When The Glamour Fades… Discipleship

I’ve been preaching through the Gospel of Mark, which is probably my favorite  of the four Gospels in the New Testament. In a nutshell, the Gospel of Mark is about what it means to truly believe in Jesus. Discipleship!

Reading through the Mark’s Gospel will remind you that Jesus did call us to be just good “church-going” folks. Jesus calls us to follow him and as Mark reminds us, that call takes us to the place where we must choose to pick up our own cross and continue following Jesus into this narrow way that leads to life (cf. Mk. 8:34-35). So I’ll leave you with a quote from a book I recently read by Richard V. Peace, Conversion in the New Testament, reminding us that the following Jesus will not always be an ecstatic journey:

“To follow Jesus as the teacher/prophet/Messiah of popular imagination is one thing. This has glamour and appeal. Clearly Jesus is in touch with the power of God, and equally clearly he plays a unique and special role in God’s scheme of things. But the glamour fades quickly when following Jesus is defined in terms of self-denial and cross-bearing” (p. 257).

Whatever it may look like to deny ourselves and bear our own cross on a daily basis, we do it not because it is easy or pleasurable but because we believe in Jesus… because we believe that salvation only is found in following Jesus into his crucifixion and resurrection.

As darkness and evil continues among the world, may we remember our faith in Jesus!

What Question Are We Asking?

Reading the Bible is a good thing. But how we read the Bible may or may not be such a good thing! As I’ve said before and as I’m sure many others have said too, how we read the Bible matters just as much as whether or not we read the Bible.

Consider Jesus and the Pharisees in a story from Mark 3:1-6. There they all stand among a synagogue on the Sabbath Day. According to Exodus 31:15, doing work on the Sabbath day was a violation of the Law and anyone committing such a violation was subject to capital punishment. So as a man with a withered hand approaches Jesus, the Pharisees are looking at Jesus to see if he is going to keep the Sabbath regulation or if he is going to violate it, which in their eyes he has already done enough of (read Mark 2). That’s when Jesus asks the Pharisee a very interesting question in v. 4:

“Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath, or evil, to save a life or destroy it?” 

That’s one question but in reality it reveals two very different questions being asked, one by Jesus and the other by the Pharisees.

In one sense, Jesus and the Pharisees have a lot in common. They both love God, seek righteousness, and are committed to faithfully doing the will of God . . . kind of like us. Yet in another sense, Jesus and the Pharisees are very different. Their understanding of God’s will is different and it all stems from their understanding of the kingdom. The Pharisees believe the kingdom will only come by a strict adherence to the Law of Moses, which includes the traditions associated with Torah. But Jesus the kingdom of God is already at hand (and has already declared this good news – cf. Mk 1:14-15) and therefore believes that he and his disciples simply should live out the kingdom life.

And that is why when the man with the withered hand approaches, the Pharisees are asking a legalistic question “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” while Jesus is asking a kingdom question of “How do I do good in this place, bearing witness to the presence of God’s kingdom (reign)?”

Two very different questions!

I once knew of a thriving church of roughly 150 believers. They gathered for worship in a fairly new building on a side of town that was experiencing a lot of new residential growth. Some of the young parents began asking a kingdom question “How might we minister (do good) in this neighborhood?” After praying about this for a few months, they received a vision for how they might minister to other young families with children in that neighborhood. And with the blessing of their elders and minister supporting them, they began an exciting Sunday-School ministry, assisted by the purchase of a Joy Bus. God blessed this ministry and the church with lots of new growth and all seemed well.

And all was well until a few modern-day Pharisees came along asking a legalistic question “Where is their authorization in the New Testament for having a Sunday School?” By asking such a question while proof-texting the Bible, particularly the New Testament, in ad hoc fashion and resorting to their syllogistic reasoning, they divided the church. The Joy Bus was parked for good and this promising children’s ministry died!

Again, Two very different questions!

But what questions are we asking. When we pick up the Bible and read it, do we read it as a story where we ask how we might participate in the kingdom life as followers of Jesus in a consistent yet improvisational way? (See N.T. Wright, “How Can The Bible Be Authoritative?,” and pay attention to the section The Authority of a Story to understand what it means to live in a consistent yet improvisational way.) Or when we pick up the Bible and read, are we asking questions like “Does scripture authorize us to do…?” or “Is there a direct command, apostolic example, or necessary inference for doing…?”

