Category Archives: Discipleship

A Confession: The Blessing I Forgot

“Rejoice Christian! Your sins are forgiven and you have the gift of eternal life in Christ,” says the preacher.

jesus-crucified-08-2“Good sermon, preacher!”, says me the faithful, church-going Christian. It’s the kind of sermon I want to hear and it’s all true too. It’s nice to be reminded of such spiritual blessings in Christ and it’s good to be so blessed.

Then like a good Christian should do, I pick up my Bible and read. Today I’m reading in Philippians, a letter written to Christians by the apostle Paul.

And so I begin reading about how thankful Paul is for the Christians who partner with him in the gospel and how Paul is in prayer for such Christians. That’s nice. I need prayers and I’m sure there are plenty of other Christians who need prayers too. So it’s good to know that Paul is full of thanksgiving and prayer for his fellow Christians.

And then I read how Paul is actually “in chains” for preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. How terrible it must be for him to be confined to a jail cell like that but I’m thankful for his faith. I’m thankful too that nobody has ever put me in prison for being a Christian.

And then I read how Paul says, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Can Paul get an “Amen!”? Maybe a “Hallelujah!”? Of course he can. Now we got an idea for the next student devotional, the next church retreat. Hey… a good preacher might even develop a good sermon series about living for Christ, knowing that when we die — hopefully a very long time from now when were really old people — that we’ll gain our eternal inheritance in Christ.

Wow… this is going to be a really wonderful book of the Bible to read through.

But then Paul talks about standing firm in Christ and says… “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him…” (Phil 1:29, NIV).

I know those words were not written directly to me or any other Christian living today, yet those words are part of the story we’re called to embody. But when I think about the blessing of being included in Christ, suffering for Christ isn’t a part of such thinking. In fact, my first inclination is to say, “Thanks for such a grant but no thanks!”

Lord, have mercy on me… a sinful man!

Christian Baptism and Christian Identity

Among Churches of Christ, the subject of Christian baptism has always been generated a lot of conversation. Much of the talk has been about the relationship of baptism to salvation in Christ and the question of whether baptism is necessary for receiving the promise of salvation. Less talk, and perhaps very little, has focused on the significance of baptism as it pertains to Christian identity and how baptism initiates believers into a new way of life that is embodied in daily living.

Brueggemann Meme on Baptism

The other day I shared the above photo with the quote from Walter Brueggemann on Facebook. Brueggemann is aiming at the unhealthy and ungodly patriotism, sometimes called nationalism, in which the identity of Christians has been baptized into American values to the point that Christian baptism is failing to yield a new identity of faith and discipline evident in the way Christians live. But notice that the problem is a baptism issue.

I wrote the following article (see below) for the Chillicothe Church of Christ weekly bulletin last Sunday, May 21, 2017. I did so and am also sharing it with you because there is an important aspect of baptism that needs more of our attention. Enjoy!


On Baptism Into Christ

The church of Jesus Christ consists of those who have been baptized into Christ. Notwithstanding all the debates about the purpose and practice of baptism, this is a conviction historically held by all orthodox Christians and is importance for more reasons than we might always understand.

For Paul, the importance of baptism largely has to do with what we have become in Christ which is inseparable form what has transpired in baptism. So even though Greco-Roman society defined people by their social, ethnic, and gender status, the church was defined by equality and mutuality. Why? Because Christians have been baptized into Christ (Gal 3:27-28).

Baptism then signifies a change in our identity but at the same time, a change in the way we live is expected as well. We might recall how some Christians in Rome thought they should continue sinning so that the grace of God would abound. In response to that woeful misunderstanding Paul recalls the memory of baptism into Christ as the reason why Christians should discontinue in sinful living (Rom 6:1-4). However, in doing so Paul also recalls what has transpired in baptism. Namely that Christians have been baptized into the death of Christ where they are buried with Christ and then raised into new life with Christ (note: baptism is not what we do but what God does to us). Thus in being baptized we have been crucified with Christ and then raised in the resurrected Christ by God.

