Make This Valley Full of Ditches

Nearly seven thousand worship every weekend on the two campuses of Church for the Nations.  And, yes, they’re from all over the world.  Lots of “regular” people attend, but they translate their services in multiple languages.

“We have a couple hundred people from Nepal,” pastor Michael Maiden told me recently.

Michael spoke to our monthly gathering of the Grace Association of churches in January.  About God’s unique plans and purposes for each of us in ministry.  About how all of us have been called to impact our city together. We sat there captivated by his insights.  By his presence.  By the presence of God on his life.

Most of the time when I’m in church, I feel nothing.  I know in my heart that God is there, and I’m touched by the worship, moved by the Word.  From time to time, though, each of us has those really special moments the apostle Paul describes in I Corinthians 14:25,

As the secrets of their hearts are laid bare … they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!”

That’s how I felt listening to Michael.

I think I heard God’s voice, too.  A scripture I hadn’t thought about for years came to mind:

Thus saith the LORD, Make this valley full of ditches (2 Kings 3:16).

Eugene Peterson paraphrases it this way in The Message:

Dig ditches all over this valley. Here’s what will happen—you won’t hear the wind, you won’t see the rain, but this valley is going to fill up with water and your army and your animals will drink their fill. This is easy for God to do.

Not that valley

The passage is talking about that valley, the one way over there in the Middle East, south of Jerusalem in the desert of Edom.  Been there.  It’s as desolate as any place on earth and as hot as Arizona in the summer.

Yet the Bible has timeless applications.  A verse here, a passage there:  we know each one has an ancient context, but the ever present God keeps speaking through His written word to you and me.

So when the Bible refers to a “valley full of ditches,” I can’t help but think about Phoenix, my valley, our Valley of the Sun.  Centuries ago, an indigenous people–without the benefit of iron tools–built five hundred miles of canals to carry water from the Salt River to distant villages and parched fields (http://www.srpnet.com/water/canals/origins.aspx and http://ltvtp.shesc.asu.edu/hohokam%20canal%20systems.jpg ).

Those people mysteriously vanished.  Yet hundreds of years later, people returned to desolate valley and restored many of the prehistoric canals.  Like a patchwork phoenix, miles of cotton and alfalfa fields alongside vast acres of emerald citrus groves rose from the desert dust.

Our new valley

I  had breakfast this morning with a new pastor friend, Scott Brown.  The name of his church?  New Valley.  That’s my prayer and my life work.  I have a dream.  Of a new Valley.  Our Valley full of ditches, with the presence of God like life-giving water, surging through those ditches to every neighborhood in our megacity.

That image makes me think a couple other passages:

This water flows there [into the Dead Sea and the wilderness of Edom] and makes the salt water fresh; so where the river flows everything will live (Ezekiel 47:9).

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations (Revelation 22:1-2).

So then, God says, “Make this valley full of ditches.”  In anticipation of a God-movement in our city, let me suggest a few ditches.

First ditch:  unity in the church

It’s a tired verse, but I hope it isn’t worn out:

I [Jesus] pray … for those who will believe in me through their [the disciples’] message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (John 17:20-21).

The context of this passage, of course, is Jesus’ lengthy prayer for his disciples and the his mission through them.  A centerpiece of that prayer is his appeal for unity, because if we are going to anything significant for God’s kingdom, we have to it together.  And if the world is going to believe that Jesus Christ is God’s Son, they’ve got to see it in us.  How can Christ-followers love non-Christ-followers if Christ-followers aren’t even loving one another?

Furthermore, we’ve mistakenly viewed the commands in the New Testament as God’s personal expectations for each of us individually.  And they are.  But they’re so much more.  Our English translations don’t bring this out, but nearly every command in the New Testament is in the plural:  “You together …”  Take the armor of God, for instance, in Ephesians 6:10-13:

Finally, [you together] be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. [You together] put on the full armor of God, so that you [together] can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.  For our [note the plural] struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.  Therefore [you together] put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you [together] may be able to stand your ground, and after you [together] have done everything, to stand.

Most churches live in silos of denominational specifics, and pastors are lonely souls.  Studies show that more often than not they have no close friends and are certainly without real relationship with their competitors … um … I mean … other pastors.

When I was senior pastor of Word of Grace, every day I drove by four churches on the way to and from my office.  I stopped at each church to get acquainted with the pastor.  I even attended a morning service at one of those churches.  Yet not one of them stopped by to see what I was doing.  No, I’m not hurt, because they didn’t know each other either!

Hey, somebody has to build bridges.  Somebody has to put differences aside.  Kind of like Jesus?

What can you do?  If you’re a pastor, knock on the church door down the street, talk to that other pastor, ask all about what he’s doing, and promise to pray for him.  Arrange a breakfast or lunch to get to know each other better–and to talk about ways you might serve your neighborhood, your local school, your city together.

If you are not a pastor, pray for your church and its leaders, for the walls of separation to come down.  Then ask your neighbors where they go to church.  Don’t try to convert them!  Instead, tell them you will be praying for them and their pastor.

Second ditch:  solidarity with those outside the church

For several years now I’ve been serving in and outside church circles.  A few years ago, I was appointed Chairman of Governor Janet Napolitano (now Secretary of Homeland Security).  I got pushback, because good Christians, at least the white kind, are supposed to be Republicans.

Yet I can see God working everywhere.  John Calvin called it “common grace.”  I know this is hard for some people to grasp, but even non-Christians are created in the image of God and have a basic sense of right and wrong.  I know, we disagree on some moral specifics, and you’ll find corruption in every human institution from banks to churches.  Yet it’s hard to find a person outside the church who doesn’t want to help others.

Because God created us, a concern for others burns in the heart of every human being.  Think about the extraordinary work, for example, of the New York City police and and fire departments on September 11, 2001.  We applaud their courage and compassion.  Heroes all, but certainly not all Christ-followers and students of the Bible.

A few years ago, at our Word of Grace (my former church) staff and board retreat, we invited four community leaders to help us help them.  The former vice-mayor of Mesa said something I’ll never forget:  “If you want to make a difference in our city, you will have to learn how to work with people you don’t agree with.”

People in city-reaching movements have a term for this:  “centered set.”  It means that we put a dot on the paper and say, “This is what I care about.  If you care about this, let’s work together.”

This is worlds different from the traditional approach of church people, who often have a  “bounded set,” which means I draw a circle and say:  “This is what I believe.  If you believe what I believe, then we can work together.”

What can you do?  Go find some human service agency in your area and volunteer some of your time each month, to serve the underserved and to learn from those who have been in the trenches for years.  I did that for several years at a “secular” food bank.

Third ditch:  Prayer

I don’t understand it, but I believe it:  not much happens when God’s people don’t pray.  Certainly, God is sovereign, yet the Bible says as much about prayer and asking and seeking and knocking–and communing with God–as it does, I think, about anything else.  Why God waits for us to pray is a mystery, but we know from the Bible and our experience that passionate, prolonged prayer and fasting changes things.

What can you do?

Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.  Pray also for me (Ephesians 6:18-19).

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