By recognizing that the kingdom of God is already at hand, we are free to read the Bible as a story which we participate in rather than a law which we must some how try to meticulously keep. This is not to ignore that there are commands in scripture which as followers of Jesus, we must obey. What this does is open for us new possibilities as people who are learning how to improvise the story we are participants of in a consistent way among our own contexts. It doesn’t matter whether or not we have an example in scripture for . . . because it’s the wrong question and asking the wrong question usually results in getting the wrong answer.

And if your still not convinced that the difference between the two different types of questions matter that much, Jesus looked at the Pharisees with “anger” as he was “grieved by the hardness of their hearts.”

Questions For Reflection:

  1. How does this change our understanding of what it means to be the church? Participants in the mission of God?
  2. What do need to do in order to be a tangible expression of the kingdom of God in our neighborhoods?
  3. What changes might we have to make in the way we go about doing church?

Ministry Leadership: Blood, Sweat, and Tears

You’ve heard it said that leadership is influence and the ability to influence. There’s a lot of truth to that, especially when you serve among a church or any other organization where leaders are dependent upon volunteers. That begs the question of how a person acquires this ability to influence others?

There are likely a variety of factors that contribute to a person gains the ability to influence. Position, charisma, and expertise come to mind. In ministry, if one has good experience and a solid theological education to go along with a very engaging personality that exudes with vision and decisiveness then that minister likely some ability for influence. But don’t be fooled! Relying solely on position, charisma, and expertise has limitations that will become apparent sooner than later (as almost every President discovers). Also, reliance upon position, charisma, and expertise can easily become repressive, requiring more manipulation than influence, creating a toxic culture.

Another asset in gaining the ability to influence is character. People are willing to listen and follow a person who consistently demonstrates a virtuous life. This includes the way any would be leader treats other people, including his/her own family. For ministers, especially those who regularly preach and teach, character also includes demonstrating trustworthiness with scripture . . . showing people that you will preach and teach healthy doctrine. So character is very important and it is also important to remember that leaders can spend years growing a healthy tree and cut that tree down with one very unwise move (be thankful for the mercy that God often shows towards are mistakes that have not undone us!).

Beyond position, charisma, and expertise, and beyond character is one other attribute that will allow those whom God has called to serve in ministry to gain the ability to influence. This attribute is what I’ll call blood, sweat, and tears. The church is a community of Christians and as such, Christians are to bear the burdens of each other (cf. Gal 6:2). Whether it is sitting in the hospital visiting room with a family whose child has just been air-lifted to the trauma center, helping a family move from one house to another, or something as seemingly mundane as just picking up the telephone to call and say “Hi!”, you are engaging and sharing in real life with the people of the church . . . sometimes helping them bear a real heavy burden. That is, you’re showing your willingness to bleed, sweat, and shed tears with them.

When a leader is willing to share blood, sweat, and tears with the people, then they earn the currency to influence. This is, I believe, an important yet somewhat underrated aspect of leadership that is seen in everyone from Jesus and the Apostle Paul to more contemporary leaders such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mother Teresa. So also should it be among ministers, elders, and other church leaders. So if your a minister or serving in some other capacity of church leadership, let me encourage you to look for opportunities where you can share some blood, sweat, and tears with your church!

Discerning The Question of Vocation

For most Christians who work, who are employed in some capacity, we are expected to diligently carry out certain job requirements that support the organization of our employment. Whether your vocation is an auto mechanic, school teacher, lawyer, engineer, truck-driver, military soldier, or even a pastor of a church, you work in an organization of some sort. Whether it’s the government, a private corporation, or in the non-profit sector, it’s an organization of some sort with its own express mission, values, and goals. So, theoretically, as Christians we must ask a very discerning question about vocation:

Can I carry out the responsibilities of my job, supporting the organization of my employment and remain faithful as a follower of Jesus?

Now I want to know the following…

  • Does your church do anything to equip the body of believers for discerning this question of vocation?
  • How should the church equip the body of believers for discerning this question of vocation?
  • If you are a parent, what are you doing to equip your children for discerning this question of vocation?

In The Cross… Be Our Glory Ever?

