Grace Is When God…

I’ve started reading through Pastrix: The Cranky Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint by Nadia Bolz-Weber, who is a Lutheran Pastor. After hearing the author speak once and knowing something of her story, I was intrigued when this book came out. One I started reading the book and learned that she was raised in a Church of Christ, it makes even more sense why I find her story intriguing. Now a word of warning to those with super-disdain for foul language… you are warned.

The author is just like us all, a sinner in need of God’s grace. I lament that she didn’t learn about the grace of God in a Church of Christ but I understand. I only hope that as preacher in a Church of Christ, those who hear me preach and teach will learn of God’s grace because we’re all hopeless without it.

As I do reflect on my own preaching and teaching as well as my own relationship to God, I become ever more aware of my own short-comings, my failures, my sins, my… I’m thankful the love of God, a love that has given me life in Christ and assures me that there isn’t any condemnation in Christ (cf. Rom 8:1). And then as I was reading Pastrix, Nadia Bolz-Weber had this to say about grace:

Grace is when God is a source of wholeness, which makes up for my failings. My failings hurt me and others and even the planet, and God’s grace to me is that my brokenness is not the final word. My selfishness is not the end-all… instead, it’s that God makes beautiful things out of even my own s***. Grace isn’t about God creating humans as flawed beings and then acting all hurt when we inevitably fail and then stepping in like the hero to grant us grace—like saying “Oh, it’s OK, I’ll be a good guy and forgive you.” It’s God saying, “I love the world too much to let your sin define you and be the final word. I am a God who makes all things new.” (p. 48).

God.

Love.

Makes all things new!

Feast on that over the weekend. Let the grace of God be a balm to our soul. Let it transform us, forgetting the past and striving for what lies ahead (cf. Phil 3:13) to the glory of God!

A Leper, Jesus, Some Children, and World Vision

At the end of Mark chapter one is a story about a leper which you can read here. This leper was an unclean man. But apparently he heard about the kingdom ministry Jesus was doing, which included healing people of their diseases. So he approached Jesus in hopes that Jesus would heal him of his leprosy.

This leper said to Jesus, “If you are willing, you can make me clean” (v. 40).

Did you catch that? The leper did not ask whether Jesus was able to make him clean, he asked if Jesus was willing to heal him. That’s because the leper was apparently used to Jesus’ contemporaries ignoring him, wanting nothing to do with him and unwilling to offer him any help.

Now to be fair, Jesus’ contemporaries, the Jewish religious people, had their reasons. After all, all they had to do was cite Leviticus 13:45-46 as justification for the way they treated the leper… if they were looking for a biblical proof-text to hang their hat on. But the truth is, this is the sort of reasoning that happens when a hobby-horse issue couched as a “moral principle” is placed above doing justice and showing mercy… when principle is placed above people.

And this made Jesus “indignant” (v. 41).

Angry, that is.

And it makes me angry too!

Just the same, it makes me angry that some Christians would encourage other Christians to withdraw support of World Vision and sponsorship of children through World Vision because this organization decided to employ people living in a same-sex marriage (read about this here). It makes me angry not because I agree with the decision World Vision made (which it has now reversed) but because once again, more principle is placed above people, above doing justice and showing mercy.

Let’s be honest. Every day we, who call ourselves “Christians,” give money to businesses and organizations that champion values and engage in practices that do not conform to the kingdom of God. In fact, we are probably wearing clothing manufactured with unfair wages and unjust labor practices. But that doesn’t stop us because it’s not our hobby-horse issue. So the suggestion that Christians should stop supporting World Vision and sponsoring children through World Vision because of a decision made that we disagree with just suggests that a that this is more about the sensibilities of an Evangelical hobby-horse issue than it is doing what’s right.

Yes, I said that. You see, whatever you think about World Vision and the decision they made, the children who are supported through their organization have nothing to do with that decision. And their needs, which are many, remain!

