But it’s not enough to profess faith without practicing it, and this is especially true for those who accept the responsibilities of church leadership.

Jesus calls leaders to service, not self-glorification. Godly leaders shouldn’t aspire for impressive titles and seats of honor. Jesus insists, “The greatest among you will be your servant” (v. 11). If someone can’t be trusted with little things (like gathering firewood), why should anyone trust him with big things (like leading a congregation)?

Of course, church leaders must use their time and abilities wisely, and sometimes they must let others wait on tables while they devote themselves to “prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:3, 4). But the point is, faithful leaders don’t shy away from hard work. They put their shoulders to the task along with the rest of God’s people. Effective leaders are willing to get their hands dirty, and when the need arises, they venture out into the woods and pick up sticks.

Note: As I continue my study leave, I’m grateful for the excellent writing contributions of my friend and fellow Minister, Dave Faust. This piece was originally published on July 1, 2018, at

In Pursuit of the Justice of God

Atheists must contend with hard questions. If God doesn’t exist, how did our complex universe arise from nothing, and how did morality come from amorality? Without God, on what grounds shall we determine what is right or wrong? If we are not created in God’s image and human beings are nothing more than fortuitously evolved cosmic accidents, on what basis do we argue for human rights?

Believers face hard questions as well. If an all-powerful God created and loves us, why is the world such a mess? Why do innocent people suffer? Why does a good God allow a deranged shooter to randomly gun down students at school? Why do certain individuals always seem to be in the right place at the right time, while others never catch a break? Why does God grant health and wealth to some, while others endure pain and deprivation?

Philosophers call it the problem of theodicy—how to reconcile the justice of God with the reality of evil. Heroes of faith like Moses, Elijah, David, Job, Jeremiah, and Paul pondered the same honest questions we ask: “Where are you, God? Why do you allow these atrocities? Have you forgotten us or forsaken us?”

God is just, but life isn’t—and we must not confuse the two. Jesus said, “I have overcome the world,” but he also predicted, “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). How can we pursue justice in a troubled world? Here are three ideas to get us started.

Believe in justice. The Bible says God’s “works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he” (Deuteronomy 32:4). Even when his ways are hard for us to understand, “God is love” (1 John 4:16). It’s okay to be honest about our frustrations, but we dare not grow cynical about the righteousness, faithfulness, and love of God.

Work for justice. Christians should lead the way in caring for the suffering and the marginalized. The prophet Amos declared, “Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:24). Jesus criticized those who dared to “neglect justice and the love of God” (Luke 11:42). Will we speak up for the powerless, protect the innocent, and defend the weak? Will we summon the courage to confront bullies, challenge the abuse of authority, and speak out when government policies harm those who have no one to be their advocates?

Pray for justice. With Abraham we ask, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25). With Heaven’s martyrs we cry out, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” (Revelation 6:10). The parable about the persistent widow illustrates the effectiveness of faithful prayer. In Jesus’ story, someone with no social status (a first-century widow) appealed repeatedly to an unjust judge and eventually got a response (Luke 18:1-8). By contrast, we enjoy noble status as God’s children; and we address our appeals, not to an unjust judge, but to a loving Father who will see that his people “get justice, and quickly” (v. 8).

We live in a fallen world, but we are not powerless. In the pursuit of justice, let’s “always pray and not give up” (v. 1).

While I’m on study leave, I invited Dave Faust to share this excellent piece written for Lookout Magazine and published on July 8, 2018.

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