Most Christians enjoy singing Franny J. Crosby’s wonderful hymn Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross. With enthusiasm the church sings the chorus “In the cross, in the cross, be my glory ever…” But there are days when I wonder if we really mean that.*

As I preach through the Gospel of Mark, I am reminded of the centrality that the cross takes in the life of those who follow Jesus. After speaking of his coming crucifixion and resurrection, an indication that he was not leading a violent revolution against Rome, Jesus spoke what the cross means for his followers. Jesus says in Mark 8:34-35, “If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and for the gospel will save it.”

What Jesus says and what Mark wants reminds us of is that the cross is not something just to admire but the means of our way of life… if we’re going to follow Jesus. In other words, our glory in the cross must shape our way of life, which is discipleship, as much as it shapes our hope in life, which is for salvation. We cannot glory in the cross for salvation but disavow the cross when it pertains to discipleship. Neither Jesus nor Mark will let us take this route.

Wars, Terrorism, and The Cross

Now why does this matter? Why do I want to remind us about the cross which we are called to pick up if we’re are follow Jesus?

Well, I don’t want to dwell on doom and gloom or sound like a fear-monger but if you’re watching the news at all and watching what is happening both in Eastern Europe and in the Middle East, it’s hard not to believe that a large war may be on the horizon. I don’t like that at all and I hope my suspicion turns out to be nothing. But if war of some sort takes place then I wonder what responsibility we have as followers of Jesus Christ?

Let me unequivocally say that I believe the responsibility of the church, as followers of Jesus, is first and foremost to remain faithful to Jesus and his teachings, which includes trusting in God rather than the presidents and kings of this world. That goes for all Christians, not just a select set of disciples like those who serve as pastors or missionaries. But I also know that as humans, when we’re faced with threats of injustice, violence, and other forms of evil then we’re prone to take matters into our own hands and this usually involves setting aside the cross as our way of life.

For instance, Phil Robertson, of Duck Dynasty, who is now a celebrity Christian of sorts and a fellow member of the Churches of Christ, recently spoke with FOX New’s Sean Hannity regarding the terrorist group ISIS. Robertson said, “In this case, you either have to convert them, which I think would be next to impossible… I’m just saying convert them or kill them — one or the other” (here’s the article and here’s the video) That’s it… No talk of how we might love our enemies and pray for them, just convert them or kill them. Ironically, that’s the same philosophy that some accuse Islam of embracing. What this illustrates is just how easily the cross is forgotten… when perhaps it matters the most too.

Embracing The Cross

I’m not sure how the nations of this world should respond to terrorism or unprovoked acts of war-aggressions by one country upon another. While I would like to have an easy answer, I am concerned more with what sort of witness Christians live in such a dark and evil world. And as a minister of the gospel, I believe God calls me to voice this concern.

Far too often, Christians leave Sunday’s worship gathering after singing a chorus like “In the cross, in the cross, be my glory ever…” only to become cheerleaders of a nationalism, militarism, and everything else that relies upon human wisdom and strength. Yet God’s response to evil is in the cross of Jesus! We don’t always like that… I sure don’t. Yet this wisdom of God, the cross of Jesus, is what we are called to faithfully embrace.

Sometimes faithfully embracing the cross will cost us our very own physical lives as it has for many followers of Jesus. Other times it requires us to courageously point people back to the cross in the way we speak and act, even as unpopular as that may be. Whatever the case may be, if the church cannot faithfully embrace the cross of Jesus as its way of life then the cross becomes nothing more than religious talk within the church building but means superstition among a lost world.

——————–

* Except for a few stylistic changes, this article was originally published in Connecting 29 (September 3, 2014), a biweekly publication of the Columbia Church of Christ, and has been reformatted for this blog.

Church Renewal: Give Up The Old Wineskins

Last year the Christian Chronicle, a monthly newspaper for the Churches of Christ, ran an article on the Bar Church of Abilene, Texas that the Southern Hills Church of Christ helped plant. The Bar Church is a community of Christians that originally gathered inside a local bar for worship, fellowship, etc… in order to reach people who will likely never step foot inside the gatherings of a traditional church. As expected, news of a church plant meeting in a local tavern drew both praise and criticism. Without knowing any more details than what has been reported, I am one who applauds such effort and I want to briefly focus on the criticism as a way of discussing a larger issue with the gospel and the mission of God.

