On March 17-19 of this year, the entire General Conference elected staff came together for a special three-day colloquium in order to discuss issues, plan for more effective service, and to pray and study the Word together. Dr. Floyd Bresee, associate secretary of the Ministerial/'Stewardship Association, was assigned to give the Friday morning devotional. His stirring message, "Nothing Can Destroy What's in God's Hand,'' so gripped the hearts of the General Conference personnel that a spontaneous testimony session continued for another half hour or more as person after person told of his or her desire to let the Lord lead totally.
We feel Dr. Bresee's appeal, although directed to General Conference workers, is too important to be confined to this relatively small group. It appears here in a slightly adapted form. Its challenge is equally appropriate to every leader in God's church around the world, and you will find in it inspiration for a renewed dedication to your own particular ministry. —Editors.
I'd like to believe that no group in all the world loves the church more than the group that is gathered here for our devotional this morning. We have given our lives to the church. We have educated ourselves to serve the church. We are willing to make almost any sacrifice for the church, to give of ourselves. We are willing to give, if necessary, our health, and I sometimes think we have been willing, unfortunately, even to give somewhat of our families because we love this church. And when the church hurts, we hurt.
I think that sometimes we, as leaders, love the church so much—its success is so much a part of our basic, personal theology—that we tend to deny its failures. I believe, brethren, we ought to speak courage to our people. But I also believe that optimism is no substitute for honesty. And as we meet with one another this morning, we must say the church has some problems. There are big issues facing the church. But the biggest issue is not how many are going to believe Rea, or follow Ford, or be discouraged by Davenport. The real issue facing the Seventh-day Adventist Church this morning is whether or not we're really going to let God run the church. That's important, because nothing can destroy what's in God's hand. That is the thought I'd like to share with you this morning from Psalm 46. Let's get into the Word this morning, shall we? Psalm 46 is divided into three stanzas. Let's read the first one, verses 1-3. Nothing can destroy what's in God's hand. "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea; Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof."
The point I would like to emphasize from the first stanza is that the Christian is calm amidst calamity when God is present. Now notice what God does, and does not, promise. God does not promise to prevent trouble. Rather, He promises to be present when trouble comes. It's there in verse 1: "a very present help in trouble."
Now I know that deep down in our theology we don't believe it, yet it seems to me sometimes that we keep on preaching and our people keep on believing that the Christian is calm because there's no calamity when God is present. That is not God's promise. I experienced in recent months two disastrous, traumatic illustrations of this, and I don't feel free even to share the stories with you this morning because I think members have a right to be protected by their pastors. Two outstanding leaders, workers in this cause, got cancer. Both persons seemingly had great faith. And when they both eventually died, there were a lot of people that held it against God. Folks, it's unfair to blame God for failing to keep a promise that He never made. What the psalm is telling us is not that God prevents trouble, but that He promises to be present when trouble comes!
Now what else does God promise? He also promises that every human refuge will eventually fail. This is interesting. Notice: "Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea; Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof (verses 2, 3). The mountains are mentioned here twice. Why? Mountains are nature's fortresses. Mountains are thought of as being immovable. Mountains are the unshakable in nature. And the question is: What are you going to do when the unshakable shakes? When the unmovable moves? Every physical refuge, every human refuge, will eventually fail. That's the picture. A member of my church was the father of a bouncing baby of whom he was most proud. He loved to play with his baby. One day, out in front of the house, he was throwing the baby up and catching him. Throwing him up and catching him. The baby just loved it. And every time the baby went up, the baby laughed. And every time he came down, the father caught him. The baby was just having the time of his life. Father caught him every single time—except once. And that little baby's head was dashed against the concrete in the drive, and it never laughed again. Every human refuge will eventually fail.
One of the things about people who spend their time helping others is that it's so hard for them to accept help. People who serve are very difficult to serve. Counselors are terribly hard to counsel. People in the General Conference are probably pretty independent people. We've trained ourselves to think that, at least humanly speaking, we can handle our own problems. But I'm sure—just as certain as we're human— that there are hearts here this morning that are aching. Some human refuge has failed you, hasn't it? Is there anybody here who has a son or daughter that's wandered away from the Lord? Doesn't it hurt? Has anybody here found out that you're never going to be completely healthy again? It's pretty hard to feel that everything's all right when your body is not right. Has anybody here gotten a little discouraged with his job? You don't know what all the changes in the General Conference are going to be, or you feel you've come to a dead end, or you're just not enjoying your work like you used to? And surely none of us would admit it, but in the privacy of your own heart do you have to admit that some of the zing has gone out of your marriage? That somehow you're not as close as once you were? That you're not really being successful as a spouse? Every human refuge eventually fails. But God does not fail, and that's His promise. God is our refuge and strength. Martin Luther said, "This is the psalm that buoys me up. This is my psalm." This was the psalm that produced "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, a Bulwark Never Failing."
Let's read the second stanza, verses 4-7. "There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the most High. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved: God shall help her, and that right early. The heathen raged, the kingdoms were moved: he uttered his voice, the earth melted. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge."