And this changes everything about who we are and how we ought to live!

Consider this… We all come from somewhere and were born into different circumstances. Sometimes we point to our roots, so to speak, to explain who we are. For example, I was born in Arkansas as a caucasian but raised in a small midwestern Indiana town. Having lived the past six years on the east coast among people of different ethnicities and national origins, I see how different upbringings shaped people and that’s okay to an extent.

To use a botanical metaphor, as Christians we have been replanted in Christ and our roots are now being nurtured by a different soil — the Spirit dwelling among the church. Thus we should be growing differently and increasingly reflect a life that is filled with the Holy Spirit rather than the “spirits” of our upbringing. So it’s not okay to justify unChristian living and unChristian values by saying that’s how we were raised because if we have been baptized into Christ then we have been raised anew in Christ.

And that’s at least one important reason for remembering our baptism into Christ!

Seeing Again: A 20/20 Kingdom Vision

It’s not any secret than many established churches find themselves struggling and in decline. Facing different challenges, one wonders if there is hope for renewal or if these church must just hang on until than can no longer continue and then decide to close. While I’ve helped close a church and believe doing so is the right decision in some cases, I also believe that renewal is very much possible but it begins with seeing again. Allow me to explain…

2020_vision

Getting Older: A Brief Story… A Point

More than a few years back, my wife and I were driving during the wee hours of the night from Indiana to our home in Searcy, Arkansas. In the bootheel of Missouri US HWY 412 makes a left turn as it enters the town of Kennett and heads southwest for a few miles before turning and heading towards Paragould, AR.

It was at this left turn in Kennett where I accidently turned into the path of a semi-truck and nearly had a head-on collision, one that surely would have killed my wife and I. It was my fault too, as I had turned into this truck’s right-hand turning lane. Frightened and perplexed then as to how this happened, I began noticing that I was not able to read the street signs until I was just about to pass them. So I decided that it was time to visit an eye doctor and when I did, I learned that I was only able to read the top three lines of the eye-exam chart. The doctor told me the obvious, that my vision was bad and that I needed eye-glasses and/or contacts in order to see with 20/20 vision again.

As of today, I wear contact lenses and the difference is huge. It’s not that I’m blind without corrective lenses but that I cannot see well enough to engage in tasks that are necessary to living a healthy and productive life, such as driving or reading and writing. Of course, this is not some shocker to anyone. In fact, many people will resonate because they too wear glasses or contacts. Poor vision is a fact-of-life, a part of aging and getting older, and if we’re fortunate enough, we’ll make an appointment with an optometrist in hopes of restoring our vision to 20/20.

Eyes and Ears: But Do We See and Hear?

In my experience established churches begin suffering from poor vision as they age. This has to do with a kingdom vision, one of understanding what following Jesus involves as participants in the kingdom of God. Such was the problem the fist disciples of Jesus were suffering from and why Jesus asked if they had eyes and ears but failed to see and hear, if they still failed to understand (Mk. 8:17-18, 21).

This is exactly when we read the story of a blind man who Jesus had to touch twice in order to fully restore his vision. Here is the account in Mark 8:22-26:

They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?”

He looked up and said, “I see people; they look like trees walking around.”

Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Jesus sent him home, saying, “Don’t even go into the village.”

The point is that the disciples of Jesus see the kingdom, which is why they have followed him, but they have yet to see the kingdom clearly. The Jewish faith of these disciples has aged and in that process of aging, their 20/20 kingdom vision is impaired and they are the ones who need Jesus to touch them again that they might see the kingdom of God with clarity.