One critic said in response to the news of a church meeting in a bar, “Jesus might have gone to Matthew’s house, but he did not teach his disciples to go to places of public intoxication…” Not surprisingly, I actually disagree because Jesus himself, according to the Gospel of Luke, even acknowledged eating and drinking with these sinner’s and tax-collectors to the point that he gained the reputation of being a drunkard and glutton (cf. Lk 7:34). I suppose we could say that Jesus was only going into places of private intoxication (insert snarky face here) but the point is that Jesus not only sought out the “sinners” but was also teaching his disciples to do so as well. Yet the critics, who all likely come from a church fellowship that is declining, resort to the box they have the gospel contained within to rationalize their complaint. And this is a problem…

Listen to Jesus

According to the Gospel of Mark, the first parable that Jesus teaches occurs in chapter two:

No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and the tear becomes worse. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the skins will be destroyed. Instead new wine is poured into new wineskins (vv. 21-22).

This parable occurs within a series of five stories in which the authority of Jesus is challenged (Mk 2:1-3:6). The problem with Jesus is that he does not live according to the expectations of the Jewish lawyers and Pharisees.

The Pharisees themselves meant well. Like Jesus, they wanted to see the kingdom of God at hand too. But unlike Jesus, they believed that the kingdom of God would only come when all of Israel returned to a strict observation of the Torah, especially the laws pertaining to the Sabbath and those that separated the clean from the unclean. For Jesus, however, the kingdom of God is already at hand (Mk. 1:15), so the efforts of the Pharisees are futile. Instead they, like us all, need to follow along with Jesus and learn how to participate in this kingdom, which involves something as simple as eating when you’re hungry rather than fasting or something more radical like wining and dining with the “sinners and tax-collectors.”

The kingdom of God looks like a reality where sinners are welcomed with hospitality, where those who suffer find healing, where showing mercy trumps the sacrifice of Sabbath keeping, and so forth. This is the kind of life Jesus calls us to follow him, learning how to participate as disciples. Yet Jesus is clear: As long as we continue trying to fit this way of life into our old paradigms (theological, ecclesiological, etc…), it will not work! That is why Jesus tells us the parable of sewing a new patch on an old garment and pouring new wine into old wineskins. We need new wineskins for new wine! We need new a new paradigm for this gospel of the kingdom of God that Jesus preaches and calls follow him in living as his disciples!

Old Wineskins Will Not Do

I began this blog post with story of a Church of Christ that planting a very non-traditional seed of the gospel by helping plant a new church meeting in a bar. It’s but one example of what it might look like for a church to the new wine of the gospel into new wineskins. Just one example. It is by no means a suggestion that this is what every church needs to do. I believe way too much in the need for local contextualization of the gospel to even begin suggesting a one-size-fits-all approach. What I’m concerned about is those who want to cling to their old wineskins while criticizing any attempt at pouring new wine into new wineskins.

Any one familiar with the Churches of Christ can see the decline. Most churches, including the Columbia Church of Christ with whom I serve as a minister, are less than one-hundred members and declining. The culture around us is rapidly changing and learning how to navigate the waters in this ever changing climate has been… Well, as far as I can tell, were not sure how to do that.

In such uncertain circumstances, there are more questions than answers which that creates a lot of stress and anxiety. “How do we move forward in all this mess?” is the question that gets asked. Yet our human nature is to take the path of least resistance and that usually means reverts back to what we already know… the so-called tried and true approach. I think this is why Michael Shank’s book Muscle and A Shovel has become so popular. Because despite it’s sectarian approach that promotes a gospel focused on the “true church,” a form of legalism that many in the Churches of Christ seemed to have let go of, it offers an approach that is very familiar (if you read the book then make sure you also read this very well-written and critical review of the book by John Mark Hicks). But Jesus is clear: As long as we continue trying to fit this way of life into our old paradigms (theological, ecclesiological, etc…), it will not work!

Then What Do We Do?

Learning to follow Jesus together begins with hearing afresh our Lord’s first commandment: “Repent and believe the gospel! (Mk 1:15). We have to change our expectations of how we expect to see the kingdom of God at hand. Seeing God’s kingdom at hand does not happen by trying to restore the first-century church pattern from proof-texting the New Testament. The way forward is found in embracing the values and practices of Jesus as our own, within our own local contexts. That requires much discernment.

In order to discern, churches and especially the leadership of the church must learn how to listen together for the leading of God. You might consider reading Pursuing God’s Will Together by Ruth Haley Barton as a resource in learning how to listen as a church. Only as we listen and discern together will we discover the new wineskins necessary for the new wine of the gospel. Also, you might consider contacting Mission Alive, an organization that helps equip church planters and churches seeking renewal to live as “kingdom communities on mission with God.”