We talked in the first stanza more about the individual and the strength, the refuge, he has in God. In the second stanza I think the psalmist pictures more directly the church. The church is invincible when God is present. Notice verse 4: "There is a river." God is in His church.
In David's day cities were built around rivers. The largest cities were typically built with a river running through them. That way, when an army laid siege, the people could hold out perhaps indefinitely, if they had water. They needed a river. And if the river was right in the midst of the city, no army could keep them from the water. They could survive. They were invincible. That's the picture that the psalmist is using—the city laid siege to; here are her enemies all around, but the city is invincible because there's a river running through it. The church is invincible so long as God is in her midst.
Now, not only is God in the midst of His church, but also God is in His church at every level. Again notice that verse 4 talks about the streams, or divisions, of the river. In those great ancient cities, the mighty river that would go down through the heart of the city also had going off from it, canals, getting smaller and smaller, more individualized, until a part of that river eventually watered every man's garden. And so God is pictured as being with the church at large, a mighty, flowing river, making the church invincible, but also branching off to answer the thirst of every single member. God is in His church at every level.
Do you know what the problem is with working at the General Conference? I've got it figured out! A river doesn't grow flowers in midstream. The flowers grow only at the end of the smallest rivulet— at the end of the individual garden— that's where things grow. And we wouldn't be, I think, ministers of God, if we didn't regret a bit having to be out in the midstream. Oh, that's where the power is. But you've got to get down to the end of the canal, to the individual garden to find where the flowers grow. As leaders, we need, every one of us, to get down there to the streams and see souls blossom, see hearts moved, see people baptized, to see the flowers grow.
Now the church's temptation is to keep God nearby, rather than within. Notice the fifth verse says that God is where? "In the midst of her." It's hard for the church to keep God in the midst of her. It isn't that we don't want God. What's a city without water? And what's a church without God? But it's handier, we think, if the stream can be nearby where we can go to it when we need help and leave it alone when we choose.
One of the things about leaders is that leaders love to lead! That's another thing you learn as a pastor. If you have a leader in the church, he's going to lead away from the church if you don't let him lead for the church. That's one of the things we need to learn in working with our laity, especially the thinking people among them. A leader is going to lead. A leader must lead. And we're leaders. I don't know whether we're willing to admit it, but I think the truth is, we love to lead. We don't like it if we can't be running something. And when God is in His church, you can't run it any more! That can be a nuisance.
Sometimes our people wonder: Why aren't the leaders leading out in following God? Because it's not natural for leaders to follow. It's easy for a follower to follow, but a leader wants to lead. I know it's the farthest thing in the world from the intention of any heart here, but our tendency is for us to take over leadership of the church as our machinery increases and our plans improve. You're standing in your living room, and you see a bird fall out of the nest. It's just a baby; it can't fly. And here comes the family cat. It is stalking, and almost ready to pounce on that hapless little bird sitting on the lawn. You dash out of the house, run over beneath the bush and pick up the bird. The cat lowers its tail and slinks away behind the bush. The bird is safe. What's the bird thinking? Oh, wow! You're wonderful! This is great being here in your hand! I'm safe! Nonsense! What's the bird thinking? Let me go! I submit, brethren, that it's no more natural for the church to feel content being con trolled by the hand of God than it is natural for the bird to feel content being held in the hand of a man! Let me do it is the natural, all-pervading human instinct. And if we keep God at the center of this church, which I am not convinced we have done, it will not be because it's an easy or a natural thing to do. It's an unnatural thing to do, but it's the only answer for the church.
When God is present, the church is invincible. And only God's presence makes the church invincible. Verse 5 says, "She shall not be moved." We like that. But why is it that the church cannot be moved? Because of her citizens? No. Because of her guards? No. Because of her gates? No. It's because of that river. It's because of the presence of God in the church. It's not because of her leaders. God has no leaders that can guarantee success in this work. It's not because of her machinery or her plans. It's only because of the presence of God. Now that may offend some of you. You may differ with my theology a little, but I don't believe that God is stuck with the Seventh-day Adventist Church. I don't believe that God is stuck with the Seventh-day Adventist Church any more than He was stuck with the Jews. The church will go through, but not because of some prophetic promise. The church will go through only because she keeps God in the center.
Now, let's read the last stanza—verses 8-11. "Come, behold the works of the Lord, what desolations he hath made in the earth. He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth; he breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in sunder; he burneth the chariot in the fire. Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge."
The third stanza says that we ought to practice the presence of God. I see two lessons here. The first: When things go right, we need to learn to look for God. It's right there in verses 8 and 9. Behold the works of the Lord. He makes wars to cease. He breaks the bow, and cuts the spear in two. He bums the chariot in the fire. What's the picture? The picture is a battlefield. The war is over. The victory has been won. It's complete, because God has broken every single weapon used against His church. Isn't that good news? I don't care who wants to try what, God has an answer to it! He breaketh the bow, he cutteth the spear, he burneth the chariot.