As a minister of the gospel, I believe this is the problem facing many established churches. That is, many local churches suffered from an impaired kingdom vision and because these local churches are made up of individual believers, the problem is both individual and communal. An impaired kingdom vision is something that every follower of Jesus, including me, can suffer with and for a variety of reasons. Here are a few examples I have encountered…

  • Our understanding of church (ecclesiology) is reduced to a worship gathering.
  • Maintaining traditions are more important than embodying the gospel.
  • Sharing our political views are more important than sharing the gospel.
  • Doctrinal dogma obscures and openness to scripture and Christian Tradition.
  • Safety and security, rather than faith, guides decision making.
  • The wisdom of the cross is subtly replaced with conventional wisdom.
  • Avoiding conflict and appeasing critics is more important than change.
  • Anxiety and quick-fix solutions trump dealing with the underlying difficulties.

Like the disciples who needed to be touched by Jesus again in order to see the kingdom of God clearly, aging local churches also need Jesus to touch them again. How this happens is the work of the Spirit but I would like to suggest that it begins with prayer.

Can We Pray?

I want to end this post with a prayer historically attributed to St. Francis of Assisi and suggest that when such a prayer becomes the cries of our hearts, Jesus will come touch our churches again.

Lord, make Lord, make us instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Amen!

Ministry 101: Leading By Example

Years ago I worked for one year as a machinist at a Briggs and Stratton manufacturing plant turning pistons inside a CNC lathe. There wasn’t anything spectacular about the job but I remember my immediate supervisor, whose name was John. Like any good manager, he expected people to put an honest effort at work. One of the things I appreciated most was that when people went on break, John ran there machine for them. He was not above doing the very work he asked of everyone else. That’s leadership by example.

One of the issues that generates a lot of attention these days among church and ministry conferences that pastors and ministers attend is the subject of discipleship. Everyone knows that discipleship is a challenge facing Christianity in America and closely related is the challenge of spiritual formation. If discipleship is, in simplest terms, learning to follow Jesus and spiritual formation is having our minds or imaginations reformed in the beliefs and values of the good news of Jesus and the kingdom of God, churches are really struggling with both. The pews and chairs of the church sanctuary may be full on any given Sunday but when people leave the worship gathering, they return to their busy lives which often doesn’t reflect much of the life Jesus That at least is the premise for most conferences on discipleship.

Whether the challenge of discipleship is as great as we think or not, we would have to be very naïve to say there isn’t any problem. That raises the question of how do we make disciples of Jesus Christ and spiritual form such people for continued living as disciples?

I’m not really going to answer that question because there are plenty of books, articles, and blogs addressing that issue. Just do a Google search! What I do want to focus on is the example we set and by “we,” I mean those of us who serve as pastors and ministers among a church. If we want to see the churches we serve full of growing disciples who are being spiritually formed in the way of Jesus, then we must live as an example of what discipleship is and what it means to be someone who is being spiritually formed.

Let me share a story and I hope you’ll understand that what I’m about to share is not to pat myself on the back but because of the observation that I made.

Two weeks ago I was invited by one of my elders to help serve at a spaghetti fundraiser dinner in Chillicothe, MO for Operation Help which helps serve the homeless and other people in need of benevolent assistance. This isn’t an opportunity that I would have voluntarily sought out but because I was asked, I agreed to go serve and spent three hours serving up pasta. Another lady who has served at many of these fundraiser dinners remarked that I was the first pastor to ever come help serve at these particular fundraisers. Now I know there are plenty of pastors and ministers who voluntarily serve outside of their expected church duties. However, this women’s observation struck a chord with me because almost all of the churches in Chillicothe support and partner with Operation Help, which depends on volunteer help and yet there’s never been a pastor or minister who have volunteered in this way before. Why is that?

Every pastor and minister I know would love to see members of their church volunteering with an organization like Operation Help. In fact, we would say that such service is an indicator of discipleship and spiritual formation… certainly not the only indicator but at least one and perhaps an important one. So we would encourage members to give up their own time outside of work and in addition to whatever responsibilities they might have with their own children and grandchildren. But how can we who serve as  pastors and ministers expect other Christians to volunteer and serve if we don’t set such an example?