My wife and I sponsor two children through World Vision, Marita and Payal. There are other child-sponsoring organizations such as Compassion International and if you sponsor a child through one of these organizations, then I encourage you to continue doing so. My wife and I went with World Vision simply because when the opportunity came to sponsor our first child, World Vision was the organization we were speaking with. Are we to just dump these children over a decision they had nothing to do with? Seriously…

My wife and I have absolutely no intention of changing our sponsorship of these children because our sponsorship is not about World Vision or our own beliefs on certain moral issues. Sponsoring these children is about sharing the blessings of God, the love God bestows upon us, with these children who are as worthy of such blessings as we are.

Some Christians spend a lot of energy talking about their hobby-horse issues and raising a ruckus when someone goes against what they believe. That when the Bible often gets wielded around as a weapon, with someone quickly saying, “The Bible says…” I actually get that and I get that people are passionate about certain issues. Believe me, I really do. I’m pretty passionate about certain issues too. I only hope that we’re as much doers of the word as we are talkers about the the word. And I hope that standing on our moral high ground will never come at the expense of helping people in need, especially children.

One thing we can be sure of… When moral principle comes at the expense of children, these children cry out to Jesus, “If you are willing…”

Book Review: God, Freedom & Human Dignity

Among the western world, freedom is arguably the chief value we seek as democratic societies. Our freedom is what dignifies us as human beings but that evokes the question of what exactly is freedom and whether or not God is a suppressor of freedom. This is the issue that Ron Highfield* addresses in his book God, Freedom & Human Dignity: Embracing A God-Centered Identity In A Me-Centered Culture. Published in 2013 by InterVarsity Press, the book is 227 pages and includes both a subject index and scripture index. Also, to my delight, the book includes footnotes rather than endnotes.

The book aims to show why God is the foundation for true freedom and human dignity, whom we can love God and give ourselves to without loss of joy (p. 12). In order to unpack this claim, the author divides the book into two sections. In the first half, the author explores how we, as autonomous individual modern selves, the “Me-Centered” selves, conceive of freedom and view God as an obstacle to freedom. The second half of the book then explores the Christian view of God as the self-giving Father, Son, and Spirit in whom we find our true identity and gain true freedom and dignity to live as the people God has created and redeemed us to be which is a “God-centered” life. The book weaves a tapestry of theological and philosophical voices from into conversation with the biblical story, making a very solid argument for a wider range of readers. In other words, scholars and pastors will appreciate the depth of the book while students and lay people will benefit too because of the book’s accessibility.

The book demonstrates how among western culture freedom is an ideal without limitations which we must achieve through our own initiative. The problem with the western notion of freedom is that it requires the removal of every impeding obstacle and therefore satisfaction is never found because there is always another obstacle which we must overcome (p. 103). Though the modern autonomous self regards this illusion as freedom, it always falls short of true freedom. Alternatively, God is the foundation and giver of true freedom, as  Highfield demonstrates. This freedom, which is found in Christ, stems from the fact that in Christ, God has set us free from sin and death. This gives us the freedom to live as our true selves, the people whom God has created and redeemed us to be, which mirrors the image of God (p. 189-190).

One book can only do so much and will always leave the reader with unanswered questions. Having said that, I wish the book would have explored how this understanding of true freedom finds expression within the church, since the church is the collective new creation of people who belong to God in Christ. Speaking of the church, I also believe that some discussion questions at the end of each chapter would help as well. That’s because this book will make for a very useful small group discussion or even for a “Bible” class to read through. Nevertheless, this book is a great read! It is an easy and engaging read, providing a good overview along with solid theological and cultural engagement on a subject that hits very close to home for many people, including myself.

I am thankful to both Ron Highfield and IVP for providing me with a copy of this book.

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Ron Highfield, is the Blanche E. Seaver Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University where he teaches classes in systematic theology and Christianity and culture; he also serves as a Shepherd of the University Church of Christ.

