Publication: Pastoral Letter, July 2002
Dear Friend in Christ:
I pray that your summer is going well so far. This month, I wanted to share with you some thoughts about God’s love. I have tried to write this letter three times, but as I was writing it, something unusual happened that affected my understanding of God’s love. I have been reminded once again that love is just another academic topic until it finds the object of its affection; then it becomes all-consuming.
Jesus told His disciples that not a sparrow falls to the ground without His Father’s knowledge (see Matthew 10:29-31). This statement would seem incomprehensible but for the fact that we are dealing with the One Who made innumerable galaxies as well as small birds.
Recently, a baby bird fell from the roof of our home, where it must have fallen from a yet higher nest in a nearby tree. It finally landed in the soft grass near our patio. Not knowing what else to do, I took the little bird to some high shrubbery about a hundred feet away, hoping at least that a dog or cat would not kill it.
About two hours later, I was amazed to see the little bird back on our patio. It had struggled its way through the grass, up the step, and back onto the concrete patio. I decided to feed it and give it some water. In the following five days, it learned to climb into my hand and feed on bits of crushed apple, banana, parakeet seeds, and to drink water. The bird followed me wherever I went. And, more than once it messed on my hand.
I must confess that I loved the little bird. I have never been a bird watcher or thought of myself as a bird lover, but the little perky creature became an object of my love. Then I thought about the Father_the Father of little sparrows, and about Jesus Who said to His disciples, “You are worth more than many of them.”
Love for birds in general would mean little unless God loved each one in particular. I had come to see how to love one little bird, and to see its response to love. So it is with the world. A general love for humanity means little until it becomes focused on one person_then it means life and death.
Jesus is a personal Savior for helpless human beings. He gives a personal salvation, a personal covenant, personal forgiveness, and becomes a personal High Priest, interceding for us. He preached to large crowds, but called individuals to His care and purpose. He offered them a new start, new identity, and eternal life. He gave them the opportunity to enter into fellowship with Himself and the Father.
I began pastoring Bay View Heights Baptist Church, in Mobile, AL, in 1957. There had been five pastors in the previous seven years of its existence. There were just 32 people in attendance that first Sunday. It did not seem to be a very good opportunity for me, but there it was.
I had learned something very important from my father, himself a pastor for many years. He built personal relationships with his people and in the community. He visited in the homes of the people and saw them at work. His tenure at that church lasted 35 years. I began to do the same; I became a personal pastor.
Several years ago, there was a controversy over “shepherding,” another biblical word for pastoring. I heard a very, very learned and gifted Bible teacher say, “I do not believe in a personal pastor.” As for myself, I don’t believe in any other kind. There is no such thing as an “impersonal pastor.” That is an oxymoron.
Of course, some churches are too large for the Senior Pastor to be personally involved in the care of everyone in the local church. But someone should be involved if that church is representing Jesus. Institutional pastoring has led to institutional approaches to Church life and to institutional evangelism. It has turned the Church into a club or a cafeteria, instead of a flock. I doubt that God calls institutions to care for His people or to reach the lost, but I know that He does call people.
The great challenge for the Church is to become personal once again, within itself and to the world. True love cannot be expressed in generalizations and platitudes. “Be warmed and be filled” may be acceptable to religion, but not to love (see James 2:16).
The Father did not merely send good wishes to the Church. He sent His Son, person-to-person, from His heart to our hearts. Once again, as I discovered with a baby bird, real care requires involvement.
The amazing truth is that God is not only Sovereign, but He is relational. He is “Our Father in Heaven.” One definition of Father is “Source.” He is the source of life and all of the good things that come with it. He offers a relationship and fellowship (shared life) to all who receive His Son. The Son revealed the Father.
We grow and mature in relationship to Him and each other. Ephesians 4:16 tells us that we are joined together and are held together by what each joint supplies; we are a Body.
When the enemy seeks to destroy, he first divides. His agenda is destruction through division. Once cut off, a person is vulnerable, as a lone sheep is vulnerable to a wolf. God’s agenda is salvation through reconciliation to God through Christ, and reconciliation to one another (see 2 Corinthians 5:18-21).
At the risk of seeming critical, I want to say that the Church must go beyond the traditional thinking of itself simply as a meeting. It must see both itself and the world differently. A general love must become specific to each member, and toward individuals in the world. Pentecostal and Charismatic experiences have not guaranteed that. Pastors must become personal for the Church to become personal. The Church must make true personal disciples of Jesus.
The “DNA” of His character and compassion must become part of each person. Even a cursory study of Jesus’ life reveals His relational love, regardless of whether the object is another person or just a sparrow. An unrelated love is really no love at all; it is just an ideal until it becomes involved with one object of affection.
Jesus said, “Greater love no one has than this, that one lay down his life for his friend” (John 15:13). Notice that life-giving is in the context of friendship. When one relates, one gives life.
In James chapter two, James says, “If you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?” Jesus put it in the positive, “If you have two coats, give them one” (see Luke 3:11). “Love” that does not give what is needed is useless. Life-giving love goes beyond giving the truth; it gives it with love. Truth goes down better with love.
Giving life is more than inspiration; it is practical. Inspiration happens in church meetings if the presence of God is manifest. But, giving life happens more practically outside of the church walls when His presence inspires us to give kindness, mercy, and resources, or when we simply share the Gospel in the context of a relationship.
Jesus’ example is both literal and maximum. He died on the cross for us. He shed His life’s blood as a sacrifice for our sin. Romans 8:32 tells us that if He spared not His own Son, how will He not, with Him freely give us all things. Notice: all things.
God loved the harvest personally, individually, and related to it with maximum involvement_before it was reaped. He saw it and gave Himself to it and for it…even while it still stood in the fields. That makes Him the “Legitimate Harvester.” He bought it and brought it in with His love.
THE LITTLE BIRD
Now I need to tell you something about the little bird; it finally died. I tried all that I knew to help the bird, but it wasn’t enough. I even prayed that it would live, because I had believed that for some reason, the Lord had allowed me to have it. But even so, it died as I watched. On the sixth morning, after its arrival, I noticed that it was weak. It couldn’t swallow food as before. It finally gave up and I felt the pain of losing a little friend.
I asked God to help me understand. As I re-read the text, I saw that God’s love does not always prevent little birds from falling, but nevertheless, He loves them. In my loss, I felt a touch of God’s loss as vast numbers of far more valuable human beings fall each day.
Then I remembered the story of two men who walked a beach full of starfish who had been washed ashore by the tide. One of the men tossed some of the starfish back into the ocean.
“What are you doing? It will not make any difference, there are too many,” his friend said.
The first man replied, “It will make a difference to those that I throw back.”
I think I made a difference for one little bird and it made a difference in me. But far more importantly, I can make a difference in a human life_if it becomes the object of my love and prayers.
A few years back, we here at CSM made a commitment to not only try to “reach the world,” but to extend ourselves and the love of Christ to specific individuals around us in our own personal lives. We even changed the name of our magazine to One-to-One to reflect our renewed emphasis on personal outreach. The Lord has blessed these efforts, and we now send ministry resources into more than 70 nations.
We believe that this is a message that must be spread, and we have dedicated our lives to doing so. Would you prayerfully consider standing with us in the mission? Whenever you put CSM on your personal or church prayer list; whenever you send a financial gift; whenever you tell a friend about our mission; you are helping us to “extend the kingdom of God…one person at a time.”
Thank you for your love and friendship to this ministry. May God help us all to extend His love to the world.
Scripture Reference: Matthew, James, John