The trouble is, both in our personal lives and in the life of the church, that we sometimes forget what good things God has done for us. You see, we become acquainted with God only by observing the acts of God. And some of us don't observe very well. God has done so many things for us, and we're not aware of what God has done. Listen, unless we see God when things are good, how are we going to believe that God is good when things go bad? We must see God when our health is good, when our table is full, when we are surrounded by loved ones. Unless we see God when things are good, how are we going to believe that He is good when things go bad?
The second lesson from this third stanza is this: Practicing the presence of God takes time. "Be still, and know that I am God" (verse 10). When Jesus came, who was it that had the most trouble accepting Him? Church leaders. Is it castigating ourselves too much to say that human nature has not really changed? These were not bad men. It's just that they were running the church, and they couldn't accept any interference, not even from the Lord Himself.
Are we all that different? I hear it around here: "He's very jealous of his turf." Are we willing, really, to see any change, to make any personal sacrifice, to see a larger picture than just our own little cubbyhole, if it means that God will be more free to work within His church? Here were the church leaders of Jesus' day, so busy in the work of the Lord that they never knew the Lord of the work. Could that happen in our day in the Seventh-day Adventist Church? In the General Conference? To me?
Now the grand climax. God is ready when we are. The Lord of hosts is with us. The climax of the psalm is not that God is the Lord of hosts. The climax of the psalm is that the Lord of hosts is with us! The God of Jacob is our refuge. Now you don't appreciate a refuge unless there's a storm, do you? When the seas are calm, the ships sail gaily by the harbor. But when a storm comes, every body heads for the refuge. Maybe, brothers and sisters, instead of worrying about the little troubles that come now and then to the church, maybe we ought to be thankful for them. Maybe, just maybe, the Lord could use them to lead us to the refuge.
It's a great psalm, isn't it? Nothing can destroy what's in God's hand. I could be mistaken, but I think I'm learning a lesson from the whole Davenport affair. You know, I don't think we have a lot of dishonest leaders in our church. I think that probably the greater problem is that our leaders were so sure of their honesty that they took it for granted. Is there not a larger lesson for the church as a whole? We are so sure that we are God's church, so sure that God is in our midst, that we take it for granted. Brothers and sisters, that's much too great a thing to take for granted. Are you taking God for granted in your life? You are if you're not taking time to "be still and know that I am God."
I hardly suppose we have a right to expect a revival in the church unless there is first a revival among us as leaders. How serious are you about the church and its problems, its needs, its solutions, and its hope this morning? Are you serious enough to readjust your own thinking and your own life? Are you spending time with the Lord? I saw the silliest thing one day. I was driving down the highway, and I saw pulled over on the shoulder of the road a gasoline truck out of gas. You see, he had gone up and down that highway serving every service station that he could serve. He had given, and he had given, and he had given, until suddenly he had nothing to give. Can that happen to us? Are you willing to fall to your knees this morning and say, "Lord, fill me up, that I can share more successfully with the people?"
A year ago my wife and I were in Alaska for a workers' meeting, and I heard there one of the best illustrations I'll ever hear. One of our young workers who lives way, way up north, partially for practical purposes and partially for fun, owns a dog team, and so he's full of dog-team stories. He told some stories about his own team, but he told this grander story of a man who was training a new lead dog for his sled. Now this man had an old female dog that was as dependable as she could be, but she was getting old, and it was time he trained another. So he put the new lead dog by himself—a young, strong, vivacious, energetic dog. The old leader he put to the rear and the left of this untried dog.
Well, as he moved across the snow, his shoe came untied. So he stopped the team, and reached down to tie his shoe. Now that's something you don't do. Those dogs are trained to pull, and if you don't want the sled to move, you're supposed to jam on the brake. Other wise, it'll move. But he was careless. After all, he was right there. So he stooped to tie his shoe and when he looked up the dogs were gone. Now there is a routine. You can't catch them running. You give the command to turn, and the lead dog brings the team around. Then when they make the circle, you grab hold. But the routine hadn't been too carefully inculcated into this new, untrained leader, and he was heading for home as fast as four legs could carry him. But behind him and on his left, the old lead dog heard the command, and she knew what it meant. She started to pull to the left. But the first dog was strong, and she was old, and the whole pack was behind. She couldn't turn the sled. But she tried, and she pulled to the left, just as hard as she could turn.
He never did catch on to his sled. The people in the little village looked up, and here they saw a driverless sled coming into town. And just behind the lead dog, and to the left, they saw something bouncing, lifeless, up and down, carried on by the energy of the team. You see, that old lead dog had pulled and pulled and pulled until she was choked to death, trying to bring the team back to the master! Isn't that a beautiful story?
I don't need to make the application. Let your heart respond. Are you willing to make that kind of sacrifice? This church has got to get more directly on course. We've got to get closer to the Master. Are you willing to cast every thing aside and make any and every sacrifice? I believe with all my heart, if we really meant business, the church would succeed. Because nothing can destroy what's in God's hand.