A Good Minister of Christ Jesus

When I was a student at Harding University, I belonged to the “Timothy Club.” [1] This was a group for those preparing to serve as ministers of the gospel named after the Apostle Paul’s protégé Timothy. The club provided further encouragement and mentoring for ministry students beyond the college classroom. And all of these students, including myself, believed God had called us to serve as ministers and was preparing us for that task so that he may send us out. [2]

Leaders Among the Church

Paul wrote Timothy saying, “If you point these things out to the brothers and sisters, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus nourished on the truths of the faith and of the good teaching you have followed” (1 Tim 4:6). Space will not permit much analysis of what “these things” are. However, the passage hints at the great responsibility Paul expected of Timothy and under different yet similar circumstances, I believe Paul expected the same of Titus.

Whether we call them ministers, evangelists, or else, the work of Timothy and Titus was a continuation of what Paul began in helping establish the churches in Ephesus and Crete.  From a cursory reading of 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus, this ministry involved preaching and teaching as well as administrative work, all for the purpose of building up the churches as God’s holy people. For example, when it came to addressing the concerns of widows, Paul told Timothy to “Give these commands” [2] to the church (cf. 1 Tim 5:7, NRSV).

As a minister of Christ Jesus, this responsibility comes from Jesus himself. While all good ministry involves communal discernment, it is not a responsibility subject to the church’s approval but for the sake of the church — so that the church may continue participation in the mission of God. Both Timothy and Titus were sent as leaders among the church… not the only leaders, as they were to appoint elders and deacons (cf. 1 Tim 3:1-13; Tit 1:5-9), but leaders nonetheless.

The Need for Ministers

Churches today find themselves among a drastically different historical context and sometimes facing very different issues. Nevertheless, even though the circumstances are different, churches still need a minister of the gospel like Ephesus and Crete needed Timothy and Titus. Churches need ministers who spend time drinking from the deep well of God’s word so that they may preach and teach the scriptures, always pointing the church in the way of Jesus. Likewise, churches need these ministers acting administratively so that God’s people may, as followers of Jesus, increasingly become living expressions of the scriptures.

Whether a minister serves in the role of a “lead” or “senior” minister or in other specialized roles, such as a“youth” or “children’s” minister, they serve with the church as ministers called and sent by God to the church. Whatever fiscal arrangements are made for supporting a minister, these provisions should not bear upon the minister’s spiritual responsibility. This is not to suggest that there are never circumstances in which a minister has lost the ability to serve but to say that a minister’s service should not be reduced to employment.

Like elders, deacons, and even the church, ministers are not perfect. However, a good minister, one who understands the responsibility as working for God, has spent years learning and continues learning. Like Timothy, a good minister nourishes “on the truths of the faith” and has a good sense regarding what is necessary for building the church up. Likewise, a good minister is not defined by the approval of the church but whether or not that minister remains committed to that “good teaching” from the word of God.

A Final Word

There is so much more to say about the responsibility of a minister. However, in closing this essay, remember Paul’s encouragement to Timothy saying, “For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God…” (2 Tim 2:6). The greatest service a minister can offer the church is to do just this.

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  1. This post is dedicated to my fellow Compadres (you know who you are), who serve God and the church as ministers of the gospel. Keep up the great work!
  2. A similar article is published as the same title in Connecting 29 (March 20, 2014), a biweekly publication of the Columbia Church of Christ.
  3. The word paraggellō involves making an announcement and is an expression used throughout the New Testament in an authoritative sense, see Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3d ed., rev. Frederick William Danker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 760.

Church Leaders and Spiritual Responsibility

When talking of church leadership, the discussion of “spiritual authority” usually comes to mind. It’s the question of what leadership roles does the church have and what authority do those roles have.

Despite the overemphasis on leadership in some Christian circles and the emerging pushback, there is validity to the discussion of spiritually authority and church leadership. We are told in Hebrews 13:17, “Obey your leaders and submit to them…” The text never specifies who these leaders are, just that the church must “obey” them and “submit” to them. This assumes a high degree of authority without saying a word about how the leaders exercise this authority. So how is such authority exercised by leaders of the church? Such a question is important but it gains even more importance whenever we think of stories where leaders have acted with unhealthy authority, causing great harm.

