Last Sunday, June 26th, we encountered the mid-point of Esther. At long last, after countless coincidences and ironies, we saw the tables turn, not because of Mordecai’s bold faith, nor Esther’s victory in the king’s contest for a new queen. No, as you may recall, the tables turn in the story of Esther’s life because the king couldn’t sleep! What are the chances!?
How good it is to know we have a King who doesn't need sleep! As Isaiah writes, God grows neither tired, nor weary, and His understanding no one can fathom. And he doesn't need someone to read Him the story of His life like King Xerxes, because He is the Author of the story. He is the author of all of our stories! This is why, during last week’s message, we had those Post-It Notes all over that poster board, thinking through the different seasons of our lives, how God has shaped us, and through whom He has done so.
But God doesn’t only do this for our individual stories, He shapes the story of entire churches, too. I was reminded of that this week when I ran across an article by Christianity Today, entitled Do You Want to See Your Church's Future? Look to Its Past. As author Ryan Hoselton writes,
When we think of church history, we typically talk about figures like Emperor Constantine and Martin Luther, or events like the Donatist Controversy and the Reformation. But while most of us won’t write influential theological tomes like Augustine or lead a transatlantic religious awakening like George Whitefield, we each directly participate in church history through our local congregations. Every church inherits the past, and every generation of a church leaves something behind - often, if we're honest, a mixture of both fruits and scars.
And Good Shepherd, like all Christian congregations, has both fruits and scars. We know - and regularly celebrate - the fruits: Our founding by Pastor Virgil Zirbel and his bag of dimes, ongoing opportunities for bible study and spiritual growth, and wonderful music programs. But what about the scars?
In his book Transforming Church: Bringing Out the Good to Get to Great, Kevin Ford engages them this way:
Several years ago, I read about a university experiment. A group of laboratory scientists studying behavioral patterns put four monkeys together in a lab. After bringing in a tall pole with bananas on the top, they retreated to observe through a one-way mirror. Things went predictably at first. Monkeys competed against each other to reach the top of the pole and eat the bananas. The smartest and strongest got the bananas, while the others had to wait for the right moment.
Then the scientists changed the environment by putting a pail of water at the top of the pole. Every time a monkey climbed the pole to reach the bananas, he got doused with water. After several repeated episodes, the monkeys learned to stop going after the bananas. The environment had forced the monkeys to change their behavior.
Eventually the scientists took the water away. There was no reason for the monkeys not to climb the pole, but the monkeys had already been conditioned. Even with the threat removed, they didn't attempt to climb the pole. The bananas were left untouched, the monkeys just stared longingly at them.
The third round of the experiment involved replacing one of the original monkeys. Not surprisingly, the new monkey scurried into the room, saw the bananas, and immediately started to climb the pole. What happened next shocked the scientists: The three original monkeys grabbed the newcomer by the tail, yanked his feet, and pulled him down. They were trying to protect him from being doused by water, which wasn't even there!
Over time, the scientists gradually replaced each of the original monkeys with new monkeys, which were eventually replaced with other monkeys, and so on through several generations. For a while, there was more tail pulling and leg yanking. Over a few generations, however, another interesting phenomenon occurred: The newest monkeys crawled into the room, stared at the bananas, but never even tried to climb the pole! No competing. No water. No tail pulling. No leg yanking. Just an unspoken norm understood among the monkeys: The bananas are to be seen but not eaten.
It’s a powerful metaphor, isn’t it? We know and celebrate the good fruit of God’s faithfulness through decades of Good Shepherd’s mission and ministry.
But are our bananas? What are our unspoken norms that cause us to stare longingly, but keep from climbing up to that which God has for us?