Conversations On Racism and Injustice

This past Sunday afternoon I attended the “Town Hall Meeting for Justice For All” hosted by the Bridgeway Community Church in my town, Columbia, Maryland. The meeting was in response to the events taking place in Ferguson, Missouri following the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black man who was shot by the police. Even though there is 800 miles of Interstate 70 between Columbia and Ferguson, the issues that Browns death and the subsequent protesting have raised affect Columbia just as they affect every community.

The meeting itself was a great start to some courageous conversations that communities must start engaging in. Whites, Blacks, and Latinos all showed up for this meeting but the majority of the audience was Black. Pastor David Anderson served as a moderator taking questions the audience had for the five panelists that consisted of a school administrator, two police officers, a college student, and a local pastor. Of the five panelists, three were Black and the other two were White.

Black America and Fear

As you what has happened in Ferguson has brought to the forefront the problem of racism that still exists in America. Besides the problem of racism, there is a distrust of law-enforcement and a lot of frustration because of injustices that Blacks and other minorities have endured (and if you’re not sure what those are, I suggest you do a little more listening to some of your Black neighbors).

I went to this town-hall meeting to listen because I’m interested in what I can do to help facilitate racial reconciliation and be an advocate for justice. After all, as a minister of the gospel, the God I serve seeks reconciliation and desires justice, so… Any ways, I tried my best to just listen during this meeting and here’s a couple of things I heard:

  1. Negative Images of Young Black Males. During the meeting, the Black voice of the audience agreed that the Hip-Hop culture has created a caricature of the young Black male that contributes to the negative perceptions and that the Black community has helped perpetuate this image. I thought this is important because it tells me that when we hear the Black community saying there’s a problem, they are also willing to own their part of the problem too.
  2. Palpable Fear. There was a point when the audience was asked if those who are minorities raise their children to carry themselves in certain ways in public because of a fear of being mistaken by law enforcement and others as being up to criminal activity. This is the fear of how their children might be perceived when they’re hanging out, walking down the street, into a store, etc… and how might the police react if their children appear “suspicious”? As an observer, this fear was extremely evident in the response of the minorities present (who were in the majority there). And I must say, words cannot really express how sad this is because nobody should have to live in fear for their life or the lives of their children.
  3. Where are the Whites? As I said, the majority of those in attendance were Black. Now there could be a variety of reasons for this, so I don’t want to make too much of this observation. But I do want to say that the problems of racism, et al. is a problem for the entire community, not just minorities. White people, like myself, don’t have to engage in conversations like this because we’re not the ones who suffer from systemic racism. That’s part of our White Privilege. But the problem isn’t going away and if it gets worse (with the violent protests of Ferguson as a sign of what might be on the horizon), we’ll all suffer the consequences. So let’s all work together for the good of racial-reconciliation and justice!

Where Do We Begin

Working together for reconciliation and justice begins at the table, so to speak. That is to say, we have to start by talking and having a conversation together about these issues. As you know, such conversations are not always easy but we must have the necessary courage, humility, and love to gather at the table with others for some talk.

Now I’m not any expert but one thing I’ve learned as a minister is the importance of listening. Or let’s say, I’m learning the importance of listening and more importantly, listening first. Listening to understand before we speak is important because in conversations like this, there are tense moments of disagreement at times. Someone says something that we disagree with and our gut reaction is to respond immediately, countering…arguing. And then we’re just talking past each other, or shouting past each other like they do on what passes for nightly cable news.

Instead of that, Don McLaughin, who serves as the preaching minister for the North Atlanta Church of Christ, suggests that we learn to say “Tell me more” (you can listen to all he has to say about this and more on this podcast). If we don’t understand or don’t seem to agree with what someone says then by saying “Tell me more” rather than counter-reacting, we can here their point of view and what it is that has led them to feel this or that way. We may still disagree but at least we’ll understand better and we’re validating the feeling of others.

One Last Thing…

As a parting word, let me encourage us to begin a conversation. Maybe it’s with a friend of another race or ethnicity, or maybe that conversation starts by attending a town meeting on race and justice matters in your own community. Help your church to start having these conversations (churches should be leading the way in conversations about reconciliation but sadly, we’re not!). Learn to ask questions and listen… Imagine what could happen if we just start having conversations!