Jesus Shaped Leadership…

As one who believes that we must read all scripture in light of Jesus, the self-sacrificial servant lifestyle of Jesus is the first hint at how leaders must exercise authority. Jesus was bold and decisive, unwilling to compromise his convictions, but he was also a servant who never forced anyone to act against their own free will. In fact, he even washed the feet of the one who betrayed him and those who deserted him when he was arrested and crucified.

In Matthew 20:20-28 there’s a story about the mother of James and John asking Jesus if her sons could sit at his right hand. Apparently, these two courageous boys put their mommy up to this because Jesus responded to them, telling them that they were clueless about what they were asking and then asking them if they could drink the same cup as Jesus. But this upset the other ten disciples who became angry, so Jesus responds in vv. 25-28:

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave — just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

The key words in this text are “not so” and “just as,” which specifies how Jesus his disciples to exercise spiritual authority.* Instead of a top-down dictating authority, Jesus insists that spiritual authority must come from the act of becoming a servant.

Spiritual Authority Responsibility?

The life of Jesus and his teaching about becoming a servant should then form the basis for how the leaders mentioned in Hebrews 13 are to exercise authority. That is because within the kingdom of God, all church leaders are followers of Jesus first. The authority of church leaders comes from service, not demand. Consequently, because of some top-down understandings of authority present in our own culture, I think we may be better off talking about spiritual responsibility instead of spiritual authority.

In this regards, the church has leaders with certain responsibility which the church must recognize. In exercising responsibility, the leaders are guiding the church towards greater participation in the mission of God. Yet because leadership responsibility is exercised from the role of a servant — as followers of Jesus — church leaders go first where they want to lead others. Put another way, such servant leaders will never ask others to do what they themselves are unwilling to do.

One Caveat…

I might be wrong on some of what I’m saying or over-simplifying the issue a bit, as I’m more so just thinking out loud as I work through my own questions about church leadership. However, over my lifetime I have known of stories involving both elders and ministers who did much harm. Yet I’ve never heard of leaders doing harm among a church because they were trying to lead like Jesus, as self-sacrificial servants.

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* This insight comes from, Randy Willingham, a church consultant and ministry professor at Harding University.

Church, Change, and Renewal: Addressing the Problems

There are always problems within the church because the church is people. The problems create conflict and that is neither right or wrong, it’s just reality. Two or more people can’t participate in community with each other without encountering conflict. The question is how will the said conflict be handled, for that will determine whether the conflict becomes a good thing or bad thing… healthy or unhealthy conflict.

Churches pursuing missional renewal will encounter conflict as they try to move forward, changing what appears as wrong and pursuing what is right. I believe part of the trick is understanding that churches form as organizations. While churches generally begin in an organic manner, such as people just coming together for dinner and Bible study in someone’s house, as churches begin to grow they must organize with leadership, structure, and practices. Hence, churches become an organization. We even see this formation from organic to organization within the early book of Acts as this community has been formed organically by the Holy Spirit. The organic church takes on certain practices, including meeting the daily needs of others, but eventually more leadership is necessary so that the church may adequately continue the practice of meeting daily needs with food (cf. Acts 6:1-6), becoming an organization.

The challenge is that at some point in a churches history, something about the way the church is organized becomes the problem. Maybe the church has lapsed into an unhealthy practice for dealing with conflict, lost a shared vision of who it’s called to be, etc… Whatever the case may be, this is where problems that have been simple aches and pains to the body increasingly become like catastrophic illness. However, adding to the problem is a failure to recognize the issue as an organizational problem and instead blame certain individuals or a small group within the organization (cf. Andy Stanley, et al., Seven Practices of Effective Ministry, p. 58). By pointing the finger at people rather than the way the church participates in life together as an organization, the real problem — which is likely organizational — is ignored. When this happens, I doubt very much that the church will find the renewal it hopes for.