Discipleship and spiritual formation are certainly key ingredients for a church growing as a healthy body of faithful and mature believers. As I alluded to earlier, there is plenty of literature available on how to go about making disciples and spiritual forming them in the way of Jesus. I would simply add that it begins with the example we set − leadership by example − and I am certainly not always the example I should be, so it begins with me. In January there will be a chili fundraiser dinner for Operation Help and I will gladly be there to serve again.

“If we want to see the churches we serve full of growing disciples who are being spiritually formed in the way of Jesus, then we must live as an example of what discipleship is and what it means to be someone who is being spiritually formed.”

Got Faith?

Willmar TornadoThe picture you see to the right was the tornado that touched down a third of a mile from my house on July 11, 2008. My family and I had just moved to Willmar, Minnesota and I had just returned from a stop at the nearby Best Buy where I overheard there was a confirmed tornado touch down in Kandiyohi County. I didn’t make much of it because the skies were still bright but five minutes later, while retrieving a flashlight from the trunk of our car, I noticed that the branches on the trees looked like a vacuum cleaner was sweeping them up. In what seemed like minutes but really was a couple of seconds, I heard what sounded like a jet approaching and noticed my ears were beginning to pop as I looked up at the sky to see the twister approaching.

As soon as I realized that a tornado was coming, I ran back into house screaming for my wife to get the children and get into the basement immediately. Fortunately for us, the tornado made a slight turn in direction and we, along with the other residents on the south side of Willmar were spared a direct hit. Damage was minimal, with only two injuries and some property damage nearby (including three homes that were leveled).

Fear and Faith On A Stormy Sea

I have a fascination with storms, especially tornadoes but on that particular occasion, I was scared. So when I read Mark 4:35-41 where the disciples are become frightened on a boat as a storm comes along, I can identify with them. In fact, I really want to speak out in their defense. These were seasoned fisherman who were used to the seas but this storm was big enough to scare them. In fact the storm was strong enough to cause the waves to break over the boat. So if the boat should capsize, they all are probably going to drown and they know that. That’s why disciples wake Jesus up and frantically ask him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”

Well, if you’ve read this story then you know Jesus rebukes the storm and silences it, saying “Peace, be still” (KJV). But then Jesus turns to his disciples and says to them, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”

Can we have enough faith so that our natural impulse of fear does not become our master? 

I used to think that Jesus was rebuking his disciples for their lack of faith which is why it seemed like Jesus was being a little unfair. However, the text never says that Jesus is rebuking his disciples per se. So what is Jesus doing? Perhaps his question about fear and faith is not so much a rebuke as it is a teacher challenging his learners (which is what a disciple is). After all, I think Jesus, as a human, can understand why a storm provokes fear and let’s not forget that fear is a normal reaction too. But Jesus has also began to demonstrate the inbreaking of the kingdom of God by healing diseases, driving out demons, and teaching with authority that was unlike any of the other religious authorities. Then, according to the Gospel of Mark, in chapter four Jesus has taught a series of parables about the potency of faith. So it seems that Jesus is taking advantage of the opportunity to point out their fear and remind them that they need to have faith.

Faith, of course, is important and necessary. Jesus knows that his disciples will face more danger, more unnerving encounters, and challenges bigger than this storm. And for that, they will need to have faith. Not just intellectual assent that confesses belief in Jesus, but a living faith that is willing to follow Jesus even to the point of death on the cross. Can the disciples have such faith? But the more important question: Can we have such faith?

Assuming you’re a Christian like I am, can we have enough faith so our natural impulse of fear does not become our master? 