As the church pursues renewal, perhaps the best course of action is to slow the process down. The faster the pace, the more anxiety there is and the greater chance of people pointing fingers at each other instead discerning together. In doing so, there are several things I believe are also necessary:

  1. Have Conversations: For smaller churches, pulling chairs up in a circle and having a dialogical conversation is probably the best format. In larger churches where more organization is still necessary, having something like a town-hall meeting with an open mic for anyone to ask questions or make comments. In either case, some moderation will likely be necessary.
  2. Remain Patient: If you’re like me, you want every problem solved yesterday. The only problem is that God doesn’t operate according to our time schedules. Finding renewal is a process, not a single event and as someone told me the other day, churches must be willing to engage in the process as long as it is necessary.
  3. Offer Grace: As churches pursue renewal, there is anxiety and in such a context, people are bound to say and do things that are wrong. Most likely, they’re not trying to be malicious. So if necessary, speak to them about whatever matter it is but be willing to forgive just as Christ has forgiven you. Besides forgiving each other, believe the best about each other rather than assuming the worst. Without grace, the process of renewal will become ugly and will likely fail.

Two Profound Words on this Ash Wednesday

This Sunday I’m preaching from one of my favorite Bible stories, in John 11, where Jesus exclaims, “I am the resurrection and the life.” The context of the story is the death of Jesus’ friend Lazarus and so the text speaks voluminously on the theme of life, death, and hope.*

One of my favorites scenes in the story is when Jesus approaches the tomb where Lazarus has been buried and sees Mary along with some other Jews crying. There, the text says two words, “Jesus wept” (v. 35).

Though it’s the most simple of sentences possible, it’s a profound statement about God. You see, from the Gospel of John wants us to know that Jesus is God in the flesh. In fact, the beautiful mystery of the incarnation is not that Jesus is like God but that God is like Jesus. And in this story God is so identified with the pain and suffering of those mourning the death of Lazarus, that God weeps too.

Ash Wednesday and The Suffering

This is who the church is to follow, this God who comes full of grace and truth, who has become flesh in the person of Jesus the Messiah. As Jesus identifies with the suffering of the world, weeping with those who weep, so also must the church.

Enter Ash Wednesday. It’s the beginning of Lent, a season that some Christian traditions observe for forty-six days leading up to Easter Sunday. The practice derives from an ancient religious practice of using ashes to express mourning. For example, after suffering his afflictions, Job sat among the ashes and later used ashes in his response to God (cf. Job 2:8; 42:6). So a part of Ash Wednesday and Lent is reminding ourselves that we, as the people of God, are identifying with the brokenness and suffering of the world.

I neither commend nor condemn the observance of Ash Wednesday and Lent for Christians. I believe we have the freedom in Christ to either participate in this observance or not. However, as followers of Jesus, we must be people who learn how to identify with the suffering of others. In doing so we become the hands and feet of Jesus, offering the expression of God’s grace and truth. It’s an expression that acknowledges the unfairness and pain of a broken world marred by suffering but it’s also expresses the promise of hope we have in Jesus. For Jesus’ next act is the raising of Lazarus from the dead, a sign pointing toward his own resurrection which stands as the assurance of life to all who believe in him.

Identification With the Suffering

Of course, Lent is just a season for those Christians who choose to observe it. Identification with the suffering isn’t just for a season. This wonderful ministry should last until the day when Jesus returns, making all things new and drying up the tears from every eye.

Fortunately, in my experience, the church has done this well. I’m aware of the horror stories in which churches have failed the suffering miserably but that hasn’t been my experience. When I lost my father at the age of twenty-two, it was the church — a particular church I barely knew — that identified with my suffering. I remember the cards, the calls, and the visits. When my son died and life for my wife and I suddenly seemed to collapse, it was the church that lifted us up. I remember the church gathering in the trauma center to weep with my wife and I. We remember the days that followed with the church coming by to just listen, to serve, to comfort (we remember the little puppy we named “Shadow” that was given to us), and occasionally speak a needed truth, a word of hope. None of that ministry required any fancy programming or high-cost expenditures, just people willing to be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ.

And, of course! This is what we are called to be as the church of Jesus Christ.

So with the power of the Holy Spirit, may we enter the suffering world around us as people bearing witness to the grace and truth of God!

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* This post is published as an article of the same title in Connecting 29 (March 5, 2014), a biweekly publication of the Columbia Church of Christ.