Faith and The Way of Jesus

Right now we live in a volatile society that is rupturing quickly. I’m not one for doom and gloom but there’s hardly a day that goes by without the report of another terrorist attack somewhere and sometimes that somewhere is here in America. Political extremism, racism, and violence are spending like cancer and regardless of who’s to blame, such evil is a danger to everyone. Those without faith think the problem will be solved by more of the same, matching one extremism with another extreme or trying to solve violence with more violence. But as the late Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

The only way of peace is the way of Jesus, the way of the cross. That is, the kingdom of God breaks upon the wold as we, the disciples of Jesus, his church, embody his self-sacrificial life and emulate his character as a witness to the rest of society. Some Christians don’t get this. Even though they proclaim the cross as God’s victory over evil, they’ll reason (utilitarianism) as to why God’s power of the cross must be set aside for the power of the sword in one form or another. But how can we live under the cross as follower of Jesus and set aside the cross. As Leonard Allen writes, “The church that lives under the cross will consist of people possessing cruciform values, that is, the character traits and virtues necessary to follow the way of the cross” (The Cruciform Church, p. 187).

According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus calls us to follow him all the way to the cross. With a hindsight faith, we believe that even though Jesus was crucified and buried in a tomb, the tomb is now empty and Jesus is alive. Sin and death have been defeated and the kingdom of God is appearing. It is our calling to live as witnesses and show the world the way of peace, where hatred is replace with love, where the light drives out the darkness of racism, violence and any other malady. But this is not an easy call. It never was and never will be. It takes faith.

Fear is a natural response to any storm, whether it be a literal storm like a tornado or a metaphorical storm in the form of racism and terrorism. But here is Jesus saying to his church, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”

Church Renewal: Becoming The Gospel

For churches seeking a minister, a common theme seems to be the question of how to evangelize and grow as a church. Some churches realize this question is bigger than any simple answer while others seem as though the church just needs a minister who is good at starting new programs. This desire is certainly laudable but I would like to suggest that this is placing the cart before the horse. I’m not against programs, evangelism, and other ministries but any such movement and the way a church organizes itself for that movement must flow from the way a it follows Jesus and embodies the gospel among the community.

I’m reading Michael J. Gorman’s book Becoming The Gospel: Paul, Participation, and Mission, since it relates to my Doctor of Ministry studies. As the title suggests, Gorman argues that the churches Paul ministered among were not called just to believe the gospel but also become the gospel. This is what I mean when speaking of the way a church must follow Jesus and embody the gospel. Gorman describes this becoming the gospel as “…the church is a living exegesis of the gospel of God” (p. 43). That is, the local church serves as a faithful interpretation of the gospel, which is how the disciples participate in the mission of God.

[Let me pause here and point out too that faithful interpretation of the gospel does not mean a reproduction of first century, fifth century, sixteenth century, or even twentieth century ecclesial forms, as the interpretation must always speak contextually in the social-anguage of the local community but that is really another issue. I just want to be clear that we are not talking about restoring any past easier segment of the church, this is about participating in God’s mission of restoring life by reconciling people to be a new creation in Christ. Now back to the point.]

For Gorman, by becoming the gospel, a church becomes a proclamation of the gospel in word and deed. This must happen both in an inward (“centripetal”) and outward (“centrifugal”) direction. However, the deed of the gospel must always proceed the word of the gospel. Those worried about whether this diminishes the evangelistic need of teaching the gospel to those who do not belong to Christ need not worry. Such evangelism will happen naturally as the church becomes the gospel in deed.

Driving this point even further, Gorman says, “As they [local churches] become the gospel, they will have opportunities to speak the gospel” (p. 45). What he is getting at is the natural response of a church speaking the gospel by virtue of being what a church is always called to be, an embodiment of the gospel or, to use his words again, a living exegesis of the gospel. He illustrates this point by referring to a barking dog, which never needs someone to instruct it to bark… Dogs know naturally when to bark and how to bark so as to alert of a danger, warn a possible intruder, etc… Ergo, when churches become the gospel, they will naturally know how and when to speak the gospel.

So why is this so important? Beyond the need for local churches to become living embodiments of the gospel (which is immensely important), this also has something to say about not putting the cart before the horse. Local churches want to engage their community, evangelizing and ministering to people outside the body of Christ, which is a good thing. But instead of focusing on that per se, which is the cart, focus on the horse. That is, the focus should be on the  formation of disciples who learn how to follow Jesus and embody the gospel amongst themselves and within their local community. So instead of asking how to develop a new evangelistic program, a church might ask:

  • What does it mean to live as a follower of Jesus and what is involved?
  • What changes (repentance) are necessary in order for a church to continue following Jesus?
  • What particular practices are vital for embodying the gospel among various gatherings, different neighborhoods, and even in the home?
  • What means of creative expression might help make this living gospel contextually intelligible among the local community?

I’m thinking out loud a bit with these question but I believe that by asking them and listening for how the Spirit of God speaks in the conversation, churches will begin seeing the way forward. When that happens, the beginning of renewal among local churches is at hand.

Psalm 23 and Pastoral Leadership

One of the Lectionary readings for this coming Sunday is Psalm 23. The most popular Psalm, known to most from the King James Version, this Psalm has been featured in Hallmark Cards, recited at memorial services, and quoted numerous times in a plethora of different contexts. It’s certainly an appropriate scripture to read for worship and devotion on the fourth Sunday of Easter, as the Lectionary suggests. After all, since God has raised Jesus from death and made him Lord, by faith we can live confidently knowing that the Lord is indeed our Shepherd and is guiding us as he invites us to eternally dwell with him at his table and in his house.

As I read through Psalm 23 I couldn’t help myself from thinking about ministry as it pertains to pastoral leadership. Pastoral responsibilities is a part of serving a church as a minister. Besides preaching and teaching, a minister works at the bedside of someone in the hospital or at a local cafe having lunch with someone wanting to talk about some struggles. This is the primary reason why we who serve as ministers are often called “Pastor” in our day.

Yet because I believe that leadership in a local church includes elders serving as shepherds, my concern for pastoral leadership isn’t just with the role of the pastor/minister but the role of those called to serve as elders. When reading Psalm 23, I am immediately drawn to the sense of peace David has with the Lord. David knows that he can trust the Lord to do right and lead him in the right way no matter the circumstances, including those times of walking “through the valley of the shadow of death” (v. 4, KJV). That raises a question about pastoral leadership in the local church, since the Lord is shepherding his flock through the leaders he has raised to serve that church. The question can be stated as the following: How must the leaders of a church serve in order to attain the trust of the congregation to lead them and do so even in difficult circumstances?

I don’t have the definitive answer to such a question and I believe it is a question that can only be answered by each local leadership. However, I do want to clarify a couple of things which might help any local church leadership answer this question. First off, when I speak of local leadership, I have in mind both the ministers and elders working together in a collaborative effort. Both ministers and elders are leaders that Christ has given to the local church. Failure of ministers and elders to work collaboratively to lead as a team creates unhealthy tension and disunity, which in turn diminishes the ability of a church to trust its leadership. Secondly, trust is attained on the ground with people and not just in an office or leadership meeting. Minister will spend some time in an office preparing teaching lessons, elders might choose to meet one evening a week to pray for their church, the elders and minister will meet to talk about the circumstances of the church in order to discern the way ahead, and… But ministers and elders must spend time meeting with people, listening to them, and serving them, if they want to gain their trust.

One suggestion I have for when ministers and elders meet together is to spend sometime dwelling in the word and they might do so beginning with Psalm 23. Spend some time reading this Psalm out-loud and dwelling on it, listening for what God might be saying about the way they serve and what it means for pastoral leadership. Then talk about this with each other, listening to what God might be saying through one another. Finally, as ministers and elders discern together how God is calling them to serve in order to attain the trust of the congregation to lead them and do so even in difficult circumstances, hold each other accountable to such service. If the leadership of a church can do this, I believe the result will become a much more healthy and spiritually mature church that is able to continue participating in the mission of God.